Bilbo advanced, keeping to the undergrowth and taking slow, measured steps. He’d strayed far from the others, but that didn’t worry him, he was good at remaining hidden. His biggest worry, though, was the time it was taking. He knew people were depending upon them but finding the Orc’s hideout was proving more difficult than first imagined.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party had stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest. The Orc scouts had descended on them, and they were fighting a vicious rear-guard. With Gimli standing proud in the centre, Dwarven insults turning the air red, they formed a plan to retreat and take a different path to meet back up with the Hobbit.
Unfortunately for them a large Troll appeared on their flank. All eyes turned towards the App – The Troll moves 1 space and attacks Legolas – Alas, it was time for a last stand!
Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth is an App driven adventure that sees some familiar faces journeying out to do good, kill Orcs, and fight for inspiration! Is it going to keep you as entertained as the books or films, or is it going to be cast into Mount Doom and lost forever? Let’s see…
- Designer: Nathan I. Hajek, Grace Holdinhaus
- Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
- Year Released: 2019
- Players: 1-5
- Playing Time: 60-120min (per scenario)
- Ages: 14+
- Recommended Retail Price: £99.99
What’s in the box?
- Rules reference
- Learn to play guide
- 22 Journey map tiles
- 2 Battle map tiles
- 31 Plastic figures
- 83 Item cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 15 Boon cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 28 Fear cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 28 Damage cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 10 Terrain cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 30 Basic skill cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 30 Hero skill cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 72 Role skill cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 20 Weakness skill cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 21 Title Skill cards – Mini American sleeve size
- 6 Hero cards – 70x120mm sleeve size
- 30 Terrain tokens (Mist/pit; barrels/table; fire/statue; wall/stream; bush/boulder)
- 12 Enemy banners and plastic stands
- 20 Search/threat tokens
- 30 Inspiration/exploration tokens
- 21 Depletion tokens
- 8 Person tokens
- 5 Darkness tokens
Not delving into everything here, just a look at the main mechanisms and things that may be of interest.
Each player has a character. The character starts with a bit of equipment and a deck of skill cards made up of their character’s specific cards, some Basic cards, a few of their role cards, and a weakness (when drawn a weakness does nothing, they’re there to clog up your deck and more can be gained during play).
Roles include Captain, Pathfinder, Burglar, Musician, Guardian, and Hunter. Characters can change roles between scenarios, removing their previous role’s basic cards from their deck but keeping any they purchase with experience.
The App will run the players through set-up, providing a tile for them to start on and a few surrounding tiles to explore – other tiles will be revealed as and when.
The game turn is broken down into three phases – Action, Shadow, and Rally phase.
During the Action phase the players can each take two actions – Travel, Attack, or interact – the same action can be taken twice.
The Shadow phase sees the enemies move and attack, as well as other threats to the characters such as being in Darkness.
Finally, during the Rally phase, the characters reset their decks by shuffling in their discard, and then scouts 2 – reveal the top two cards of their deck, preparing on if they wish, and then placing the remainder on either the top or bottom of the deck in any order.
A hero can have a maximum of four cards prepared, and whilst prepared the ability on the card is active and can be used.
During the game, Heroes will carry out tests, such as when interacting with a token. The App will inform them of which statistic is being tested and whether it is a pass or fail, or if the number of successes needs to be inputted. For example: Test Wit; 1 – this requires the Hero to test their wit and they need one success to pass.
To carry out a test the player draws cards from the top of their deck equal to the Stat being tested. Some cards have a success symbol on them, and these are counted up. Other cards have Fate symbols on them, and a character can spend Inspiration to turn one Fate symbol into a success (Each Hero has a maximum number of Inspiration tokens they can hold, from Gimli’s 3 to Bilbo’s 6). Prepared cards can also be used for their ability to affect the result of the test, such as discarding the card to add a success. The total number of successes will be enough to pass or fail, or may need to be inputted into the App to see what happens.
