Two Towers: the Tabletop and the Digital

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game (henceforth and forevermore referred to as “the ACG”) is, in fact, a grand experiment. How does one take the popular and fun Living Card Game model, pioneered by Fantasy Flight Games (I think?), and bring it into the realm of Hearthstone and Slay the Spire? It’s not really a new game, nor is it a facsimile of an old game the way so many board game apps are these days. It’s simply The Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game: the game based on a game based on a book!

Of course the game is adapted (translated?) from The Lord of the Rings the Card Game (henceforth and forever referred to as “the tabletop” or “LCG”), being one of the aforementioned Living Card Games. It was released in 2011 and has been steaming along ever since, though there is a self-imposed “break” coming after the completion of the current cycle. About a year into the game, Mr. Caleb Grace assumed development of the game, along with Matt (Aidyn) Newman for a few years. It has, for many folks, become the gold standard of solo and cooperative gaming. I played the game for many years (still do on occasion) and even podcasted about it.

One of my refrains over the course of my tenure on The Grey Company was, especially after a lengthy Hearthstone trip, that if they ever released a “digital” version of the game, I would play the hell out of it. To be brief, the reasons for this were simple: video card games are infinitely quicker to play and easier to store. I’m on the record as having said that if I had an intern to look after my cards, break down and build decks, and setup games for me, I would be playing the tabletop a lot more frequently these days.

So when Fantasy Flight announced their digital adaptation, then called The Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game, I was a fervent early adopter (as an aside, I talked a little about this in my early impressions of the game here and here).

As such, one thing I’ve come up against many a time since is the remarkable tendency for tabletop players, hardcore or otherwise, to quickly dismiss the ACG, not just as a product in the marketplace in which they’re not interested, but as an abomination and an affront to all they find holy and good in the world (that being, apparently and strictly, the original LCG).

This article is not a rebuttal, just a comparison. I want to take some time to point out a few reasons why I think the ACG is a little closer to the tabletop (if perhaps more in spirit than application) than may be immediately apparent, and also to show that they are two totally different products.

The Essentials

In a sense we’re kind of talking apples and oranges here; like The Lord of the Rings the novel versus the popular films. But even between things of that disparate sort there are strong similarities. In discussing the card games, the first and most obvious similarity is the presentation. Fantasy Flight Interactive (FFI) had been licensed to use any and all pieces of art from the archives of Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). Some people have whined about this, saying they shouldn’t be using the art on such a different game, implying that it is a deception. My feeling is that it helps to unify the Fantasy Flight LOTR universe. Besides, the art is brilliant and should be seen by as many people as possible.

Besides the artwork and general visuals, since there are only so many ways one can present Middle-earth, deck-building must be the next central thing to discuss. Deck-building in the ACG is markedly different from the tabletop, if one can say that any deck of cards is different from another. The minimum number of cards in tabletop is 50, with no upper limit; the ACG limits the builder to 30 cards, no less and no more. Both games restrict the player with the spheres they can play, derived from the heroes they choose. The spheres are the same (Tactics, Lore, Spirit, and Leadership) and the limitations are nearly the same (you can still only choose cards from spheres belonging to the three heroes you base your deck on), but the ACG has introduced levels of cards.

For example, one can only use a level 2 Tactics card if they have at least 2 Tactics Heroes in their deck and so forth.

Hobbit Pipe is a level 3 Spirit card

This differential is less an innovation and more a lateral move. I say this because in the tabletop, during play, you can only pay to play cards from your hand using resources on a hero whose sphere matches the card (Leadership Aragorn can only spend his resources on Leadership cards and neutral cards, for example), so having more heroes from a given sphere means more resources to pay for that sphere. The ACG does away with the sphere match rule, making it easier to get cards into play, but the card level system means if you want to dig in to a sphere, and get the really interesting or powerful cards from that sphere, you’re going to need to use more heroes from that sphere (Have the level 2-3 cards met their design intention? I can’t say. Expect some discussion in a different article).

One other essential that is almost identical is the idea of threat. Your baseline threat is established by the threat cost of your heroes. It goes up once each round and card effects can move it up or down. If you hit 50 threat, you’re out. The main difference is the threat event concept introduced by the ACG (and copied in Journeys in Middle-earth), where bad things happen at particular levels of threat. Even though this is decidedly different from the tabletop, there are still analogues: some quest card or location effects only trigger at particular threat levels in the tabletop; the ACG has no engagement phase, so the threat events are akin to having to take on a particular enemy at a particular threat level, along with its engagement effects, just like in the tabletop.

When we look at other essentials, the direct similarities begin to drift. There are locations in the ACG, but they are not cards to interact with: locations are the actual field you are playing on, sometimes with their own effects but most often with their own objectives, closer to quest stages in the tabletop than actual locations. In lieu of location effects, there are objectives. These are either goals to be quested through or hazards to be removed, all using willpower. Not quite the same as questing in the tabletop where the willpower is all pooled together, but I would argue that the effect on gameplay is largely the same.

Round Structure

Talking about questing naturally leads us to a discussion about the rules of the game, and particularly the structure of each round of play. Here is where some critics have said the ACG staggers off into lands where “streamlined” means “dumbed down” and the game loses its elegance and nuance. In some ways this is inescapable – when you’re going for a game that can be played more quickly, some weight has to be shed. Many agree that the tabletop is a hefty game with lots of quirks and rules to learn; the ACG is trying to avoid some of that while maintaining a depth of strategy comparable to its peers and predecessors. To that end, the ACG takes all of the actions one might take during a round of the tabletop and smushes them all together.

