Heroes 2 – Tactics

This is the second part in a review of all the heroes currently available in the game. Last time we looked at Leadership, today it’s time for tactics.

Gimli

Gimli was one of the first tactics heroes we ever saw, back in the days of the core set, and like all good things in tactics, he’s nice and straightforward. His basis stats are fair- 2 willpower in tactics is still none-too-shabby, and his two attack, 2 defence and 5 hit points make him serviceable in attack or defence. Where Gimli really shines, though is the way that each point of damage he takes increases his attack by one, giving him the potential for 6 attack without resorting to any kind of shenanigans. Once you slap a citadel plate (or two) on him his hit pool, and his corresponding attack, can start to get seriously large and brush aside all but the biggest of enemies.

Whilst other cards have come along since the core set which offer alternatives to Gimli (Dwarven axe is no longer the only weapon offering a guaranteed attack boost), the addition of Dain has made Gimli even more powerful, and he still offers real choices – how much damage do you risk taking, when a little can give you an attack boost, and a nasty shadow card can give you a dead hero.

Thematically, Gimli makes a certain amount of sense –he’s a formidable warrior, and the idea that he gets more powerful as he gets more enraged makes perfect sense. It will be interesting to see whether we get a new version of Gimli any time soon, but for now, this one is doing a decent job.

Legolas

Alongside Gimli, the other obvious choice for a core set tactics hero was, of course, Legolas, ensuring that from the word go, these two members of the fellowship could be competing to kill the most Orcs. Less sturdy in defence than his dwarven comrade, Legolas has fewer hit-points and less willpower, but as a result a noticeably lower threat cost, to allow him to sneak up on enemies. 3 attack and ranged remain respectable today, and with access to Rivendell Bows and Blades, Legolas has the ability to be a potent slayer of foes.rivendell-blade rivendell-bow-twitw

Legolas is also able to make up for one of the greatest weaknesses in tactics, the difficulty of making progress on quests or locations. This often makes him an ideal option to receive not only the weapon attachments, but also readying effects such as Unexpected Courage, which enable you to get multiple attacks out of him in a round. In fact, Legolas is (I believe) the only way to complete Passage through Mirkwood in 2 rounds!

Quite what Legolas’s progress tokens are supposed to represent thematically, I’ve never been entirely certain. The overall shape of his stats certainly feels appropriate, and there’s an element of the skilled tracker/woodsman to the ability. Either way it’s powerful enough that no-one’s complaining too loudly.

Thalin

Thalin belongs to an unusual little sub-group of characters in Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game. Entirely absent from Tolkien’s work, Thalin was originally created for Fantasy Flight’s previous game, Middle Earth Quest, and along with Beravor and Eleanor, made the transition to the LCG.

As a tactics hero, Thalin comes with an ability that helps to kill things, specifically by damaging enemies as they are revealed from the Encounter Deck. This was particularly useful in the days of the Core Set and the Mirkwood Cycle, when those pesky Eastern Crows showed up in every other quest, and surged into another card (and another, and another, if there were enough crows left in the deck) – with Thalin around, the crows die before they can ever surge, and you have much less to deal with.

This far into the game, Thalin’s ability is less spectacular than it used to be. There are very few enemies around with a single hit point, or even with two or three (which would allow him to weaken them enough to be finished off by a Gondorian Spearman or similar) he is also slightly puzzling a character who you primarily want questing, yet has only 1 willpower. Like any dwarf, the very fact that he counts has the “dwarf” trait counts strongly in his favour, as he receives the global stat boosts from Dain, contributes to your “5 or more dwarves” and can benefit from a wide variety of events and attachments. His ability is also still far from useless, although it does require an additional level of thought and deck-building, compared with what you used to be able to get away with.

It’s hard to talk about theme with a doubly-fictional character. Thalin certainly doesn’t feel at odds with dwarves as a whole, and is an interesting hero, if not the most powerful in the game.