Attacks are conducted in a similar way. To attack, the character either needs to be in the same space as an enemy or, if they are using ranged weapons, in an adjacent space (Some weapons may increase this range). The weapon used indicates which Stat is to be used and cards are drawn from the top of the deck with successes being totalled up. Again, Inspiration can convert fate symbols and prepared card abilities can be used. The weapon card will indicate how many successes are required to be converted to Hits. For example: The Hero attacks and has 4 successes. The weapon card indicates that 1 success can be converted for 2 Hits and 2 successes for 5 Hits. So, the Hero does a total of 7 Hits, spending 3 of his successes – the remaining success cannot be spent to do any more Hits.
Some weapons add keywords to the attack, such as Cleave (Hits each enemy in a group) and Stun (the attack exhausts the enemy).
At times, such as when a Hero is attacked, the player will be asked to Negate damage or Fear. The player Draws cards for the indicated Stat and each success negates 1 Fear or Damage. Again, Inspiration and prepared cards can be used.
Carrying out any action other than an attack whilst in a space with any readied enemies will provoke an attack from all enemies in that space.
Some scenarios are played out on the Battle Map. Here, the App will inform you of any scenery that requires placing. Scenery can often be interacted with and usually has some strategic implication, such as walls being impassable and restricting range, or Pits that require Agility tests to avoid falling into.
Okay, that’s a very brief look at the game’s mechanisms. There’s much more to it but time to move on…
So, what do I think?
Let’s start with what I really, really like… the miniatures. It’s nice to see miniatures of this quality that you don’t have to spend time putting together before you can play. They are nicely detailed with crisp definition and the mould lines aren’t too prominent – they should be a delight to paint. The Goblins and Orcs could almost be straight out of the films and the characters aren’t far off either, they look great.
The cards and tokens are typical of Fantasy Flight Games and are all excellent quality. The only thing I would say against the cards is the symbology used. For some reason, the symbols just wouldn’t sink in and whenever I read a card that asked to test – insert crazy symbol – I’d have to check the Hero card to figure out what it meant – probably just a personal thing as others seemed to pick it up.
The enemy banners were a clever idea. Used to distinguish between enemy groups of the same model, they stand proud, which a token wouldn’t have done, and really help in figuring out who’s who.
The journey tiles come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are designed using hex configuration so that they all fit together as required. The artwork is, if you look closely, quite well done and varied, but if you sit back in your seat the predominant thing you’ll see is green and I found that once in play I barely noticed what was on them.
I have a few issues with the Battle tiles too, but that’s more of a gameplay thing, so I’ll come to it a little later.
It’s Lord of the Rings in a box.
Okay, I’ll expand on that. First off, there are the characters, most of which will be familiar to any LOR fan – Aragorn, Bilbo, Gimli, and Legolas – and a couple you’ll never have heard of – Beravor and Elena. The latter never existed within Tolkien’s world.
Each character’s card bares their image and, on the rear, presents a little of their story, some of which may be known to a reader of the Author’s great works. Looking at these cards sets the scene and raises expectations.
The game is set some time after Bilbo’s adventures in the Hobbit and before Frodo and company set out to destroy the ring. It’s a good period to choose as most will have some knowledge of at least one of the stories and be able to relate to the places the characters visit during the game.
The app does a tremendous job of telling the story and it builds and builds as you progress. The best thing, though, is the way it offers you choices. Here’s a made-up example – You finish a scenario and maybe that horde of Orcs you’ve been tracking has split up. One group has made to defend a stronghold whilst the other is moving to attack a Ranger you have befriended. You get the choice of which avenue to pursue, and it will have implications further down the road. Choose to hit the group making to the stronghold before they can fortify the defences, or do you help your friend? Perhaps you help your friend but later you’ll find yourself going up against a heavily defended stronghold, which may prove too much for your weary party.
I was really impressed by this and how well it worked, immersing me into the story and it made me feel part of something bigger. Yes, a little piece of me wished to be replaying the actual story of TLOR, but in some ways this was better as I was making my way into the unknown.
I also wasn’t sure about how the roles worked thematically. The suggested starting roles are spot on – Gimli the Guardian, Legolas the Hunter, Aragorn the Captain, and so on – but swapping them around between scenarios didn’t feel quite right… until I sat and thought about it, that is.
