Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Middle-Earth Quest

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. The Lord of the Rings trilogy are the first "grown-up" books that I read as a child and helped establish and cement my love for D&D and role-playing games. Also, I have a three year old daughter who loves watching the Peter Jackson movies with me and loves to run and stand in doorways to block me and will bellow out in her three year old’s voice, "You shall not pass!" So I’m probably pretty biased as far as theme goes with this game.

The Overview:

Same size and thickness as FFG’s War of the Ring box.


Middle-Earth Quest is a blandly, if not accurately named adventure game that takes place during the 17 years between Bilbo’s birthday party where he leaves the Shire and the return of Gandalf who urges Frodo to leave the Shire with the One Ring. This period of time when Gandalf researches the history of the ring and Sauron extends his power is not well documented. Not even the extended extra bonus director’s cut scenes in Disc 15 of the Collector’s Edition of Peter Jackson’s "Fellowship of the Ring". However, that does not mean that interesting things were not happening during that time.

The game is for 2-4 players, and I’ll answer what will likely be a common question right now: No. It’s not really suited for solo play adaptation. Anyhow, one player plays the role of Sauron, who is trying to spread his influence and achieve dark plots to gain power and end the War of the Ring before it ever even starts. Sauron does this by playing plot cards which advance one of three of his markers. The markers each represent a different line of influence that Sauron has to potentially end or win the game. In fact, I believe this mechanic was first mentioned by Tolkien himself:

One Marker to discover the Ring, One Marker to corrupt the Leaders
One Marker to represent the strength of the Armies of Sauron
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Besides advancing markers via plots, Sauron has Shadow Cards to play against the Heroes and needs to spread influence markers across the locations of Middle-Earth to make travel more perilous for the heroes. Sauron also controls dark minions, such as the Ringwraiths themselves, to stymie and hinder the heroes, as well as the ability to place and move lesser monsters to try to slow down and wear out the heroes.

The remaining players take on the roles of lesser known heroes who saw Sauron’s early influence growing and stood to cut him back, leaving open the glimmer of hope that the Fellowship and Ringbearer would one day need to succeed. They heroes need to coordinate their efforts and work together to stop the influence, creating a group of some kind... a fellowship of sorts... to combat Sauron. The heroes do this by halting Sauron’s influence on the board, cutting off his influence from extending from the dark strongholds that exist. They also need to fulfill their own quests by encountering locations, while at the same time building up their strength and prowess to combat the monsters and minions that arise. Heroes will have opportunity to encounter some of the grand heroes of the War of the Ring and learn and train from them. This, and other ways are important to the heroes to gain favor tokens, which can be spent to force Sauron to discard his plots, slowing the advancement of his markers.

The Theme:

Middle-Earth Quest is dripping in theme. It may seem like an unusual choice of time frame, but it is refreshing as it is so poorly covered. For those who know enough about Tolkien’s works, you can see certain plots and events occur that frame and set up the grander events in the story, such as the capture and torture of Gollum. Playing on the hero’s side, there is an almost role-playing feel to the advancement of your character.

There are only a few minor complaints that I have in reference to the theming of this game, and they are minor as the theme has been very well executed and you feel it in every play. However, the five hero characters are minor unknown characters. You can tell that the characters are drawn from the histories of the regions they are from, but there is no background information on the character cards. That little touch would have added so much more in the theme and pulling in hero players into the roles of their characters. Also, as much as I loved Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" his prose could be kind of... over-verbose and under-descriptive for use as quotes on the cards for the purposes of explaining a game event. Many of the flavor quotes used on the cards work and work well, but there are a number of them that sound less descriptive and almost gibberish out of context on a card.

Still, I find both of these to be very minor issues with a game that pulls you in everywhere else with an amazing presentation of theme.

Learning the Game:

This is a game from Fantasy Flight. When you open and sort the piles of bits and break all of the cards into their separate twenty-five decks, it all looks quite intimidating. However, once played, it becomes quick, easy and intuitive. I do strongly recommend to anyone who has the game and will be teaching it to play a single round by themselves as both heroes and Sauron to learn the mechanics. I played one turn by myself in the morning and was fully prepared to teach it to my group in the evening.

