Christian T. Petersen


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Upon opening the gamebox and having a first look at the components I was once again impressed by the multitude of card decks, tokens, miniatures and other playing materials which FFG tends to include with its games, and furthermore I also was quite taken with the nice illustrations which could be found both on the cards and on the huge gameboard. Although FFG failed to hire my favourite Tolkien-artist John Howe, the artist nonetheless has made a good job and many places and creatures have been brought to life with impressive drawings, and so the basic requirements for an atmospheric game were set.

Grabbing the rulebook and scanning through the pages, another typical side of FFG games also is present in Middle Earth Quest: the rules are over 30 pages long, with lots of examples included but also with quite a bit of nifty and tricky details, and by this first general look I got to the impression that the game definitely is no speedy starter like Talisman where all you need to start is to choose a Hero and roll a dice, but instead the game bears a much stronger resemblance to the starting requirements found in FFG's Arkham Horror where quite a lot of rules need to be explained and where even the game setup requires additional time due to the multitude of included components and card decks. Overall, the game certainly will require some explanatory time to get new players into the rules.

I don't know why, but actually I was hoping for Middle Earth Quest to be a cooperative game like Knizia's classic Lord of the Rings boardgame or the already quoted Arkham Horror, but as I could see right from the beginning this hope was not fulfilled here. Instead, the game follows a more classic confrontational approach known from games like Heroquest with one player assuming the position of Sauron and up to three others players taking the roles of Heroes of the Free People, cooperating to bring down Sauron's plots. The game is set in a period of 17 years between Bilbo's disappearance at his famous birthday party and Frodo's leaving of the Shire in order to destroy the One Ring, and during that time span Sauron slowly was spreading his influence to prepare for war and to search for the lost One Ring. The Heroes are so-far unknown characters belonging to the different factions of Middle Earth (a Dwarf, a female Gondorian, a Rider of Rohan, an Elf and a female Ranger), and they take the position as allies of Gandalf who have sworn to thwart Sauron's plans in any way they can.

As a result of the different roles and aims of Sauron and the Heroes, both sides apply a different set of available mechanisms and actions in their playing turns. Staring with the Heroes, their roles and playing mechanisms partly will seem familiar to players who have seen other kinds of adventure games. Thus, each Hero possesses a Hero card listing some attributes like Fortitude, Strength or Wisdom, and during the game the Heroes can raise their attributes and collect helpful skills and items. Most precious commodity of all Heroes are Favour tokens, and these can be collected by different events, combats and meetings during the game. The Heroes can use these Favours to hinder Sauron's plans in different ways, and thus they will bee constantly on the outlook to gather new Favours at different places (remember the Clues in Arkham Horror?).

However, a quite interesting approach has been found by FFG to the questions of Combat, Movement and measuring a Hero's health, since all of these factors are decided by a deck of Hero cards which are gathered in a so-called Life Pool. Each of the characters possesses his own Life Pool of Hero cards, and during the course of the game the players constantly will draw cards from their shuffled Life Pool and take these cards as their playing hand. In a technical sense the cards on a player's hand still count as cards in the Life Pool, and a Hero is defeated if he comes into the situation that he has neither cards in his Life Pool nor at his hand. A player must discard cards from the Life Pool or from the his hand whenever he loses Lifes (by combat etc), and these cards are placed into a separate Damage Pool. They cards only can be moved back into the player's Life Pool by a healing action which can be chosen at some Haven-places, but as long as the cards are not moved back the stockpile of Hero cards available to the player is slowly dwindling.

The effect of this multifunctional approach is strengthened by the fact that the player also will use the cards on his hand either for movement or during combat. Whenever a player wishes to move his Hero from one location to the next, he looks at the path between the two locations in order to find a terrain symbol and a number. The movement can be made if the player discards either a Hero card with a matching terrain symbol or the required number of Hero cards into yet another discard pile - the Rest Pool. Likewise, in each round of a combat both the Hero and Sauron secretly chose one of their combat cards and reveal them simultaneously, with each side dealing damage to the other corresponding to the attack and defence values of the cards. The cards used in combat also are discarded into the Rest Pool, and although Resting does not require a Hero to be in a Haven it still costs precious time to get the cards from the Rest Pool back into the Life Pool.

