Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Middle Earth Collectible Card Game

More than 20 years have gone by since Iron Crown Enterprises released their first Middle Earth: Collectible Card Game (MECCG) set. It only lasted a few years, but that doesn't stop some of us from pulling it out as often as we can.
Back in 1995, the game was still called Middle Earth: The Wizards, and it was fairly simple. Oh, there was some complicated stuff with how you moved around Middle Earth to various locations, and I don't think anyone liked trying to figure out how influence worked. But overall, it had a straightforward theme: take a few characters around the map of Middle Earth, gathering up allies and items for the coming battle against the darkness while preventing your opponent's efforts to do the same. Or possibly try to destroy the evil of the One Ring, of course, although that was fairly difficult to pull off.

The MECCG designers had a hard time knowing when to stop, though. ("Delved to greedily and too deep" into the complexity of design, one might say.) The addition of dragons, agents (ugh), and then entire new playable factions (Ringwraiths, Fallen Wizards, Balrog) made the game a complex mess that required a huge amount of effort to learn. A basic two-player game could take hours to finish. There are some really cool themes in every MECCG set, but actually playing the game became more and more difficult. Eventually, the game collapsed under the weight of some unsound business decisions from the publisher, but I'm not sure how much longer it could have continued to grow regardless.
People still play the game, even after all this time. As recently as 2006, there were world events, held mostly in Europe. There are still World Council web sites. Haven't heard anything for a few years, so that may finally have ended, but I still get the occasional email from someone looking to sell cards or find out info about the game. And you might find MECCG players at several of the larger gaming conventions, often playing small tournaments with the pre-constructed challenge decks.

Locally, there are a few of us who still play whenever the opportunity arises. For years, we'd use sealed product that we'd picked up for practically nothing once the official game support had stopped. It ran out eventually, though. Now we mostly take a whole bunch of cards and randomly divide them out among 3-5 people, then play the results like a sealed deck. These games are generally bloodbaths. Kings of Gondor, Elven Lords, Wizards, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits...the corpses pile up. Even if you play it safe and stay away from dragon country or the heart of Mordor, there's still plenty of danger. Especially since combat involves dice rolls, and those things are treacherous. More than one mighty warrior has been defeated by the dreaded snake eyes.
One goal of these games is to win, of course, but the larger goal is to pull off something thematically cool and/or crazy. For instance, I once took Gandalf to Moria, and the Balrog got dropped on him. Which I promptly defeated with Sacrifice of Form - exactly the theme battle that card was designed for. (OK, actually it got cancelled and I had to go back and do it again later once I got the Sacrifice of Form back in my hand. But it still fit the theme!) Or the time someone had Boromir in a company being attacked by Orcs, and used Many Foes He Fought so that Boromir protected everyone else (and died). Just like the battle at Amon Hen. Near misses are nearly as good...such as when the random shuffle gave the same player Gandalf, Frodo, Gollum, the One Ring, Gollum's Fate, and various other supporting cards. Everything you need to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it...until Gandalf got killed, and he had no other way to actually put the One Ring into play.

There aren't a lot of games that I still get excited about playing, nearly 20 years after they went out of print. MECCG may be a complex mess of overly-ambitious design, but it's still one of my favorites.

1 comment:

  1. This is arguably the best CCG ever made. I miss playing it.