Middle Earth: The Lidless Eye

Designed by Coleman Charlton & Mike Reynolds
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£14 for two starters
2+ players
about 90-120 mins

I suspect the toughest job in reviewing (hardly comparable to a day down a mine, I'll grant you) is to write an interesting piece on a sequel. Especially a sequel that is collectible, that not everyone will have played and which differs little from the original. And that is exactly where I find myself with Lidless Eye, the latest chapter of Middle Earth: The Wizards - a game which has recently passed the 50 plays mark here and, as such, is a rare beast indeed. Not unrelated is the fact I also rate it as the best of all the CCG's and one of my favourite five games of all time (and still rising), so at least you will be able to quantify my comments. All this looks suspiciously like a cue for some wide-ranging discursive prose (or waffle, as we call it round these parts).

The basic idea of Lidless Eye is to present the books from the perspective of the baddies. How would you, as a loyal and devoted Nazgul, go about finding The Ring for your master? How does Middle Earth appear from behind the curtain, riding out from grotty Minas Morgul instead of the comfort of Rivendell? Having allies like the Hill Trolls and the Uruk Hai rather than the Elves and Rohirrim? What are the dark equivalents of 'good' notions such as fellowships? Can an evil mind relate to the concept of 'Gates of Morning', do they run scared of Dunedain Rangers or Beater, and are they corruptible? The big question was whether ICE could come up with a workable system, retaining compatibility with the earlier game, which would effectively tackle this intriguing theme.

Did they succeed? Yes, I think so. The core system is actually surprisingly close to METW (see review in Sumo 30 for details) but has been tweaked and enhanced to generate a game that takes little new learning but is identifiably different. You get a real sense that things are not as they were, that the old tactics won't work as well, that you have a new agenda. There is a subtly handled slant towards rings, Rings, RINGS (so now we all know what a Nazgul dreams about) and there are just enough amendments to keep the hardened METW player interested and, if METW is a guide, it will improve with extended play. But the main change is that everything has switched allegiance - places to which you would never dream of travelling are now your safe houses, while Bag End and Minas Tirith are the danger areas, surrounded with brutish rangers and busybody elves. There are also some new rules sections that took me back fifteen years to SL's Cross of Iron. It all seemed too much, but then quickly became second nature and you wondered how you had lived with the earlier set. And while MELE is a backwardly compatible expansion, it is also the first 'stand alone' game since METW so can be bought, in starter packs with rules, by newcomers to the system.

The first main change is that your companies can be filled with three categories of minion: men, and two levels of 'social unacceptables' - orcs and trolls being minglers, and Nazgul who will only ride alone or with other wraiths. The two groups are termed covert (that is men who look a bit suspect but who can still move around in free domains) and overt - if you see three orcs and a two headed troll coming down the garden path, you are pretty sure they are the enemy. Covert groups are probably the most fun to play, giving a sense of sneaking around, spying and generally causing mischief as fifth columnists. Their main benefit is that, apart from the flora and fauna that goes for anyone, they will normally only suffer 'detainment' attacks - ones that can only delay rather than wound or kill. This simulates being stopped and questioned, usually to impressions of Obi Kenobi, "These are not the droids you are looking for" or Great Escape Germans - "Your peppers are in ordnung. Heff a good trip." Detainment feels a little odd at first, even to the extent of a fudge, but it does work and steadily grows on you.

The appeal of the overt companies is three fold: brute force, the chance to go blundering around with a gang of orcs, and, more subtly, leaders. Each overt company can have a leader character, usually a senior orc or troll, who can issue commands via cards. Yes, alright, Siggins is indeed checking this out carefully to see where it may have further application. The cards allow for effects such as whipping your underlings, threatening or force marching them. Just like environments in METW, the effects are delicate but can just make the difference - as a result you feel they are worth doing, and they always add to the atmosphere. The leader rules are a typically neat touch from ICE and add just that extra something to what otherwise would be a rather unedifying exercise.

