Are We Having Fun?

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:

AveragesIf 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.

Fun?

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.

War-Pig-Front-Face

Sorry Peter Jackson, no war-pigs in organised play…

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.

IncompleteAs 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.

Under Pressure

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.

thaurdir_captainI’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.

Silas-Surrounded-Board-Game

I’d still rather be facing this lot than fighting Thaurdir…

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.

Moving On

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.

MountGramThe 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…

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10 thoughts on “Are We Having Fun?

  1. Puppenmaedchen

    We (3 player group) have similar feelings every now and then. Atm we have a deck setup that cannot complete part 6 of the LotR saga campaign because it is pure tactics and just cannot survive 3B and 4B long enough or threats out super fast. athe decks pilot loves to play her ranged/staging area attack and she does not want to play something else just to continue the saga (and have a +2 starting theat to boost from changing back and forth before and after the quest) We’re still contemplating about what to do now.

    We have found a solution for ourselves to the one thing you brought up – the faq. We always play cards with their printed text, no errata. We do not abuse them to any extend either though, so we feel fine with that.

    Easy mode on the other hand is something we also do not feel like winning for real with, so I can understand you there as well.

    Cheers, Puppen

    PS: Please excuse typos etc. I am writing on a mini smartphone and English is not my native tongue

    Reply
  2. viet tran

    I completely agree with this article and am so glad you wrote it. Listening to Grey Company and COTR podcasts are great but I do feel like my feelings on the game deviate from theirs at times as well. I have been playing the game since Khazad-Dum and have every set printed. Recently towards the tail end of angmar I find it increasingly difficult to play the game. Especially solo where I think the game is very unique in that you are able to solo play a game like this.

    It has become increasingly fiddly and for me its become a brain burner when I play with friends and have to keep track of the encounter deck. It is at a point where I sacrifice having fun so my friends can (maybe?) be having fun getting crushed by the encounter deck.

    I used to thrive on making new decks to try and beat the new quests. I especially remember when Heirs of Numenor came out and the quests were especially difficult. However I feel like that difficutly was different than the current state of the game. Building decks has lost a lot of its love for me because there are so many “must include” cards just to be able to compete.
    The amount of willpower that must be mustered in a 2 player game can be staggering and a lot of it is upfront.

    I do very much enjoy “solving” the new quest that comes out but recently it feels like the quests shoe horn you into making a specific deck to beat, which is a direction I hope not every quest goes.

    Anyhow I still love the game and play it very often, I just take it out with a lot more apprehension nowadays. Thanks for writing this article. I feel like it resonated with my thoughts exactly. Please keep pumping out the LoTR stuff!

    Reply
  3. Eddie

    For years now, I only play sleezy mode – ez mode where you start with more resources, but all the cards. Then, after I lose two times, I always then start removing the gold cards. Don’t feel bad at all – notice how many times it either just removes the Nth goddam copy of a nasty card, or removes a card you already saw once, cried at, cursed at, and now it belongs back in the box. I agree with your difficulty points.

    Reply
    1. Dor Cuarthol Post author

      I think the thing about just removing the 5th copy of that particularly nasty treachery, or yet-another appearance from the big nasty enemy is a good one – I always find it easier to justify removing easy-mode cards when it’s like that. The sense that I’m “cheating” is much greater when there’s an enemy or location which just doesn’t appear in Easy mode (I think there was a werewolf in Carn Dum that followed this pattern…)

      Reply
  4. Dor Cuarthol Post author

    Thanks for all the comments guys- should be some stuff appearing in the near future – it’s nice to know I’m not the only one having issues sometimes…

    Reply
  5. Ton Skillitis

    I agree with a lot of your comments about the fiddliness of some of the quest mechanics which can really limit the replayability of some of the Lost Realm scenarios. Slowly, I believe I am tiring of this terrific game as I return time and again to a limited number of scenarios (Treachery of Rhudaur, Seventh Level, Journey Along the Anduin, Foundations of Stone) which allow for testing new decks with a level of freedom and thematic fun without circumscribing your playstyle too much through specialisation. I also think that the difficulty level should be pitched carefully to allow Nightmare Mode to ramp up the challenge for those who want/need it. I enjoy a healthy challenge but Wastes of Eriador is easily my least favourite of the cycle with a number of punishing and annoying effects which hinder your progress. Hard is certainly not fun in of itself, although a hard won victory against a balanced quest can be extremely satisfying. Relief is the overwhelming emotion after beating Eriador, as I return the deck to the bottom of my quest pile…

    However, I’m sorry to hear you don’t like the new Grey Havens scenarios which I feel are some of the most balanced and thematic adventures of the game’s recent life. The second quest with the double sided locations is clearly the weakest of the trio though it does contain some rather lovely art. I guess that time will tell what the new cycle brings but I’m hoping for some more ‘Pick up and Play’ style quests with strong theme which aren’t frustratingly unforgiving…

    Reply
    1. Dor Cuarthol Post author

      I’ve started going back and playing the Grey Havens scenarios over again – I’m still on the fence about the sailing quests, but I agree there is potential there.
      As you say, the double-sided locations one definitely feels like the weakest, with almost automatic location-lock. I know they’ve got a few things planned for the upcoming cycle around changing how locations work, so it will be interesting to see how it all pans out

