6 years ago today, on 20th April 2011, Fantasy Flight Games released something new – Lord of the Rings the Card Game – a Cooperative, Living Card Game.
The LCG model was one they had been using for a few years – fixed distributions of cards rather than randomised boosters gave players a clearer idea of what they were buying, and went a long way to mitigate the problem where the player who spent the most money on cards had the best deck.
I had come across FFG via their Game of Thrones LCG which, in turn, I had encountered after reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels. When I first discovered AGoT LCG, my Board Gaming was probably limited to a small handful of games – Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers, but I had found my way into a local gaming group, and even to a magical place called Board Game Geek.
I played Game of Thrones for a while – on a good day I wasn’t too bad at it, and made the cut in a few tournaments. Other times I failed dismally: there was no local play group, and whilst I subjected my wife (a big fan of the books) to many sessions of it, she was never interested in deck-building, and the games quickly became pointless and 1-sided as I knew every card in her deck, and she had little sense of what mine was up to.
A Cooperative game then, had a big appeal: we didn’t need to worry about it being too one-sided, and the fact that it was Lord of the Rings themed was a massive positive as well: Tolkien was one of my wife’s favourite authors (I think it was around this time that she introduced me to the Silmarillion), and this was a game that seemed to drip with theme.
The First Age
Pretty much on the day it came out, I went to fetch my first copy of Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game (tbh, I don’t remember the exact date, but 20th April is the date on the release article) – once we got past a few early mistakes (engaged enemies don’t contribute threat to the staging area, apparently!) it was a massive hit. We played the core scenarios to death, and picked up every expansion going – various friends were introduced to the game, and 2 or 3 played it dozens of times with us. We have successfully completed every single scenario in the first 3 cycles and all the Hobbit Sagas in all 4 player counts
In the early days I was very active on the FFG Forums. As time went on I discovered Podcasts about the game – first Cardboard of the Rings, and then the Grey Company. I designed my own custom cards for the game, discovered blogs, and even leant a bit of a hand to a guy who was putting together an entire custom expansion for the First Age.
By this time, I was heavily involved in the game and the community, and it was most of what we played, most of the time. When Cardboard of the Rings announced that they had a slot opening up for a new co-host, I was very excited about the chance to get involved…
About 2 emails later, I realised that joining us North-American Podcast from the UK would involve a lot of staying up until the small hours of the morning, and wasn’t going to be practical – I didn’t even bother submitting my audition. Instead, I decided to do the next best thing – I started my own Blog.
Reports from the Land of Bow and Helm
Dor Cuarthol launched in January 2014. I wanted Turin Turambar but that was already taken (Along with a few variations on it), so I opted for the Land of Bow and Helm, the place where Turin and Beleg lived for a while, harassing the forces of Morgoth.
In February 2014 I started producing my first articles, and covered a fair range of topics over the first few years: lots about the Lore (why are all the Elves “Silvan” or Noldor” when most of them shouldn’t be?) a bit about deck-building (why bother with other readying effects when Unexpected Courage is so good) and, particularly in the early days, lots of custom card creations.
Over time, the blog seemed to collect a good following, no doubt thanks to Dan, and Ian at Hall of Beorn, and Tales from the Cards respectively who put links to this hidden corner of Middle Earth in their side-bars. Most people read in silence, but there were a few who commented, plenty of encouragement, and some responses to the hypothetical questions posed.
The Waning of the Age
As I mentioned at the start, today is Lord of the Rings LCG’s 6th Birthday. The game has come a long way from the days of mono-sphere, 30-card decks when we could imagine nothing more terrifying than a Hill Troll. Where once there were only 12 heroes, now there are 80! (plus a handful of Bilbos, Frodos and Aragorns in the Baggins or Fellowship Spheres [it’s not a sphere!]) Beyond the heroes themselves, the possibilities for card combinations in decks is beyond calculation. The same character may appear multiple times, in multiple different guises (although only 1 of them can be in play at a time…)
It’s not just the player cards that have changed. Quests of today are very different from Passage Through Mirkwood or Journey Along the Anduin. The number of quests has grown just as the number of Heroes has, and today there are countless new keywords and mechanics to put a different spin on your adventures in Middle Earth.
Some things have definitely changed for the better: each Deluxe + Cycle of Adventure Packs now follows a far clearer and coherent narrative, with a story being told in the inserts. Encounter decks are generally leaner with far fewer generic, multi-purpose cards padding things out, making for a much less random experience.
From my perspective though, there are also things that have changed for the worse. The difficulty of the game has ramped up significantly, and the stats on basic locations or enemies are a far cry from the early days.
