The shadow of Mount Hearthstone: Early impressions of The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game

By Joe Robinson 06 Sep 2018 0

Watching something you enjoy being adapted to another media/platform is always a weird experience. It's like returning to a place you used to know quite well and finding out that, for better or worse, everything is both different and kind of the same. Playing the early access of The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game produces a similar effect, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

It's worth noting that I'm approaching this as someone who's played the physical card game this port is based on, and so my opinions and experiences are coloured by what my expectations were before I started testing. While I do make a lot of comparisons to the physical game, I’m not really comparing the two – neither design is necessarily better or worse than the other, but as an interested fan I can’t help deconstructing their choices by looking at what came before.

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What can I say? This made be chuckle.

If you’ve never heard of the Lord of the Rings card game before, in either physical or this new digital incarnation, then a quick introduction is in order. You will be transported to Middle-Earth, abstractly during the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but the card pool allows you to mash characters and concepts from across the timeline covered in Tolkien's works. You must choose three heroes, and then assemble a 30 card deck of allies, equipment and other special cards, and go questing via unique scenarios set within the popular fantasy universe.

Unlike many digital card games, this is not a PvP exercise. The initial Early Access offering is solo, but promotional screens have shown a supposed 'co-op' set-up with two people playing at the same time. In the physical game, provided you had enough cards, you could comfortably scale up to four players questing at once but the developers have only mentioned two player co-op so far.

LOTR LCG Co Op

From the Steam page: A concept shot of what the co-op set-up could look like.

I say 'questing'; At the moment the only way to play Lord of the Rings is to engage with the narrative content. Currently there is only a single ‘campaign’ available – The Shadow’s Reach. This campaign is made up of five individual quests you can purchase individually (or all at once). Each quest is then what you’d considered a single ‘match’ in other card games, but here they are broken down into distinct phases or scenes.

Each phase has a central objective you must complete before you can move on to the next phase. This could range from defeating a certain enemy, group of enemies, or completing an 'objective' marker on the board. Complete all the phases and you win the quest, and so far there seems to be at least three phases per quest. In between phases you get a bit of story, and the board re-sets for the most part. Your hero stats reset, for example, and so does your deck, but other elements remain static. Unlike the physical game, you’re essentially playing a series of micro-matches connected by some persistent gameplay elements and a narrative. The quest itself, as well as individual phases can offer unique gameplay elements or modifiers, including temporary access to cards or characters not in your deck.

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The campaign screen, showing the five parts of Shadow's Reach. Here you select your deck and your difficulty.

The physical game has many unique elements to it, but the digital incarnation quite clearly takes its’ queues from Hearthstone. This comes back to the weird sense of disassociation I mentioned at the start – seeing how they've distilled the core essence of the Lord of the Rings LCG and moulded it into Hearthstone's template is morbidly fascinating. You'll recognise the ubiquitous Attack/Health stats on heroes and characters, but there's also a third stat – Willpower. This is from the physical game and is what you would use to go questing with your characters. Since they’ve changed what this means for the digital game, the stat is instead used to either fill up a metre, which can grant you boons if you save up enough points, or to interact with specific elements on the board.

For example, if your main objective isn't an enemy that needs defeating, it'll be a special objective marker that can only be ‘defeated’ by using willpower. The enemy AI is also able to throw out side-objectives that will make your game harder if you don't defeat them. It's worth noting that the main objective is all that really matters – once you complete it, you can technically move on to the next phase regardless of what Sauron still has on the board. If you move on before cleaning up though you get extra penalties – like a threat increase. ‘Threat’ is Sauron's equivalent to the player's willpower metre. As it goes up, it unlocks boons for Sauron that will make your life difficult. The only difference is it's harder for Sauron to increase his own threat: your choice of heroes determines how much threat you begin with, and then certain card effects or travelling with enemies still on the board increase it as well. Sauron characters don't have the willpower stat.

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From the tutorial - optional objectives care called 'Hazards' and need willpower to complete, just like main objectives that are not enemies.

We’ve reference ‘Sauron’ a few times already. Like we said, there's no PvP, so you're facing off again an enemy AI (Sauron) with its own deck. In the physical version, there was a lot more asymmetry in how this deck behaved and in terms of composition. In the digital game Sauron appears to be playing more in line with the same rules the player is also bound by, with some subtle exceptions that you’ll quickly learn.

Unlike Hearthstone there is no 'I Go, You Go' in the sense that you complete your entire turn before passing play along. Instead, you each take a turn doing one thing, whether that be playing a card, activating a character ability, or launching an attack. Activating willpower boons is a free action, but most other things consume your action for that round, and then Sauron gets a turn. It makes games incredibly bloody, with high rates of attrition that so far demands health regen be a big part of your deck-building. Overall, it makes ‘planning’ your turn almost impossible, and generally the digital game feels bloodier and more aggressive than its physical counter-part.

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It's very satisfying to trigger one of these, but there's almost always something better to do with your action.

For example: there is a type of card in the game called 'Preparation', which is essentially a 'Trap Card' if you know your Yu-Gi-Oh terminology, that you can play in advance of potential Sauron actions. But since that uses an action to use in the first place, you are weighing the need to prevent an action vs. the need to say, heal that character who's almost dead, or kill off an enemy mob so Sauron loses an attack this turn. The current design places near-impossible demands on the simple act of doing something. In the physical game you had to worry about having enough resources, but you were always able to play cards and prepare for the turn ahead before the enemy deck kicked into action.

There’s a lot more to digest in The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game than I have time to cover right now: deck-building, tactical options, general design, monetisation… we will probably do more articles on these topics as the Early Access progress, but hopefully this has given you a good overview of the game so far.

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One of four individual packs currently available. It tells you exactly what you get.

Admittedly, I am part of the camp that would have been perfectly happy with a near 1:1 port of the physical game. It's a great co-op experience that can really take advantage of what digitisation offers, and if any digital card game was going to buck the Hearthstone trend, it could have been this one. But as much as I am disappointed, I’m not saying the Lord of the Rings digital game is shaping up to be a ‘bad’ card-game. The unique PvE design is still there and is still fun, the tactical choices are still tense, just for different reasons. Even the monetisation strategy seems to be trying to echo the soul of how FFG sell their physical games (short version: defined packs over random boosters).

I don’t think deck-building synergy will be as interesting, and I have concerns with the current turn-based structure, but I’m happy to say “So far, so interesting” for the moment. Time will tell if this is a direction Fantasy Flight Interactive needed to go in, but it’d be hyperbole of me to claim they’d made the wrong choice. So long as the team keep on top of feedback and try to stay true to the game's roots, I think this will grow into a great new chapter for Lord of the Rings and for card games.

The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game launched into Early Access on August 28th, 2018. At the time of writing, it was due to remain there for between 3 - 5 months.

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