I have a slightly funny relationship with Lord of the Rings. I’m kind of a massive nerd so I’m sort of morally obliged to love it, but I never really got into the book. I think it’s all the walking. And maybe the singing. I mean, for pity’s sake, there’s an extended version of ‘Hey Diddle Diddle The Cat And The Fiddle’ in, like, the third chapter.
But, weirdly, I do like the surrounding mythology. Not so much that I’ve actually bothered to read The Silmarillion, but you can’t really be into fantasy as a genre without at least having respect for the sheer amount of detailed-as-fuck world-building.
(Extended parenthetical: Because I’m what wrestling fans would call a smark, I should say that while I have enormous respect for Tolkein’s influence on the fantasy genre, in both traditional fiction and in gaming, I do think it’s worth pointing out that the genre does pre-date him and that his influence on D&D in particular is actually very much overstated. I mean, yes, Gygax and Arneson put elves and dwarves in their game, but their real literary influences were the likes of Leiber, Howard and Lovecraft)
I was even quite into early 2000s movies. Yes, Peter Jackson seems to have been completely incapable of understanding how metaphors work and it offends me on a primal level that he made Theoden, the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon inspired patriarchal warrior culture deliver the line: “No parent should have to bury their child.” Why is this man, whose kingdom follows patrilineal succession, assiduously avoiding the use of gendered pronouns? Why is this guy from a war-ravaged society with an 8th century level of medical technology seemingly shocked by the idea of parents outliving their children when it must surely happen every day? Why is this man who is last in a line of kings more concerned about his personal grief than the loss of everything his forebears fought to defend for generations? It’s even weirder because he goes from this extremely formal elegy to the loss of his way of life (“that I should live to see the last days of my house” and all that) to this utterly twentieth-century gush of sentiment.
Gah. No. Just no. Sorry, this bothers me disproportionately.
What I do like about the LotR movies is that I think they help me experience some of what I think other people experience when they read the books. There’s that sense of grandeur and, for want of a less made-up-sounding word, epicness. There’s a real feeling that you’re seeing a small part of something massive. Of course, it turned out the something massive was a series of six movies, three of which absolutely did not have to be made. But we’ll not go there.
Having said all of this, in a post-Peter Jackson world, I am particularly attracted to Lord of the Rings themed stuff that isn’t film-branded. Which is why I spent in the region of seventy quid on a massive, massive board game in which you essentially play Gandalf’s DPhil students.
So Middle Earth Quest. And, looking back, I realise I’ve probably hit a new low here in that I’ve got nearly 500 words into a post about a board and I’ve just talked about books and movies. Middle Earth Quest is weird. It is brilliant in many ways and flawed in many others. I really, really like it but I’m not totally certain I particularly enjoy playing it. To do the conclusion at the start thing that I sometimes do, I think what I’d say about Middle Earth Quest is that it goes on my long, long list of games that I feel would be a lot more enjoyable if I played them a lot more. It has many moving parts and it takes a long time to work out how things interact and I suspect that if I and the people I play it with were more familiar with the game it would run more smoothly and be easier to engage with. The thing the game does spectacularly well is make you feel like you are doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing in it, and that’s a quality I love in games. It’s just that sometimes the thing you’re doing is engaging in a futile struggle against an all-pervasive and insidious darkness. And that, well, that’s often not super fun.
It’s time for subheadings isn’t it?
One of the major problems with Lord of the Rings themed games is that, well, the Lord of the Rings kind of has a plot and canonically the only really important thing that happens in it is the destruction of the ring. Everything else is just distractions allowing that thing to happen. Games tend to engage with this in one of two ways. Either your story focuses on some aspect of the conflict that isn’t especially affected by the whole ring thing happening elsewhere. Or else you get awkwardly crowbarred into the story of the Fellowship, popping up in Moria and at Helm’s Deep with a slightly self-conscious “hi, I’m important enough to be useful here but not important enough to ever get mentioned in any retelling of this story that might get written down in a big red book later on.”
