The Essential Magic team had the opportunity last week to play the new Lord of the Rings trading card game (which releases November 6th). The game is made by Decipher (makers of the Star Trek and Star Wars line of CCGs) and is based on the upcoming Lord of the Rings movie (in theaters December 19) which is of course based upon the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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As we were waiting for the sample starter decks to arrive, we weren't sure what to expect. We knew that actual scenes from the movie were gong to be used as the artwork portions of the cards, and since we love the beautifully hand-drawn artwork of Magic: The Gathering so much, we weren't sure if "pictures" from a movie would add as much to the experience. Also, Middle Earth: The Wizards, the previous CCG based upon Tolkien's world was a few cards short of a full booster pack (if you know what I mean). Trying to figure out how to play that game was like trying to figure out why so many people actually watched Beverly Hills 90210.
Well, as soon as we got the cards and had a chance to look at them our first worry immediately vanished. Some of the scenes in the movie are so beautiful, that many of the cards seem as if they DO have hand-drawn artwork on them. I was excited to see the movie before, but just looking at some of these cards and realizing that the scene I'm looking at is actually IN the movie makes my mouth water (there are some shots that are from scenes that have been cut from the movie- but hey, that's cool too). Just take a look at the cards on this page and tell me they don't look like hand-drawn art. If you like these, then be sure to check out Deciphers art preview.
As for the complexity of the game and rulebook, well, that takes a bit more explaining. You see, the starter decks come with a special set of playtesting instructions that instruct you to stack the decks in a particular order and walks you step by step through a couple of turns. One interesting thing is that this mini-game you play through skips the first few turns of a normal game and actually starts off as if several turns had already been played. We understood that part, but the problem is that it didn't do a very good job of explaining how to "set up" the game in the first place so we got off to a very shaky start. Of course, we were looking at what seemed to be a rough draft of the play test rules, so hopefully the finished version will be much clearer.
The truth is that the rules are not hard to understand at all. After figuring out how to set up the play-test game, we played through it and referred to the rulebook when and where it told us to. Once the two turns of the play-test were over and we read through the complete rulebook once, we didn't really have any problems playing a real game. We had to refer to the rulebook a few times for clarification, but we easily found the answers we were looking for. The most difficult part was reading the rules out loud and having to say things like "Fierce Skirmish Phase" (which kept coming out "fearsh skirmice phashe" when trying to read through too quickly).
So overall, I'd have to say that the rulebook itself is pretty simple to understand. Having said that, the game still has plenty of depth. Each player controls a "fellowship" of characters, including Frodo Baggins (the bearer of The One Ring) who is on a quest to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. The basic idea of the game is that you want to be the first to get your fellowship to the end of the "Adventure Path". It seems simple enough, but then you throw in the fact that each player also controls an army of "Shadow" minions that are bent on making sure that everyone else's fellowships don't live to see the next turn. Essentially, whenever it's your turn, every other player is against you. But whenever it's NOT your turn, you and everyone else team up against whoever's turn it is. It's pretty weird at first, but you get used to pretty quickly.
We all agreed that the fundamental rules mechanic is innovative and well balanced for single or multiplayer play. It's called the "Twilight Pool", and to explain it in Magic terms, imagine that instead of YOU paying the casting cost to play a spell, you gave that much mana to your opponent for him or her to use against you. So, the more good stuff you put out, the more bad stuff your opponent can use against you. It makes every spell you play require you think about the potential consequences. I believe that's called "strategy".
Another cool thing about the LotR game is the concept of "Overwhelming" an opponent. To understand this, you first need to know that in this game, creatures can take several "wounds" before they actually die. Most of the time, if a creature loses in combat, then it takes one wound (but doesn't necessarily die). However, if two creatures are in combat and one has double the strength of the other, then it "overwhelms" the weaker one. When a creature is overwhelmed, it dies immediately (regardless of how many wounds it has taken). This makes "overwhelming" a very powerful strategy. You can expect many decks to be based on this as it's one of the easiest ways to kill your opponent's Frodo (thereby winning the game).
So, all in all, I think Decipher's got another good game on their hands. I'm not suggesting that you all run out and burn all of your Magic cards or anything, but you should definitely check out LotR. This could be one more addiction to add to your list along with Magic, caffeine, and Beverly Hills 90210. Okay... maybe that last one's only on my list.
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