Brand son of Bain

Brand, son of Bain, son of Bard, is the grandson of the legendary hero of Laketown who killed Smaug. Brand himself receives a brief mention towards the end of return of the King, fighting alongside Dain in a battle at the gates of Erebor, in a scene which would surely be coming to a screen near you if Peter Jackson were making Lord of the Rings now (doubtless as a 6-film series).

Brand is a ranged hero, which tied in nicely to the Journey to Rhosgobel AP in which he first appeared, allowing him to deal with bats and crows that soar out of the reach of ordinary heroes. It also enables his ability, which is to ready a character controlled by the engaged player after you destroy an enemy in a ranged attack. With 2 willpower for early questing, and a fair 3 attack, this seems like a good deal, especially when you consider some of the fun tricks you can do with this (with enough defenders and a bit of attack boost, the player controlling Merry can engage all the enemies [Hammer Stroke] then Merry and Brand can attack on an infinite loop, readying each other each time they destroy an enemy.

Despite this, Brand is not a massively popular hero in this game, and the question needs to be asked, “why?” – the first, if slightly harsh point, is that the artwork for Brand has come in for some criticism over the years. For people used to the striking beauty of a Magali Villeneuve elf, Brand is certainly pulling a funny face, but this hardly seems like good reason to throw him out in the cold.

A further point against Brand, is his origin. He has the Dale trait, which as most people will know interacts with exactly nothing in the game- it does appear on another card, but that card is in a different sphere and again makes no reference to its trait. Beyond that, there are doubtless people who have picked up this game with the explicit intention of letting Boromir sacrifice himself against hordes or orcs, or having Legolas and Gimli battle for the most kills. It’s hard to imagine many folk being driven by a desire to re-enact the adventures of Brand son of Bain.

Boromir

Boromir, or Tactics Boromir as we should probably call him, since a Leadership version appeared in Heirs of Numenor was the second tactics hero after the core set, and a fitting representation of Gondor’s favourite son. Boromir has a very small amount of Willpower (prone to corruption by the Ring), a powerful three attack, and a solid 2 defence on top of a hit-pool of five. Where he really comes into his own, is with his ability, which allows to you raise your threat by one to ready him. This action is restricted only by the threat threshold, and allows him to attack and defend many times in a turn, which instantly make him an obvious target for any kind of stat boost, such as support of the eagles, which can quite easily make him 6 attack, or a Gondorian shield for 4 defence.

With increased ways to control your threat, and more options for boosting stats, Boromir grows stronger as the card-pool increases. It’s still possible to cause yourself terrible problems by being reckless with his abilities, but the choices you make are both fun and thematic. Finally, Boromir also comes with a single-use ability, allowing you to discard him from play in order to damage every enemy engaged with a player. This beautifully captures Boromir’s valiant sacrifice at the end of Fellowship (or possibly the beginning of Two Towers in the books, I can’t remember off the top of my head), and used right it can be another immensely powerful ability. Although he’s been around a while, Boromir still offers some fun and thematic choices for game play.

Elladan

The other one of the sons of Elrond (see the Leadership Heroes run-down for some general thoughts on his brother), this is ‘the attacking one.’ Whilst it would be odd to run one without the other, for me Elladan is the more useful of the two by far. His 2 willpower is far more useful in a tactics deck, being a sphere that traditionally struggles with questing, and attacks are not subject to the law of diminishing refunds in the way that defences are. 3 Attack, whilst about as good as most heroes get, is not enough to dispatch many enemies in a single turn these days, but it’s a good starting point. Personally, my favourite combo is to give Elladan a Rivendell blade (enemy gets -2 defence) and Orcrist (hero gets +2 attack, gain a resource from killing an orc) throw in Rivendell Bow to make him ranged, and he can attack on an infinite loop, so long as there are goblins to squish [if you’re playing properly, you’ll only have Orcrist in Hobbit Saga quests, so there’s a decent chance of finding Orcs, Over the Misty Mountains Grim and Battle of Five Armies are the most obvious choices.