Middle Earth Quest applies a slightly unusual variant of the first option. The game takes place in the humongous chunk of downtime in-between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure from The Shire. Because, seriously, in the book there’s, like, a twelve year gap. I mean, you can see why I had trouble with the pacing of this when I was trying to read Lord of the Rings as a kid. So, basically, during these twelve years Gandalf was bodding around, vaguely monitoring events and doing research into the Ring of Power. And the player characters are a bunch of random Middle Earthians who have been roped in to help him, hence the “Gandalf’s DPhil students” characterisation. Because, you know, you do a bunch of unglamorous legwork and quietly collapse in the corner from the stress, anxiety and rising darkness, then he swoops in at the end and takes all the credit.
Again, I really like Lord of the Rings themed stuff that evokes the book rather than the film (and I’m going to come back this theme a lot). And Middle Earth Quest nails its colours to that mast so hard that it breaks the hammer. Where most Tolkein-themed gaming is about fighting loads of orcs or poking Sauron in the eye, Middle Earth Quest sees you doing the sorts of things Gandalf does for most the book (off-page and on). You’re going to obscure places where you encounter a sense of foreboding dread, you’re currying favour with influential figures in Middle Earth, you might occasionally fight one monster, but most of the time Sauron is invisible and you are just working to beat back his pernicious influence on the world. This is a very different characterisation of the battle for Middle Earth than the one that Peter Jackson gave us. The one with a lighthouse of doom and the surfboarding elves.
Middle Earth Quest is an asymmetric game in which one player controls Sauron and the other players control individual characters working against him. This one versus many setup is fairly common for this kind of game, although often in that type of game the role of the “evil” player is almost like the role of the dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons: somebody who is there to challenge the players, not necessarily to defeat them (I’d add that there are disagreements in the community about whether that sort of game should be played in that sort of way, but I’ll come back to this debate when I finally get around to reviewing Descent). Middle Earth Quest, isn’t like that. It’s definitely competitive. Sauron is definitely trying to win. There are score trackers and victory conditions and everything.
Sauron has no physical presence on the board. He manifests instead through a variety of tokens, cards and markers. On his turn, Sauron can place monsters, activate his powerful named minions (like the Mouth of Sauron or the Ringwraiths), spread his dark influence (represented by little round counters), advance sinister plots, allowing him move closer to victory and play up to one event card that allows him to completely throw the players for six. This is, honestly, really fun, although as might be able to tell from the list, also quite fiddly. The important thing is that it really makes you feel like a dark lord reaching out from his dark throne trying to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. And, from the heroes’ perspective, it’s very hard to keep track of what Sauron is doing because he has so many different options and seems to be doing so many different things at once. So playing against Sauron really feels like you’re fighting a shadowy enemy who you can never fully comprehend.
Playing as a hero is much simpler, although if there was ever an example of the difference between “simple” and “easy” this would be it. I really like the design of the heroes in Middle Earth Quest. The way they work is that you get a deck of cards. Every turn you draw a number of cards equal to your character’s stamina score. You can play these cards to move around the board (cards have little symbols on them, representing different terrain types, and each hero has a different spread of symbols, so the dwarf tends to have an easier time with mountain, the elf with woods and so on). When you play cards to move or discard them to avoid bad things happening, they go into a pool called the rest pool. One of the actions a character can take on their turn is to rest, meaning they shuffle their rest pool back into their deck but the delay allows Sauron to advance one of his plots. If your character is injured in combat or by an event, you also discard cards from your hand or deck, but they go into a separate pool called the damage pool. But these cards are not reshuffled even if you rest, unless you’re specifically at a location which allows healing. If you run out of cards in your hand and deck, you are defeated. Being defeated is bad (although not game-ending).
