Fantasy Flight Games have created something inarguably special with their range of Living Card Games. By combining the competitive deck construction of games like Magic: The Gathering with a business model that does away with random booster packs, and thus mitigates somewhat the accusations of ‘pay to win’ so often levelled at MtG, games like Android: Netrunner and Warhammer 40,000: Conquest have captured the gaming world’s imagination.
But there is one oddity in the L.C.G world, one quiet wise owl in a sky filled with hungry vultures, and that is The Lord of The Rings: The Card Games. You see unlike its kin LotR is played either cooperatively or solo.
And how could it be any other way? The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a tale of camaraderie, of fellowship triumphing over adversity, “brotherhood against the fascist clan” as Christy Moore might put it. Extending a hand of friendship over the table suits the theme far better than a clenched fist.
The genius of the game however is that it manages to retain the intricate process of deck construction in a non-competitive environment. It does this through the simple trick of being bloody difficult.
When you play LotR you will be testing your deck against a series of villains and events that varies depending on which quest you’re playing. Each quest is generally a journey from point A to point B. For example in the introductory Passage through Mirkwood quest you must guide your band of heroes through the eponymous spooky forest.
Each player has their own “threat level” which will be increased each turn or in response to various events. As the threat level increases so to does the size of the monsters who will take an interest in assaulting your merry band. Let the threat level get too high and you loose.
It’s a deeply artificial way of injecting a sense of growing dread into the game but it is none the less effective. Most importantly it provides the same sense of satisfaction that beating the clock does. You’ll reach the last turn, the turn when you know your threat level is going to tip you into oblivion, and suddenly it will click, the moment of revelation that only last minute panic can induce and you’ll beat the quest. Rejoice!
Or you’ll fail. It’s much more likely that you’ll fail; the sheer magnitude of the task can on occasion seem insurmountable and, yes, that’s frustrating but it’s also important. It’s important for the game to remain interesting and by extension the business model for the game
Collectable or Living or Expandable Card Games or whatever you call them need to provide an incentive for players to keep buying cards. In the highly competitive versions of these games the incentive is clear. The ever growing cardpool, or meta-game, means that in order to keep an edge over the evolving strategies of their opponents players have to update and tweak their decks constantly. By taking the thematically appropriate decision to make The Lord of The Rings a cooperative game Fantasy Flight essentially remove that incentive. The only replacement then is to make the in built intelligence of the game very hard to beat.
This model also provides the player with a financial flexibility that other L.C.Gs don’t. If you walk into your local Netrunner night with just a copy of the core set and a couple of expansions you’re going to get thrashed so regularly it won’t be an experience that comes close to resembling fun.
With LotR however you have the choice. Whether you’re playing solo or with a friend you have the choice to pick and choose how far down the monetary rabbit hole you want to go and you’ll still be having a good time. Despite how unforgiving the game can be the fact that it’s a co-op means it still feels considerably more prosaic pace than its competitive cousins.
Like a lot of people I suffer brutally from a collector’s instinct a habit born in the youthful heat of football stickers and Pokemon cards. The trouble is that in maturity money and time are barriers to me giving the attention required to some of the stellar card games out there today. Not so with The Lord of the Rings. It provides me the incentive to take the time to build a deck without the pressure to keep up with competitors. It gives me the chance to watch my collection grow without feeling the need to buy everything which is frankly an impressive trick from Fantasy Flight, flying in the face of decades of received wisdom about how these kind of games should be played and sold.
For any fan of the source text this is box of treats that will grow as big and as fast as you want it to.