LCG campaigns

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog of late, you’ll have seen a massive increase in my playing The Lord of the Rings LCG of late, including finally getting round to playing the saga expansions. Very exciting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree! I’m also roughly halfway through playing the Edge of the Earth campaign for Arkham Horror LCG and, having got this far, earlier in the week I finally set about using all of the experience gained to upgrade my decks. Playing both of these games almost side by side has got me thinking a lot about the differences between the two, and I’ve found myself really disappointed with the older game.

I think it mainly comes down to the campaign experience, really. Lord of the Rings was never really designed to have that kind of campaign feel, after all – the monthly adventure packs were of course designed to have a cohesive narrative to them, which only increased during the life of the game. That’s all well and good in terms of the encounter deck, of course, but when it comes to our player decks, they’re pretty much what we want them to be, and some folks do play “progression style” and only use the cards released up to the pack they’re playing, which is pretty much how I think we all played back in the day! But there’s no real sense of progression in terms of your deck, in the same way that we get in Arkham.

In Lord of the Rings, you can play earlier quests with cards from later in the game’s life, and have a comparatively easy time of it all. The core set still has some phenomenal stuff that you won’t find surpassed from later on, but the reverse is also true, and later cards do really help to smooth things out that just weren’t possible early in the game’s history.

In Arkham Horror, however, the player cards are designed from the start to level-up and improve as you make progress through the campaign. I think I spent a couple of hours the other night going through my collection to buff Patrice and Trish, and I found it actually really exciting, finding the upgrades that I could get, or exchanging some cards for others. It’s an obvious point, really, but it’s just great to have that aspect of the game built-in.

Interestingly, it also means that the game is quite accessible, because you can have a deck with clear avenues for levelling-up as you can just buy the higher-tier versions of cards that you started with, but also it allows for people who want to make some narrative choices with their decks as they play, and get really granular as to what they swap out and in. We’ve seen this most clearly with the five Investigator decks that came out a while ago now, where those decks came with higher-tier versions of the basic cards that really telegraphed how to upgrade the deck. There is the possibility for upgrading by increments, and spending your XP over a wide variety of cards by just taking them up a single notch, or you can go heavily in and invest it in the top-tier versions of just a couple of cards. I’ve done it both ways, and find the options are always quite fascinating really.

For my current duo, I approached the task by looking at the level 2 and level 3 cards first, thinking I’d go for a middling split, so have been able to upgrade quite a few things throughout each deck. Of course, it’s also a great point to see what is and isn’t working well for you in the deck, and to try and make the most of things by ditching the “filler” cards for something more usable. Of course, some element of filler might be needed, due to the way the game works – you might want to keep certain cards, not for their actual effects, but rather for their icons. 

The task of levelling up a deck can sometimes feel quite daunting, and playing Edge of the Earth isn’t the first time I’ve left it a couple of games before spending my XP because of that. Sometimes it can be a case of too much choice, and you don’t know where to start. However, you’ll always have that trajectory of levelling up the existing cards to guide you. In contrast, when I’ve come to make some tweaks to my Lord of the Rings decks before now, it really is a daunting prospect because you are faced with the entirety of the card pool to try and figure something out! I actually organise my cards for Lord of the Rings by set release, as well (rather than by type, as with Arkham), so trying to find a certain effect or something can be quite arduous! There isn’t really the same option of having a stronger/better version of an existing card either, although sometimes you might see cards where they have a bigger effect than one that you already have, such as giving a character +3 attack instead of +1 attack, but you have access to everything from the start. So for example, in my Eowyn/Theodred/Merry deck I have had the Rohan pump cards in there from the very beginning.

Now, Lord of the Rings does have boons and burdens in campaign mode, which are cards that get added to the encounter deck, or to the player decks, and carry over between games once you have earned them. So while you don’t get the option to have better versions of cards in your deck, you do get the chance to add some fairly useful cards to your deck over time. Of course, this is balanced by having to also include horrible cards as time goes on, as well (although Gildor Inglorion does get added to the encounter deck, which is always nice to see him). So we have recurring cards throughout, which we very rarely see in Arkham (the only example that springs to my mind in this vein is The Harbinger from The Forgotten Age, which I think pops up twice after its initial appearance). 

