One Mechanic Review: The Lord of the Rings, The Card Game

One Mechanic Review: The Lord of the Rings, The Card Game Hot

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Gary SaxGary Sax   August 12, 2015  
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Lord of the Rings Card Game

The exhaust to defend or attack mechanic.  The last straw for me with LOTR: LCG


I've decided to start a series where I take games in my collection and think about them via the one mechanic I think defines them.  Today it's Lord of the Rings LCG, a rare one of this series that is going to be negative.  In this case the game used to be in my collection, so forgive me if the rules I discuss are vague/wrong.  And I'm not out here trying to troll you and insult your love of the game!

Lord of the Rings LCG is a novel attempt to make a cooperative card game against a system.  Many love the game, the product line is now vast, and I don't want to dissuade folks from doing so.  For me, one of the remarkable things about Lord of the Rings LCG is that I love it as a conceptual product.  The LCG concept seems almost perfectly designed for it---each box is a new adventure, with new game changing goals.  Enemies and allies can be tailored for whatever adventure you're trying.  Perfect!  In addition, the questing mechanic is spot on while still being appropriately abstract.  But after a number of tries, the mechanic that broke the game for me was its implementation of attack/defense against threats, and how they are separated.  It's one of the mechanics that sticks out in my mind as a fireable offense for an otherwise inoffensive game.  It drove me crazy.

Where the game broke for me is the encounter/combat system.  Specifically, each character has an attack and a defense rating, as well as a quest/resource rating.  The twist is that attack, defense and questing actions require you to tap (I'll use Magic terminology) and exhaust to perform them.  That meant that once you reached the appropriate threat level and aggroed an enemy, it would automatically attack the player.  That player would then choose a character to block the enemy, but unlike Magic the Gathering the block only absorbed damage, it did not inflict it!  Attack required a separate action, with another unexhausted card, where you use your attack skill to hurt an enemy and defense doesn't matter.  And forget questing---if your character went off to quest at a ominous location, they would not be involved in any battles.  For me, thematically, this was unthinkable both generic fantasy herowise and LOTR thematically.  This meant that Aragorn needed to rely on some other hero to eat damage before he could attack and hurt anything.  If Aragorn decided to absorb damage, he could not then attack.  So begin with the thematic part of this: I could not accept it, it boggled my mind from such a famously "hero-based" LOTR thematic base.

Forget thematics, though.  I can live with abstractions.  Where this drove me especially crazy was that it absolutely incentivized the red shirt syndrome.  Essentially, your base heroes were augmented by red shirt semi heroes played from your hand with a resource cost (e.g. a single rider of rohan).  This meant that every turn, beyond hiding from all enemies by keeping my threat low, my biggest incentive was to get some asshole out in the field with at least 1 shield/defense.  That way, he could block the enemy orcs, allowing Theoden the King to sneak up behind the orc later in the turn to do lots of damage.  And since those red shirts would often die in this phase, I would need to produce as many red shirts as possible, preferably one a turn, for combat focused scenarios.  And god forbid that Aragorn go on a quest to accomplish goals, he certainly couldn't fight then!  I really hated this mechanic, independent of theme.  It meant your best bet was to have a glass cannon and a meatshield, or a glass cannon and an ever-rotating set of random asshole guards.  Oh, and don't forget a character whose only job was to tap and perform quests as their only action (there was some lady who was awesome in the base game at this but only this).

No sale.  This all may seem trivial, but it was one mechanic that lost the game for me.  Particularly given that there are so many other good co-op games.

Posted: 12 Aug 2015 14:03 by Michael Barnes #208371
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I liked LOTR LCG OK, but this was particularly annoying. It could create some tough decision points, but more often it resulted in almost unfair or unduly frustrating situations. Too many "well shit, there's nothing I can do here" moments. The game comes across as unusually punitive, which some folks mistake for "challenging".
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 14:48 by Ken B. #208377
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This mechanic was the breaking point for me, too. It's stupid, anti-thematic, and only there to make the game "challenging", as Barnes said. It wasn't my only problem with the game, but it was by far the biggest.
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 15:52 by boothwah #208381
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Spot on - I hated this mechanic - How much simpler it would have been if blocking meant receiving and dealing damage. Seemed so stupid that I needed to let random elf minstrel take an orc axe to the face so that legolas could shoot it.

Which reminds me, if anyone is interested I do have one LoTR CCG core set + 4 first cycle expacs for trade - LMK
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 16:38 by Gary Sax #208387
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I thought I was going to take a bunch of shit on this one, I'm surprised.

