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Experiencing Middle-Earth: Theme vs. Gameplay

by on December 18, 2012

This post was inspired by discussions that I heard a lot when the game first came out, and periodically since then. Put simply, some have been critical of The Lord of the Rings: Card Game, feeling that the theme of Tolkien’s world feels more pasted on than an essential part of how the game operates. In other words, you could put any other theme in the place of Middle-Earth, and the game would feel essentially the same. I wanted to take the time to delve into this issue a bit deeper, and while I acknowledge that I am not in the least bit objective about this game, I will do my best to treat this criticism fairly while advancing some points of my own.

On a certain level, we could say that most games have a theme overlaid standard gaming structures (in this particular case, the familiar mechanics of “tapping cards”, playing them using resources, etc.), because unless they are true simulations, there needs to be a level of abstraction to the mechanics. So the question becomes, at what point does a game move beyond simply using standard game mechanics in a familiar setting to truly embodying what a certain source material is all about? How do we truly judge that? I think the fairest way to really evaluate this game on that basis is to think about what ideas were at the heart of Tolkien’s world, and see if the game does justice to those themes. To add a basis of comparison to this exploration, I will bring into the discussion the game that is usually compared to this one (especially as being one that really honored the spirit of Tolkien’s works), The Middle Earth: Collectible Card Game by Iron Crown Enterprises, released in the 1990’s (Click here if you want to take a glance at that game’s rules, not necessary though). I myself played this game when it was released, but did not get as involved in it as I did other games at the time. Still, I feel that I have enough experience with it to confidently compare the two. The purpose is not to say which game is better, that is a matter for personal preference, rather to see how two different designers implemented the same source material in order to have some kind of gauge or measure as to how successfully LOTR LCG integrates theme (as MECCG was widely regarded as being very thematic, far more so than most CCG’s of the time).

Tolkien’s works are many things to many people, but for me there are some essential elements: the journey, power and temptation, death/sacrifice, and friendship/fellowship. How well are these themes integrated into LOTR LCG?

1) The Journey

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.”

Lord_Of_the_Rings_wallpaper_by_JohnnySlowhand

At the heart of Tolkien’s stories is the idea of an epic journey or quest against overwhelming odds. Characters are always on the move, only pausing to explore or rest in memorable locations. The idea of the journey is obviously a heavy focus of LOTR LCG, representing a key element of gameplay. Players must quest each turn, and can only win by making “progress” on quest cards. The game has largely taken on the idea of overwhelming odds, as players are always the underdogs in any given scenario. Various locations can be travelled to by players, although the mechanic and effects are a bit abstract. On the more negative side, I rarely find myself pausing to really think about what location I currently am at (the active location) or think about the other locations in the game in any terms other than their gameplay effects. Because of this, when I “travel”, I don’t feel like I am really traveling. However, an overall sense of urgency is given to the quest by the built-in “clock” of threat, and the flavor text and innovative mechanics that FFG has included in most scenarios do help to convey the theme of the journey (for example, one hero being captured in Escape From Dol Guldur). Most importantly, the mechanic of the encounter deck itself enforces a sense of mystery, exploration, and danger. The Middle-Earth CCG (hereafter referred to as MECCG) definitely integrated this theme as well. Each turn players moved their companies between different locations in Middle-Earth (using a deck of location cards and a map of Middle-Earth) in order to gather allies or play artifacts from their hand. While the LOTR LCG operates at the more “micro” level of specific quests designed by the game makers, the MECCG was a more “macro” game with players creating their own quest narratives by competing to see who could gather the most resources to fight Sauron. Overall, MECCG did a better job of really giving you the sense that you are traveling between locations you know and love in Middle-Earth, while LOTR LCG does the better job of representing the variety and wonder embodied in the idea of the quest.