However, although the combat rules are fairly straightforward, let me tell you a bit more about the surrounding conditions. As you might guess, Sauron commands a horde of Monsters which he can bring into play and move on the gameboard in form of face-down monster tokens, and in addition he also commands five Minions (like the Witch King or the Mouth of Sauron) which are his own special characters. Whenever a combat between a Hero and a Monster or a Minion ensues, Sauron checks at the corresponding Monster or Minion card to see which deck of combat cards he is allowed to take (these decks are labelled Zealot, Marauder and Behemoth), and he draws a number of cards from the freshly shuffled deck as a starting hand for the combat. The combat then ensues, usually lasting for several rounds in which both Sauron and the Hero player simultaneously choose and reveal their combat cards. Other than the Hero the health of Sauron's creature is not measured by the size of his card deck, but instead he keeps track of the number of wounds dealt by the Hero. If a certain amount of wounds is reached, the creature is slain and the Hero can continue with his turn, whereas on the other hand a Hero running out of Hero cards is defeated and his playing piece is moved to the closest Haven, once again loosing the side of the Free People precious time in their struggle against Sauron.

As a side detail, I should also mention that the combat cards also contain special effects which can be applied either in the same or in the following round of combat, and these effects actually add a small strategic element to the combat since the players need to work out an order in which they want to play their cards. However, a combat does not run forever, but instead each card has an exhaustion value which adds up to a total level of exhaustion, and if a player has reached his maximum exhaustion he can no longer play cards in this combat. And if both players are exhausted before either Hero or creature is defeated, the combat ends with Sauron being able to spread Influence tokens equal to the wisdom rating of his creature.

Talking about Influence, we now have reached the point at which we should have a look at the playing mechanisms available to the Sauron player, and here it is important to understand the way how success and time are measured in the game. The gameboard features a Story Track at which one Hero token and three different Sauron tokens slowly advance, and when either one of the tokens reaches the last "Finale" space of the Story Track, or alternatively all three of Sauron's tokens pass a space called "The Shadow Falls" approximately half the way up the Story Track, the game moves to its final stage. Both Sauron and the Heroes struggle to trigger the Finale with their own marker(s), since the advantage of being ahead on the Story Track gives the leading side a chance for an instant victory. However, whereas the Hero's marker generally is moved forwards during each of Sauron's turns for a fixed quota of two steps, Sauron's markers only are moved forwards if Sauron succeeds in playing and keeping Plot cards. These cards are assigned to certain locations on the gameboard and give Sauron different advantages ranging from the movement of his Story markers to detrimental effects for the Heroes, and so the Heroes try to reach these locations in order to force Sauron to discard the Plot in exchange for discarding Favours.

Sauron's main instrument in the game is his Influence, and he slowly spreads influence markers over the gameboard in lines coming from Shadow Stronghold locations. The playing of Plot cards and Monsters usually require one or more Influence tokens to be present at a location, and thus Sauron's influence markers slowly crawl into different regions in order to give the Sauron player an opportunity to cause some mischief there. The Heroes on the other hand do not only combat his plots, but they also force Sauron to discard Influence at their current locations, and sometimes they even succeed in isolating a chain of influence from a Shadow Stronghold, causing Sauron a massive loss of Influence.

Apart from the placement of influence Sauron also may opt to move Monsters and Minions and to draw and play certain types of Shadow cards, and so the Sauron player does not focus on a single character like the Hero players do but instead is in command of a number of factors which all contribute to a progressively worsening situation on the gameboard. There exists quite a number of side rules concerning Sauron's choice of action and other game factors, but it would blow up the scope of this review to go deeper into details. Something which should be mentioned here is the fact that Event cards which can be played by both sides also add to atmosphere and variety in the game, and the availability of certain decks of cards also is linked to the current stage on the Story track so that different decks come into play as the game proceeds. A nice advantage for Sauron is the fact that the Hero players are not allowed to consult with each other in secrecy or to show each other their hand of cards, but in terms of the story this necessary advantage can be justified by the fact that Sauron has his spies everywhere. On the other hand this simple rule results in an interesting dilemma for the Heroes, since they have to weigh how much they should tell each other because the enemy is listening.