Of course, ultimately they’re different games and therefore they work differently. Lord of the Rings works perfectly well playing it as it was originally released, just building a deck and working through each of the adventure packs in a cycle. Many people do prefer to build a deck to tackle a specific scenario, and while I don’t do that per se, I am aware that there are some scenarios that I would never attempt with an all-purpose deck. FFG have now started to add boons and burdens to the re-released stuff, such as the core set and Angmar Awakened boxes, to make them all into a campaign in the manner of the Saga expansions. I’m not sure they needed this, if truth be told, but I think there is that kind of shift for a lot of games to make a joined-up experience and try to get people more invested. I’m a little baffled by the fact that Marvel Champions does this, because it strikes me as being entirely on-theme for you to be able to battle the villains in a one-shot kind of way. I don’t have any experience of the Marvel campaign system though, so can’t comment more fully just yet!

It does make me wonder if anything would be lost by playing the Saga expansions, which introduced this concept, in non-campaign mode. I wonder if the boons that you earn make the scenarios playable, and not having them makes it nigh-on impossible to win.

I have definitely rambled on far longer than I thought I would about this, so I should probably try to draw this to a close now! I think I definitely prefer the Arkham system for its clearly delineated path for progression, both in terms of the encounters that you face and also the player decks and the whole levelling-up process. However, the campaign system can also get really clunky, and sometimes it can feel very difficult to keep track of exactly what is going on, especially as you go through a campaign and you need to recall what happened earlier on. Lord of the Rings as a game is just wonderful, if incredibly difficult, although I must say I have had a whole new appreciation for the game since I stepped away from true solo and embraced two-handed. The game tells a really beautiful story and, while it can often get a bit complex as well in terms of what exactly is going on, oftentimes the scenarios are designed really well, and really draw you in as a result. The only thing it falls down on, really, is how it attempts to implement the whole campaign thing, but aside from the Sagas, I haven’t really felt the absence of a campaign system before now. It’s funny how playing the Saga stuff has made me see all of this, really!

However, most of this is only an issue when you look at stuff from later in each game’s life. When you look at the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle for Lord of the Rings, it tells an overarching story (following Aragorn’s rescue of Gollum from Mordor) without any kind of complicated system of adding and/or removing cards as you go. The most complicated aspect is having to disassemble the encounter decks if you need to re-use some card sets across different scenarios (although personally I just bought five core sets, so have more than enough!) This model is broadly true for each cycle in Lord of the Rings, although the narrative of the game becomes more dense as we move through the various expansions, often leading to complicated set ups.

Arkham Horror, by contrast, sees us adding cards to our deck that we have “earned” right from the core set, with the infamous Lita Chandler, and the first cycle, The Dunwich Legacy, does play around with this as we rescue characters, and gain esoteric formulae etc. Later cycles do become quite complicated – I’m thinking of the Innsmouth Conspiracy, which flip-flops between the present and the past, so requires us to remove and add cards based on whether we’re going back in time. Sometimes you might only earn a card for a single scenario, which feels a bit redundant overall. However, it does intrigue me that it took six full cycles before the game realised that a monthly pack release schedule is not what this game is about, and it serves the game much better to produce a big box of the campaign that has all of this stuff that we can just mix and match across the various strands of play. While I’m currently not all that sure if the Edge of the Earth campaign is all that fun for me, I can nevertheless see that this is how Arkham should have been, right from the start.

It’s funny, though, that they’re now trying to retrofit Lord of the Rings expansions with a campaign mode as well, as they release these boxes in a similar manner. I suppose it’s a symptom of the rise in popularity of these sort of legacy-style games, where we as gamers need to have those links, and have story choices that matter. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make story choices in Lord of the Rings, we just play the scenario that is given to us. Many times in Arkham Horror, we can actually choose when to end a scenario by resigning without actually having completed our investigation. There are real decisions in campaigns like Path to Carcosa, which influence the path that we take through the eight scenarios. It is glorious, but it’s also a lot of book-keeping and can become very clunky in some campaigns.

In a perfect world, then, I think I would have the Arkham-style player deck progression, with the early, story-driven scenarios of Lord of the Rings, and try to just forget about campaigns and boons or burdens.

But that’s just me!

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