Published by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE)
The official Web page can be found at http://www.ironcrown.com/metwm.html
Designed by Coleman Charlton
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
£7 / $10 per pack, 2+ packs required
1-5 Players (but ideally 2)
It must be twenty years since I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. I remember it because I was badly ill with flu and wanted something long and light to read. With hindsight I am not sure about the weight, but suffice to say I stayed in bed a day longer than I needed to finish these wonderful books. Even so, I did skip all the poncy songs and poems. Twenty years is a long time but the memory is still fresh, which I suspect speaks volumes about Tolkein's huge achievement. I doubt there is any fantasy background anywhere near as rich, deep and believable as Middle Earth and it remains the only fantasy book where I have been able to read 'silly' names without problems. In fact, it is so good that it almost isn't fantasy. Praise indeed from the old cynic.
While game treatments of Middle Earth have varied from the occasionally excellent (Riddle of the Ring, the Mithril figure range), through the good (MERP, Fellowship of the Ring, Lonely Mountain, Battle of the Five Armies) to the downright iffy (SPI's Middle Earth), I am still sufficiently enamoured of the books, ambience and background to try anything new that comes along on the subject. Since the earliest days of collectable card games we have been promised a Middle Earth game, but having seen the dross emanating from all parts of the globe my initial enthusiasm for the project turned slowly to trepidation. And now it is here, how wrong could I have been? ICE have accepted this project from Wizards, nurtured it and taken their time (get rich quick bozos, please note). The result is a game they can be proud of, you can happily buy and enjoy and on which I can write lots of good stuff about atmosphere, design techniques, attention to detail, play value and what this does for the collectible card game market. And since I have moaned long and hard about the pathetically low overall standard of collectible card games, it is also about time I restored the balance.
There is a lot to this game, so I will outline the structure and then concentrate on a few of the more interesting elements. It's all good, but some bits are better than others. Basically, you play the role of one of The Big Five wizards who are assembling the goodies to fight the dark lord and dunk that troublesome Ring in the process. In that sense all the players are on the same side, but you are rivals as you want to do better than Saruman, Alatar or that outrageous Pallando. Isn't he married to Victoria Wood? Of course nearly everyone wants to be Gandalf, except me. I am quite happy trooping around the forests as Radagast the Proto-Hippy.
Your task is to gather allied forces in the shape of muster points (aka victory points). The said points can be gained by controlling characters (eg Gimli, Legolas, Frodo and the boys), allies (Bombadil, Treebeard, Goldberry etc) and factions (such as the Lebennins or the Rangers), and also by gaining magic items (Narsil, sundry rings, Mithril Coats) or killing dark servants. The game ends when your wizard either dies or is corrupted, you reach a preset muster target, or you (or preferably Gollum) shoot a three pointer into the Cracks of Doom. You start the game with up to five characters sitting in Rivendell armed with a couple of minor magic items, usually Sting and an Elven Cloak - pastels will be the essential look this Spring. More characters can join your party throughout the game and eventually you should also get your wizard into action. Game play is driven off cards that are drawn from your deck. These will be either characters who may join your gang, hazards, which you play on the other guy, or resources, which aid your cause. Each turn sees your groups of characters moving around Middle Earth, fighting, resting, recruiting, dying and experiencing the usual peaks and troughs of the fantasy novel.
The first interesting element of METW is Influence. You start the game with twenty influence points and spend this on controlling characters - typically between three and seven, depending on their strength. The bigger and better the character (eg Celeborn, Galadriel or Glorfindel), the more influence they consume. This restriction, and the fellowship rules, prevent you from having small armies charging around the map. And quite right too. In turn, each character usually has a direct influence rating. This may sometimes be used to recruit a specific faction (eg Dain II is useful for gaining support from the Iron Hill Dwarves, or Dwarrow as JRRT would have it) or for controlling further characters, but this time only as followers. Later in the game, when your wizard card emerges from the deck and you decide to play it, you are given a further ten direct influence points which swells your party admirably, but at the risk of your wizard being killed or corrupted.
