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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Easy mode - is it too late for it?

Wojtek Wojcik
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Board Game Designer
I very much like designing games but I think I prefer to play them.
Metallum ... game I most proud of.
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Many interesting developments in LOTR:LCG took place during my break from playing it. Two most interesting ones came on the heals of each other: announcement of LOTR Saga expansion and introduction of the Easy mode. We will have plenty of time to discuss the first one when the expansion comes up so let us look at the second one.

Easy mode? What is it?
There are basically two rules that differ easy mode from standard mode i.e.:
- Remove certain encounter cards from the deck before the game
- Your heroes start with resources (i.e. after first resource phase they will each have two resource tokens on their card).
That is it! No fancy conditional approach, no altering of phases. That is the second time (after introduction of battle and siege keywords) that I have to congratulate the designers on simple yet brilliant changes to the rules.

Who it is aimed at?
Simplest answer comes from article itself - thematic players - those that enjoy journeying through Middle-Earth in accordance to Tolkien's lore. I am not a thematic player myself but I am very much impressed by their determination to recreate the source material as much as possible. Since many of the scenarios put so much pressure on players decks that even slightest inefficiencies (especially in solo) in player deck really impact chances to win these players often struggled. Now, the developers claim that those players should have a decent chance to win the games using the decks that they enjoy best.

Another group of players that gets mentioned are casual players. There is not much to expand here. It really took me many many plays to learn how to build half decent decks that can hold their own against certain scenarios. I can imagine how it feels to try to conquer newer scenarios with several games under your belt - endless frustration. Here the easy mode can definitely help but it remains to be seen if this is enough.

What easy mode has to offer for me?
I consider myself a hardcore player even if I do not think that I am that good at the game. With 300+ plays under my belt I can't honestly say I am casual about it any sense of the word. Here are some ideas on how easy mode could be used by more dedicated players and my opinions on them:

1. Extend re-playability - Now I could imagine playing each scenario in 3 variations. First discover it in Easy mode, add to the challenge by playing normal mode after that and finally dig deeper with Nightmare decks. If you are really into deep analysis and exploration of the game (and I am after all: this blog is all about that) this sounds great.
MY OPINION: I am not seeing this. Ultimately standard mode is where the game is being developed, tested and prepared the most. Additionally first playthrough of a scenario is often accompanied by a great sense of real adventure (as I am never sure what to expect) - so I will go with Standard every time to get optimal experience. Then unless I find scenario hopelessly difficult (Dol Goldur could be an example here) I do not see myself going down with difficulty.

2. Test decks - You could test off the wall deck ideas, weird card combination on easy mode. Especially additional resources can help you out with this as you can finally play those hyper-expensive cards and see them in action and decide on their value. I know that there are many players that find enjoyment in this so this might be excellent.
MY OPINION: I test my decks on regular scenarios so this holds little value for me. On the other hand I am not big on trying weird stuff just to see if I can find excellent combos. I am more of simple-yet-reliable-deck-is-better kind of player. Nay for me but maybe yey for you?

3. Campaign mode - I never tried this. My deck building skills were never good enough to construct a deck that is of "one to rule them all" type. I can construct a deck that will handle a given scenarios (most of the time anyway) but creating one that will deal with several of them in a row is beyond my skills. I am very impressed by the people that can do it but I even do not want to have such deck (tweaking my decks is fun). Despite this I am strangely attracted to the concept of campaign play and maybe easy mode is only way for me to tackle it.
MY OPINION: This might hold some value for me. The only problem is that I am still behind current releases. I have so many scenarios to play that I do not see myself doing campaign unless FGG stops printing new stuff.

4. Extended player base - i.e. easy mode=more players (of thematic and casual type)=more profit for FFG=more products for all of us.
MY OPINION: Yeah I know that "equations" above are just theoretical but I am convinced of their relevance. So in this sense I say all the more power to the Easy Mode!

So ultimately only last point seems to be really relevant for me personally but it seems strong enough to make easy mode a decent addition to the system.

Are there any dangers?
None so far. Additionally very first inspection did not allowed me to find any in the future until I've re-read my own sentence above: "standard mode is where the game is being developed, tested and prepared the most". What if FFG turns this on it head i.e. they develop easy mode first and then just add some random, ridiculously punishing encounter cards and create standard mode this way. This would not only damage thematic feel of the game for me but would also make it much more random. I hope it will not come to this. I do not mind that so much if added cards are well tested and integrated but we already saw some examples of ridiculous cards (Sleeping Sentry seems to be a good example here) although so far it were more exceptions than the rule. I remain optimistic though - easy mode will do more good than bad.

Is it too late for introduction of the Easy Mode?
My short answer at this point seems to be yes. FGG was losing casual and thematic players over after released expansion that us hardcore fans were praising for tenseness and difficulty. I read about it in forum posts, sell offers and even my own blog comments. I am not sure if many of those players will return to the game now that they can play on their own level (paraphrasing FFG's title) as they sold their collection and or stopped reading about the game. They might have found the game more to their liking in its current state with this additional mode included but some of them got burned.

I really hope that FFG in any reprints of the game will incorporate easy mode directly on the cards and rules. This way anyone who pickups game from store shelf will see this option right away and may go for it without much digging. The problem is that from what I saw FFG is not quick to include erratas in new print runs so it might not happen any time soon.

It is not all doom and gloom though as FFG timed the easy mode as good as they were able to at this point. LOTR saga announcement is bound to attract thematic/casual player attention and added bonus of easy mode might be just enough to get them sucked in (again in some cases). It requires though (I think) that saga scenarios to be beatable in easy mode using only core and Black Riders player cards. This makes designing these scenario a nightmare as all of us that have full card pool also want something challenging and with dwarven decks being so ridiculously strong ... Well, let us wait if developers find some way to combine this opposing goals.

What are your opinions on Easy Mode? Do you use it or at least plan on using it? Are my concerns valid?
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