Lord of the Rings - In-Depth Review
This is a review for Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth. It is not a review of my journey in Middle-earth aka New Zealand. New Zealand gets 10/10, would visit again.
- Clever skill-check mechanics
- Easy to learn if you've played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) before
- Theme - time to break out the LoTR quotes!
- They have a cave troll! (see above)
- App makes for easy bookkeeping
- App makes for a hybrid play style of board game + quasi video game which not everyone in our group enjoyed
- Requires a giant play surface
- Takes a while to level characters up - early challenges are difficult to pass
Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth (henceforth known as LoTR or LoTR JiMe) is a cooperative, campaign-based adventure game. Each player takes on the role of a different character from the Lord of the Rings universe and travels across Middle-earth working as a team to overcome various story-driven challenges. A free app manages the campaign and directs the game play, while each player has unique skills and uses a deck of cards to generate actions.
At its core, LotR JiMe is a card based Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) style game with an app that makes it much more approachable than a tabletop role playing game (RPG). It's good for people people who can’t trick someone into being the dungeon master for them - after all, we can’t all be Matt Mercer. (Note: if you're not the Guest Geek and you don't follow D&D, Matt Mercer is a super-famous dungeon master who puts his D&D games on YouTube.) It's also good for people who want to try D&D or other tabletop RPGs like Gloomhaven but are put off by the time commitment. For this reason, my review is going to refer pretty heavily to D&D concepts.
A little background: our game group got started during the lockdowns last year with a virtual series of Legends of Andor. Our game group is mixed in that my husband and I are familiar with D&D, while my sister Annie and her husband are not. Legends of Andor was a fantastic game for our group, and we cover that more in-depth in our review of Andor. Ever since we wrapped it up, we've been on the hunt for a similar-style adventure campaign game that we can play over several weeks. We must play as a team for family harmony purposes. Enter: LotR JiMe.
This game is a lot easier to get started with than D&D. Case in point: I was able to convince this group to play it! Each player gets their own ability deck. No need to spend an entire session poring over character sheets and spell slots. Everyone gets the commoner cards. Then each player gets their own personal cards, and you can pick a subclass (out of three character specific potentials). Every turn you draw new abilities to prepare. The cards you don't prepare as abilities are drawn later during tests.
The rules are easier to learn if you are familiar with D&D. Every time the Dungeon Master (DM) would tell you to roll a d20 (note: d20 = 20-sided die) in D&D, for example, you draw cards in LoTR JiMe instead. The JiMe equivalents of skill checks, saves, and rolls to hit are all handed this way. Each character's stats indicate the number of cards you draw (like modifiers). Moving out of an enemy's range triggers an attack of opportunity. We found that our game group members who inherently understood this system had few issues with the rules.
Certain events in the app trigger a map expansion, and there's no way to know in advance what the map will expand into. This can be a problem if you aren't playing this game on the floor of your castle's ballroom. Our map turned into a spindly tree with branches that jettisoned right off the edge, no matter how we positioned it on the table. We had to rearrange the table every time we triggered an expansion. Hence, we recommend a giant playing surface (bonus points if it really is a castle ballroom).
Basic gameplay works like this: the app gives you a storyline and sets up the activities your group needs to complete (like: find three items). Your playing group works together to figure out the best way to complete those activities, and individual players move their characters around the board to get it done. The app tells you how many rounds you have to achieve an objective, and it gets harder as the time ticks by. As players interact with trigger spots on the board, the app generates tests to see if an interaction is successful. Most were hard to pass. Some of these tests progressed the story or expanded the map, but most were dead ends. There were a lot of triggers we should have skipped because of the high cost of skill checks and the round counter ticking down. Monsters spawned and chased us around. We could have skipped most of those too. Next time!
Middle-earth is a great setting for a board game. Our group (composed of big fans of Lord of the Rings) largely used the board game as an excuse to sit around and talk about how awesome LotR is. The game is at its best when you are using it as an excuse to endlessly quote LotR quotes. Whenever Legolas explored the board, for example, my sacred duty as Aragorn was to ask him what his elf eyes see. It never gets old. (Note: it does.)
I wish they had added in female characters from the Lord of the Rings stories. I understand why Galadriel isn’t playable, since she is too overpowered and awesome to balance. But the others like Eowyn or Arwen should be there - it makes just as little sense as Bilbo adventuring with Aragorn and Gimli while carrying the Ring of Power all around Middle-earth. The game tried to compensate for the lack of known female characters by making up a female ranger and a musical elf lady. I don’t have an emotional connection to them, AND more importantly we can’t recite any quotes or poetry when they move around, so this was a bit of a fail for our group.
LotR JiMe is a Fantasy Flight game, and it shows. The box is designed to hold the thirty five inevitable expansions they want you to buy. The miniatures are incredibly detailed, especially the cave troll miniature. I’m not going to paint them, but you could if you wanted to. The production value that didn’t go into the cave troll miniature went into app development.
The app is well done. It runs most of the enemy bookkeeping, tells you what map tiles to lay where, and has a "choose your own adventure" style event. The app is an intrinsic part of the game, so there is no way to play without it. Art was mostly fantastic in the app and on the board game components. The picture on Aragorn’s character card looks exactly like his introduction in The Fellowship of the Ring (though not necessarily like Viggo Mortensen because licensing). I say mostly fantastic because of Legolas. They went with dark haired Legolas (I mean, come on). Apparently this is a huge issue in the fandom at large, not just with our group.
The app is a problem for our group because at least one player (ehem, Annie, ehem) absolutely hates it. Her view is that the app drives so much of the game that they should just go all the way and turn it into a video game. (I also think Annie just isn't a tabletop RPG person so that doesn't help.). I can’t fault her logic, but I see the value in the app. The app-run monsters work differently than player-controlled monsters. Adding random monsters to the board based on card draws is more chaotic than scenario-based monster reveals. I don’t mind an app acting as the dungeon master creating scenarios for us. It will never be as good as a competent human running things, but it allows us to pick up and play, and it also works really well for small player counts.
I recommend this game with a few reservations. It helps if you like Lord of the Rings, if you like tabletop RPGs, and if you don't mind hybrid app/board games. The best is if all three apply to you, but 2/3 isn't bad. If you only hit one of those three categories, we recommend Legends of Andor.
Remote play score: 3 out of 4
What our remote score means: We've played this over Zoom with two households. The only minor qualm we have is that the app doesn't have a way to sync across devices so both households can't use the app to manage play. Instead, we had to screen-share the app screen over Zoom while one person controlled it.