Lord of the Rings : Journeys In Middle Earth
Some generally interesting game play and the experience of playing is never dull.
The app is well polished and does a great job of cutting out all the fiddly bits.
This feels rather like the starter set for the heap of expansions that inevitability are due to come.
Ultimately while fun at the time nothing about this is outstanding it all feels rather pedestrian and by the numbers.
Well we finally got around to finishing our review of Lord of the Rings : Journeys in Middle Earth. Go fourth and indulge yourselves.
We need to talk about FFG.
FFG’s catalog has always been drawn to licensed games running parallel to their in-house concoctions of bombast and spectacle like Twilight Imperium or Descent. For every Star Wars, there was a Mission Red Planet. Alas of late it’s becoming more and more evident that FFG is morphing into Ocean Software.
Now for you millennials out there, that reference will mean diddly squat I might as well have ruptured some vertebra trying to fellate myself for the obvious sea of blank looks that reference just resulted in. To save your google-fu that let me give you a very brief potted history of the UK’s bustling homegrown software heyday.
During the 1980s Ocean software was a powerhouse releasing innovative titles like Head over Heals or the astonishing Wizball and then they started gobbling up licensed properties and regurgitating them in a production line of cookie-cutter knock-offs, it got so bad that towards the death rattle of their empire that the differences between a Total Recall or Hudson Hawk were often the 8bit reproductions of that movies star with essentially the gameplay marginally tweaked to account for the change in scenery.
They’d gone from the darlings of innovative game design and pushing the envelope to the worse kind of lazy developers which probably accounts why they finally closed their doors in the late ’90s to little or no fanfare and why most of you out there don’t have a clue what the fucknubbins I’m going on about.
And if you want to know the full story of Ocean Software then this video by Kim Justice is a marvelous bit of nostalgia for all us wrinkly’s.
So that epic preamble out the way, which is probably rather apt as we are about to discuss a series that’s all about epic beginnings endings and many breakfasts. Leads us to Lord of the Rings:Journeys in Middle Earth which along with a few other recent FFG releases has more than the faint whiff of an Ocean game about them.
Journeys is set in some vague time period before the events of Lord of the Rings and considering some big names from those adventures pop up here as both playable characters or supporting roles then this is best-wedged somewhere between extravagant fan fiction and wish fulfillment, general rule of thumb is don’t think too hard about it and just enjoy the ride.
So this one uses an app and essentially functions rather like the Tolkein embellished equivalent of FFG’s other literary cash in Mansions of Madness 2nd edition. Lets pause for a second to run you through how it all works.
Players each select a hero who comes with a card deck and some assorted equipment relating to the class you have chosen for them. The set-up points you in direction of the best fit of role and hero but you are free to mix it up as much as you like.
The meat of the game will see you performing tests to accomplish feats of strength agility or wit and you do this by drawing from your deck, for every success drawn then that’s a success toward the task. Some tests will have a specific number to hit others accumulate over time. Your deck is made up of 14 cards with only 4 of these successes others have this inspiration symbol that can be converted into a success by using an inspiration token.
So you might need to climb a ledge for two successes testing agility, you’ll look at your agility score and draw that many cards ta daa!
Combat functions the same way pulling cards and spending your successes to perform the wildly extravagant and cool actions on your weapons and equipment.
Cards also come with actions on them, well at the start of a game and end of around you have a rest action. What you can do is draw some cards and have the option of either preparing one of these (up to a max of 4) to be able to use that text-ability and any other cards can be either placed on the top or bottom of your deck.
And this card play is the core part of the game and is a great deal of fun. Building your deck and learning the synergies especially as you add more cards is solidly entertaining and one of its big strengths.
The app controls the whole campaign including telling you what tiles to place out and what tokens to populate them with: either search tokens – that will usually have a test attached to solve, Threat tokens (often again requiring a test to solve but will also generate threat while left alone) we’re come to threat in a minute.
Or people tokens that you can interact with and usually advance your quest.
Once the maps down you will be given a vague idea of usually what your goal at that point it is and away you go.
You can on your turn perform two actions, so either moving, interacting or fighting and you can break your actions up so move, interact and then finish your move.
Now threat. Each scenario has a big scary red threat bar, this advances each round your party will always generate threat but also the aforementioned threat markers or any unexplored areas also add one each round. At some points on this bar, there are markers with a number that are triggered when you hit them and will usually spawn bad guys on the map or some other less than savoury impairment to your walking and breakfasting.
Now anyone owning Mansions of Madness will at this point be thinking hold on that sounds a bit familiar, well you’d be right. essentially this has re-implemented the game-play and app integration of that game into the Tolkien setting.
But in doing so this feels like a slighter version, whereas the scenarios in Mansions were enthralling containing mysteries to be uncovered, puzzles to solve building to that satisfying if often fatal climax. Journeys is in such a rush to get on with the adventure little time is left to stop and smell the old toby.
This is in part due to how the game handles each separate part of the campaign, a majority of your games will take part on a journey map. These see the play area spreading out across your table like a pool of malevolent marmalade as you explore, however with the threat building each round and most scenarios having quite the tight time limit while the board is populated with umpteen tokens to discover and explore you always feel pressured to get on with things or risk being overrun by monsters or the inevitability of time.
Which seems in direct opposition to what Lord of the Rings is all about, both the books and the films I think we can all agree have a pace that at best could be described as languid, no-one was in much of a rush to get anywhere there was lot’s of bumbling in hedgerows and stopping for numerous breakfasts. In journeys, before you’d put the kettle on half your party has fucked off over and hill and been attacked by Troll.
It’s fine once your in that mindset but so often especially early game you will find yourself having to abandon any of the tantalizing side quest’s and just get on with things before the timer runs out.
And speaking of those quest’s and items generally this games is tight, it was halfway through our first campaign before we even found anything to keep, most of the times the app will dangle a carrot (ooh carrot) of some shiny Drawfen Helmet only to give you an inspiration token. Part of what we all enjoy about a quest is loot and Journeys feel’s like a stingy uncle.
Now there is levelling up, you gain XP and Lore during the adventure that eventually you can use to tweak your deck adding skills or upgrading equipment or your starter cards. But most of that comes at about the midway point of the game with only in the final third of the adventure when you fully unlock the potential of your character. One of the most satisfying things about a campaign game is that embellishment on what you start with and this just seems to take far too long before you can start to do that.
And that’s the game, aside from battle maps that we didn’t mention but every couple of games there will be a big adventure moment restricted to these two battle boards with some walls or other decoration that usually plays out like a boss battle to move the plot along. They are a nice break in the rush of the main campaign a chance to catch a breath and batter the shit out of some foe who’s been irking you from afar the last couple of sessions.
Oh, a quick word about death. So should your character ever succumb to their wounds then you have a final chance to res them. You inform the app of your malady and then perform a test a success means you discard any facedown damage and jump up refreshed ready to crack on with the adventure.
A fail, however, means that your entire party now only has till the end of that current round to succeed.
It’s a tricky issue because player elimination would have been a problem however there was a couple of occasions when Aragorn came over a bit dead meaning that despite us being one more turn away from completing a quest we all failed.
It’s a compromise the game has made, it makes sense but can be annoying when the rest of your party is fit as a fiddle and moments from victory.
So there you go that’s Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth so what do we think?
It’s a tough one because the experience of the campaign was a lot of fun, the card play and tweaking your deck and getting to know what’s in it and how it all works is a satisfying puzzle. It’s not Gloomhaven fun but did make for a slighter yet still interesting puzzle.
Overall there is a feeling of it all being a bit shallow it’s almost like that old eating a Chinese meal analogy fulfilling at the time but an hour later you’re a tad peckish again.
With so much lifted directly from Mansions, it has to be said of the two game’s Mansions is the better offering a more satisfying story and puzzles to solve whereas nothing in journeys ever really immerses you into the story. The threat mechanism always feels like its a nagging parent telling you to hurry up and get on with things, stop looking at that shiny stone. keep up!
It brings us back to my opening ramble about Ocean software this feels like one of those games a polished but ultimately less fulfilling version of the better game. Like a mixtape of FFG’s greatest hits re-purposed with that Lord of the Rings flavour sprinkled liberally on top.
It’s in of itself a fun experience and fans of the books and films will undoubtedly find plenty to enjoy but there are better adventure games out there. Imperial Assault offers a much more satisfying dungeon delve experience, Mansions is the better app exploration game and the Lord of the Rings LCG is for our money the more satisfying use of this license.
And with all that said, Gloomhaven still stands as our most treasured and enjoyed campaign game and with a price tag not far removed from what you’re spending on this I know what I’d pick.
So there you go Journeys in middle earth or probably better called sprinting about in middle earth and twating things. With an app.