- Plays: 14
- Designer: Nathan I. Hajek and Grace Holdinghaus
- Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
- Release Year: 2019
- Mechanics: Deck Building, Narrative Adventure, Co-op
My wife and I are huge Lord of the Rings fans. We love the books and we love the trilogy of movies. Unfortunately, I grew up in the 90s where a licensed game (a game that had the same title as an existing property) generally meant that the game was absolute trash. I’ve played some really terrible movie tie-in games in my day (Batman and Robin for the SNES, I’m looking at you). The Lord of the Rings has had some great and not so great games made within the universe. Stick around to see if The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth falls into the former or latter camp.
Lord of the Rings world map neoprene playmat not included
How to play
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is a cooperative, app assisted adventure game. In LotR:JiME you and your friends take the role of familiar (Aragon, Gimli, Legolas, and Bilbo) and new heroes (Beravor and Elena) as they rush across various procedurally generated maps battling foes and helping friends as they attempt to strike a blow against the forces of evil. LotR:JiME is a campaign game where, win or lose, the story will advance regardless, potentially affecting how the story plays out. There are certain times where losing will end the adventure, but they’re clearly marked.
Playing LotR:JiME is straightforward and the app will guide you through most of the setup. Players pick a character and a role which will combine two decks of cards to create their personal skill deck for the mission. If they have ‘points’ in a role, they can add extra, generally more powerful cards into their deck.
Mouse and tablet not included
The players begin every round by ‘scouting’ – drawing cards from the deck and potentially ‘preparing’ one as a skill. This removes the card from your deck but allows you to use the card for it’s listed ability. The rest of the cards are placed either on top of the deck, or on the bottom.
Players decide the order in which they want to take their turns. On a player turn, they can perform up to 2 actions. The actions are to travel (move two zones), attack, and investigate.
Once all players have taken a a turn, the game moves into the Shadow Phase, where any enemies on the board will activate and the shadow meter climbs ever higher. Often the shadow meter will have thresholds that will trigger events should the shadow reach them. The app will guide you through all of these steps.
Gandalf not included!?
Play continues until the players have achieved the goal of the mission, run out of time, or any hero dies. Once finished, players can choose to continue playing the next scenario, or to save and quit. Each game took us at least 2 hours to complete, so we very rarely played more than one scenario in a night.
I’m a mechanics first gamer. While a theme that resonates with my proclivities is enough to rouse my curiosity, it’s not always enough to fully grab my attention, let alone keep me coming back for more. Lord of the Rings is a theme that will always get me to at least take a look.
My first criticism is the character selection within this box. You have some of the standard characters that you’d expect; Aragon, Gimli, and Legolas. Then you have Bilbo, who never adventured with this party, and two new characters created for this campaign. I dislike that other main characters like Gandalf were omitted for what feels like an expansion hook (guess who the is on the front cover of the expansion box?). It’s a paltry complaint; the six included characters do feel varied and interesting to play as.
The production of Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth feels lavish in some parts while lacking in others. All the heroes and enemies are nicely sculpted miniatures. I didn’t notice any droopy swords or spears during my playthroughs. However, instead of including different poses for enemies of the same type, they opted to use cardboard flags on stands to help identify which enemy corresponds with which icon on the app. Some scenarios will throw 3x separate Goblin Archer mobs at you, so you do need some way to tell them apart.
Pants not included
The terrain tiles are large and uniquely shaped. Each tile will have several (usually between 2 and 4) zones that you can move between. Due to the procedural nature of the app dictating where to lay the tiles down, once or twice we ended up in danger of extending the map off the table. Having such large zones for your characters to move between helps impart the feeling of progression and speed, especially if you use your whole turn for movement and cross four zones in a single bound.
The card quality leaves nothing to be desired. A quality linen finish and robust card stock makes these cards feel durable in your hands, which is important considering you’ll be shuffling your little deck several times each game. I am a little disappointed that the cards are so small. Nonetheless, I understand why they chose to use tiny cards, as full sized cards would take over the entire table leaving no room for the massive map that most missions require (Lotr:JiME contains 337 cards in the base game alone).
