Yesterday I had a chance to meet with some of the fine folks at Fantasy Flight Interactive, the new digital studio that will be converting Fantasy Flight‘s catalog into digital games that are somewhat like the originals. Yes, for some reason, FFG has always held the opinion that their digital and cardboard versions shouldn’t be simple copycats of each other, and that trend continues with the Lord of the Rings LCG, which should be going live sometime in 2018. I got an up close and personal tour of the LCG on my visit and I’m here to spill the beans.
First of all, no, this is not the same game that you can play on your tabletop when you pick up the core boxes and expansion packs from your FLGS. Don’t expect this to replace those few thousand sleeved cards you have in a case in the basement (we all have that, right?). This game has been streamlined a bit, with some of the more difficult bits removed. While cards are each tied to one of the four spheres of power–Lore, Tactics, Spirit, and Leadership–the power used to buy those cards is no longer tied to an individual sphere. Power is generic and can be used to buy whatever cards you have in your hand. It sounds like a huge change to the game, but after seeing it in action it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Spheres come into play in other ways, namely in crafting your decks.
As you’d expect from a LCG experience, part of the fun is crafting new decks to overcome challenges you aren’t able to tackle with your current crew. LOTR offers a deckbuilding experience in which you pick your three heroes and can then only add cards to your deck that correspond to the spheres of your chosen heroes. Each sphere has cards of several ranks, but those require you to have two or all three heroes of the same sphere to add to your deck.
Gameplay itself is similar to the tabletop version, albeit a bit different. There are still locations and quests you need to overcome, as well as the obligatory orcs, spiders, and other Tolkien-esque baddies, and there’s still Threat. Threat is a mechanism in both the tabletop and video game that indicates how much Sauron’s eye is upon your fellowship. If the threat ever gets to 50, Sauron is fully aware of your operations and it’s game over. Getting to 50 isn’t a hard feat, either, as your threat begins by adding your three heroes’ threat together, so you’ll be starting around 30. Threat is gained via special abilities on Sauron’s cards, or by leaving a location while there are still monsters in play.
Games are broken down into missions, with 5 missions making up an entire adventure. The first set of adventures is based on the missions in the Core Set, with future adventures both following some of the released content as well as going out on their own. The digital team has been given some freedom concerning the adventures, so we’re not sure where they might go in the future. They even mentioned that there may be lengthy adventure paths that links several smaller adventures together in the future, but that’s way down the road. The current plan is to release adventures and all their missions simultaneously, unlike Pathfinder Adventures which kind of dribbled new material out over the course of a year.
So, the deckbuilding is good and gameplay is fun, the big question comes down to the paywall. Yes, LOTR will be free-to-play like most CCGs, but this is an LCG which makes the purchasing of new cards a bit different. It will not be a replica of the tabletop version, where you buy a set of 60 cards and get heroes, quests, etc. all in one. In the digital version you’ll buy Hero Packs that will give you a hero and a handful of other cards or you can buy adventure packs. The packs are not random, so you’ll know what cards you’re buying when you add them to your cart. These can all be purchased with cash or with the in-game currency, Valor. There are also Valor Cards you can buy or earn, which can only be purchased with Valor. The game is smart enough to never reward you with more than 2 of each card, so there’s no need for crafting or dusting your inventory.
If you’re worried about this being too watered down, let me assure you that, like the tabletop version, this game is hard. They have added optional mechanisms to make it easier for newbies, but they can be ignored for the hard core. Even taking advantage of some assistance yesterday, my hosts had their butts handed to them in Mirkwood. It was a boss fight that got them, but they weren’t going to make it very much farther against anything at that point.
Does the game look like Hearthstone? Yep. Does it play like Hearthstone? Nope. Both you and the AI have asymmetrical decks and, unlike the tabletop version whose AI is based on randomly shuffling decks of cards, they’ve created a true AI in the Sauron character. Thus, he’ll pick different cards and play them with a semblance of intelligence rather than the randomness of the cardboard version. It’s also a different feeling because, unlike every other CCG whose aim is to knock out the opponent, both you and Sauron have different goals for each mission. Some will be to advance, while others will be to defeat this thing or save one of your heroes, while who knows what Sauron is trying to do other than cause headaches in the free peoples of Middle-Earth.
We’ll be digging in more to LOTR over the coming months. It should be coming to Early Access on Steam for PC/Mac by the end of March with an expected full release 3-5 months after that, depending on how the beta goes. Online cooperative multiplayer is expected to be there when it launches, but it will be real-time with no asynchronous option. After playing it, I think asynchronous play would feel awfully weird anyway, but I know the Stately Players [I have the day off, do what you want -ed.] often disagree with me on this one.
Bottom line, no it’s not a carbon copy of the card game, but what I saw was a hell of a lot of fun and LOTR has moved onto my Most Anticipated list for 2018. The production values are sky high and although it’s releasing for PC/Mac, a tablet version is likely down the road as well.