Monday, 16 November 2009

Middle-Earth Quest

Han was in town, and despite a very hectic weekend, we managed to arrange a last-minute session to play Middle-Earth Quest, a game that Han has been very keen to play. This is an adventure game set in the world of Lord of the Rings, in a period between the time of the story in The Hobbit and the time of the story in Lord of the Rings itself. Sauron is preparing to gain control of Middle-Earth, and a band of heroes are trying to stop that. They need to win the game to steer the story to the starting point of Lord of the Rings. If they lose, there will be no Lord of the Rings. No Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning movies. No Risk: Lord of the Rings. No Lord of the Rings Monopoly. No society of people speaking Elven language. No tons and tons of Lord of the Rings merchandise and spin-offs. In short, the heroes have an important job.

One player plays Sauron. Up to three other players each play a hero character. The good guys have a story marker that progresses at a more or less fixed pace along a story track, towards a Finale space. The bad guy has three such story markers. He wants to move one of them to the Finale space, or all three of them to another mid-point Shadows Fall space. Both sides start the game with a randomly drawn secret mission. You try to win by pushing your story marker(s) to the Finale/Shadows Fall spaces and completing your mission, before your opponent(s) does the same. If you end the story but fail to complete your mission, or both sides end the story at the same time and both complete their missions, you determine the winner by resorting to the most primitive means - violence. You fight one last fight, between one of the heroes and the Ringwraiths, and if the hero defeats the Ringwraiths, the good guys win. Else Sauron wins.

That's the big picture. Now the fun details of what you actually do in the game.

To move his story markers, Sauron needs to play Plot cards, and keep them in play. There can be a max of 3 such cards in play at any one time, and each card advances one of Sauron's three markers, which represent three areas he can focus his effort on - (1) finding the One Ring, (2) corrupting the good guys, and (3) building his military power to conquer Middle-Earth. Most Plot cards have some conditions, so Sauron needs to fulfill them so that he can play them. Each Plot card affects a specific location. The heroes can discard a Plot card by going to that location and paying Favours, an abstracted concept, and the most important "currency" in the game.

Each hero has a deck of cards that is used for moving about the board, for fighting, and for tracking injury and tiredness. These cards are handled in quite a novel way. A hero will often need to rest to regain strength. There are some safe havens on the board, e.g. Minas Tirith, Lothlorien, where a hero can heal injuries and hide from attacks. Event cards will throw out Favours on the board for heroes to collect. Friends (like Gandalf, Boromir, Theoden) will pop up, and heroes can consult them to gain Favours or other benefits, like improving themselves or getting some nifty tool. At each location that a hero stops, he can also explore that location by drawing a location card. This is basically another form of event cards. All these cards provide the flavour and story to the game.

Sauron has minions (more powerful) and monsters (less so) at his disposal. He uses them to hinder the heroes and protect the locations of his Plot cards. Sauron also has Shadow cards to play on the heroes, and Corruption cards too. Corruption of the heroes is quite interesting. Heroes can voluntarily gain Corruption cards. If you are desperate to gain some Favours, you can "pay" for some by taking Corruption. However there are many Shadow cards where the effectiveness is determined by how Corrupted the targeted hero is. So although it's tempting, it's probably better not to take too much Corruption. Or at least you should try to get rid of it quickly. This is quite thematic and I think it's a nice touch.

The combat system is simple and fun. Only card play and no dice. There is some double guessing, because there's simultaneous card selection. And combats do not drag. Usually it's just 2 to 4 cards played (by one side) and the fight ends.

There are many more details to the game. When I first saw the many cards and components, it was overwhelming, but after reading the rules, everything fell into place and it turned out to be less difficult than I had expected. However in our first game we did have to look up the rules quite a few times to double check some details. Thankfully there is a turn order overview on the board itself, which is very useful.

The gameboard is huge, and is made up of two pieces. The board took up so much space that we had to put some of the components on vacant spots on the board itself. But the board does already have some spots reserved for some of the components. The number of cards is daunting at first, but after you read the rules, everything falls into place and it's not all that complex. This is a game where the bad guy sits at the right side of the board (i.e. south side).

Eleanor, the hero character that Han chose to play.

