Or: Where on Middle Earth are we?
One of the great things about Tolkien’s writing, is the places that he creates. Rather than simply finding characters travelling through a generic forest, plain, or mountain range, he injects real life and flavour into these places, with vivid description to give them a life of their own.
It only makes sense then, that when players are playing games set in Middle Earth, they should want to immerse themselves in these locations, and to feel like the setting as well as the gameplay is properly tied to that creation.
Some Lord of the Rings games don’t really do this – The Hobbit, for example makes no reference to location. Nazgul distinguishes simply between whether or not a location has walls and whether it is an Elven, Rohan or Gondor location. The Dice-Building game uses locations simply as a proxy for different stages in the story, adding in additional enemies, and eventually triggering the victory conditions, once you reach Mount Doom or the Grey Havens.
The two games which, to my mind, do the best job of capturing the flavour of Middle Earth are Middle Earth Quest, and the Living Card Game, and I want to think a bit more about them today.
Middle Earth Quest
Middle Earth Quest is probably my favourite board game that I don’t play. It’s a spectacular creation which at 3 hours + is just a bit too much of an undertaking for my group to really get into (of course to an extent, this is a vicious cycle, as the less it is played, the longer it takes, due to a lack of familiarity from the players.) The reason I love it so much, despite its sprawling nature, is the way that it seems to capture so perfectly the level at which Lord of the Rings game should be played. Set between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the Ring departing the shire, players represent unsung heroes of Middle Earth, essentially running errands for Gandalf and the wise, trying in little ways to slow down the advance of the shadow. Sauron meanwhile is not yet trying to destroy the free people in one fell swoop, but he will do everything in his power to corrupt, weaken and undermine those who would seek to oppose him.
The other great thing about Middle Earth Quest, is that I comes with an enormous map of Middle Earth as the game board. For a company who regularly make big boards, this one was too big for Fantasy Flight to issue as a single component, and it comes as two separate lumps of card. Purely as a visual spectacle, it’s brilliant, and the way that travelling is tied in to the terrain type gives you a good sweep of how the land lies.
Locations in The LotR LCG
Aside from Middle Earth Quest, the Living Card Game is the only other serious contender for really engaging with the location of whichever adventures the players are engaged in and, to my mind, it does it better. Admittedly locations and travel often receive criticism as the weak link of the game, but locations form (roughly) a third of the encounter cards in this game and there are well over a hundred different locations which we have seen during the life of the card game, each with their own art, stats and effects.
The concept of an active location is a fairly simple one- this is the place you are currently exploring. The locations in the staging area are a little more abstract, but can basically be seen as places adjacent to your current location, the possibilities for future travel.
Over the course of the game, there have been some good stand-outs in terms of thematically fitting locations – it could be as simple as a road which allows easier travel and therefore readies a hero, river banks which replicate themselves as you flow endlessly down the river, or even a ford which becomes more dangerous and more time-consuming to cross the bigger your party.
The designers have also experimented with restrictions on locations. During the Massing art Osgiliath, you can see locations from both sides of the Anduin, but you can only travel to the ones of your side of the river. In Siege of Cair Andros, you have to physically fight the enemy for control of the locations.
The travel effects are another way of adding theme. When you choose between the branching paths, the chances are that you will have stumbled into a new dark location. When you wander into the mountains, there’s a chance you’ll run into additional perils.
Part of the difficulty with maintaining theme is the same across the whole game – it’s easy to be distracted by the mechanic, and not spend any real time considering the art, the flavour text and soforth. Ultimately, this is down to individual players and their groups to arrange as they wish.
The other difficulty with locations is how they are dealt with. For a while nasty travel effects and restrictions were all the rage, then along came Asfaloth with his repeatable ability to put progress on locations in the staging area, and travelling became almost unnecessary. The constant challenge for the designers is to make locations which offer not only challenges for players, but also decisions.
Pathless Country from the Black Riders is a nice example of this. At first glance, it’s a fairly innocuous location, with 2 threat, 3 quest points to explore, and no nasty passive effect which will cause you problems whilst it’s sat there. However, players have to decide whether they really want to travel to the pathless county (meaning that they can’t travel to one of the more pressing locations – Chetwood, the Marish, the Stockroad) or leave it in the staging area knowing that its +4 quest points whilst not the active location will mean that Asfaloth and the Northern Tracker are going to struggle to get rid of it any time soon, unless they concentrate a disproportionate amount of effort to it.
How many locations?
One of the biggest difficulties with locations is the issue of scaling. No matter how many players in the game, the players collectively can travel to one location per round (provided there is currently no active location). For single player, this is fine – so long as you quest sufficiently, you will always be able to move that location along. For bigger groups it can be a challenge: 4-player Hills of Emyn Muil can easily see you revealing 3 or 4 locations per round. The quest then quickly becomes a race to draw and play enough Northern Trackers to make those locations disappear before they overwhelm you.
It’s to this last issue of scaling that I’ve decided to turn my hand today. A simply scaling rule for locations with more players goes as follows:
This helps to alleviate the issue of location-lock, without making the game massively easier- after all, you’ll still have the travel costs, and you’ll be potentially doubling the amount of progress which is going to be absorbed by active locations before you actually make progress on the quest.
That said, having done something to reduce the likelihood of location lock, I want to bring in a bit more thought / choice to the “direct progress” aspect of the game (Northern Tracker, Ride to Ruin, Asfaloth etc) that provided something a little more nuanced than “Northern Tracker it all to death.” The game designers have introduced a little of this with locations that have negative effects when progress is placed, but this would be more of a general sweep that could be applied to any scenario.
There seemed to be 2 basic options: limit the number of locations which could have progress placed on them each round, or limit the number of progress tokens which could be placed. In either instance, I wanted to relate the number to the number of players in the game, to allow for an element of scaling. It would need to be high enough to allow for a sudden flourish of locations in the staging area, but low enough to be worthwhile having such a limit.
Having established the basic concept, the next step is to play-test. Unfortunately, mustering enough multiplayer games to have an exhaustive play-test is a bit tricky, especially with one of the members of our semi-regular 4-player group being a doctor with a long string of weekend and night shifts coming up. I’ve had a few chances to do a bit of brief experimenting and considering, and I’m going to start with “No more than X progress may be placed on locations in the staging area each round, where X is twice the number of players in the game.” – I’d really appreciate it if people could give this a try, and let me know their thoughts- does this feel like a balanced limit to set? Does this prevent you from effectively dealing with locations, or do you never find that this even comes into effect? It’d also be really helpful if you could give me an idea of the sort of deck you’ve been using, and the type of location-management cards you’re running (Trackers, horses etc)