With the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion, and the Ring-Maker cycle which followed it, FFG introduced to The Lord of the Rings the Card Game the “time” mechanic. In case anyone is unfamiliar with it, I’ll quote here the explanation in full:
Time X is a new keyword that represents the urgency of the heroes’ quest. When a card with the Time X keyword is revealed, the players put X resource tokens on that card. These tokens are called “time counters.” At the end of each refresh phase, remove 1 time counter from each card with the Time X keyword, if able. When the last time counter is removed, there will be a triggered effect that resolves on that card. Some encounter cards will also remove time counters, making it more difficult for the players to predict when they will run out of time.
Undoubtedly, this has changed the overall shape of the game in a lot of ways, and I just want to consider a few aspects of that today:
Rush, Rush, Rush
In an early preview article for Voice of Isengard, Caleb, the lead developer for the game, announced that he had created the time keyword as a way of dealing with the “Turtle” strategy – i.e. decks which basically do nothing for the first few rounds, gradually build up an impregnable position, then smash everything in a late rush. His plan was to force players to come up with new strategies.
This seems to be part of a general trend in the game, to force undue haste onto the players. When the game first came out, the only factors which mattered in your score were your threat, and the amount of damage your heroes had taken, including death (yes, I am the guy who still keeps score).
However, when this led to people building infinite combo decks to wind up with negative scores, they decided to add a score factor of “10 points per round” – essentially negating any benefit you might gain from playing an extra round, just in order to improve your position. There were still times when you could reap a net benefit (a threat-drop of 8 for a Galadhrim’s Greeting in four-player, combined with 3 or more damage healed would more than cancel out the extra ten), but generally speaking, you just had to get through as quickly as you could.
However, there were still issues. Some quests have awkward victory conditions, or make progress nigh-on impossible without a spot of luck from the encounter deck: The Redhorn Gate, where players have to find and explore locations which don’t get put into play by quest effects, The Steward’s Fear, where you can only advance in the early stages by exploring an active location, or Shadow of the Past, which becomes almost infinite in 4-player, as it is virtually impossible to through a round of staging without revealing another location that will prevent you from travelling to Bucklebury Ferry. In quests like this, a rapidly-mounting number of rounds (and consequently high scores) become the exception rather than the norm.
Putting these quests aside, the designers still felt that there was too much turtling going on- perhaps because most people don’t care about score (which is probably another issue altogether), they were taking their time anyway, and this was clearly causing the designers problems. How could they build quests which offered a challenge to the players with their turtling combo decks, at the same time as making them accessible for newer players, or those not using this strategy?
The Time X Keyword was their answer. Now you have to get through this stage in X rounds, otherwise bad things will happen – to an extent, this was foreshadowed in the Against the Shadow Cycle with the Villagers at Amon Din – at the end of each round, villagers will be removed from the quest, and if you lose too many, you will lose the quest.
To my mind, the Villagers mechanic was superior to the Time X one (at least as generally implemented) in that it left players with real choices. When you decided to travel, used actions or powers to place progress etc, there was a real-time pressure on making the right call. Whilst this quest has generally been criticised for being too easy (the boss enemy often failed to do any real damage at all), the gameplay experience was actually quite interesting.
Fast-Forward to the post-Isengard Era, and the choices left to players are far fewer. Many of the Time X effects are not simply negative, they are often game-ending. In multi-player, any stage of Fords of Isen will more-or-less equal instant death if the time effect triggers. To Catch an Orc is a bit more varied – stage 3 is manageable, stage 2 is basically death.
We are now nearly at the end of the Ring-Maker cycle and so far, we have seen 8 scenarios (3 in VoI, 5 in the cycle) with the Time X keyword- there is little reason to suspect that the final adventure will break the pattern. Leaving the Saga expansions to one side, that is 9 adventures in a row, or the whole of 2014 in which all quests have broadly had one strategy: Rush.
Ironically, during this time we have seen reminders that there are ways to deal with decks that relying on generating a certain set-up, then crushing the encounter deck. Bitter Cold and We Cannot Get Out are perfect examples of how to deal with swarms. Quest Effects in the Dunland Trap show some good attachment hate for those trying to build a party of super-heroes without any support.
What’s Happening Here
Thematically, it’s also worth giving some consideration to the time mechanic. Evidently, a quest against the rising Forces of Darkness is not a Sunday afternoon stroll, and there will be times when haste would have been necessary. However, for the most part, this game is set in the period before the War of the Ring, and keeping out of sight, avoiding detection, and ensuring that your heroes all survive the attempt would have been just as important – elements which seem to have been thrown to the wind in the face of time.
The Nightmare version of the Hunt for Gollum provided another good example of how the tension between the heroes trying to accompany their own aims and the designs or the enemy could be represented- Mordor enemies pick up the clues as well, and given too many they will find Gollum before you do.
Likewise, the Nightmare version of Peril in Pelargir implements the fairly obvious reality that if you leave the item you are supposed to be searching for on the table in a pub, someone will pick it up, and probably run away with it. Neither of these effects rely on the time keyword.
Taking Matters into our own Hands
Lest this article sound too negative, I want to make it clear that I think the existence of the time keyword does offer some interesting possibilities. Something which we have yet to see from the designers, but which has been quite common amongst the fan-community is the idea of player cards using the time keyword. Some of you may remember the Ent-themed cards I created a while back, using the time keyword to balance the power of the Ents with the need to have affordable, sensibly-powered player cards. Although they weren’t really play-tested before I posted them on here, and as such are a little bit skewed in terms of how they play, with a few unseen consequences in terms of how the counters are removed, I still like my Ents conceptually more than the official ones- they just feel more Entish. I had tried to create a similar card before the time keyword came in, using progress tokens to achieve the same thing, but it was just too clunky to have on a card.
Other people on the FFG forums have created custom cards with the Time X keyword.
I particularly liked a Librarian who draws you a free card every few rounds – presumably this represents him spending some time digging around on his shelves, then presenting you with the tome he has discovered. Notice that it’s a forced effect, which conjures up a brilliant image of Boromir trying to fight of a horde of Orcs, whilst this guy keeps tapping him on the shoulder, trying to get him to take the book…
The fun thing about player cards that have time counters on them, is that they provide some kind of protection against those treacheries which remove additional ones- I may have just had to add 3 more orcs to the staging area, but at least I’ve got Treebeard ready.
As a last note, I’d like to say that even though I generally roll my eyes and despair when I see the time mechanic on a new quest, I’m glad the designers tried it – when the designers stop trying new things, this game will be on its last legs. It will be interesting to see where the designers go from here with Time: Personally, I hope it’s entirely absent from the next cycle, and used sparingly thereafter, I’d be curious to know what others feel?