The *product* as an idea is sooooo good too, a perfect use of the LCG release cycle. That's why I'm interested to hear how Warhammer Quest works out.
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 17:46 by mutagen #208392
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I didn't have a problem with the game thematically. I think it adheres closer to the books then the movies. A more adult version of a hero, somebody who happens to be at the right place at the right time with the tools to get the job done. Not the movie version where some guy shoots ten orcs in the face while shouting witty banter across the battlefield. So a bunch of red shirts die? You better find a way to keep some of them alive or you are toast. Of course red shirts aren't the only way to go in this game, but it would be silly to argue that the game doesn't incentivize them.

As for being punitive, it is that. After some cards comes out you might just as well pack it in unless the finish line is in sight. But it does generate tension, and some interesting decisions. And starting over is not a big deal in this game, swap out a few cards, shuffle two or three decks, and you're ready for business. Not like say pathfinder where you could be shuffling for ten bloody minutes.
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 18:17 by Michael Barnes #208395
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Yeah, that was the other big problem with this game. In addition to this overly restrictive mechanic, there was the whole thing where you literally could find yourself in an unwinnable situation strictly because of the order that the cards came up in. No, it's not a big deal to restart, but I don't feel particularly challenged when I'm looking at the table and thinking "welp, there's not a damn thing I can do because I got these three cards in a row" out of whichever deck.

It's that Ghost Stories thing...where a game is made not difficult, but capriciously impossible. This is a weak design characteristic that I think goes largely under-reported by players who think that a game is "tough" or some kind of ironman ballbuster challenge...when really it's just throwing a random game state at you that may or may not be possible to overcome. You should lose a game with automated opposition like this because you made the wrong choices, squandered resources or couldn't mitigate bad fortune. Not because the game randomly handed you a no-win situation or a series of them.
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 18:20 by repoman #208396
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Well, I don't want you to feel cheated, Gary. So here is your portion of shit...

You are WRONG!

Alright, not wrong but I don't agree that the mechanic was either un-thematic nor deal breaking for me. The Lord of the Rings is all about hope in the face of despair and fighting against impossible odds. So if you're feeling oppressed by the weight of attacks or the lack of powerful members to assist in everything then I think that fits in. It's resource allocation. Is Aragorn more important to the questing this turn or to fighting? Do I need him more on defense or attack. These are tough choices with a cost associated with each.

Yes the game can go belly up in a hurry where you reach a point where there is no coming back. I don't think that is unique to Lord of the Rings though. I see that in Magic and in Hearthstone.

Of course I play the game strictly solo, perhaps that gives me a different perspective.
Posted: 12 Aug 2015 19:13 by boothwah #208399
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I forgot to mention - I really dig this format Gary. Great article, great format.
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 00:27 by Colorcrayons #208412
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boothwah wrote:
I forgot to mention - I really dig this format Gary. Great article, great format.

Agreed. I despise Co-ops in general as they are merely solo puzzles marketed as a game. (whole other philosophical topic about that which I'll leave alone)

But whether I agree or disagree, he states his opinions cogently. I give him props for giving the game as much credit as he does. For me, you literally couldn't pay me to play it to the point where he became fed up with it.
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 07:36 by Scottgun #208419
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Nails down exactly what bugs me about this game. I love the non-Peter Jackson art, but ain't no way around it: I officially dub thee "Lord of the Red Shirts"!
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 09:26 by San Il Defanso #208428
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Michael Barnes wrote:
Yeah, that was the other big problem with this game. In addition to this overly restrictive mechanic, there was the whole thing where you literally could find yourself in an unwinnable situation strictly because of the order that the cards came up in. No, it's not a big deal to restart, but I don't feel particularly challenged when I'm looking at the table and thinking "welp, there's not a damn thing I can do because I got these three cards in a row" out of whichever deck.

It's that Ghost Stories thing...where a game is made not difficult, but capriciously impossible. This is a weak design characteristic that I think goes largely under-reported by players who think that a game is "tough" or some kind of ironman ballbuster challenge...when really it's just throwing a random game state at you that may or may not be possible to overcome. You should lose a game with automated opposition like this because you made the wrong choices, squandered resources or couldn't mitigate bad fortune. Not because the game randomly handed you a no-win situation or a series of them.

Thanks for this. It articulates something that has bothered me endlessly about the co-op genre. It's been a long time since I've played most of these games, but I remember hitting a point with Pandemic where my wife and I realized that we had hit a ceiling for how good we were going to get. The only difference was that sometimes the game would randomly be much tougher than others. Essentially the only thing letting us win the game or not was the way the cards fell.

