Embark on your own adventures in J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic world with The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, a fully co-operative, app-supported board game for one to five players! You'll battle villainous foes, make courageous choices, and strike a blow against the evil that threatens the land — all as part of a thrilling campaign that leads you across the storied hills and dales of Middle-earth.
Each individual game of Journeys in Middle-earth is a single adventure in a larger campaign. You'll explore the vast and dynamic landscapes of Middle-earth, using your skills to survive the challenges that you encounter on these perilous quests. As you and your fellow heroes explore the wilderness and battle the dark forces arrayed against you, the game's companion app guides you to reveal the looming forests, quiet clearings, and ancient halls of Middle-earth, while also controlling the enemies you encounter. Whether you're venturing into the wild on your own or with close companions by your side, you can write your own legend in the history of Middle-earth.
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A few weeks ago, I did something unexpected.
I saw there was a live Kickstarter for 1861/67, and I backed it immediately. Me, the Euro gamer who judges whether or not he'll like a game based on the percentage of beige on the table. Me, the person for whom turning wooden pieces into other wooden pieces is the idea of a perfect weekend. Me, the person who will probably end up naming his future firstborn Uwe Pfister Feld Gerdts.
In ages past, I've tried to venture outside my dry-Euro comfort zone. I tried to play Ameritrash games: Dead of Winter, Journeys in Middle Earth, and anything FFG offered that could snap me out of this comatose German aversion to anything that remotely reeks of fun. But to no avail--every time I tried to engage with plastic miniatures and beautiful graphic design, I spent entire gaming sessions looking over my shoulder, wondering if my beloved Concordia felt betrayed, asking myself if the dead, empty eyes of the sad men on Great Western Trail's cover would ever take me back.
But then I saw something that would haunt me forever.
Capstone's new edition of Irish Gauge.
Look at it. Feast your eyes on that beautiful, minimalist graphic design. Look at the delectable little choo-choo trains. The placid greens, the muted hexagons, the obtuse-yet-simple table of numbers. But surely it wasn't for me. Train games are for middle-aged nerds who collect stamps, and I'm a cultured Eurogamer. I don't manipulate share prices--that's beneath me! I'm too busy turning salt into bricks into food into tools into wine into cloth into cold, uncaring victory points in the Mediterranean. Auctions? Hah! What is this, 1997?
So I guiltily tucked it away. I kept my little transgression hidden in the deep, dark recesses of my cardboard-obsessed mind. And for a while, I was happy. But then I finally got the chance to play a game I'd been dying to try; I finally played Brass: Birmingham. I have trouble categorizing the Brass games: are they economic simulations? Are they Euros? Do they share DNA with the rest of Martin Wallace's games, which are decidedly not Euros? These questions will surely go down in history as some of the greatest unanswered mysteries of our time. But what isn't a mystery is the fact that Brass: Birmingham is special.
A bloat of obscure rules, concepts, and grammar coalesce into a cutthroat tapestry of economic manipulation--a knife-fight between British gentlemen who dare say you're bloody daft for interfering with their capitalistic machinations, and by jove they will strangle you with the coal-and-soot-laden invisible hand if they have to. It's a nasty game, and it's an unusual game, and it is special. I can say with confidence that it is probably the best designed board game I've ever played. To boot: if you're a sheepish Eurogamer like me, it is infinitely more palatable than the barebones economic rampage that is train games.
The first time I played Brass: Birmingham, I lost. I lost by a lot. But I had a hell of a time losing, and try as I might, I just couldn't get the game out of my mind. Maybe, I thought to myself, Maybe I could be into economic board games? Maybe I could love games that aren't beige? Maybe, somewhere deep inside, there is a part of me that could be confrontational, and conniving, and cutthroat? Ah, but it was in between print runs. Bad luck. There was nothing for it.
