Review: Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth Combines Exploration and Clever Game Mechanics

A new Lord of the Rings board game captures spirit of the sprawling journeys and adventures of J.R.R Tolkien's original books while blending the cooperative adventure and deck-building board game genres. Earlier this year, Fantasy Flight Games released Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth, a new adventure board game set in Middle-Earth. The game allows 1-5 players to create their own Fellowship featuring a mix of classic characters like Aragorn, Legolas, and Bilbo Baggins and new characters just for the game.

Journeys in Middle-Earth continues Fantasy Flight's experimentation with companion apps, which were first introduced with games like Descent and Mansions of Madness back in 2016. While older co-op adventure games typically required one player to act as both Game Master and antagonist to the other players, the companion app allowed these games to become true co-op experiences. With Journeys in Middle-Earth, the companion app serves to both narrate the story and setting and provide instructions for how the enemies move and act. Since Journeys in Middle-Earth is a campaign game, the app also tracks XP and inventory, replacing the campaign sheets used in games like Star Wars: Imperial Assault.

Those who have played Mansions in Madness will recognize many of Journeys in Middle-Earth's core mechanics. Each turn is divided into three phases. During the Action Phase, players can take two actions, which allow them to move across the board, interact with various tokens, or attack enemies. Most interactions and attacks require checks of some kind, with tests involving one of five attributes printed on each character card. After all the players have gone, the Shadow Phase begins, with enemies attacking the players and other negative effects occurring depending on the Threat Level, which increases based on the number of enemies on the board, the number of players, and how close the players are to achieving their objectives.

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(Photo: Fantasy Flight Games)

Scenarios in Journeys in Middle-Earth are broadly divided into two different types, one that focuses on exploring a journey map made up of tiles that are gradually added to the board over the course of a scenario, and more intimate encounters that take place on two square battle maps. The journey map encounters force players to make tough decisions about splitting the party, exploring random features on the map, and engaging enemies, while the battle map encounters take place within a single building or camp. However, each scenario usually involves wildly different objectives - sometimes, you'll be seeking out a hidden object, while other times you'll be charged with rooting out a traitor hiding in an inn. The success or failure of certain scenarios usually affect the story moving forward, adding extra levels of difficulty or extra benefits.

One new twist that Journeys in Middle-Earth adds to Fantasy Flight's co-op adventure game design is the addition of small character decks that replace dice rolls. While other co-op games required dice rolls to determine the success or failure of their checks, players instead draw from a character deck that slowly grows over the course of their campaign. Each attribute allows a player to draw a certain number of cards from their deck, with some cards having success symbols and other cards having inspiration symbols that can be converted to successes provided the players has an inspiration marker available to spend. Players can manipulate their deck during the Rally Phase at the start of each round, which allows them to scout cards from the top of the deck and either keep them at the top or move them to the bottom.

The character decks not only determine the success or failure of checks made throughout Journeys In Middle-Earth, they also determine what abilities a character has during a game. When a player scouts cards from their desk, they can also choose to "prepare" cards, which removes the card from the deck and grants them the abilities listed on their card. These abilities guarantee hits against enemy, block damage, or heal wounds, while others provide guaranteed successes to certain types of checks. However, there's a strategy aspect to preparing cards as well, as the most powerful cards usually have a success symbol on them. A player needs to balance choosing their abilities with keeping success symbol cards in their deck, or else they might fail every check they make during the game.

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(Photo: Fantasy Flight Games)

Players prepare their character deck by using a set of six cards that correspond to the character, a set of default basic cards, and cards attached to a certain role. Players can switch their roles between scenarios and they can buy new role cards to permanently add to their deck using XP from their past scenario. Personally, I loved this little deck-building mechanic, as you need to choose between specializing in a particular role or bouncing between roles in order to maximize the number of success cards in your deck.

Another new innovation is how Journeys in Middle-Earth handles death and injuries. Because damage can stack up in a hurry, the game uses a new Last Stand mechanic when players are near death. If a player successfully completes a Last Stand check (which is determined by the companion app), they automatically erase all of their damage. The Last Stand check increases in difficulty with each subsequent, but it gives players a chance to continue on even if they suffer a string of two or three attacks.


Journeys in Middle-Earth feels very balanced and intuitive, even for players that have never tried one of Fantasy Flight's co-op games before. The gameplay is surprisingly simple, but there's enough strategy involved for players that are looking for a more complex game. There's a bit of a learning curve involved -my Fellowship of three players struggled with the first three journey maps scenarios, especially as it seemed impossible to avoid the orcs and goblins swarming the map at times. In addition, the companion app handles all of the heavy lifting when it comes to tracking monster damage and a player's progress, although the "blind" checks in which you're not told how many successes you need to pass can be frustrating when it comes to trying to manage your resources.

Ultimately, if you're looking for a story-driven game that combines strategy, deckbuilding, and exploration, you'll enjoy Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth. The game is available at local game stores for $100.