Ringwraith companies are analogous to the Wizard cards in METW, but are substantially different in flexibility, utility and feel. The first observation is that they are powerful creatures - very tough fighters, hard to kill and immune to corruption. The latter means they are superb 'couriers' (better even than hobbits) for rings - usually to deliver said jewellery to Sauron's drive-in ring testing centres, liberally sprinkled across the map. They are hindered by having no leadership skills over other characters (not one of the nine passed the management course), and by having that troublesome dislike of water (perhaps explaining precisely why they ride alone). So, their movement is sorely restricted and they actually need cards to venture out beyond the safe confines of the darkhavens. We all sat there initially and said, "This can't be right" (just as with detainment) but once you are playing, it feels spot on and once again you learn to trust ICE and their testing programme. There are three ways to 'ride out' as a Nazgul - Heralded Lord (which is used as a diplomatic/recruiting mission), Fell Rider (wherein he mounts his winged beast, does Stuka impersonations and accrues combat bonuses) and, agreeably, Black Rider - a neutral mix of the two modes. While restrictive, it really works well. One quickly acquires the strong feeling that Nazgul missions are not to be frittered away, that they would ride only in times of crisis, and that their odd absences in the books can be explained neatly by this system. Theoretically you can undertake up to nine missions per game, but this assumes you get your wraith out quickly and the other cards run for you. Excellent stuff.

Why would a Nazgul need to go out on a diplomatic mission? Well, those orcs are an ornery lot and do not like to work together. Even so, the various factions must be drawn together under Sauron's flag. For this reason, gathering factions is still a legitimate tactic, just as in METW. Obviously some 'centre ground' factions like the Dunlendings are more easily swayed than others to evil ends, but the general feel, in common with muster points in general, is that factions are a real pig to get and keep. Which is a bummer since that is my favourite strategy.... As I said, it takes a lot longer to get muster points than in METW and characters seem to die more often (this may be subjective). Our two player games have been taking two hours plus, but then so did METW before 'bigger' cards, synergistic decks and familiarity.

For me, and for some of my METW playing friends, the one 'problem' that has arisen with MELE is that it is difficult to identify with the characters and theme. There are several reasons for this, and those which relate to atmosphere are typically hard to define. The main one is probably that we do not recognise many of the names so it is tough to empathise with events, characters, or the background literature. The books always treated Sauron's operations as tangential to the efforts of the Fellowship (understandably) and the result is a leap of faith into what goes on in the badlands, with ICE as our guide. Apart from the 'big' players (Sauron, The Witch King, Grishnakh, Wormtongue, Uruk-Hai, the odd dragon - virtually all rare, natch) we are often in the land of generic (even nameless) orcs and trolls and Kuduk Lore. This latter, in case you didn't know, is ICE's euphemism for 'Tolkienesque stuff we made up to fill in the gaps'. This is done well enough in terms of believable monsters and new dragons and their lairs, but I can envisage some poor soul tasked with 'as good as Tolkien' copy writing for the flavour text (in which he usually fails). And since we haven't read much about their strengths and foibles, it is hard to relate to an obscure Easterling compared to, say, Boromir.

Accordingly, most of the character names are also fictitious (ie non-Tolkien in origin, not that I see the others are real or anything, oh no...), some are just daft names of the Really Bad Fantasy school (Tros Hesnef, Dogrib, Luitprand, Nevido Smôd (!) - the anagram machine has clearly been hard at work) and all are evil, misled, corrupted or at the very least have 'fallen in with the wrong sorts'; as one co-player said, in a pleasantly naïve aside, they almost certainly fiddle their tax returns. And you know, despite always being lumbered with the Empire in Star Wars and the Klingons or Borg in Star Trek, I don't relate well to baddies. Consequently, I really don't know what they get up to. I mean, what does your average Agent of Sauron do of an evening? A moonlight elf hunt? A spot of Beorn-baiting in the town square? Practice his dwarf tossing? Toast a few hobbits before a swift half of arrack down the pub? I really have no idea.