The standard game turn, where most of the action takes place, is basically: housekeeping; reorganising and healing your characters; movement, fighting and searching; card replenishing. Like Squad Leader, there is some joint action within the turn with both players drawing and playing cards, which helps the interactivity no end. The trade off, and a constant pain, is that you can only 'carry' eight cards in total - you'll have access to more during the turn, but some cards need to be held for future use. These may be magic items, backup characters for whom you have not yet got available influence or special cards (Cracks of Doom is a fixture for the Dunk Strategy). The pivotal turn element is movement, in which (for the basic game) you try to move from haven to haven, from a haven to a site, or vice versa, and negotiate any hazard cards played upon you. The key to movement is the site path, which if I fail to explain will be no less than ICE achieved in the rule book. Anyway, here goes.
There are around seventy site cards, both friendly and hostile, and four haven cards which act as safe bases for recovery. Each of the four havens has two symbolic keys (the site paths) showing through which type of terrain you must pass to reach two of the other three havens. In turn, each site card can be reached from only one of the haven cards. To visualise this, imagine a square with the havens at the four corners. From each of the corners radiate spokes, each leading to a specific site. Let's go with an example. Your party is in Rivendell and you want to get to Old Pukel Land to muster the Woses. The site you need to reach is the Wose Passage Hold. The nearest haven to this is Edhellond, which in turn can be reached from Lorien. So you are looking at three turns to reach your destination: Rivendell to Lorien (along the edge of the square); Lorien to Edhellond (along the next edge); Edhellond to Wose (along one of the spokes). Change at Crewe for the Grey Havens. The site path symbols for this are Wilderness - Borderland - Wilderness; Wilderness - Borderland - Free Domain - Free Domain - Borderland - Wilderness; Wilderness - Wilderness - Wilderness. And if you check your Middle Earth map, this should all tie up nicely. Once you have done your business with the wild men, next turn you return to the nearest haven (Edhellond) ready to move off next turn. And that's that, but just to confuse the issue, and you'll see why I mention it soon, is that you could have gone Rivendell-Grey Havens-Edhellond, because it is slightly safer, though it does feature a sea crossing. It's a bit like the tube map - there are two ways to Finchley from Kensington, one quick and one slow. Most of the sites can be reached from Lorien or Rivendell, so parties tend to lurk in these areas, and the elves are good hosts. The upshot of all this is that you spend the entire basic game moving around between sites and havens and this is how it works. Clear? Now for the next lesson.
The 'Standard' game takes all this one step further, using region cards to construct your own site paths so you can get anywhere on 'the map', using whatever route you choose. You will however need to buy a lot of boosters to get a set of 52 region cards each - having more than the other player will give you an advantage, as he won't be able to get to all the sites he needs to. The overall advantage is that you can now move where you want to, without necessarily returning to a haven each time. In your turn you can lay and traverse up to four regions and, spookily enough, each region has a site path symbol that equates exactly to the site paths in the basic game. The end of the turn must see you back in either a haven or a site, but Cirith Ungol has recently lost its Michelin Star, so be careful where you rest. This gives a real feel of trekking long distances across Middle Earth, and attrition becomes a real concern. The downside is that region play takes a little longer to work out; its strength is that you can plan your campaign, much as Gandalf must have, and the atmosphere is cranked up a notch through the superb region maps. So with this facility you can plan your deck to, for instance, move quickly and recruit the Southrons, hopefully find The One Ring and be on hand to move to Gorgoroth and win the game. You'll need a lean and mean deck to pull this off, but that's part of the fun and comparable strategies will come quickly to mind.
As you'll have deduced, once understood, this is clever stuff. It effectively implements a huge topological matrix, or point to point map, using cards. Much easier with a map of course, but this is a card game and ICE wanted to keep it in a little box. The drawback is that it can be quite hard to visualise where you are trekking, and which regions to play, unless you are intimately familiar with Middle Earth geography. I can't believe it will be long before someone publishes a map with the region boxes, sites and connecting lines thereon and if they don't do it, I will. Alternatively, it isn't beyond the wit of man to produce a chart showing all the site paths from any one destination to another. It would be a lot of work, and I'm sure ICE could supply this and make everyone's life easier, but they really want you to go out and buy those region cards instead.