Hama

Hama was the first Rohan tactics hero in the game, and was seized up on by lots of people for that reason alone, despite there being a general lack of in-sphere trait support. He is also the linchpin of various cheese-decks, which try to break the game by making use of his ability. In essence, every time Hama attacks something, you can return a tactics event to your hand, at the cost of a card. Pre-errata, this enabled players to ensure that the Balrog never attacked, as he could be targeted with a feint each time, and the quest became rather dull.

Aside from not being very interesting, the Hama-Lock deck quickly became bogged down, as you had to discard a card each time you triggered the ability. This meant that whilst it could hold the Balrog / Watcher / etc at bay, the deck couldn’t really do anything else.

ffg_foe-hammer-ohauhThat doesn’t mean that there are no interesting things to do with Hama. Now that there’s a bit more in-sphere support for Rohan, there are cards worth recycling to make game-play a bit more dynamic- Forth Eorlingas! to attack the staging area, is the most obvious thematically, whilst others have tried using him to cycle Prepared for War to ensure a constant Battle-quest. Personally I’m a big fan of the Foe-Hama (kill an enemy, exhaust a weapon to play Foe-Hammer and draw three cards, recycle with Hama and repeat) as it overcomes the generally poor level of card draw in tactics.

Theme-wise, it’s not particularly clear what Hama’s power represents. It certainly doesn’t tie obviously into the other Rohan themes. Also, Hama as Theoden’s door-guard would seem more logically to be a defender rather than an attacker, which his stats and ability both lean towards. There’s some fun to be had with Hama, and he does make it possible to run a mono-tactics Rohan deck, but he’s neither the best nor the most thematic hero out there.

Beregond

Beregond is one of the most prominent book characters who fails to make it into Peter Jackson’s films and, as such, may have been something of a revelation to some when he appeared in the card-game.

Beregond is the classic example of the focused, or 1-dimensional hero, depending on your perspective. He has massive defence, little attack, and no willpower at all. Given that the main thing you want to be doing with Beregond is defending, this is generally a good thing, but it does make him vulnerable to things which target characters with shortfall in other stats (i.e. crossing Caradhras).

Beregond’s ability ties in well to his key strength, in that you can play weapons and armours on him more cheaply – a turn-1 Gondorian shield for free, gives you a 6-defence sentinel character, and is definitely not something to be underestimated. Citadel Plate or Spear of the Citadel are good options for the additional restricted slot, and having access to damage cancellation in Gondorian Discipline covers you against direct damage from Shadow cards.

Thematically, Beregond was a guard of the citadel, and his status in the game as a solid defender is fitting. He would be well-equipped fighting within the walls of Minas Tirith, and doesn’t do anything flashy, but stands firm against the advancing forces of darkness. A welcome beacon of theme in a patch of Rohan confusion.

Theoden

The only tactics hero of the Against the Shadow cycle, Theoden has rather fallen foul of the “mono-sphere” agenda which was being pushed at the time. Probably a significantly younger version of Theoden than we see during the war of the ring, this tactics hero is a battle-hardened figure, with 3 attack, 2 defence and sentinel. He also has 2 willpower, which is none-too-shabby in tactics. The most baffling thing however, is his ability. He gives heroes with the printed tactics icon a willpower boost. I’ve complained about this before, but I feel the need to re-state, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Whilst Theoden is in play, Brand son of Bain and Theoden are inspired by his presence and quest more powerfully. Eowyn and Theodred however remain unimpressed.

There are a few things which help to explain how this happened – after the power of Dain, the designers were probably wary of creating anything with the same level. Also they were pushing the “mono-sphere” agenda fairly hard at the time, and Theoden made some sense in this context. The problem however, is that he doesn’t really work as Theoden. Beyond that, there’s a fairly big “why” element to it all – giving your tactics characters extra willpower can have some niche uses – crossing Caradhras, Stone of Erech etc, but most of the time, you don’t want to be questing with your tactics heroes (Thalin excepted) you want to be fighting with them.

It’s hard to decide whether Theoden is really useless or not. In a 4-player game, with so many tactics heroes around that you’ve got spares for questing, he could certainly have uses. There are certainly particular quests or particular shadow effects which he is useful for overcoming. However, it’s a lot of work to build a good Theoden deck – realistically, you need several players all building for the one aim, and at the end what you get doesn’t feel worth the input.

