Rings of Power Is Off to a Poor Start

I had a lot of skepticism going into Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, based on some truly bizarre plot leaks (at least some of which have now been confirmed) and a lot of cringe-worthy quotes by the showrunners.

Still, I would really like more good Middle-Earth content, so I tried my best to keep an open mind. Going in, I had the feeling it wouldn’t be very faithful to Tolkien, but it would at least be an entertaining fantasy adventure series.

Unfortunately, so far it’s not even living up that standard.

I was right that it’s not faithful to Tolkien’s writings. Galadriel has had her backstory and motivations altered so radically she’s essentially a completely new character. Meanwhile Durin is being portrayed as just another Dwarf, with so far no mention of his past lives or great significance to the Dwarven people.

But perhaps more importantly, it’s just not that interesting of a show so far.

The pacing is glacial, for one thing. Now I know a lot of people will say that’s also true of Tolkien’s original writings, and that’s technically accurate, but the depth and beauty of Tolkien’s writing carries it through. Rings of Power doesn’t have that same skill in its story-telling that allows the slow pace to work.

There are a lot of moments that clearly attempt to emulate the beauty and heart of Tolkien’s legendarium, but the writing isn’t strong enough to deliver, resulting in a lot of pseudo-spiritual babble that doesn’t actually mean anything. See Finrod’s word-salad about boats and rocks.

The acting is mostly competent, but none of it’s quite good enough to cover up how dull the writing is.

There’s a number of mysteries introduced by the show, but I find them more frustrating than anything. There’s a new character whose identity is a big question mark, and the show spends all of his scenes telegraphing that he’s either Gandalf or Sauron in extremely blatant ways. Obviously he can’t be both, so half of his scenes exist just to be unsubtle red herrings, and gods know how long it will be before we know which half. It’s one of the most transparent attempts to string along an audience I’ve ever seen, and after just two episodes, I’m already utterly exhausted by it.

But perhaps my biggest issue is that the version of Galadriel they present is an absolute blithering idiot. Her entire story so far consists of nothing but suicidally stupid decisions, and the only reason she survives the first two episodes is because she has impenetrable plot armour.

(None of this is an indictment of Morfydd Clark, who is doing the best she can with the meager hand she was dealt. From what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she seems like an incredibly sweet person, and I don’t want to direct any hate toward her. Honestly, she deserved better.)

So far, the only plot in the show I find myself at all invested in is that of Bronwyn and the other people living in what will eventually be Mordor. Maybe because it’s a blank slate and thus free of expectation, but it’s the only part of the show that’s held my attention so far.

Rings of Power has not yet reached the irredeemable depths of something like the last season of Picard, but what we’ve seen so far doesn’t give much cause for optimism. Simply put, it’s just kind of boring.

Of course, much of the controversy around Rings of Power so far has centred around its racial and gender politics, because absolutely everything has to turn into a culture war brawl these days. I gave serious thought to simply not addressing it all because I’m so tired of it, but I’d like to try and present a nuanced take on the issue, as nuance is pretty lacking in most of the discussions I’ve seen.

First of all, I have no respect for those who are offended by the very concept of black people existing in Middle-Earth. The one change to Tolkien’s work that is definitely worthwhile is trying to improve the diversity of the setting. I don’t feel that Tolkien himself was a particularly bigoted or hateful person at heart, but he was a product of his time and culture, and elements of his work do not hold up well in a modern context.

But that doesn’t mean Rings of Power is approaching it the right way.

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how excessively “woke” the show is, the actual number of people of colour appearing in it is very small, and the cast is still overwhelmingly white. I’ve noticed that the extras in crowd shots are mostly, if not entirely, Caucasian, and that all combines to make the few PoC on the cast really stand out. To me it makes them feel like tokens rather than a genuine effort to diversify the setting.

A cynical part of me wonders if they just threw in a few PoC knowing it would make the racists rage so that they could then write off all criticism of the show as rooted in bigotry and nothing else. I know that’s the narrative I’ve seen advanced by most vocal fans of the show.

The frustrating thing is that there are already entire cultures of PoC in Tolkien’s writing, and Rings of Power is completely ignoring them. I don’t know if the people of the newly invented realm of “Tirharad” are meant to be related to the people of Harad, so I can’t say if making them mostly pale-skinned is technically white-washing, but it definitely feels like it. Regardless of whether the people of Tirharad are related to the Haradrim, Rings of Power is ignoring a culture that would have allowed them to massively increase the diversity of the cast while also exploring an underdeveloped part of the lore.