But that isn't all the site paths are used for. One of the most intriguing elements of Up Front, and one of the factors setting it apart from most CCGs, is that you can seldom do exactly what you want. Unless you have the right card you can't do anything and even if you have the right type of card, you can't always use it. This to me is a fundamental strength of non-CCG card systems and METW partly implements this in an original and functional way. Which I think is a first. How? As well as regulating movement, the site path symbols also dictate the type of hazards that can appear there. It is known as keying. Each monster hazard has symbols on its card that indicate where it can be played, or keyed. So orcs and wolves can appear almost anywhere, the Fell Turtle only shows up at sea, and the more vicious enemies - giants, cave drakes, spiders - can only appear in Wilderness, as in the above example. Dragons seem to stick to their lairs and if you're in a ruin on the top of a deserted mountain, you can be pretty sure of undead nearby. Additionally, certain monsters can be keyed to regions where they actually live. So if you are traversing Mirkwood, and your opponent has Shelob, then you can reckon on a big fight. There is a huge variety of hazard cards, ranging from singleton abductors and through the Three Trolls, Huorns and Half Trolls, culminating in the toughnuts like Smaug, Daelomin, the Balrog, Nazgul and the nasty of nasties, the Witch King.
So taking the movement system with hazard keying, this is all good stuff. Sometimes you will pass through a highly dangerous area without problems (your opponent has no suitable cards) and at others you will be in sight of Lorien and yet be set upon by wargs, orcs, undead and even Nazgul. The general feel of uncertainty is excellent, and again true to the books. Who would have expected Black Riders in The Shire? I can also see that there will be a lot of uses for the system elsewhere. It at least partially solves a card game problem that I have been trying to crack for a while. This is that in certain chaotic situations you don't want a player to both have a card, especially a beneficial one, and be sure he can play it. Keying solves that dilemma perfectly as even if you have the meaty Olog Hai troll, you can't just cream your opponent, you've got to hold it - a pain, as mentioned earlier - and wait until he comes to the right area. Except that in the Wilderness, Mount Doom or any dark domains, almost everything can get you. You can work out the moral of the story yourselves.
But why would you want to travel to Mount Gundabad, Isengard or a Bandit's Lair anyway? Well, incidentally to biff a few nasties for points, but mainly to find a magic item. These come in several flavours: minor, major, greater and rings. You can also find information at some sites, which can be a fascinating sub-game in itself - the Reforging card is inspired. The way you find the item is by picking up a card, let's say Glamdring for the sake of argument. This is a Major Item, but only really a rumour of its location. To use it you have to find it by travelling to a site that potentially yields Major Items. You negotiate the hazards en route, fight the local denizens specific to the site, and if anyone is left standing you can automatically search and find Glamdring. This is a little weak, but once found, you can assign it to a character. If the item is a ring however, all you know is that is either fair, beautiful or precious. Lovely, lovely Preciousssss. Sorry, got carried away there. If you have a spell or a sage in the party you can then test it, which will reveal it as The One Ring, a Ring of Power, a Lesser Ring or 'a Ratner'. Assuming you have the appropriate card in your hand, say Durin's dwarven ring, you then gain that card along with its powers and muster points. It must be said that I find the search system a little disappointing. It would have been so much better to somehow randomly 'discover' items at the sites. Imagine that - it would be reason enough to go anywhere. As it is you know what you are looking for and, with the exception of rings, can't fail to find it if you kill the defenders. I can however see why it was done this way and it works well enough.
