Beorn’s Note: This article is long, and full of one bear’s opinions after a few pints of mead. If you come to this site for the strategy and deck lists, and could care less about opinions, feel free to skip this one.
In many respects, The Heirs of Númenor deluxe expansion represents a dramatic shift in the direction of the game. With new quest keywords, high-attack enemies, recursive treacheries and branching quests, this set has quite literally changed the game. Powerful and distinctive player cards, like Errand-Rider, Beregond, A Watchful Peace and Ranger Spikes, have given players tools for some truly different deck designs. All in all, the new expansion has required even experienced players to look at the game through new eyes, with a fresh perspective. As an experienced player of the game, I can honestly say that Heirs of Númenor is my favorite deluxe expansion thus far. But all is not water lilies and Tom Bombadil songs in the world of our beloved LCG.
Talking to anyone at your friendly local game store will confirm as much. New players, attracted by the wonderful setting of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, deserved praise for FFG’s innovative design, and dynamic cooperative gameplay, have been met with a rude surprise. The fact of the matter is, Lord of the Rings LCG is not as welcoming to new players as it could be.
This is a Lord of the Rings LCG blog so, at this point, my biases should be as naked as a bear sunbathing on the Carrock. Still, let me be clear in my intent. I love this game and I want to see it prosper. As a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s works and avid player of card and board games since I could count the toes on my paw, I feel almost as though this game was made specifically for me. But to love something is to want the best for it. I don’t think that Lord of the Rings LCG is, or should be, a fringe game.
If the latest Hobbit movie is any indication, the works of Tolkien have well and truly entered the mainstream of modern culture. This is a good thing, and much deserved. His writings are grounded in thousands of years of language and mythology made from the very fabric of our collective history. In his stories, one connects with what it means to love, and fight for what you love, to feel the sting of defeat, and the thrill of victory. In a few thousand pages, J.R.R. Tolkien distilled the human experience into some of the greatest stories ever told.
A legacy this great is absolutely deserving of great games, art, and movies – all inspired by, and paying homage to, the source material. And our beloved Living Card Game absolutely does pay homage to these great works, in addition to being a damn good game in its own right. But here’s the problem, it is almost willfully unwelcoming to new players.
I will leave the religious debates over whether the core set should include 3 of each player card for the trolls on the various forums to fight over. Quite simply, the issue with introducing this fantastic game to new players goes far beyond there only being 1 copy of Unexpected Courage in the core set. In my experience, even many “hard-core” gamers who may be familiar with Euro-games, CCGs, or other LCGs, will find that the core set out-of-the-box experience leaves something to be desired.
When playing for the first time with only the core set, the balance of the mono-sphere decks is, frankly, a bit off. The difficulty of the first three scenarios is not consistent from game to game, and does not scale correctly with the number of players. The mere notion of 50 card “tournament” decks is ridiculous when the card pool is so limited and this would all but eliminate deck-building with two-sphere decks. Don’t let my criticism dismay you, even with all of these perceived flaws, after playing just two games with the core set, missus Beorn and I were hooked. This is a fantastic game, but it has its warts and rough edges. It would be a disservice to any discussion of the current state, or future direction, of Lord of the Rings LCG, to not address the good and the bad. So, with an eye for how to accentuate the good, and mitigate the bad, I would like to give my opinion of where the game is and the direction I would like to see it go.
Heirs of Númenor is a great expansion on many levels. One of the oft-sited criticisms of the game, that dates all the way back to the core set, is that the spheres are not properly balanced. Definitely for the core set, and continuing with later scenarios (The Redhorn Gate is a particularly egregious example), Tactics has seemed to be the lesser of the four spheres. Certainly, many powerful decks include tactics cards, but as a sphere it always seemed overly reliant on the other spheres for things like willpower, and encounter card cancellation or mitigation.
