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Interview: Caleb Grace, Lead Developer

by on July 17, 2013

Greetings TftC readers, and I hope this article finds you well as you battle to save the poor villagers of Amon Dîn (or perhaps strive to get them killed intentionally, depending on your level of sadism). I’m excited today to share with you an interview I conducted with Caleb Grace, lead developer of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. For those who are new to the game or perhaps not aware of its design history, Nate French was the original designer, but he eventually moved on to work on the Star Wars LCG. Caleb Grace stepped up to the plate and took the helm (oh, mixed metaphors, I wish I could quit you), along with the other members of the team, and recently he graciously took the time to answer my questions. Enjoy!


First off, thanks for taking the time to answer questions for TftC readers and the community at large. If you could start off by just sharing a little bit about how you got involved working in game design and on LOTR LCG in particular.

CG: Thank you for the opportunity. We (my coworkers and I) really appreciate the effort you put into promoting The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game through your website. I was actually a fan of the game myself before I started working on it. I was a full-time teacher when my brother, Josh, bought me a Core Set for my birthday in April, 2011. He was already working for FFG at that time and he knew how much I love Tolkien’s world and card games. I had previously collected Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle-earth CCG and Decipher’s The Lord of the Rings TCG and enjoyed them both in their day. So I was very excited to try FFG’s The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and I was hooked right away. The cooperative nature of the game combined with the beautiful artwork on each card immediately made it my new favorite game.

Shortly after I got into the game, my brother told me about a job opening in the LCG department, and I submitted my application to Fantasy Flight Games. When I was invited for an interview, I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t even certain if I wanted a career as a game developer. But the experience was so amazing that I left the interview really hoping they would offer me the position, and they did. Once I joined the team, I think my knowledge about Middle-earth and passion for The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game made me a natural choice to work on the game. At least that’s how it’s worked out so far.

Could you walk us through what the typical design process looks like for a cycle (both the player cards and the individual scenarios)?

CG: Each deluxe box & cycle begins with a story outline. We talk about what part of Middle-earth we want to explore next and then we brainstorm some cool adventure ideas in that area. Everyone involved is knowledgable about the lore, so we try to think of things that evoke the history of each area as much as possible.

After we agree on a narrative and we know what part each scenario needs to play in the story, Matt and I start coming up with creative ways to translate those events into playable scenarios. Once we’ve finished the initial design for a scenario, we’ll play-test it internally a few times before making it available to our play-testers.

Our external play-testers are a very important part of our process because they contribute incredibly valuable feedback that helps us refine and balance our design. It’s very easy as a designer to understand how something you created is supposed to work, so it can be easy to overlook simple problems. Our play-testers are great at pointing these out and providing us with suggestions for how we could make something more clear and easier to understand. Since everyone on the design team really wants our customers to have a great experience each time they purchase an adventure pack, we try very hard at this stage to make each scenario as user-friendly as possible.

The player cards are designed and play-tested alongside the new scenarios. We try to come up with a cool theme for the player cards, like the mono-sphere cards in the Against the Shadow cycle, and then think of differently ways each sphere can play with that theme. We also try to match the player cards to the scenarios as thematically as we can, like including Dwarf cards in the Khazad-dum box, or Gondor heroes in the Heirs of Numenor box.

I like to test the new player cards against old scenarios initially to get a solid baseline for where they’re at. I figure that way I’m controlling the number of variables in the equation in order to test just the player cards. But I also want to know that the player cards released with a scenario will be fun when played during that scenario, so once I think the player cards are in a good place, I will use them to play through the new scenarios as well. It does add up to be a lot of play-testing, but it’s also a lot of fun.

One of the biggest challenges must be balancing scenario difficulty and the power of new cards given that one player might just have a Core Set and play once a month, while another has every card released and spends hours thinking and reading about the game. How do you go about trying to meet the needs of both those types of players (and everyone in between) when creating scenarios?

