They had survived the terrible onslaught, slaying one of Ungoliant’s feared spawn and doing away with a Dol Guldur Beastmaster. The six heroes were all intact, if not a little worse for wear, and they were joined by a hardy troop of allies whose assistance would surely now help turn the tide against the forces of Mordor. Their next foes soon appeared: Chieftain Ufthak of Dol Guldur accompanied by another Dol Guldur Beastmaster. The heroes readied themselves, optimistic smiles creeping across their faces as their bolstered forces prepared for the imminent attack. Then, without warning…
Two play Sessions earlier…
My wife and I sat down earlier this week for our first game of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (LOTR LCG). We opted to make use of two of the four stock decks that come with the LOTR LCG core set, which are all composed of cards from one of the four spheres: leadership, lore, spirit, and tactics. My wife chose tactics, which has strong cards for attacking and is led by the heroes Legolas, Thalin, and Gimli, and I took the leadership deck with Aragorn, Gloin, and Theodred. Right off the bat I spotted the nice synergy between Theodred, who can give anyone committed to a quest one resource, and Aragorn, who may use a resource to ready himself again, which could allow me to use Aragorn each turn to not only quest, but to also either attack or defend.
Each core deck is composed of well less than the number of cards in a regular tournament deck (minimum of 50), which I knew meant we’d have less options than after we did some deck building, but also meant needed cards would come up more often. From what I had read this was especially important for Gandalf, which is a very powerful card that allows the player to choose from 3 very helpful powers when he first comes out, and then has good stats for the rest of the turn until he disappears from play at the end of the round. Some people buy multiple core sets just to have extra copies of Gandalf to round out decks to include three copies, but since I opted NOT to go that route our decks each ended up with two.
After constructing the quest deck for Passage Through Mirkwood, which is the introductory quest composed of three quest stages, and the encounter deck with all the nasty villains, we set our threat dials to 29 according to the total threat identified on our hero cards. Starting at lower threat vs. having more powerful heroes is a balance I’ll do well to watch carefully when we start fiddling with the decks, but the core decks with the base game seem to start you in a middle-of-the-road sweet spot. Threat is very important in LOTR LCG: you lose if you ever hit 50 threat, and you must try to ensure your willpower for questing each turn is higher than the combined threat of encounter cards in the staging area to make any quest progress. Threat goes up by one at the end of each round in addition to any disparity in favor of willpower vs. threat during the quest progress phase, meaning you’re constantly ticking away to your demise.
A brief summary of the game follows, so if you already know how to play feel free to skip the next few paragraphs:
The pace of the game moves fairly quickly, with players moving in turn order to resolve the current phase until moving onto the next. Each round starts with players collecting one resource per hero, and drawing one card from their deck. If their deck ever runs out, they may not draw a card and are stuck with whatever cards remain in play and in their hands. Next, players enter the planning phase when they can use resources to summon allies, use spells or events, or bring attachments into play. More powerful cards cost more resources to use, of course, and the resources used must match the sphere type of the card coming into play. Since my wife and I were each using single-sphere decks this didn’t really affect us, but it definitely becomes a factor when you construct decks around more than one sphere.
After players are done playing cards it’s time to quest, and each person decides how many of their heroes or allies they’re going to dedicate to questing. Questing, which is what moves the scenario along, requires striking a balance between leaving enough characters readied to fight later in the round, and dedicating enough willpower to questing to not only overcome the threat count of any locations or baddies already in the staging area, but also any which might come out immediately following quest assignment.
Once players have decided who is questing by exhausting those character cards (turning them sideways), one card is drawn from the encounter deck per player and their “when revealed” effects resolved immediately. If the cards drawn are locations or monsters, they’re added to the staging area to contribute their threat. Any threat difference in favor of the players allows them to place a progress token per extra willpower onto the current quest or active location, and any difference in favor of Mordor ups the players’ threat dials by the same number.
Once questing is resolved, players have the option of “travelling” to any location currently in the staging area. Some locations have an effect that is triggered when traveled to, sometimes good/sometimes bad, and some have an effect that triggers after beating them. In either case, only one location can be “active” at a time, but its threat no longer contributes towards the threat during the quest phase. Its quest point count, however, acts as a progress buffer for the main quest, so it’s really important to balance travelling to locations to keep their threat out of the staging area while making sure it doesn’t interfere too much with actually making progress in the main adventure.
After deciding whether to travel, players then choose whether to engage any of the enemies in the staging area. If they do, the card is moved in front of the player’s heroes and is considered to be engaging that player. Then, starting with the first player, the engagement cost of remaining monster cards (top left of the card) is compared to the player’s threat dial, and if the engagement cost is equal to or lower than what is displayed on the threat dial then that creature engages the player.