Bronwyn and Arondir in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.I’m similarly disappointed by the missed opportunities in Galadriel’s story. I’m not upset by the show presenting her as a military leader (and those who are betray the fact they don’t actually know Middle-Earth’s history very well at all), but I am very bothered the fact they’ve written her family out of the story. I think it would have been a much bigger win for feminism if Rings of Power had depicted Galadriel as a badass warrior and a loving wife and mother.

The more time goes on, the more I appreciate how special Continuum was…

(To be fair, Bronwyn does feel like she’s embodying this concept at least a little bit, but that just further raises the question of why Galadriel couldn’t get the same treatment.)

My point is this: I think Rings of Power holding up ideals of diversity and feminism would be a good thing, but I don’t believe it’s actually doing that. I think it’s paying lip service to those concepts in a cynical attempt to profit off our current culture war.

And that really tells you a lot about what kind of show it is. It covers itself in the trappings of Tolkien’s timeless stories of hope and heroism, but it’s only skin deep.

Card Crazy

I think we all went a bit crazy during quarantine. Me, I developed a crippling addiction to co-operative card games.

Wielding white mana in Magic: Legends.It started with playing Magic: Legends. For all its flaws, I adored the build system in that game, and it made me realize just how much pleasure I get from deck construction, keyword synergy, combos, and other hallmarks of card games like Magic: The Gathering. It goes a long way to explaining my love for the ability wheel of The Secret World, itself inspired by collectible card games.

Magic is the poster-child for these kind of games, and I dabbled with its digital version, Arena, but I’ve never much enjoyed competitive play. I went so far as to buy a small collection of cheap used Magic cards and homebrew some rules for solo play, and it worked better than you might expect, but it didn’t have a lot of replay value. There’s only so much you can do to fit a square peg into a round hole.

No, I had to find some games that were built for PvE play from the ground up, and while there aren’t that many co-operative card games of this nature, I did find a few.

A few months ago I was singing the praises of Arkham Horror: The Card Game over at Massively Overpowered. Since then, however, I’ve found myself starting to fall out of love with the game.

It’s strange, and I don’t entirely understand why my feelings have changed so much. I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that the game’s story-driven nature leaves it somewhat lacking in replay value.

Jacqueline Fine takes on The Devourer Below in Arkham Horror: The Card Game.There are other quirks on the game that have begun wearing on me, too. It requires a huge amount of table space (difficult in my tiny apartment), and the set-up time for some scenarios can be downright brutal. You need to clear a good chunk of an afternoon to play this game.

Also, while in theory the deck-building options are vast, in practice they can be quite restrictive. Resource costs, XP costs, class limitations, limited hand slots, limited ally slots, limited arcane slots… Customizing my deck is one of my favourite parts of these games, but Arkham Horror sucks a lot of the fun out of that.

It’s also possible I just picked a bad campaign to start with. My first (and so far only) full cycle was the Innsmouth Conspiracy, and it turned to be a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a cloak and dagger tale full of intrigue and mystery, but in practice it’s more like a Michael Bay movie. Very much not the tone I expected from this setting.

I have considered trying another cycle before giving up on the game. It’s possible Innsmouth was simply a dud.

Either way, I do have other options for my card game fix.

Around the time I started with Arkham Horror, I also tried Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, which is made by the same company. In contrast to Arkham Horror, it was harder to get into initially, but I’ve since fallen in love with it.

The forces of Rohan arrayed in Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.LotR was the first co-op card game made by Fantasy Flight Games, and it has a certain degree of jank as a result. The earlier scenarios are kind of a mess, and it’s brutally difficult across the board. I ended up coming up with some house rules to make the game a little less punishing, as the difficulty doesn’t scale well for solo play (which has thus far been my focus).

That said, despite its rough edges, there is a lot of genuine brilliance in this game. Unlike Arkham Horror, there are almost no restrictions on how you can build your deck, and the options for fun builds are nearly limitless.

FFG has a remarkable talent for translating theme into game mechanics, and this is most true in LotR. I am eternally impressed by how different the playstyle of each archetype is, and how well it fits the lore.

For example, Ents enter play exhausted (basically they have summoning sickness from MtG). You know, because they don’t like to be too hasty. But once they’re finally roused, they’re among the strongest allies in the game.

