Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Lord Of The Rings TCG Reboots Itself Well With "Shadows"

The Good: Easy to learn, Good image quality, Fun to play
The Bad: Problematic collectibility issues (foils), Impossible to make complete set from boosters decks, Purpose of reboot?
The Basics: A decent game, though somewhat pointlessly rebooting the franchise, "Shadows" reinvents the The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game well enough.

As The Lord Of The Rings came to an end in the cinemas, collectors were still eager to revisit Middle Earth, but by the time The Return Of The King was released as an extended edition DVD, the toy market for the franchise was near death and the other collectibles were wobbling as their markets attempted to discern how the franchise could survive past the end of the cinematic adventures. Decipher, Inc., the makers of The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game had been unstable for some time and facing the loss of one of their flagship products, they quickly adapted to attempt to save the Trading Card Game. To do that, they looked at their other products.

Taking a cue from their highly popular Star Trek CCG, The Lord Of The Rings TCG decided to do a reboot. So, like Star Trek Second Edition the Trading Card Game was restarted with all new fixes, new concepts like alternate ring bearers factored in and some of the concepts that did not work so well (like Allies) factored out. The result was a repackaged, streamlined game that . . . met with mixed reactions.

Die-hard fans of The Lord Of The Rings TCG picked up "Shadows," the first "War Of The Ring" block set to see what it was all about and while it was easier to play and much more direct in any number of ways, most were left wondering what the point was and why Decipher couldn't just keep adding to the previously-released game.

Basics/Set Composition

"Shadows" set was the eleventh set of The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game cards created by Decipher and the first used to introduce the new gaming platform to fans of The Lord Of The Rings. Envisioned as a game played by two to four people, players created decks of cards utilizing their own version of the Fellowship and prepared to seed the adventure path with obstacles to thwart other players' Fellowship. For those unfamiliar with the concept, CCGs (or TCGs) are basically a late-teen oriented product designed to capitalize on the youthful desire to play with the acknowledged maturity of the target audience. The initial idea of the customizable card game was to allow young adults and adults to play in a way that was as free and imaginative as playing with action figures, but without the stigma of being a twenty-five year-old zapping a friend's toys with mouth-created sound effects. The result is something that is a midpoint between the freedom and creativity of action-figure free play and the structured rules and rigidity of a board game.

Players might prefer that I describe the game instead as a strategy game that is like a Role-playing game with cards. The break here is that the characters, artifacts, and scenarios are all already conceived by others. The original concept was to find a way to make play socially acceptable for an older audience and it generally worked.

"Shadows" is a 293-card set focusing on characters, location, artifacts, villains and scenarios presented in the first The Lord Of The Rings film. Released following the debut of the Extended Edition of The Return Of The King on DVD, this card set utilizes material from the three films, presenting a well-rounded playing environment from Middle Earth. The set consists of 60 common cards, 60 uncommon cards, 60 rare cards and 86 starter deck exclusive cards spread through four different starter decks, with the most popular characters being presented as rare cards in addition to starter deck exclusive cards. This provides a sense of balance and allows different character traits to be exploited among the various versions. As well, there are twenty-seven foil reprint cards of the most popular rare cards, which receive additional exposure as Legends and Legends Masterworks foil cards.

The 266 card non-foil set features 2 One Ring (cards featuring the necessary artifact of the game), 12 Dwarven, 13 Elven, 13 Gandalf, 12 Gollum, 14 Gondor, 39 Men (adversaries, formerly the Southron Affiliation), 38 Orc (formerly Moria), 17 Rohan, 16 Shire, 30 Uruk-Hai, and 20 Wraith Affiliation cards, and 40 Site cards. These are generally broken down evenly between Fellowship (your cards you play with) and Minion (cards you set upon your opponent) cards. Within the various affiliations, there are: 2 One Ring (cards depicting The One Ring, which must be kept by the Current Player's Fellowship Bearer), 1 Artifact (unique items found on Middle Earth, like Gandalf's Ash Staff), 28 Companion (cards depicting primary characters and those who may join your customized Fellowship, like Legolas and Arwen), 32 Condition (cards illustrating long-term changes to Middle Earth that remain in play more than one turn, like the benefits of Elven Marksmanship or Wielding the Ring), 52 Event (cards depicting temporary effects on players, like a Wraith letting out a Keening Wail or Hobbits Crouching Down), 86 Minion (cards depicting villains used to obstruct your opponent, like the Witch King or Gollum), 24 Possession (cards depicting objects used to enhance the natural strength or endurance of a character, like an Axe Of Khazad-dum or The Pale Blade, The Sword Of Flame), and 40 Site (cards depicting locations in Middle Earth, they form the "board" for the game).

This set establishes a very broad sense of the Middle Earth universe as characterized by The Lord Of The Rings films. The booster pack boxes are comprised of thirty-six packs per box with eleven cards per pack. The eleven cards are portioned out with seven common, three uncommon, and one rare or foil card. A foil card replaces a rare in approximately five packs. The foils are simply reprints of the standard cards; there are no cards that are uniquely foils in this set.


