Saturday, September 3, 2011

"Rise Of Saruman:" The Penultimate Booster Box Set Remains One Of LOTR: TCGs Rarest! (And Best!)

The Good: Easy to learn, Good image quality, Fun to play, Rarity
The Bad: Problematic collectibility issues (foils offer nothing new), Impossible to make complete set from boosters decks
The Basics: Only the fact that the foils are all reprints (nothing unique to the foil set) keeps "Rise Of Saruman" from being a perfect set of Trading Card Game cards!

As the ship was sinking at Decipher, Inc. on its gaming cards, they began to take fewer and fewer chances. As a result, the last few products they produced when it became clear that they were losing The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game license were extremely rare. In such circumstances, it seldom matters how good the cards actually are; the rarity of them virtually insures they will be a collector's item and the product will be commercially successful, at the very least.

In the case of "Rise Of Saruman," there is genuine quality to the cards as well as a near-impossible set to complete because of the rarity. It is almost as if Decipher decided to give everyone a gift with this set: collectors got something exceptionally rare, players got some wicked new cards and investors had a solid investment that exploded the moment the set was released. This is one of the shortest printed sets in The Lord Of The Rings TCG and also one of the best; everyone wins!

Basics/Set Composition

"Rise Of Saruman" was the seventeenth set of The Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game cards created by Decipher. 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 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.

"Rise Of Saruman" is a 175-card set focusing on characters, location, artifacts, villains and scenarios presented in the The Lord Of The Rings films. Released following the debut of the Extended Edition of The Return Of The King on DVD and a bit of a hiatus from producing new sets, this card set utilizes material from all three films, presenting a well-rounded playing environment from Middle Earth. The set consists of 45 common cards, 45 uncommon cards, 46 rare cards and 7 starter deck exclusive cards spread through two different starter decks, with the most popular characters being presented as rare 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 148 card non-foil set features 5 Dwarven, 7 Elven, 11 Gandalf, 8 Gondor, 3 Isengard, 17 Men, 18 Orc, 7 Rohan, 1 Sauron, 5 Shire, 18 Uruk, and 6 Wraith Affiliation cards, and 4 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: 9 Artifact (unique items found on Middle Earth, like the Ring of Terror or Anduril), 16 Companion (cards depicting primary characters and those who may join your customized Fellowship, like Faramir and Eowyn), 14 Condition (cards illustrating long-term changes to Middle Earth that remain in play more than one turn, like the Spirit Of The White Tree or how the Land Has Changed), 11 Event (cards depicting temporary effects on players, like Pandemonium or having Lothlorien Guides), 3 Follower (supporting people who aid the Fellowship, but do not join it, like Meneldoror Gwaihir), 38 Minion (cards depicting villains used to obstruct your opponent, like Ulaire Cantea or an Orkish Invader), 14 Possession (cards depicting objects used to enhance the natural strength or endurance of a character, like Ceremonial Armor or a Spear Of The White Hand), and 4 Site (cards depicting locations in Middle Earth, they form the "board" for the game).

This set continues the game with 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 rare 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 fairly clear and the game basically follows the same format at laid out in the rulebooks that were updated in "Bloodlines" (reviewed here!).

There are no new rules in "Rise Of Saruman." There are not even any new card types! This is just a pure expansion which continues the game, not alters it, making it great for players.


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 "Rise Of Saruman" set features a great deal of the principle cast of The Lord Of The Rings, like Gandalf, Aragorn, and Eowyn. One of the very cool aspects of "Rise Of Saruman" is that it provides a Rohan Affiliation Aragorn, which is well-conceived. This set powerfully fleshes out the diverse characters and scenarios in Middle Earth and it does so with larger images than many other trading card game cards have. As the title, suggests, though, this is Saruman's set! And there are four to choose from, making it very much his set!

But the best of the bunch is definitely 17R116 Saruman, Master Of The White Hand. For only four shadow tokens, one can bring this Saruman into play. He's physically strong with eight points of damage and he can take a little beating with four points of endurance, making him an actual match for Aragorn! But even better, this particular Saruman lowers the resistance of all companions and he has the ability to knock out a Condition card being wielded against an Uruk. That alone makes this Saruman a force to be reckoned with.


Rares are evenly distributed in the booster packs, making only one of each of the two 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 Hunters 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 set also seems to have the most shortprinted, enhancing its overall value. This is THE The Lord Of The Rings TCG to buy, if one is an investor!


"Rise Of Saruman" is an amazing set for players, collectors and investors, making one of the most popular and valuable sets for those who like Trading Card Games. Good luck finding it, though! Those who have them . . . this is a set that seems like it is only going up in value. Decipher made everyone who was into the TCG happy with this one!

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

This set was preceded by the Wraith Collection (reviewed here!) and followed by "Treachery & Deceit" (reviewed here).

This is a set of gaming cards I am seldom able to get in, but when I do, they are available here!


For other card reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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