Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Middle Earth Quest - First Impressions

With the advent of summer, Rip City Gamers also cut it's schedule of regular sessions in half, so I haven't been getting in as many reports as usual, and on occasion while I've had a good night of gaming, I haven't really felt that I had anything terribly interesting to report, as last week at Matt's where I had a very satisfying game of Attila vs Dave and KC and showed how lame I am at Big City the very same night.

However, what I really wanted to talk about this time out (and have had repeated requests from at least one member of the group) was our fledgling attempt to play Middle Earth Quest, the latest and greatest from Fantasy Flight. FFG has disappointed me lately, most recently with the terrible Age of Conan, which used a very similar foundation as War of the Rings, so I was a little nervous about the possibility of yet another exploitation of the JRR Tolkien franchise falling flat. While I'm not sure we were able to play long enough (or with a particularly important rule) for me to be able to make a recommendation, I can say that I was impressed with a lot of the systems in this game.

Because I was not the person teaching (thanks to Ben for his excellent work doing this), and only played a hero instead of Sauron, I won't go into much detail about laying out the game, but will instead focus on those mechanisms or game elements I liked or didn't. There are many reviews and breakdowns of the game on the Geek for those who are looking for that kind of information.

First, the positives, and there are many. I was very impressed with the hero system that allows the player to not only improve their hero over time, but also had some very clever uses of components I'm not sure I'd seen before. Most impressive was the way each hero's deck is used throughout the game: one deck controls movement, combat, and overall health. It means that players must think about how best to use their cards not only this turn but as the game progresses, and it adds a very nice puzzle and planning element to the game that kept me engaged most of the time.

On the downside, it is this very system that could foreseeably create some serious analysis paralysis issues. If you aren't thinking about what you'll do on your turn and what cards you'll use to move vs those you'll use to fight, and whether it's time to rest or heal, you will take considerably more time than you should. There is some degree of tactical planning you'll need to hold in reserve in case Sauron throws you a curve (or, I suppose, the other heroes), but in general the game is a nice balance of strategy and tactics, although it will require players to be on their toes during downtime.

The components are, of course, very attractive, and there are a lot of them. Plastic figures (which do indeed seem to have some breakage issues - the Minion that gets placed in Mt Gundabad in the midgame had his axe break off when we were picking up the game), lots of counters, even more cards. The game has a lot of things going on, and so there are a lot of things to keep track of them. If there's a downside to this, it's that you need a pretty big table - we had to extend the kitchen table rather than play upstairs just to fit the map and have decent table space left over. The map is pretty well used for holding cards and tokens, but there is some empty space left over. Nothing like an Eagle Games title, but still quite a bit, and it could have been used to hold a few of the other card decks (which we did anyway). The artwork is, of course, very nice, and I had no problem parsing the board even though it was all upsidedown to me.

The various systems seem to lock together well, although it takes a little while to understand exactly how they do. Given that both the Sauron and Hero players will have randomized victory conditions, the importance of the various systems will change a bit from game to game. For example, in our game the Heroes wanted to have two or fewer monsters on the map at game end to have a shot, while Sauron wanted the Ringwraiths on the board (one of his Minions, and a particularly large one at that, physically speaking!) and to get six Influence tokens in Eriador (where the Shire is). That meant that driving his Story tokens was still important, but not as much as it might have been under different victory conditions.

The Influence token system lost me for the first couple of turns, as my character started out far from these tokens. As time went on, however, I began to understand that they limit your movement in the sense that Sauron gets to draw Peril cards when your Wisdom attribute is exceeded by the number of Influence tokens in an area. You can still move, you just tend to either take more hits or give Sauron more bennies. It's a clever system, and the players ignore Influence at their (literally) peril.

The quest system is nice because it gives you excuses to do things early in the game to build up your stats and acquire the Favors you need to defeat Sauron's various Plots, the way that player moves his story tokens up the track. You will also get the chance to train from time to time, which increases your personal deck, which in turn gives you longer periods between resting or healing. Throw in the characters (world leaders such as Gandalf, Saruman - still considered "good" at this point in this history, or Aragorn) that resolve quests or just help you improve stats, and you'll have a lot of choices as to where to go and what to do early on. Our game only made it to the end of the II phase (there are III total), and I suspect these elements will be less important as both sides try to achieve their victory conditions and achieve dominance.

Another thing I like quite a bit about the system is that when you draw cards other than from your personal life deck, you generally get to draw a certain number and choose from among them. This means an increased chance of things happening and advancing the literary elements as well as game effects. And there are a *lot* of cards and decks to draw from over the course of the game.

There wasn't much I didn't like, other than the down time potential and the large amount of space required to play the game. In our game, Sauron seemed to have a lot of trouble getting started, and his plots were rarely in play for more than one or two turns, and then only one at a time. We learned after the game that Ben had thought Sauron got two actions, but in fact in a four-player game, he gets three, which means he would have almost certainly gotten more chances to find good plots and spread a little more influence around the board, although many of the things we did as players were thwarting him fairly regularly. I suspect a more aggressive stance with many of his Minions would have helped as well, but again that's mostly just because he was hobbled from the get go rather than poor play.

It strikes me that a big part of why I disliked Age of Conan so much was that so much of the early game felt like you were setting up for the late game, which was just an exercise in bashing the other players, and the whole Conan adventuring element felt very random and uninteresting. MEQ, on the other hand, not being a territorial conflict, made me feel much more involved in the game and the world. Strangely, I felt that the closest simile I could muster for the game is World of Warcraft, where your goals are largely personal and "errand-driven" but at the same time you feel like you're advancing in your understanding of the world and more and more of the over-arcing story is revealed as you go.

If there was anything else I would give as a downside, it's that I strongly suspect this is a game for three players. However, given that this is a very unstable number for most strategy games (one player attacks another player, the third player cleans up the mess), in this case because the two sides are so asymmetrical, three is a good number. Two players will work more or less the same as three, but with one less hero (but the same sequence of play, as the one hero goes twice between Sauron turns).

I did not access the rules much other than to see what differences there were in a two-player game, but Ben felt they were much more accessible and easy to parse and find information in than in most FFG games. They have an extensive index, which can only be a good thing. It is a 40 pager, but at the same time FFG uses a lot of graphics and breakout boxes, and if every card type needed a quarter page to lay out what the information on it meant, that's about a quarter of the printed pages! There are a lot of cards.

In a nutshell, I went from being skeptical to feeling that this was probably a very good investment, especially if you find yourself in situations where you have three players who want a three hour strategy game dripping with theme and some nicely entwined game elements. I expect this will see some more time in the very near future and I'll give a final verdict at that time.

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