Combat is quick and straightforward. The encounter cards attack first: players choose whether to assign a defender or not to each attack by exhausting that character, and then one card is dealt face down to each monster from the encounter deck. The attacks are resolved one-by-one around the table, with the encounter card getting flipped to see if there is a “shadow” effect which is immediately resolved and normally adds to the monster’s attack or does damage. Then, the monster’s attack is compared to the defender’s defense, and any overage is considered damage. If the attack was undefended, any damage must be assigned to one hero. Any unexhausted characters may then make attacks on enemies engaged with the player, and players are able to combine the attack values from multiple characters to achieve better attack numbers. Once a character finishes an attack, however, they are exhausted. This can get really difficult since exhausted characters from questing can’t be used to attack or defend, and unless players have a lot of allies it’s normally hard to both defend incoming attacks and deal damage back to the monsters.
Players finish the round by refreshing all cards used. A full copy of the rulebook is available here.
I won’t include a blow-by-blow of our first game here, but suffice to say we got thoroughly trounced. Sara managed to do some good damage against cards as they came at her since her tactics deck was good at dealing damage, but we weren’t able to make much progress on the main quest and eventually got mired down in too many enemies. My leadership deck was strong for buffing and manipulating the play field, but I was over zealous in spending resource tokens and ended up not being able to generate them back quickly enough to make use of the more powerful cards I drew. We were both able to use Gandalf cards at one point which helped put large dents in a couple of more powerful creatures we were facing down, but there just wasn’t enough forward movement on the main quest to give us much hope of winning. My heroes eventually succumbed to a couple of effects which dealt immediate damage, and a webbing card that made me have to spend two resources just to ready the affected character again at the end of each round, and Sara fell soon after.
After our first game a few things were abundantly clear: first, that it would be very difficult to beat the scenario with the single-sphere decks from the core game. Single sphere decks may work with a larger and more diverse pool of relevant cards to build from, but not here. Second, that our decks just didn’t work well together. Neither of the decks had any ability to heal, and our ability to advance the main quest was severely lacking with the exception of Legolas, who can progress the main quest by two if he is involved in an attack that kills an enemy. Third, that we had utterly failed as far as resource management was concerned; it’s really important to strike a balance between using cards and making sure you have enough resources to use other essential cards as they come up. Finally, that main quest progression should be our ultimate concern. LOTR LCG is all about mitigation, and the more quickly you can make progress on the main adventure the better even if it means taking some unwanted damage and leaving enemies alive. That can potentially snowball, of course, but that seems to be the flavor of the game; it’s not a question of if, but when, you’ll get overwhelmed, and beating the main quest before all heroes get wiped out.
After that loss, it was clearly time for some deck building
*queue the training music montage*
Even though I bought The Hobbit saga expansions to expand our pool of cards for deck building, I decided I’d like to try to beat the adventures in the core box using only the cards that came with it. That meant single sphere decks were out of the question entirely, so it seemed the most logical route was to take the remaining two spheres, spirit, which has a great deal of quest progression potential, and lore, which has some nice healing effects, and to incorporate one of those spheres into each of our decks. We ended up having Sara take lore to make a Tactics/Lore deck, giving her combat-ready deck some additional staying power, and I took spirit. That meant, however, getting rid of one hero apiece from our old spheres so we could get field one hero from each of the new spheres in order to generate resources to use those cards.
The obvious addition for my deck was Eowyn, who has a willpower of 4 for quest progression, and whose ability allows each player to discard a card to increase the willpower of one character by 1 for the round. For Sara we chose Glorfindel, who can spend a resource token to heal one damage from any character once per turn. In exchange I ceded Gloin who gains resources as he took damage, and Sara took out Thalin who dealt damage to creatures as they were revealed if he was assigned to a quest.
Tournament decks have a minimum of 50 cards, but like with other LCGs/TCGs the more cards you add to a deck, the more unwieldy it becomes and the less chance you have of drawing any one card since they’re limited to three copies of each per deck. That meant shedding some fat from our respective card pools, which we did to get the decks at just a tick or two over 50 for both. Our strategy for choosing which cards to leave was simple: healing for Sara’s deck, quest progression and resource generation for mine. Knowing what we were up against in the Passage Through Mirkwood encounter deck I also opted to take along a copy of Unexpected Courage, which is attached to a hero and basically lets you ready the hero just by exhausting the condition card. It’s really powerful and I wish there was more than one copy in the core set, so it’s definitely one I’ll probably try to purchase additional singles of.
Even with the decks tooled to tournament regulations, I was a little skeptical they’d perform well since the split of cards was roughly 60/40 in favor of one sphere, but our hero split for spheres was 70/30. Ideally I’d want the ratios to be the same between both, but the core set just doesn’t give you the luxury of having that many useful cards in each sphere to choose from. If I weren’t such a stubborn ass I’d break open my Hobbit expansions and loot some cards from there, but I’d really like to beat at least the first adventure with what came in the box. Only one thing left to do then to try and see how the decks would perform once we jumped back in: a little solo matchup.
Would love to hear your first impressions/initial memories of play the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game- please comment below!
Stock card images from cardgamedb.