Coming to the grand Finale, both the Sauron player and the Heroes side have received a Mission card at the beginning of the game. This mission card lists a condition which the player(s) should long to fulfil, since the card will be checked if a side has triggered the Finale by advancing a marker on the Story Track. If the condition on the card is met that side can claim instant victory, but it is only relevant if the side has triggered the Finale with its story marker. If no instant victory can be claimed, each Hero player receives a full hand of hero cards and the Heroes must chose a Champion who will face a final combat against Sauron's Ringwraith minion, and the side who wins this final combat then has won the game.

As indicated, there is much more to Middle Earth Quest than can be told here, and features like quests for the Hero players and skills which can be learned and added to the Hero decks enrich the game even further. However, the playtesting session here at the convention has shown me that my initial thoughts about a longer explanatory phase before the game can be started are necessary. Both Sauron and the Hero players need to understand the game fully in order to participate, and this means that new players face a considerable rules volume when they want to learn the game. The rules were structured well and were a useful reference during gameplay, but this does not lower the initial hurdle.

An interesting question which I asked myself after the playtesting session was whether I like Middle Earth Quest so much that my eagerness for the game to be released can be justified, and here I must confess that I left the playing table with somewhat mixed feelings. The rules were good and overall the game offered a quite authentic playing atmosphere, and I especially liked the Hero decks and their different uses since they effectively remove the well known six-sided randomizers which tend to fall to the floor. All elements of a classic adventure game can be found in Middle Earth Quest, but FFG actually succeeded in putting a stronger strategic orientation into the game, thus leaving the players with a higher degree of control and options for planning. I do not think that I have seen such a sophistication in an adventure game before, and this makes Middle Earth Quest to my mind a rather outstanding game.

However, there also are some factors which have partly spoiled my enjoyment, and foremost to mention is the fact that one player needs to play the bad guy. I know, it is a rather subjective view that this decreases playing fun because the Sauron player takes a more active stance than a typical gamemaster, but still I prefer to be on the Hero side in these kind of games. As a matter of fact, I have rarely seen a player who is not really eager to play a character, but instead is satisfied with the role of the scheming evil-doer on the manager seat. Furthermore, I consider a final combat of one character against the Ringwraiths to determine the winning side as a somewhat sub-optimal alternative to the instant victory by a completed Mission. While the fine-tuned mechanics of the Story Track and the general playing procedures make it hard to think of an alternative solution, a combat seems to be a rather quick and somewhat luck-dependant possibility to end the game. Okay, this statement needs to be partly counterbalanced, since I have explained earlier that combat is more strategic in Middle Earth Quest than in many other games, and furthermore the final scores on the Story Track and the skills and equipment collected by the Champion all come to bear in this combat as well. However, a final combat still feels quick and merciless, and thus it might be seen a bit unsatisfactory after long hours of plotting and planning. As an additional point of criticism, FFG also failed to come up with a satisfactory solution to the "defeated Hero" problem. While the whole game depends on the fact that Heroes cannot be permanently removed, for me the solution to return a defeated Hero to the next Haven with a fully refreshed Life Pool and to give Sauron a step on the Story Track in compensation seems to be not really ingenious in contrast to the nice procedure with the Hero cards. Some interesting transition to a new Hero or a changed Hero would have been more to my liking.

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings still is the most read work of Fantasy which was ever created, and thus, as a final point in this review I would like to comment on the closeness of the game to Tolkien's works. Here I can only compliment FFG because they have created a rather good and rich atmosphere which fills the gap of 17 years in which the game is set. As a great fan of Tolkien's works only FFG's choice of characters really disappointed me because I would have preferred the players to take the roles of characters which later could be found in the events of the Lord of the Rings and not as unknown Heroes who have no role in the real story. Thus, I can well imagine sideline characters like Glorfindel, Eomer, Gloin, Faramir, Halbarad or even Eowyn or Arwen as Gandalf's secret allies in those darkening years, and for me such a choice of characters would have greatly increased the identification with the game. However, I am fully aware that this is purely a matter of taste, and I guess that - if I should purchase the game - I will create some fitting character cards myself in order to tune the game to my personal liking. Even the missing playing pieces of these new characters pose no real problem, since the included miniatures can be replaced easily by resorting to GAMES WORKSHOP's range of Lord of the Rings miniatures.

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Copyright © 2009 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany