Adapted and Lord-of-the-Rings-ified from an original article at Fistful of Meeples
When I’m not dealing with all things Middle Earth, a major area of game-related activity in recent months has been looking forward to the Second edition of the Game of Thrones LCG.
Those who have been following this game will know that it has been much delayed – there were copies at Gen-Con (so full spoilers are freely available) but the retail release has been pushed back to mid-October, with a further delay always likely before it reaches the shores of England.
With that delay in mind, I’ve been keeping my excitement in check, not wanting to undertake the hassle of printing proxies, and not wanting to add the already extensive amounts of commentary out there based more on speculation than on experience.
In the last couple of weeks though, there have been a few pieces of news out of Fantasy Flight that have crossed over from the world of Game of Thrones and into the broader LCG pantheon where LotR operates, and today I’m going to offer a few thoughts on these.
The first thing I want to think about, is an article that came out earlier this week, considering the 3 player archetypes for Game of Thrones, namely “Ned” “Shagga” and “Jaime” – this is a concept that has been knocking around since the early days of the First Edition of AGoT LCG, and – more relevantly for us – has also been translated into the Lord of the Rings LCG with the designations “Bilbo” “Pippin” and Boromir” respectively.
Slave to Theme
For those unfamiliar with the concept, “Ned” or “Bilbo” players are those who play the game because they love the source material and they want their gameplay experience to mirror this. My wife is very much one of these players – with little interest in fantasy Flight’s own hero creations, she keeps a careful eye on the various characters in play, comments on elves with the wrong trait (Sindarin, we’re looking at you) and looks decidedly unimpressed if you try to give Aragorn Anduril and Sword that was Broken at the same time. Long-time readers of this blog are no-doubt fed-up with my perennial lamentations of how difficult it is to build Rohan decks with are thematically coherent but also have enough power to take on anything beyond the simplest of quests – I hope that this will finally be rectified when Land of Shadow gets a retail release, and I can throw Gamling and Snowmane into the mix, but the overall issue still stands: you can build a more powerful deck if you’re not bothered about thematic coherence, and it’s probably only now, 3 years into the game’s life, that we have a variety of trait-based archetypes that can handle the more challenging quests out there.
Is it Tricksy?
The “Pippin” player is a dedicated fan of whatever is new, different or shiny. The one who will build the ridiculous deck with the 17-piece combo that will fail miserably nine times out of ten, but it will be worth it on the one occasion it does.
In Lord of the Rings terms, I’m definitely a Pippin. I have long harboured dreams of defeating a Lord of the Rings quest by getting 3 Gondorian Spearmen, and 3 Spears of the Citadel (either attached to the Spearmen, or to heroes such as Beregond) into play, then face the onslaught of a massive end-of-game wave of enemies with Stand Together and Light the Beacons – watching every enemy in play take 6 damage as the defenders assume their positions. With Light The Beacons being a 5-cost Spirit card, and the combo needing 6 2-cost tactics cards, this is at least a 2-deck combo, which may explain why I’ve never quite managed to get it into play. There’s also the issue of how to survive the early-game stages, which is far from being something that can taken as read. The most obvious quest to try this on is Journey along the Anduin, with the well-known turn 1 Hill-Troll to be factored in, requiring players to have good questing, defence, attack and threat control, all from the first instance.
You Win or You Die
The last type of player, the Boromir or Jaime, wants to win – it doesn’t matter how interesting a deck is, or how thematic, so long as it works. This is obviously something which plays out very differently in a Co-op game like LotR to a competitive one like Game of Thrones – I think the more Boromir-ish players tend to focus on combat, and enjoy smashing things, which is definitely a major element of the game, but does tend to ignore little matters like questing or location control. Appropriately, the original Boromoir hero (tactics version from the Dead Marshes) is the poster-boy for this style of play, allowing you to smash things hard repeatedly. It is possible to take a more rounded power-gamer approach to the game, using something like Beorn (the blogger)’s Boromir/Beorn (the hero)/Eowyn deck, although again, this will fare better against some quests than others.
In Game of Thrones, the win-at-any-cost mentality must of necessity be more diverse in the areas of the game it covers – in melee (i.e. multiplayer) you might be able to persuade an ally to give you some slack in an area of shortfall, but ultimately, you need to be able to take down all of your opponents in order to win.
The article offered some fresh insights into these archetypes – for example the notion that even for Pippin, it’s sometimes necessary to offer more of the same in order to make the next new thing actually feel new. Also acknowledging that a player’s determination to win at all costs is no guarantee that they are any good at the game.
