US Games Systems, Inc
Designed by Mike Fitzgerald
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
2 to 6
about 30 mins
It does at times seem as if the last eighteen months have been full of Mr Tolkien and his works. Much exposure to Middle Earth: The Wizards, expectation of Lidless Eye, a re-reading of the books and now a Lord of the Rings tarot deck from US Games Systems. The first point to make is that this is not collectible, nor is it a particularly new game. The second aspect to tackle is the Tarot connection. I am no expert, but to me this looks like a full blown Tarot deck with all the vague mystical connotations that engenders - from harmless fairground readers and cartomancy, through numerous dodgy media images, to all sorts of weird stuff that I don't wish to talk about. A couple of opponents have looked askance when I have pulled the cards from the box, and with titles like Death and The Hanging Man I can understand their reaction. But since I will have nothing to do with the occult (it scares the tar out of me), I was able to reassure them. Once the game is underway, as we shall see, there is minimal connection with the darker facets of Tarot. And of course all over the world, Tarot decks (and variations thereon) have long been, and still are, used for traditional card games. So with this mix, even if Tarot cards are impossible to shuffle, US Games Systems (who have a huge range of tarot packs) are covering both bases.
A Tarot deck has 78 cards, divided into 22 numbered (0-21) major arcana (the famous images of the Fool, Death, Hierophant, Judgment and so on) and the minor arcana, 56 cards in four long suits - cups, wands, swords and coins. Mike Fitzgerald has taken this core material and used it to depict the journey of the ringbearers to Mount Doom, while always under the watchful eye of Sauron. A loose theme, it must be said, but I have seen more tenuous links. The game system is based on Crazy Eights or Twizzle (a family of card games made famous by Uno), and the designer has cleverly carried this off with only a couple of graphical additions to the Tarot deck - each card is designated as light, dark or neutral, the latter being dark or light as declared.
The game is played over three hands, and each hand starts with the One Ring being placed in the middle of the table. Each player is dealt eight cards and we are quickly underway. In his turn, a player may either play a major arcana card 'to the ring' which, as long as it is higher than any previous card (shades of Flaschenteufel here) or the Fool (Gollum - value 0 which resets the rubicon) which beats anything, makes him the ringbearer. Alternatively, a card may be played to the 'journey deck' - following either suit or number of the preceding card, or laying a major arcana and declaring a new suit. As an alternative (usually exercised when you can't play a card) you can pick up a card from the draw pile and then play option one or two, or pass. The key to the game (and I could hear you wondering) is in the alignment of the cards. If you play a light side card there is no problem. If you play a dark card to the Ring, you take three dark points (beads, pennies or poker chips are fine), if you play one to the journey deck, you take two, and any dark cards left in your hand at the end of the hand are worth one each. Neutrals can be played as dark or light, as described, depending on your tactical situation. Finally, and importantly, the ringbearer has the powerful option of re-allocating one dark point per turn - to or from himself, or between other players. Holding the ring (rightly) thus gives a lot of power, albeit with little downside. The ringbearer will often have the say in where the dark points end up, so it is a much coveted role.
Victory is determined in a rather neat mechanic, that means the ring is always important and that each of the three hands is important in two different ways. Five victory points are awarded for the following achievements: going out first; the bearer of the One Ring; the player with most dark points; the player with least dark points. Bonus points are on offer if the ring is held by the dark or light sides. These points are logged on the scoresheet, as well as the cumulative dark points earned. At the end of the game, the player with the most dark points gains an extra five victory points, and the same applies for the best Free People performance. So as you can see, there are several ways to score points both tactically within a hand, and with a strategic eye on the running totals.
One of the oddest omissions is that there doesn't seem to be a rule for splitting ties. Not usually a problem in many games I grant you, but because of the broad brush victory point allocation we have had four tied games in ten outings so far. I think those that 'won' the draw were aware of the fact, but we really need some sort of ruling here. Admittedly, we have played mainly with three, which will mean at least two of the players will score each round, and this may be giving rise to the ties. It is safe then to conclude that the game is best with four to six players. That said, the scoring system is quite clever and is the source of the tactics and decision making present in the game.