Weeks later, I saw that my local game store had a more innocuous--and civilized--game on sale: Gugong. I'd played it before and remembered liking its spin on the worker placement mechanism, so I drove out to pick it up. I don't know how the timing lined up so perfectly, but there, in the midst of the chaos and cardboard mayhem, were the two games that had been plaguing me for weeks: 1 copy of Brass: Birmingham, and several copies of Irish Gauge.
I did not stand a chance. Faster than you can say Kennerspiele des Jahres, I had 3 new games in my shelf.
The first time I played Irish Gauge, I hesitantly introduced it to the table as some train game I saw at the store for cheap. It was a lie designed to obfuscate my shameful obsession. Oh, how wonderful would it be if this impulse purchase could somehow ride the wings of serendipity to rise above the fray of mediocrity? (The table is the perfect place for melodrama). So we played. And it was fantastic. It was beyond fantastic--it was revelatory.
Look, don't read this word-vomit as a review. It isn't. Irish Gauge, by all regular metrics, is a fine game. Fans of the cube rails genre (to which Irish Gauge belongs) don't even consider it the best cube rails game--that accolade many of them reserve for Chicago Express, or, if the pedantry will allow, Wabash Cannonball. But it is a solid game of auctions, company value manipulation, and general economic skullduggery. And it's a whirlwind--what with its one page of rules and its breezy mechanics for determining dividends, the whole thing plays in under an hour. It basically begs you to play it a second time.
Irish Gauge is a game, but it's also an argument. It is likely the simplest, most stripped-down version of itself, and so on that merit it makes a case for the value of barebones economic games. What it abstracts away is dross; what it keeps is a spatial puzzle of optimization and tenuous alliances. There is a fragile balance to be found in this type of game, not unlike the fragile balance I later came to enjoy when I played Pax Pamir.
Brass: Birmingham, that lumbering behemoth, planted the sick notion in my head that economic games might be as fun as the driest of Euros. Irish Gauge convinced me of that fact. For the longest time, I refused to consider these types of games as the expansion of my horizons--too mean, too complicated, too mathy. Not enough story, I thought. You can't ask that much of me; I play games to have fun, not to do homework.
But here I am, a convert brimming with potential. If economic games are for me, then why not the Pax games? Why not COIN games? I am once again excited to discover new things--I feel once more the thrill I felt when I first became a hobbyist, when every Shut Up & Sit Down video was an exciting new possibility, when every game on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop could possibly be the game. I eagerly await the arrival of my first 18xx game as my cardboard pantheon grows to include names like Wehrle and Russell and Wallace and Tresham. It doesn't mean I've turned my back on the chorus of passive-aggressive Germans who brought me into this hobby. It just means there's room in my heart to be a little bit sinister.
By Mr. Saint
When, as a child, I had decided I outgrew Goosebumps and the Animorphs series, the first “grown-up” book I can remember falling in love with was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From that first story, an obsession with Middle-earth and persistent love of high fantasy was born. I entered the hobby a little late to easily get my hands on Middle-earth Quest, though I did get to play it at a game night once. I was completely fascinated with the idea of playing through an adventure in Tolkien’s world, especially if that adventure was not necessarily tied to the War of the Ring. That’s why when Fantasy Flight Games announced the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, a game that looked to be the spiritual successor to Middle-earth Quest, I was immediately pumped.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth (hereinafter Journeys for short) is a cooperative, app integrated dungeon crawler. Over the course of its ten to fourteen adventure campaign, players will have to work together to understand and ultimately confront the evil that threatens the realm. Each individual adventure of Journeys is played over a series of rounds. Each round consists of an Action Phase, a Shadow Phase, and a Rally Phase.
In the Action Phase, each player may perform up to two actions. The possible actions are travel (move your character up to two spaces on the map), attack an enemy, or interact with a token. If you travel onto an unexplored tile, you immediately explore it, triggering the app to populate it with various search and threat tokens, NPCs, or enemies.
Once all players have performed their actions, it’s time for the Shadow Phase. In this phase, the app will instruct players on how each enemy on the board activates. This generally takes the form of targeting a specific character and moving towards them, or attacking that player if they are in range. Once all enemies have activated, the adventuring parties’ Threat is assessed.