The interesting answer, provided by the game, is that you soon find out, but rarely does the atmosphere match that experienced while playing the goodies. Game one saw us blundering about with the rules, tactics and with the somewhat alien plot. I suppose it might be something like driving on the wrong side of the road while abroad, or a backhand grip in tennis - similar mechanics, a distinctly strange feel. Game two was the turning point, and by game three we were quite happily entrenched in the minion mindset - so much so that playing goodies immediately afterwards also felt a little weird. So, what do you do? Well, much the same as in METW, but to different ends. The cards are neatly structured to send you off on missions - to find rings, to recruit factions, burn borderholds, or capture anything that resembles a hobbit and drag them back alive for torture - at last a game for hobbophobes? Even better are the cards that require you to gather valuable information for Sauron - this could be whispers from the Shire, information overheard in a hostelry by your spies, or vitally important tasks that you can entrust only to your Nazgul. In one game my covert squad (a dodgy Dunedain, a couple of dark elves and a Southron) was entrusted with a risky trip to Dale. Sneaking in, evading the pickets, they managed to find the required ring, duff up the town guard, and then put the whole place to the torch. Points on the board for Siggins, and Sauron rubs his hands. Assuming he has hands and they don't just pass through each other like, well, you know...

There are some very interesting card effects on offer. MELE is in no way a straight re-hash of good cards swapped over to evil ends. I didn't expect it would be given ICE's superb track record, but there was always the possibility of complacency and laziness (and we have seen enough of that from rival companies). There is just one card (one that cancels an earlier action) which feels a bit too much like Magic:TG, but there is not a sniff of that game's timing problems so far - phew. Another card, Threats, is a little tough to swallow since it argues a lone warrior can 'persuade' an entire faction by verbal intimidation or violence. Unlikely? But elsewhere it is classy work as usual. For an indication of the attention to detail and consistency, have a look at the new Shelob's Lair, the Nazguls or the Haven cards, while some of the enhancers are excellent in effect and tone. Again, ICE surpass all others at generating subtle, intriguing and 'true to life' card effects which lead to seemingly endless appealing vignettes in the game. Even if a card has a distinctly gamey application, the rationale is spot on, normally relating to an episode in the books. The overall effect is helped by the flowery card names, though this can be taken too far - the clumsy Sell Swords Between Charters is an inappropriate moniker when playing potentially lethal mercenaries.

The rules are well done, if worryingly long, and a thorough read picked out a couple of minor rules we are still playing incorrectly in METW. All MELE differences are clearly marked, which is much appreciated. I can however see a potential Squad Leader problem on the horizon, where you have to agree which additional/variant/house rules you are playing (most people I know don't play the secondary ally/faction influencing rules, for instance), and we badly need the large type edition. 90-odd pages of tiny text is a bit much on my eyes. The biggest disappointment is the lack of new multi-player rules. ICE have long promised a revision to the basic (and unacceptably obvious) rules in METW, so MELE was originally billed as a game for 2-9 players (I think). The reality was rather less impressive, and boils down to the same system as before - ie you play cards on the player on your right. However, this is a hollow complaint since we have thought long and hard about how it might be done and have made little more progress than ICE. The best we have is John Neeve's suggestion to play cards to your left which at least speeds things up. So, for at least the forseeable future, METW and MELE remain excellent two player games, tolerable with three, an increasing disaster with more.

But as ever with CCGs, the game is only part of the equation. We are also obliged to discuss other aspects such as marketing and aesthetics. One correspondent raised the interesting question as to whether it should be termed card 'art' at all, and without regressing to middlebrow sixth form discussions, I would say yes, it should. Of course, unlike the bozos who once compared Magic cards with the old masters, we are not talking greatness here, but many of the cards evoke a reaction (aesthetically pleasing, gauche, positive or negative), some do a superb job of fuelling the ambience, and more than a few are well executed technically. Some are simply outstanding by any standards - I would offer Dwar as a good example and as the best rendition of a ringwraith I've seen. All this would seem to be similar to the criteria of art 'proper' and, moot it may be, but I suspect most of the artists would claim to be producing precisely that (though some would be stretching the definition to breaking point....). What is definitely poor, and which results in some fearsome colour clashes, is the choice of card background colours - the resource grey/blue being far too dark to distinguish easily from the black of hazards - and neither look good with some of the 'brighter' picture tones on offer.

But enough waffle. I am pleased to say the artwork is nowhere worse than average, but outside the sites and magic items (almost all superb, or better) there are few outstanding pieces, and those rares I've seen are particularly affected by the quality scarcity. Overall, the set's impact is not as good as Minions, and I miss some of the artists (Brom for one), but it's great to have all the replacement cards which supplement or replace the crappier efforts from earlier sets (bye bye Deitricks and Willich). As usual, Howe, Lee, McBride and Hoover are outstanding and consistent, Liz Danforth is getting better and I quite liked Trevas and Otis of the newcomers. Best of all, joining Rob Alexander's terrain, is Ted Nasmith, whose site and landscape pictures are nothing short of inspired - you really are there.

