New games come out all the time. Some of them are good. And every so often one of these has a truly inspired game mechanic. A game mechanic that changes how you feel about how some game resource is managed or that changes the industry in general. I’ll be talking today about one of these inspired mechanics. It’s the card management mechanic of Middle-Earth Quest.
1. Background on Middle-Earth Quest
Middle-Earth Quest (MEQ) takes place between the events in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. Players take on the roles of non-canonical characters in an effort to stymie the tide of Sauron to better aid Frodo in his upcoming mission.
From a thematic point of view, MEQ is rather unique. It adds original content to a favorite nerdy franchise.
From a components point of view, the game is from Fantasy Flight and therefore has a certain level of expected quality. This game, unfortunately, has some issues with the plastic miniatures. The art work is good, the card stock is good–the miniatures are mediocre.
But how is the game mechanically? This is the true focus of our discussion here.
2. Game Play
One player takes on the role of the dark lord Sauron. He will spread influence, move monsters and play schemes to further his story tracks. His goal is to have one or more of his story tracks to reach the finish line first.
The Sauron player has several actions he can do on his turn to accomplish these goals. He can draw action cards, draw plot cards, heal his minions, deploy monster or spread his influence tokens.
Once Sauron has completed his turn, the rest of the players take their turns. The rest of the table takes on the roles of the canonical characters I mentioned early. These players have a secret objective they work towards. Their goal is to have the Fellowship’s story marker make it to the end before Sauron’s story markers. To this end, the players must manage all of their resources.
And the bulk of that resource management comes in the form of managing their hand of cards.
3. Managing your hand of cards
Each of the good players has a deck of cards that forms their life pools. When this pool is empty, the player is required to rest or heal–which moves Sauron’s storyline one space forward. Thus, managing your hand is very important.
Each character has a Fortitude skill. This dictates how many cards they draw. Players are allowed to keep cards in their hand from turn to turn. This allows the player to overcome particularly difficult obstacles.
Cards played are moved to the rest pool or the damage pool depending on the effect causing the card to be played.
This may not seem like a particularly inspired mechanic thus far. But let’s take a look at the cards themselves.
4. Multi-use cards
I’m a sucker for multi-use cards. I think they have been a tremendous improvement to board game design. And MEQ has them.
Players can move from space to space by playing a card from their hand to their rest pool. In the bottom right corner is an icon. To move from one space to another, this icon must be on the path you are moving through. If not, then the cost to move is usually 2 cards of any icons instead of just one card. Nifty!
In combat, players use the rest of the card. During combat, the good player and the Sauron player select cards from their respective hands. They simultaneously reveal these cards and apply the effects.
In the top left corner are either swords or bows and arrows. Swords are melee combat and bows and arrows are ranged attack. The number next to this icon is the strength of the attack. So Anticipate does 1 melee damage and Volley does 2 ranged damage. The amount of shields next to this number is the amount of damage you ignore from the card your opponent played.
The main body text gives you synergy. For example, Anticipate allows you to do just that: anticipate. Your opponent has to play his combat card first, allowing you to react to his play. Volley gives you synergy if you have lots of ranged attack cards in your hand; it gives your next card +2 damage if it’s a ranged attack. Deciding which card to play based upon the effects and the damage and shields is always tense. It’s never easy trying to min/max these decisions.
In the bottom left is the strength of the card. Each character has a strength rating. This dictates the amount of cards he can play during combat. Some cards have a strength of 0; others as high as 4. Managing this along with how to kill that minion that is bearing down on you is an absolutely inspired mechanic.
5. Bringing it all together
The player sheets have an additional skill of Agility. Agility is used during combat. This gives the character either +1 Fortitude or +1 Strength–his choice.
An extra Fortitude means you draw one extra card before combat. This can be critical because you have more cards from which to choose. But an extra Strength means you can play one extra strength’s worth of cards.
And making this decision is always tense. Can you defeat the minion with an extra card draw or with an extra card play? Do you play the card with the movement icon you need or do you hold on to it so you can later move? Do you play Hack and then Strategize? Or do you play Fall Back and then Volley?
And just because you defeated the monster doesn’t necessarily further your goal of pushing the story maker along. As my friend Jon says: Tough decisions are the mark of a good game.
And Middle-Earth Quest is a good game!
-Chris, on behalf of the Muskegon Area Gamers