by Mr. Saint
When, as a child, I had decided I outgrew Goosebumps and the Animorphs series, the first “grown-up” book I can remember falling in love with was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. From that first story, an obsession with Middle-earth and persistent love of high fantasy was born. I entered the hobby a little late to easily get my hands on Middle-earth Quest, though I did get to play it at a game night once. I was completely fascinated with the idea of playing through an adventure in Tolkien’s world, especially if that adventure was not necessarily tied to the War of the Ring. That’s why when Fantasy Flight Games announced the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, a game that looked to be the spiritual successor to Middle-earth Quest, I was immediately pumped.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth (hereinafter Journeys for short) is a cooperative, app integrated dungeon crawler. Over the course of it’s ten to fourteen adventure campaign, players will have to work together to understand and ultimately confront the evil that threatens the realm. Each individual adventure of Journeys is played over a series of rounds. Each round consists of an Action Phase, a Shadow Phase, and a Rally Phase.
In the Action Phase, each player may perform up to two actions. The possible actions are travel (move your character up to two spaces on the map), attack an enemy, or interact with a token. If you travel onto an unexplored tile, you immediately explore it, triggering the app to populate it with various search and threat tokens, NPCs, or enemies.
Once all players have performed their actions, it’s time for the Shadow Phase. In this phase, the app will instruct players on how each enemy on the board activates. This generally takes the form of targeting a specific character and moving towards them, or attacking that player if they are in range. Once all enemies have activated, the adventuring parties’ Threat is assessed.
Indicated by a red bar at the top of the screen, the Threat meter represents the amount of time the players have to complete their objectives before the forces of evil overrun the area they’re adventuring in. Periodically, players will reach specific threat thresholds, which will trigger additional events, such as spawning enemies or updating the current adventure objective due to the passage of time. If the Threat meter ever completely fills, the players will fail the adventure. Notably, even if you do fail an adventure, you will proceed to the next one, though there are sometimes consequences you’ll have to contend with later.
In the Rally Phase, players reset their skill deck by shuffling it together with their discard and then have the opportunity to “Scout 2”. When scouting, a player reveals a number of cards equal to the scout value from the top of their skill deck, prepares up to one of them (putting it in front of their character as a usable skill), and puts the remainder on the top or bottom of their deck. In this way, the Rally Phase allows players to size up their current situation and plan for the upcoming round.
Almost all interaction in Journeys takes the form of tests. Each hero comes equipped with numerical values for a series of five stats – might, agility, spirit, wisdom, and wit. Whether you’re trying to decipher an ancient text, slam your axe into an orc’s skull, or sprint up some structurally questionable stairs, the app will assign that activity to one of these stats and ask you to test. This is done by revealing a number of cards from your skill deck equal to your character’s stat value. Any orange star icons in the top left of the revealed cards count as successes. If you reveal the blue and white Fate icon, you can spend inspiration earned from other activities (such as exploring) to convert that symbol to a success as well. Total up the number of successes you were able to muster and compare that to the app’s requirement to determine whether you passed or failed the test.
Let’s start with the big question: Does the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth feel like a journey in Middle-earth? Well… that really depends on what you’re looking for. The journey maps do an admirable job of abstracting the concept of traversing vast distances while being harried by enemies at every turn. And in a nod to the source material, some of the adventures are non-combat focused.
Certainly, it gets all the proper nouns right to make you feel like you’re a player in Tolkien’s world. Fantasy Flight even injects some name-brand appeal into the game, with familiar faces like Aragorn, Gimli, and Bilbo as playable characters. For me personally, this caused a bit of cognitive dissonance. What are Gimli and Legolas doing in the same adventuring party prior to the formation of the Fellowship? I would have preferred that characters without so much baggage, like Fantasy Flight’s own Beravor and Elena, form the selection of playable character options with cameos during the adventures from more well-known characters, but I fully admit this is a bit of a nit-pick that didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the game.
I’ve seen some other reviewers comment on how Journeys is rather stingy with potential item upgrades, in stark contrast to other dungeon crawlers which pepper you with loot at regular intervals. For me, this was one of the things that rang most true to the Middle-earth experience. Aragorn doesn’t walk into a city shop when he has enough gold and trade in his beat up sword for Andúril, the Flame of the West. Arwen has to convince Elrond to have his smiths reforge the shards of Narsil, in order to give the sword to Aragorn before he travels the Paths of the Dead. Bilbo’s (and later Frodo’s) mithril coat was recovered from Smaug’s dragon hoard. The Phial of Galadriel dates back to a time before the First Age. These objects have history. They should feel appropriately rare.
