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Middle Earth Quest : A Review by Nigel Buckle

A snap review after one play – prior to playing I’d downloaded the rules from Fantasy Flight’s website, so knew pretty much how to play...

There were 4 of us, one who arrived a bit late, so we had a quick run through of a couple of turn (including a combat) before he arrived, so I think we had some idea of how the mechanics worked but no real idea about strategy, nor detailed knowledge of the decks.

There is a definite learning curve on this game, and each side plays differently and you need to know the goals and abilities of both to do well – what you need to do to succeed and what you need to do to stop the other side.

I won’t dwell too much on mechanics, as you can get the details of those from reading the rules from the publisher’s website, rather I’ll cover the feel of the game and give my opinion on who would like it.

The game is set 17 years before Frodo leaves the Shire with the ring – so Gandalf knows the One Ring has been found (or at least has very strong suspicions) but everyone else is largely ignorant. Hero players represent characters recruited by Gandalf to protect the shire and try to hold back the advancing influence of Sauron (his influence over leaders, the emergence of monsters, etc), the Sauron player represents Sauron – advancing his plots to overthrow the Free People and recover his ring.

It is worth mentioning Fantasy Flight’s other big box Lord of the Rings game – War of the Ring. These two games approach the theme from different directions. War of the Ring is set later (Frodo and the ring are at Rivendell, and about to leave on the quest to destroy it) and the emphasis is on armies and hunting for the ring. Characters are important, but only for recruiting troops, leading armies or protecting/hunting for the ring. In Middle Earth Quest it is the other way around – armies are abstracted and the focus is on individuals exploring Middle Earth and Sauron expanding his influence out of his strongholds in Mordor, the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood.

I played Sauron, so I can’t really comment on the feel of playing as a hero – but as Sauron I found the game is strongly tied to the theme, my role is to dominate the Free Peoples in 3 ways. In military terms I have minions (such as the Ringwraiths) to move around and carry out my will – either hunt down the heroes, defend critical areas (usually ones that are linked to my active ‘plots’) or allow me to play particular plots. I also have monsters, which are similar to minions, but usually weaker – and a significant number are just rumours, but even rumours can slow and distract the heroes. And then there is influence, this represents my power spreading actoss the map, corrupting people and generally making the world more dangerous for the heroes. Free People havens are the annoyance – they prevent the spread of my influence and offer respite and healing to the heroes, and I there is little I can do to remove them (if you want a game where you burn down Lorien or over throw Minas Tirith, you need to play War of the Ring instead).

The game is long, and early games will be longer – I expect with repeated playing you could get the game down to the suggested playing time of 2-3 hours, and quicker with 2 or 3 rather than 4 players.

Setup is fairly quick – and all players can help, there are decks to sort and shuffle and then tokens to put on the map. The setup is variable depending which characters are chosen and which starting plot Sauron has. Each side has an overall objective – which is important for the strategy you follow. As Sauron you might be hunting for the ring, in which case you want to play plots that progress that side over others (so if you have a choice you’d rather capture and torture Gollum for news about your ring than corrupt Saruman or muster orcs in the mountains). Of course doing anything ‘bad’ is better than not – and keeping the enemies guessing what your actual goal is helps too.

There are some clever mechanics to restrict when you can do certain things – so the most powerful cards and minions only appear later in the game, and the events are set to help the side falling behind, if Sauron is winning then the events are more likely to help the Free People. Events are numbered and in three piles, and Sauron’s shadow cards and plot cards often have a shadow pool cost requirement. This means Sauron has to ‘waste’ influence placing it in a pool and the size of the pool is limited by the phase of the game – early on the maximum size is 4, preventing play of any shadow card or plot requiring 5 or more.

There is quite a bit of variety in the game – through the card mechanics, but what you actually do in a turn is a bit repetitive, if you don’t much like the theme or mechanics you will get bored playing this game fairly quickly.

