I fell in love with Fantasy Flight’s Mansions of Madness 2nd Ed when I first ran the companion app. It made so many aspects of gaming (setting up, keeping track of monster health, random events, etc.) much easier to deal with.
I like Lovecraft as a theme, but I love Lord of the Rings. So when I heard that they were publishing a companion-app-style Lord of the Rings adventure game, I was immediately sold!
Well, I’ve been playing through the campaign that comes in the base game with my Boardgame Opinions compatriot Mark and we’ve had a great time. It was something like 14 scenarios long in total so there’s plenty of game there. Let me tell you about it…
Journeys in Middle-Earth is a true adventure game. You each pick a character (we went with Legolas and Gimli – the ultimate duo!), and follow a storyline that takes you through a number of different locations with myriad challenges.
Combat obviously features prominently, but there are plenty of other things to do as well, from exploring to interacting with characters you meet, to making critical story-defining decisions.
Interestingly, scenarios can take place on a journey map or a battle map. The journey map is a comprised of a wide variety of hex-based tiles that tesselate together to form the countryside or cave system you will be exploring.
You can only see certain tiles at first. As you explore the land, you reveal more tiles, encounter landmarks of interest, enemies to fight and quests to complete.
The battle map, on the other hand, is a fixed grid for a tactical skirmish battle. Typically the journey scenarios lead up to a face off against one of the bad guys and these battles form their own distinct scenario on the battle map.
The heart of the game (like many Lovecraftian games from Fantasy Flight) is about making tests. However, in previous games this would typically involve rolling dice. If you get enough “successes” on the dice, you pass. Otherwise you fail.
Journeys in Middle-Earth uses a card-based system instead. Each hero has a deck of cards and when you need to take a test, you draw a certain number of cards off the top of the deck (according to your skill in that area) and some of the cards have success symbols on them.
However, at the start of every round, you each get to Scout, which means taking the top 2 cards of deck, looking at them and deciding whether to put them on the bottom or back on the top of your deck. It allows you to stack the odds in your favour.
When you Scout though, you can put one card face up in front of you and it acts like a special ability (each card has text on as well as the success symbols). If you keep putting cards without success symbols in front of you, you can further stack the deck.
Some of the cards with success symbols on have really good abilities though. The Scouting mechanism makes for some tricky, interesting decisions every round and is one of my favourite parts of the game.
As you gain experience, you can upgrade your equipment (giving you improved special abilities), but you can also customise your deck, adding cards with more success symbols. The levelling up system is a little opaque at first, but once you get the hang of it, it works really well and feels organic.
Combat is a fairly big part of the game and they’ve done a good job here. The app handles all the book keeping, but you’re using your deck again to generate successes that you then spend (using your weapon cards) to deal damage and activate special attacks (cleave, stun, etc.).
And again, the decisions are interesting. It isn’t just roll dice and see what happens. Since you’ve stacked your deck after Scouting, your first action each round is usually the best so you need to decide whether killing that orc is your top priority, or whether you’d be better guaranteeing a favourable outcome when you speak with one of the NPCs.
The battle maps usually provide you with something else to do while fighting the bad guys (eg. searching for something) and they are frequently covered in varied terrain (rocks, rivers, fog) that affects movement or combat in some way.
The central system is fairly simple, but provides a surprising amount of depth. The only downside is the copious use of keywords. You will be looking these up quite a lot in your first few games, particulary during combat.
The theme is strong. This is provided by an original narrative-driven story, well-written flavour text, great artwork and an engaging app. The only significant issue with the app is the touch sensitivity. It must be something to do with the software they use as the same issues are present in Mansions of Madness: essentially, it often doesn’t recognise taps and the pinch zoom is jerky.
What’s the value for money like? It can sometimes be an issue with Fantasy Flight games, but they’ve struck a nice balance here. The base game isn’t cheap, but you can buy software expansions (in the app) that add extra scenarios (using the components from the base game) at a modest price.
You can also buy physical expansions of course, which add extra components and/or scenarios. Overall, I think the base game (plus software expansions) is very good value for money in terms of the number of hours of gameplay you’ll get out of it. The physical expansions less so, but… more stuff!
Aside from niggly software interaction bugs, I think they’ve done a fantastic job with Journeys in Middle-Earth overall. It’s my favourite adventure game so far from Fantasy Flight. Have you tried it? What do you think?