The rulebook is very well written and the single page game overview listed inside the rulebook was enough to play the game from. I would still recommend following through the "In Detail" turn explanations for the first turn, however, just so that the little things are not forgotten. By our second game, there was hardly any referencing to the rulebook and every turn was run from the small "Turn Reference" box on the board.

The Components:

Most Fantasy Flight games have components that are impressive and show well. This is the case with Middle-Earth Quest, with a couple of caveats.

It is a large board that consists to two pieces that take up about 28.5" x 40" when placed together. 

The map is beautiful and very functional. Those who have played War of the Ring often will be the lucky players who will find locations much quicker than everyone else due to familiarity of that map. While finding locations may seem a little difficult at first, once you get the color coding system down, it is quite easy. The only problem with the board is that two locations were mislabeled on the board according to the preliminary FAQ. "Sea of Udûn" on the board should be "Plains of Udûn" and "Lake Esgaroth" should be "Esgaroth". In the plays that I had with the game, neither of these were issues, but it is a little disheartening when a board has an error instead of just a card.

The figures of the heroes. 

The figures of Sauron’s minions. 

The figures in the game were very beautifully cast and created and look impressive on the board. The Ringwraiths are actually three horsemen on one base and look suitably impressive and sinister. The only problem is that the initial run of minis are brittle and a number of them shipped broken (this was my case as well... Poor Gothmog needed to beat people upside the head with a stick in our games because his battle axe head is not attached). FFG has corrected this problem through the distributors of the game, so it is not a big issue, just a minor inconvenience. However, my copy did not come with a figure for Beravor. It’s not a big issue gameplay-wise, because we are still able to substitute another mini for her in the game since at most only 3 of the 5 heroes are used, but it is another inconvenience. However, I know FFG's track record and know that it will be resolved.

Playing the Game:

I almost didn’t get this to the table with my group. We also have the Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus expansion (which I’ll review later) and it was a diplomatic effort on my part to get this to the table. However, I think everyone in my group was glad that I did.

As I stated earlier, the game looks more intimidating than it really is, but that often is the game with Fantasy Flight Games products. The play is smooth and easy to learn. I won’t go in a full rehash of the rules, but the play offers several very interesting mechanics.

As Sauron, you have limited actions each round and you always want to do so much more. But with your two-actions, you can only do so much. Also, there is a diminishing returns mechanic incorporated in the game to weaken repeat attempts to use the same tactics one after another. Sauron's play also becomes a bit of a balancing act, as you only have 2 actions per round and each can be one of three things: You can place influence to slow heroes and extend your reach, making locations perilous for the heroes to encounter. This is important because the heroes have the opportunity to move far across the board and you want to stop them from doing this. You can draw Shadow Cards and Plot Cards. This is important because the Shadow Cards are a powerful means of hindering and harming the heroes and Plot Cards advance your Markers across the board. You can also place and move monsters and minions. This is important because you can wear down or defeat heroes in direct combat, but monsters need to be placed where there is influence, so that first option is important again. Plot cards can often only be played if there is a certain amount of influence in an area or if there are monsters or minions occupying a space, so the actions are all inter-related as well.

As the Heroes, the most interesting mechanic is the managing the deck of cards. Each hero has a deck of cards that they use in combat and in movement and are used as their life pool for damage. This results in difficult choices for the heroes. Sure, you may be able to move really far by discarding the cards in your hand, but then you will have few cards in your hand to play in combat should you encounter a monster or minion. When used in combat or travel, or removed as damage from an opponent's attack, the hero discards the cards into different piles. When the cards run out, the hero is defeated. The hero can shuffle the piles back into the draw pile to renew their deck, but every time they do so, Sauron can advance one of his markers on the track, so the heroes need to manage the need to rest or heal.

I had mentioned the three story Markers earlier, but there is a fourth that represents the Heroes story. It automatically advances two spaces each round. So, there is a race for whose Marker is in the lead because it shows who has dominance and therefore if the better or worse cards from each card is played.

The other mechanic that determines game winner is the "Mission Card". Each side draws one and it will give an overall goal that the heroes or Sauron will want to complete to ensure that their side has the best chance of winning. Missions for Sauron may be making sure that a specific Marker has reached the third stage of the track and the Heroes missions include things such as making sure they have a certain amount of favor or very little corruption. These are interesting mechanics that further the story and gameplay along beyond just completing the quests that the characters start with and, since they are hidden to the opposing team, create more depth and strategy as you try to anticipate what they have and cut it back.