Indicated by a red bar at the top of the screen, the Threat meter represents the amount of time the players have to complete their objectives before the forces of evil overrun the area they’re adventuring in. Periodically, players will reach specific threat thresholds, which will trigger additional events, such as spawning enemies or updating the current adventure objective due to the passage of time. If the Threat meter ever completely fills, the players will fail the adventure. Notably, even if you do fail an adventure, you will proceed to the next one, though there are sometimes consequences you’ll have to contend with later.
In the Rally Phase, players reset their skill deck by shuffling it together with their discard and then have the opportunity to “Scout 2”. When scouting, a player reveals a number of cards equal to the scout value from the top of their skill deck, prepares up to one of them (putting it in front of their character as a usable skill), and puts the remainder on the top or bottom of their deck. In this way, the Rally Phase allows players to size up their current situation and plan for the upcoming round.
Almost all interaction in Journeys takes the form of tests. Each hero comes equipped with numerical values for a series of five stats - might, agility, spirit, wisdom, and wit. Whether you’re trying to decipher an ancient text, slam your axe into an orc’s skull, or sprint up some structurally questionable stairs, the app will assign that activity to one of these stats and ask you to test. This is done by revealing a number of cards from your skill deck equal to your character’s stat value. Any orange star icons in the top left of the revealed cards count as successes. If you reveal the blue and white Fate icon, you can spend inspiration earned from other activities (such as exploring) to convert that symbol to a success as well. Total up the number of successes you were able to muster and compare that to the app’s requirement to determine whether you passed or failed the test.
Let's start with the big question: Does the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth feel like a journey in Middle-earth? Well… that really depends on what you’re looking for. The journey maps do an admirable job of abstracting the concept of traversing vast distances while being harried by enemies at every turn. And in a nod to the source material, some of the adventures are non-combat focused.
Certainly, it gets all the proper nouns right to make you feel like you’re a player in Tolkien’s world. Fantasy Flight even injects some name-brand appeal into the game, with familiar faces like Aragorn, Gimli, and Bilbo as playable characters. For me personally, this caused a bit of cognitive dissonance. What are Gimli and Legolas doing in the same adventuring party prior to the formation of the Fellowship? I would have preferred that characters without so much baggage, like Fantasy Flight’s own Beravor and Elena, form the selection of playable character options with cameos during the adventures from more well-known characters, but I fully admit this is a bit of a nit-pick that didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the game.
I’ve seen some other reviewers comment on how Journeys is rather stingy with potential item upgrades, in stark contrast to other dungeon crawlers which pepper you with loot at regular intervals. For me, this was one of the things that rang most true to the Middle-earth experience. Aragorn doesn’t walk into a city shop when he has enough gold and trade in his beat up sword for Andúril, the Flame of the West. Arwen has to convince Elrond to have his smiths reforge the shards of Narsil, in order to give the sword to Aragorn before he travels the Paths of the Dead. Bilbo’s (and later Frodo’s) mithril coat was recovered from Smaug’s dragon hoard. The Phial of Galadriel dates back to a time before the First Age. These objects have history. They should feel appropriately rare.
The rest of Journeys feels a bit generic fantasy adventure. If we changed the names of people and places to be in line with Fantasy Flight’s Terrinoth setting, you could have called this game Descent 3rd Edition and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. And that’s ok. Most board game narratives are merely set dressing for players to interact with a game’s mechanisms. No spoilers, but Journeys is still probably narratively a cut above some of its peers, with at least a couple of adventures that are legitimately memorable.
If you came for a story, you’ll stay for Journeys’ excellent card play. Significantly more interesting than rolling a handful of dice, the skill deck presents you with meaty tactical decisions every turn. When we first started playing Journeys, the choices presented by scouting during the Rally Phase (and at the start of every adventure), seemed obvious. Of course I would prepare my most generally powerful card, with the other card(s) I revealed finding a home either on the top or bottom of my deck based on whether they had the coveted success icon.
