Fantasy Flight have gone the full monty with Journeys in Middle Earth. This is not an LCG like the Card Game, or a puzzle-like brainburner like Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, or even a “you-are-a-cog-in-the-epic-wheel-of-fortune” game like Middle Earth Quest. No, you get to be frickin’ Bilbo, Gimli, or Legolas (among others), with your own stats, gear, and little resin dude, and wander around Middle Earth saving lives, hunting down relics, and rescuing livestock. We now have an app-driven, fully-cooperative tabletop RPG set in the Tolkien universe.
Whether that is something you celebrate or bemoan depends partially where you sit on the use of screens in tabletop gaming. It also depends on how much money you have–the base game sells for over $100–and how much more you’re willing to pay for what I’m sure will be a slew of expansion content.
Are you getting your money’s worth? I believe the answer is yes. But explaining why requires looking at what other games are out there that scratch the same itch. LotR:JiME is a “tabletop RPG”. But what exactly separates it and games like it from “true” RPG’s? I would argue that there is a continuum, not a line, between tabletop games with RPG elements and “true” RPG games.
Here is a list of characteristics that are typical of RPG’s:
• character classes, with differentiated skills;
• tactical combat;
• a mapboard that requires some amount of exploring to uncover hidden information;
• levelling up through the acquisition of experience;
• an adventure consisting of a series of scenarios or encounters which make sense as a coherent story;
• individual story arcs for characters which not only affect in-game choices and behaviour but also act as catalysts to possible adventuring;
• a significant amount of play-time spent “in character”.
The more of these a game has, the more RPG-ish it is. To me, the ultimate arbiter is #7: if players (and GM) are playing roles then by Zeus it is a role playing game!
I mean, there are plenty of games which have fantasy/delving themes and incorporate #1 through 4 of the above list. They are all ultimately descended (whether they know it or not) from the grandaddy of them all, 1975’s Dungeon!, whose design team included Gary Gygax himself. All these games, from Munchkin to the original Thunderstone to Vast: the Crystal Caverns, are one-shot scenarios, not campaigns, with players competing against each other. None of them require a GM because all the action is PvP. And although some players might occasionally bellow “Die, Orc scum!” while playing them, I wouldn’t call that role playing.
Some of these games incorporate an Overlord, Overseer, Overachiever, what have you. Catacombs, Middle Earth Quest, the original Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Doom, Mansions of Madness, and Star Wars: Imperial Assault are examples. All incorporate #1-4 of the above list, and several include #5. Again, although you might have players acting in character from time to time, in my experience anyway the talk at table is not in role. Interestingly, many fans of these games have tried to turn them into solo or fully-cooperative games by automating the bad guy.
I think there were two main reasons for this: (1) it was hard to get these games to the table, and although they were less time-consuming than RPG’s, they still tended to require more of a time commitment than many were willing to give, so people wanted to play them solitaire; (2) one-vs-many can feel very adversarial to the “one”, not everyone is cut out to be a GM, and people wanted to figure out a way to make the games fully cooperative.
This is where Wizards of the Coast stepped up with its line of fully-co-op games set in the D&D universe, starting with 2011’s Wrath of Ashardalon and most recently with 2019’s Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Players were offered a simulacrum of the full D&D experience without the need for a GM and all the advance preparation that entailed. Still, these were basically short campaigns where characters could only level up once (maybe twice?) and although technically replayable they had very little in the way of “legs” to keep players coming back to play them.
2011 also saw the initial release of the Lord of the Rings Card Game, which used CCG deckbuilding mechanics in a fully-cooperative context set in beloved Middle Earth. Is it an RPG? Well, although it didn’t have a map per se, players explored locations from face-down decks, and over time character decks could get more and more powerful through the acquisition of better cards even if it didn’t have XP and levelling up. So, yes, I would say it is a tabletop game with RPG elements. And it proved to be so successful that Fantasy Flight followed a similar template with its Arkham Horror LCG.