The LotR card game was a big disappointment for me. It's been several years since I played, but I do remember that it felt like at least a third of my games were obviously impossible halfway through.
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 09:41 by Mr. White #208429
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San Il Defanso wrote:
Michael Barnes wrote:
Yeah, that was the other big problem with this game. In addition to this overly restrictive mechanic, there was the whole thing where you literally could find yourself in an unwinnable situation strictly because of the order that the cards came up in. No, it's not a big deal to restart, but I don't feel particularly challenged when I'm looking at the table and thinking "welp, there's not a damn thing I can do because I got these three cards in a row" out of whichever deck.

It's that Ghost Stories thing...where a game is made not difficult, but capriciously impossible. This is a weak design characteristic that I think goes largely under-reported by players who think that a game is "tough" or some kind of ironman ballbuster challenge...when really it's just throwing a random game state at you that may or may not be possible to overcome. You should lose a game with automated opposition like this because you made the wrong choices, squandered resources or couldn't mitigate bad fortune. Not because the game randomly handed you a no-win situation or a series of them.

Thanks for this. It articulates something that has bothered me endlessly about the co-op genre. It's been a long time since I've played most of these games, but I remember hitting a point with Pandemic where my wife and I realized that we had hit a ceiling for how good we were going to get. The only difference was that sometimes the game would randomly be much tougher than others. Essentially the only thing letting us win the game or not was the way the cards fell.

Do you feel the same way about Knizia's LotR or do you feel you have more control over how well you do?
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 09:51 by Columbob #208431
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Mr. White wrote:
San Il Defanso wrote:
Michael Barnes wrote:
Yeah, that was the other big problem with this game. In addition to this overly restrictive mechanic, there was the whole thing where you literally could find yourself in an unwinnable situation strictly because of the order that the cards came up in. No, it's not a big deal to restart, but I don't feel particularly challenged when I'm looking at the table and thinking "welp, there's not a damn thing I can do because I got these three cards in a row" out of whichever deck.

It's that Ghost Stories thing...where a game is made not difficult, but capriciously impossible. This is a weak design characteristic that I think goes largely under-reported by players who think that a game is "tough" or some kind of ironman ballbuster challenge...when really it's just throwing a random game state at you that may or may not be possible to overcome. You should lose a game with automated opposition like this because you made the wrong choices, squandered resources or couldn't mitigate bad fortune. Not because the game randomly handed you a no-win situation or a series of them.

Thanks for this. It articulates something that has bothered me endlessly about the co-op genre. It's been a long time since I've played most of these games, but I remember hitting a point with Pandemic where my wife and I realized that we had hit a ceiling for how good we were going to get. The only difference was that sometimes the game would randomly be much tougher than others. Essentially the only thing letting us win the game or not was the way the cards fell.

Do you feel the same way about Knizia's LotR or do you feel you have more control over how well you do?

It's really the same thing. If the event chits all come out early you're screwed. We had the hardest time winning or even just reaching the end, until I recently pulled it out after a years long hiatus and we breezed to a win.
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 10:08 by Sagrilarus #208432
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Bad news decks have no way to assess game state and produce a coherent response. Pandemic does a little bit with its deal-from-the-bottom and restack-on-top mechanics, but that's the only real success I've seen on this concept. Even it is limited.

D-Day at Omaha Beach does a good job of presenting sufficient bad news everywhere all the time. But that is appropriate to the genre. Don't know how a game like this one could do that.

Lord of the Rings LCG fell flat with me from the first play. Didn't go long enough to discover this issue. I wonder if the mechanics were designed and fitted to the theme, or vice versa. It seems to me you could have implemented the same concept with facets of a single character instead of multiple people.

S.
Posted: 13 Aug 2015 12:08 by Ken B. #208440
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Mr. White wrote:

Do you feel the same way about Knizia's LotR or do you feel you have more control over how well you do?


Personally, I think that LOTR dodges this bullet because the Bad Things happen to you in a very specific order, matching the narrative progression of the story. These events go from bad to really bad, though along the way, and depending on the game state, some of the "bad things" aren't nearly as bad.

So yes, a run of event tiles can be harmful, but you essentially need a run of them on one board for the worst of them to happen, and the run needs to be all on the same board. Can it happen? Absolutely, of course it can, anything is possible when dealing with random chance. But because of the structure of the Bad Things, this tends to happen less often, and more importantly, much less notably.
Posted: 14 Aug 2015 17:57 by KingPut #208569
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Good going having the balls to trash a mechanism. I don't have too much problem with the red shirt strategy of the game. It's frustrating and hard and i wouldn't play this with kids but as a difficult solo game it still works for me. Pathfinder, an easy co-op is great for playing with the family would bore me to death to play solo.

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