      Reply
  6. Kjeld

    It had been a couple of weeks since I’d managed to find time for a game, and on the weekend I found myself with a little over an hour of free time. Great, I thought, just enough time for a two-handed game of LotR.
    I wanted to try Wastes of Eriador, since I liked the thematic idea of the Day/Night objective. I’d finally swallowed my pride over my less-than-adequate deck-building skills and had already built a pair of decks (Noldor/Dunedain) that I found online. So I felt pretty confident going in that I had a solid power level to stand up to the quest.
    After the 15 minutes or so that it took me to get everything out, clear off the table, read the quest setup and get everything ready, I draw my hands. Looking good — I’ve got a Steward and a Gondorian Shield for Elrohir on one side, and I’m sitting pretty with Vilya and Asfaloth for Elrond and Glorfindel in the other deck. Looking at the encounter cards, I thought I would be OK holding off on the steward and the shield, opting to get on the location control train with a first-turn asfaloth instead (using Arwen’s resource generation). I had a quick strike, hasty stroke, and tale of tinuviel (for Aragorn/Glorfindel shenanigans) in hand, plus Amarthiul as backup defender in an emergency, so felt pretty good about combat for the turn. Boy was I wrong.
    With a solid 14 willpower committed on the first round (v. 5 in the staging area), and believing I could hold off up to 4 attacks safely between Amarthiul, Elrohir, and the cards in my hand, I felt I was off to a good start against what was looking to be a tough quest. However…
    First card off the encounter deck? Lost in the Wilderness. Game was pretty much over right there, turn 1. However, I tried to push through, because what kind of game is it if you just quit when things don’t quite go your way? I dealt with the enemies that round, but wasn’t able to kill any due to the loss of my shadow canceler and the tale of tinuviel to Lost.
    Next round comes up, and it’s now Night. I draw a useless Test of Will (because it’s Night) and a helpful Elven Mail. Ok, so I’ve got the Mail, Elrohir has 3 resources on him with Arwen’s help, Amarthiul’s still at full hitpoints, maybe I can recover. I just need to quest enough to avoid threat increase, since I won’t be placing progress this round anyway. I quest for 9 (3 in the staging area), leaving Elrohir, Aragorn, Elladan and Amarthiul all ready to deal with combat. Questing goes OK, but now there are 3 wargs in play. I can deal with them though, thanks to sentinel Elrohir. I can probably even kill one or two. But then the shadow cards… and all of a sudden one of the wargs attacks two additional times, leading to undefended attacks. Still alive, but the final shadow card pulls the top warg of the discard pile into play, engaged with the first player. All heroes and Amarthiul exhausted at this point, so it’s undefended. Of course, +2 att on the shadow card for that attack, and a hero dead. With no cards in hand, 4 wargs in play about to return to the staging area when day hits, two quest cards in play, and only five heroes, three with damage, I decided to throw in the towel. And that was the game that I got to play in my one hour.
    I realized then that’s why I hadn’t played in a few weeks — every game seems to go like that lately, where the encounter deck foils every plan, back-up plan, and even last ditch effort constantly. It’s just lose straight out of the gate, and then lose more until I quit. I don’t know, it barely seems worth the effort of set-up.

    Reply
  7. seastan

    Hi Dor Cuarthol, very nice blog you have here! Sorry to hear you aren’t enjoying the game as much anymore, and sorry if any of that is my fault (one of your comments seemed to be directed at me).

    First I wanted to point out something about “easy mode” (which should really be called something else because easy mode Carn Dum is an oxymoron). It was introduced halfway through the game’s lifetime, and since then the quests seem to have ramped up a little in difficulty. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think the quests are more difficult now because the developers know that there is an easy mode for any players that find the harder mode too challenging. This way they can satisfy two classes of players with each quest, rather than setting the bar too low and having easy mode get played by nobody. So I really don’t think there is any shame to playing “easy mode” because its very existence is causing the regular mode to be so difficult.

    Second, I encourage some more exploration of decks on RingsDB. I think you will find there are quite a few decks on there that are both thematic and powerful, capable of beating many quests in this game. Some that come to mind are Dwarves, Noldor, Silvan, White Council, and Ents. I’ve seen all of these tackle some of the hardest quests in the game with not even one card off-theme.

    Third, while I agree with you about one aspect of Escape from Mount Gram (that it was really fun), I personally desire these types of quests to be few and far between. A big part of this game for me is constantly building new decks and revisiting old quests with them. For anyone who plays this game more than once a month, I’m not sure how this is even avoidable. But when I put together a new deck and flip through my collection to pick out a quest, am I going to end up playing Mount Gram? Probably not. It’s too weird. My deck or hero lineup wasn’t picked with those quest mechanics in mind. Similarly, I probably won’t end up choosing Trouble in Tharbad, because I won’t know if my deck is any good at managing threat if I play against a quest where it runs backward. No, I’ll probably find myself reaching for Journey along the Anduin or Seventh Level again, for the umpteenth time. Because they’re “normal” quests. So while I agree that Mount Gram was tons of fun, I long for another “normal” quest that I can play again and again with new decks.

    Finally, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and hope the game picks up for you again soon!

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Losing For Fun – Mythos Busters

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