However, in keeping with the books, there is a downside to material wealth and the power of the rings. I am tempted to call this the BMW Test, but the game calls it corruption and it is one of the neatest, appropriate and most frustrating rules I've seen in a while. Do any of you recall D&D characters who could hardly move for weapons and magic items? One of my mate's fighters had a Sabatier sword rack on his back, from which he quickly chose the best magic sword for the job. Unbelievable. Anyway, as a DM, what would I have given for a workable encumbrance system or something like this. Well, quite a lot actually. Basically, anyone carrying anything in METW starts to feel the weight of possession on their mind - each item is rated for mental burden. This is not a problem ifyou are a steadfast hobbit with just an Elven Cheese Sandwich, but if you are a dwarf, a wizard or that covetous Boromir with his craving for power, having a lot of big items is guaranteed bad juju - attention to detail again. And The Ring, should you be lucky enough to find it, becomes a sort of hot potato that no one really wants. If you fail a corruption check, which come along frequently, that character is out of the game, along with all his kit. "He has gone to the Dark Side, Luke". In my second game, having travelled deep into Moria and come out proudly carrying Orcrist, at the first sign of trouble Boromir was off into the woods, sword and all. The little blister. There can't be too many games that make a statement on materialism but it's quick to resolve, it keeps the game balanced and the hardware 'low key', it is true to the books where everyone seemed to be grabbing stuff and not letting things go, and I like it.
Yet more intriguing are the environment effects, usually initiated by permanent, or turn-long, event cards. The most fundamental of these are the Gates of Morning and the Doors of Night. If the former is in play, the goodies are in the ascendant and all is right with the world. If the latter, the shadow of Mordor lies dark across the land. These two cards change frequently, much like the Law/Chaos balance in Elric or the initiative chits in Storm over Arnhem, enhancing effects of certain cards or reducing others, depending on their 'alignment'. The feel of power shifting back and forth is subtly rendered, but well worthwhile. It must be said that these backdrop effects are not usually decisive, but they represent incremental hindrances or benefits and can make all the difference. A similar sensation is carried onto into what is effectively a weather system. Setting off on a long trek in the middle of a hard winter is much more difficult than under bright sunny skies. Fog and cloud, storms at sea, choking shadows and the Moon are all part of this background ambience. The same clever impression is also recreated at the micro level, with characters becoming tired, greedy, heavy of heart or even depressed. Again, it adds so much realistic flavour to the game with minimal overhead.
What METW manages, which if nothing else reeks of thorough playtesting, is to pull all these disparate sub-systems and themes together and still create a playable game. The sum of the parts is, fortunately for me, a quite incredible sense of atmosphere and narrative plots that exceed even those of Star Trek, which were pretty darned good. You can imagine your weary band trudging along to yet another rendezvous, perhaps to raise the Easterlings, recruit an ally such as Gwaihir, or perhaps to recover a powerful artifact from a distant lair. As the journey progresses, the party will be attacked by a variety of nasties, all appearing realistically thanks to the keying system. There are enough hazard and resource cards to make everything interesting - there are effects such as roads, horse movement, rivers, fog and snow and these too have been carefully designed, selected and implemented. It is for this reason that, in the early days of play, you sit there thinking, oh wow, there must be cards out there for all the nine Nazgul, Bree, Anduril, Shadowfax, Bill the Pony, Barad Dur, Palantirs, The Mouth of Sauron, Minas Tirith, Mumaks etc etc etc. And that is its strength. The background of Middle Earth oozes out in play; from the system, the cards and the artwork - reinforcing the narrative, increasing your enjoyment and promoting a warm feeling of holistic design.
Having played this game only four times so far, with a strictly limited card set, I can still recount a series of marvellous situations and even two tight finishes where both players reached their muster target on the same turn - I lost only because a greedy elf failed to show for the Council of Wizards, preferring the company of an artifact. In one memorable game a small party set off for the Blue Mountains to raise the powerful dwarves. The group contained a sage, a dwarf and a diplomat, but still failed to convince the bearded ones. In my next turn, I sent a lone Gimli along a little used old road and promptly stole the dwarves support in one of the best backroom deals of all time. The next turn, suspecting that my rival's move to Minas Tirith indicated a play for either the City Guard faction or the powerful Palantir, resulted in a foot race for their favours. I tried to use horses for added speed but misunderstood the card and ended up losing three valuable characters; one to a wandering Nazgul, another was abducted, and the other had his eyes pecked out by a Crebain. Again though, my opponent failed to recruit the armies and my much reduced group won the day. The Palantir had gone though, and I promptly found my deck being rummaged. There are many, many situations like this in every game and as the card combinations change each time, I hope it will remain just as fresh.