It actually works and captures the flow of the books, throughout which we see many of the characters change their role within the story – Aragorn goes from Captain to Hunter and back to Captain, whilst Sam probably takes the biggest journey, taking on numerous roles as he grows in stature, from Guardian and Hunter to Pathfinder and then Captain, in fact all the roles at some point. So, whilst you may be changing roles in order to enhance your characters skills, it also works thematically, if you stop and think about it.
For a game based on such deep lore I would have expected more flavour text on the cards. Other than the character cards, it’s practically non-existent, thought the artwork does do a good representative job and I especially liked the weakness card art, but I felt like they missed a trick here, as I for one would have loved to try and reference where the text had come from.
It’s Fantasy Flight Games so you know what to expect here: two books, one a learn to play and the other a rules reference.
The learn to play is easy to follow and has lots of good examples and pictures; it had me up and playing in no time.
The Rules Reference is lengthy at 32 pages cover to cover, and pretty in-depth, but I found it easy to use and able to answer any issues I had.
Overall, I found the rules solid and straightforward with the key information found on the backs of the two books, including Round Structure, Actions, Modifiers, Keywords etc., all very helpful.
There’s a lot I could say here, but for the sake of keeping things short (It’s going to be lengthy enough as it is) I’ll just cover some of the things that stuck in my mind.
I really enjoyed playing this game but there were a few things about it that niggled, especially with the game’s mechanisms. The story, though, and the way it unfolds, was for me the star of the show.
I liked the way that you start with a small part of the map fully exposed, usually just a single tile with a few surrounding tiles that you can enter to explore, which in turn often revealed more tiles. Doing this gave the exploring character an inspiration token, and though it didn’t sound like much, it’s a clever little mechanism to encourage you to push forward and take a few risks.
Inspiration was much needed to improve skill test chances, which I’ll come to later, and so pushing characters forward, especially those who can look after themselves, was an effective way to collect it quickly. This also opened the map, increasing the number of options available. Having the right characters in the Pathfinder and Burglar roles made this a good strategy in the opening turns and enabled the party to prioritise who was going to do what. However, it was also handy to keep a few places unexplored where possible, to give a means of gaining inspiration later in the game.
Inspiration, for me, was the driving force of the testing. Without it, I soon began to struggle as I failed test after test. Keeping the Inspiration flowing was an important part of the game and made for some interesting puzzle solving to make sure none of it went to waste, such as when one character did something that could earn another nearby Hero inspiration. I also thought it worked well thematically, especially the banter we had going between Legolas and Gimli, trying to inspire each other to gain more kills!
The App dropped various things in our path, ranging from innocent bystanders (or were they?), to suspicious looking bushes and other things marked with Interact and threat tokens. No matter what they were, interacting with them always built upon the story, if not directly then by just adding atmosphere. Now, depending on the level played this could be important. It’s no good wasting time chatting to some lost Hobbit, or helping the old woman find her sheep, if it isn’t going to advance the plot, and so you have to make decisions on what you think is important and what isn’t.
This was similar to playing Mansions of Madness, where things are thrown in front of you to distract you and wasting too much time on them will only bring the end closer – the clock keeps on ticking no matter what you do. At first, I found this annoying, as I like to explore and check these things out, but after I lost a couple of scenarios, I soon started to ignore anything that didn’t fit with advancing the plot, though sometimes I got it wrong.
You must remember you are heroes, not adventurers, and the task that is in front of you is important, it needs doing, it needs doing now, and only you can do it. Once I’d gotten this into my head things fell into perspective: In the great scheme of things the old woman’s sheep didn’t matter, and that Hobbit would find his own way home eventually… or get robbed… or worse. But none of this is my concern because I’m out to save the world – It felt good to be a hero, even though the dastardly App kept trying to distract me with niff naff!
The story was also branching. A number of times I was offered choices at the end of a scenario, and once chosen there was no going back. Whatever I decided there would be repercussions later on, and this itself was dependent on whether I won or lost the scenario. For example, and this is made up so no spoilers: At the end of a scenario, I uncovered the enemies hideout. It’s heavily fortified and well manned. Do I attack it now, try and draw some of the men away, or bypass it altogether? Great heroes make great choices – I was pretty average!