Balancing this, there are some real stinkers - War Wolf and War Warg are poor (indeed, the lupine fraternity gets a bad deal in general), Asternak is curiously flat and Fell Winter is somehow weaker than the card it replaces. Stylistically, I am sorely underwhelmed by some of Rayyan's more impressionistic creations and much of Durfee's stuff (a dramatically inconsistent painter), while the worst in the set are by John C Duke, Michael Apice and Debbie Hughes (we name the guilty brushmen!) - Foul Smelling Paste and Orc Liquor are truly horrible pieces and one again wonders how the art director earns her salary. And why do some of the artists need to conspicuously sign the pictures when their name is clearly on the card? Sadly, there is also much scope for awful puns with MELE. We already have Deadly Fart, Burning Ricotta Cheese, Boris Pasternak and Warhamster, and I feel more are coming. You can work them out.

I will not comment at length on the card distribution which most buyers (me included) think is at least a tad awry, but ICE says it isn't, and I did sit and watch one lucky chap get The One Ring, Lidless Eye and the Mithril Coat in one booster box. And a jammy chap in the States got four One Rings (is that the same as one Four Ring?). On the downside, another poor chap got eight (!) of one rare card... The saving grace is that I have never felt as if I wanted all the MELE cards, and since the distribution ensured I missed out on the few I did want, I have effectively stopped where I am (apart from the odd trade). This is partly a monetary consideration, but also because very few of the cards, unlike their METW equivalents, offer much incentive to chase them. Odd that, but the iffier art doesn't help.

What is more worrying is that, in a departure from earlier form, ICE have made a number of the rares very useful cards, and, importantly, they are non-unique. Translation for non-players: usually ME rares offer specialised usage, and are 'unique' - so you can only ever legally use, and thus need, one card. In MELE there are several cards (Threats being the key one) that are not only powerful, but you can deploy up to three. Getting one is hard enough, three is more grist to the collectors/"spend the most to win" gamers. Strike one. Strike two was that a whole box of mine had the rare's text printed out of register. Strike Three is that we may be loyal customers, but ICE can seemingly still regard us as stupid punters.

Why? The latest announcements have indicated that future ME sets will offer two rares per booster pack, but less cards overall, with a higher retail price. And we are meant to be happy about this and put completely out of our mind that the markup on cards is already criminal - I'd love to see a costing of the unit prices... The assumption is that we will happily queue to buy more and be pleased that we are getting more rares and less useless commons. Well, I probably will, but I'll certainly think twice about the next time. This sort of cynical marketing (in an already deeply cynical field) is expected of Decipher, but not thus far ICE who at least seem to have had some respect for their customers. In my view, ICE are in danger of throttling their goose with the valuable laying habits.

My analysis? (to the extent a small circulation magazine can have any influence...) As time goes on, I suspect there will be less and less buyers for each new expansion - this too would be an interesting spreadsheet at which to glance; if I ever get to my MBA, the CCG market could be the core of a good thesis. Anyway. Why not reward the loyalty of those that keep buying with two rares at the same price? It costs the publisher nothing extra (I think), keeps us interested and, crucially, playing. And like ASL, it keeps the product fresh and alive. It may be stating the obvious, but if we get bored with any CCG (witness Decipher's forthcoming attempts to resurrect ST:TNGCCG) we aren't going to be buying whatever the card mix. Or is this evaluation too simplistic? Are sales in fact steady or rising? Is there a second honeymoon with these games? I doubt it. Or are there other economic effects to which we aren't privy? Interestingly, I have heard no-one offer a bad word about Chaosium's more generous rares policy, quite the opposite in fact, which is great for gamers and collectors, and presumably the publisher. If any company representatives can, or would like to, reply to any of the above, I think we'd find the responses fascinating.

