Journey into Almost Something

Lord of the Rings, Journey into Middle Earth header for the board game

Two weekends ago, a friend of mine and I decided to finally take Journey into Middle Earth for a spin. He isn’t into table top games, but is willing to give it a go. I figured that it could be a gateway drug into other games, as it combines the familiar (it is run with an app) and the unfamiliar to him (table top rpg-like constructs). We had fun, but if I had to do it all over again, I would have picked something else.

Theoretically, it should have worked pretty smoothly. The app helps you set up for play and unfolds the scenario based on your choices. The app is a little stutter(y) in how it paces the game (we used the Steam version on my laptop). It wasn’t until a few days ago I figured out why, and it has nothing to do with the app or the rules of the game.

The problem with the game is that it half asses three things, rather than whole assing one thing. It makes the entire experience feel like three competing groups created individual products that they then smooshed together. Being digital product guys in our day jobs, we both identified elements of this during play.

Allow me to illustrate in useful bullets…

  • The app appears to reference rules at various times, or assumes you have deep working knowledge of the rules despite being positioned as the tool to guide game play. It is as if they forgot the points of reference to connect it to the cards or the text.
  • The rules as written come in two flavors, which seems to be the approach de jure of games these days. One piece is a quick start, and the other is entirely a reference glossary. Neither connects the dots for the user of how the deeper rules come into play or when, leaving game play with a side game of is this true? exercises
  • The small cards have all sorts of subsystems in them, not all of which are well referenced. The details end up being missed as they are often just sitting in front of you and not pulled back into play by regular, consistent steps or tactile points of reference. We completely forgot our “characters” had unique abilities because there was never a reason to look at the tiny text on their cards as a step of play.

All in all, the game felt like an at bat in baseball where you hit a lot of foul balls, but ground into a double play at the end. It even commits the cardinal sin of pulling the rug out from a victory at the end of the first boss in the game. The villain gets up twice from being beat down and eventually escapes, even though we defeated him. The sort of terrible D&D campaign play you pull when you are a 13 year old Dungeon Master who made up a really cool villain, the players beat the crap out of some how.

It is unfortunate, as the game has promise, we are both inclined to enjoy something like that, but everything feels disconnected. It is much more like a poorly run D&D campaign from the 90’s than a board game.