I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game since it was release, back in 2011. Aside from some more recent Nightmare packs, and last year’s GenCon Quest (which hasn’t reached the shops here yet) I own every quest released, and I have always considered this to be one of my most-played games.
Going out of Fashion?
Recently, I had a sense that this game wasn’t getting played as much as it used to, so I decided to run the numbers and check:
If I want to go all the way back to 2011, I only have figures for how often I won this game. In this context, long-term numbers look healthy. After an initial wave of excitement, gameplay really fell off in 2012 (not coincidentally, 2012 was when I started my first real job), but then rose year-on-year for the next three years. 2015s average was over 9 plays per month. 2016 has been quiet so far: only averaging just over 4.5 wins per month by the end of the first quarter.
Figures for the number of times this has actually hit the table are slightly harder to get at, as I only have these logged from Christmas 2014 onwards. In this light, 2016 doesn’t look so barren: 14.6 last year down to 10.7 this year. However, if you take out the 17 failed attempts I had at beating Battle of Carn Dum over a single weekend in January (I’m considering getting a new version of Thaurdir printed with a white whale as the artwork), it plummets.
I was also interested to see the shifts in the number of play-counts for games over the years. Again, it fluctuates, but overall, solo is on the rise, whilst big-group games have been in decline for a while now.
At the end of the day, that’s quite a convoluted way of saying that I definitely do still play this game, and whilst I’m not playing it as much currently as I have in the past, the shift isn’t cataclysmic.
Despite all of that, the question I’ve been asking myself more recently, is whether I’m still enjoying it? I had a vague sense that whenever a new quest came out, I was more struck by the trial of having to take on a new quest, and figure out how to beat it than I was excited about getting to build with the new player-cards.
I think it’s definitely the case that quests over the past year or so have increasingly presented unique challenges, and that it isn’t possible to beat nearly as many quests with One Deck to Rule them All as it used to be- it’s also the case that quest difficulty generally seems to be getting harder, which is bad news if you’re as bad at deck-building as I am.
Once a month (health and basic organisational competence permitting, and so far in 2016 it hasn’t!) I play LotR LCG at the Friendly Local Gaming Store- I’ll be providing 1 or 2 decks (mine, and my wife’s if she’s around) and playing with a mixture of other folks who turn up with their own decks. The rest of the month, will mostly be playing at home, 2-player or solo games, but with the possibility that occasionally some friends will come round wanting a 4-player game, and I need to work out at short notice whether I have 4 decks which can all play together, and what quest they will be able to beat. In practice, this leads to lots of cards being swapped back and forth between decks, lots of cards then being forgotten about (because they got borrowed by another deck and never returned). At home, I use custom cards, both my own and those created by the good people of the internet, but I do then need to remember to take them out when going to more official events.
As it stands, ignoring Nightmare and as-yet-unavailable Print On Demand quests, there are only 2 quests I have yet to complete in 2-player on standard difficulty, 10 needing a solo run, 16 for 3-player, and 19 for 4-player. The part of me that likes spread-sheets (in fairness, that’s most of me) sees the opportunity for a 4-player game, and really wants to win, so I can tick one off of the list, and keep the “incomplete” record down to a single sheet. However, as most people will be aware, winning a pick-up game in multi-player is by no means guaranteed – as often as not, we’ll reach the end of store game night, without a victory under our belts.
All of this leads to a general, over-arching sense of pressure. Playing Lord of the Rings stops being fun, and just becomes a chore, something that needs to be kept on top of.
In a recent episode (not all that recent, I was just several episodes behind) of the Grey Company Podcast, several of the team praised the designers for the innovative decisions they had made in designing recent quests, as they felt it ensured that the game stayed fresh, rather than stagnating. I found myself listening and feeling the exact opposite: In recent times, the only time I can recall being actually excited by new quest mechanics were in Escape From Mount Gram and Murder at the Prancing Pony. The rest of the Angmar Awakened cycle, and all the Grey Havens quests just felt fiddly and annoying:
- 20 more willpower committed than threat in the staging area? – sorry no progress, as that treachery just made it Night again.
- That undead enemy you killed? He’s back again.
- There’s a Safe Location over there… never, mind a troll smashed your head in before you could get to it. (the troll revealed from the encounter deck, not the troll who decided to print the Dori Hero)
- Sailing was a pain: it felt too random, and the swing in difficulty of effects depending on whether or not you were on course was too big (on course, everything is basically simple, off-course, you might as well just give up now).
- Double-sided locations! That’s cool right? Well no, it just felt awkward really. Another thing not behaving like it should and making it harder to keep track of what’s actually happening in the game.
Now, I don’t want this to sound like I think the designers are doing a bad job – for one thing, there are clearly plenty of people out there who are getting plenty of enjoyment out of the new content, and even without that, the fact that I’m not appreciating the latest things doesn’t necessarily mean that the content itself is bad.
That said, there’s definitely a problem. I only really feel like I can experiment with new decks for two-player games, and even then, a lot of the time, if I want to try out something new, it feels like we’re being funnelled towards a very narrow set of quests that don’t have lots of awkward mechanics.