Once one of the Markers reaches the end of the track, or all three of Sauron's markers reaches the mid-point of the track, the game end is started. Whoever's Marker is advanced the furthest reveals their mission. If they completed it, their side wins and there is much rejoicing. If the Markers are tied in advancement, both missions are revealed. If one team completed their mission and the other did not, then the team that completed their mission wins and there is much rejoicing.

However, if the lead team did not complete its mission, or if the Markers are tied and either both or neither team completed their missions, then the game is determined by a final battle. One hero spars off against the Ringwraiths minion for final victory. This has not happened yet in our games (thankfully), but I really think that this would be a dismal way to win or lose a game that took two plus hours of strategic depth. That is my only major complaint in the game thus far. And endgame should not be so random. Depending on who is ahead, the minion is either strengthened or weakened, but it still seems like too odd of a mechanic to end a game that is long and in depth and most likely, not a complete toss-up at the end.

Another player in my group mentioned that he did not like the artificial end timer in the game (the auto advancement of the Heroes story Marker), because it places a set ending before the game may necessarily feel resolved. I disagreed, just because it puts urgency and a time limit on completing missions at the end of the game and builds that sense of tension. However, I do agree with him if the result of the timed ending results in a final showdown battle between a hero and minion for the stakes of the entire game.


The game scales surprisingly well from two to four players. There has been talk of one player playing multiple heroes in a two-player game, but they probably haven’t played it the other way yet. However, there are certain missions that seem easier or much harder for just one hero player which can throw off the balance and force the final battle ending. But there is nothing stopping a single hero player from playing two characters, but it is not necessary to make two-player work. FFG was correct in setting it up as they did, but it may just need a few small tweaks to get the mission mechanics right for two-player.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. However, she was perhaps by biggest opponent in getting Middle-Earth Quest onto the table instead of Pegasus. She also does not like learning new games for the most part. Once learned, she’ll enjoy them, but that first game is always dicey. That being said, she really enjoyed the game. In fact, I even got her to quickly accept a two-player game after a long car ride when we were both already tired.

In fact, my wife brought up an interesting comparison that is rather adept, but it wasn’t one that any in my group thought of until she mentioned it. She said that the game was in some ways a retheming of Arkham Horror. The Heroes (investigators) run around the board and try to collect favor tokens (clue tokens) then rush to locations to use them to discard Sauron's plots (close Gates), all the while having to deal with Event Cards (Mythos Cards) every turn and resolving Encounter Cards (um, Encounter Cards) at the location you are in, where some of them are more dangerous than others.

While I will admit, the retheming is painted with a broad brush; it does fit into that category. Though in this case, the GOO is Sauron who can actively try to attack players and defend himself rather than letting the game mechanics automatically do it.

The Pros:

*Excellent components, but most likely even more excellent in the next batch
*Great theme and feel
*Incredibly absorbing play
*Great representation of Middle-Earth during a lesser explored time
*Cameo appearance from Tom Bombadil on one of the cards (a pro for my wife)
*Excellent scalability, especially since not many games really are suited for 3 players well

The Cons:

*Early component issues
*The Finale mechanic can lead to a single fight to determine the winner in a 2+ hour deep strategy game seems too random for an outcome.
*A few very minor areas where theme and setting could have been better expanded
*In some senses, feels like the game was put out a bit too early. Errors on the board, errors on the cards, first run minis are brittle. Plus, the final battle end mechanic and two-player mission imbalance problems seem like things that should have been better worked out in playtesting.


Middle-Earth Quest is an amazing game that offers a lot of depth in a game that the mechanics are surprisingly intuitive despite the number of components and bits. I’ve really enjoyed this game a lot more than I thought I would. There is no one way for Sauron to win, so there are so many different strategies to play. Heroes may seem less open to multiple plays because of the limited number of Quests, but their play is really based on stopping Sauron’s strategy. The game offers some interesting new mechanics and is a great game to find its way to your table if the theme or the love of a good strategy or adventure game is what you like. Despite some of the issues I have with the end battle result of the finale and some possible unbalancing two-player missions, I have yet to actually encounter them in the game and they are only suspicions of cons. After ending a two hour four player game with a final battle, my rating may drop, but for now, I am completely enamored with the mechanics and depth of the game.


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