It’s also clearer than ever that there is no One Deck To Rule Them All – whilst a good pair of decks could probably get you through the Core Box and all the Mirkwood cycle (aside from Rhosgobel, possibly) performing the same feat in a recent cycle would be far more impractical. Whilst this is good for players who like a puzzle to crack, it makes the game far less accessible – meeting up for a multiplayer game becomes an exercise in defeat, unless you can coordinate decks in advance. Even just playing at home, I need to decide whether I have my decks built ready for solo play, games with 2, or larger 3 or 4 player games – long gone are the days when someone could just suggest a game of LotR, and I could grab up 4 decks, knowing that we would have a good chance at, if not winning, at least having some fun.
Whilst having more cards is a good thing for a deck-builder, the card pool these days feels bloated – too many cards that are binder-fodder because other cards weren’t balanced with the benefit of prophecy. The fact that early player cards were over-powered, has brought a reaction in too much that is “immune to player card effects” – in recent releases the designers have been quite canny in finding ways around this, but the overall problem still remains.
The release of the Arkham Horror LCG last year brought into focus for me just how aged LotR LCG feels these days. Locations in Arkham – a separate set of cards, entirely distinct from the more focused deck of Treacheries and Enemies – show what LotR might have been with the benefit of hindsight. However, for me, the attempts in the Dreamchaser cycle to move towards this sort of system for LotR didn’t work either- there was just too much of a legacy of player cards designed to deal with locations randomly churned out by an encounter deck to make the switch.
Both Arkham and the 2nd Edition of Game of Thrones have featured cards released very early in the game’s life with built-in restrictions and balances to pre-empt broken combos long before they start. Fantasy Flight’s LCG design team have clearly learnt a lot in 6 years, but not all of it can be used to the benefit of Lord of the Rings
Beyond the Horizon
The last 6 years has also brought a lot of changes to the world of Board Gaming at large. Even as someone who likes to keep fairly well up on the state of the hobby, I can’t claim to be in a position to offer an exhaustive view of this, but I can at least give a few personal insights.
From a personal perspective I can look at the games I have played recently: of the 15 games I have played the most times this year (6 sessions plus), only 2 (Zombie Dice and Race for the Galaxy) even existed when LotR LCG was released. Similarly if I look back at the games I’ve played more than 20 times since Christmas 2014, only Mapominoes and Dominion get added to that list. All of those are games that are feeling their age, and by-and-large, new is the future.
As I look to the future, my feeling is that the direction of LotR is not particularly likely to recapture my imagination: the recent announcement of the final Saga pack hit all the wrong notes for me, with Yet Another Frodo, Yet Another Aragorn, Doom going up to 100, and more Epic Multiplayer mode –I’m not wanting to say that these things are inherently bad (I really liked the 1 game of Epic Anuminas I played, but realistically, getting that many people together is unlikely to happen often), and I’m sure many people were very excited by the announcement, but for me this game falters when it tries to go too big. I’ve been much more excited in the past fortnight by the announcement of the next Deluxe for Arkham, and for the absolutely gorgeous Legend of the Five Rings.
It feels to me like this game has more-or-less run its course. I could definitely see an argument for a second edition but, honestly, they’d have to pull something fairly spectacular out of the hat to convince me to buy it.
Going Into the West
I still love Lord of the Rings the Card game, and it’s almost certainly the game I’ve played most over the course of my life, and it’s still a game I play a lot – but these days that’s a couple of plays a month, rather than 3 or 4 a week. I’ll finish the current cycle of APs and get the final Saga box for completeness sake, but I’m not sure whether I’ll keep buying after that – I’ve got enough from recent months that hasn’t been played at all, and plenty from before that which has been played, but has plenty of scope to be revisited. Even if I never bought another LotR LCG product again, I’ve got enough cards to last me for years.
As most people probably guessed from my last post, I became a father in February. Gaming time is more limited these days – Ned can’t really manage peekaboo yet, so I think LotR will be beyond him for a few years, and blogging time is harder to find as well. Lord of the Rings is already competing against Arkham, Zombicide, Pathfinder, Aeon’s End, Elder Sign, Marvel Legendary, Destiny, Dice Masters, and Mansions of Madness to name but a few, even before I decide whether to get into Runewars, Gloomhaven or Legend of the Five Rings. Honestly I can’t see myself getting back to a position any time soon where I’m spending enough time on Lord of the Rings to warrant writing a blog about it.
I’m not going to take Dor Cuarthol down, but I don’t anticipate writing much more here any time soon. If you’re interested in my thoughts on gaming in general, then I’d recommend following my newer, more general blog, Fistful of Meeples – it’s also quite quiet right now, but I generally manage to post at least one article a month. Maybe in time I’ll even post a Lord of the Rings article or 2 there.
Thanks again to everyone who has read over the past 3 years. I wish you many more hours of happy gaming.
This is the END.
I am going.
I am leaving NOW.