Meanwhile, Silvan Elves feature various powers that trigger when they enter play. To get the best use out of them, you need to find ways to continually move them into and out of play, emulating the hit and run guerilla tactics you’d expect of forest-dwelling Elves.

A promotional image for Lord of the Rings: The Card Game.That the designers of this game had a true knowledge of and love for Tolkien’s work shines through every aspect of this game. I keep coming back to one card in particular that showcases this brilliantly: Tale of Tinúviel.

I just love that this card exists. It’s a relatively deep cut of Tolkien lore, and the mechanics of it capture the theme so elegantly. It may not be the strongest combo in the mechanical sense, but the Tolkien nerd in me just squeals with delight every time I play Tale to have Arwen buff Aragorn.

.I’m also impressed by their ability to turn even single lines from the books into fascinating, thematic cards, as seen in Distant Stars or The Long Defeat.

The appreciation for Middle-Earth can also be seen in the game’s story-telling. Initially weak in the early cycles, later cycles feature almost as much story text as Arkham Horror, and while the quality of the writing may not be super strong in the technical sense, it does do an admirable job of telling new tales in Middle-Earth in a way that feels faithful and respectful to the source material.

The more I play this game, the more I appreciate it, and I believe it will continue to be the focus of my card-game obsession moving forward.

Triggering a preparation card in Lord of the Rings: The Adventure Card Game.I was even inspired to check out the digital adaptation, “Lord of the Rings: The Adventure Card Game.” As of this writing I’ve only just started on it, but I’m not nearly as impressed with this rendition of the game. It’s more “loosely inspired” by the physical card game than a direct adaptation, and while it plays well enough, it doesn’t have the same cleverness or thematic strength as its forebear.

FFG does have one more co-op card game that I haven’t played yet, Marvel Champions. I’ve ignored it so far it due to my general disinterest in super heroes, but the two main exceptions to my super-heroic ambivalence are Spider-Man and especially the X-Men… and it just so happens that Marvel Champions’ latest expansion is Spider-Verse focused, and the next begins a major X-Men wave.

That was enough to convince me to buy the core set as an early birthday present to myself, although I haven’t actually picked it up from the store yet. I’ll give the core set a whirl and see if it’s worth investing further.

I’m just not sure it does anything that my current collection of games doesn’t. By all reports Champions shares a lot of DNA with the LotR card game (but with weaker deck-construction options), and I do already have a super-hero game.

Yes, my newfound obsession has led me to one more title, Sentinels of the Multiverse: Definitive Edition.

I played an earlier version of the game at a board game meet-up many years ago and enjoyed it. The thought of buying my own copy of the game was always in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really look into it until I started developing this greater interest in card games. By the time that happened, the Definitive Edition was on the cusp of launching its Kickstarter, so I got in on the ground floor.

Some of the heroes of Sentinels of the Multiverse: Definitive Edition.Sentinels is very different from FFG’s card games in many ways. For one, it has no element of deck construction at all. Each hero has a pre-built deck that can’t be altered. Despite that major deficiency, though, I’ve still gotten quite a bit of fun out of it.

Sentinels’ strength lies in its relative simplicity. There’s an elegance to its rules that is quite admirable, and it’s a good casual game to play with other people. It can be a welcome break from the complexity and punishing difficulty of LotR and Arkham Horror.

To give you an idea of how big the complexity gap is, most people recommend playing LotR and Arkham Horror “two-handed” (controlling two decks as if you were two players), but I’ve never been able to do this. I find it too mentally taxing.

However, Sentinels requires a minimum of three heroes, so if I want to play it solo, I need to play three-handed… and I still find that less overwhelming than playing LotR or Arkham Horror two-handed.

I don’t think Sentinels will be the sort of game where I feel the need to own everything, but I have already pre-ordered the Definitive Edition’s first expansion, Rook City Renegades. I wanted more variety than the core set offers, and with its focus on darker themes and magical heroes, RCR feels like the perfect expansion for me.

I’ve long been concerned this interest in card games was a passing fancy that I would later regret, but after about a year of this, I’m beginning to think this is a more long-term addition to my list of interests. I can see myself losing interest in specific games (as I said above, Arkham Horror is on the bubble), but I think I’m likely to stick with the hobby as a whole. At the very least, I don’t see myself getting bored with LotR any time soon.