I found the story to be solidly written and it held my interest. It developed nicely throughout each scenario as well as through the campaign, and it all made sense. The scenarios that played out on the battle map were more focused, zooming in and making them feel more personal – unfortunately, I thought the game missed a few beats here.
‘Battle Map!’. It conjures up images of tactical battles with defiant last-stands and heroic charges. Unfortunately, it had none of this and the main reason was the size and layout of the spaces. I found them too large, and their layout offered little to encourage strategic play – 5 spaces on each board, 2 boards, and even with the addition of walls and other obstacles it never produced the exciting battles I was hoping for. In one battle there was a stream. When crossing a stream the enemy unit’s activation ends immediately, and as the enemy always moved towards me, so I just parked my characters on one side and picked them off as they approached for an easy win!
On the bright side though, the battle map isn’t always used for battles, but also investigations, and these were some of my favourites, though I did find them a little on the easy side compared to the those on the journey map.
One thing that made the journey map scenarios difficult was the provoking of attacks, especially if ganged up on and needing to make a swift escape; this has its good and bad sides. On the good, it made for some deep thought and good teamwork, as we tried to work out how to exhaust enemies and take advantage of them being unable to attack. On the bad, it was easy to get a character stranded on their own with a whole bunch of enemies appearing on the same space and trying to move out provoked an attack from them all. Stay put, and they’ll all attack you in their activation anyway – it’s an easy way to get defeated. It is something you become more mindful of the more you play, and careful play will avoid this situation, but it can be a downer if you’re new to the game.
Moving on to how the characters work and the skill tests. Even now, after playing through the campaign a couple of times, I’m still not sure how I feel about the skill cards and how they work. There are things I like, such as preparing certain skills ready for use and the deck construction aspects, but then there are bits I don’t, like the lack of excitement when drawing cards.
Start with the good… Deck construction makes for some interesting and tough choices, especially when you add in the fact that you can change roles between scenarios. Earning experience allows you to obtain cards from your current role to permanently add to your skills deck. Some of these have successes or fate icons on them and these are the ones you really want to add. You have to give this plenty of consideration, for example: If you have a character that can’t hold a lot of Inspiration tokens, which are used to convert fate icons to successes, then adding cards with fate icons may only clog up your deck and make it inefficient. Of course, there is the skill that the card gives you to consider too, but I tended to save up my experience and only bought cards that either had success icons, or fate icons and a useful skill, trying to make my deck as efficient as possible – this made the other available cards a bit redundant in my eyes.
Preparing skills ready to use was a good way to… prepare my character for what was to come. If I knew a battle was imminent, I could try and ready skills to help fight or defend, otherwise I tended to prepare cards that helped with skill tests that used my character’s weaker abilities. You can only prepare a card when you scout, which means it takes time to get four cards ready, by which time the situation could have changed and your cards unhelpful. In a party I found it best to have characters each prepare cards for different situations – Gimli would always be ready to fight/defend, whilst Bilbo would be set to explore and evade – this gave flexibility but did typecast the characters.
These skills do make the characters each feel special in their own way and it’s a delight when you have just the right cards prepared and can pull off something great. However, getting the cards you want prepared comes down to luck. During the Rally phase, when I reset my deck (shuffling the discard back into your deck) and scouted 2, I was amazed by how often the same cards came out, and of course they were ones I really didn’t want to prepare. There’s also the trade-off that some of the best skills are on cards that have success icons on them, so preparing them reduces the number of successes in your deck – I only ever prepared them if I knew I’d use them straight away.
This is leading me into something I wasn’t keen on, and that was the skill testing itself. I knew exactly what I had in my deck. How many cards with success icons and how many with fate. By scouting I often knew what the top two cards of my deck were, which you might think is a good thing, but often it can be detrimental. Knowing I had two success cards on top made me hesitant to attempt something that wasn’t vital, as it would decrease my chances for what may occur, such as being attacked.
