Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Board Game Review - Middle Earth Quest

Remember right after the Lord of the Rings movies came out, and every fourth board game that came out was all about the movies? And you would use worker placement or roll-and-move or cooperative puzzle games to reenact the adventures of Legolas and Pippin and Gimli and that kid from Goonies. After a while, the trend faded out and was replaced by an unexplainable deluge of zombie games, but I still remember how many times I played yet another Lord of the Rings game and thought, 'why can't I play someone else? Were these people the only ones who did anything?'

And the answer is no, these were not the only people who did anything. There were dwarves who battled darkness in Moria, men who stood against the onslaught of the Haradrim, and elves who knitted sweaters out of flower petals and sang songs about how great it was to be tall when 'elf' is actually a word for a really small person.

This is who you play in Middle Earth Quest. The game takes place before Gandalf kicks Frodo out of his house and makes him go get stabbed and tortured all the way to the worst freaking place in the world. You'll be an elf who wanders the land and slays orcs, or a Rohirrim who rides his horse into battle against minions of evil, or a tough-as-nails ranger pushing back the darkness with both hands and a big ugly knife. What you won't be, what you won't ever have to see, is another damned hobbit. Because in a game about snapping necks and cashing checks, the last thing we need is a stumpy quasi-homosexual dork who gets his ass kicked by a spider.

There is, however, another option besides playing these hard-on warriors of light. You can play Sauron, and then you get to do more stuff than the heroes. You can summon Gothmog and the Lord of Harad and ringwraiths. You can spread evil like throughout Middle Earth like spoiled peanut butter, you can corrupt heroes, overthrow nations and steal ice cream from small children. This part is the most work, and it's hard as hell. Those damned heroes are really serious about screwing with your plans, and every time you get some impressively nasty plot into play to bend the world to your will, that pesky dwarf will come along and shove his metal-toed boot up your evil plan's ass. But if you persevere and really play smart, you just might be able to bring down the darkness and put a premature end to happiness all over the world.

In terms of playing the game, Middle Earth Quest reminds me a lot of Runebound. The heroes will wander all over, completing quests and killing things and getting in and out of trouble. If Sauron is doing his job properly, they'll also get the snot kicked out of them on a regular basis, because time is short and they can't afford to lie around asking for magical poultices or elf nookie to make them feel better. They have to be out in the field, punching evil in the gonads, and that's a tough job, because evil punches back, but hard. They'll get training from Gandalf and Aragorn, horses from Theoden, and really bad advice from Saruman. They'll also get shot by poison arrows, stomped by cave trolls, and get corrupted by the minions of Sauron. In other words, they have much cooler adventures than Frodo.

Actually, Middle Earth Quest reminds me of another game from Fantasy Flight. It's a heck of a lot like Arkham Horror, but with an actual person playing Sauron. I love Arkham Horror, but I have to say, I think I prefer Middle Earth Quest. The addition of a human element makes the game less arbitrary. When the darkness creeps into your campsite and delivers howling, red-eyed demon wolves, you'll know that it wasn't just a twist of fate, it was your dear friend deliberately bringing you some pain. When you stymie some devious plot with a little old-fashioned righteous violence, the evil howling in rage will actually be a human howling in rage, and not just a deck of cards that couldn't possibly care less.

The addition of a human master of evil makes the game a lot more like a story. Now you're not just going from the asylum to the docks and trying to get a car. Now you're following a tale of epic war between good and evil, and it builds to a finish, and lots of stuff happens along the way. You'll battle the Mouth of Sauron in Dol Guldur, taking grievous wounds, and recover in Lothlorien before making your way to Fangorn to investigate the Huorns. You'll meet up with your fellow hero outside the tomb of the Witch King, and then battle orcs at Weathertop. And since you're not just retelling a story we've all known since we started being nerds, the story becomes your own.

All this awesome is not without cost, however. This son of a bitch takes a very long time to play, and there's enough downtime that you can feed the dogs or wash the dishes while you're waiting for your turn (I'm not making this up, that actually happened). There's a great story unfolding, but it's moving at a rate similar to plate tectonics. When Sauron is taking his turn, you won't even be paying attention (unless you're Sauron). There's a heck of a lot of boring in this epic tale.