With battle and siege quests along with more powerful enemies, Heirs of Numenor almost completely addressed this shortcoming. The change of fortune for the Tactics sphere has been so dramatic that it is almost startling in retrospect. One of the first things that I did after opening the expansion, was to make a Beregond, Hama, Beorn deck for use (along with another, more well-rounded deck) with the HoN scenarios. Not only did this deck do quite well against these scenarios, but it gave me the joy of using cards that I had never even considered in my decks before. Cards like Thicket of Spears, that I always knew could be good, but could never quite fit into any deck, have gained a new relevance. This is a perfect example of good changes to the metagame.
If the prevailing perception, prior to HoN, was that Spirit was perhaps too powerful, the easy thing for FFG to do would have been to errata certain Spirit cards, or design more cannot be cancelled treacheries, and other encounter cards to specifically weaken the perceived strengths of Spirit. Thankfully, they avoided this reactive approach and instead made design decisions that instead encouraged players to reevaluate the existing card pool. Creating incentives for players to move around within the existing card pool is good for the metagame, it encourages creativity and bring variety into something that was at the risk of becoming stale. Punitive measures, on the other hand, like errata and designing specific counters, is rarely conducive to a healthy metagame. Players do not want to be punished for using the powerful cards and synergies that the designer provided them with in the first place.
Tactics is not the only sphere that is made more dynamic by the player cards in Heirs of Numenor. With cards like Ranger Spikes and Master of Lore, the Lore sphere now has new, and interesting capabilities that it never truly had before. Even leadership got a hero, in the new Boromir that looks to only get more powerful as the chapter packs are released. For now, Spirit seems to be the one sphere left out in the cold, but with some of the spoiled mono-sphere cards in the upcoming Against the Shadow cycle, I expect this to change soon.
Aside from some great player cards, the quests in Heirs of Numenor have been a revelation in their own right. The dynamic nature of these new scenarios is fantastic. Both from a theme standpoint and also as it impacts the replay value of the expansion, having scenarios that allow the players to choose different paths is an excellent design decision. The Siege of Cair Andros is on of my all time favorite scenarios in the game. Giving the players locations that they must protect, and which in turn impact the path that they will take to the ultimate goal, makes this one of the truly innovative scenarios in the game. This is exactly the kind of innovation that will give even greater enjoyment to existing players, and also help draw new players to the game.
Tales from the Cards recently opened a poll about the difficulty of the game. As of this writing, over 60% of players who responded feel that the game is “Fairly Difficult” or “Too Difficult”. The later group is 5% of voters, which makes sense as most people that feel the game is too difficult are probably not going to be answering polls on a Lord of the Rings LCG blog. That said, this feedback should be concerning for any fan of the game. These poll results by no means stand in isolation. If recent forum threads are any indication, other players are also finding the difficulty of the new Heirs of Numenor quests to be troubling.
Whether you personally believe that the game is difficult, or you agree with the 37% of voters who described the difficulty as “just right”, the perceived difficulty of the game does matter. There is another name for games with high difficulty and a steep learning curve, niche. While it might feel special to be part of a small, cult-following of a great game, if Lord of the Rings becomes a niche game, its future could be cast in doubt. There should be no reason why this game cannot appeal to both casual, thematic players, and the more hard-core, strategic-minded among us.
Expectations are very important when it comes to how a game is received. If people come back from seeing the Hobbit movie and spot a copy of the Lord of the Rings LCG on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, they may have the expectation that the game is appropriate for everyone. Granting the fact that some people simply won’t enjoy the deck-building or strategic elements, it behooves Fantasy Flight Games to make the experience for new and casual players as welcoming as possible. I truly believe that some of the awkwardness of the out of the box experience of Lord of the Rings LCG is turning off players that, given the chance, would love this game.
New players are the lifeblood of any game. Fair or no, if the game is perceived as too difficult, or too expensive to be playable, then new players will steer clear of Lord of the Rings LCG and look elsewhere. This is why the core set, out of the box, experience is so critical. It is also why the messaging around expansions like Heirs of Numenor needs to be more clear. If a friend was interested in learning the game and asked me what they should pick up, the obvious first answer is the core set. Assuming they like the game and are interested in investing more time and money into it, what is the next logical step for this same friend?