There are a number of fabulous things about this system. It means that one deck of cards does the job of tracking hitpoints, resolving combat (I won’t go into detail about the combat in this post, just because of time constraints), and controlling movement. One of the aspects of the Lord of the Rings that I didn’t especially enjoy when reading the book but do feel is iconic and often underrepresented in modern fantasy, especially modern fantasy gaming, is the emphasis on travel as challenge. Huge chunks of Lord of the Rings are just about the difficulties of getting across large areas of terrain on foot. We sort of forget in the 21st century how hard it actually is to get somewhere if you don’t have cars, trains, or airplanes. And part of the reality of Middle Earth is created by these extended journey sequences that I, admittedly, didn’t actually particularly enjoy reading. Most games (probably for perfectly valid pacing reasons) assume that the travel part is boring and that all the interesting stuff happens in the dungeon. If you like, it cuts straight to Moria without all of that pissing about on Caradhras. Through the card mechanic Middle Earth Quest manages to genuinely have its cake and eat it. Because the cards you spend to move are also the cards you use you fight monsters or resolve encounters the question of how you get somewhere becomes super important. Since Lord of the Rings isn’t a magic-heavy setting there aren’t very many equipment cards for player characters (it’s not like you can get a +1 sword) but I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the best upgrades in the game is basically “horse.”
The experience of playing a hero in Middle Earth Quest is one of uncertainty. And in some ways, it’s a very cool, very thematic uncertainty. It’s the uncertainty of fighting a mysterious, seemingly unstoppable enemy. Of being unsure where Sauron will strike next or how you can prepare yourself or what can be done to stop him. Sometimes, especially if you’re an inexperienced player (and because this a long, complicated game that works best with at least three or four people you’re going to be an inexperienced player for quite some time) it’s more the uncertainty of just not really being sure what you’re supposed to do next or how you’re supposed to do it.
Winning & Losing
In some areas of the board game community games are loosely divided into Eurogames and (and I appreciate this is a slightly problematic and somewhat loaded term) Ameritrash. Eurogames are often quite abstract, often focused around trading, building and resource allocation, and tend to be very leery of direct conflict between players. The sorts of games where you control at least three different kinds of wooden triangle. Ameritrash, by contrast, is the term used to describe a particular kind of lavish, expensive game that is big on theme, big on production values, and often doesn’t quite work. I should probably stress that although both these terms have the names of continents in them not all European games are “Eurogames” and not all American games are “Ameritrash” (and, for that matter, not all Eurogames are produced in Europe, and not all Ameritrash games are produced in America).
Shut up and Sit Down hold up Fantasy Flight’s Games’ Mansions of Madness as the archetypal Ameritrash game. In that it’s this exuberant bundle of thematic bits that don’t really come together into a satisfying whole. I bought a copy almost entirely on the strength of its toy shoggoths and have played it about three times. That’s not a great investment in terms of dollars per hours of entertainment and an even worse investment in terms of dollars per toy shoggoth. But I don’t entirely regret the purchase.
Although Middle Earth Quest is nowhere near as extreme as Mansions of Madness it (like, if I’m honest, a lot of FFG’s output) has some very Ameritrashy qualities. The board is gorgeous, the mechanics are beautiful, it evokes its theme wonderfully but, as a competitive game to be played by people who care about more about the game feeling fair, fun and balanced than about how well it evokes its source material, it has some quite significant flaws.
Victory or loss in Middle Earth Quest is determined by three factors (one of which only comes into play as a tie breaker). The first of these factors is “dominance”. The game uses a score tracker on which there are four counters. One counter represents progress that the forces of goodness are making towards, um, not a lot really. After all, Lord of the Rings is a classic example of status quo fantasy. I suppose you could argue that it’s a countdown to Gandalf finding out about the ring and Frodo leaving The Shire, but it’s not super clear. The other three counters represent Sauron’s progress on each of three different fronts (again, I really like the fact that the game keeps the heroes guessing about what Sauron is actually up to). Those fronts, briefly, are shadowy intrigues (black), building up armies (red), and looking for the ring (yellow)—though, in practice, this is just a matter of flavour text. At any given point in a game of Middle Earth Quest one or other party will be “dominant” – the dominant party is that which is closest to the end of the score track. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that because halfway down the track is a square called The Shadow Falls. And so Sauron’s score track related goals are either to get one token to the end of the track, or all three tokens to halfway down the track. Dominance then depends on whether the players are closer to the end of the track than Sauron is to either getting one token to the end or all three tokens to halfway. Sorry I’ve explained that in a really confusing way. It’s actually quite simple in play but is fiddly to put in writing.
