Cryptozoic has been hard at work acquiring licenses for their "Cerberus" family of games, but have unfortunately had little to show for their efforts. True, they have released the Penny Arcade Deck Building Game, and it's sequel, but they were not part of the "Cerberus" family. Rumors of a World or Warcraft Deck Building game are still flying around, and licenses with DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, and Capcom have all been signed.
At Gencon this year, the DC Comics Deck Building game was on full, bold, display! While I was able to get a good, fun game in of it, it was still only one game, and left me wanting more. I'm happy to say, that the DC Comics Deck Builder is out on shelves, and appears to be doing very well from initial internet traffic. While I have a review planned for it, I'm excited to bring you our first review of a "Cerberus", The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Deck Building Game!
In the spirit of full disclosure, Cryptozoic did provide us a copy of this game to play test and review for you, the fans, but it has not, nor will that action ever, impact the rating provided to our reviewed games. That said, let us see if one can simply walk into a deck building game... and win!
The Lord of the Rings is a cherished license. The books are boundless, the movies magical, and the stories relatable to our very cores. The fans I've met who love the Lord of the Rings are passionate, loyal, and exceptionally caring of their beloved characters, good and evil, that make up one of the most immense, amazing universes put to paper.
I tell you this, as looking at a game like this through that lens... well, it means that you don't just take a license like this, slap it on an "engine" and "hope" it does well. I went into playing this game with that very thought. Would this game hold up to the mythos? Would it connect me to the theme? Would I feel like I journeyed through Middle Earth? Or, would I feel as though I was left beaten and bruised, on the hills of the Shire, with nowhere to go but to Hobbiton?
The Lord of the Rings Deck Building game (LOTR DBG for short from here out), is akin to many DBGs out there. You start with a small amount of resources and then acquire more powerful cards to help you defeat big bad guys. The artwork is all taken from still shots from the Peter Jackson movie of the same namesake, with colorful borders to distinguish the different types of cards.
Your goal is simple, defeat the Archenemies before the Main Deck runs out, and after doing so, be the person with the most Victory Points on the cards in your deck. You can still count the VPs of your cards if the Main Deck runs out and you haven't defeated all the Archenemies, but it never truthfully feels like you "won" if that's what happens.
What separates it, making it unique, is that it uses only one resource to manage. The LOTR DBG uses a Power based system. Everything gains you Power, you use Power to acquire new cards, and you need Power to acquire and defeat enemies and the evil archenemies as well! The game comes with a 116 card Main Deck, which if it runs out and you can not refill "The Path" (the center common area of cards to acquire for all players) the game will end. In addition, the game will end when anyone defeats the last Archenemy, which in this adventure's case, is Lurtz, the head, big, bad, ugly, Uruk-hai abomination!
Along the way, you'll encounter familiar locations such as Isengard and Hobbiton, use artifacts like Elven Brooches and Evenstar Pendants, align with allies like Elrond, Merry, and Pippen, and use maneuvers to safeguard your party and defeat the likes of Sarumon, Cave Trolls, and the Balrog!
Unlike other DBGs, you won't just be racing to gain the most Power and acquire and defeat the bad guys. Smattered through the main deck are enemies who will ambush you and cost you, and your opponents, dearly. This is one of the fun aspects of the game, that also keeps you engaged when not your turn. Whenever a card refills an empty space in The Path and it is an enemy with an "Ambush" affect, that card will attack the next player, and if they don't have a Defense card to play from their hand, will more than likely impact them rather negatively!
While you are acquiring cards, defeating enemies and plotting to grow stronger to defeat evil, the Archenemies are awaiting your presence at every turn. You being with 10 cards,
9 basic (6 Courage that provide 1 power each and 3 Despair which do nothing, but slow you down) and 1 special card your chosen character brings to the game with it. While choosing these
characters makes a large impact to your play style in the opening stages of the game, as you acquire more cards, you'll be seeing that "specialized" card less and less, so mid to late game, there
can be a feeling of "I'm not so special anymore", albeit you then will have a vastly improved deck.
After shuffling your cards and drawing 5, the Path is made by flipping 5 cards from the top of the Main Deck into play. On the first turn, any Ambush affects from enemies are ignored. Additionally, there is a stack of common "Valor" cards that can be bought anytime on your turn, a stack of Corruption cards which you don't want as they add negatively to your Victory Points, and the stack of Archenemies.
There are different, increasing levels of Archenemies, with the Nazgul always being on top, and then through either specific set up or random placement, level 2 and level 3 Archenemies to defeat, along the way to Lurtz. In addition, once you have mastered the game, there is a second set of the same Archenemies, which are much harder to defeat, and is part of the game's "Impossible Mode". Take my word for it, this makes playing Sentinels of the Multiverse with only 2 Heroes look like Candy-Land! It's HARD!
The varying options of characters to play and Archenemy set up alone has a ton of replay value. Add in the fact there is some tremendous gameplay design and you see where this is going. Another unique factor to the design is the Path and how it is refilled. Unlike other games that fill an empty slot immediately, in the LOTR DBG you only refill empty slots at the end of your turn. So while you can buy as many cards as you have power to do so, you can't buy a cheap card in the hopes something better comes out on your turn!
What you see is what you get, unless you acquire cards to impact those rules. In addition, this design helps curb someone popping off a crazy combination and just buying everything in sight. Yes, you can buy an entire set of the 5 cards in a Path, and even defeat an Archenemy, but without some major shift, you'll only be defeating one of the Archenemies per turn. This is a balancing act Cryptozoic has pulled off very well in my opinion. Whether it's 2 players or 5, the game scales well, and these mechanics keep it competitive the entire time!
Most importantly, hits home with the theme. Be it the stoic pictures and images from the Peter Jackson films, to the well balanced gameplay, to the locations and fate cards that impact the game greatly, when you are done playing any size game, you feel like you just walked into Middle Earth! The theme and the adventures known to the fans of the story jump out at you and suck you in!
Of special note is the design of several cards in the Main Deck. There are new mechanics to DBGs that allow you to play cards, pick other players, and impact them for the benefit of all, or the detriment of their success. There are cards that even though you acquired them, will force you to share them or trade them to your opponents, giving them access to cherished possessions, but also providing them with more VPs!
A primary concern I had, heading into this, and other, "Cerberus" games, was that with only one resource, it couldn't be THAT much fun right? I'm happy to say that I was proven terribly wrong! The one resource of Power alone, is both challenging to build up, harder to keep building up, and extremely fun to manipulate given the design of the cards. Overall, the best word that comes to mind is "solid". This is a solidly designed game, with solid gameplay mechanics, all coming together to provide a heck of a fun experience!
Finally, some people have asked about this game versus Thunderstone. I've only played the thunderstone advance series, but there is tremendous difference. I'd relate Thunderstone more to Marvel Legendary, as they both have the same set up. LOTR DBG is shuffle and go. All the acquireable cards are in the main deck, and there's no levelling of characters. Perhaps in theme, being fantasy, they are similar, but overall, it's a completely different gameplay experience, even though both are fun.
The LOTR DBG may not be out yet, but when it is, I'm sure it will be a hot one! I have had over 24 hours of play put in over a short period of time and I'm happy to say, this is a Crit of a game! Excellent mechanics, solid card design, fun and engaging gameplay, easy to learn, hard to master, and superbly connected to it's theme, the LOTR DBG walks right into Mordor... and kicks the Balrog in it's fire breathing, cinder covered face!
PS - I will be reviewing the DC Deckbuilding game, and will happily provide comparisons given that it too is on the Cerberus engine... but at first note, these are two very different feeling games for being built on the same foundation! More on that soon!
Final Score (Crit, Hit or Miss):