Edge: Even

2) Power and Temptation

“It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.”

witch king

I feel that this is one major theme of Tolkien that is not included in a fundamental way by LOTR LCG. It is represented very abstractly through the threat mechanic. For example, Frodo’s ability to cancel damage at the expense of threat symbolizes the dangerous use of the One Ring. However, it is not something that players need to constantly think about. By contrast, it was a huge part of MECCG, where players were required to make corruption checks (by rolling dice) for their characters when playing certain items or because of the play of specific cards. Different characters had different bonuses and penalties to such checks. Thus, players sometimes had to balance the desire to gain more power with the potential loss of characters to corruption (including the Wizards themselves). This is a dynamic that is key to the source material. In LOTR LCG, there is no such chance of temptation or corruption when Elrond uses Vilya*, for example, or as a player gathers more and more power and resources. This is something that I would like to find its way into the game at some point, because it is so key to Tolkien’s world. It could be argued that such corruption mostly centered around the One Ring and since that key element hasn’t really made an appearance in the game yet (only as Bilbo’s Magic Ring in the Hobbit expansion), then that could explain the absence of this theme. However, I would argue that the corruption of power pops up throughout the mythology of Middle-Earth, and not just in relation to the One Ring. Just take a look at the story of the Silmarils, the downfall of Numenor, etc.

*I know the Elven Rings are not supposed to have the same corrupting dynamics as the others, but even in their purpose of preservation, there is the chance for one to go amiss.

Edge: MECCG

3) Death/Sacrifice

“But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Tolkien, Nasmith, painting, illustration, Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion, Hobbit, Middle-earth

The Lord of the Rings of course includes a lot of battle and epic combat, as does most of the fantasy genre influenced by it. However, as someone who actually fought in a war, Tolkien never treated death as something cheap, and there is always a focus on the reality and tragedy of sacrifice, rather than a romanticization of war that some other fantasy stories lose themselves in. This is a tough distinction for games to really embody, as how do you convey such a subtle dimension while retaining a combat system that is fun? In LOTR LCG, the threat of death is always real and present. In that way FFG has done a fantastic job, as even the mightiest of heroes can be laid low at a moment’s notice by a treachery or unaccounted for shadow card (even sometimes when victory seems sure). The characters in this game can both feel powerful and extremely vulnerable at the same time. In addition, the way that damage is distributed and the way that defense works means that players often find themselves sacrificing characters or heroes for the good of all. Admittedly, sometimes this is not very meaningful when you are throwing yet another nameless Snowbourn Scout in the way of a troll. Yet it can also take the form of discarding one of your treasured heroes to make sure that the quest can continue. The cooperative format of LOTR LCG also means that players can make such sacrifices for each other as well. While I don’t expect players will ever shed tears over a cardboard character, I feel that the game overall acquits itself well in integrating this theme. For MECCG, characters engaged enemies with a comparison of strength ratings and die rolls, and if they were defeated, had to make a body check. This felt very RPG-like, and gave a nice flow to combat. However, I feel that the overall mechanics of LOTR LCG play truer to the themes of death, sacrifice, and mortality.

Edge: LOTR LCG

4) Friendship/Fellowship

“Let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn. Forth, Eorlingas!”

fellowship

In The Lord of the Rings, the true power of the Free Peoples is not in strength of arms, magic, or even cunning, but rather in fellowship and cooperation (Sauron had the clear advantage in terms of raw power). Frodo could not have been successful without the presence of Sam, and Gondor was only ultimately triumphant in the Battle of Pelennor Fields because of the support of its allies. While there is much mistrust and broken alliances at the start of the story (between Rohan and Gondor, Dwarves and Elves, etc.), victory is achieved only by building trust and connections once more. LOTR LCG fundamentally adheres to this theme by being a cooperative, rather than competitive game. Players must join forces and play for the greater good rather than for their own gain if they want to be successful. The challenge of some scenarios is so great that players truly feel united in battling against all odds. By including mechanics such as Ranged and Sentinel, which allow you to defend or attack for another player, and by allowing attachments and effects to be played on others’ characters, the game emphasizes this cooperation. In addition, players who build decks that work well together find that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. By contrast, MECCG is a competitive game, where players take on the role of both the Free Peoples and Sauron. They play hazards and creatures to attempt to destroy other players. While this makes for good (and somewhat less random) gameplay in that you have an intelligent player as your adversary, it doesn’t exactly vibe with this particular theme. Neither does the idea that each player is a Wizard competing with the others to see who can best lead the forces of the Free Peoples. While I understand why this was done and that system has its own merits, the cooperative structure feels more true to my mind. One thing I did enjoy about MECCG is the company/fellowship system, were players would organize their characters into different traveling groups, and could move them between different fellowships if needed.