The second factor is missions. Both Sauron and the heroes have a secret mission, selected at random from a pool of five. Sauron’s missions mostly relate directly to the score track. He will be aiming to get either the red, black or yellow tokens to the end of the track (which he’ll do by playing plot cards, which I haven’t really explained but do basically what they say on the tin) or else to get all three tokens to the halfway point. Or, as final wild card, to get the Ringwraiths or a certain amount of influence to The Shire. For bonus thematicness points each of these missions has a name borrowed from the One Ring To Rule Them All bit at the start of the book. The heroes, by contrast, have a slightly random assortment of missions. They might have to keep the board clear of monsters or kill all but two of Sauron’s minions or complete all their personal quests or avoid taking corruption cards (again, I’ve not told you what these are, they’re what they sound like) or collect a certain number of favour tokens.
If one party has both achieved its mission and is dominant, that party wins outright. This is fairly likely to happen for Sauron because if, for example, Sauron’s goal is to get the black token the end of the track and he gets to the black token to the end of the track, thereby ending the game, he is definitionally dominant and has therefore definitionally won. It is somewhat less likely to happen for the heroes because killing monsters or gathering influence or avoiding taking corruption cards doesn’t actually advance the score track directly. So while Sauron usually has quite a clear goal (even if that goal is opaque to the heroes) the hero players have to juggle quite a lot of competing demands on their attention and resources none of which really contribute directly to their winning the game.
If neither party is dominant, the game is resolved in a single final battle between one hero and the Ringwraiths. The hero in this conflict is immediately fully healed and draws an entirely fresh hand of cards, meaning that should the game come down to a final battle, much of what has happened to that hero on previous turns is meaningless. The dominant player does get a bonus in the final battle (I believe the Ringwraiths gain or lose health depending on how dominant Sauron or the heroes are) but it feels quite strongly like this scenario makes the entire game come down to a coin flip. And, yes, it’s a weighted coin flip and it’s a coin flip that is framed as epic final battle between the dwarf (it’s always the dwarf, the dwarf is best at fighting) and the Ringwraiths but it can still feel oddly anti-climactic. It’s just so disconnected from what everyone, especially Sauron, has been doing for the rest of the game. Sauron acts so indirectly during the bulk of gameplay that it’s really weird for him to win by having the Ringwraiths beat one dude. And because the Ringwraiths are on the board from about a third of a way into the game and because they have a unique rule which means they respawn if killed it’s quite possible that the players have already killed the Ringwraiths two or three times. So even if you do beat them in a final battle, it feels a bit jarring for this to be the time that counts.
A more problematic issue with the endgame, however, is that at least two of the heroes’ missions can be rendered literally unbeatable by a Sauron player who chooses to play cautiously. The most problematic mission is ‘Against The Shadow’ in which the heroes win if there are no more than two monster tokens in play. The problem with this mission is that players cannot choose to fight monsters. Rather, monsters ambush players at the start of their turn. Now, normally this doesn’t make much of a difference because the ambush step is mandatory. If a player is in a location with a monster, the monster will ambush the player and Sauron doesn’t get a choice about it. The problem arises because some locations (either innately or because of Sauron’s influence) are considered perilous. If a hero is in perilous location, then during the ambush step they will either encounter a monster, or a peril card but not both. Further, some locations are permanently perilous. This means that a monster token placed in a permanently perilous location is never required to ambush the players and that, therefore, by placing three monster tokens in permanently perilous locations, Sauron can render the ‘Against The Shadow’ mission unwinnable. And, yes, this requires an investment of resources on Sauron’s part. Sauron gets a limited number of actions on his turn, placing monsters is one of them and wasting actions placing monsters you never intend to use is not necessarily the best use of Sauron’s time. On the other hand, placing three monster tokens isn’t that difficult. Sauron quite often as actions in hand and a one in five chance of rendering your opponents unable to achieve their objective is a very good return on investment.
