“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”
Some thoughts on both of Fantasy Flight’s Cooperative LCGs
About 6 or 7 years ago now, I used to play the Game of Thrones LCG – first edition. There was a lot I liked about the game: the overall mechanics, the deck-building aspect, the way the card-pool was constantly refreshed, with new options becoming viable and, above all, the way that the game took a world that I was a fan of from the books, and allowed things to be played out in game form.
There were problems though: I played the game a few times at home, but my wife didn’t want to deck build, and soon got tired of the one-sided games which resulted when I knew every card in her deck, and she had no real notion of what was in mine: I attempted to introduce the game to others too, but had similar problems. None of the people I knew were sufficiently big on both Game of Thrones and Card Games to get into it heavily, and it just didn’t work as a casual game.
Giving Hope to Men
Then something happened: Fantasy Flight Games announced something new – a cooperative Living Card Game set in Middle Earth – taking that little-illuminated period between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the day Frodo sets out from the Shire, this was a game that would allow players to make their own adventures in this world.
I bought the Lord of the Rings LCG the day it came out, and loved it. We made some stupid mistakes to begin with (counting the threat of engaged enemies was a big one), but gradually we figured out what we were doing. I played it solo, with my wife, and with groups of friends in 3 and 4-player. For years I bought every product that they made for this game, although after the first few cycles, I gave up on the Nightmare decks.
When a new pack came out, I would instantly look to play the quest, and to build with the player cards. I made a point of using every hero at least once, even if there were obvious favourites or duds, and played all the different deck-styles that came along.
Fast-forward 5 and a bit years, and things have changed a lot: the game is harder, it’s deeper – with much more complex board states, and it’s generally just more involved. Any thought of “1 deck to rule them all” has long since ceased to seem plausible, and more-and-more, each quest requires a deck specifically tailored to its demands. The sheer number of different deck-types that are possible has multiplied beyond imagining.
Even something as simple as playing all the heroes has become a challenge. Historically, I’ve given myself the goal of winning at least one scenario with each new hero – specifically that means it’s got to be me piloting the deck and, as noted, that I need to win. At the time of writing though, Spirit Beregond, Cirdan, Elfhelm, Tactics Eowyn, Na’Asiyah, and Tactics Imrahil are all failing on this count (although I have had success with the new Legolas and Gimli)..
There is some mitigation to this: Beregond, Cirdan and Eowyn have all brought success for my wife and other players in our games, and Elfhelm has attempted several quests, even if he’s not actually managed to secure victory.
Looking back over the records of the past years, there are 5 heroes who have been used over 100 times, and a further 8 who have hit the table more than 50 times. By contrast, the most recent heroes are struggling to see victory at all – from the latest deluxe/ AP cycle, only Denethor has made it past 5 wins, and only Damrod out of the last 2 Saga boxes. To put this in a broader context, the only older heroes played fewer than 5 times are Dori, Erestor, Spirit Pippin and Tactics Theoden – 3 of which are useless, and one 1 which is just a bit too fiddly for me (Erestor).
I’m still plugging away at LotR, trying to get it back to the table more often. After 36 games in the first quarter, it dropped off – only 5 in the second quarter, then back up to 15 for the third. Final quarter is currently at 25, but with a little time left on the clock. Compared with 2015, where 30 was the lowest count for any quarter, there’s clearly an issue of overall reduced play-count: less than half as many games as last year.
At times this year, I’ve definitely approached quests in a state of near despair, learned helplessness. Whichever deck(s) I try to bring prove themselves completely unsuited for the task, and the sheer number of possibilities out there, half of which aren’t really viable, is just a bit too overwhelming to know how to carry on. When I build a deck and it doesn’t work, is it because I’ve brought it to the wrong quest? Or because the deck needs changing? – if the deck does need changing, there are just so many good cards out there, that it’s nearly impossible to know which to include.
Arkham Horror the card game is also a cooperative LCG from Fantasy Flight, and it shares a designer along with several recognisable features with LotR. That said, there is also a lot about it that’s different.
For one thing, Arkham has only been out a month or two, and there is currently only the one product available, the Core Set (there are two print-on-demand scenarios out there somewhere, but they haven’t reached the UK distributor) – that means that there are only 5 Investigators (the closest equivalent to LotR’s Heroes) and only a very small pool of cards for them to build their decks from – in fact, unless you have bought 2 copies of the Core Set, you can’t really do any deck-building worthy of the name.
This translates fairly directly into hard numbers: so far, three of the investigators have been played in 4 games, with Skids and Daisy reaching the dizzier heights of 11 and 12 games – one of them may yet be a Lore Glorfindel waiting to happen, but for now there’s no room for passengers.
Deck-Building in Arkham is very different from LotR – decks are smaller, and you can only have a maximum of 2 copies of a card, rather than 3. The game is designed for campaign play from the outset meaning that, instead of the Treasurers or Boons which we’ve seen in LotR (Cool but frustratingly limited in when you can use them) you have “upgraded” cards designed to make your deck more powerful as it goes. As I noted in a recent article over at Mythos Busters though, the card pool is currently so small that there are very few high-level cards in play, making character class a lot less important than it feels like it ought to be.
Since I first decided to get this game, it’s been my hope that it would act as a positive for my LotR deck-building. The reminder of what it feels like to play a brand new LCG, to be building decks with only the barest number of cards makes you appreciate the embarrassment of riches that we have in the veteran amongst Co-op LCGs.