 CG: Balancing difficulty was probably the most challenging aspect of developing The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game at first. Fortunately, the recent additions of Nightmare mode and Easy mode have made balancing a scenario’s difficulty much simpler. Prior to those additions, I viewed difficulty in terms of a bell-shaped curve: my designs were aimed at pleasing the majority of players who enjoyed a moderate level of difficulty, but that still left important people on either end of the spectrum who wanted the game to be either easier or more challenging. It was impossible to please everyone with only one level of difficulty. Now with Easy mode and Nightmare mode, I feel we can give everybody the experience they want.

Even with the addition of variable difficulty modes, it’s still important to me that Standard mode appeal to as many players as possible, veterans and new players alike. That’s why I when I design a new scenario I will test it with my established decks built from all of the available cards, as well as decks built using only 1 Core Set and the player cards from the expansion being developed.

I developed this practice during my first assignment:The Hobbit: Over Hill and Under Hill Saga Expansion. I figured that the Saga Expansions might attract new players to the game, and if I was an interested customer looking at the back of the box, I would see that the core set was required to play. That would mean that a minimum investment of seventy dollars was required for me to play the first Hobbit expansion. If that was my $70, I would want a great experience right out of the box. So I wanted to be absolutely sure that a new player could build a fun deck and have a really great time with only the cards in those two products. That lead to me to play-test the scenarios in that box with both my established player decks and decks made with only the player cards from the Core Set and The Hobbit: Over Hill and Under Hill. And now I do it for each new set as well.

 There will always be cards that emerge that end up being more powerful than intended or part of some game-breaking combo. One thing I’ve wondered about is how you and the rest of the team decide which cards receive errata and which to leave alone, considering the cooperative nature of the game (compared to a tournament-driven competitive situation)?

CG: As a card game player I find errata to be a giant pain because of the memory issues involved. I really want the cards I purchase to do what they say they do. I hate having to explain to new players, “That card doesn’t actually work the way it says.” However, as a developer I need to balance my distaste for errata with the long-term health of the game I work on. As a result, I feel strongly that errata should be viewed as a last resort, used only when there is no other solution. If we can resolve an issue with an FAQ entry or rules clarification, then I’d much rather do that. But in some cases, there are cards that end up doing things they weren’t meant to do. It’s very difficult (if not impossible) to foresee all possible interactions when designing cards, so situations do arise that give cards unintended effects. When those unintended effects become detrimental to the overall health of the game we will issue errata.

One thing that really stands out about this game is the attention to detail, and it is really clear that the designers really have a deep love and respect for Tolkien’s creations. Out of all his works (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, etc.), what is your favorite moment and/or character?

 CG: Oh man, that’s like asking me to choose my favorite Pearl Jam song; there’s too many good ones to choose from! I must say that I’m really glad to hear that our love for Tolkien’s world and attention to detail come across. To answer your question, I’ll just go with the first one that comes to mind: The moment during the siege of Minas Tirith when the city gates are shattered and the Witch-king rides in  triumphantly, the entire host of Mordor behind him. It looks like evil is going to win, but then there’s Gandalf all by himself on Shadowfax to say, “You cannot enter here!” The Witch-king just laughs and it looks like Gandalf is ready to give his life in defiance, and you know he’s going to take a lot of bad guys with him before he lets them through that gate, when they both hear the horns of Rohan. I think that’s Tolkien at his best: He creates these incredibly tense moments and then delivers a timely rescue that makes you want to cheer.

What is your favorite game to play (other than LOTR LCG of course)?

 CG: Prior to discovering FFG’s The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Decipher’s Star Trek CCG Second Edition was my favorite game. I played that game competitively for seven years with a terrific group of local players who brought me out to Gen Con where I won the World Championship two years in a row. Those were great times!

Within the last year, I’ve picked up the A Game of Thrones: The Card Game. It’s a fantastic head-to-head game with a fully realized multiplayer variant that makes it fun to play with 2 to 4 players. I especially love the plot mechanic. I’ve taught a few of my old Star Trek CCG friends to play, and I usually find time to play a couple of lunch games with coworkers during the week.

What is the card (either player or encounter) that you designed that you are the most proud of?

