“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” Gandalf spoke to Frodo.
And so I’ve dedicated my time lately to playing Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth by Fantasy Flight Games.
It’s a cooperative adventure game in which 1 to 5 players embark on an epic journey through the menacing landscapes of Middle-Earth. A great darkness is upon the rise – unifying all evil forces – and Middle-Earth’s heroes have to take a stand.
What is Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth like?
Each adventure is a chapter in an overarching narrative and a craftily created Companion App guides the heroes throughout the campaign. Unlike other games of this kind, the length of your journey and the events aren’t fully preset. No matter the outcome of a particular adventure, the heroes and campaign will always progress.
My fellowship consists of my boyfriend and I – respectively a down-to-earth dwarf and a whimsical elf. In total, Journeys holds 6 heroes to choose from and each of them has a unique power and different stats (might, wisdom, agility, spirit and wit).
6 non-permanent roles (burglar, captain, guardian, hunter, musician and pathfinder) give further depth of character by adding talents and abilities.
A player’s selected hero and role results in a private Skill Deck bursting with personality. At the start of the game it holds 15 cards (6 Basic cards, 5 Hero cards, 3 Role cards and 1 Weakness card). But cards will be added, upgraded and downgraded both mid- and in-between adventures. This mirrors how the journey uniquely shapes and changes the heroes – for good, but also for worse.
After all, “there are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep”
Battle and Journey Maps
The world in Journeys is alternately a cramped Battle Map to be turned upside down or a vast Journey Map to be explored inside out.
In every adventure the app portrays a Threat Level bar with thresholds. This bar serves as a timer, gradually filling up. Players’ decisions and actions can slow it down, but never bring it to a halt.
At every threshold events may occur and details on the mission objective are revealed. When the threat bar fills up completely the game ends and the adventure fails.
Battle Maps are composed of 1 or 2 square game boards and strategically added terrain tokens. A plenitude of surroundings can thus be mimicked, as for example a village inn or an orc den.
Journey Maps have players start on a tile with most portions of the world shrouded in fog. Stepping into the fog will uncover new map tiles and as such “little by little one travels far”.
Exploring tiles earns players Inspiration Tokens and affects the Threat Level.
Both Battle and Journey Maps are heavily seeded with Search-, Person- and Threat Tokens for players to interact with. And of course a bazillion bad guys plague your traveling party, so “spears shall be shaken and shields shall be splintered”!
Interaction and battles are normally the shortest explanation in these dungeon crawler-type of games. Most often dice determine failure or success. But in Journeys they don’t, so forgive me when yet another lengthy paragraph follows.
The Skill Deck
When you find yourself in a spot on the map with a Search-, Person- or Threat Token you can interact with it by selecting it in the app. One or several of your hero’s stats will be tested, which means that you have to reveal cards from your Skill Deck equal to the value of the stat.
When engaging in battle the prepped weapon you want to use determines which stat to test. Various number of successes give various ways of damaging the enemy. The different types of enemies have different strengths and defenses. Using the right weapon and wisely distributing successes to activate its features are crucial.
Players keep track of enemies’ health by inputting inflicted damage in the Companion App. If the final blow to the enemy wasn’t dealt it will retaliate and put you to the test in return.
This might sound a bit bland and random, were it not that the following gameplay elements make it interesting:
- Some cards show 2 Success Symbols, some 1 and some none. Some cards show Fate Symbols though, which can be converted to successes if you spend acquired Inspiration Tokens.
- The app doesn’t always state how many successes are needed to pass a test. This evokes an exciting push-your-luck sense.
- A round consists of an Action, Shadow and Rally Phase. In the Rally Phase players reshuffle their Skill Deck and draw 2 cards. 1 of these cards may be prepped in order to use its special effects in later rounds. A hero can’t have more than 4 prepped cards in total. Unprepped drawn cards are placed on top or at the bottom of the deck, giving the option to put successes on the top and tuck the blanks at the bottom.
Of course failing tests, in the midst of interaction or battle, results in physical and/or mental damage.
Shadow and Damage
You “can only come to morning through the shadows”. So after the heroes have taken their actions and before prepping for the next round, the enemies set forth their dark plans in a subsequent Shadow Phase. Goblins, Orcs, Wights and packs of hungry Wargs chase your fellowship and attack when in range. Yet again, the clever use of your hero’s Skill Deck and prepped cards is key to negate damage. Darkness has no foe however, so all heroes who find themselves in it (caves, dungeons,..) suffer fear.
Damage is received by drawing cards from the wound or fear deck. Sometimes cards are to be placed face up, on which the effects are immediately resolved. Other times players receive the cards blindly face down. The app or newly drawn cards can instruct for face down cards to suddenly flip to their active side. Because “a man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a shortcut to meet it” and unattended wounds are bound to pester.
When heroes suffer damage equal to or greater than their limits, they must perform a Last Stand. This test determines whether the hero succumbs or withstands the ordeal.
If successful the hero can continue the journey revitalized. If not, the adventure ends for all players.