And just to make sure we knew this game came out of Fantasy Flight, there's an absolute ton of crap in a box with no storage dividers. As is typical for this kind of game coming from this company, you have a buttload of stuff to punch, organize, and sort. Plus the rulebook is downright intimidating, and for at least your first few games, you're going to have to slow down to double-check things every ten minutes. You do get a great story out of it, but you have to be willing to put in the work to get there.

One potential complaint that I see is a matter of balance. You can play this game with anywhere from two to four people, which means between one and three heroes. With just one hero, that guy is going to be in deep warg poop. With three heroes, Sauron is going to be nearly impotent. It doesn't really scale to account for a varying number of players. But honestly, that doesn't bother me at all. Sure, it might not be fair, but life isn't fair. And in a semi-cooperative game like this, Sauron's role seems more like one of a dungeon master running a game of D&D. Your job isn't to win. Your job is to make sure everyone had fun. So while this is a potential complaint, it's not one that bothers me at all. If you desperately need to win, and can't have fun without a well-balanced game, you're not going to like this one. Keep walking.

Even worse than the overwhelming pile of pieces and rulebooks, and even worse than the downtime, is the ridiculous endgame. If the heroes get their story advanced far enough, and if they've achieved their overall mission, they win. If Sauron gets to the end and completes his nefarious misdeeds, he wins. But if both do it at the same time, the entire game is settled with a brawl. One card-playing extravaganza later, your entire story boiled down to a fistfight. That is one weak-ass ending - but you're not going to see it every time. Most of the time, one side will win and the other will just lose, and it will be close but still awesome.

But in the end, the complaints pile up less than the glowingly positive elements. Sure, you'll spend an afternoon on it, especially if it's your first time, but the story is worth it. It's fun to battle evil, and it's fun to provide the foil for a band of brave heroes. In the end, I had a really good time playing Middle Earth Quest, and I look forward to playing it again. I think it's a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon, especially if you can play it with people who are more concerned with fun and story than they are with balancing issues and whip-crack fast game play.


2-4 players (one of whom will have to be the bad guy)

Tell an exciting story that you haven't seen a dozen times already
Some neat game play mechanics that get out of the way and let the heroes be heroic
Beautiful map, inspiring heroes, and frightening monsters
Basically, this is what I love about gaming

Slower than waiting at the DMV
Overwhelming rules and pieces
Potentially unbalanced
Stupid endgame

 Remember when I said I was getting a great discount from Noble Knight Games that would let me review some cool games? This is one of them. And if I'm going to keep getting that awesome discount, so that I can keep reviewing the games you want to see, I could use a little help. I'm not saying you should buy games you don't want. But if you do want Middle Earth Quest, do me a solid and get it from them. Mention my name, so they know this is working. I'll owe you one.


Michael said...

The endgame killed this one for me, but not for exactly the same reason. Yeah, I agree that after everything you've gone through in the game, the ending should be something big. However, besides the fact that it might just end in a fight, those missions vary WILDLY in level of difficulty, so much so that somebody not playing the game could peek at the missions that were drawn and often tell you right then and there who'll win the game.

Nate said...

"...snapping necks and cashing checks..."

EPMD in the house.

Good review. While I'm a little scared off by the logistical commitment of learning it and managing 10,000 pieces, the forthcoming second edition of Descent has piqued my curiosity; am wondering how the semi-coop balance of dungeon lord vs. heroes will compare to this.

Matt Drake said...

I'm planning on getting Descent 2 in my next Noble Knight order, so look for that review some time in late June or early July.

RandomAnon said...

"There's a great story unfolding, but it's moving at a rate similar to plate tectonics."
"There's a heck of a lot of boring in this epic tale."

Sounds like LOTR to me

Parduz said...

I have this game, and me and my players agreed that two heroes is the sweet spot: the downtime is'nt too much (one player turn removed in the "cycle"), the balance is better (although Sauron is likely to win more than the heroes).
Still we think is a mediocre game, nice to play twice in a row and then forgot for a year.