The Middle Earth CCG has a special place in the hearts of many gamers – some even consider it the greatest CCG ever created. More of a role-playing board game than a strict card game, the Middle-Earth CCG captures the beauty and danger of Tolkien’s world wonderfully. It’s been out of print for almost ten years, and people still hold conventions to play it. In German castles!
Each player in a game of the Middle-Earth CCG controls a group of heroes traveling around Tolkien’s world trying to find items of power and muster support in the coming war against the evil Sauron. At the same time, each player controls foul minions like orcs, trolls or even the Nazgul themselves, all working to defeat the efforts of their opponent’s heroes. The characters move from one location in Middle-Earth to another, overcoming hazards and searching sites to find anything that will help them achieve victory. It isn’t as simple as equipping your best heroes with the most powerful items, since with that power comes corruption. A corrupted character leaves the game as though he’d been killed, and in some cases can cause you to lose the game outright.
Multiple win conditions make for a variety of strategies. You can gather allies and factions along with magic items, then call a council if you have enough marshalling points. You can work to destroy or corrupt your opponent’s heroes, winning more or less by default. Or, you can seek out the One Ring, carrying it to Mount Doom to destroy it. I put together a pair of very large play decks, each with a copy of the One Ring (and the cards needed to destroy it). They’re certainly not tuned tournament decks, and using them against each other feels very much like the unfolding of an epic story. And I’m not using the word “epic” loosely – games can easily take two hours. Some games turn into weird alternate universe versions of the original story – what if Aragorn took the One Ring, but was corrupted and left the Fellowship? What if Gandalf never actually revealed himself in Middle-Earth? Plus, this game can be easily played solitaire, a true rarity among CCGs.
The Middle-Earth CCG suffers from a major roadblock for new players. It seems very complicated and confusing. In truth, the game is not that complicated. Unfortunately, the rulebook was rather poorly written, making the game seem harder to learn than it actually is. Also, the original rules used a cludgy system to move characters from one location to another. Iron Crown Enterpises eventually published an excellent map of Middle Earth, showing all the regions and how they are connected. Using the map to move around simplifies things immensely. You can find a nice map for use in the game over at boardgamegeek.com, although it’s not as pretty as the ICE one (you can probably find a pdf of that one if you look hard enough). There are simplified rules documents out there as well.
So, the game is awesome. How awesome? For one thing, unlike virtually every collectible game that has ever gone out of print, the Middle Earth CCG has held its value. True, you can find some of the early sets fairly cheap (good thing, as the first two sets are the best ones), but certain cards still fetch premium prices, and the later expansions tend to be worth well above the retail price. Even more amazing is that there are large groups of fans who still get together and play the game. They were holding World Championships up until 2007. There’s even an annual convention held in this sweet German castle! Try holding an X-Files CCG convention sometime, and let me know how that goes.
Sadly, the game died in 1999, when Iron Crown lost the Tolkien license. If I had to guess, I’d say the looming production of the blockbuster films drove the cost up beyond ICE’s reach. Truthfully, the Middle-Earth CCG would have died even without the licensing issues. Each expansion added unnecessary layers of complexity that did not make the game any more fun. The rarity of the later sets gives a strong hint that all was not well – dwindling sales probably lead to short print runs. All good things…
I’ll leave you with a house rule perfect for playing fun games of this CCG. If you can get your hands on a box of boosters or starter decks, give it a try:
Both players use the same site deck. Whenever a non-freehold, non-haven site is searched, place it on top of the site discard pile. The top five sites in the discard pile can not be explored. All other sites in the discard pile can be explored, but all automatic strikes at those sites are at +1.