I love that Journeys doesn’t want to mangle all players through the same narrow storyline. Instead the Companion App adapts the adventure settings to the number of players and composed characters forking the storyline based on players decisions and performance.
Fantasy Flight Games promises this creates a unique personal quest each and every time. Now, I’ve only played the campaign once so I can’t comment on how well the app differentiates. But I’ve spoken to other players and noticed differences in the campaigns storyline and length. That’s for sure promising! Of course one can also expect Fantasy Flight Games to release new content at an alarmingly fast pace. So if you’re willing to financially invest you’ll never get bored.
Another lovely tweak on the dungeon crawler genre is that even when failing an adventure the campaign moves on. I’m personally not a fan of having to repeatedly play the same scenario until you pull out a win. Nevertheless, the motivation to perform your best in every adventure is instigated as failures weaken your fellowship and strengthens the Dark Forces – resulting in a harder, shorter campaign.
At first I was a bit downhearted that the available heroes weren’t all as “iconic” as initially promised. But I actually liked that the box offers a mix. Tolkien purists might not like a famous hero’s personality and experiences to stray too far from the original story. And I enjoyed the “blank canvas” a lesser known character as “Elena” or “Beravor” provided me with. Others that dream of stepping in the shoes of Middle-Earth’s most iconic inhabitants can have their pick with “Legolas”, “Bilbo”, “Gimli”or “Aragorn”.
In between adventures players can buy and upgrade role cards by spending acquired “Lore”. Even changing role and skill set is possible if you think that might come in handy. All these decisions are taken on a hunch of what the next adventure will bring. While the end goal is quite clear – putting a halt to the Dark Forces rising – how to do that is only revealed to players slowly. I found it very thematically pleasing to be wanderers working from clue to clue and falling from battle into battle.
I did initially miss some variety in enemy miniatures but FFG mitigated this by having the app differentiate the enemy stats and marking some foes as “elite”. What I do think weird is that the first announced expansion pack will hold 2 boss figures that played a major role in my first and now completed campaign. I feel FFG should have added those to the base box.
A neat feature is that in between plays the game doesn’t take up a lot of table space. The set-up is swift as the gameboard is build up during play. Just make sure all game components are in reach and gather your hero and Skill Deck.
Apart from the Skill Decks, Journeys excels in how damage is dealt and handled. It’s very tense to see a hero’s wounds and fear accumulate. Heroes are rarely on the safe side as facedown cards can get flipped and suddenly push your hero to their limit. This causes damage to always be on players’ minds. And when a hero’s limit of wounds or fear is reached the gameplay climaxes with offering a Last Stand. Drawing cards has never been so nerve-racking before, because really the whole campaign then depends on it! A bad card draw can still be altered by using the effects of prepped cards. It’s frantic and I love it!
The alteration between vast Journey Maps and Battle Maps keeps the game fresh. Gameplay is a bit repetitive but that made me able to focus fully on the narrative. It also makes it easy to pick up the game again after a longer break. Story-wise we had one adventure that lacked all tension, sadly. However, FFG shows promising signs of being willing to think out of the box. For example one of the battle maps didn’t include any fight at all.
Interacting with other living beings in Journeys felt very pleasing. The dialogues offered a sense of freedom to players and reminded me of video games. I’m hoping FFG continues experimenting as the series continues.
To conclude: if you’re a Tolkien-fan on the look-out for a smooth app-driven narrative dungeon crawler, I suggest you run straight to your FLGS to buy Fantasy Flight Games’ Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth. As you’ll truly find that “adventure is just leaving your doorstep”.
- Well-written rulebook and amazing app
- Quick set-up
- Single adventures don’t take hours to complete. I would say 60-90 minutes on average.
- Strong feel that you decide the chosen path – freedom when interacting with characters.
- Alternating between journey and battle maps keeps gameplay fresh
- Skill Deck replacing dice
- Experimental “Battle Map” scenario shows the designers are thinking out of the box
- Expensive for the box content – though the app design should be taken into account
- Story arc. Some adventures lacked tension
- Missing boss mini’s to be released as an expansion pack
- Not a profound deck builder
Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth is one of the best marriages between “man and machine” in the board game hobby. The Companion App makes digital and analog merge smoothly. Be aware however that Journeys is not a “learn to play on the go”. Players have to have thoroughly studied the rulebook before starting the campaign.
The app is much more than a bookkeeper tracking stats and progress. It pursues full story immersion by playing a thematic soundtrack and producing sound effects. A nice touch too is how it renders the battle maps in 3D.
I’m a major custom dice addict but the Skill Deck mechanic is really well thought out. I felt there were meaningful decisions to be taken and the role selection and skill upgrading in between adventures felt purposeful. All this without weighing the nimble gameplay down with heavy deckbuilding. The element of surprise dice always bring is equaled by the decks being shuffled every Rally Phase.
Our Skill Decks became a testimony of our journey together and me and my boyfriend were reluctant to tear our decks down at game end.
- Players: 1 – 5
- Playing time: 60 – 120 minutes
- Suggested age: 14+
A review copy of this game was supplied by Asmodee Nordic