The Lord of the Rings saga has always been popular, but perhaps never has it been as mainstream as it is now. A decade ago, the movie trilogy brought orcs, elves, and dwarves into theaters and then our living rooms. Later this year, the long delayed film based on The Hobbit will be released. The video game legacy for the Lord of the Rings saga is a lengthy one, culminating in last fall's War in the North game. For Tabletop Co-Op this month, we'll look at a card game based on Tolkien's magnificant setting.
The Lord of the Rings: the Card Game (hereafter abbreviated LotRCG) is published by Fantasy Flight. LotRCG is referred to as a living card game, a model for release that has become popular in recent years. Unlike collectable card games, like Magic: the Gathering, there are no blind packs or rarity systems. Instead, you know exactly what is in the box before you buy. The "living" part of the living card game comes from the regular supply of new releases every month or so that add to the experience. In essence, what you have is a base set, with a good deal of value, and then mini-expansions that can be purchased if and when you want to mix things up a bit.
Thankfully, the base set alone provides the complete experience for up to two players. Scenarios, an even dozen hero cards, and four different starter decks are available for use. There are three scenarios available, ranging from a fairly easy trek through the woods to a brutal rescue mission. In order to complete the scenarios, you'll need heroes. Each player can pick a set of three, which are grouped by similarity. Last, each player creates a deck, or uses one of the premade ones, selecting cards to complement the heroes chosen.
Heroes, and in most cases the decks tuned to go with them, are associated with a particular sphere. Legolas, a cunning fighter, is Tactics, while Aragorn's charisma and influence are Leadership. The other spheres are Lore, tied to intelligence and study, and Spirit, which represents willpower and courage. Some decks might exclusively specialize in one of these areas, while others might go for a balance. Adjusting the decks to fit your favorite heroes and your own particular playstyle is a large part of the fun.
As with many co-op card games, in LotRCG, there is a special deck (or two) working against the players. The first is the quest deck. As the game progresses, heroes will place quest tokens they earn on the revealed quest cards, and new cards will be turned over, until the deck runs out, at which point the players win. It's not that easy, however, due to the encounter deck, which spawns all sorts of vile creatures, traps, and locations. Each card in the encounter deck impedes the players' progress in the quest deck. You might run into orcs or giant spiders, or possibly fall before a deadly curse. The feeling of dread and impending doom from the encounter deck is quite flavorful.
On a player's turn, heroes can be activated to perform one of several tasks. The first is to go questing, which uses the character's willpower statistic. After this, the remaining heroes must defend against any enemies in play, using their defense. Finally, heroes who did not quest or defend can counterattack any enemies in play. This threefold commitment system makes for some interesting decisions. While questing might be the obvious choice, as it directly effects the end game, careful players must balance defense and counterattack lest all their heroes become defeated, which ends the game in failure.
The artwork in LotRCG is quite simply gorgeous. Though I love the movie trilogy, I was glad to see that the card art is not based on the familiar likenesses of its actors and actresses. Instead of movie photographs, we instead have stunning painted art. Tolkien's world of Middle Earth has never looked better, with stunning panoramas, battle-hardened heroes, and ominous forces of evil. The card stock is solid, and the tokens and stat trackers are very nicely done. I also appreciated the high level of non-game text on the cards which offers plenty of background information and lore.
The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a fantastic, if you'll forgive a pun. The gameplay is interesting, and the sense of cooperation and teamwork you'll experience while playing are as high as you'd expect for a setting based on the importance of fellowship and unity. The base game alone provides plenty of gameplay for two, but the many options available for expansion allow more players in on the fun. I highly recommend the game and look forward to seeing what comes next for the series in the future,