The rest of Journeys feels a bit generic fantasy adventure. If we changed the names of people and places to be in line with Fantasy Flight’s Terrinoth setting, you could have called this game Descent 3rd Edition and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. And that’s ok. Most board game narratives are merely set dressing for players to interact with a game’s mechanisms. No spoilers, but Journeys is still probably narratively a cut above some of its peers, with at least a couple of adventures that are legitimately memorable.
If you came for a story, you’ll stay for Journeys’ excellent card play. Significantly more interesting than rolling a handful of dice, the skill deck presents you with meaty tactical decisions every turn. When we first started playing Journeys, the choices presented by scouting during the Rally Phase (and at the start of every adventure), seemed obvious. Of course I would prepare my most generally powerful card, with the other card(s) I revealed finding a home either on the top or bottom of my deck based on whether they had the coveted success icon.
Midway through the second adventure, I realized that the skill cards that typically had the success icon were the same that I had identified as being most useful in a general sense. If I prepared four of these skills to take advantage of their flexible abilities, that was four less success icons in my deck to actually succeed at tests with! Once I had this revelation, I was constantly trying to plan ahead, determining which skills to prepare, place on the bottom, or leave on top of my deck based on what I wanted to accomplish during a given round. I was enthralled with this predictive gameplay loop, and the fun it generated effortlessly carried us through the campaign.
But the thing that will keep me coming back to Journeys, now that we’ve completed our first campaign, is the way it handles character progression. Experience is earned at the end of each adventure and is used to add additional skill cards to your deck. Even better, as you continue to gain experience, you can seamlessly swap cards in and out of your deck in between adventures, giving you the freedom to experiment with all that a given role has to offer.
Journeys also allows you to change your character’s role in between adventures. Because experience earned is role-specific, you will keep any cards you purchased when switching to a new one. In this way, Journeys offers a level of character customization rarely seen in other dungeon crawlers. It gives you the tools to build the character you want.
I’m sure many adventuring parties in Journeys featured Gimli, son of Glóin (most probably did honestly, because Gimli is awesome). But my Gimli? Affectionately nicknamed “Happy Feet” for the boots trinket he acquired, I outfitted him with a unique mixture of Guardian and Pathfinder abilities that gave him the speed to get to the action and the resilience to see a fight through. Journeys gave me a sense of ownership in my character that I rarely feel from board games, and it’s a system I want to continue to explore.
The fail-forward form of adventure progression, whereby the narrative continues regardless of whether you succeed or fail at a given adventure, was something I was initially very excited about. When it worked as intended, it was great! Like the time we spent close to an hour and a half battling enemies only to have one of our characters finally succumb to their wounds and fail a last stand test, causing us to fail the adventure. We “got our money’s worth” out of that adventure, if you will, and it was a relief to be able to continue with the story rather than have to replay that mission before we could proceed.
We also had the worst-case scenario, whereby a last stand was triggered and failed off of damage done from a failed first-turn test. While the narrative still proceeded in a coherent way, it felt like we had just missed out on an entire adventure. In this brave new world of app-integrated board games, designers may want to take some inspiration from video games for usability upgrades. I for one, would appreciate a level select menu and an undo button (misclicks happen)!
Although, in the apps’ defense, this is probably the best executed of Fantasy Flight’s app-based games to date. Small refinements over previous titles add up to a big difference. Like how the unrevealed map tiles now have a “fog of war” effect on the screen, letting you know approximately how big the map will get during a given adventure and in which direction it will grow so that you can allocate your table space accordingly. Or the Threat meter being completely visible. No more major peril gotcha moments, like those that frustrated us in the Descent: Road to Legend app campaigns. If you’re vehemently against app-integrated board games, nothing I’ve said here will change your mind. If you’ve been on the fence and are now thinking about trying one, I think starting with Journeys is the way to go.
When we had finished our playthrough and I started poking around the app to see how much things changed from campaign to campaign, Mrs. Saint stopped me. She exclaimed, “I don’t want spoilers for the next time we play!” And once I had checked my curiosity, I found that I agreed with her completely. That quick exchange is the heart of this review. We both enjoyed our time with Journeys so much that we were immediately looking forward to playing it more. There’s a downloadable second campaign (the Hunt for the Ember Crown) and we’ve already pre-ordered the Shadowed Paths expansion which is scheduled for release later this summer. I’m very much looking forward to what the future holds for the Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth!
Check out more Journeys reviews and information at the below links:
Board Game Atlas -see what everyone is saying and get the latest price information.
The Cardboard Herald-check out this review to see TCbH’s thoughts and some great footage of the game and app.
Fantasy Flight Games -if you’re a fan of Middle-earth, check out Journeys and all the other games Fantasy Flight has for this universe.