In your starting deck there are only four cards with successes on them and seven with fate icons, out of a total of 15 cards. So, you can see, keeping your supply of inspiration high is vital, but as the threat of the scenario increases towards the climax of the game, then inspiration can often be hard to keep hold of. There was many a time when I had to make a test but I’d already drawn my success cards, and so if I had little or no inspiration I knew I’d fail without drawing, which was a bit of a damp squid!
You might say, ‘well, you should have prepared to mitigate this from happening,’ but it often came down to pure luck. I may be forced to do a test and if it’s against an ability I’m weak in, and have no skill prepared to help me (maybe I’d just used it or never drew one in the first place) then there isn’t a lot I can do about it.
I did quite like the way that successes were converted into damage, especially later in the campaign when my weapons were levelled up. I often had the choice of attack modifiers I could add and so tailor my damage to the enemy I was attacking. Lots of armour, apply pierce, Sorcery? Then I shall smite thee; and so on.
The last thing I want to mention about the testing is the lack of excitement it produced. Again, I think this is in-part due to knowing what I had in my deck, how much inspiration I had and often knowing what the top two cards were. But even taking this away, I just didn’t find flipping the cards over and using my skills particularly exciting. Yes, it felt good to use my skills to enable me to pass a test or deal more damage, but exciting? No!
The real fun and excitement developed from the story – the narrative created by the App and by the players themselves – rather than the game’s mechanisms, which in the end still made for a really good time.
The final thing I want to mention are the Boon cards. Two are good and the other I found to be practically useless. Determined and Hidden were very good and often used, but I can’t recall Emboldened ever being used. The only times I ever received it was either at the end of my turn when there were no enemies nearby and so it was discarded straight away, or at the end of my turn and then I’d be dealt damage or fear and have to discard it. I’m sure this was just luck but having played at least two entire campaigns and never having been able to use it, well, it might just not be!
Balance and scaling
I played at differing player counts as well as swapping around the characters, playing different roles, and so on. I came across very few issues regarding either balance or scaling.
The main issue with scaling – increasing the number of players – was that the time it took to complete a scenario increased a fair amount, with some games dragging into the realms of 3-hours. More discussion takes place and turns just generally took longer. With 2-players, even when playing 2-characters each, I found that we got into a better flow and the pace was spritelier.
Having more characters in the game did mean there was a greater chance of being able to help each other out with the skills they had prepared. Whilst playing with just two, there’s more reliance on your own prepared skills, which can make things harder.
As far as balance is concerned, I thought all characters were on a par with one another, though some suited more roles than others. Gimli, for instance was perfectly suited to the Guardian role and tended not to roam from that, whilst Bilbo slipped nicely into Burglar, Musician, and Pathfinder – this didn’t really make too much difference in terms of balance, just made some more versatile to play than others and maybe better suited to low-player counts.
Looking back over past games, I noted that Legolas and Aragorn took by far the most last stands (when defeated by Damage or Fear the character does a ‘Last Stand’ in the App, which hopefully they’ll pass and re-enter the fray), but this was probably due to them being played more aggressively than the others.
Finally, difficulty. There are three levels of difficulty, adventure, normal, and hard. Adventure gives you more time to explore your setting, interact with the things the App throws at you, and not be overwhelmed by enemies; I’m sure tests are easier too.
Normal is, well, difficult, at least in my experiences, with time being very tight and the number of enemies really challenges you. It reminded me of Mansions of Madness, in that you’re offered all these things to interact with but not the time to do them all!
Hard, I never even considered playing!
I started by playing on normal, as you do, and the first play-through ended in disaster for the party. A couple of last stands were the norm for a scenario, and we eventually lost the game. Time was the biggest pressure, with the Threat level increasing rapidly and bringing with it more enemies – frustration set in, as somethings just didn’t seem possible in the time allowed. You have to be selective with what you interact with and try not to be drawn away from your goal by some whimsy. You must work together, plan your turns, and use your characters skills to their best. After the loss, the next campaign was played on Adventure level…
I found the difference between adventure and normal was quite large. On adventure you can take the time to explore, to talk with that friendly Hobbit or examine that strange looking bush, and that’s quite enjoyable, but the challenge has been scaled right back and we went all the way through the campaign without failing a scenario, only taking one last stand, which was in the finale; it was just too easy and I’m afraid I became a little distracted at times.
