A Few, Key, Words

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach The Lord of the Rings LCG to a fair number of players. In the spectrum of design complexity, this game sits firmly on the opposite end from “beer and pretzels” or casual games. This is a good thing. Cooperative games with limited depth or little difficulty quickly become boring.

The depth and constantly evolving challenges presented by this game are major contributors to its longevity. Having designers who truly appreciate the theme of the source material is the critical factor in the games sustained excellence.  If the game had been too simplistic or trivial, it never would have survived through seven deluxe expansions and two saga campaigns, not to mention nightmare quests, Gen Con PODs and dynamic encounter decks!

All that is well and good, but this game has a steep learning curve. I am reminded of this every time I try to teach it to players who are familiar with more mainstream board games, but are neophytes when it comes to card games or deeper strategy games. Play style is personal and subjective. Some people are natural puzzle solvers, and enjoy the strategy (and math) that goes into optimal play. Others prefer their games to be light and fun, and dislike games that “bog down” with heavy mechanics. While it would be simple if every gamer was one of these two extremes, there are a great many people with a play style in the nebulous middle.

This is why execution is critical. A well designed game can still be approachable, even though it includes deeper strategy and aspects of heavier mechanics. While there are many aspects of The Lords of the Rings design which are excellent, it has some rough edges which can can catch new players and give them a negative play experience. An example of one of these rough edges is cards with a “wall of text”. When an effect is so complex that it requires a paragraph to explain, drawing that card becomes a moment of anxiety for new players.

A common class of this wall of text problem is encounter cards with the “search the encounter deck and discard pile” template. While it may seem helpful to have the exact effect of these cards spelled out, most of words in the template are just noise. When you are hunting through extraneous and repetitive words for the few pieces that matter reading is slowed and cognitive load is increased. This is particularly an issue with new players, who aren’t as familiar with the game’s patterns.

Looking at the ‘when revealed’ effect on Southron Support, for example, we can deconstruct it into the following critical pieces:

  1. Each player must perform the search
  2. The search is for a Harad enemy
  3. Each enemy is added (not revealed) to the staging area

There are a few extra pieces of information: namely that a player only has to add an enemy if they find one in the encounter deck or discard pile. In addition, the encounter deck is shuffled once the players are done searching. The revised player rules explain that any time the players search the encounter deck, they must shuffle the deck when they are done searching.

Readability is a tricky thing, particularly when game mechanics are involved. Words and phrases which make sense to some people are confusing to others. Replacing commonly repeated passages with keywords makes sense, but it can be taken too far. The goal is to remove the noise from these templates while retaining the essential mechanics of a card. Ideally, a new player’s first guess of what a card does should be the correct interpretation. With that said, my proposed templates are more sparse than the original cards because I am trying to avoid the wall of text which can make this game so intimidating.

Here is the simplified template:

Doomed 3.
When Revealed: Each player searches for and adds a Harad enemy.

Let’s look at how this template differs from the official one above. First of all, we’ve added  a kind of idiom to the above template, so it’s worth spending a few words to explain this. Templates already have Triggers like “Response:” and “When Revealed:” and of course keywords like “Doomed 3.”. One of the thing lacking in existing templates is a more succinct way describing card effects without using so many words. Phrases like “searches the encounter deck and discard pile for” are unnecessarily verbose and easily lead to a wall of text. I’m proposing effect keywords. These are one or two word phrases, which are printed in italics (but not in bold like Traits) and a short-hand for larger effects.

The full explanation for these effect keywords will be provided in the rules reference, but the idea is for them to be intuitive for new players and eventually become automatically understood by experienced players. In the above example “searches” is short for “searches the encounter deck and discard pile for”. As long as this short-hand is consistently used across all templates, players will quickly come to understand what “searching for an enemy/location/side quest” means, without having to read every single word on the card. Cleaner card templates make a card easier to scan, which actually improves reading retention. For a more literary perspective on these principles, see anything about Hemmingway, Ernest.

Three words later, we use another effect keyword, add, which addresses another tricky subtlety with the current template. Some effects cause encounter cards to be “added to the staging area” without first being “revealed”. Other effects, even if they involve the same “search” process, will first “reveal” an encounter card and then “add it to the staging area” (in the case of locations, enemies, and encounter side quests). This is an important distinction, as many encounter cards have “When Revealed:” triggers but these triggers are not always resolved when an encounter card enters play.

The key is whether or not the effect which adds a card to the staging area includes the word “reveal”. If it uses this critical word, then the “When Revealed:” trigger on that card is resolved. If the word “reveal” is omitted from the source effect, then the “When Revealed:” trigger on that card is ignored. Because this distinction between “revealing and adding” and “only adding” is so subtle, I’ve decided to make both idioms into effect keywords. So, in the proposed new template, a card which causes the When Revealed trigger on other encounter cards to be resolved will use the reveal or revealed effect keyword. Effects which simply add encounter cards to the staging area and ignore the “When Revealed:” trigger will use the add or added effect keyword.

These distinctions might seem like pedantic nitpicking to some. I argue that simplifying and clarifying language is essential to a game’s health. Put another way:

No matter how amazing a game is, if it is difficult to teach, it will always be a niche game. Limiting your player pool to only the most experienced or dedicated players is a major impediment to a game’s popularity.

I have more proposed changes to card templates, but in the spirit of concision and clarity I want to keep these articles short and sweet. I’m curious to hear from other players – particularly those who have taught the game to new players. Let me know what you think in the comments. We here at the Hall wish a warm and Happy New Year to all of the readers!

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4 Responses to A Few, Key, Words

  1. Great article! I’ve taught most players I’ve played with over the years. I think one of the most critical aspects of learning a new game is being able to differentiate between the “core” game rules/ mechanics and those that are only situational. I find it easiest to talk through the core mechanics first, and then as we start playing, discuss more situational rules as they apply, so players don’t get bogged down with and intimidated by the more situational stuff. Early on, I tore off and laminated the turn structure pages from the rulebook for newer players while we were playing, but now we have the great reference card from the limited edition starter.

  2. authraw says:

    I love it! There are a handful of templates for this game that seem unnecessarily verbose and inconsistent. I’d love to see them cleaned up at some point if the game ever does get a 2.0 release.

    Your template is much cleaner. Now I can’t help but feel like the word “for” could be avoided as well for even cleaner wording. Perhaps “Each player finds a Harad enemy and adds it.”

  3. Eric Fletcher says:

    Maybe it’s just my accent, but I have a strong feeling that the verb “add” needs two objects: “add an enemy” feels incomplete – what are you adding it to (or to what are you adding it?).
    It would read better to me to use some other word there, like “stage.” Worked example:
    When Revealed: each player searches for a location (with different names) and stages it.

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