The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth is a new miniatures-based board game from Fantasy Flight, featuring a campaign, modular maps, experience points (XP) and upgradable equipment. It’s a co-operative experience for 1–5 players. I’ve been playing solo, trying one campaign with two heroes and another with three.
Journeys is smooth and wonderful to play. Each character’s small deck represents both their abilities and their skill checks, and there are a couple of excellent mechanisms which help you to manage your success in the game. Firstly, there is ‘scouting’, in which you draw a number of cards, equip one for use, and then choose to put the remainder on the top or bottom of your deck. This is significant, because when making combat and other tests in the game you’ll draw cards looking for ‘success’ symbols in the corner. So there’s a process here whereby you can mitigate your own (bad) luck.
Additionally, it’s an interesting gameplay challenge, because a lot of the ‘success’ icons are on your better ability cards. So… Do you want them in your deck for skill checks, or equipped so that you have the abilities to use?
Each deck is made up of standard skills, character skills, and a set of ‘class’ skills. However, between adventures you can spend XP and Lore Points to add cards to your deck, and even upgrade your equipment. One of the things that’s so addictive about Journeys is the desire to dive into another adventure straight away, to see how your deck changes will influence the next game.
What first impressed me with Journeys is the variety which it is able to deliver. Some games use hexagonal jigsaw pieces which fit together as a landscape to explore, while other chapters use two large square tiles for the inside of buildings, using largely the same movement and combat rules for an indoor skirmish. One scenario even eschewed combat, in favour of talking to a number of patrons of an inn and trying to identify a spy.
It’s lovely to play the campaign because every chapter genuinely feels like a fresh challenge. In the course of my testing I restarted my campaign a couple of times so I was able to appreciate how even a scenario I had already played changed a second time around; with an alternative map to explore, varied encounters and different solutions.
One important thing to note: this game is app-driven and requires a device for play, on either Android, Steam or iOS. This isn’t to everybody’s taste, but the game’s incredible replay variety and comparative complexity of randomly-chosen side-quests is largely made possible by the app.
But, while the app works very well, it does represent a potential point of delay or failure in your evening, which a purely analogue board game doesn’t. On my Samsung (hardly an unusual brand) the app wouldn’t function unless I restarted first. My tablet shut down at one point, so my game was on hold while I rebooted and re-trod the actions I’d taken since the last auto-save. These are arguably small things, and ultimately no different from my experience of any other app or game software. It’s up to you whether that works well enough for you on game night.
I’d also recommend a larger device. I started on my phone and the text and detail simply aren’t large enough to be enjoyed properly. I managed to delete one campaign by accident and another scenario I failed because I had not been able to see one of the mission-critical icons on the board.
The miniatures themselves are great: full of character and with great detail on the plastic moulding, with the standout piece surely being the oversized Cave Troll. I had a couple of miniatures which were slightly misshapen, but the old ‘suspend them in hot water’ trick fixed them quickly. They paint up very nicely, which is definitely something you’ll want to consider because, in their unpainted form, the enemies have very similar stature and equipment, and it can be tough to tell them apart at a glance.
The board can get cluttered, though. Even with only two heroes, I found that there was often not enough room for my heroes and the attacking creatures to share the correct space. It’s hard to imagine how to manage the space at the full five-player count.
This is a Fantasy Flight game, so you can expect amazing art and components. The design on the map tiles is beautiful and the app guides you through laying out the new locations as you travel, gradually seeing a wonderful fantasy landscape emerge. I had one small grievance: while the art is drawn in a kind of isometric perspective, the map layouts aren’t consistent with their facing, so often you’ll have two features side by side which are ‘upside-down’ to each other. To me, that prevents the wonderful locations from being fully immersive.
While there’s a small handful of negatives, my overall experience of Journeys is very positive. This title was very kindly sent to me for review by Asmodee UK, but honestly I’ve found myself playing it long after I had enough notes for this article. It inspired me enough to paint the miniatures, which I hardly ever make the effort to do, even jumping the queue of the other unpainted collections on my shelf. Once I’ve finished this campaign, I’m almost certainly going to pick up the DLC adventure, also available through the app. And I know that once social distancing is behind us, this is one I can’t wait to share with friends — because I think they’ll love it too.