26th Apr2019

‘The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

LOTR-JME-box

There are already countless board games that seek to replicate the adventures of Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Nine, but relatively few expand the narrative outside of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth from Fantasy Flight Games looks to address that by mixing up favourite characters from both of Tolkien’s most famous pieces of writing (and a couple of new ones) and placing them in randomised scenarios across Middle Earth.

Journey’s in Middle Earth is based upon the same sort of application driven system that was first trialled in Star Wars: Imperial Assault and then perfected by Mansions of Madness: Second Edition. Where the first of these titles merely dabbled with the idea of an app driven, narrative campaign, Mansions of Madness: Second Edition removed the need for printed scenario books or real-life Dungeon Master’s entirely by having the whole experience driven by an app.

The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth takes the same approach, allows players to experience an entire campaign (made up of multiple, increasingly challenging adventures) whilst adding replayability through randomisation of the layout, objective locations and enemies, amongst other things. This makes Journey’s in Middle Earth a fully cooperative experience that is just as playable as a solo gamer, or with a party of up to five players.

For those not familiar with what this really means for Journeys in Middle Earth, in comparison to some of Fantasy Flight Games, the difference is quite remarkable. FFG make some of the most powerful game systems available, but they tend to come with an overhead that must be paid by the person who owns the game in terms of setup and teardown time. Decks must be painstakingly built, tiles stacked and scenarios learned.

With an application (available on iOS, Android and PC) doing the heavy lifting, the players need only sort their own character deck and perform some fairly basic setup for things like tokens and other supporting materials. This process begins with choosing a character from the six available, including Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Bilbo and then newcomers Elena and Beravor, both of whom first featured in FFG’s Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game.

With their character chosen, the players must each choose a class, and whilst each of the characters has a default option, there’s no reason why you couldn’t change this and have Aragorn the Burglar, or Bilbo the Musician. Again, there are six classes to choose from ranging from traditional combat classes (Guardian and Hunter) to support classes like the Musician and the Explorer.

The real purpose of choosing characters and classes relates to the base statistics of each character (as shown on their card) and then the deck of cards that is created for them to play with. Each character has their own unique set of cards, as does each class. The players each take the deck associated with their combination of character and class, then add them to a set of standard cards that everyone has. To this, a weakness card is added and the game is ready to begin.

Once the application is booted and the various character and class combinations are entered, the app will advise the players to put one or more tiles onto the table in a certain configuration. Unexplored tiles will receive an exploration token, whilst the starting tile and perhaps one or more adjacent to it will receive tokens representing other people, threats and points of interest.

During a typical turn, the characters can each take actions, including moving, fighting, or interacting. It’s permissible for the players to act in any order and even to split their turn into two, and to move one of their two spaces, then take their second action, then finish their move action with a second step. The board itself is made up of many individual pieces both large and small, all of which interlock neatly and show clear demarcation between one space and the next, despite some dense artwork and a fairly uneven space layout.

With only a few key actions to take, The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth is very easy to teach and most of the complexity comes from the various tests that result from different interaction activities. Interactions include combat with groups of enemies, tests against environmental threats and even defending oneself from the groups of enemies during their phase.

Any test will be resolved by drawing a number of cards from the deck that was assembled at the beginning of the game, with success icons counting towards the outcome. Some tests require absolute values – for example two successes will result in a pass whilst one or zero would be a fail. Others scale based on the number of successes – ranging from outcomes anywhere from a fail to a minor pass or an overwhelming success. Damage, on most occasions, is reduced by one point for each success.

What makes this system interesting is that each character will draw a different number of cards (which increases their chance of success) based on the statistic that is shown on the relevant statistic. For example, Gimli is very resistant to physical damage and able to draw four cards in combat, but between his robust nature and his chain mail armour, his dexterity is very limited. Legolas, whilst also formidable in combat, really excels at agility tests.

Whilst successes drawn are always counted towards the result, another symbol called Inspiration can also be drawn, which allows the player to spend an inspiration token. These tokens can be achieved due to various cards, as the result of exploration, or through other in game effects. The player decks have a dual purpose as well, because each turn, the players will “prepare” one or more cards following a rest phase. Prepared cards can be used for their face effect, sometimes allowing extra movement, stronger attacks or similar.

From a setup and run perspective, Journeys in Middle Earth is a very streamlined experience. So far, I haven’t had any major issues with the app itself and I really like how rapidly it allows players to get into the game. As their journey goes on, each character can level up and gain access to more powerful abilities (cards) which is again a neat feature, and the app ensures that the management of this is unusually clean for a campaign game.

On that note, a slight downside is that currently, the app doesn’t allow players to access individual adventures or create entirely random ones, so the players are kind of expected to play through a whole adventure and then play another one. Thankfully, the randomised nature of the adventures does change each time the application creates one, so there’s scope to replay. As always with an FFG based app, there will undoubtedly be updates and expansions, all of which will be factored in over the coming months and years.

The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth, like so many FFG systems, offers a fantastic platform to build upon and will no doubt get stronger and stronger over time. As it stands now, this is a fairly expensive game to open up with, but it’s also going to provide a minimum of about sixteen to twenty hours depending on player count. If you’re happy to see the same adventures again (albeit with their own random nuances) then you’ll get much more than that out of it.

One thing that I have heard other reviewers say is lacking is the Tolkien-esque narrative, which is something that I more or less agree with. Whilst there’s little by way of character or lore based stories in Journeys in Middle Earth, the world that FFG’s writers have created, and the anecdotal text that surrounds each adventure makes up for it to some extent. It’s not the next Silmarillion, but it’s good enough and there’s enough theme passed over in relatively short passages of text that it enhances the experience without slowing things down too much.

Overall, I think The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth is an interesting addition to any collection and a must have for fans of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fiction. If the app driven mechanics interest you but the theme doesn’t, then Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is probably something you look into. Similarly, if you hated MoM: SE, then there’s only the theme here to change your mind. For me, Journeys in Middle Earth is a solid keeper.

**** 4/5

The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

 

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