There’s a similar problem with the mission ‘Minas Morgul Kept At Bay’, which the heroes win if there are no more than two minions in play. This mission can be defeated by using the same strategy, although since minions are substantially more powerful than monsters the sacrifice involved in hiding a minion in a permanently perilous location is concomitantly greater. The flip side of this, however, is that there are only five minions in the game. They are all individually powerful and dangerous to fight and the Ringwraiths respawn if killed. Now, the players can always take out the Ringwraiths on the last turn but this is the definition of time critical, especially because the heroes are limited to a single physical location represented by their hero marker, whereas Sauron is omnipresent. The heroes do move faster than Sauron’s minions, who only go one to two spaces a turn, whereas hero movement is only limited by cards in hand but the logistics of hunting down and eliminating three out of Sauron’s five minions, either excluding the Ringwraiths or only hitting the Ringwraiths on the final turn of the game, is likely to be beyond most groups of players. At least in my experience.
The Worst Part of the Story
I’ve already mentioned twice how much I enjoy the way Middle Earth Quest captures things about the Lord of the Rings books that aren’t in the Lord of the Rings films. There’s bit in both the books and the movies where Sam and Frodo are halfway through Mordor and Frodo, because of the (metaphorical) weight of the ring and the terrible burden that has been placed upon him, is tempted to give up on his quest and let Sauron win. And Sam makes a speech about how the heroes of the old stories went through a whole bunch of really terrible shit but didn’t give up. The books, in particular, because they’re grounded within the framework of a mythology, talk an awful lot about stories and songs and legends, and the role of the events of the books within the wider history of Middle Earth.
What’s interesting about this speech in the book and the film is that there’s a subtle difference in tone. Tolkein was a devout Catholic and, without wanting to make too many generalisations about other peoples’ religions, his worldview was profoundly unheroic. Middle Earth is a fallen world, irrevocably tainted by evil in which all victories are necessarily fleeting and true redemption can be found only in the afterlife. Peter Jackson, well, I don’t know anything about his religious beliefs, but he’s a Hollywood film maker so his worldview is one in which there is no problem that cannot be solved by believing in yourself or getting a rugged white guy to punch somebody. The speech from which this section takes its heading ends in both cases with Sam talking about how, right now, they’re at the worst place in the story, but that the heroes of the old stories fought on to the end. In the film, he goes on say something like “because they were fighting for something, Mr Frodo, something something goodness and puppies and freedom and apple pie.” In the book, he says “And not always to a good end, mind you.” The point of Sam’s speech in the movie is the point of every speech in every Hollywood film ever made: believe in yourself and everything will magically turn out okay. The point of Sam’s speech in the book is that you don’t know if you’re in a heroic tale or a tragedy until you come to the end of it, and that you can’t know, and there’s a really good chance you’re just doomed and everything is going to be crap but you’ve got to push through anyway because what else is there?
Playing Middle Earth Quest as the heroes often feels like that bit in the book. Pretty much every turn you are sitting there at the worst place in the story, holding two mountains a plain, needing to get across a river to fight an enemy you in no way have the resources to defeat but knowing it’s your only hope of victory. It’s an amazingly faithful recreation of the experience of being a heroic figure in Middle Earth as Tolkein wrote about it.
It’s also often profoundly frustrating if you prefer your fantasies to involve a sense of achievement, rather than of forestalling your inevitable defeat. Although I’ve expressed this in a slightly sarcastic way, I do genuinely intend that as a meaningful distinction. In a way, Middle Earth Quest reminds me a lot of the tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu (which is ironic given that I started this post suggesting that Lovecraft was a bigger influence on D&D than Tolkein). A lot of Call of Cthulhu players really love to feel doomed. As far as they’re concerned, part of the experience is knowing that whatever you do will be futile and the only thing that can prevent you from eventually being eaten by a shoggoth is being eaten by something else. Personally, that’s not to my taste. But I do see why other people like it and why they would value something that creates that.
Middle Earth Quest is a really great game in a lot of ways. It is hands-down the Lord of the Ringsiest Lord of the Rings game I have ever played. I normally say a bit in these conclusions about whether games are good for families but, well, I kind of don’t think I need to here. Basically, if your imaginary ten year-old-year really likes the idea of a probably doomed struggle in which even victory will do nothing but buy the world a few more moments in which it can struggle again against darkness then by all means give it a go. If they don’t, maybe give it a miss. And the same goes for your friends.
So. Yeah. Middle Earth Quest.
tl;dr version: I like it a lot more than I enjoy it.