More than that though, it was interesting to reconsider why it is that people play the various games we do. In our house, theme is a major element, and there’s definitely an element for interesting mechanics. Win-at-all-costs is probably the lowest priority on the list.
Outside of the home environment, I also play at the local game shop – for some games, LotR LCG most obviously, this doesn’t really change the overall aim (try something interesting, create a play experience which feels like it fits the theme) something which doesn’t necessarily hold true for non-cooperative games.
LCGs of Christmas Past, Present and Future
News out of Fantasy Flight Games in the past few weeks has provided an interesting overview of the life of a Living Card Game: We’ve seen articles representing 4 very distinct stages of LCGs in recent times – Call of Cthulhu, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Legend of the Five Rings.
Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu is one of Fantasy Flight’s oldest LCGs –it has been around for many years and covered seven cycles, each of six monthly packs along with ten deluxe expansions. In the past few years, the distribution had slowed down significantly – the Deluxe expansions continue, but the monthly boxes had already gone – and now FFG have announced that they will no longer be producing new content for it.
I’ve played Call of Cthulhu a little – I really like the basic mechanic, and found the theme intruiging, but sadly this was a game which never really caught on in our house – we played it a few times but, whilst I like the idea of the whole Mobsters and Monsters theme, very few of my friends have read into the Cthulhu mythos, and without a real investment in the theme, this one tended to get forgotten – certainly not popular enough to make it worthwhile investing in large numbers of expansions.
For fans of LCGs, such as LotR, which are still at an earlier point in their life-span, the retirement of Call of Cthulhu offers a few interesting insights. First of all, the fact that whilst organised play will come to an end, the plan is for the card pool to continue to be available, migrating gradually to print-on-demand, so that it never truly goes out-of-print. Whilst the appeal of the new is obviously going to disappear, it seems that when the sun finally sets on an LCG there should be enough left in the card-pool to keep things playable. Whilst I don’t want to see Lord of the Rings coming to a half any time soon, I think the Co-op model is more sustainable in the long-term, as the different quests provide vast numbers of different challenge combinations with the different decks, and you don’t have the same difficulty of whichever deck was ascendant when printing stopped becoming fossilised as the only viable play-style. As we hear so many times: it’s a co-op, if you don’t like it, don’t play it.
Lord of the Rings
As most of you know, Lord of the Rings has been my primary LCG for the past 3 years. After a disappointingly quiet Gen Con (nothing in the In-Flight Report, and still no sign of a retail release for the Saga Expansion which was available early there), there has been a fresh injection of life with the announcement of the new cycle and a fellowship event coming in the autumn with a newly-designed quest. It may not dominate our table quite as it once did, but it still gets substantial amounts of time deck-building and playing, and I hope it will continue for a long time.
That said, I want to sound a note of caution for this game.
As I’ve noted several times before, I stopped playing Game of Thrones (1st Edition) primarily because I couldn’t find opponents regularly/close enough to make it worth the effort. That said, there were elements of the game I was increasingly unhappy with.
For one thing, I remember Ships were becoming a deal around the time I got out of the game- they’d been around before, but never with quite that much emphasis. The ships coming soon to LotR are very different from the AGoT ships (and to be honest I can’t really remember what it was in AGoT that I didn’t like about them), but it doesn’t stop me feeling uneasy. The ships we’ve seen previewed from the Grey havens look interesting, but I worry that it could end being just a bit too much going on. Presumably they’ll be hard to integrate with existing quests, so they’ll either be something which is just a bit of the quest you can’t really affect – they are immune to player-card affects, or it will be something where the support we get (for example alternative ships in the adventures of the cycle) have no utility with older quests.
I’m certainly prepared to be wrong – I think side-quests are a great addition to the game and, if anything, player side-quests work better in older cycles where you don’t have encounter cards that key off of the number of quests in play, so we shall have to wait and see.
My departure from AGoT (1) also collided with what felt like trait manipulation – always a feature of the game reaching a point where the game was getting flung from one extreme to the other as people created broken combos which were then swiftly errata-ed, making the original cards useless.
To my knowledge, there has only really been 1 infinite-combo deck in LotR to date, some sort of shenanigans with the Erebor Hammersmith, Master of Lore, Born Aloft and Legacy of Durin (I think – Horn of Gondor may have been involved as well) which allowed you to draw your entire deck. Having personally never bothered piecing the combination together (it required 4 or 5 pieces), I didn’t see the fuss, but the designers clearly did, and Errata-ed the Master of Lore, making him essentially useless.