In play, thanks to the mix of cards, one is usually dealt primarily light side cards. There are fewer dark cards, and even fewer neutrals. The tactics boil down not only to getting rid of cards, though this is often an important factor, but aligning yourself with the goodies or the baddies. Because of the card split it is inherently 'easier' to tend to the light side (it is also where you start), but those black cards are always lurking. You may get them dealt to you, or you may pick them up before you can clear your hand. Once acquired, they must either be kept in hand (keeping your position secret, but ultimately gaining dark points at the end of play) or you can go ouvert and try to gain enough dark points for victory - a much easier task if you are also the ringbearer. Another tactical ploy is to pick up more cards in the hope of improving your dark points but there is a game end limit of eight cards which should not be breached.
In round one, you tend to go with the flow and if you end up at either end of the dark/light spectrum you have a good basis.The passing on of cards in the second and third hands helps matters, and allows you to concentrate on your destiny. To a point. If we are talking control, then you have far less than in say Bridge or Hearts. However good your card play, you will get the odd stray point that you don't want, and the ringbearer is forever moving points around to his own ends (and seldom yours, though he may not know your aims). Balancing this is the good luck that will enable you to play an entire round with great cards, scoring either zero or a handful of dark points. In one hand I scored over twenty, and it is this ability to turn around a position that keeps the game interesting - even a committed light side player can change suddenly and decisively to his advantage. I am of the opinion though that this is sometimes more through luck than judgment.
One of the biggest selling, and sticking, points of this set will be the artwork by Peter Pracownik who, like the designer Mike Fitzgerald, became known to the gaming hobby through the Wyvern CCG. I can only describe his style as idiosyncratic, but it does have a certain appeal. Each picture has been specially created for the deck, and every one is different, with a distinct high Middle Ages feel. Some of the interpretations of Tolkien's characters are, umm, debatable - if I described Eowyn as wearing a décolleté Miss World evening dress, split to the upper thigh, Gandalf looking like Merlin from Boorman's Excalibur and Bombadil resembling a garden gnome, you will probably get the general idea. As with ME:TW, all this is subjective and hardly of moment since the effect is generally pleasing. What is far more important is how well designed these cards are for play. And the answer is they aren't. The suits and numbers are barely apparent from the images, so you need to look at the left hand sidebars which are far from clear and, by spreading the cards, the top right symbol to see if it is light, dark or neutral. So dock some marks for utility.
It is difficult to come to any exciting conclusions about LOTR Tarot. If you want to buy it for the cards alone, then it will come down to looking them over and parting with the cash if you like the production values. And if you are a real collector, you will want to get hold of one of the 500 limited edition sets which comes with gold edging in a posh box - very smart indeed. Of course, you can always buy Dummett's excellent Twelve Tarot Games book and play some of those. As a game, it is has a lot in common with Wizard - a traditional card mechanic has been adopted and tweaked, with hopes of beneficial results. I would say LOTR is easily a better game than Uno or Crazy Eights, since there is an element of thought beyond simply getting rid of your cards. Offsetting this is a feeling, and perhaps evidence, that however well you play your three hands, with any degree of bad luck you will have a hard time to remain in contention. I have seen good card players score zero dark points in round one, then fifteen, then zero without much say in the matter. So, ultimately, this is another nice little card game from US Games Systems. Not earth-shattering, but fun. Like Wizard it works well enough, and its primary attribute is that is easy to learn and to get others playing quickly. It is also short enough to become a regular filler. It is however, despite the inventor's assertions, unlikely to offer a long term challenge to hardened hobbyists or card game players.
[Ken: I wish that USGS had formatted the card information such that the deck could be used to play the various tarot games common in Europe. Instead, we have the traditional useless New Age divination layout. And from a game company!]
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Mike Siggins