Reviewed by Selwyn Ward
LORD OF THE RINGS: JOURNEY IN MIDDLE-EARTH (Fantasy Flight Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 60+ minutes; $99.95)
It’s gotten so that nowadays you can often recognise the publisher simply by the size and shape of the game box. So here we have yet another fat box game from Fantasy Flight Games.
Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth. (Yes, the Earth in the title is all in lowercase. Is it just me who’s pedantic enough to find that an irritation?). You might get just a slight shudder of déjà vu from the title; a little reminder perhaps of the full title of Descent (Descent: Journeys in the Dark). Open up the box and some of the components might also appear familiar: particularly, the numbered map tiles that look very similar to those in FFG’s Descent and its Star Wars twin Imperial Assault.
Initial appearances can be deceptive, however. This is not another Descent reskin. Indeed, if anything, play is closer in feel to another FFG fat box game: Mansions of Madness (the second edition featured lin the Fall 2016 Gamers Alliance Report).
Descent, Imperial Assault and Mansions of Madness all now have accompanying apps to substitute for an overlord player and facilitate fully co-operative play. As created by Nathan I. Hajek and Grace Holdinghaus, Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth has been designed from the start to run with a supporting app. Board game purists may consider apps an abomination but you can be reassured that the app here doesn’t leave you feeling that you might as well be playing a video game. It’s very much a companion app, mostly doing the book-keeping but also allowing the game’s campaign storyline to diverge to reflect the decisions the players make and their success or failure over the 10 scenarios that constitute the complete campaign.
It would’ve been relatively easy for FFG to have thrown in random number generators that might have obviated the need for players to (in this game) draw cards to determine skill checks. If they’d done so, this would have made Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth feel much less like a board game. There is some randomising in the app: the map layouts vary each time you play and the result of searches are revealed by the app, although here we were never entirely sure whether there was a randomiser at work or whether the app was actually totting up players’ cumulative successes.
In Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, players each choose one of six heroes: Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Bilbo, Beravor and Elena (the latter two notably less well known than the others but are there to offer the option of female protagonists). The heroes each have their own unique ability and a set of stats where the numbers represent the number of cards they draw when making particular skill tests. Their player cards also show the maximum number of “inspiration tokens” they can hold and how much fear and damage they can take before being knocked out. “Fear” in this game feels slightly out of kilter with the Tolkein source material; it is essentially a reskin of the Insanity that is tracked alongside damage in Mansions and in the plethora of other Cthulhu-themed games (many of which are also published by FFG).
There are minis of course and players will be moving them around the maps that are revealed as a character explores. To mix things up a bit, not all the scenarios use the wilderness tiles; some represent an indoor setting and use large (28 x 28 cm) square tiles for the rooms. In each scenario, the Fellowship starts off with an objective and the map will hold tokens that may give opportunities for a search or encounter. They will pick up inspiration tokens that can be spent to activate a special ability or buff up a skill check. Importantly, those tokens that remain uncollected add to the scenario’s threat level. This acts as a timer on the app: at certain points it will trigger events (often the spawning of more enemies) and the heroes will lose if the threat track reaches its end before they complete their objective. They also collectively lose if any one of the characters are knocked out (they aren’t ever killed: you’ll be relieved to know that Aragorn et. al always live to fight another scenario).
The key mechanic in Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth is each player’s use and manipulation of their individual card deck. Every player starts with the same set of 6 basic action cards. Further cards are added to these representing the individual character and whatever character role you choose for them (Burglar, Guardian, Musician, Captain, Pathfinder, Hunter). You also add a “weakness” card. These are all different (i.e. they each have unique artwork and a specific word) but they are all functionally the same; they are merely duff cards that clutter your draw deck. Other than the weakness card, cards have two functions: the text on the card details a special ability and, if there’s a success icon in the top left corner, it will indicate success in a skill check. Players will select one card at the start of to put into effect for its text; the rest are shuffled to be drawn solely to determine success or failure on any skill checks. There’s scope for some deck manipulation (putting known cards at the top or bottom of the deck) and “scouting” allows players to draw more cards to use for their text ability. Players are faced with an often difficult choice, however. Using a card for its desirable text ability may well denude your draw deck of a scarce and potentially even more valuable success icon card.
The minis are of good quality. In addition to the six hero minis, there’s a bagload of assorted minis representing the various generic orc, warg, goblin, troll and suchlike enemies you will encounter. There are banner markers too to help you distinguish different bands of goblins and the like that might appear on the map simultaneously. FFG have already announced plans to release more content for the game and this is likely to include less generic opponents and new scenarios and campaigns.
The cards get a lot of use in this game and there’s a fair bit of shuffling so this is one game where it’s probably a good idea to add sleeves. Given the amount of work they do in the game, you may well disagree with FFG’s decision to print these cards in such a small size. It would have been preferable to have larger easier-to-read cards; perhaps playing card size with more easily distinguishable skill icons.
There are quite a lot of keywords in this game; for example, words that apply to particular weapons and modify their effect. The good news is that the app does most of the work keeping track of these. When, for example, you enter the results of an attack, you just click on any applicable keywords. As you’d expect, the app also scales the game’s difficulty both overall and to reflect the number of players.
All told, the app is an integral part of Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth. It’s free and it’s available for phones, tablets and (on Steam) for computers. Though you can’t play without the app, FFG have succeeded in ensuring that they’ve still delivered a board game rather than a video game experience. This game is addictively immersive. It takes up to five players and lends itself very well to solitaire play, with one player controlling two heroes. Though the box includes only one set of scenarios, and these have to be played in order, scenarios that are repeated don’t just play out the same way so the story isn’t always the same and there can be multiple paths to victory or defeat. Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth offers a good mix too of adventuring, combat and puzzle-solving. You may find that a couple of scenarios deliver a quick and easy win but others will leave you stretched with players desperate to complete their objective before the threat track reaches its end. This ever-present “timer” gives this game an adrenaline boost and forces players to make real choices, distinguishing must-do tasks from red herrings that eat wastefully into the Fellowship’s valuable time.
Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth is a game with a heap of play value and oodles of scope for expansion both in adding more heroes & villains and in simply offering new scenarios as downloadable content that doesn’t necessarily demand more cards or minis. We’ll be keen to see how FFG further expands and develops the game over the coming months and years. – – – – – – – Selwyn Ward
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