Tuesday, June 10, 2014

You had to be there

The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game came out in late 2002 in what I can only describe as a perfect storm of circumstances. Trading card games had been around long enough to be a proven format, but the post-Magic glut of games had faded to the point where only the strongest contenders were still in the marketplace. The economy was riding the tail end of the late '90s dot com boom, so the target audience had plenty of disposable income.

The game was based on Peter Jackson's film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, which were wildly popular but strangely lacking in an overabundance of merchandise, at least at the beginning. The publisher, Decipher Inc, was at the absolute top of their game at the time, having gone from success to success with their Star Trek and Star Wars games. They had built up a fiercely loyal following of in-store tournament players around the world, and it was these players that the game was mainly designed for.

It's an incredibly elegant game design. It gets past the problem of whether to play good or evil by having players do both: a player's customized deck consists of an equal number of Free Peoples and Shadow cards so that on each player's turn, that player plays his Free Peoples cards and his opponents play their Shadow cards in opposition. The competition lies in which player can move his party of characters through an unfolding line of locations more quickly, or alternatively, keep them alive long enough to destroy his opponent's ringbearer and seize the Ring.

The cards are divided into the various cultures of Middle-earth depicted in the films, both good and evil. Deciding whether to play Elves or Dwarves, goblins of Moria or minions of Saruman, or some combination of cultures was the basis of the game's deck-building strategy, and it gave players in the tournament community banners to rally behind.

The in-store community of players was where the game really thrived. It was competitive but very well balanced, to a point that there was never one deck type that dominated tournament play for more than a few months. The publishers kept a close eye on the tournament community and worked to eliminate what they referred to as "negative play experiences," situations that might come up in the game as a result of unforeseen strategies or card combinations. For an unfortunately brief time, they were able to foster a gaming environment that was challenging and competitive but still enjoyable.

When we dug our Lord of the Rings cards out of storage to play for the first time in several years, we found that the rules came back to us quickly, the cards looked just as good as we remembered, and all the game's brilliant mechanics were still there, but ... something was missing. With just the two of us playing, with decks we had built over 10 years ago, we were missing the environment that we used to play in, the community of players who kept the game fresh and challenging by bringing a variety of deck designs, strategies and personalities to the table.

The game was definitely poorer without them.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) It would be a 5 out of 5 for the game design, but we're rating it lower to reflect our lessened enjoyment of the game outside of the community we used to play it with.

Date played: April 27, 2014

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