Edge: LOTR LCG

 

Conclusion

I feel that both games actually do a wonderful job at capturing the spirit of Tolkien’s stories. Far from being a generic card game with a superficial Lord of the Rings skin, I feel that LOTR LCG incorporates most essential themes in the very mechanics and gameplay itself. There are certainly places where it could do more, by making players feel the temptation of power or by making locations feel more meaningful. I am heartened by the fact that, if anything, FFG seems to be upping the theme as time goes on, at least based on the recent Heirs of Numenor expansion. One thing I would like to see more of in the future is the sense of quests being connected in a grander narrative, and individual characters progressing throughout the course of it (more RPG elements, you could say). As FFG has said this is one of their goals for this current cycle, I am excited to see how they accomplish this. All in all, I have to say that Tolkien’s legacy has found a reverent and respectful home in this game, long may it continue.

Readers, what are your thoughts on this issue? How successfully do you feel the game captures the spirit of Tolkien? Is there anything you feel is missing? Any experiences/thoughts on the comparison between MECCG and LOTR LCG?

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8 Comments
  1. shipprekk permalink

    This is a really great, thoughtful write up! I think your bit about the heroes frailty was especially on point; I hadn’t thought about that. All it takes is a stray arrow to end the life of even the best warrior. And, oftentimes, the greatest warriors (Boromir, etc.) are the ones who die because the true heroes are ‘fated’ to continue on.

    I’ve said this of the Lord of the Rings online game (and any other game, really, when story is at stake): you get out of games what you put into them. If you’re expecting a deck of cards to scoop you into its lap and tell you a story then you need new hobbies. However, if you take some time to visualize what’s going on and pay attention to the stories the decks are telling you then you might get more out of the game. This is a little trickier with LOTR LCG, because sometimes gameplay trumps story (my dwarf deck has wardens of healing in it, for example. How would these dwarves have recruited wardens of healing to join their party? No idea).

    To me, the most important point that FFG need to get right is the cards, especially text and art. Gameplay, as you say, is always going to be abstract and it seems too difficult to create game mechanics that well and truly feel like Middle-earth. I just don’t know how that could be done. But what is well in the control of the game makers is card creation. So far, I think they’ve nailed most of these. The heroes and characters feel and look like they should. Locales are spot on, treacheries pretty much all make sense, and even the powerful, potentially “imba” cards (like Vilya) seem to fit very nicely without breaking the game.

    That’s the long and short of it: get the cards right. The game rules are what they are, just keep letting the cards tell the story.

  2. Excellent post! I’ve never played MECCG so I can’t comment much on your comparison but I very much agree with your assessment of how thematic LCG is and were are its weaknesses in this field. I might write something related on my blog soon as I was already thinking about it.

    One note here: for me it is very important that the scenario tells a good story than if combination of particular cards make sense lore-wise. It helps if each card make sense theme wise (ex: Frodo) but I am not to tied to the details of Tolkien world (I do not mind Eowyn traveling with Bilbo or some other “dead at her times character” for example) as I am info this kind of “what-ifs” scenarios. But I do want to be able to recreate the spirit of the stories (ex: journeys against all odds) and if at the same time the scenario is very interesting mechanically (lost of though decisions) I’m in my own “LOTR:LCG heaven”. I also love the fact that we are not recreating stories (will see if I like hobbit) from the books but get to play in this world.

