I recently bought The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Card Game - Definitive Edition, which is digital card game. I thought it was based on a physical game and found Lord of the Rings: The Adventure Deck Game. But a quick look at the rules convinced me this wasn't at all the same game. Instead it's apparently a digital adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. All very confusing, but to sum up, this is a review of the solo-only, print-and-play, fan-designed LoTR card game.
Only there are three different versions of this game. I picked the JackD version because I liked the card design, it seemed to be a real improvement over the original and it was easiest to print at home. You can find a link to the card images on JackD's website. I printed the six pages of card fronts on cardstock making sure they were centered and 100% scale. Then I flipped the pages over and printed the card backs the same way. Even though I used US Letter rather than A4 paper, it all lined up. I cut the cards out using a guillotine paper cutter and sleeved them. A paper trimmer would probably work better, but the sleeves cover over imperfections in the cutting (and the printing). The result looks quite professional.
I had a harder time with the items and tracking cards. Samwise didn't print on my Frodo and Sam card, for reasons I can't decipher. The item cards are supposed to be the same on both sides, but I didn't see an easy way to accomplish this. The Witch King tracker is too small for my sleeves, so I glued the two sides together. Unfortunately, I'm bad at gluing so the result is warped. I managed to print the rules improperly so they don't fold into a booklet. None of this is detrimental to the game, of course. The nice thing about print-and-play is I can reprint the pieces later if it annoys me too much.
Games based on popular cultural touchstones inherit a shortcut to theme. Asmodee's Adventure Card Game serves as a ready example. Arwen in the movies heals Frodo. (Maybe?) So the game gives her reasonably impressive stats and the ability to heal other characters. Slap some art and flavor text on the card and ship it. We already have a context for Arwen, so there's no need to flesh out the lore. Do the same for a few dozen other characters (including obscure figures) and you've got a thematic game. Most people won't think too hard if, say, Arwen, Éowyn and Gimli go on an adventure together fighting spiders.
This game does something different. Yes, Arwen is in the game and she does something she's known for in the movies: she causes the river Bruinen to flood and wash the Ringwraiths far away from the One Ring. Mechanically it sets the Witch King tracker to 0. And also yes, the card features a photo of Liv Tyler as Arwen and appropriate flavor text. The difference is she plays a single distinct role that works thematically with the other mechanisms in the game. Sometimes she doesn't have any impact on the story and sometimes she's a central element, but she never threatens to break the tale by being out of place.
To explain, the premise of the game is that you are playing as Frodo and Sam trying to destroy the One Ring. If you take too long or lose all your health or are overcome by the Witch King, you lose. Each turn you must chose a direction to travel: left, right or forward. The topmost card in the discard pile determines how many cards you draw from the deck based on the direction of travel. When all the cards have been drawn, the final card is Mordor which forces one final obstacle before you can win the game (and save Middle Earth).
Like the source material, a tension of the journey hinges on how fast the hobbits risk moving toward their goal. Each card has an Attack Value from 0 to 3. Drawing one card is generally safe, since you start with 10 health and heal every other turn (during the night cycle). Drawing 5 cards is suicidal unless you happen to have a way to mitigate the attacks. One option is to use the Ring. It makes you invisible and invulnerable, but also draws the Witch King closer. Using the Ring also puts you at risk of drawing Sauron's attention and sending more Ringwraiths to your path.
The last card drawn becomes your destination. It might be location, such as The Dead Marshes, or a character, such as Arwen. It's not scripted to match the canonical story, but you still feel the same dread or relief you felt the first time you read or watched the Lord of the Rings. Arwen isn't an awesome elf fighter/healer who joins your party. Instead she rescues Frodo from the Witch King and fades from the story. This isn't her story. Frodo and Sam move on with only guesses at the dangers and allies they will encounter next.
Each turn is marked as either day or night. At the end of a night turn, you rest automatically (unless forbidden by a card effect). Resting during the day costs another turn, but might be necessary if Frodo is badly wounded. So there's a rhythm to the play. Push forward during the day hoping for low attack cards followed by caution at night to preserve a sliver of health before the rest period. Or maybe caution during the day to give you more slack at night in case things turn for the worst. Successful play requires discerning when speed is of the essence versus caution. Resting during the day or using an item could be the difference that allows your quest to continue or it could slow it down enough to cause it to fail.
These decisions come quickly and the game ends after a few minutes. There is, of course, a good deal of luck in the outcome, but you are usually given the tools to overcome luck. Move slower if you don't have the proper equipment. Use the One Ring late in the game to speed past cards. Sam can sacrifice himself to save Frodo. Search back in the discard for Aragorn to reduce the Witch King track. Use an item, if you have one. Similar to a competent roguelike, winning requires saving resources for just the right moment.
Perhaps the best comparison is to The Lord of the Rings, the cooperative Reiner Knizia classic. It's challenging, tense, thematic and clever. But this LoTR game is also much quicker and simpler. Expect to lose several times before winning, which isn't a problem since starting over is a matter of resetting trackers and shuffling the deck. Each time you lose, you'll learn more of the secrets of the game. When you do win, you will, if my experience is any indication, want to shuffle the deck and try again.