Too hard, too fiddly
It seems like there are two distinct elements at play in the game: increased complexity and increased difficulty. I’ll say straight out for anyone who’s not familiar with my overall thoughts: this game is too hard.
I’ve long since bowed out of getting new Nightmare decks, but even in standard difficulty, there are just too many quests which are nothing short of stupid – Battle of Carn Dum remains the standout example (in 3 or 4 player, unless I see a video or a card-by-card account of a supposed victory, I don’t believe it happened), but the overall trend seems to be for ALL new quests to incline this way.
The problem with making quests this difficult, is the way it constricts deck-building. It is basically impossible to build thematic decks in this game, if you also want to be able to tackle a decent spread of modern quests – now, I’m not saying that every deck should be able to defeat every quest in every player count, but the ratio should be better than it is.
Obviously, there are some very talented deck-builders out there, both in terms of people who build very efficient “normal” decks, and the people who find broken combos, post them on the internet, and inspire an FAQ which spoils the game for the rest of us. This last seems to be another major issue: it feels like when the designers produce a new set, they’re working on the assumption that the only people playing the game are Seastan and the Grey Company.
What’s the game again?
Many people, perhaps most notably Matthew from The Grey Company, have complained about people who limit themselves by refusing to build non-thematic decks. I certainly agree it’s possible to take this too far: “I won’t have a single dwarf in this elf-deck regardless of how good it would be mechanically” is the kind of restriction which will clearly inhibit your deck’s power-level. However, at the end of the day, a lot of people are playing this game specifically because it’s Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason characters aren’t called “generic defending guy 2” or “leadership questing character 1” if you don’t pay ANY attention to theme when you’re deck building, then why play a game themed around an IP in the first place? Why does it matter whether that card I’m trying to take out is an Orc, a TIE fighter, Cthulhu, or a Traffic Warden? There has to be some sense in which this game remains part of Tolkien’s world, or else there’s no point playing a Lord of the Rings card game.
It’s also worth reiterating the fact that this is the only cooperative LCG out there. When I play Game of Thrones, I expect a level of sharpness and complexity to people’s play – if I turn up to a tournament with a poor deck, or not having practised enough and I get smashed, that’s only to be expected. But that’s also why most of the people I know who play Game of Thrones are fairly hard-core tournament gamers.
Lord of the Rings used to be a game I could introduce to friends with only a more casual interest in gaming, the sort of people who would never consider getting sufficiently invested in a competitive LCG to play it well, and the nature of the game meant that it didn’t matter if I built all their decks, they could still pilot them fairly autonomously, without my increased knowledge of what they had skewing the game balance. That no longer feels like the case – If I’ve got a group of friends over, we’re more likely to have a game of Zombicide, where we feel we can still do things and have fun before dying horribly, than take a punch to the face from the undead armies of middle earth.
So there you are: I’m still playing a fair amount of Lord of the Rings – although not quite as much this year as last. Overall though, the biggest problem is that playing this game increasingly feels like a chore, and I need to do something about that.
I could stop playing this game. Inevitably that would mean that this blog came grinding to a halt, which I don’t want to do, but this optional is unappealing for more reasons than that: I’ve invested a lot of time and money into this game over the years, and simply to walk away would be a shame.
I could stop caring about completion. I say that. I’m not entirely confident that I could – having lists to write, quests to cross off, it all gives structure to the meta-gameplay (in case you hadn’t guessed, I’m quite OCD). This might relieve pressure in a sense, but I don’t know that it would bring back the fun.
One obvious possibility is to play more Easy Mode. Already, this seems to be how we have to play quests first time round, but there’s still a part of me that can’t get over the idea that beating a quest in Easy Mode “doesn’t really count.” Of course, from the completionist angle I’d then need to go back and replay the whole of the first two or three cycles in Easy Mode, as it didn’t exist at the time.
The thing I would most like to see, is the one thing I certainly can’t see happening: More fun quests like Escape From Mount Gram or Trouble in Tharbad. Interestingly, both of these quests are very different from the basic “just make x progress per stage” and/or “kill this boss baddie,” but the difficulty is low enough to actually have fun building decks and trying out different styles and strategy: perhaps I wouldn’t hate Hide tests, enemy recursion, hand-size hate or whatever else it might be if the quests they came in weren’t already hammering you with so many other things. They would still be able to cater for the masochists with Nightmare decks, but they could stop punishing the rest of us by making them the target audience for the main product-line.
Where do we go from here?
I said above that I don’t think the designers are doing a bad job- but I do think they’re getting the balance of the game wrong, and I think that may be – at least in part – due to the fact that most of the noise on the internet is from the “Too Easy” crowd. That’s a large part of why I’ve written this rather rambling article, instead of just packing up and disappearing – I want to be sharing my opinion that they’re not hitting the right spots.
I’m not quite sure how I’ll proceed from here – it may go a little quiet on here for a while, although I certainly won’t let this be the last post. If I do decide to shut down, I’ll post something properly. Maybe I just need to take a short break from the game, or find some other way to refresh things, who knows…