At its most basic level, this is a board game where one constructs the board and pieces out of a selection of cards. The purpose of the game is to survive to the end of the ninth site in the Adventure Path, which (theoretically) indicates the end of the Ring Bearer's quest. The basic idea is to assemble a sixty card deck, lay out the board (Adventure Path) and play against an opponent. The deck is evenly split between Fellowship and Shadow cards, so players ought to have a hand that allows them to play and attempt to thwart their opponent at any given time.

This game uses a "payment" system where cards have a cost. The rulebook recommends something like poker chips or glass beads to establish the twilight pool and wound indicators and I've found small poker chips (not included) work very well for this.

Sites form the board for the game, known as the Adventure Path. Sites are seeded in accordance to the rules of bidding (all of this is clearly established in the rulebook, which is available in the starter decks). The rulebook clearly defines what each deck must possess in terms of numbers of the card types. But basically, one starts by laying out a board, determining which player goes first, then setting them off through a Fellowship Phase (wherein the current player adds any characters they can and moves to the next site), Shadow Phase (Shadow players seed Minions to set against the current player's Fellowship), Maneuver Phase, Archery Phase (archers fire and it becomes the first chance to try to take out enemies), Assignment Phase (villains target Fellowship Companions), Skirmish (they actually battle) and then Regroup.

This is a fairly complex trading card game, but it represents a level of gaming sophistication designed to appeal to younger adults and actually challenge them, which is a decent idea given the complexity of Middle Earth. The problem, of course, is that most people who would be most stimulated by this game do not have the time or effort/interest to learn to play it. As a result, the mid-teens that basically run the CCG players world seem to have had mixed impressions about this game. Many players seem to enjoy that cards have a "cost" to them, adding a sense of risk to playing many of the better cards.

It takes a great deal of time and energy to learn the game, but once one has played a few hands of it, it is a pretty easy concept for an adult to master and the challenge becomes assembling a strong fellowship and accompanying minion deck and being creative (and lucky) about how the cards from one's hand are used.

Rules/Rule Changes

The rulebook for this game is forty pages long; it's not so much the function of a review to rehash all that as it is to evaluate it. The rules are exceptionally clear; in fact, the rulebook in "Shadows" starter decks is the clearest for any trading card game I have ever tried to play; it is a shame there is no rulebook in the booster packs!

The rulebook clearly establishes the rules of the game, especially as far as deck size and the creation of the game mechanics. It is also clever enough to attempt to appeal to an adult audience by establishing rule extensions, like suggesting that as players become more advanced, they may increase their deck size (it establishes the essential proportion needed) and how to play with multiple players.

The rules are fairly clearly laid out in the rulebook and most adults will not have difficulty understanding and applying them. As well, each card contains text that informs the player what the card is intended to do, so there is not a lot that players need to memorize. The rulebook also has a full color spread in the middle illustrating how to lay out a playing field for the game. This is very handy and makes it exceedingly easy to start the game.


Players, collectors and fans of The Lord Of The Rings franchise will appreciate the image quality of the characters and scenarios from the films. The "Shadows" set features the entire Fellowship, including Aragorn and Gandalf. The set also features the Black Riders and Lurtz and his army! This set powerfully establishes most of the biggest characters and scenarios in Middle Earth and it does so with larger images than many other trading card game cards have.

To pick a highlight, I would have to go with 11R57 Boromir, Hero Of Osgiliath. Gondor men are generally strong and Boromir is no exception. In this incarnation, he has a cost of only three and a decent starting strength of 7. As well, his health of 3 can easily be augmented with armor or his shield so he can hold out fairly long defending himself. Boromir becomes a reasonably inexpensive way to quickly augment a Fellowship.


Rares are evenly distributed in the booster packs, making only one of each of the four starter decks necessary for those collecting a master set, as the starter decks each have a many cards that cannot be found in the booster packs.

Beyond that, die-hard, obsessive collectors who want the thrill of collecting can collect the Legends and Legends Masterworks foils. These are eighteen and then nine foil reprints of the most popular characters. The problem here, though, is that they picked the eighteen and then the nine are foil reprints of the foil reprints with an alternate "O" numbering, so essentially the most valuable foils (Legends Masterwork, which are on average only one per box) are also the most reprinted rares within the "Shadows" set. As well, it is somewhat disappointing that if Decipher is going to bother to alter its annoying tradition of making foil reprints of each and every single card (yea for that!) that they would not follow a late Star Trek Second Edition model and make a few cards that are unique to the foil set, perhaps previewing the subsequent series.


This is the logical staring point for players, and collectors seemed to accept this set, knowing it was only the beginning of the reboot. The concepts are interesting and well-executed, making for a decent start and a fun game. This is also an easy game to learn and come back to, making it ideal for those who might not have a ton of time in one sitting.

This set culls material from the The Lord Of The Rings Extended Edition Trilogy, reviewed here!

This set was preceded by "Mount Doom" (reviewed here!) and followed by Black Rider (reviewed here!).

This is a set of cards I proudly sell in my online store! For the current inventory of them, please click here!


For other card reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking heree!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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