There has been a lot of discussion on the internet since the announcement of Arkham about whether its arrival heralds the death knell of LotR. This is hardly surprising: people have been convinced that the game was dying long before this came along.
On a more cynical note, FFG are devoting a lot of resources to developing their Arkham line at the moment, and it would make a fair amount of sense if that led to cut-backs elsewhere. However, all the indications in the past have been that LotR sells well, and it would seem unlikely that they would get rid of a product line that makes them money.
It’s quite easy to see the mark of LotR in Arkham – the way locations are done in this game definitely feels like it got a test-run in the Dreamchaser cycle, and the end result is a more polished, cleaner implementation – hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to see the favour returned: concepts piloted in Arkham, and then put to use in LotR. Game of Thrones LCG recently hosted their Battle of the Trident event, where players were able to cast their votes for the development of a particular trait in the game’s future. Anyone familiar with the history of the Legend of the Five Rings games (soon to be re-booted as an FFG LCG), will know that having the player-community influence the long-term direction of the game has long been central to this IP. To me this definitely feels like the designers are testing the waters for a way to have community-driven content in an FFG game, and I don’t think anyone expects them to abandon AGoT any time soon.
My hope for the future, is that the arrival of Arkham will strengthen the world of Co-op LCGs. After all, there are twice as many of them as there were last year! I hope it will lead to new ideas and innovations at designer level, and on a more personal note, I hope that playing each will remind of the things I like about the other, increasing my enjoyment of the old along with the new.
I think it’s fairly certain that we’ll get the Haradrim Cycle and the final Saga box to finish off the Return Of The King. Beyond that, I don’t know, any more than anyone else without FFG insider contacts does: I think that there’s still scope to keep expanding the game (I’m still holding out hope for a Maglor objective ally), but even if they did stop printing new content, I think that there’s so much out already that we could keep playing for a few years yet. I certainly don’t have any intention of abandoning this blog any time soon, even if there are inevitably things which get in the way of posting quite as often as I’d like.
I’d be interested to know whether other people have picked up Arkham, and where you feel the future of the 2 games lies…
“Historically, I’ve given myself the goal of winning at least one scenario with each new hero – specifically that means it’s got to be me piloting the deck and, as noted, that I need to win. ”
Do you mean you there are heroes out there who are completely useless?
Dori and Spirit Pippin spring most readily to mind
Lore Faramir is hardly great, nor is Tactics Theoden
I’ve picked up Arhkan LCG as well, though I’ve only been doing LotR for about a year. LotR was my first deck building game, and I have to admit that while I like the theme, I struggle with the difficulty of board states, and later quests — particularly since I play true solo and prefer thematic decks to “power” decks (and don’t have the experience or insight to build a power deck on my own, anyway).
So the Arkham experience has been really rewarding so far. The game’s much better in pure solo, the board state is simpler, and I feel I can grow a bit with the game.
I do hope to see the end of the Sagas for LotR (I’ve yet to start Return of the King), and I would hope for an adventure series that takes us back to Dale, the Lonely Mountain, and Laketown. I would liek to finish my collection off with the Isengard series, and I’m still weighing Dreamchaser and the Haradrim (having been disappointed by the apparent departures from places that are of interest to me, even while there are intriguing heroes to play in those sets). But I’ve found that my play of LotR is slowing, particularly as The Lost Realm has been regularly kicking my poor solo Ranger decks in the teeth.
Arkham, hopefully, won’t grow in such a way that the solo difficulty gets overwhelming and the core viability gets sacrificed; it may be that growing with the game versus jumping in when its fully mature will make it easier to keep up. We’ll see.
Your musings upon the state of the game ring true for me as well. I came to the LOTR LCG more as a fan of Tolkien than as a gamer and have also found that the board states and deck-building possibilities have grown beyond that sweet spot of complexity for me. I find myself to be more of a collector and observer than a regular player of the game now. The pace of content production on my blog has echoed that transition.
I had hoped to take a deep dive back into the game over the holidays, but my wife has never really gotten into LOTR and we bought the Arkham Horror LCG to try. It’s a really fun game and, though it pains me to say it, the core game mechanics are stronger than LOTR (especially locations). Nate and Matt have learned a lot from LOTR and applied it to Arkham and it’s awesome. Most importantly, the complexity is back in the sweet spot and my wife and I are able to begin together on the same page and “grow with the game”, as you say. As as result, I’ve only managed a couple games of LOTR LCG while completing six campaigns of Arkham (and loving every minute of it!).
From a gaming standpoint, that’s great, but from a thematic perspective, I have a serious problem. I could care less about Arkham Horror and I absolutely love Lord of the Rings. I enjoy story immersion in my games and building a fellowship of hope to overcome the powers of darkness is far more appealing to me than slowly succumbing to madness in a game laden with references to the occult. The central themes of Tolkien’s works are simply more wholesome.
As for “the game is dying”, the fact that Matt has been working to develop Arkham would seem to suggest that there is less new LOTR content on the horizon. He doesn’t have unlimited time, and I haven’t heard news of any other designers being assigned to LOTR. It makes sense given that the saga expansions are concluding and we are already way off the map in the deluxe cycles. Of course, I hope that we continue our journey counter-clockwise around the edges of the map with cycles set in the Grey Mountains and Forochel (dragons and ice-people!) but I could just as easily see things coming to a gracious conclusion with our return to Gondor at the end of this cycle.
Come what may, I remain steady in my trust that the extraordinary care that FFG has shown towards Tolkien’s work will remain and therefore, even though I am also actually playing and writing less, I will be following the game and its blogosphere until journey’s end.