“I see,” laughed Strider. “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”
–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Fresh after the release of The Voice of Isengard and its two flavorful new keywords, Time X and Doomed X , developer Caleb Grace offers some insight into the process of balancing the development of both thematic and mechanical concerns in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game .

Developer Caleb Grace on Theme and Gameplay in The Lord of the Rings

My favorite part of working on The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is that it is based on The Lord of the Rings ! Though I’ve expressed my affection for Tolkien’s fantastic books in previous articles, I cannot overstate just how much I really love the world he created. Middle-earth has been a big part of my life since I was a young boy, and having the chance to create a game set within that world is nothing less than a dream come true.

It’s also a big responsibility. I know that there are many other die-hard fans who want to see their favorite characters and places faithfully represented in the card game. On the other hand, there are also plenty of players who are more concerned with building super efficient decks and challenging themselves in interesting gameplay. In-between these two player types is a whole spectrum of fans with their own ideas of what is the ideal blend of theme and gameplay. In this Second Breakfast article, I’m going to peel back the curtain a little bit to show how we work diligently to provide a rewarding experience for all players no matter where they fit along that spectrum.

The Challenge

Since I started working on The Lord of the Rings , I’ve often heard people comment on how strange it can be to see Steward of Gondor ( Core Set , 26) attached to such various heroes as Dáin Ironfoot ( Return to Mirkwood , 116), Elrond ( Shadow and Flame , 128), and Sam Gamgee ( The Black Riders , 2). The thought crossed my mind as well when I first started playing the game. As a serious fan of Middle-earth lore, I know that the title of Ruling Steward is hereditary, passed down the line of Mardil from father to son for generations. That means that, in the strictest thematic sense, the Steward of Gondor should only be attached to a Denethor hero.

However, even before I started working for Fantasy Flight Games, I also understood that if the card read, “Attach to Denethor,” its usefulness would be greatly decreased, seriously limiting players’ deck-building options. That would have been a terrible decision to make for the design of the game’s Core Set , in which access to a resource-generating effect is critical to many players’ successes and enjoyment of the game.

So how does The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game design team navigate these types of decisions? There are a few different factors that weigh into our “balancing theme and gameplay” decisions:

Thematic Appropriateness

First of all, I think everyone who plays a card game based on a popular fiction like The Lord of the Rings can agree that a card’s game effect should be thematically linked to its title. Even those players who occupy the extreme end of the gameplay side of the spectrum typically expect that gameplay and theme should compliment each other. For example, a Weapon attachment will be expected to provide some type of effect that aids in combat. If we made a Weapon attachment that had nothing to do with combat but instead had an action that allowed its controller to lower his threat, players would probably scratch their heads and wonder how we came up with that idea.

Using the example of Steward of Gondor, I think most players can agree that gaining resources is an appropriate effect to represent the wealth and influence of the Steward’s position as ruler of Gondor. While not every card may have the effect that each player thinks it should have, every card we design starts with an idea inspired by Middle-earth lore. I like to start by recalling my earliest memories of the books to get that first impression of a character or place. Then, I revisit the source material to make sure I remembered it correctly. From there, I try to think of fun card effects that might capture the spirit of the lore and translate it into creative gameplay.

That brings us to our next consideration: the card’s power level.

Power Level

By a card’s power level, I mean its specific, overall impact on the game state as a whole. It’s easy to come up with a bunch of exciting effects, but it’s much more difficult to weave all of those effects together into a healthy card pool with a good amount of variety. This is the part of the development process that may see a card that was originally non-unique rethemed into a unique card because its effect is simply too strong to have appear more than once on the table.

Steward of Gondor is just that type of card. The ability to gain two additional resources every round has such a high impact on the game state that allowing more than one instance of the card’s effect to be in play at the same time would upset the balance of the game’s cost curve and other card effects. Putting this effect on a unique card was clearly the right choice.

Level of Abstraction

Our third consideration is probably the most difficult because it is the most subjective: What is the appropriate amount of abstraction in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game ? Every game has some amount of abstraction, but each player has his or her own opinion of what the right amount is.

What we strive for as a design team is balance. Our goal is to bend the theme just far enough to create an exciting game with endless possibilities, but without bending it so far that it breaks the world of Middle-earth. To that end, we rely on a certain amount of abstraction to help players navigate the many quests that their heroes undertake.

As a player, I am drawn toward games that are more concrete and less abstract. I prefer board games with detailed pieces over generic ones, and I tend to prefer card games that create spaces for my character cards to occupy over those that don’t. Accordingly, I understand why some players would like cards in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game to share an almost one-to-one correspondence from the books to the game. Clearly, something as closely guarded and secret as Vilya ( Shadow and Flame , 137) should not be attached to anyone besides Elrond. Whereas Denethor wasn’t the only Steward of Gondor in Middle-earth’s history, Elrond was one of only two or three individuals to wear Vilya (depending whether or not Celembrimbor ever wore it before he gave it to Gil-Galad). In fact, Vilya was worn by fewer individuals than the One Ring!

However, if we treated every single unique item from the book this way, it would seriously limit all the possibilities that the game can offer, and that would be a huge disservice to the large number of players who want to explore all the “what if” scenarios they can imagine. That means designing cards that can be played with the “correct” character, but that can be used with other characters as well.

In order for the more concrete, thematic players to make sense of those “what if” scenarios within the context of the game’s narrative, they may need to stretch their imaginations a little to allow for more abstraction. For example, by doing a little storytelling of your own, you can explain Dúnhere ( Core Set , 9) being granted the Title of Steward of Gondor when it is attached to him:

“While traveling through Gondor on a previous adventure, Dúnhere was befriended by the Steward and given leave to travel through Gondor as an honorary citizen. The Steward even went so far as to offer his support in Dúnhere’s future endeavors, so this title represents that support.”

Players on the far end of the gameplay focused end of the spectrum might laugh at this idea as completely unnecessary, but players on the thematic focused end will know what I’m talking about.

Still, for some of our more die-hard thematic players, it can still be hard to swallow the level of abstraction permitted by some cards and scenarios. They may feel it’s strange for the Great Eagles to confront Orcs within the Mines of Moria. And that’s okay because we still have one more point of consideration… player choice.

Player Choice

If you don’t want to play Steward of Gondor on anybody except Denethor, then you can absolutely play it that way. It’s entirely up to you. If you get a thematic headache from the idea of Dwarves sailing to Pelargir or the notion of Eagles navigating their way through Moria, then you don’t have play the game that way. There are plenty of other, more thematic options.

Because The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a cooperative card game, rather than a game of head-to-head contests, players are not necessarily encouraged to build the most cost-effective, streamlined decks they can imagine. Your deck-building depends entirely on your play-style. Both the rich thematic approach and the more aggressive gameplay approach are equally valid ways to play the game, and we treat both with respect when designing each new expansion.

Example: Captain of Gondor

To help demonstrate how the design team works to integrate lore and gameplay in The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game , let me walk you through the creative process behind one of the player cards from the upcoming The Ring-maker cycle.

One of our design goals for the cycle was to create a series of attachments that bolstered some of the existing “skill” traits such as Noble , Scout , and Ranger . Captain of Gondor is an attachment that attaches only to a Warrior hero. Originally, this attachment and the others were intended to be non-unique, but we quickly found that by making them unique we could make them punchier and more exciting to play. So we decided to give each one the Title trait and tap into the lore to come up with some thematically appropriate names and effects.

We settled on Captain of Gondor for the Tactics attachment, and it certainly has an appropriate effect for that sphere:

Response: After you optionally engage an enemy, exhaust Captain of Gondor to give attached hero +1 Attack and +1 Defense until the end of the round.”

This effect helps Tactics players focus further on what they do best: engage enemies, defend them, and destroy them.

But who would be so forward in battle and so eager for glory to optionally engage an enemy often enough to benefit from this effect? Why, Boromir of course! That’s why gave the card his title, but we didn’t restrict it to just him because we wanted to create more possibilities with this card. Of course, both versions of Boromir have the Warrior trait, so the thematic player can play Captain of Gondor on Boromir (and that’s certainly not a bad choice). But for a more gameplay-focused player who wants to make his mono-Tactic Rohan deck just a little stronger, he can attach Captain of Gondor to Éomer ( The Voice of Isengard , 1), if he chooses. In this way, we hope to please both groups of players by giving them each what they want: a good card, with a strong thematic identity that is fun to play.

Thanks, Caleb!

Thematic design runs through scenarios as well as player cards, and the three scenarios of The Voice of Isengard relate a thematic tale in which Middle-earth’s heroes adventure in the service of the White Council, under the direction of its head, Saruman the White. As with all the best moments of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game , the scenarios recall the themes, settings, and characters of Middle-earth, even while exploring new, untold series within the Third Age.

Then, the story begun in The Voice of Isengard continues in the upcoming cycle, The Ring-maker , so stay tuned for more news and previews of its Adventure Packs!

The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is a cooperative card game that puts 1-2 players (or up to four with an additional Core Set) in control of the most powerful characters and artifacts of Middle-earth. Players will select heroes, gather allies, acquire artifacts, and coordinate their efforts to face Middle-earth’s most dangerous fiends. The Living Card Game format allows players to customize their gaming experience with monthly Adventure Pack expansions to the core game.

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