Up until now, trait manipulation in LotR has been very limited – there was an attachment to give the Rohan trait, which almost never got used, an event which temporarily made all Rohan characters Gondor and vice-versa (in addition to their printed traits) and a card to give a Gondor ally the Outlands trait. There were occasions when you might wheel these cards out, but they were unlikely to be particularly significant.
However, a card in the latest pack looks set to change all that. “Elf-Friend” is a neutral attachment and it allows you, for a single, neutral resource, to give any character in the game the Noldor and Silvan traits.
This is massive- and in the short-term, it certainly stirs something Tookish in me as I contemplate all the possible combinations available – Lights of Valinor or Rivendell Blades can now be attached to whoever you like (including Treebeard!), the regeneration from Silvan Tracker can be attached to Beregond or Elrond, and with the ongoing exception of Beorn, the world is basically your Lobster.
Part of me though, is concerned. In the short-term it’s fun, absolutely, but what does it mean for the game long-term. Whilst I am probably more Pippin than Bilbo, there’s a reason I play this game and not others and the Middle Earth theme is a definite part of that. “Elf-Friend” is a title that was not bestowed lightly upon the mortals of Middle Earth, and whilst it may make sense to be able to kit your heroes out with Elven gear, allowing them to see the Light of the West is another issue entirely (although as noted previously, Gandalf would be a perfectly legitimate target for Light of Valinor, whereas most of the elves we have would not – given that Galadriel can’t quest, I think Glorfindel, and possibly Erestor are the only ones to have actually been to the west).
I know there has been a lot of discussion online about the potential for cards like Elf-Friend or Sword-Thain, and I hope that the impact will be positive – it certainly offers us lots of scope for new deck styles. At the same time though, I hope that people don’t find too many game-breaking combinations, and that if they do, the developers pick the right way to fix it, before we end up with another Master of Lore.
Game of Thrones (Second Edition)
If Lord of the Rings is still waxing, then Games of Thrones Second edition is still the slenderest of new moons in the sky of LCGs. From the earliest previews of the core set, there are some obvious changes in the game- from the thematic, such as including Night’s Watch, and Tyrrell as fully-fledged factions in the game (or even the inclusion of Greyjoy and Martell, who previously required their own box to get them jump-started), to the mechanical, such as including a hand-limit which varies with your active plot. Generally speaking, it looks a lot more streamlined and simple (no more moribund state), and I’m hoping that the designers learner from some of the banana-skins of their own devising which caused problems for first edition at times. It’s still early days, but I’m optimistic.
Legend of the Five Rings
Another L of the Rings for Fantasy Flight to get their teeth into, this is a well-established and fairly successful CCG that has been around for a while, but has recently been acquired by FFG and will be re-launched as an LCG, probably in about 2 years’ time.
This was an announcement I’ve been following with interest. I’ve been peripherally aware of this game for a while, as one of the guys from our Lord of the Rings group plays it, but the prospect of getting into a CCG this far into its life wasn’t too appealing.
The theme of this game intrigues me- it’s a pseudo-samurai setting – which instantly bodes well for some awesome art, but beyond that, the setting seems to be quite a well-developed one, with its own RPG and tie-in novels. In an interesting contrast to the cut-throat world of Game of Thrones, this game involves an honour mechanic, which is part of one of the possible victory conditions.
This game also seems to have a really strong community, and the relationship between the game and the community is particularly appealing – the outcome of major tournaments actually affects the ongoing meta-narrative of the fictional setting, and thereby the development of cards which will be released in the future. At the moment, almost nothing is known about the shape which the L5R LCG will take when it appears (it is 2 years away, after all), and even the number of decks a player has seems to be in doubt. That said, if they can keep some of the things that have made it such a popular game in the past, I think we could have another good game on our hands.
As I’ve said countless times, I like the LCG model – I know exactly which cards I’ll be getting when I buy them, and how much it’s going to cost me, and whilst the excitement of pulling a extremely rare or powerful card is gone, so is the disappointment of opening only duplicate, common, duds. The fact that it is ongoing keeps the whole experience fresh for good measure.
I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say as the content comes and goes. For now though, I’m curious as to what you make of the current state of the game: does it feel healthy, fresh? It seems safe to assume that we’ve got another year of support as we get 2 more boxes to finish of the Saga expansion, what do you think lies beyond that? Is there strength left in this IP, or is it doomed to diminish, living on only in memory?