  3. karagh permalink

    Fan-tastic post! I also feel this game consistenly got the spirit of Tolkien’s stories.

    “One thing I would like to see more of in the future is the sense of quests being connected in a grander narrative”. Me too, because that is the only thing I feel this game is weak at.

    I never played MECCG, but I played Decipher’s LOTRCCG. And I feel that game was pretty good in the Power theme, because bigger Free People companies gave Sauron forces more resources to fight with, and small hobbit parties where an effective option to play with. It was good too at the other themes, except for the Friendship theme, being competitive. As Fellowship goes, good decks had to be built around to different cultures (dwarfs, elves,…), something that is not used in LCG..

  4. @shipprekk: “If you’re expecting a deck of cards to scoop you into its lap and tell you a story then you need new hobbies” Right on, I agree. Sometimes I get so caught up in the combos and gameplay and trying to beat a certain scenario, especially the difficult ones, that I forget to really soak in the theme. Recently, I’ve been trying to slow down a little bit and enjoy the art and text and think about what’s really happening in theme terms when I’m playing or reacting to certain cards.

    @Wojo: The quality of the scenarios themselves definitely make a huge difference in how thematic the game feels. That’s part of why I’m enjoying Heirs of Numenor so much, as I feel that things got pushed up a notch in terms of quest design. I think there is a range of players from “Super Tolkien Purist” to “Complete Free-for-all” as to how they approach what heroes they use, and how faithfully they want to stick to established lore. I find myself somewhere in the middle, probably more towards the “Free-for-all” end (otherwise, I could never use Frodo ever!). As you do, I think of it in terms of “what if” scenarios. For example, recently I’ve been using Dwarf decks in the Heirs of Numenor quests, and I imagine it in terms of what would have happened if Dwarves were more involved in the battle against the Enemy and sent this team of heroes to help out Gondor. The one big exception I have is that I find it really weird to do the Hobbit quests with anything but Dwarves. It feels too strange.

    @karagh: Nice to hear your thoughts on the Decipher game. I never played that one, and I’ve heard mixed reviews about it. That’s an interesting mechanic about the size of Free People companies actually strengthening Sauron’s forces. I’m always fascinated about how different designers interpret the Tolkien source material.

  5. shipprekk permalink

    “The one big exception I have is that I find it really weird to do the Hobbit quests with anything but Dwarves. It feels too strange.”

    I do not have OHaUH yet (Come on, Santa!), but I am actually really looking forward to making a theme deck for those quests.

  6. hippogriff permalink

    I am new to LOTR LCG, I bought a large collection off of eBay to “catch up” and look forward to buying new releases as they come out. I’m reading through your posts, you’ve got lots of great content here. As someone who has played MECCG extensively, and still owns a large collection of the cards, from what I’ve seen I would not put the two games on equal terms when it comes to the journey. In my mind one of the best things about MECCG was the immersion into the world using the map as well as location cards, and traveling from one place to another. I think this is one area where the LCG comes up short. The LCG is largely combat and tactics driven; quest locations are simply a card defended by threats.

    What I believe is missing is the journey to get to the quest location. I often modify the card games I buy, not because the rules are bad per se, but because I have a tendency to think outside the box and my mind immediately goes to “how can I make this game a better experience for me?” As a result of this mindset, I’m already thinking about how I can change the game to incorporate a “journey” feature, without changing the rest of the game in a negative way…

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Welcome to the game! I would agree that MECCG definitely handled and incorporated locations better. I think what LOTR LCG does well is zoom in on locations in Middle-earth by conveying a sense of “place” (like the Druadan Forest, for example) through a whole encounter deck. Thanks for reading!

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