The only real fly in the ointment is the rule book. This is, by now traditionally, a tiny little booklet with itchy print, supplemented by card text in many cases. It does however have an index. Both the basic game and the standard game are explained in full, with a number of official variants thrown in. You even get solitaire rules which work after a fashion. What you don't get is any real structure and there appear to be great chunks of text missing from key chapters. The movement rules, or lack of them, just have to be experienced as a lesson in how not to do it. With effort, and several re-reads, you can piece it together. Just. But it took three brains to work out what they were getting at and a lot of mental text rejigging. And like Up Front, it is better to be shown what to do by an experienced player. These need work, and quickly.
For all their sins, CCGs at least mean we seldom have problems deciding what to play when there are only two of us. METW is undoubtedly an outstanding two player game and I'm sure this is a result of the mighty imaginations in residence at ICE. Sadly, they failed to contribute anything to the multi-player rules. Playing METW with more than two is simply a matter of playing hazard cards on the player to your left. That's it. Meanwhile, the other poor saps sit around and twiddle their thumbs, albeit eagerly awaiting their next turn. In many ways this is the weakest part of the METW package and it really does need urgent attention, especially since the box claims the game is playable by one to five. It is, it just isn't much fun for three of them at any given time.
CCGs are nothing if not impressive on the graphics front. I can think of only one or two that have been disappointing Most are rather good, some are pathetic, others are just plain stunning. However, even at the top end of the scale, there are very few sets that have universally good graphics. Guardians is one example that can boast 100% quality, Star Trek another, but because often so many artists are used, out of necessity, it is difficult to keep a consistent style. The result is patchiness and a lack of cohesion. That I understand, but it doesn't explain inconsistent quality. METW sadly suffers slightly from both afflictions, which is odd since the art director receives higher billing than the designer (I'll resist the obvious accusation of placing style over content, because in this case they haven't). Can't imagine a set designer ever topping Spielberg in the credits, can you? Especially since only around half the METW art is acceptable. There is some excellent work on show, with Angus McBride, Quinton Hoover and Rob Alexander providing the best, but there is little artistic harmony, even within The Fellowship cards. There are also a large number of pictures that have clearly been painted by mediocre artists, or perhaps twelve year olds who happened to be passing the office. The Cave Drake and Smaug are particularly amateurish, anything by the Dietrichs is dire and the depiction of some of the magic items is so poor that if you found one deep in the Gladden Fields, you'd probably throw it back.
The other unavoidable weakness, and one not really applicable to the disparate Magic milieux, is that anyone who has read the Tolkein books has their own distinct impression of what these cards should look like. Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves are perhaps the most contentious examples, but thanks to the cards I have recently heard people arguing over Pukelmen, Variags and Southrons. Whatever, ICE have done a good job with only a few examples offending the eye (the Ents and some of the Orcs are very disappointing) while most fit perfectly - Galadriel, Gollum, Bilbo, Aragorn and the Rohirrim are excellent. But equally, there are some that are mighty weird and weakest of all are the nine Nazgul. Angus McBride has captured these perfectly for me, with those red eyes and dark cloaks, but Liz Danforth's renderings are odd - the Witch King has what looks like a cabbage on his head, for some reason. The Nazgul aren't transparent either. Anyway, all this is highly subjective and it is sufficient to say that these cards are selling themselves on the basis of the artwork - particularly the geography.
This paragraph will cover collectability, but only from the perspective of affecting game play, not whether you can clear your mortgage by selling off Bilbo. The game consists of a massive 484 cards, but like Dixie you can play with just two starter decks (£15/$20). A starter has three rares and nine uncommons. Boosters cost around £2.30 ($4) and contain but one rare and three uncommons, as well as three or four region cards. These latter are only available in boosters, whereas only the starter packs contain 'fixed' sub packs that have all that you need to play, including the five wizards and some of the big hitting names. However, like Star Trek, the rest of the 'named' cards are uncommon or rares and they are damned hard to find. No one I know has yet got a Frodo or a Shelob, and the set, with its huge size and card distribution, is a difficult one to collect. I never even really had any designs on completing it, with budget in mind, but those that went for it have fallen well short.