Here’s what I mean. In the tabletop game the round looks this:

Turn reference courtesy Ryno

Not a pretty picture is it? But in this wall of steps is a lot of depth. Each one of those little green boxes is a chance for the player to act in a number of different ways and respond to what the encounter deck is throwing at them. Couple that with hundreds of cards and decks that have been produced over the years and there is a richness to the game that is hard to find elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the ACG looks more like this:

Turn reference courtesy myself

The simplicity here, I think, belies the true picture. The Upkeep phase is basically the same as the Resource phase: you get cards and resources, maybe some effects trigger. The end of the round is essentially the Refresh phase: cards ready, threat goes up, etc. But the middle, the action phase, is what I meant when I said everything is smushed together.

In the tabletop you follow the same pattern (Take a step, action window; take a step, action window); the ACG follows this cyclical pattern too, but the actions you take aren’t limited to whatever step or phase you’re in. In the tabletop you declare attackers and defenders; in the ACG you do the same, but it might be (and usually is) the first thing you do as it isn’t hinged to a step of gameplay. In the tabletop, everyone goes questing together; in the ACG everyone quests individually and it can be done whenever is most strategically plausible.

You’re making the same (or very similar) decisions, you’re just doing them at different times. You still have to ask yourself, “Who am I going to quest with? Will I need that character later? Who do I defend with? Do I play this event now or wait until things are more desperate? Who do I put this attachment on? What’s coming at the next stage of the quest that I need to prepare for?” Admittedly, without all the wrinkles of action windows, and other missing pieces like shadow cards (though I will argue they’re still around in other forms in the ACG) there are fewer decisions to be made, and so perhaps less depth. And yet the essence of the tabletop still exists even in the diminished cycle of play of the ACG. In other words, it’s the same “vibe,” but on a different plane.

Other Analogues

They are the same same decisions, but they look and sound different, and combat is suspect number 1. Since combat in the ACG is more like its peers in the video card game space (Magic, Gwent, Elder Scrolls, the inimitable Hearthstone, and so forth) where the characters can bash into each other at will and individually, the combat phase from the tabletop is completely removed. Without that detailed structure, there is no defend step and no shadow cards, no engagement step either.

But there kind of is.

The defend action and Guard keyword serve the purposes of both differentiating combat in the ACG from its digital fellows and creating a modified version of the defend step. You can’t choose exactly who is attacking who, but you can try because (with some exceptions) the Enemy can only attack who’s using Guard.

Likewise there aren’t shadow cards to worry about and/or counter, but you also don’t know which creature the Enemy is going to use to attack (unless you’re a boss in total control of the board). Furthermore, there are Treachery/Preparation cards hiding out there that you can’t see and the aforementioned threat events creeping around, perhaps unexpectedly after a well-timed threat raise from Sauron. The element of “hidden information,” that being the unseen card coming off the encounter deck and facedown shadow cards in the tabletop, lives on in the ACG, albeit in different forms.

Image result for lotr lcg shadow cards
Ew, shadow cards.

Another analogue that has always been preeminent in my mind is the Fate Meter. There is no such thing in the tabletop, but there is still an alternate way to spend your characters’ willpower on something beneficial: side quests. In my opinion, the Fate Meter is practically the same thing. You put your willpower there and reap some kind of helpful, often global, benefit. They even come nicely packaged with a bit of flavor text to help tie them into the broader narrative the quest is telling you.

And that’s the final issue I want to bring up, that of story. When you burn these games down to their composite atoms, they are the same: using cards to tell stories set in Middle-earth. Having had the pleasure of meeting Caleb Grace and spend time with him on a few occasions, I know for a fact how deeply he cares about the source material and how he translates that into the tabletop. I feel confident that Tim and the rest of the crew at FFI, having also met them and followed their work, cared just as much about making this a Middle-earth experience. Really, they’re a part of the same family of games, especially since Caleb was an integral part of the early development cycle of the ACG.

If you’re a fan of the fiction and the world, and this particular iteration that Fantasy Flight has been building, then both games provide a rich place from which to explore the lands of Hobbits and Wizards.

My Precious by Jake Murray

Conclusions

My point here is not to say, “See! See! They’re the same!” because they’re just not. There are real distinctions between the two, not just as standalone products but as one physical tabletop experience set against a digital, video game experience. That said, when it comes to the overall feel the ACG has clearly grabbed on to certain elements of the tabletop and done well in translating them into the screen space; others it has adapted into progeny that bear the traits of their predecessors. In one dimension it’s a “spiritual sequel”; on another it’s the tabletop 2.0 that will probably never come; it’s the tabletop experience for screens that will never reach the same heights; it’s the “dumbed down” card game we all hate. But in a more final sense The Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game is completely its own animal, bearing innovations and design principles that, while familiar, are heretofore unseen in the video card game realm and impossible to duplicate in a tabletop experience.

Now that it seems development of the game has ceased, we’ll never quite know what could have been. Would more scenarios and mechanics have been adapted? More player cards with their digital analogues? At least the servers will be around so we can keep enjoying the game, but the fact that is life was cut short is a real shame. Maybe the ACG will inspire a new generation of narrative-driven, “PVE” video card games that will have a little more time to flourish.

2 comments

  1. “Turn reference courtesy myself” gave me a good chuckle. This is ab excellent synopsis of the differences and shared heritage of the two games. I wish that I had played it more, but I kept having issues with crashes. One of the problems with digital games that seems to be common these days is that they are rushed out in “beta” before anyone outside of the developers should see them. For that matter, they are often announced far too early as well. This creates an initial rush of hype, often followed by a steep descent into disillusionment and even backlash. I enjoyed the game, when I could complete a quest, but supplemental tools (cough cough, the deckbuilder) could have used some love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree completely. The game needed to let the paint dry way before they even went into early access. I think it’s in great shape now in its “definitive” form, but the rush they put it through early on really hurt it.

      Liked by 1 person

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