Lord of the Rings:LCG - reviews and general thoughts

It all started with accepting 100 plays challenge and pledging to comment each play. Soon my thoughts outgrew the BGG comment format and also FFG's forum. I decided to post them in a form of a blog here. In time I got rid of session reports and replaced them with expansions reviews. Enjoy.
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Why I do not play two-handed solo?

Wojtek Wojcik
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Board Game Designer
I very much like designing games but I think I prefer to play them.
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I've seen many posts and articles recommending playing two-handed solo games. While I see merits of this approach I do not use it and this post is here to explain why.

First things first
What is two handed solo play - in short the game follows the rules for two players (two sets of heroes, two player decks, two encounter cards per turn etc.) except that one person is controlling both decks. Only major difference between two handed and two player games is that in the first case the player sees both hands of cards and there is "no limit on communication" rule.

So why one would like to play the game this way?
Lower Difficulty
The first mention of two-handed play you will probably encounter is a recommendation from an experienced player to a new player complaining that the game is too difficult in solo mode. One of the answers will undoubtedly be "just play with two decks". I find that this advice is very risky because while it is generally easier to win core scenarios with more players (and hence two handed) it is much harder to play with multiple-players and even harder with multiple decks under your control (due to order of play in multi). Often huge difficulty with starting quests in solo mode are caused by a new player's lack of experience and familiarity with the rules (or his/hers expectations to win every time) and switch to two handed play might often lead to even more problems. So from a new player perspective I highly discourage playing in two handed solo mode unless you are very well versed in expandable card games and just want a very casual experience with LOTR.

For a more experienced players that want an easier time against the scenarios this seems at first as very decent possibility - you do not have to house-rule anything and you can get much higher win percentage. Well ... you do house rule the "limit on communication" rule, while many people find it against co-op spirit of the game or a bit weird, tacked-on etc. it is the rules book and if at some point tournament will start I am sure that FFG will try to enforce it in some way. On the other hand some scenarios become more difficult with more players (Massing at O. comes to mind first) so in general playing two handed will not bail you out. Because of this I find that this reason alone is too weak to warrant playing with two decks.

Optimal experience
One can often see comments from players that this game is optimal with two players. I tend to agree as this often indirectly confirmed by FGG (see some of the list decks published by developers, decks list in Hobbit, tournament rules). Some quests seem to be have never been tested in solo mode (Yes, I am talking about the Escape from Dol Guldur). In general I find this argument flawed in the sense that what is optimal for some players might be suboptimal for others. This is evident from the fact that some players find most quests too easy, too boring, too random while other claim those same scenarios too difficult, exciting and perfectly fine. There is some validity to claim that I want to play the game as it was intended and play tested but again this alone would not push me to two-handed camp.

Full experience
Playing solo makes certain cards (many examples here), keywords (sentinel, ranged), heroes (Barnd son of Bain) useless. At times it makes you do not use certain spheres at all (you can win whole Mirkwood cycle without playing single tactics card) playing as per regular rules. This is the strongest argument for playing two-handed and I have to admit that if anything will ever convince me to try it out it will be this. Yes playing solo makes certain cards more useful (Henemarth Riversong) but this is more of an exception than the rule. You do miss out a lot of strategy (decks synergies) and tactic options if you never play multiplayer or two-handed.

What is the price you pay to play this way?
Quite a lot added complexity
If you think that with more players rules and game flow does not change much it means that you have not played much this way or you prefer to play fast and loose. Order of play has a very profound effects on game play and card abilities (easiest to see is Theodred ability to generate resources - only every other round you can pass those resources to the second player). This game is not the most difficult in the world to play correctly but there are quite a few nuances and many of them come into play only with two or more decks.

Lot of table space
Solo this game can be played on fairly small table space. With two decks it requires double this amount. This is not an issue for most people but as I often take the game with me and play on various tables it is an issue for me.

Playing with two-hands is very fiddly
My deal breaker: By fiddly in this context I mean that is quite hard to keep track of all the effects that should be triggered/applied, could be applied and those that are not allowed to trigger because of other cards. It seems quite clear that processing many effects at the same time will lead to mistakes by missing a things or two. The game can be fiddly in solo mode as well you have ussually at least an event or two in your hand that can be played, 3-4 cards in your area with relevant effects (even more with irrelevant effects that you have to filter out) and at least 1 or 2 encounter cards to deal with this totals to 8 or more things that you need to consider, very close to my limit. In two-handed mode this is doubled (and some effects are more complicated with more players). This requires a very methodical approach of analyzing card by card or a very good filter (gained with experience) to keep things straight.

Other things to consider
Two decks - double the building time
I suffer from limited time available to devote to the game. In solo mode balance between time it takes to build a deck is more or less comparable with a single game (from me 1/2). Deck modifications are very quick in this setting. In two decks mode you need much more time to build two compatible decks while games are not much longer (from my limited experience). This shifts the game balance towards deck building which might be a good or bad thing depending on your preference.

My verdict and recommendation
As you already know from the post title I do not play two handed the benefit of more full game exploration is greatly overshadowed by drawback of having to keep track of so many things. Your mailage will of course vary and in fact this is main reason for writing this post (see questions at the end).

As for two handed recomandation, it is much better to find a friend that will play with you but if you really want "complete" experience while playing solo I recomend this post:
that might make your dive into two handed world easier.

How abut you? Do you play two-handed? What is the main reason for (not) doing so? What is annoying in this way of play? How different is two handed play from cooperative play?
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