Does the new Tolkien-themed game play its cards right?
It started as an evolving yet simple card game in which you confronted a game master through a story or missions. Over the years, however, expansions have been added, making it an increasingly interesting proposition. Now a digital version is on the way, developed by the new setup Fantasy Flight Interactive and published by Asmodee Digital. We had the chance to sit down with Fantasy Flight director Timothy Gerritsen, at the studio's Paris-based office. We'll soon post the interview, but it was also a good opportunity to take a look at the beta version of the game.
Before going any further, note that this game is not to be considered as your standard TGC (trading card game), as just like in the original version, we will face a scripted campaign and the focus is very much on PVE. The competitive aspect is completely absent from this adaptation. In short, it shouldn't be compared to Hearthstone or Gwent; it's closer to something like Hand of Fate.
The narrative is the cornerstone of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and it adapts according to the gameplay decisions made by the player in-game. The action takes place in a period close to the first entry in the famous fantasy trilogy, although that's also something the studio prefers to remain flexible about in order to have more freedom in terms of narrative.
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The first campaign, entitled Lost in Mirkwood Forest, will take you to the north of Mordor. The mission - Escape the Spider Colony - is aptly named, since here the goal is to flee the eight-legged servants of the Lord of Darkness without lingering too long. Possible pathways appear as tokens on the board, and when you shoot a token, you take that path. However, enemies will follow you. Progress unlocks content, goals, routes to take, monsters that block or force you to change direction; everything is done to try to make each section feel unique.
Graphically, without being exceptional, it's pretty good looking, especially for a deck of digital cards. However, there are no cinematics, no voice acting beyond the rallying calls during play, and no visual aspect to enrich the narrative or to bring more immersion to the experience. Players will have to be content with some lines of text during the loading screens or the menus. It is expected, however, that adjustments will be made by the time we get to the final version, the timing of which is still unknown.
We're also not sure how the AI is going to hold up. Indeed, it's not uncommon in games of this type to see AI-controlled characters make a series of choices that put themselves in trouble. During our preview of the beta, our opponent - Sauron himself - didn't seem particularly vicious nor devious, although he's not subject to the same rules as the player, which could make things interesting unless players find a way to easily exploit any weaknesses in his game.
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The quests and daily challenges are there to keep players involved, as is the presence of a multiplayer mode. The co-op feature is there to allow players to experience the campaign with friends, facing the Lord of Darkness together. From what we have been able to understand, a virtuous circle has also been put in place; finding alternative solutions to completing missions can unlock cards that let you try different tactics. It looks like completionists will have lots to collect.
Free-to-play until the end, you will not have to cross your fingers in hope each and every time you open a booster pack, as you do in many games of this type. Fantasy Flight Interactive has put the brakes on the random element, and you know in advance roughly what's in each pack you buy. There, of course, remains an element of chance, but it's small enough that players won't have to invest excessively to obtain a particular card. Still, with this policy, there is no crafting or swapping of cards. The only way to buy packs is with real money or Valor, the in-game currency. There's also Palantir system for unlocking content, but it's very random.
The gameplay is basic: you play cards against those dropped by your opponent, with the higher scores winning out. The cards each have attack and defence stats, and an overall cost. The deck building here offers more freedom than certain other card games, but remains based on a fairly standard setup: three heroes and no more than two identical cards, for 35 cards in total. The biggest change from the "norm" is that there aren't too many spell cards (from what we could tell, at least). Victory is based on the value of your heroes, nothing too strange about that, except their placement on the board is sometimes different depending on the type of mission.
In conclusion, this adaptation of the game from paper to digital doesn't seem to reinvent much when it comes to card games that evolve based on your gameplay choices. However, it is more elaborate than a simple Hearthstone adventure, where boss fights follow one after another. The use of cards to advance the story in a slow and personal way seems to work, though. The absence of competition and PVP is a choice, but it makes for a refreshing experience that we don't normally get to enjoy in this genre. However, that choice also brings with it the risk of playing to a niche audience, even if any Tolkien fan can and should check it out.