The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle-Earth – Review

The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle-Earth is an adventure and exploration game for 1-5 players from Fantasy Flight Games. I’ve been itching to talk about it for a while, and now that I’m 8 games into the campaign, I feel that I have a good enough grounding to do so.

I’ve been having a fantastic time with it, but there are some things which I think could be better, which I’ll get to shortly.

The Lord of the Rings is a theme that I am passionate about, those films being some of my absolute favourites, and no-doubt that has helped increase my enjoyment of the game.

Set between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (in the same time frame that is also occupied by Fantasy Flight’s The Lord of the Rings The Card Game), The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle-Earth sees a group of companions set out on a quest in the realm of Eriador. The quests form part of a linked campaign which tells an expansive story about the rise of an evil power. (Being a story full of discoveries and revelations, I will ensure that no spoilers slip into this post).

The game uses a free companion app to orchestrate things, much as a dungeon master would in a roleplaying game. The app sets the map, distributes items and people with which to interact, populates the world with enemies, controls and tracks the health of those enemies, tracks the growing threat which acts as a kind of timer in each level, keeps track of the player’s experience so that they can purchase new skills and more. It’s a system that will be familiar to anyone who has played Fantasy Flight’s seminal Mansions of Madness 2nd edition or any other app-driven game. Though some people dislike the idea of board games relying on apps, I think the app greatly enhances the game. With so many items to interact with, non-player characters to speak to and enemies to fight, it’s great that the app handles all of that heavy-lifting. There are other ways to do it, of course, with decks of cards, and charts in books, or having someone play as an overseer in a one-versus-many type scenario, and I don’t doubt that those systems can and do work well, but in this particular instance, I’m very glad that the app is there. I have been playing through the game with my wife and if the game didn’t use an app, I think that we simply wouldn’t play it. I would either be forced to play the game as an overseer, in opposition to my wife, which neither of us would enjoy as we want to adventure together, or they’d be a lengthy upkeep phase to handle all of the token-flipping and monster-health-tracking, which would push the game out of my wife’s realm of interest. As it stands, with the app, each game takes only 60-90 minutes, we get to play cooperatively, and we get to concentrate on our character’s actions, rather than trying to make sure the wheels don’t fall off the game. For me and my wife, the app is great.

The app also allows Fantasy Flight to add additional content after launch, much as they have done with Mansions of Madness. Though there is only one campaign to begin with, The Bones of Arnor, which spans a lengthy 12 or so scenarios, there is already a second campaign planned for release later this year (The Hunt for the Ember Crown, which you can read more about here). This will be paid for downloadable content, but will make use of the components in the base box.

The game itself sees your heroes exploring the modular map tiles, facing challenges and fighting enemies. Some games take place on a Journey Map, which show a variety of outside and underground locations, and some games take place on a more focused Battle Map, which could be the inside of a keep, a tavern or other smaller location. These two levels of zoom, as it were, really add to the game, I think, and help stop scenarios from feeling repetitive. In one scenario you may be hunting orcs through a valley and in the next talking to people in a tavern, putting your deduction skills to the test.

You interact with the world through your own deck of cards, which are made up of a number of basic cards (common to every character), your character specific cards, and your role specific cards. One of the great things about the game is that the characters are not fixed: they are mutable in their abilities. There are six heroes to choose from, and they can each fill one of the six roles. So you could play Gimli as a Guardian (great at defending himself or others), a Captain (good at helping others prepare for a fight), or as a Pathfinder (who specialises in helping the team move quickly around the map), and so on. Each character, of course, has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some will be better suited to some roles than others, but I think it’s great that you have some customisation over what your hero’s role in the party will be.

This is deepened further by the fact that the heroes will earn experience as they adventure, allowing them to buy new skill cards for their deck, which can be used in subsequent adventures. You can even change roles between scenarios, keeping any skills you’ve already purchased. In my game I’ve been playing Legolas as a Pathfinder, but have just switched over to playing a Burglar, who specialises in stealth. This means I have some abilities from my time as a Pathfinder which let me ambush enemies as they move, and some from my Burglar path which allow me to stay hidden and attack from the shadows.