Midway through the second adventure, I realized that the skill cards that typically had the success icon were the same that I had identified as being most useful in a general sense. If I prepared four of these skills to take advantage of their flexible abilities, that was four less success icons in my deck to actually succeed at tests with! Once I had this revelation, I was constantly trying to plan ahead, determining which skills to prepare, place on the bottom, or leave on top of my deck based on what I wanted to accomplish during a given round. I was enthralled with this predictive gameplay loop, and the fun it generated effortlessly carried us through the campaign.
But the thing that will keep me coming back to Journeys, now that we’ve completed our first campaign, is the way it handles character progression. Experience is earned at the end of each adventure and is used to add additional skill cards to your deck. Even better, as you continue to gain experience, you can seamlessly swap cards in and out of your deck in between adventures, giving you the freedom to experiment with all that a given role has to offer.
Journeys also allows you to change your character’s role in between adventures. Because experience earned is role-specific, you will keep any cards you purchased when switching to a new one. In this way, Journeys offers a level of character customization rarely seen in other dungeon crawlers. It gives you the tools to build the character you want.
I’m sure many adventuring parties in Journeys featured Gimli, son of Glóin (most probably did honestly, because Gimli is awesome). But my Gimli? Affectionately nicknamed “Happy Feet” for the boots trinket he acquired, I outfitted him with a unique mixture of Guardian and Pathfinder abilities that gave him the speed to get to the action and the resilience to see a fight through. Journeys gave me a sense of ownership in my character that I rarely feel from board games, and it’s a system I want to continue to explore.
The fail-forward form of adventure progression, whereby the narrative continues regardless of whether you succeed or fail at a given adventure, was something I was initially very excited about. When it worked as intended, it was great! Like the time we spent close to an hour and a half battling enemies only to have one of our characters finally succumb to their wounds and fail a last stand test, causing us to fail the adventure. We “got our money’s worth” out of that adventure, if you will, and it was a relief to be able to continue with the story rather than have to replay that mission before we could proceed.
We also had the worst-case scenario, whereby a last stand was triggered and failed off of damage done from a failed first-turn test. While the narrative still proceeded in a coherent way, it felt like we had just missed out on an entire adventure. In this brave new world of app-integrated board games, designers may want to take some inspiration from video games for usability upgrades. I for one, would appreciate a level select menu and an undo button (misclicks happen)!
Although, in the apps’ defense, this is probably the best executed of Fantasy Flight’s app-based games to date. Small refinements over previous titles add up to a big difference. Like how the unrevealed map tiles now have a “fog of war” effect on the screen, letting you know approximately how big the map will get during a given adventure and in which direction it will grow so that you can allocate your table space accordingly. Or the Threat meter being completely visible. No more major peril gotcha moments, like those that frustrated us in the Descent: Road to Legend app campaigns. If you’re vehemently against app-integrated board games, nothing I’ve said here will change your mind. If you’ve been on the fence and are now thinking about trying one, I think starting with Journeys is the way to go.
When we had finished our playthrough and I started poking around the app to see how much things changed from campaign to campaign, Mrs. Saint stopped me. She exclaimed, “I don’t want spoilers for the next time we play!” And once I had checked my curiosity, I found that I agreed with her completely. That quick exchange is the heart of this review. We both enjoyed our time with Journeys so much that we were immediately looking forward to playing it more. There’s a downloadable second campaign (the Hunt for the Ember Crown) and we’ve already pre-ordered the Shadowed Paths expansion which is scheduled for release later this summer. I’m very much looking forward to what the future holds for the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth!
If you enjoyed this review, please check out the full review with all featured images on our website: www.gamingwiththesaints.com and be sure to follow us on Twitter to get updates on when new content is released @Saint_Gamers.
[Brass: Birmingham, Concordia, Gùgōng, The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, Irish Gauge, 1861: Russia / 1867: Canada, Pax Pamir (Second Edi...]
[The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth]
[The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth]
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