Back to normal and things went better, as we now knew the way to approach the game. Still, it was a challenge, but one that was expected and whilst we still failed the odd scenario it felt a much more balanced game.
So, my advice to anyone playing for the first time would be to play at least a couple or three scenarios in adventure, just to get the feel of things, and then hit the normal level, it might just avoid that frustration setting in.
It’s a fits and bursts type game for me, but not in a bad way. When involved in a campaign I wanted to play it again and again, until completed, but when it was done, I was happy to shelve it rather than start another. Then, 6-months or so down the line it would come out again and be played to death.
I was a bit disappointed that it only came with one campaign, with another available to purchase as DLC, but the campaigns aren’t totally linear and can branch off; failing scenarios also has an impact, so you will want to replay them.
I would have liked to have seen some stand-alone scenarios, as getting a group to commit to a campaign can be difficult for some, and there are times you just want an adventure without having to dedicate hours to reach an outcome.
Can I play it… all on my own?
Playing Solo, I found it best using two characters, maybe three at a push, it all comes down to how well you can cope with information overload.
The more characters you have in play, the more you have to remember and the more time you need to take in looking everything over before taking an action. For example: If playing with 3-characters, each with 4-skills prepared, then you have to consider how these skills may be used to best effect, often out of a character’s turn – one character might be able to move another character or give a benefit if they are about to be attacked – it can be very easy to miss something. I constantly missed skills that needed to be activated at the start of a character’s turn because I was too focused on something else.
The other downside to using more than 2-characters is the time it takes, and I found it started to play too long when I moved up to 3.
All that aside, I really enjoyed the solo experience and I found I could focus more on the story than when playing with others. Playing multiplayer, I found the storyline often took a back seat as we talked and focused more on the puzzle of how to get things done and make progress rather than why we were doing them; some people didn’t even bother to read all the text in the app (or listen to the person reading it out) but rather go straight to the last line or two that told you what test to take or what the result of a test was – I found that a tad annoying!
No, if you have a couple of hours to spare (set up can be a tad long – all those cards to sort!) then you won’t go far wrong adventuring out in Middle Earth. There’s a degree of tactical play to appreciate and you can take the time to embrace the storyline. Also, if you’re like me, you can really get into character by doing a few funny voices, “Come on Legolas, that’s another one to me, you’re acting like a feeble Elf who’s never seen battle before!”… Or is that just me!
If you’re not into the Lord of the Rings in any shape or form then, whilst I’m amazed you’ve read this far, I can probably say this game isn’t for you. The theme runs deep and if you’re not into it then no matter how good the mechanisms are that propel it along, you’re not going to fully appreciate it.
It’s also a game that requires some commitment, with each scenario taking anywhere from 60-minutes to 3-hours depending on your group, so you’re going to plough plenty of time into completing the campaigns. I found a week between sessions worked well, but any longer and I started to find it difficult to get back into, but then I dislike drawing games like this out and would much rather play them in quick succession and ride the wave so to speak. And the lack of one-off scenarios may deter those who find it difficult to maintain regular group play.
There’s also the main skill test mechanism to consider; I’m still not sure about it. There are things I liked, such as deck construction and preparing skills, but I felt it lacked some of the excitement. And there were times when I just knew it was impossible for me to pass a test even before I drew the cards, which isn’t something you want to be faced with, I’d much prefer there always being a chance, however small.
The story though, and the feeling that your actions make a difference to it, is great and if you like RPG style board games then this should really float your boat.
Players: I-5, best at 3 or less, not too bad at 4. Wouldn’t stretch to 5 personally.
Playing Time: The 60-120min playing time pre scenario is mostly about right. I had a couple ran closer to 3-hours, and when that happened it felt much longer!
Age: 12+ to get the best from it.
Expansions: Yes there are, both physical and downloadable content. No I haven’t, but I probably will, I mean, Gandalf…!
Expect to Pay: £68.95 (www.chaoscards.com at time of writing)
Read my thoughts One-Year-On HERE
Official site: Fantasy Flight Games
Recommended video review: The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel
BoardGameGeek page: Here