And so I look at one of my most anticipated games of 2019: sharing the same theme as my favourite game of all time, consisting of plenty of miniatures to paint, having that dungeon-crawl feel and being published by one of the most consistent companies pumping out games at the minute, what can possibly go wrong as we look at The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth?
Published by the very consistent Fantasy Flight Games, Journeys in Middle-earth is a 1-5 player fully cooperative game that sees players taking charge of at least 1 of 6 heroes who must embark on a variety of quests and battle against a multitude of Tolkien’s infamous monsters. Set in the age after Bilbo has returned from the Misty Mountains and prior to Frodo’s adventures, players will instantly recognise heroes such as Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn and Bilbo himself, as well as two FFG-created characters that I believe are in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Elena and Beravor.
For any one of you who have played Descent or Mansions of Madness, you will recognise most of the components that come with the game despite being wrapped in the LOTR universe. The game takes place on a modular board with the tiles being double-sided; some quests take place on a battle map that can be further customised with walls, streams and other terrain tokens. The 31 plastic minis are standard FFG quality, as are the Learn to Play & Rules Reference, which are both as well written and easy to use as expected.
The main component, however, does not actually come with the game, which can’t be played without it: the app, which can be downloaded free of charge from Steam, App Store and Google Play. The app takes on the role as both storyteller and the Shadow player; it will build the maps for you to follow, as well as track the progression of the Heroes. I’ve never used the app for Mansions of Madness, but I have a lot of experience with Descent, which I have to admit, it felt like hard work at times not only concentrating on your own moves but also moving the minions around then reading cards to determine what effects they have and what dice they roll, then dishing out thousands of tokens and cards.
I am pleased to say that the Journeys in Middle-earth app takes away nearly all of that: It tracks the monsters’ health, it tells you how many spaces they will move or what damage they do and when they attack, which saves both time and the need to weed through physical components. It is also fully interactive in the sense that if it is displaying something on the map, you can select whatever it is, and players will be reminded what that token does or how many hit points a monster may have, etc. It is massively user-friendly, and it feels like the game was built around it rather than it being an add-on, which it was for the other games.
One of my favourite aspects of Journeys in Middle-earth is the deck-building part of the game. Each hero has their own unique skill deck which, at the start of the game, players will only have access to the first 5 cards; these will be combined with 6 generic basic skill cards. Added to these are 3 role skill cards, which are determined by what role you wish your character to take during that quest, and they can change from quest to quest. For example, you could use Bilbo as a burglar at first as this will allow him to easily evade enemies, but then you can decide that you wish him to be a heavy-hitting hunter in the next quest as he now has a powerful weapon found in the previous quest.
Heroes will be upgraded throughout the campaign with players being able to trim their decks with a lot of flexibility. Once characters are chosen, decks are built and the map is created, it is time to start playing. Again, anyone who has played the before-mentioned FFG games will be familiar with the phase of play breakdown and action economy mechanisms that are also employed in Journeys in Middle-earth.
Firstly, the action phase: This is where the Heroes take up to two actions each in turn order (not fixed turn order) to either move around exploring the board, attack enemies or interact with NPCs or search tokens, as well as other items. Movement is self-explanatory and allows players to move up to two spaces as one action; combat and tests, however, are slightly different and bring the player deck into play in a way that FFG rarely use. Let’s say Aragorn is attacking an Orc with his broadsword, which requires the Might skill to use it, of which Aragorn has ‘Might 4’. The player will draw the top 4 cards from their deck looking for the success icon that will stack over the four cards to give X amount of successes. These cards may instead show an Inspiration symbol, which can be used as successes if the player has inspiration tokens to pay for it; some cards will simply have no icons to help.
If the number of successes equal or exceed the Orc’s health, then it is dead; otherwise, X number of health will be removed by the app. If the Orc has survived, then it may have a chance to retaliate, if so the app will instruct you as to how much damage and fear the attack has done and which skill negates it. If the attack does 2 damage and 1 fear negated by agility, of which yours is 4, then you will draw the top 4 cards from your deck looking for 3 successes; otherwise, you will take whatever damage and fear remains after your defence. These cards may also have text on them, which may give players special abilities and could include extra successes or free inspiration or movement and so on. These abilities can only be used if the card is ‘prepared’ by Scouting and placing it in the player’s playing area, which I will explain shortly.
Tests are conducted in the same manner, the app will tell you what attribute you’re to test and sometimes how many successes that you need to pass. These tests could be anything from using your agility to climb a tree or using your wit to try and unlock a chest.
Next is the Shadow phase: In this phase the enemies on the map will move and try to attack the Heroes, although that is not the most dangerous aspect to this phase. The real nasty comes in the form of ‘threat’, which steadily increases throughout this phase. The higher the threat, the more bad things will happen, and if the threat tracker is filled, then the Heroes will have failed that quest. Threat is calculated using the number of Heroes, unexplored tiles and actual threat tokens on the map, so managing those becomes quite a big deal.
The final phase is the Rally phase: In the Rally, players will reset their decks by shuffling the discarded cards back into the remaining ones. Each hero will then ‘Scout 2’, meaning they pull the top two cards from the deck and may ‘prepare’ one of those cards by placing it into their play area, meaning that they can use the card’s special abilities during the action phase. The other card can be put on either the top or the bottom of the deck.
These phases are repeated until either the Heroes complete their quest, they die trying or the threat tracker maxes out. Along the way through the campaign, Heroes may have the chance to obtain titles for some glorious deed that they carried out or find special weapons and armour. They may, however, pick up weaknesses after succumbing to the hardships of the quest instead.
Firstly, the app is really cool, streamlined and user-friendly, which removes so much of the effort of playing. When I play Descent, I know it’s going to be a chore before, during and after gameplay. With the campaign being app-driven, it also changes the game up each time: I have played the first quest with 3 different groups now, and although the main story is the same, the map is different and side-missions pop up, which weren’t present in the other plays.
Thirdly, although this is really two points, the minis are nice and detailed and will be easy to paint, but most of all, it’s FFG, so the expansions and monster sets will be pumped out at a silly rate of knots, meaning content should never be an issue.
As for dislikes, using that word would be slightly harsh as there isn’t anything I dislike about the game, although there is one notable admission from Journeys in Middle-earth that no matter how much I like the mechanisms and theme, I just can’t see past the exclusion of dice. If you have read any of my reviews previously, you will know that I love custom dice above all else, and when I first saw this game announced, I naturally took it as a given that they would be included, but I was wrong.
I have seen the interviews with the designers and understand from both a thematic standpoint and cost effective one why they haven’t included them, and I’ll be honest, I’m not even saying the game would be better with them. It just leaves me curious, that’s all, as there is nothing that sparks emotion in a game, good or bad, than rolling a fistful of dice.
Designer: Grace Holdinghaus, Nathan I Hajek
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Release: April 2019