Personally, I find it very odd that the last thing I would want to suggest to a new player is the most recent expansion. At my local gaming store, older chapter packs and deluxe expansions are sold out. Certainly, they will order them, or you can always buy them online, but this is a real problem in terms of introducing new players to the game. It is entirely reasonable for someone who purchased the core set and is interested in what to buy next, to assume that the latest expansion, the only other thing sitting on the shelf next to the core set, would be a good second purchase.
A run in with The Leaping Fish and a half-dozen shuffles of Blocking Wargs later, that new player might very well never want to play the game again. Simply telling the new player to start buying all of the chapter packs and deluxe expansions, starting with Shadows of Mirkwood, and going in order, also seems like a less than ideal solution. The implication is not at all conducive to a gentle learning curve, nor is it very easy on the wallet.
Take a hypothetical new player, Bergil, who read and loved the Lord of the Rings as a child. After receiving the core set from his dad, for Christmas, Bergil played it and fell in love. To Bergil, the battles in and around Gondor are one of the best parts of the books. Particularly, the heroic figure of Beregond, who risked his post as guard of the citadel to save his captain Faramir, is a personal favorite. As a new player to the game, who simply wants to play a thematic Gondor deck, it seems absurd that Bergil would have to first invest more than a hundred dollars, just to be able to enjoy the Heirs of Numenor deluxe expansion. Equally absurd, would be to say that Bergil can buy HoN for the player cards, but needs to wait before he can tackle the scenarios until he has more cards.
There has to be some way for the game to balance the process of bringing adequate challenge to experienced players while providing a more welcoming experience to new players. It should be possible for players that just want to enjoy the theme of the game, to purchase and enjoy every chapter pack and deluxe expansion, without feeling obligated to submit themselves to total annihilation at the hands of the quests designed for only the most hard-core player. Ideally, the game would even provide a way for the more casual and thematic players to gradually grow into more strategic-minded players, capable of tackling the more difficult quests.
The Living Card Game format, along with Print On Demand expansions, ensure that the game will always be able to appeal to the hard-core crowd that thrives on scenarios that continue to escalate in difficulty. As an experienced player, and someone who has defeated every scenario in the game, solo and with another player, I am not advocating that FFG throw out the baby with the bathwater and simply make the game easy. The key here is to escalate the difficulty appropriately, and provide built-in options for the many players that appreciate the theme but don’t enjoy the masochism of the harder quests.
This last point is very important. The current poll here on Hall of Beorn shows that over 40% of the visitors of this site play the game for its thematic elements. Given the majesty of Tolkien’s legendarium, this should come as a surprise to no one. Of course, this is not to say that people don’t focus on the other great aspects of the game. Indeed, over 20% of voters enjoy the power and/or competition that comes from building and playing top-tier decks. This is a very good thing. A diverse metagame helps ensure that the game stays fresh and continues to evolve.
Even for individual players, it can be a breath of fresh air to put down your super Elrond deck and play a fun Rohirrim support deck. Many of the decks posted on this site were made, not to be the greatest deck ever built, but to explore one of the many interesting themes in Middle-Earth. Playing a thematic deck on an easier scenario after a tacking Into Ithilien with a purpose-built powerhouse is like a palate cleanser after a very strong glass of wine and some sharp cheese.
So how does FFG satisfy both crowds? Ideally, they could please the hard-core players who have multiple core sets and 1 of every expansion in print, and at the same time make the game more approachable to the new player. I firmly believe that it is possible to meet the needs of both of these groups without diluting the game, or transforming it into some mass-market monstrosity.
As I see it, there are many possible ways forward for the game, but the most obvious one would be a different core set design. A new, more thematic, core set with scenarios better-designed to scale in difficulty would certainly be a massive first step towards being more welcoming to new players. It could also address some of the outstanding issues with the out of the box experience of the game.
We know that the Against the Shadows chapter pack cycles is going to give us plenty of Gondor synergy. Thanks to a timely spoiler of Pippin, we also know that Hobbits will be a sub-theme in this cycle as well. Assuming that they include one more Elf (Galadriel?) or that Thranduil is included in the next Hobbit expansion, there will be enough cards in the existing card pool to make my next suggestion work.
