I wasn’t sure what to expect upon opening The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Deck Building Game (Amazon) from Cryptozoic. I was familiar with the basic concept of deck building games and had played both Ascension and Marvel Legendary, but the only deck building game I actually owned was the science fiction game Eminent Domain. Fortunately, LOTR: The Two Towers contains some engaging variations on basic deck-building strategy, resulting in a fun competitive game that is sure to entertain fans of the series for endless variations of play, especially when combined with other deck-building games in the series.
If you’ve never played one, here’s the basic mechanic behind deck-building games: Each player begins with a small default deck of cards (10 starting out in all of the above games) and goes through rounds in which they play cards from their hands to buy more cards into their discard pile. When they run through all their cards, the player shuffles it back into the deck. Many of the cards have a secondary ability, such as letting the player draw more cards out of the deck, take cards from the discard pile, or eliminate useless cards from their hand or discard pile. The goal is to gain effective cards and streamline your deck to get as many effective cards into your hand as quickly as possible.
The first thing that makes The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers stand out is that each player gets to assume the role of one of the characters from the film: Samwise, Frodo, Legolas, Aragorn, Merry & Pippin, Gimli, or King Theoden. By drawing from a selection of oversized Hero cards, the player randomly determine which character they are (or you can just choose). Each different character gets a unique card that goes into their starting deck. For example, Frodo’s card (called “It’s Getting Heavier”) allows him to gain control of The One Ring card while Samwise’s card (“There’s Some Good in This World”) protects from possible negative results from cards and allows you to draw another card.
In addition to the unique character card, the starter deck contains 3 “Despair” cards and 6 “Courage” cards. The Despair cards serve no benefit of any kind, representing absolutely useless wastes of time for the player. It’s also possible throughout play to gain “Corruption” cards, which are similarly useless, and actually count against your final point total. For example, several cards related to The One Ring card can force you to put Corruption cards into your deck or the deck of another player. The Courage cards are useful, each worth 1 Power point. You can buy cards and defeat Enemies from the center of the play area by spending Power points out of your hand of cards. It quickly becomes beneficial to find ways to eliminate Despair, Corruption, and Courage cards from your hand, so you have higher probabilities of getting the more valuable cards that you’re buying from the center row.
The cards you buy are chosen from a row of 5 cards in front of you. The cards fall in different categories: Ally, Artifact, Maneuver, Location, Fortune, and Enemy. Certain cards have powers that affect different cards, creating for potentially powerful synergies within a deck. For example, the Aragorn Ally card becomes more powerful based on the number of Artifacts you’ve played in the turn you’re playing it. If you gain the Aragorn Ally card early in play (which can be bought by any character, not just the one playing Aragorn), then one strategy is to load your deck up with Artifacts, so that when Aragorn comes out, there’s a chance of him being a massive powerhouse.
In addition to the row of 5 cards you can buy, you can also use your accumulated power to defeat the top card on the 12-card Archenemy deck. It starts with King Theoden and ends with Sarumon, with a bunch of nasty orcs in between.
Finally, there’s a Wall Deck, which is a series of cards that are triggered by revealing various other cards throughout the game. This represents the progress on the assault on Helm’s Deep, and can generate various negative effects for the person forced to draw Wall cards. And woe be to the person who draws the card resulting in the Wall’s breach!
All of this sounds like a lot of moving parts, and it is, but the play is pretty fluid since the cards tell you all of your options at any given time. I played the game with my 8-year-old son and he understood it pretty clearly in just a few rounds. He’d previously played both Ascension and Legendary with me, and there were some differences in the mechanics that took some getting used to. In both those games, there are different statistics used to buy cards and defeat enemy cards, while Power serves both purposes in LOTR: The Two Towers. Also, he was confused by the idea that the Enemy and Archenemy cards go into your deck and have benefits just like the other cards, which is a change from the way Villain/Monster cards are treated in the previous deck-building games we’ve played.
How do you win LOTR: The Two Towers? Most of the cards are worth a certain number of Victory Points, and the player who ends the game with the most Victory Points wins. There are three ways to end the game:
- Run out of cards in the Main Deck.
- Defeat the last card (Sarumon) from the Archenemy Deck.
- Run out of cards in the Wall Deck.
Here we run into my only complaint related to the game (and it’s a relatively minor one): the victory conditions strike me as kind of strange, within the context of the story itself. If the game ends by running out of Wall cards, it seems to me like all players should lose the game. Yes, I over think these things … but that’s what geeks do.
This game has excellent potential for both solitary and cooperative variations, but this is addressed only peripherally in the rules, with a high-stakes “Impossible Mode” variation. (More on that in a bit.) Considering that the players are all assuming the roles of characters that are allies in a united fight against evil, it seems thematically odd that there isn’t a common objective that is over and above the objective of individually gaining the highest score. Marvel Legendary, in comparison, results in a loss for everyone if the Mastermind’s plot succeeds, while still allowing an individual victory based on the point values of cards. The primary objective in the game is to defeat the Mastermind, with your success over the other players secondary, and this seems much more thematically in line with a game based on Lord of the Rings. It seems much more “realistic” if the various players are playing together primarily to defeat the villains before the Wall can be destroyed and if they fail, then everyone wins the game. Put in other terms:
If you play a game where you defeat the Archenemies and the Legolas player has the most Victory Points, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that Legolas won the game. However, if you end the game with Archenemies remaining and the Wall destroyed, it seems odd that you can still say that Legolas won the game!
The Impossible Mode does make this change to the rules – everyone loses if The Wall deck depletes – and also ups the stakes by using a separate stack of more powerful Archenemy cards. (My “Impossible Mode” Archenemy deck remains unopened at this time, so I can not comment on how much more powerful they are.) I guess I just object to this being a variation … it seems like it should be the core victory mechanism in the game. It also seems like the game should consist of a solitaire variant, wherein a single player attempts to defeat all archenemies before the Wall deck depletes (presumably with reduced deck sizes).
With that brief criticism, the game itself is tremendous amounts of fun, especially if you have an ample number of people willing to play with you. If you’ve never played a deck-building game, the initial set-up and first couple of rounds might be kind of rocky as you figure out how all of the different cards relate to each other, but just follow the directions and in no time you’ll be flying through hands faster than a Great Eagle on the way to Mount Doom. (I’m not sure if I gain or lose points for that reference, since it’s actually from Return of the King.) If you’re a fan of the books and films, you will undoubtedly enjoy playing the game with your friends, fellow fans, and possibly even your enemies and rivals.
I don’t have the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring deck-building game (Amazon), but the rules contain instructions for how to merge the two games together, so even if you do already own the earlier game adding The Two Towers to your collection seems like it might be worthwhile. There is not currently a slated release date for a Return of the King deck-building game to complete the trilogy, but I’ll pass along the word when it’s available.
My understanding is that Cryptozoic’s DC Comics deck-building game (Amazon) follows essentially the same mechanic as the LOTR games, with players assuming the roles of comic book heroes instead of LOTR characters. Here’s a link to the DC Comics deck-building game rulebook, for more details.
Disclaimer: Review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Expert and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.