All this leads us to the excited glance down the road ahead. While MELE technically allows a Nazgul to pair off against a Wizard, there are a few glitches to be ironed out, and there really aren't enough cards to make it fully workable. All this will be rectified (we are told) in Against the Shadow; another 160 card expansion which will be specifically designed for good vs evil games. It will be very interesting to see what cards will facilitate this. The faction cards offer some clues - Black Numenoreans and Angrim to name two. At the moment, there would be a different set of card choices depending on whether you were going to play against a good deck or an evil deck - one cannot sit down and flexibly play against either, some notice is required. If AtS has anything like the impact that Dragons and Minions had on METW, then it will be a set well worth looking forward to. The counter view is that, with a release of 400+ cards, could it not have been better accommodated in MELE?

As good a package as it is, I am left just a little disappointed overall by MELE, largely because of my heightened anticipation which built steadily, through rumour and counter rumour, for six months. That said, I am not quite sure what I expected, but it was something along the lines of: another 400 odd useable cards, some workable new wrinkles, multi-player rules, new and replacement inspirational artwork (that was better than Dark Minions) and the chance to play the baddies just as well as we have been playing the Wizards for the last eighteen months, against evil or good opponents. We have some of these, but nagging away is the fact that we have nothing more than a cosmetic upgrade of around 150 cards, we are still witlessly chasing rare sites which you actually need to play and evil 'duplicates' of rares we already have (very naughty, all this). Additionally, the good vs evil matchups will really need another outlay in a couple of months time.

I know, I know; more fool us. But when a game system digs its hooks in as this one has, the next purchase becomes almost mandatory. We will doubtless reach a point where we all say "No More", or the spare cash isn't available, but I'm not there yet. If you need a comparative example, I would say we have been grabbed by the goolies in much the same way as the Magic and ASL players to whom the next expansion/module is not an if I buy, but when - if you have them by the balls, hearts and minds, their wallets will surely follow. Ahhh, the plight of the CCGamer.

When I re-read the above, and stand back with my rational hat on, I suspect anyone encountering this phenomenon for the first time would regard me, and other buyers, as completely barmy. And in truth, I have no defence. Even four years on from the birth of CCG's, it still makes me feel uneasy that the companies are getting away with this, I know I shouldn't be buying (and encouraging) them, I also know they are going to milk it while they can, and that I retain the option to say NO - which stronger souls than I have exercised since day one. Sadly, and overridingly, I also badly want the product (I don't need it, but that's what luxury economics is all about) and I offer this as my sole mitigating plea to those who do not understand. It is just a shame that one of my favourite games ever had to be a CCG. So, a multi-strand impasse of Gordian proportions, and I am still handing over the credit cards. We shall see what happens in another year.

In conclusion, I would say MELE is a solid release which pleases in parts and disappoints in others. I feel it will not truly shine until Against the Shadow is released, which can be argued pro and con, but them's the breaks. Overall, I would say it is a subtly different game to METW. Not worse by much, but not better, mainly different. Either way, it is a valuable complement to the original. The all important feel of playing the baddies is quite distinct and very definitely 'there'; initially a strange experience, by the fifth game I was well adjusted to playing trolls, orcs and shadowy spies - something of an achievement in itself - and it really offers an alternative to the perspective of the allies, with which we are so familiar. I don't enjoy it quite as much, but then that is me.

It is also playable from starter packs to an extent that METW never was. This is facilitated by an intelligent card mix, functional commons and the starter pack 'windows' - so you can see which Nazgul and fixed pack you are buying. As such, the game can be started relatively cheaply. An outlay of £10-£15 per player will get you underway, another £10 will give you a very good selection. Whether you will want to buy more cards is, as ever, entirely up to you. The set is again huge, at 417 cards, and I will never get near to that. Those in the UK that have are probably £250-£300 lighter. I would think £50 will get you more than enough cards to be going on with, but once again, having typed that analysis, I am conscious of how efficiently these games extract vast amounts of cash. Would you think twice about buying a £50 boardgame? Yes, for sure, and it would stay on the shop's stocks ninety nine times out of a hundred (although the recent trend in board wargames, with prices up to £80 for limited edition runs, is something to monitor closely). But CCG's possess this deadly double edged sword - expensive, some would say addictive, but well worth the money once you have negotiated the learning curve. And to close, dare I mention how thoroughly exciting a computer version of ME would be?

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Mike Siggins