The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game preview: Hands-on

Following the success of the Lord of the Rings table-top card game back in 2010, Asmodee Digital decided to turn it into a digital game with the help of Fantasy Flight Interactive. The free-to-play digital card game is set to be released soon, and we recently got the chance to go hands-on with the game to see what it has to offer.

Is the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game like every other digital card game on the market, or does it have something new to bring to the table? Find out in our hands-on preview.

When will The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game be released?

The biggest questions for fan of the table-top game right now is “When will I be able to play LotR Living Card Game?” and while there isn’t a solid release date in place just yet, Asmodee Digital has confirmed that the game will be available as part of Steam’s Early Access program in Q1 2018.

Like with other games, certain elements of the game will be unavailable during early access, but we’ll come to that in more detail below.

But while the Early Access game will be slightly limited in terms of campaigns and heroes, Tim Gerritsen at Fantasy Flight Interactive told us that the developers “don’t want [the game] to be in Early Access for very long”, especially when compared to other Steam games that stay in Early Access for literally years.

If that's too long to wait, take a look at our selection of the best PC games available right now. 

The Lord of the Rings Living Card game hands-on preview

So, what can LotR fans expect from the card game? It is, after all, based on the hugely popular (and hugely challenging) table-top board game first released back in 2010 that has seen multiple expansions since.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s establish what a ‘living’ card game is, as it’s not what you might expect. Interestingly, the term living refers to the longevity of the game. Essentially, the developers want to constantly publish new cards, quests and other content way beyond the initial release, giving the game a long lease of life - not bad for a game that is set to be free-to-play once it leaves Early Access.

Building your deck

When you first get the game, you’ll be given access to four heroes - Aragorn, Arwen, Frodo and Gimli - with the option of purchasing four more from the store. There will be more heroes once the game leaves early access, boasting a roster of 16 heroes at full release with more being introduced in future.

Each hero is assigned a sphere, indicated by the colour of the card. Purple cards indicate leadership, green indicates lore, blue indicated spirit and red indicates tactics, each bringing various skills and benefits to your deck. There’s also a neutral, white card, used by the likes of Gandalf, but these are fairly difficult to come across.

Before you go any further, you’ll have to build your first deck. You can build multiple decks - in fact, the developers encourage it - but there will be a technical limit of 12 decks during early access. The developer plans to expand this in full release, giving players the freedom to create with different decks and card combinations.

Each deck is comprised of 30 cards including three heroes. Each hero has a varying threat level - it’s important to keep this as low as possible during matches, as once you hit level 50 you become too much of a threat to Sauron and you’ll fail the campaign. This forces you to think more tactically, as you can’t always bring the most powerful heroes in your collection as it’ll bring the overall threat level up and make combat more difficult.

Alongside your three hero cards, you’ll have to choose from a selection of cards that offer anything from archers to the ability to exhaust the next character that your opponent draws. You’re provided with 45 free cards during early access, with the option of buying more from the store - something we come to below. You can go full aggression and pack it full of combat-based characters, or experiment with a blend of cards that can enhance other attacks.

Campaign and gameplay

It’s once you’ve completed your deck that the free-to-play nature of the game becomes apparent. During early access, you’ll have access to one campaign, comprised of five or six quests. The catch is that you only get access to the first of the quests, with the others requiring an unlock that uses either in-game currency or real-world cash. It’s not hard to make in-game cash and the developers want to make it accessible, so it shouldn’t be too expensive and it’s not really enough to put us off.

One of the great things about LOTR Living Card Game is that the developers can use any of the lore and locations from the book series in the game, providing a juicy, relevant and interesting LOTR-themed story alongside fleshed out characters and unique attacks.

Each card that you play will have different stats:

  • Attack power: Indicates the damage dealt to other cards
  • Will power: Used to resolve objectives (Choose which path to follow, etc)
  • Health
  • Power: Abilities unique to each character (More info can be found in the in-game glossary)

Along with each hero, you’ll have a bunch of support cards that include the cavalry, a spotter that’ll exhaust any new enemy heroes that appear and more, depending on which cards you selected to be in your deck. What is different from the board game is that heroes in the digital game can hold up to three attachments (Special, Armor and Weapon) that’ll provide unique abilities for the duration of the game. It’s a smart way to make heroes adaptable in a variety of situations.

Each quest is comprised of four to six areas, and you’ll have to make decisions about what you want to do. Do you want to follow the stream or risk going through a dark forest? Do you investigate the abandoned village or go into the spider’s lair? Each environment that you come across has different visual elements, from small spiders that scuttle around the edges to the greenery visible in forest-based battles – it’s the little details that really shine through in the LOTR Living Card game.

Who are you up against? Why, Sauron of course. But unlike with the table-top game where Sauron’s moves were randomly generated, Sauron in the digital game has a rather complex and impressive AI – in fact, it was so impressive that it even managed to beat one of the lead developers during our hands-on! Sauron’s AI will take everything into consideration, from your previous moves to your cards in play to the number of resources you have, and uses this information to plan a multi-stage attack to take you down.

This is great for newbies to the card game genre as games like Hearthstone pit you against other players, most of which are way more experienced and will destroy any newcomers. With this game, you can adjust the AI to be easier or harder depending on the challenge you want. You can even bring a friend along in the game’s co-op mode, although it makes Sauron more lethal than ever.

It’s worth noting at this point that it’s PvE co-op only in the LOTR Living Card Game, and there are no plans to bring full PvP any time soon. Oh, and the co-op mode won’t be available at launch in Early Access but the devs will add the functionality before the full game launches.

Shop

Being a free-to-play game, it’d be weird if there wasn’t a shop full of goodies to tempt you from your hard-earned cash – either real life cash, or in-game cash. The in-game currency is called Valor, and is gained by winning quests, activating the Palantir (provided when you buy things or play the game) or buying it with real-world cash.

The store is comprised of hero packs, individual cards, card backs and more, and unlike with games like Battlefront 2 where packs are randomly generated, you know exactly what you’ll be getting in the LOTR Living Card Game. Each pack is detailed before purchase, allowing you to check the stats and details of every card in the pack.

If buying an entire pack doesn’t interest you, you can also enhance your deck by buying individual cards from the store. It’s simple, and most importantly, nothing is ‘real-world cash only’ – everything in the store can be gained by real world or in-game currency.  

SHOULD I BUY THE LORD OF THE RINGS LIVING CARD GAME?

We'll wait until the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game has left Early Access before we deliver our final verdict and rating.