If you couldn’t tell from the size of the box itself, Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is a very large game and demands a lot of time and space. Setting up this game is a chore, even if I use a card ladder that helps sort the dozens of decks of cards. Many of the cards won’t be used every game, or even at all if their associated characters or roles aren’t used or titles not acquired. On one hand, I like the variety and variability; playing through the game a second time as a different character is much more enjoyable than a repeat journey as Aragon. On the other hand, having extra unused cards can add to the sprawl your cards if you aren’t organized.
Playing Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is a straightforward affair. In the app you’ll select your characters, roles, and who has which items. Then the app will deliver some story and instruct you on how to create the first bits of the map and where to place your heroes and various tokens around the board. The player phase begins with all players scouting from their deck; drawing cards and preparing one as a skill and returning the rest to their deck. And herein lies the only ‘hidden’ information of this cooperative game. Players are encouraged to discuss and strategize together, but the game takes no effort to solve the ‘quarterbacking problem’. If you have a particularly pushy person in your group ordering everyone around, I wouldn’t suggest playing this game.
The core of Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth‘s gameplay is centered around skill checks. Often when you interact with something (including attacking), you’re asked to check a skill. You draw a number of card from your deck equal to the skill being checked. Many of the cards in your deck will have an icon in the top corner with either a success, a leaf (which can be turned into a success by spending an inspiration token), or nothing. Some skill checks will require you to have a certain number of successes while others will just have you input the number of successes that you earned and then tell you if you passed or failed after the fact.
And herein lies what really makes Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth a step removed from a traditional board game. The app obfuscates mechanics from the players, such as the number of successes to clear some challenges. When inspiration tokens are running low players may want to conserve them, but choosing to hold back may mean spending a whole other action if the skill check isn’t passed. The unknowing bucket to dump successes into is not my favourite game to play. There is also the equivalent of rolling critical failures; if you don’t have any inspiration tokens, you may only have 5 successes in your whole 18 card deck. There was one instance where I failed a check when trying to climb a tower and took enough damage to die. When you die, you make a saving check that gets progressively harder the more you’ve died. All I needed was one success, but I pulled none, ending that game right then and there.
The balance of some of the missions did feel off. In one case it felt like we were running through the cave as fast as we could and came to a fork in the road near the end. We arbitrarily chose left and it turned out to be a dead end. Backtracking and taking the other fork did let us find our objective, but it was too little too late. The end-game timer ran out and we lost the mission, by what felt like no fault of our own. On the other hand, there was a mission or two where we finished nearly everything on the map with plenty of time to spare, and when the big bad for the episode showed up, Gimli smote them with a single strike.
I know there is a subset of people that vehemently despise board games that require an app to play, and sometimes I understand their criticisms. One of the things that separates board games from video games is the mastery of the system. To play a video game, you only need to hold the controller and interact with the game. Yes, knowledge and understanding may help you accomplish the goals of the game, but they aren’t necessary. A board game on the other hand requires that you know the rules that govern the game; there can be no hidden numbers or systems running out of the view of the player, because the player needs to turn all the gears to make the game work themselves. In a hybrid environment such as Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth I feel like I’m experiencing the worst of both worlds.
There are some aspects to the app that I enjoy, like the dynamic set-up. The world map will be different each time you play. I also like that the app handles everything to do with the enemies, such as managing deployment locations and attack targets, special boons and health counters. Having the app run those aspects makes the enemies feel more challenging and unpredictable than if they were being managed by a set script such as always targeting the closest hero, or having to manage a deck for each enemy.
Overall I feel like I shouldn’t have enjoyed Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth as much as I did. The skill check system is fairly simplistic and somewhat prone to randomness, the app obfuscates certain things from you, and some missions felt too easy while others felt unfair. But in the end I enjoyed my time with LotR:JiME. It was a fun romp and the Tolkien thematic coverings appealed to my biases nicely to keep me interested in the theme. If this was a generic fantasy dungeon crawler, I’m sure I would have checked out ages ago. I am looking forward to more with this game, between the two big box expansions (Spreading War and Shadowed Paths), the additional campaigns offered as DLC within the app, and more characters than I can realistically play. I can’t help but think of this game fondly, and keep looking forward to this game hitting the table. It’s greater than the sum of it’s parts, making it an unexpected hit.