While the staff tournament waits to wrap up, I thought I’d shine the light on a couple board games that have recently caught my fancy; first up: Middle Earth Quest!
Middle Earth Quest is a semi-co-operative game newly released from Fantasy Flight Games this fall (or thereabouts) which, at a glance, feels like it is a cross between FFG’s Descent and Arkham Horror games in that it combines the ‘team-of-heroes-versus-the-evil-overlord’ format that Descent has with the ‘running-around-the-game-board-trying-to-put-out-fires’ style of game play that powers Arkham Horror.
Before I knew anything about gameplay, I was excited as it (1) had to do with Middle Earth and (2) was designed by Corey Koneiczka –he did the Battlestar Galactica board game (which is PHENOMINAL). Did I mentin that early on I found out the game doesn’t use any dice? None. That also had me intrigued.
Middle Earth Quest takes place during the seventeen-year period from when Bilbo leaves the Shire to when Frodo leaves the Shire (so, the game follows the canon put forth from the books not the movies). Gandalf, aware that Sauron has re-taken Barad-Dur, has suspicions as to the true nature of Bilbo’s ‘magic ring’ and needs to keep Sauron’s shadow at bay in the world long enough to uncover the truth about the ring and(ultimately) get Frodo safely out of the Shire.
That’s where the unsung heroes of the Free Peoples come in: each player chooses one of the five possible heroes, and it’s their job to stem Sauron’s influence from spreading too quickly while at the same time, embarking on quests that further Gandalf’s goals. Though the players don’t get to play as any of the famous personages from the books, Tolkein’s characters are present and treated as a resources for the player-heroes.
The entire game is on a countdown to the end game, and there’s no real way to slow the game down (speed it up, yes; slow it down…not so much). This “count-down clock” is represented by the Story Track: eighteen squares that all the players move their markers on to show how much time is left in the game, as well who is currently winning. The Heroes get one marker to move along the track, signifying the passage of time (or, more accurately, the time it takes Gandalf to realise what he’s dealing with and formulate a plan). Sauron gets three markers, signifying how close he is to: corrupting all the leaders of the Free Peoples, unveiling Gandalf’s plans, and mustering sufficient forces to wage open war. When any one of those four markes reaches the last spot on the STory Track, the game ends (more on that below).
Each game turn is split in half: Sauron’s phase and the Heroes’ phase. In Sauron’s phase, he takes actions to place influence tokens on game-board locations, summon/move/control his minions and monsters, or add more cards to his arsenal of plots cards and shadow cards (both can be used to make uncomfortable things happen to the heroes). Also in his phase, the Sauron player draws an event card (which can affect everyone on the board, good and evil, for good or for ill) and moves all the markers on the Story Track forward (the Good tracker always gets moved forward two spots; Sauron’s markers only get moved according to his Plot cards currently in play).
In the Heroes’ phase, the other players each take their turn starting with one player and continuing clockwise (not willy-nilly however-you-choose as in Descent). Players move across Middle Earth, trying to defeat Sauron’s minions, consult with famous characters, and complete quests to become more powerful and collect Favour tokens (which are spent to ‘foil’ Sauron’s plots ie: stall Sauron).
The central focus of the game is Sauron’s Plot cards: up to three can be in play and though each one can sometimes give Sauron an advantage in game play, it usually just speeds up the rate at which one of his counters moves along the Story Track (thereby making the game end quicker, ensuring the heroes can’t complete their objectives and aren’t powerful enough to stop Sauron’s minions). Each focus card in play has a corresponding location and Favours cost: if a hero travels to said location and pays the Favours cost, the Plot card is removed from play and Sauron is less likely to be able to end the game quickly (and thus, less likely to win).
To ensure that traipsing across the board and foiling his plots isn’t so cut and dry for the Heroes, Sauron can control his minions to harry the Heroes’ progress –but monsters can only move to locations that are influenced by evil, so it’s important that Sauron place sufficient influence tokens on the board every turn to ensure his monsters have freedom of movement. What all this turns out to be in actual game play: Sauron is constantly juggling his resources keeping his Plots in play, placing influence tokens on locations and moving his forces around to get in the way/combat the group of heroes he’s up against. And it’s quite the juggling act.
But the Heroes fare no better; they juggle completing their own personal quests (they get them at the start the game) with completing the quests that are geased to them during the game, while also trying to collect Favour tokens and also moving to Sauron’s different Plot locations (to get rid of said Plots). All of this is done while trying not to get killed by Sauron’s monsters and minions (the minions are Sauron’s hero-level monsters). Yes, the Heroes have a harder job; but there’s two or three of them to share the load (heh).
Once a marker (any one) gets to the end of the Story Track, the game ends and a winning side must be declared. The winning of the game rests entirely on the part during the game set up where each side draws a card from their respective Mission deck, with the card drawn revealing to its player(s) what needs to be accomplished by the end of the game for that side to count as having “won.” This objective is kept secret throughout the game.
The act of winning the game is not dissimilar to how close combat in Warhammer is done. This is the only part of the game that isn’t absolutely excellent –due mainly to the very “sudden-death-overtime” way it plays out: just like in Warhammer, where whoever gets the charge gets first crack at winning close combat, the side in Middle Earth Quest whose marker gets to the ed of the Story Track first gets first chance at winning the game by revealing his/their Mission card first. Once revealed, if said conditions are met, he/they win the game instantly. Just like that. Regardless of what the other side did.
BUT, if they FAIL to achieve their mission, as stated on their randomly-drawn mission card, the other side gets to reveal its mission. If the second-place side’s mission WAS accomplished, they win the game. Lastly, if neither side completes their secret mission, then the side of Good chooses which one of them will fight the Ringwraiths all by himself, with the game being won by the side who is victorious in that fight.
The only reason I feel a little off-put by the way the game comes to a conclusion is because the rest of the game is well thought out –checks and balances abound throughout the game to ensure the game remains a neck’n’neck nail biter to the very end. It’s not a bad way of ending the game, it just doesn’t feel like the same sensibilities behind the game’s mechanics were used to create the end game.
Still, even with that criticism, the game is awesome. It was designed to always play out as a close game; it emulates a lot of the feel of Middle Earth found in the novels and its production values are top notch: plenty of counters, plastic figures, cards AND a wicked double-sized game board/map of Middle Earth with all its most interesting spots marked off as game-location places.
I feel like I’ve written w-a-a-a-a-y too much already and haven’t even touched on how the game uses NO DICE. I think I’ll leave that for the FFG website: they post the full rules to all their games, and the rules book does do a pretty good job explaining how the cards are used without one needing to “play” in tandem to reading that part of the rules.