The idea is simple, using the existing card pool, create four new theme-based decks for the core set. Instead of the current, slightly wonky, mono-sphere decks, the core set could include the following decks:
Men of the West – Leadership/Spirit/Tactics (Gondor/Rohan)
Elves of the Valleys – Lore/Spirit (Noldor/Silvan)
Dwarves of the Mountains – Tactics/Leadership (Dwarf)
Defenders of the Shire – Spirit/Leadership/Lore (Hobbit/Dunedain)
These decks would combine cards from the existing card pool, and could potentially include some new cards to make the deck synergies a bit stronger. The decks would be designed from the ground up with two goals in mind: thematic cohesion and a fun play experience, out of the box. The number of cards could be similar, or perhaps slightly larger than the number of player cards in the current core set. By taking cards from the entire card pool, the core set decks would be more powerful, and thus more capable of handling harder scenarios. They would also be better able to handle the resource needs of multiple spheres, something that only Leadership can do in the current core set. This change might seem radical, but designing the core set around theme, when that is the single biggest reason most players play the game is actually kind of obvious.
To offset the additional player cards, the three core set scenarios would be different as well. They would be a tiny bit smaller, to provide a more consistent play experience. By default, they would be built exactly the way they are now, so that there is no additional impediment to new players building the encounter decks for each scenario. However, on the bottom edge of cards the templates would provide space for an advanced encounter set symbol. New players would be instructed to ignore this symbol when learning the game (much like the suggestion that 50 card decks are for “tournaments” only). Advanced players would actually get more value from the core set with this design, because they would use the advanced encounter set symbol to make “nightmare” or more difficult versions of the existing scenarios.
Subsequent deluxe and Print on Demand expansions could key off these symbols and provide players further value and enjoyment from the cards they have already purchased. This also solves the problem of “I have every card printed to date, why would I buy this new core set?”. If you aren’t interested in the new scenarios, you could skip this new core set, but that doesn’t detract from its value to new players. Also, for the more rabid experienced fans, the appeal of new, dynamically scaling scenarios would be enough to lure many of us into the $40 investment. Regardless of how many experienced players bought this hypothetical new core set, the real advantage is in the way that it would help new players.
Take Bergil, from our earlier example. He buys the new core set, immediately starting with the Men of the West deck. This decision is not based on some arbitrary idea of sphere that the game is forcing on him, but on the theme from the books that he likes best. After a while, he might take a turn at deck building by splashing some of the more thematically appropriate cards from the other three decks into his favorite core set deck. Once he has conquered the base scenarios in the core set, he can learn how to use the advanced encounter set symbols to make them more difficult. After that, he has a natural answer to the question of, “what do I buy next?”.
Heirs of Numenor could be reprinted with the same (or similar) player cards but slightly tweaked scenarios (cards like Blocking Wargs need errata, but overall the scenarios are excellent). This would then be the natural next step for a player that bought the new core set and enjoys the Gondor or Rohan theme. A reprinted and possibly tweaked Khazad-dum (Zigil Miner with errata should probably go in the core set) would work as the Dwarf expansion and similar expansions could be made for Elves, Hobbits and their Dunedain guardians.
Future expansions could explore new areas of Middle-Earth and provide more general themes that players of all kinds could use in their decks. A Game of Thrones LCG introduced an entirely new house in one of their deluxe expansions, there is no reason why Lord of the Rings LCG could not do the same. Lastly, chapter pack cycles could still be tied to a deluxe expansion, and continue to explore multiple themes that are useful in many different deck archetypes, just as they do now.
Even getting the core set reprinted with current errata seems to be a painful process, so all of these ideas are probably a pipe dream. Still, seeing the evolution of A Game of Thrones from a CCG to an LCG while keeping some of the same cards, FFG certainly seems capable of taking their games through these kind of transformations. Change can ultimately be good for a game, especially if it allows more people to enjoy that game in different ways.
Well, that is certainly enough yammering from me today. This piece is simply one bear’s opinion, so feel free to disagree or provide your own perspective in the comments below. Nobody wants to hear an old bear mutter incoherently into his mead, so I will leave you with this quote from my favorite book:
“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”