Getting into any LCG can be a bit intimidating. Not only do you have to understand the basic mechanics and fundamentals of the game, but you also have to figure out what to buy in order to get started in an enjoyable way. The latter is especially challenging when considering Lord of the Rings, as its release structure is quite different from every other LCG on the market. Because of these potential barriers to entry, and because Lord of the Rings is a game that everyone should be playing, I’ve created this guide to help potential players dive in with greater clarity and ease.
Let’s start by taking a look at the products themselves, particularly their construction and relation to each other.
Fantasy Flight Games employs a distinct strategy with their core boxes, one that focuses on card diversity right out of the gate. As such, certain player cards in a core box will have one copy (usually cards that demonstrate an interesting interaction or mechanic), while others will have two or three copies (usually cards that reinforce the foundations of the game). Because any Lord of the Rings deck can have a maximum of three copies of any given card, three core sets are required in order to have a full playset of the core set cards. Don’t despair, however, as two core boxes is really the sweet spot for those not overly concerned with having a complete collection right up front. With two cores, you get all of the components that you need to expand the game to its max of four players (additional threat trackers and tokens) as well as a more-than-satisfactory play experience.
The core box also establishes a precedent for each expansion that follows, in that like the core box, each acts as a foundation for the six adventure packs that release after it. For example, the six adventure packs released after the core box are together known as the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, and each pack uses the quest cards found in the core box. In order to play any of the quests contained within the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, the core box is necessary. Understanding this structure of foundational release plus corresponding adventure packs is the crux of knowing your way around Lord of the Rings releases.
Expansions come with a healthy assortment of new player cards and quests, and they introduce new themes and mechanics to the game. Unlike the core box, all expansions include a full playset of every player card (three copies of cards you put in your deck, one copy of hero cards) and so only one copy is needed. Every expansion follows the precedent laid out above, in that it acts as the foundation of the subsequent adventure pack cycle.
These expansions are almost identical to the previously covered expansions in that they provide players with a full playset of their respective player cards as well as a few new quests. They differ in that they do not act as the foundation for any adventure pack cycle, and in that sense are completely stand-alone items. There are currently two lines of saga expansions, each focusing on the literary narrative from which they were inspired.
Here’s how they break down (in order of release and play):
The Hobbit – Over Hill and Under Hill & On the Doorstep
The Lord of the Rings – The Black Riders, The Road Darkens, The Treason of Saruman, & presumably another three more to complete the narrative.
Each series of saga expansions also features a “campaign mode” that allows and encourages players to play the quests in a single uninterrupted chain. Doing so gives players access to special “boon” cards, and recreates the epic nature of those classic Tolkien storylines!
Finally, the humble adventure pack. Each contains a new hero (one copy), a new quest, and a full playset of an assortment of new player cards for each sphere. Every non-saga expansion is followed by six adventure packs, after which a new expansion is released and followed by another six adventure packs. These sets of six adventure packs, known as “cycles”, follow a linked narrative that begins with the expansion itself and then progresses with each adventure pack’s quest. As such, it is recommended that you play each pack in order of its release to get the best experience possible!
Here’s how the cycles are queued up by their preceding larger release (in order of release):
Core Box – Shadows of Mirkwood cycle.
Khazad-Dum – Dwarrowdelf cycle.
Heirs of Numenor – Against the Shadows cycle.
The Voice of Isengard – The Ring-Maker cycle.
The Lost Realm – An as of yet unannounced cycle.
Nightmare Decks and Stand-Alone Scenarios:
Even with all the expansions and packs that have been released there is always room for more content and enhanced challenges to overcome in the world of Lord of the Rings. A stand-alone scenario is a set of quest cards that creates a new quest for players to enjoy, one that does not require any particular expansions or adventure packs to play. Nightmare decks, on the other hand, are less something new and more something different and much, much harder. A nightmare deck is a set of quest cards that modifies a pre-existing quest in order to increase its difficulty. Expect a truly significant boost to the insanity of whichever quest you turn “nightmare”, so try them at your own peril! Lastly it’s worth noting that both of these options are supliments as or for your quests only, as neither comes with any player cards.
Recommendations for Buying:
Now that the products themselves have been discussed, it’s worth talking a bit about what a new player might want to get beyond the core box, as that decision bears more consideration than just simply the order of release.
Here’s the order that I would recommend:
- Core Box (a minimum of two, but three is truly ideal)
- Khazad-Dum & the Dwarrowdelf Cycle
- The Hobbit Saga Expansions
- Heirs of Numenor & the Against the Shadows Cycle
- The Lord of the Rings Saga Expansions
- The Shadows of Mirkwood Cycle
- The Voice of Isengard and the Ring-Maker Cycle
- Start a Lord of the Rings Subscription
- Nightmare Decks and Scenarios
There are two variables that factor into this order of acquisition: the quest experience (judged by both its difficulty and overall fun) and the player cards that you get out of each release. When the game was new, it was not as polished as it has become today. Player cards frequently spanned a wide range on the quality/utility spectrum, meaning many were wholly unimpressive and others exceedingly powerful. Some of the quests were also a bit wonky and left new players underwhelmed or bewildered. These issues exist primarily in the first cycle, The Shadows of Mirkwood, which is why it is so low on the list even with its excellent player cards. Additionally, the quests of that cycle are far more manageable once you have your card library built up.
The good news is that by the time we get our first expansion and second cycle, Khazad-Dum and The Dwarrowdelf, things are dramatically improved on all fronts. Quests are more engaging and less wonky, and player cards are more consistent in their quality. This trend of improvement continues through all of the releases with each becoming, at least to me, better than the last. So why not just buy in reverse order of release? In a word, difficulty. The newer quests, though often better, are often harder because of their assuming that a player will have access to all of the previous cards. Given that, I find it best to walk down the road of releases fairly faithfully once beyond Shadows of Mirkwood.
So there you have it, your Lord of the Rings buyers guide to not only a wonderful game but some truly amazing adventures in the lands of Middle-Earth. May your quests be full of second breakfasts!