The cards in your deck are dual purpose; either they can be Prepared which you do by placing them underneath your character card, or they can be used to determine the success of tests. Once a skill is prepared, it can be used to grant you some effect (this will often see you discarding a card to add additional hits when you attack an enemy, or move an extra space, and so on). As well as being skills that you can Prepare, each card also acts as a measure of success when you take a test. When you take any kind of test in the game, whether it be trying to lift a heavy boulder, sneak past an orc sentry, convince a knight that you are righteous or simply attacking an enemy, you’ll reveal a number of cards from your deck. Each test is tied to one of your statistics (Might, Agility, Wisdom etc), and the number of cards you reveal corresponds to that stat. So if you have Agility 3, and you take an Agility test, you reveal 3 cards. There are certain symbols on the cards which count as a Success. The number of successes you reveal governs whether the test fails or succeeds.

There are other symbols on the cards, Fate symbols, which can be converted to successes if you have any Inspiration (a resource which is gained by exploring and interacting with things in the world and defeating foes). It’s a system that is similar to Mansions of Madness’s clue system, which saw investigators gathering clues which they can then use to convert certain symbols on the dice to successes.

I think it’s a slick system, and allows you to really mitigate your luck if you have the resources to do so. Managing Inspiration for times when you really need it is another interesting decision to make. Perhaps you’ll be struck by a powerful creature and you’ll need that Inspiration to help you stay in the fight. Knowing when to use it, and when to accept failure because you didn’t quite get the successes that you need, soon becomes part of playing the scenarios well.

There is an element of luck to the drawing of the cards, of course, but this is something which can be further mitigated in the Rally Phase which takes place at the end of the round. This allows a hero to ‘Scout’ cards from their deck, which means drawing cards, and then choosing to Prepare one of them or not. Any cards which are not prepared (only one can be prepared per round) can be placed on either the bottom of their deck or on top. Know that you’re about to face a tough enemy? Place that card with the success on it on top of your deck, so you know that you’re going to get at least one success the next time you reveal cards. Did you draw a card without a success, such as one of the Weakness cards that clogs up everyone’s deck? Bury at the bottom of your deck where it won’t be touched next turn.

I often see people complain about dice in games as being “swingy”: a bad roll can really scupper your plans and there’s little you can do about it. And though there is certainly an element of that here, with enough Inspiration, the right Prepared skills and a deck stacked in your favour, even the very worst luck can be mitigated in the right circumstances. Knowing how to stack the odds in your favour like this will often mean the difference between moving through a scenario efficiently and floundering.

I really like the aesthetics of the game. I mentioned the Journey Tiles earlier, and I have heard it said some people found these tiles rather generic and not particularly evocative of Middle-Earth. I can see that to a point, but I think the high quality artwork on them goes a long way to giving the game a beautiful table presence, which has a value in itself. The miniatures too, while not up to Games Workshop or CMON quality, are very nice. I’d have liked to have seen a bit of variation in some of the poses in the monster groups, but for what they are, they are good. I gave mine a really quick paint job (undercoat, shade, drybrush) and I think they’ve come out well.

The artwork is top notch, as is usually the case in Fantasy Flight games. I’ve heard that some people have problems with the small cards, and wish they were regular sized cards. Again, I understand that to a point, but I think they are fine. The text is perfectly legible, the artwork clear. For a game which takes up a not-inconsiderable amount of table space, once you factor in the addition of a laptop or tablet (I’m playing on an iPad), it’s not hard to imagine that if everyone had full size cards, that table footprint would get quite large, especially with the maximum 5 players. For someone who has quite a modestly sized table, I’m certainly glad of the smaller cards, which help keep the play area contained.

The combat in the game is simple but feels punchy and fun, and does a good job of making the heroes feel powerful. Much of the simplicity to the combat is largely down to the app keeping track of enemy hit points and attacks etc. One of my favourite things about the combat is that when an enemy attacks, it doesn’t always do the same thing (which is a feature taken from Mansions of Madness). The app gives a bit of well-written flavour text (“the goblin stabs at you with a wicked blade coated in black ichor”) and then describes what happens. Sometimes the enemies will strike at you physically, sometimes they’ll do something frightening which you’ll have to resist in a different way (resulting in one of the two types of damage: Damage or Fear, each hero being able to take a certain amount of each before being defeated).