The various evil cards at Sauron's disposal. From left to right: Peril cards are played on heroes who enter a dangerous location. Corruption cards are played on heroes and have ongoing effects (e.g. reducing strength) until the cards are discarded. Shadow cards are one-time-use cards that can be played at various times. Plot cards are key to keeping Sauron's story markers advancing. Heroes need to work hard to discard them from play.

Saruman was still a nice guy during the period covered by the game. The flag marker with a "1" behind Saruman on the right is a location marker for one of Sauron's plot cards. The figure on the right is the Mouth of Sauron, one of the five minions at Sauron's disposal. The square token in the foreground is a moster token. These are drawn randomly by Sauron when Sauron wants to deploy a moster. Some of them are blank. The stacked round tokens are Sauron's influence.

The good guys. I didn't realise Aragorn and Boromir were that old. Or maybe they were very young during this time.

Sauron's minions. The Witch King, the Ringwraiths, and Gothmog.

In our game I played Sauron, and Han played Eleanor (not 100% sure of spelling), the pretty girl from Rohan. My secret mission was to have 3 plot cards in play when my story marker reaches the Finale space (or all 3 markers reach the Shadows Fall space). I was lucky to have mostly drawn plot cards that move the military marker, so I focused on that, allowing my story marker to advance at about the same pace as the hero's marker. Han collected many Favour tokens and managed to discard some of my plot cards. He was quite conservative it taking Corruption, and never had more than one. He tried to get rid of them quickly when he got one.

In one surprise battle he confronted Gothmog, one of my five minions, and killed him. That was some good fighting. Other than this there weren't much fighting. There were some small fights with some of my minor monsters. They all got killed. But that's OK. They are dispensible. I'm happy to just waste some of Eleanor's cards and make her tired. Han had some wasted turns because he waited too long to rest Eleanor. By then he only had very few cards in hand, and could only rest (shuffle used cards back into the draw deck) and could not move anywhere (you need cards to move). We joked that the good guys pay tickets (bus tickets, train tickets, air tickets) but the bad guys don't.

The board is rather big for just one hero, even though in a 2-player game the hero takes double turns. Eleanor never visited the north west area near the Shire, where Favours accumulated (i.e. wasted) throughout the game. But she did cover much ground. Heroes move much faster than minions or monsters. They play cards for movement and can move far as long as they have the right cards or have enough cards. Minion / monster movement is one step per Sauron action, and you have only two Sauron actions. Mounted minions move two steps, but still you can't really use your minions to catch heroes. Better just to used them to block the way or to protect plot card locations.

Game in progress. Eleanor moving to the north to thwart my plans, by discarding my plot card. The scroll token just below Eleanor is a Favour token. The track on top is the story track. The green token is the heroes' story token. The red token is Sauron's military token.

Details of the board. Every path has an icon and a number. These only affect heroes. To travel along a path, a hero must play one card with the matching icon, or pay a number of cards (of any icon) equal to that number on the path. The round tokens are Sauron's influence. The scrolls are the Favours.

The three sections on top are the three types of actions Sauron can take - place influence, draw Shadow and Plot cards, and command minions and monsters. The Shadow Pool below can hold different numbers of influence tokens depending on the stage of the story. Sauron needs to place influence here too, because many cards have a minimum requirement on influence in the Shadow Pool.

Details of two locations. The white castle on the border means a safe haven for the heroes. Locations are colour coded to make it easier to look for them when you play the game.

My very heavily guarded Plot Card location - Isengard. I have one minion and two monster token in Isengard itself, and two other minions guarding the only two paths leading to Isengard. Naturally, Eleanor would think twice before approaching.

Han contemplating his options as the Finale approached.

Details of Gothmog, one of Sauron's minions.

As we approached the Finale, I happily had three plot cards in play, fulfilling my secret mission. If my marker reached the Finale before Han's did, I would win. I guarded my plot card locations heavily, fully utilising all five minions. Even Gothmog was brought back from death using a Shadow card. I tried to guess Han's secret mission. It likely wasn't the one about fulfilling quests, since he had not been spending much effort on that. I was guessing whether it was the one about not getting too much Corruption, because he seemed to be quite adament about ridding Eleanor of Corruption. I think guessing and trying to prevent your opponent from achieving his mission should be a big part of the game.

There was one event card (not my plot card) that moved my military marker one additional step per round. It could have allowed my military marker to reach the Finale before Han's marker did. But Han got rid of this card by exploring the affected location, and eventually our story markers reached the Finale in the same round. He revealed his secret mission - it was the one about having 5 Favours. No wonder he didn't try to discard my plot cards. It was not only because they were heavily protected. It was also because he would have had to spend his Favours, and then would have failed his secret mission. Since we both fulfilled our missions, it was time for the climatic battle!

That's not good news for Han, because Eleanor wasn't exactly a fighter type. She's smart, which meant I could rarely play a Peril card on her. If I have more influence tokens at a location than how wise a hero entering the location is, I get a chance to play a Peril card on him/her. The final battle was very different from the other battles throughout the game. The hero must defeat the Ringwraiths in order to win. So I no longer had any interest in trying to hurt the hero or waste the hero's cards. I just wanted to survive. I became much more defensive. My minion was not dispensible anymore. For the hero, it was do or die.

And we fought. Round after round after round. The tension built, as Eleanor approached exhaustion, and the Ringwraiths approached defeat. It was on the very last card that Han could play, that Eleanor defeated the Ringwraiths, using the bonus ability of the combat card played. If I played a ranged combat card, Eleanor gained +2 attack. I did play a ranged combat card, and that +2 attack was just enough to kick the Ringwraiths back to Mordor (they couldn't die). The good triumphed over the evil. I actually still had some melee combat cards, and could have played one. If so I would have won the game. In hindsight, I noticed that for the first 4 or 5 rounds of combat I had been playing only melee cards. That was why Han was guessing that I probably had run out of melee cards by then, and chose to play that card which needed me to play a ranged card to be more effective. It all came down to one last card play!

Our game went on for about 3 hours. The game was fun. The two sides played very differently. Amidst the adventuring (for the heroes) and trap-laying (for Sauron), we had to keep remembering the secret missions and the story track progression. That was the most important goal to keep in mind, and it was also a form of countdown timer. I like this aspect of the game, because it gives a sense of purpose, and also a sense of urgency. The heroes are not just wandering around aimlessly. Sauron is not just hurting the heroes for the sake of being nasty. Most of his game revolves around his plot cards.


clevergames said...

You have a really interesting blog.
We share the same hobby, I'm totally addicted to board games , Party games etc.
thanks for the good reed...

Clever games for clever people

Frank said...

I've read that MEQ can have some serious downtime for the heroes if there are multiple hero players. I know you only played a 2p game, but what are your thoughts on this?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I imagine that would be possible, because if you play a hero, I don't think you can do much on another hero's turn. Sauron at least can pounce on the hero by playing a Shadow Card. That said, I think the heroes need to coordinate their efforts and work together against Sauron, so there should be discussion among them. The heroes should have an interest in one another's adventures. In the end, I think the best way to reduce downtime is to make sure everyone plays at a reasonable speed. Heroes should plan ahead what they will likely do on their coming turn, and not only start looking at their cards when their turn comes around.

TtL said...

Hi there Hiew, am new to board gaming and was going trough your old post reading your reviews of certain games and came upon the post about cost of games. I've considered the aspect of buying from local retailers and importing from overseas but is seems that it is more expensive to buy import, however in your post it seems that it is not so, do you mind advising me more on that matter?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I assumed you are in Malaysia too.

It's cheaper to buy from overseas if (a) you buy in bulk to reduce shipping cost per game, (b) you ask for surface mail shipping, (c) you don't get taxed by customs. In the past I rarely get taxed, but in recent years I have been less lucky. My gut feel is you need to keep your order (inclusive of shipping and other charges) less than USD200. Then customs will likely not bother to tax you.

I now rarely buy from USA websites, because US Postal Service does not have surface mail anymore. So I often buy from Canada instead.

Hope this helps.

viagra online said...

Wow If I could have time for play, be sure I'll... anyway looks very interesting, 8 years ago haha I use to play card games, but this one looks better of course, thanks for share the instructions maybe I should play once at least.
Thanks for sharing nice post.