The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth board game from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is an app-driven game. The app takes on the role of a Roleplaying Game, Games Master (GM) and controls all of the randomization and story elements of the game. It means it can be played solo or cooperatively with friends against the app.
This isn't the first time FFG have used an app in their games, in fact, they've been building up the use of it. They have companion apps for tracking board game elements and dice rolling apps for their board and roleplaying games. They also have optional apps for Imperial Assault and Mountains of Madness that let you add additional material to your games. All of these apps feel like they've been building up to The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth, combining different components to create this app.
There are a lot of mixed feelings about apps in board games. Many players play board games because they like the tabletop feel and the distraction of the app can cause a lack of immersion. Others wonder why the tabletop element is even required. If the effort has gone in to create the app, why not just have it in its entirety on there and play it cooperatively or online through the app or computer. App use in board games is something that Fantasy Flight Games are clearly keen on developing and it will be interesting to see what further mechanics can be added through this medium.
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The set up for The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth is definitely enhanced by the app. All players need to do is select their characters and put their very straight-forward decks together. Each player starts with a 15 card deck, which is a combination of their named character cards, a set of standard basic cards that go into all players decks, some skill cards that come from a role of the players choosing and a random weakness card.
These decks are what drive all the player's action in game. Each turn starts with Scouting and players draw cards and are allowed to select 1 to play in front of them. This means they have access to that card until it's discarded. Players can have 4 cards 'in play' at any time. The other cards drawn can then be placed on the top or bottom of the deck or a combination of both. The reason for this is that each turn the decks' discard pile is shuffled into the deck and then the deck is used to randomize test results. The top left-hand corner of each card is either blank or has a success or fate symbol. Successes are just that, and fate symbols allow you to spend a resource called Inspiration that builds up over the game, to turn fate into a success.
The type of test is dictated by the app and corresponds to a characteristic value for each character. The characteristic value is the number of cards you draw for that test. So higher characteristics let you draw more cards. Legolas for example has an Agility characteristic of 4 and Might of 2. So he would draw 4 cards on an Agility test, but only 2 on a Might test. Some tests only require one success, but others require multiple successes. Other tests keep the number of successes required a secret, letting you enter your scored amount into the app before providing your result.
Each character also has a special ability and a list of equipment cards directed by the app. Equipment cards can be changed at the start of the adventure, and the options are limited to what the app will let you swap.
Weapons detail which characteristic to use for attacks. For example. the Sword uses Might, and the Dagger uses Wit. To make an attack, cards are drawn from your deck equal to the characteristic of the weapon, and successes are spent to deal damage. In the case of the Sword, one success causes two hits, and 2 successes 5 hits. Extra hits can come from other equipment, or cards that you have in play, such as Aragorn's Strider card, which you can discard to add 3 hits. Armor and other gear protects you against enemy hits, which are notified via the app when they happen.
Damage comes in two forms, Damage, and Fear. Both have decks of cards and when you take a point of either, you take a card from the relevant deck. Some cards just have a title and say to flip down, this means that you just take one point of that type of damage. Some cards, however, have an ongoing effect or can chain the drawing of other cards, such as the Hysteria Fear card, which causes you and nearby allies to take a physical Damage. All heroes have a maximum amount of Damage or Fear they can take, and when that level is reached, a Last Stand test is performed via the app, failure means removal from the game and the group only have until the next phase to complete the objective or they lose.
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The app tells players how to set up the map for the adventure, with combinations of the included tiles. The map tiles are added to as the game goes on, keeping some map elements a secret until you discover clues or explore areas. The app also shows where investigation and stranger tokens go, as well as enemy units. When investigating tokens, the app will either ask for a test, give you some choice options or simply a reward. There is flavor text throughout and the tokens add a great sense of the unknown, especially for tests that you have to input the amount of success you get. The app also controls enemy movement and attacks, detailing a hero that it will aim for. If the hero isn't in range, it will provide another action for the enemy group to take.
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The first game is played using the Learn to Play guide, a 16-page booklet that contains enough rules to get you going. With the app's help, getting the hang of the mechanics is relatively simple. It is also easy to teach to new players as the player actions are very straight-forward. After the first game, the rules expand into the full Rules Reference. This has a couple of pages of Advanced and Campaign rules which should be read after the first game and then the rest can be referred as they come up.
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Some scenarios take place on a Battle Map, which are square tiled boards that focus the action into a battle of range and movement, rather than the open battle that occurs during exploration. In theory, it's not much different from the tiled exploration map, but it feels like the action has zoomed in and you are much better able to position your ranged characters than on the exploration map as well as maneuvering around enemies. Combat and tests are still the same, but it has the effect of feeling like an intense action scene.
Between games, players are able to upgrade their items and also add skill cards to their decks. For items, the upgrade takes the weapon from its generic form to a named item. Like a Battle Axe, to Iron Hills Battle Axe, to Grief Bearer. For heroes, it means adding additional skill cards for their role. All cards and points available to spend are tracked by the app.
The app stores all this information for that campaign, and there are spaces for multiple campaigns. This way you can run several campaigns simultaneously, without having to separate or keep track of the items and upgrades characters have. We would have liked to have had an account/cloud option for our saved games, or even an export option. You have to use the same device to play your campaigns, even though it is available on Steam and for tablets and mobile phones. So your campaign is currently locked to the device you first play on.
The app does a great job of keeping the adventure tense, something that could never be done so easily with board game mechanics alone. Exploring the map and fighting enemies is fun and enjoyable and the tactical elements are sharp. The deck mechanics are great and the balance of keeping cards in play and wanting to have their success symbols in your deck is fun and challenging. The characters feel different, helped by their special ability and the cards that come in their standard deck. There's some great variation to be found with the role cards, especially in later games as they are upgraded.
Players who are looking to recreate The Lord of the Rings with the core set won't find exactly that here. The 6 included characters have 2 of FFG's own devising from previous games in Elena and Beravor. With a physical and digital expansion already announced though, we can almost certainly expect to eventually be able to put themed sets of heroes together, along with further upgrades and card packs for characters and roles.
The Bottom Line:
The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth is a great adventure game. It blends a lot of elements and the app helps keep the game interesting, flowing and simple. There's a lot of entertainment out of the core set, but it isn't endless and unless you enjoy experimenting with the different heroes and role combinations, you might not want to play through several of the same campaigns. For those first few times through the adventure though, it's a blast. Players who don't enjoy the app elements won't enjoy this and you can sometimes find yourself questioning if it should all just be on the app. A couple of times we looked for enemy placement on the app, only to realize that they were on the board in front of us.
The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth is a fun and entertaining game. It's not hugely tactical, but there are tactical elements and the deck mechanics are great. The app does an impressive job of stopping quarterbacking (a dominant player telling other players what to do) as the app keeps a lot of elements a secret, so it's not always obvious what the most efficient play is. it's exciting to see where FFG take the app for this game, and for others. If Journeys in Middle Earth is anything like Imperial Assault in terms of releases, we should see some more incredible content very soon.
Get this game if:
You want a great app driven adventure game.
You want a solid solo experience.
You're a Lord of the Rings super fan.
You love games that blend different mechanics.
Avoid this game if:
You don't like app-driven content.
You want a story that's 100% true to the LotR cannon.
This copy of The Lord of the Rings Journeys in Middle Earth was provided by Asmodee UK.
What do you think of app-driven games? Are they the future? What's your take on solo board games? How important is in cannon theme in a tabletop game to you? Let us know in the comments below.
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