Without giving anything away, I think the story of the campaign has been interesting. The missions have felt varied, in 8 games I’ve not felt like I’m doing the same thing from one to another. They’ve each had a different feel to them, each with a different type of goal. The game is also fairly challenging on the Normal setting (there is a more difficult setting which I doubt I’ll ever touch). Out of the 8 games my wife and I have played, we have won 5 missions and been defeated in 3.

Contained within each mission there have been a number of optional objectives (in one mission we were able to help a farmer who had lost his animals, for example). Apparently the app generates these somewhat at random, so they are not the same on each play through. The layout of the maps and things within them is also likely to be different, which adds a good level of replayability. This is not something that I can attest to, however, as I’ve only played each scenario once so far.

So, all in all, I’ve greatly enjoyed Journeys in Middle-Earth. I think the skill card system is deep, with lots of interesting choices to be made. Trying to figure out which skills are useful to prepare in a given scenario, and which ones are more useful keeping in your deck to give you a chance of success at a test is compelling. It feels like a system that you could get good at, which is always rewarding. The characters, from what I have seen, feel nice and different, playing to their strengths, while having enough adaptability to work in different roles. The app works great, handling all the behind-the-curtain stuff which helps keep the game moving along at a decent pace. The writing is good and it feels thematic. There’s a lot of reading to be done, and I take great pleasure (perhaps too much) in being able to do the various characters in different voices and accents. The story of the campaign is interesting and engaging and I want to keep playing to find out what happens. As a ‘base set’ for a game which will no doubt see many expansions both physical and digital, I think it’s great.

The game is not without issues, however, and I think these largely come about, despite all its perks, because of the app.

One thing which I think really hurts the game is that it is tied to the campaign structure: there is no way to play a one-off mission. This is one of the great things about Mansions of Madness, and it is sorely missing here. Hopefully this is something that will be added in the future. It’s something that would, hopefully, be relatively simple for Fantasy Flight to do. Tied to this are issues around the way the app handles the campaign. It’s impossible to replay a mission; once you’ve done a mission, you’re done. If you want to see that again, you have to go back to the start and play through again. That’s fine, and I understand why they’ve done that: they want to stop people from manipulating the results of a game, but ultimately: it’s my game. I paid for it. If I want to replay a mission, I should be able to. If I get 8 games into a campaign, having played for around 12 hours or so, and I want to go back and see what would have happened if I’d chosen a different path, I don’t see why that’s a problem. Forcing me to play through all of the scenarios again just to get to that point just means I’m probably not going to do that.

Another problem with the app is that there is no way to continue with a mission after the final objective is complete. You get a final bunch of text “The heroes win!” and then you have to click continue and then it boots you to the next mission. There’s been a few occasions where my wife has been part way through a side quest (such as the one with the farmer I mentioned previously), and we’ve achieved the final objective, thinking it might give us the chance to carry on and finish the optional stuff, only to be left disappointed. I know that we could forestall finishing the final objective, but when the Threat level is rising and we’re so invested in saving the princess before bad stuff happens to her (so to speak, there is no princess that I know of), sometimes you feel like you need to get that objective finished, especially as the game does a job of imparting a sense of urgency upon you. It’d be nice to have the option to “Carry On Adventuring” or “Proceed to Next Quest” so that we could finish out some of the side quests, especially given that you can’t replay a mission, as mentioned above.

One final problem with the app is that there is no “Undo” button, again this is probably done to stop people from manipulating results, but if you simply miss-click something, you’re stuck with the result. This has lead to lots of asking “ok. Are you sure? I’m going to click it. Ready?” between me and my wife, which does slow things down a bit when they could simply add an Undo Last Action button. If people want to cheat, that’s up to them, surely, but I think it would genuinely help with miss-clicks etc.

So minor frustrations with the app aside (which will hopefully be tuned as time goes on), I’ve had a brilliant time with Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle-Earth, and I’m very excited to see the rest of the campaign, and what the future holds for the game.

+ Simple but deep card-driven mechanics
+ A great theme which comes out well
+ Good character customisation options from the outset
+ Looks beautiful on the table
+ The app does a great job of keeping the game moving
+ Well written
+ Highly expandable
– A few annoying issues with the app

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