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THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE-EARTH from FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES A new all-time favourite! There have been many gam...

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE EARTH THE LORD OF THE RINGS: JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE EARTH

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE EARTH

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE EARTH

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: 
JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE-EARTH
from
FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES

A new all-time favourite!
There have been many games that I have been enthusiastic about both in the 43 years I've been playing board wargames and in the more recent period that I've been reviewing for A Wargamers Needful Things.  But this is something special.

I have rarely spent in the past so much time playing any one game, as I have in the few weeks since receiving my review copy from Asmodee to whom I can only say a massive thanks.  This is a system I am going to be totally hooked into.  

First of all I want to make clear that this is not a game attempting to get you to play out or recreate specific scenes from either The Lord of The Rings or The Hobbit [whether you're thinking of Tolkien's original novels or Peter Jackson's films].   Nor is it a game that allows you to play out individual adventures as stand alone episodes.  This is a campaign formulated in a sequence of adventures pure and simple. The other absolutely crucial factor is that it is specifically an app-driven game that cannot be played in any other way, but before exploring that core part of the game, you need to have a good idea of the more traditional materials that you will be playing with.

Like many fantasy games involving exploration, your map board will mainly be made up of a series of tiles of different shapes and sizes that will be laid out as you travel the land.


Just a few of the many terrain tiles, plus our six heroes

Occasionally, your adventure will play out on a more conventional set of one or two boards described as Battle Map tiles [seen in the image below].  On these, terrain pieces will be set out such as bushes, boulders, tables, barrels, fire pits, statues, the walls of buildings or streams.  Such moments in your campaign tend to be the major confrontations.

Critical though these episodes are and often involving one or more powerful figures, I enjoy just as much and sometimes more the exploratory adventures where the map grows and your mission develops and branches.

Some have expressed their wish that the game had used tiles that represent specific locations drawn from the Tolkien oeuvre, such as the Prancing Pony or the Barrow Downs.  To achieve this would frankly be impossible, as it would need a mammoth set of tiles that would probably fill several boxes! To me this seems both illogical and highly constraining. To conjure up the multiple locations that emerge over the course of the campaign would be impossible except by using just such a generic set of double-sided tiles as the game does provide.

There is a wide variety of different sizes and configurations that build up to create an evocative landscape, such as the one below.
While we're discussing the terrain, I'd strongly recommend that you sort the tiles according to their numeric order at the beginning of each adventure for ease of finding and to maintain the smooth flow of the narrative.  

Here the app provides one of its best roles.  Each adventure - called a Chapter -  begins with you being instructed on the placing of a limited landscape, created from usually one to three tiles with a slight mist encompassing the direction(s) in which the land will develop as you explore it.  Text and voice describe what you can see and also you're shown where to place such things as exploration/ encounter/threat tokens and the minions of evil themselves.  A banner headline will also state your current objective.

Now you have an idea of how the land lies and what it looks like, I'll  move on to the figures in the landscape.  Surprisingly, the six heroes that you can choose from seem the weaker element in the physical casting of the models.  All tend to have broader, solider plains, as seen with Legolas and Aragorn here.

On the other hand, this did make them much quicker and easier to paint.


By contrast the enemies that they encounter are substantially more detailed as even a quick black undercoat and light brushing of white demonstrates.


Though I shall be going on to a complete paint job, even with such a basic preliminary coat the figures are beginning to take on more identity.  Though the range of enemies is relatively limited, which has raised some queries, I've been more than satisfied with all I've got in the core box.  The one thing that you can be sure of is that there will be more, much more to come in expansions. 


Nonetheless, there's plenty to engage with as illustrated on the contents page below.
In addition to the components I've already considered is a substantial range of cards that cover identical sets of Basic Skills for each character, plus each Hero's own personal set and a set of Role skill cards.  At the moment there are six roles offered, just as there are six heroes.  Very oddly, the one obvious missing role is that of wizard, just as the one missing Hero is Gandalf.  Definitely some complaints have been vociferously forthcoming about that omission! 

These cards form the heart of each Hero's play deck that provide the key mechanic for all the different tests that will have to be made during the course of a turn as well as an ever changing tableau of abilities that will help and augment your Hero's actions.  These sets of cards will slowly evolve over the course of the Chapters, partly through potential purchases and upgrades bought with Experience Points and Lore during the interim between Chapters and partly through Items awarded in the course of a Chapter.  

In addition at the beginning of the whole Campaign, each Hero draws a random Weakness card which serves as a minor encumbrance to clog up his/her play deck and more of these will be added occasionally, mainly as the result of unsuccessful tests.

On the opposite side will be found the Damage and Fear cards that will also build up; this time from such things as enemy attacks or a Hero finding themselves in darkness during the Shadow Phase which can best be considered as the time for evil to strike back.  These do not go into the play decks but are positioned near each Hero's character card.  Reaching your assigned capacity for Damage or Fear leads to a Hero testing for a Last Stand.  Failure in this dire situation will bring doom on the whole party unless they can accomplish the Chapter's objective before the next Shadow Phase.