You also had the excellent Warhammer: the Adventure Card Game (2015), a fully-cooperative game which unfortunately didn’t last long as Fantasy Flight lost the Warhammer license; they’ve rebooted the system set in Terrinoth, the world of Descent and will presumably start turning out more content for it.
And again, at the risk of overplaying my point, none of these games required or even encouraged players to play a role, nor could players’ choices affect the overall plot or story arc of the game.
A fledgling designer named Isaac Childres thought he could change that. He wanted to play a fully-cooperative RPG in a huge fully-fleshed-out world with an epic story arc, many character classes, legacy content, and demanding tactical combat. But since there was nothing out there like that, he had to create it. So he did. I can’t imagine the immensity of the task, but he put together the monument that is Gloomhaven. It exploded on Kickstarter in 2016, and despite its imposing size and price continues to sell and remain high on BGG’s Hotlist today. You can read my writeup of it here.
Gloomhaven definitely edges closer to a full RPG-in-a-box, because each character has its own Personal Quest–a goal that, once fulfilled, causes the character to immediately retire, just as it was getting awesomely OP. Furthermore, the sandbox nature of the game, the sheer number of scenarios, and the choices players can make in Events which affect their Popularity and personal growth, make it more like an RPG than anything out there.
Fantasy Flight was also paying attention to this desire for a GM-less RPG-like experience, because they released several solo mini-campaigns for Descent (originally created for FLGS Game Nights and eventually sold publicly to satisfy demand) which used cards to automate the decisions of the Overlord. Then in March of 2016 they released the Descent: Road to Legend App which had totally new content that allowed players to use all of their Descent gear to run complete fully-cooperative campaigns. The app generated the maps, determined the movement of the monsters, kept track of items, XP, and campaign progress–and was able to automatically adjust difficulty depending on how well (or badly) the players were doing.
The release of this app–followed eventually by a similar one for Imperial Assault, as well as the re-release of Mansions of Madness which required the use of an app, led to divided reactions among players. Some welcomed and celebrated the ability to play these games fully-cooperatively and loved the convenience of the app. Others bemoaned the introduction of technology into tabletop: boardgames were meant to be an escape from screens, and now (at least for Mansions) they didn’t even have a choice whether to use a screen or not.
Which brings us back to Journeys in Middle Earth. Its lead designer, Nathan I. Hajek, was very involved in Descent and brought all that experience along with him–all to the good. Here are the things that I like about JiME’s design and gameplay:
First is JiME’s card-driven system. Every character starts every scenario with a separate deck consisting of unique cards for that character and their class, plus six “basic” cards which gives everyone a chance to do a little bit of everything, plus one Weakness card which does nothing but take up space. The only way to draw and prepare cards for use is by using the scouting action, which not only makes thematic sense but also allows for all sorts of clever cardplay that can mitigate the luck of the draw.
As characters acquire XP they get to spend it to add more powerful class-related cards between adventures. But unlike other games, where such things are baked in, in JiME characters can not only trade these cards back in for other ones which might be more situationally useful–they can switch classes entirely should the need arise, giving them a whole new set of skills to draw upon. I love the flexibility of this system.
Character decks also take the place of dice for combat and stats testing, as instead of rolling dice you draw a number of cards equal to whatever attribute you’re testing and count successes. Each card may or may not have icons in the top right corner which count as successes or converted into successes by spending Inspiration–which again is very thematic both in how said Inspiration can be gained (through exploration and special powers) and spent (to buff activated powers or boost combat or test success).
Each character also starts with Gear cards which live outside their decks and which can be upgraded as the adventure party accumulates enough Lore–essentially, group XP. This is a cashless economy and there are no stores–that’s right, you heard me, no piles of electrum or platinum or unobtanium coins. Nope, you either find new “trinkets” in the wild or you level up your goodies in between adventures.
Interestingly enough there is no “mage” character or class to choose from in the base game–my usual go-to when RPGing. I assume that will be remedied in an expansion pack–or are they planning to make magic very rare?
Other than that there is a good selection of characters and classes to choose from. Some combos are definitely harder than others–but that can be considered a plus from the standpoint of playability and/or calibrating difficulty.
I love how the action switches back and forth between strategic-level hex-shaped Wilderness tiles and tactical-level grid-like Battle Maps. It makes for more variety and forces characters to switch up their tactics.
Characters can take physical or mental damage (called “fear” here) in the form of cards. Some just ding you a point but others have other instant effects (like discarding inspiration or prepared cards–painful) or ongoing effects and are much harder to heal. And unlike other RPG’s, healing actions and potions are fewer and farther between. Fortunately, and again thematically, although characters take more damage, they are actually hardier due to the “last stand” mechanic. When one of your characters takes enough damage to theoretically die, you get to take a “last stand” with them, which means telling the app the character is about to snuff it, and then the app asks you to test a stat. If you pass, you get to wipe the slate (relatively) clean and keep going; fail, and it’s game over man game over. You can (and will) be taking multiple last stands, and they get harder to pass as you go.
Finally, the scenario writing and design, so far, has been extremely strong–not just in terms of prose quality but also (and more importantly in my opinion) in the variety of challenges players have to face. If you’re worried about replayability never fear; not only are the Wilderness maps arranged differently each time, the possible encounters (and rewards) are, too. And as you hear so often these days, “your choices matter”–in a limited way, mind you (see below).
So. In my mind there is only one real competitor to JiME and that is Gloomhaven. If you already have the latter then unless you have the disposable income you probably don’t need the former unless you’re really jonesing for that Tolkien experience. I mean, Gloomhaven is amazing and you’re getting a cubic metre of content for an amazing price all up-front. Plus, it’s all there in front of you, but so much of it is sealed away until you’re allowed to open it…which I love. So tempting! But I won’t peek, I won’t! But I wanna! Still, if you’ve committed to it monetarily and timewise then JiME can only be a luxury.
But, for those who have held back from Gloomhaven and are looking for that “RPG-in-a-box” experience, you now have another choice, and it is slightly cheaper–except it’s not. That’s because what you get in the box with JiME is but a fraction of the content you get from Gloomhaven, because you know that Fantasy Flight is going to string you along for a couple of years at least releasing extra content (both analog and digital), by which time you will for sure have spent more on it than you would have on Gloomhaven. So if cost is your determining factor, its Gloomhaven all the way.
Not only that but–at least so far–content is not only more limited but more linear. No sandbox mode here: you are swept along the conveyor belt of adventures until you reach the end. So although choices you make matter, you still have significantly fewer “degrees of freedom” in JiME than Gloomhaven.
Now in terms of gameplay, I have to say that JiME is the winner by a significant margin. The rules better organized and more tightly written, and I was able to jump right in, set up the game, and get playing in fifteen minutes, because the app takes care of all of the fiddly stuff; I can not say that about Gloomhaven. Fewer decks and bits to take out, arrange, and shuffle also means much faster setup and takedown time.
From what I have experienced so far, JiME is slightly easier than Gloomhaven–or maybe just less exacting in terms of having to math out your actions ahead of time. Or maybe I just suck at Gloomhaven (and I play at the easiest legal level, btw). In any case, I just find JiME less intimidating. If I spend two hours on a scenario only to lose it, I’d rather be carried along by the story as I am in JiME than face having to run it all over again to unlock the next part of the adventure as I have to in Gloomhaven.
And for those who bemoan that JiME is unplayable without the app, I must point out that the popularity of Gloomhaven apps implies that many players must prefer using some “tech support” when they play. That being said, Gloomhaven is possible to play without them, and JiME is not. So if you’re planning your gaming cache for the zombie apocalypse, then Gloomhaven is your de facto choice.
So the tl;dr is: buy JiME if it’s Tolkien you want with more streamlined gameplay–but be prepared to shell out more over the long run and make sure you have your tablet or phone available.