This is another question where it’s impossible for me to choose just one. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to design cards for all my childhood heroes. I love all of Tolkien’s characters so much that whenever I design a character card, I try to find a way to represent what I know about the character in game terms by coming up with an appropriately unique ability. I think Bombur may be my favorite hero for that reason. He’s not the best hero in the game, but his ability couldn’t fit his character more perfectly, and it’s a very useful ability too. And when I found the quote for the flavor text, that was the icing on the cake.

Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, and working on a game that has inspired such passion in players. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with the community?

CG: I’d just like to express my gratitude. I feel honored that I get to share the content I develop with so many other Tolkien fans and gamers. I get a lot of emails with questions about different scenarios or player cards, and when I send my answers I will often get another email to say, “Thanks for the answer, and thanks for this great game.” That is very meaningful to me. I like this win-win arrangement where I get to work on a game I love and the customers get a game that they love to play. I hope to continue that arrangement for many years to come.


Thanks again to Caleb for the interview, and be sure to check out his latest spoiler article, reviewing three new Hobbit heroes in the upcoming Black Riders Saga Expansion!

From → Interview

  1. Matt permalink

    Oh Snap! Caleb Grace is a Pearl Jam fan.

  2. This is a great interview, and a great moment for TFTC! It’s really cool to hear that he is a former teacher who found a very special secondcareer. And Caleb seems like a genuinely humble, cool dude. I’m sad that I won’t be at Gencon to meet him and the other team members.

    • Great interview, and I love knowing that Caleb is a Pearl Jam fan. Ian, you’ve got the FFG connection – you should see if they’ll let you design a card 😀

      That is one thing that AGoT has that would be so cool to see in LotR. The two world champions (1v1, and multiplayer) each get to design a card. I would love to see Ian’s favorite Ent get made into a card.

      Derek, I was thinking the same thing about GenCon. If only we could get Landroval or Gwaihir to fly you there…

      • TalesfromtheCards permalink

        Hmm, Derek, start practicing your Moth-ese, so you can summon some timely aid from the eagles. As for the fan-designed card, I do like that idea. Maybe if they have a big tournament or event for the game eventually, the winner will get to have that honor!

  3. Keijo Puolakanaho permalink

    Great interview, it was interesting to read, thank you very much!

  4. Glaurung permalink

    Is cool he also play use to play ME ccg and Decipher Lotr TCG! So he really know details of the previous games so he can avoid the mistakes or flaws what those game has.

    Star trek i remember this one: use to play a bit but to be hones this game was boring in my opinion.
    I really like him as a designer and happy with a game now.
    Only one thing is bother me now: will be cool if we can get 3 level is the same adventure pack or Deluxe, Saga expansion. Now we will get normal and easy level straight away but for nightmare need to wait! Really hope they will fix it! We get new stuff with 3 level include Easy, Normal, Nightmare. Then is very good!

  5. Glaurung permalink

    Hey i think you should add the link with this interview to FFG forum and to BBG forum as well.

  6. Awesome!

    As a teacher who loves this game, I am simultaneously thrilled and jealous to learn about Mr. Grace’s most recent job before FFG.

    And the eucatastrophic moment of Rohan’s arrival at Pelennor Fields ranks high on my list of most epic moments as well. I bet at least one COTR podcast host must be beside himself knowing that the lead developer of the game cites the Ride of the Rohirrim as his favorite Tolkien moment!

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Yes, indeed! I’m in the middle of another re-read of LOTR, and for whatever reason that particular moment of the Witch King striding through the busted gate really stuck out to me this time. It’s fascinating to wonder if Gandalf could best the Witch King in combat (he seems to think he could have, or else at least prevent the death of Theoden), but it looks like we’ll get certainly get a chance to try it out for ourselves in the upcoming Saga Expansions!

  7. Francesco permalink

    great interview!

  8. sweetnesswhachacha permalink

    I really love interviews like this, Cardboard of the rings just did an artist interview, and I think it’s fascinating to learn about the other sides to the game, and I always find industry stuff interesting. Hopefully there are more of these in the future! Thank you!

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