The final items in the box are two superb booklets.  The first is the slim Learn To Play booklet.  Abundantly illustrated, it is one of the clearest and easiest set of rules that I've read.
A quick read through and you really have all the basics you need to play the game.  Backing it up is a much more substantial booklet - titled the Rules Reference.
Again this works perfectly to give you an alphabetic explanation of all the terms you might come across, primarily on the many cards, but also through the app.  Though the booklet does have an excellent index, it is really unnecessary as it is so quick and easy to find whatever word you want. 
Above you can see a typical extract from the extensively well-illustrated basic rules, while below is one of the excellent examples, in this case of the all-important use of testing.


So, eventually we come to the APP.   This vital part of the game has been developed to perfection.  First of all it is a very easy interface to work with - far easier to navigate than many another computer interface I've experienced.    Here is that all-competent games master you always wanted when in the past you were forced to draft in either the least reluctant player or the most easily lent on or, dare I say it, the megalomaniac member of your group who just loves cackling evilly!  

At last we have one who narrates the narrative text in suitable tones, doesn't make mistakes[very few glitches have so far been encountered] and handles so many of the mechanics of the three-phases of the sequence of play.


A typical screenshot on my ipad


Many games have sought to overcome that very problem of the neutral games master by turning the role into the highly aggressive one of being the evil overlord.  In Journeys in Middle-Earth, the app virtually drives everything.


This has led to two interlinked complaints.  The first is the amount of inputting, the second is that all you do as the active player is shuffle your card deck and turn over cards making the game dull and repetitive.  Both criticisms neither do any justice to the game nor relate to the amount of excitement and enjoyment I've experienced while playing the game.  

First of all, the interaction with the app is very positive.  It provides plentiful atmospheric text, which whether playing solo or as a group, can be enjoyed aurally.  The on-screen visuals complement what you see physically in front of you in the form of all the components I've described.  


Legolas encounters two marauding orcs 

However, more than anything, consider what it replaces at its very simplest: namely,  a multitude of charts that would have to be referenced, endless modifiers and their accompanying rules learnt and then dice rolled, followed by more rules for the outcomes.  By comparison, the inputting you have to do becomes a quick and easy part of the whole experience.  

You, the player, have the pleasure of physically building the map, placing the items to be explored and interacted with, the characters to be met and spoken to and, not least, the enemies to be targeted and fought with or evaded, deciding what paths you will take through the land and which Heroes will undertake what task.  All the while drafting your deck to make best use of the skills that your card draw allows you to prepare.  
Legolas confronts a goblin hunter


Your whole focus is on what's happening instead of having your head buried in rules and endless charts.  Hence the swift and smooth flow of the experience.  Having played and enjoyed in the past solitaire games like the much praised and revered Ambush with their sleeves of written events to be checked as you moved from hex to hex, there is no way that such methods could be used to achieve the complexity of plot lines in each Chapter of  Journeys in Middle-Earth.

I tested out the potential for diverging storylines by playing out the opening Chapter four times and was very pleased with what I discovered.  The first thing was that each time played the map differed in its development.  Next, though certain events did have to occur in order to complete a Chapter, the locations and order might change, incidental characters [what are often termed NPCs -i.e. Non-Player Characters] might change, along with many other elements.  

A dangerous place to be
More than anything, a factor I highly relished was that all tests are not a simple question of Pass or Fail, though some are.  Instead for many you input the number of successes and the app gives you the result which will change according to the degree of success.  The same will often be true of combat, as you input the number of hits. Both these lead to frequent agonising choices, as you decide whether to influence the outcomes by spending some of the cards that are  currently in your character's display or whether to spend some of your inspiration tokens to affect the  random cards that you draw from your play deck when testing. 

At other times you will be conversing and interacting with characters, trying to gauge which response might be the best choice in the circumstance: outright aggressiveness, helpfulness, simple kindness or a neutral tone.  This is especially true of the Chapter where your goal is to uncover a spy!!

Meanwhile as damage and fear mounts and one or more of your Heroes moves inexorably towards having to take a last stand test, the tension is screwed tighter.  This is augmented by the fact that each Chapter has a timing mechanism called the Threat level that increases each turn during the Shadow Phase [a few actions will even decrease the Threat level].  Reach the end of the Threat line before you've succeeded in your mission and you're defeated.

The painting begins!
Perhaps strangely, defeat does not mean your character is out of the game or that you have to return to the very start of the whole campaign.  Instead you will continue on to the next Chapter with your character restored to health.  This is a feature I've met with in both computer games and some fantasy board games.  I still remain uncertain as to my final response to this element in any game, but here I think it is essential [until when/if the game is developed for it to become possible to replay single episodes].

However, as I've already made clear, I've had so much in depth fun, excitement and absorbing adventure from this game purely from this first Campaign that the minute a second Campaign became available to buy, that's exactly what I've done, as well as buying the Middle-Earth game-mat to set everything out on.

So my next crucial decision will be whether I set out on this first Campaign again with a new combination of characters and new roles or plunge into the second Campaign.  Whichever I decide, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the first steps on that famous road that goes on for ever and get a copy of The Lord of The Rings: Journeys In Middle-Earth. 


Approx. cost £68.35

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