The combat system is interesting – there are no dice, instead it is card driven, with the number of cards you have and can play limited by your abilities. The strongest combat cards sap you of strength quicker, so playing those you want to overwhelm your opponent quickly – low strength cards do less damage but with those you are wearing your opponent down and hope to exhaust them. Familiarity with the cards helps, but I found the combat tactically interesting – damage for the heroes is represented by putting their cards in an out of play pile, if all the cards end up there the player is defeated. Cards used in a turn go into another pile representing fatigue, cards in hand are what the hero can do (combat or movement) cards in the draw pile are life points and potential for future turns. This works well, and means at some points the hero players have to rest (get back the fatigued cards) or heal (get back the cards representing wounds) – but doing that advances Sauron’s plots.

Time is represented by the story track – the Free People’s marker just moves along 2 spots a turn, putting the game on a clock that will end it – Sauron has 3 markers, representing the hunt for the ring, corrupting the Free People and mustering armies/power – and they move along depending what plots have been put in play. The game ends when either the hero marker gets to the end of the track or all the Sauron markers reach a point or one gets to the end. And which side is ‘dominant’ (ie. winning the struggle) depends on how far advanced these markers are.

This means the Free People need to disrupt Sauron’s plots – and Sauron needs to protect them. The disruption is done by the hero’s spending influence, which they gain from questing or exploring parts of the map which are seeded with influence and characters from the events. Characters also suffer corruption (either voluntarily following a dark path to get a short term benefit, or as the character is targeted by Sauron through shadow cards or dangers while exploring). These corruption cards limit various character abilities and make the character vulnerable to some of Sauron’s cards – they can be removed, but to do that the character has to rest and expend valuable influence.

If you approach the game disregarding the theme then I think you’ll find it too long and repetitious for much enjoyment, but if you enjoy the theme then you’ll have fun and the time will fly by. There is a bit of downtime while players think about their actions, check cards etc - but some of that will reduce with familarity. As Sauron I didn't notice downtime much, as I was involved in each player's turn (being the enemy), but I could see players on the same side not having much involvement in the other players' turns unless they are playing very cooperatively and giving each other advice (downside to that is Sauron can listen in to what is being said)

So in summary – if you’re looking for a more character driven ‘adventure’ type game with a Middle Earth setting then get this, if you want to mobilise armies in Middle Earth or destroy the ring, go for War of the Ring instead.

This is not a traditional adventure game – characters do not amass piles of treasure and an armoury of weapons, nor do they power up to demi-gods. Most of the time you will be travelling around Middle Earth exploring areas, fighting monsters (for no reward other than annoying Sauron and freeing the world of foul beasts) and meeting with important figures (such as Dain, Theoden, Aragorn etc). You can train, which adds cards to your pile (which helps in combat and movement), you can get a few items (boats, horses, cloaks) which help you move around and you can improve your abilities a little bit, but this is not the main focus of the game. Disrupting Sauron by using influence to remove his plots and visiting areas to remove his influence is what you will be mainly doing – and occasionally be ambushed by minions and monsters.

Unless the Free People have the objective to kill the minions, you are usually better off avoiding combat, as it just at best makes you stop to rest more quickly at worst defeats you advancing one of Sauron’s story markers. But this is only after one game – a different mix of objectives and characters might change the approach, I’m not sure.

Are there any downsides – yes, unfortunately. The game isn’t great for the colour-blind; areas are marked with coloured dots (gems) to designate which card decks to use and which monsters chits to place. Fortunately they’re also named, so if you are familiar with Middle Earth geography the colour issue is much less significant. Some of the mechanics are a bit fiddly, you need to remember a few rules, and both sides have different rules to remember. The game is screaming out ‘expansion’ (or expansions), the area decks are rather thin, and we got through all the corruption and plot cards in our game, and some of the cards use general enough terms that reference very few cards. All this implies that an expansion is either planned or the game designed to easily allow for one to be made. Is this bad? Not if you only occasionally intend to play, the game out of the box will be fine for that, but if you intend to play regularly you’ll want to extend the cards and characters to give variety, meaning you’ll be investing in the expansion(s), adding to the cost of an already expensive game.

Finally, the plastic used for the figures is very brittle, we had 3 figures broken out of the box, and I’m sure most others will have the same, not good for a game costing this amount of money – why they didn’t use a softer plastic I don’t know.

Overall, based on my one play I bought a copy – and if you’re a fan of big box fantasy flight games or looking for a character based Middle Earth game I suspect you’ll do the same.

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