Arena Review: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Deck-Building Game

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a problem. It seems like every time Cryptozic releases a new game, we get swindled into picking it up and end up disappointed. I don’t know why I keep doing it. Well, I have an idea. With Penny-Arcade: the Game – Gamers vs. Evil, it was my blind faith in Gabe and Tycho that didn’t really steer me wrong, it just had some kinks to work out.

The DC Deck Building game looked like the blend of excellent licensing and Ascension-like game play but it came up short when it came to depth and interesting choices. So when Cyrptozoic announced Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring Deck-Building Game, I originally was going to pass since it looked like little more than a reskin of the DC game but Rachael was interested in it and we had some extra Amazon dollars thanks to our affiliate sidebar. But I was wrong and the game surprised me in ways I didn’t quite expect.

Suggested Ages: 15+
Suggested Players: 2 to 5 players
Playing time: 30-45 minutes
Contents: 226 game cards, 7 hero cards, rule book
Retail price: $39.99 available at Amazon.com

First up though is the box. This thing is an absolute mess and whatever graphic designer or marketing manager signed off on this should be reprimanded. Each part of the trilogy has a set color (Fellowship is green, Two Towers is red and Return of the King is blue), but this box is blue… so it just feels off. Then you have two images on the front: Sauron… who doesn’t appear in the game and Gandalf the White, who doesn’t appear in the Fellowship. It’s just a major disconnect, but maybe you shouldn’t always judge a game by its box.

The next issue is the insert used for the game which is just a pinch too small for the use of penny sleeves and will probably be trashed during my next move. It’s nice, but I prefer sleeving my cards when it comes to deck builders since I’m always shuffling.

Now about the game, the premise is similar to DC Deck Building, but oddly doesn’t use the Cerebus engine. It’s very close, but has a handful of differences. Players play cards for Power which allows them to acquire additional cards, thus building up their decks. Most cards are worth victory points and the game ends after defeating a handful of semi-random archenemies. If you’ve played the DC game, Penny-Arcade or are familiar with any game like Ascension or Dominion, you’ll pick it up quickly. The cardbacks show off a map of Middle-earth which solidifies the fact that these cards aren’t Cerebus.

The game is set up with starting decks, a center row, some always available cards and a special archenemy stack. But there are some small changes to the game that add some interesting depth.

The first big change though is the character cards. At the start of each game, players get to pick from one of seven members of the fellowship – everyone but Merry & Pippin. Instead of having convoluted powers that don’t quite feel balanced, each character gets a unique card for their starting deck of various types, like the One Ring, Gandalf’s Staff or Gimli’s Axe. They’re little touches but help each deck feel a bit different without anyone feeling overpowered. But the oversized cards feel pointless since they all just say “You start the game with CARD NAME in your deck.”

Another change is how Ambush attacks work in the game. Unlike Ascension, cards in the path (the center row) are flipped at the end of each turn. Any enemies that come up with an ambush attack effect the player’s whose turn is next. It’s a small change, but makes acquiring new cards much more interesting as they can provoke attacks against the other players at the table.

To offset this vicious attack system, a new type of card is introduced: Fortune. These cards are unique one-shots that are free, get immediately used and then destroyed. There are only five in the deck so you can’t predict them but each fortune is a simple ability that can give a player a burst, like +3 power, draw two cards, destroying cards in your hand or discard, returning a card from your discard pile to hand or gaining the top card of the center deck.

The rest of the card types are similar to DC with enemy, maneuver, artifact, ally, and location. In an impressive show of restraint, all the cards in this game only come from the first film. Each type offers some minor abilities, like enemies ambush, locations offer permanent abilities (which are far more interesting this time around), but allies and artifacts are pretty similar mechanically.

The final stack includes the Archenemies. Like DC, there is a stack of them that needs to be defeated to end the game, but this time the enemies are tiered in a way that you always fight them in roughly the right order that follows the film. First is a simple Nazgul who always kicks off at level 1. After him though, the archenemies begin having group ambush powers that effect everyone when they are turned face up. This can help bring the table together but often results in a different vibe of directing enemies at your opponents.

Level two follows the trip into Moria, with Ulaire Ostea as another Nazgul or the Moria Swarm, Cave Troll, Watcher in the Water, or Troop of Uruk-hai. It’s a nice idea that keeps the gaming feeling on track. Level three is Saruman, the Witch-King, the Balrog, and two Nazgul: Nelya and Cantea – and they all have different abilities. The final boss is always Lurtz, which feels a bit odd but matches up with the movie. It’s just funny to think that he’s harder to kill than the Balrog of Morgoth.

Once you get tired of the original bosses, a second set of them is included as “Impossible Mode” with one of the greatest warnings I’ve seen. These new boss cards are the same 12, but drastically powered up. They’re harder to kill and some of them can kill you – but I won’t ruin the surprise of what they each do, but they live up to the name.

There are some misses in the game though. Somehow, the maneuver “One does not simply walk into Mordor” doesn’t have the right picture. It’s also weird how little TMs show up after almost every single name. But the weirdest part of this game is the feeling you get while playing.

The intent seems to be that each player is a different member of the fellowship working towards Mount Doom. That would explain why you can pick from Sam, Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, or Boromir. But in execution, the game gives you a much different vibe. The closest I can compare it to is the player takes the role of one of the five wizards and you are actively working on manipulating the group in your favor. Certain events are predestined, but each player has favor with a single member and is trying to change the outcome. It is a weird feeling, but fun in an unexpected way.

At the end, this game still feels like Ascension-lite since it only uses a single resource. But the flavor behind the game works so well. With DC Deck Building Game, the flavor never quite made sense. Like the Batman player grabbing Aquaman’s Trident while the Flash took Heat Vision. In this one, you can play enemies or archenemies but it feels like you’re manipulating the world, not attacking the world or each other.

I’m not sure Cryptozoic has perfected this engine just yet, but if The Tower Towers and Return of the King expansions are as good as this one, I’m buying them.

Pros
Theme isn’t just pasted on
Not just a reskin of DC
On rails bosses keep the game flowing
Impossible Mode is awesome
Better than DC in every way (minus Batman)

Cons
One does not simply use the wrong artwork to walk into Mordor
Weirdly not compatible with Cerebus
Box design makes no sense