So, it is the same old story of manipulation. ICE want you to buy lots of cards but make some of them scarce. You would like to buy the cards if it was a level playing field. Only the publishers, the rich collectors and price gougers enjoy themselves. Therefore you can't easily get to play with the Fellowship (although you probably wouldn't be able to because of Influence) and to get everything is going to cost you hundreds, with no exaggeration, or you are forced to trade. That said, the game is very playable from the starter packs. You should have at least one big name, perhaps a hobbit or dwarf or Aragorn, and some useful makeweights like Bard the Bowman or Beorn along for the ride. There are good, and pretty powerful, cards even among the commons and I have to say that we have played with £20 ($30) of cards and had a great time. So don't let card scarcity or a moral stance put you off too much.
As you might expect, with a set close on 500 cards, just about everything from The Hobbit and LotR is included. In fact, there are so many cards that you are left wondering what could possibly be included in the forthcoming expansions. Unless of course they resort to the Sellamillion, in which case I won't be buying. Either way, you get all The Rings, half a dozen serious magic swords, every main character, all the sites and regions you know and love, and even bit part actors like Cirdan, Barliman Butterbur and Radagast. Add in hundreds of hazards and resource cards that provide that huge variety and flavour, and you are almost there. Missing though, inexplicably, are the Uruk Hai, elven rope, lembas, Wormtongue, old Sauron himself and Fatty Bolger. The Uruks just have to be an oversight (or held back for later profiteering), Sauron I can understand as he is downright ethereal even on a good day, but me old mate Fatty? What gives, ICE? What gives?
The spinoff effect of all this variety is exactly the same as with Magic and Star Trek, and indeed most other CCGs that cross the rubicon of playability (about five in total, at the last count). I haven't yet devised a Siggins Theorem or a graph (!) to illustrate the effect, but here it is in longhand. When you buy a CCG and start to play, there is a large element of excitement if it actually works. You are ripping open booster packs, seeing the art and titles for the first time with no idea what further subjects or how many distinct cards are out there. The cards have unknown effects and combinations, your games have a glorious random element as you discover play and card nuances. Life is generally good. The feeling of not knowing what is in your pack, or your opponent's, and trying to work them into the unfolding game is the real reason I have gone for these games the way I have. I like most of the artwork, I have a love hate stance on the collecting - manipulation - desire triumvirate, but most of all I enjoy the novelty. Let's call that Phase I.
Then along come the comprehensive lists so now you know what and how much is out there. Your set grows to the point where you've seen, read and dribbled over the majority of the cards. Play is usually preceded by a separate session of rudimentary deck building, or at least some planning and discarding of the weaker, but highly flavoursome, cards - Mot the Barber and The Pale Sword of the Nazgul spring to mind. At this stage of the process, the game is still fun. It has acquired a blend of novelty and method, but there may be some imbalance (one player has more cards, or experience). Familiarity has increased markedly and the urge to collect the whole set is tugging at both the prudence and desire departments of the conscience. The worrying aspect is how much is the set going to cost (in time and money), what might it be worth to recoup your outlay, and how difficult it will be to obtain. The decision now is whether to proceed to gain as yet unknown marginal benefits, or to hold it right there. That's Phase II.
The final stage I have not yet reached, so this is based on guesswork, but many do. You not only have the full set of cards, but also duplicates, folders, little gemstones, custom score markers and books on strategy. If you are that way disposed, you may also have plastic condoms on your 'valuable' cards. You ponder about expansion sets, enter competitions and may belong to a club. Life is dominated by deck building, discussion, trading, speculation and an unhealthy obsession about card condition and secondary market prices. Gameplay is firmly secondary to all this, but when it occurs it is dour, head to head stuff used only as a proving ground for deck building tactics. For most it is devoid of the novelty and excitement of the theme, and far removed from social gameplay. The emphasis is firmly on game as competition, not game as fun. And Phase III is exactly where all CCGs crash and burn for this reviewer. METW is no exception, and at the end of its evolution it probably has to be a deck building game. I'd prefer that it wasn't, but I suspect this is the case - anything less will eventually be a hollow experience.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell