While I attended Gen Con last year I stumbled upon an amazing game from Fantasy Flight. Fantasy Flight is an amazing tabletop gaming company, and I was blown away at their booth. One of the things that stuck out to me (besides the Gears of War board game) was the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game they were demoing.
Of course, being a huge LotR nerd and gamer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out. I sat down at a table while three other gamers were setting up. The rep came over and started to explain the rules to us, and I immediately became lost. Easily one of the first things you’ll notice with the Lord of the Rings Card Game is that it’s intimidating. Very intimidating. Before I knew it I was confused to the point where I needed a one-on-one course in order to learn the game fully, and neither I nor Fantasy Flight had the time for that. I still remained interested, though, and wanted to learn eventually.
Luckily around Christmas time a friend of mine got the game for my wife as a present. She’s just as big of a LotR nerd as I am, if not more, so this was the perfect gift for her. We opened the game and read through the rulebook, but still didn’t make much headway. The game sat on our shelf for months until one day recently I decided that we needed to just grab the game and give it a shot. So we picked up the box, dusted it off, and set out to The Common Room (a local game store) to take a journey to Middle Earth.
The Lord of the Rings Card Game follows the events that spanned through the book series. Players take the role of Heroes who will set out to quest in different scenarios. Through defeating enemies and amassing allies players will earn points that go toward completing the current quest that’s been chosen. Once the quest has been completed players essentially “win” the game. Let’s go over setup a bit, and then we’ll get into actual rules and gameplay.
Out of the box you’ll see tons of cards. These cards range between Abilities/Events, Allies, Heroes, Enemies, and Quests. There are also two threat meters as well as some damage and progress tokens. Let’s ignore the Enemy and Quest cards for now and focus on the cards the player will be using. Player cards are divided into four overall categories or “Spheres of Influence” as they are called in the game. These Spheres consist of Leadership, Lore, Spirit, and Tactics. Each of these Sphere decks play out differently and add their own strengths to the game. Here’s a short description of each Sphere:
- The sphere of Leadership emphasizes the charismatic and inspirational influence of a hero, and that hero’s potential to lead, inspire, and command both allies and other heroes alike.
- The sphere of Lore emphasizes the potential of a hero’s mind. Intellect, wisdom, experience, and specialized knowledge are all under the domain of this sphere.
- The sphere of Spirit emphasizes the strength of a hero’s will. Determination, courage, loyalty, and heart are all aspects of this sphere, which also reaches into the more supernatural aspects of Middle-earth.
- The sphere of Tactics emphasizes a hero’s martial prowess, particularly as it relates to combat and to overcoming other tactical challenges that might confront the party during a quest.
Players will choose one of these Spheres to play, which will govern their overall prowess during gameplay. Within each of the Sphere decks lie specific cards to help the deck play to its potential. There will be Ally cards that you can play to help with battle and Events/Abilities that will provide a number of benefits to aid players in a time of need. Each of these decks has a distinct play style, though they’re all fun to play. As far as the cards players will use in the game, these are it.
Now we’ll move on to the other cards included with the game. The reason I don’t consider these as player cards is simply because they aren’t controlled by the player. Cards in this category are Enemies, Quests, and Locations. Quest cards are set aside from the other two categories, as players will decide on which quest to play when setting up the game. Out of the box there are three different Quests available, each with an increasing difficulty level. On the cards you’ll see flavor text as well as setup instructions. You see, Quests play out in phases. You must complete each available phase to pass on to the next, and so forth. Once the final phase is complete the game is finished. Also located on these cards are numbers indicating the level of progress tokens needed to complete the phase. We’ll get into that more in a bit.
Moving on to the last of the cards, we’ve still got Enemies and Locations. These cards are put together, according to the Quest card, and shuffled together into an A.I. deck. This is the deck that will serve as the source for all of the opposition when questing. Enemy cards will have their Attack, Defense, and Threat values printed on them as well as some abilities that will trigger when played. Locations will serve as buffers for the current Quest, offering players different abilities, or hindering players in different ways. Through questing players will be able to make progress toward the end means of the game. That being said, the main goal in The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game is as follows:
- Use your characters’ Willpower to overcome the threat presented
- Gain progress tokens to place on the current quest phase
- Complete quest phases to get to the end of the quest
- Overcome the quest and win the game
While that seems pretty simple, there is a ton of things that happen all over the place in between the lines. To get started, players will choose the Sphere of Influence that they want to play. You’ll take all cards that go with the selected Sphere (don’t worry, they are all lined out in the game manual), remove the Heroes from the deck, and shuffle the remaining cards together. This will become your deck for the game. Then the A.I. deck is assembled (the cards needed for the deck are lined out per the quest you chose) and shuffled. It will be placed in the middle of the play area.
Players will then place their Heroes to their left in a row. These will be your acting characters until you are able to purchase Allies. For starting the game, player-wise you’re ready to go.
Your Quest card will tell you some basic setup instructions in order to get the game started. For instance, it could tell you that you need to get certain cards for the A.I deck, place certain cards in a distinct manner, or take out cards from the deck to place in the Staging Area.
That being said, let’s look at the Staging Area. This is the place where cards are taken from the A.I. deck and placed face-up. You’ll see both Enemies and Locations here, each that will have its own purpose. For now, however, they are only holding place for one thing: threat rating.
Before we get too much further, let’s take a look at how turns progress. The game as a whole revolves around Phases which occur each turn. Here are the Phases as they play in order:
The first phase we’ll look at is the Resource phase. During this phase each player simultaneously adds one resource token to each of their Heroes’ resource pools. A resource pool is a collection of resource tokens stored near a Hero card. These tokens are used to pay for cards from the deck belonging to that Hero’s Sphere of Influence. With these tokens players can buy Allies and play Events/Abilities from their hand.
Once resources are placed, each player then draws a card from their deck. Then we enter the Planning Phase. In this phase players can play Ally and Attachment cards from their hand. Though it’s probably common sense, players will spend their resource tokens to play any cards at this point. You’ll play and pay for any cards you wish, and then the person clockwise to your left will do the same. Players can only spend tokens from a Hero’s resource pool to play cards with the same Sphere of Influence. If all of your Heroes are from the same Sphere you can take the resources out of any pool. Once you’ve gotten everything out you want to play, the Quest phase begins.
At the beginning of the Quest phase players look at their Heroes and Allies in play and choose to “commit” those personalities to quest. By doing this, players will turn these cards sideways, or exhaust them. Then they will flip over one card per player from the A.I. deck and place it face-up in the staging area. The threat rating on each card is added to one another, providing an overall threat score. Each of your Hero and Ally cards has a number at the top left in white, which is known as Willpower. Each card players commit to quest will add Willpower to an overall pool like what happened with the threat in the Staging Area. Once all players have committed their characters, all of the contributing Willpower will be added together. If the amount of Willpower totaled is more than threat, players have successfully quested and are able to make progress on the current Quest. Players will put a number of progress tokens equal to the amount that their Willpower overcame the threat on the current quest card. This is how players will progress through the current Quest.
If the amount of threat is higher than Willpower players have unsuccessfully quested and are driven back by the deck, Players raise their threat dial by the amount which threat was higher than Willpower. If the two scores are equal, no progress is made on the Quest, but no threat is gained either. This is a short phase, and now we go right into the Travel phase.
You’ll notice as you add card to the Staging Area that some of them will be Location cards. These Location cards will offer up places that the players can travel to, and that’s what we’ll do in this phase. Players will look at the cards in the Staging Area and select a Location. They can then choose to travel to it. By doing this the Location card is removed from the Staging Area. This means that it will no longer contribute threat to the pool when you Quest. The flipside is that the card now acts as a buffer for the main Quest. This means that whenever the players gain progress tokens, they are placed on this Location card instead of the Quest card. Once the Location has a number of tokens on it to complete it, players have cleared this location and can go back to progressing on the main Quest.
There is another reason why traveling is a good idea. Some Location cards have Travel Effects on them which can help the party out. As an example, some Location cards could say “Travel: Each player draws a card.” There are varied effects, and some can hurt the player. The main idea is to get the card out of the Staging Area to ensure it won’t contribute threat to the pool when questing.
The next phase, which is perhaps the most frightening, is the Encounter phase. This is when Enemies from the Staging Area will come into contact with players. There’s a structure to encountering Enemies, so it’s not completely random. (That would suck.) First, any player may choose to encounter an Enemy in the Staging Area. No matter what, all Enemies will encounter players at some point; there’s no getting around this. By choosing yourself to engage an Enemy you can better decide how to attack and defend this way.
On the other hand, remember those threat dials I mentioned way back in the beginning? This is where they come in play. Enemy cards have a certain engagement cost printed on their cards. If players don’t choose to engage an Enemy it will engage itself. Players will make a series of engagement checks to see if any of the Enemies remaining in the Staging Area will engage them. The first player compares his threat level against the engagement cost of each of the Enemy cards in the Staging Area. The enemy with the highest engagement cost equal to or lower than this player’s threat level engages this player, and moves from the Staging Area to the space in front of them. After the first player makes the check, the player to the left makes their own check. The process continues through all of the players, and once each player has made a check, the first player makes a second check and so forth until all Enemies have been engaged.
After engaging Enemies players will enter the Combat phase. This is when damage is dealt and how Enemies get removed from the game. To start combat, players will deal one Shadow card to each engaged enemy. Shadow cards are simply cards from the A.I. deck. By now I’m sure you’ve noticed that some of the A.I. deck cards have some text at the bottom that starts with “Shadow:” and then some text. That basically means when it is used as a Shadow card, the following effect is triggered. Cards are always dealt to the Enemy with the highest engagement cost first. Next we resolve enemy attacks.
First the player will choose which attack to resolve first. Then a defender is declared. Only one character (who isn’t exhausted from questing) can be declared a defender at one time. A player can, however, choose not to defend at all. This means the Enemy’s damage will make it through and all go to one Hero controlled by the player. Before damage is calculated, though, we need to resolve the shadow effect. To do this you’ll flip over the Shadow card that was dealt to the engaged Enemy. If it has a shadow effect at the bottom, you’ll follow the text and do what it says. If it doesn’t have any effect, nothing happens and the card goes to the discard pile. Once the effect is resolved damage can be calculated.
To calculate damage you’ll do some math. You’ll look at the Enemy’s attack value and subtract the defender’s defense value from it. The remaining value is then dealt to the defender and is subtracted from their hit points which are printed on the card. Remember, if the attack was undefended one single Hero takes all of the damage. You can defend with Allies but they cannot take damage if it was undefended. Players will repeat this process for each engaged Enemy until there are no more. Then it’s time to swing back.
Now it’s time to attack Enemies. Once all players have resolved Enemy attacks, each player has the ability to strike back. When declaring an attack a player must exhaust at least one ready character. This character will then exhaust to attack. The player declares the target and damage is calculated. Keep in mind that more than one character can attack a singular Enemy. This is most often the only way to dispatch Enemies quickly. Just like with defending, players will compare the attack power of each character against the defense value of the Enemy. All Enemies will defend and there’s no option of taking an undefended attack against them. Once you total up your attack power and subtract the Enemy’s defense from it, the remaining amount goes against the Enemy’s hit points. If an Enemy would be reduced to zero or less hit points it is automatically defeated and placed in the discard pile. Once damage is calculated for one Enemy, continue the attacks until each player is finished. Any Enemies who aren’t defeated will remain engaged with a player until they are. This means they will get another Shadow card and attack again next turn, so be careful.
After all of the attacks are carried out and damage is dealt players move on to the Refresh phase. This is the phase where all exhausted cards are turned ready. The first player will then pass the first player token to their left and the Phases begin again. This is the general structure of the game.
The game will end when the current Quest has been completed, though there are other ways to stop the game. If at any time a player reaches 50 on their threat meter they are knocked out. If a player’s Heroes are all defeated they are knocked out as well. If all players are knocked out then all of the players are considered to have lost the game.
So, as you can see, this is quite the long game. I know my first run with the first quest was well over an hour and a half. Though the game can be difficult and long it is extremely fun. The card artwork is magnificent and the game’s mechanics work well if you’re playing with friends. My first run was a bit sketchy, but the more you get through it the better it becomes. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or just card games in general, this is something you should pick up.
The cool thing about this game is that it’s considered a “Living Card Game.” That means while you’ve got all you need to play with the boxed version, there are extra cards you can obtain to expand the game. Every month 60-card expansions called Adventure Packs are released to add new Quests, Heroes, Allies, and more to offer up new challenges and keep the game, well, alive.
I hope that this post helps ease some of the tension and intimidation felt when playing the game, because it’s really fun. I know it’s been a long post with tons of information, but there’s so much to this game that when you explain it all out it makes sense. Right now you can get the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game for around $45 which is a fair price. The components are nice, and as long as you have your own storage solution the way the game is arranged in the box doesn’t matter too much, though it could have been handled more efficiently. Also, if you plan on sleeving this game it’ll require around 210 sleeves, so take that into consideration. I’ve had this game for some time now and it’s not stopped being fun at any time. It’s a great game you can enjoy over and over again, especially with all of the expansions and Adventure Packs available for it.