Eomer

Where Theoden is a thorough disappointment the third, and thus far final, Rohan tactics hero is Eomer. Eomer starts with 3 attack, but can boost this up to five if a character leaves play this round. Given the number of characters you’ll find popping in and out of play, particularly if running a Rohan or Silvan deck, this is a relatively easy effect to trigger, and allows him to hit hard from the word go. Tooled up with spears or daggers, or better still, his trusty steed, Firefoot, he can become monstrous fairly quickly.

Thematically, this is capturing the moment when Eomer found Theoden and Eowyn lying (seemingly) dead on the Pelennor field and went into a frenzy, almost single-handedly defeating the armies of Harad. Personally, I think I might have added a little more flavour to his boost- +2 attack if a character leaves play, +4 if a unique Rohan character leaves play instead perhaps- but this is a very minor quibble. This Eomer is fun to play, fits well with his people (and his father-in-law), and generally works on both a gameplay and a thematic level.

Beorn

Moving to the Saga boxes, the first tactics hero we find is a great big bear. Thematically, Beorn is very straightforward: he doesn’t really have willpower to commit to the quest, but he does have massive attack, and an enormous pool of hit points. He can defend too, for a anyone who needs it although his defence is low, and he relies instead on a large pool of hit-points to see him through.

As befits a bear, Beorn won’t be riding a horse, wielding a dagger or an axe, or generally benefitting from your standard bag of tricks, he both “no attachments” and “immune to player card effects” on his card. This means that whilst his base attack of 5 is mighty, it won’t be getting any higher, and any damage he takes will be sticking around for good.

Thematically, Beorn makes a lot of sense. As already noted, he is a bear, and that’s what this card represents. He also has a high threat, as Bears are not notorious for moving stealthily and undetected. Personally, I would have liked a smaller pool of hit points coupled with “regenerate 1” to allow him to heal himself a little, but again it’s a minor gripe.

The best thing about Beorn is how strong he is out of the gate, and the fact that he does not exhaust to defend makes him ideal in scenarios like Massing at Osgiliath, where you will be swarmed by lots of tiny enemies, and need someone to soak up the damage, then hit back. “Immune to player card effects” is also slightly less restrictive than it might at first appear – Dori and Landroval both work well with Beorn, as Dori’s effect targets the damage, not the character, and Landroval triggers when Beorn is out of play, and his text does not apply. Personally, I find Beorn a bit awkward to play, and he definitely fits better in an agro deck than the more controlled style I prefer, but thematically he’s brilliant, and certainly far from useless.

Bard

Bard the Bowman was the second tactics hero in the Hobbit Saga boxes, and so far the only card in the game with the “Esgaroth” trait. Bard makes for an interesting comparison with his grandson, the previously discussed Brand. Both have a ranged attack of 3, 2 willpower and 2 defence, although Bard has an additional hit point, raising his threat cost by 1.

Their abilities both key into attacking across the table, although whereas Brand re-readies characters, Bard reduces defence, effectively giving him a built-in Rivendell Blade when making a ranged attack. Whilst it may lack some of the repeatability of Brand, Bard’s ability strikes me as better, in that it does not use any of his restricted slots, leaving him free for weapons. The 4th hit-point also makes him feel a lot less fragile when direct damage is being dealt.

Whilst Bard suffers from the lack of trait synergy that Brand does, he somehow feels more playable. The potency of his ranged attacks captures some of the flavour of the arrow that brought down Smaug, and somehow, getting a Black Arrow onto him and 1-shotting a massive enemy just feels more epic. As a final note, the artwork for Bard is another fine creation from Magali Villeneuve.

Bard

Merry

The last tactics hero (so far) is Merry, who came in The Black Riders, the first of a planned series of six Lord of the Rings Saga boxes. For an unprecedentedly low threat cost in tactics (6), Merry can quest for a respectable 2 willpower, which along with providing an additional tactics resource without massively ramping your threat is enough by itself to earn him a place in many tactics decks.

Where Merry really shines though, is in an all-Hobbit deck. He gets +1 attack for each Hobbit hero you control, meaning he can easily swing for 3 (4 in saga mode if you control Fellowship-sphere Frodo). Given how low the starting threat of a Hobbit deck usually is, this goes well with Dagger of Westernesse or Unseen Strike, making it relatively common to take out a Nazgul in a single swing.

On top of his variable attack, Merry has the ability to re-ready a character who joins him in attacking and destroying an enemy. This is clearly an ability with some major potential (as mentioned earlier, there’s a possible infinite loop with Brand), although in Hobbit decks, I’ve found that it doesn’t necessarily get all that much use. I’m tempted to try putting him opposite Legolas, to get extra progress from destroying enemies, but haven’t got round to it yet.

As a general rule, the low-threat / “don’t underestimate us” type mechanic of the Hobbits seems reasonably sensible, but the idea that simply being surrounded by Sam and Pippin can make Merry as powerful an attacker as Legolas or Boromir does seem a bit odd (although not quite as strange as the idea that Pippin makes it easier to sneak past enemies). Overall, I’d say Merry is definitely VERY playable, but not the best thematic result ever.

All in all then, the tactics heroes are generally a fairly solid bunch. They typically excel in attacking, with far fewer solid defenders, and their questing prowess is generally minimal. Tactics probably remains the narrowest of the sphere in terms of the limitations it has (threat, questing etc), and it will be interesting to see what the designers do to keep the sphere interesting without it just bleeding indistinguishably into all the others.

Heroes 1 – Leadership

I currently have a few large projects on the boil, (some of them Lord of the Rings-y, others more focused on just surviving life in general) but they’re all going to take me a while to actually unleash. In the meantime, I thought this might make a good moment to consider the current stock of heroes, both in terms of how they work for gameplay, and how they reflect the character Tolkien created. I’m going to break this down into 4 articles, 1 per sphere. This first instalment is a bit late, but I’ll try to get the others out at the standard once per fortnight pace, by the end of which I should have something a bit different ready to go.

Aragorn

Core-set Aragorn was a powerful hero from the word go, and still remains popular with many players of the game. One of the chief protagonists of the War of the Ring, his card is suitably powerful, with at least 2 for all his stats, and 5 hit-points. As a result his starting threat is high, but Sauron’s attention is something Aragorn has come to expect: as he tells Sauron through the Palantir “long have you hunted me.”

it's hard to hide with 12 threat

This version of Aragorn has great utility – he has good willpower for questing, and can pay a resource to re-ready for combat. In a sphere that can easily generate additional resources, this is a pretty good deal, and when you start boosting his stats, for example with cards like Celebrian’s stone, it becomes an even better deal.

For some heroes, rounded stats can be a disadvantage, as they end up going to waste, but Aragorn generally manages to make good use of his. From core set days he had one attachment designed specifically for him, and has gained more as he went along, allowing him plenty of options for sphere-fixing. This card seems an ideal reflection of Aragorn, a great captain of men, hardy roamer of the wilds, and skilled warrior.

Theodred

Back in the days of the Core Set, Theodred was Aragorn’s almost-constant-companion. Their abilities meshed perfectly as Theodred provided the resource needed for Aragorn to re-ready, allowing him to spend his normal resources on actually getting cards into play. Aside from combining with Aragorn, Theodred can also distribute cash around the table, helping other players with their resource issues.

In more recent times, Theodred has fallen out of favour with many, as there are simply better options out there for Leadership heroes – for one thing, his meagre stats, most notably only a single point of willpower, make him a poor choice for a hero who needs to quest every turn in order to use his power – likewise 2 attack, or a single point of defence with 4 hit points make his combat utility fairly limited as well. Rohan synergy for Leadership is decidedly lacking – there’s only really the Snowborn Scout, and most of the things which could boost his questing or attack come in other spheres (Spirit and Tactics respectively). Essentially, the main reason to have Theodred was as a way to ensure you had 2 Aragorn’s and a few extra leadership resources.

In terms of how Theodred’s card fits Tolkien’s character, we don’t have a great deal to go on. We know that he was Theoden’s son and that he died shortly before the War of the Ring, but that’s about it – the few remaining details we have, such as his age and the manner of his death were changed in the films from the books (Jackson made him younger, and had him die of wounds, due to the interference of Grima, rather than being killed outright at the first battle of the fords of the Isen.) On this basis, it doesn’t seem that Theodred can be accused of being massively unfaithful to his book character, although it does seem a shame that he hails from a different sphere to his father and his cousin, who were apparently his closest friends in life. [HINT, HINT- FANTASY FLIGHT, RELEASE A LEADERSHIP VERSION OF THEODEN!]

Gloin

Gloin was the last of the core-set leadership heroes, a dwarf who generated money every time he took damage. Back in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, I used to run a deck which relied on getting Self-preservation on Gloin, and letting him be bashed for as much damage as possible, to churn out vast amounts of cash. Unfortunately, this was trickier in practice than it might seem – even ignoring the difficulty of getting a 3-cost, out-of-sphere attachment onto him, the combo just had too many working parts to be effective – with only 1 defence and 4 hit-points, he was too fragile to be tanking attacks from trolls, and could easily be brushed aside even by Wargs or Orcs with a nasty shadow-card, so needed something like ring-mail (tactics) to improve his defending capacity, or other out-of-sphere protection, such as citadel plate, or a song wisdom followed by a burning brand.

GlóinWhen the combination finally came together, you had a powerful resource engine… …in the sphere which was already the best at generating resources. For most people, it just wasn’t worth the effort. When you add to the picture the Ally version of Gloin, who has solid stats, far more easily achieved resource acceleration, and who plays in nicely to the powerful “5 dwarves or more” deck, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t get much table time.

Thematically, it’s slightly difficult to pin down what the idea behind Gloin was supposed to be – is he sufficiently rich that every time an enemy strikes him, money comes spilling out of his pockets? Or is he a personal injury lawyer. The first idea does fit nicely with Peter Jackson’s depiction of him as a wealthy miser, trying to get out of paying his share of the boat fee to Bard, but even it weren’t a film-world invention by Jackson, this scene only came out several years AFTER the card was released.

Prince Imrahil

The first leadership hero after the core set was Imrahil. Although he’s not quite as strong all-round as Aragorn, he still has fairly solid stats, and his built-in readying ability allows you to get double use out of him reasonably often. This ability gets particularly powerful if you build for it, and only gets stronger the more players there are in the game.

As a Gondor character he can take advantage of the various Gondor-boosting cards out there, but fittingly for a man of elven heritage, and the father-in-law of the King of Rohan, he works perfectly with the allies-leaving-play archetypes of Rohan and Silvan decks.

Despite being a fairly major figure in Return of the King, Prince Imrahil doesn’t feature in any of the films, making him a slightly unfamiliar figure for many players of the game. He does, technically, hail from the same place as the Outlanders, but came along sufficiently long before that trait was conceived to avoid being given that trait – it is a bit of a shame that he doesn’t have any synergy with his Knights of the Swan, but on the whole, not being part of the Outlands can only really be a good thing.

Dain Ironfoot

Dain was the last hero of the Mirkwood cycle, immediately before Khazad-Dum, and the first real clue that dwarves were going to be something big. His passive ability is one of the most powerful in the game, giving all dwarves in play a boost to attack and willpower whilst he is ready.

This level of power hasn’t really been repeated in the game since Dain, and there’s very little question that he’s an effective hero, provided there are a decent number of dwarves in play. His 3 defence is very solid (at the time it was the equal largest in the game) which at least brings in an element of decision during the combat phase for Dain’s controller – unlike the quest phase, where he will mostly be limited to standing around looking inspiring.

Quick, while you can still imagine him as someone other than Billy Connolly...

Quick, while you can still imagine him as someone other than Billy Connolly…

In the Hobbit, Dain appears at the end leading armies of dwarves from the Iron Hills, and is about to start waging war upon the elves and the men of Laketown when the goblins arrive and the Battle of Five Armies breaks out instead. Obviously, the arrival of Dain’s folk is a great morale-booster for Thorin and Company holed-up in the lonely Mountain, but you’d have to imagine that had more to do with the vast army of dwarves that he brought with him than it did with his own personal charisma.

After the events of the Hobbit, Dain reigns as the King Beneath the Mountain, up until the time of the War of the Ring, where he and everyone’s favourite LotR pin-up Brand son of Bain fight against an army of orcs and goblins at the doors of Erebor. The stated time-period of the LotR Card Game is during this reign, so perhaps the ability is more reflective of the King Under the Mountain stage of Dain’s life.

Elrohir

One of the sons of Elrond, who virtually nobody can tell apart (Aragorn is about the only character who is described as being able to distinguish them, although you’d have to imagine Elrond and Arwen could have a good go)- I even have to check which one’s which when playing (I just remember them as the attacking one and the defending one). Aside from Bilbo, this pair were the first characters whose Threat Cost wasn’t equal to the sum of their stats. By himself, Elrohir has a threat cost of ten and stats totalling 9. However, when his brother is in play, his stats go up to eleven, specifically his defence rising from 1 to 3. This is very important as it meshes nicely with his ability which allows him to defend, then pay a resource to re-ready. With enough cash, he can defend infinitely.

The fact that Elrohir synergises with his brother, producing a whole which is better than the sum of his parts makes good thematic sense, and it would be strange, if not downright foolish to ever run one without the other. They also have good rounded stats, with 2 willpower, and 2 attack for Elrohir 2 defence for Elladan. That said, Elrohir is the less useful of the two in my mind- 3 defence is good, but it’s hardly impregnable, and without in-sphere access to shadow cancellation or healing, there are only so many times you’ll get good use out of him. By contrast, his brother can essentially attack as many times as he has enemies and resources (Elladan + Rivendell blade + Orcrist is a particularly fun combination), as your ability to attack doesn’t diminish in the way that a pool of hit-points does. In Elrohir’s favour, being in leadership he is more likely to be able to generate the resources required to make multiple defences, if you can bolster him sufficiently to survive the attacks.

Boromir

The leadership version of Boromir was the second one we had seen in the game. The first emphasised the valiant yet foolhardy warrior, able to wreak havoc upon his enemies by sacrificing stealth and his own life. This was an earlier iteration, the great leader of men seen in the retaking of Osgiliath. He has the same broad, solid stats as before- light on willpower, but powerful in attack, and provided he has a resource in his pool, he gives all Gondor allies an extra attack point. This works well with the various Gondor-themed cards that can generate extra cash, and I like the touch that only allies receive this bonus – the likes of Aragorn or Dain know their own worth and aren’t going to be dazzled by Boromir.

This version does have some fine art from Magali

This version does have some fine art from Magali

This is definitely a solid hero – it goes particularly well with Visionary Leadership, to provide that swarm of cheap Gondor allies with a boost to their willpower as well as their attack. It’s also not unfaithful to Tolkien’s work in any way. That said, personally, I just don’t find it as interesting as playing Tactics Boromir, where you have major choices to make round after round, as you try to decide how far to push your threat for extra attacks.

Hirluin

Unfortunately, Hirluin is impossible to assess in isolation from the Outlands archetype. The deck that builds itself and plays itself. It’s good that he synergises with his compatriots (aside from poor old Imrahil), but generally, the deck isn’t fun for me, and without the Outlanders, Hirluin is basically useless, with 1 for attack, defence and willpower.

Celeborn

The lord of the Galadhrim was the first sign at the start of the current cycle that the Silvan deck was about to really get going. Celeborn offers an across-the-board bonus on stats for Silvan allies, on the round they enter play. Whilst this effect seems to suffer badly from the law of diminishing returns, the growing number of ways to bounce Silvans in and out of play using Tree-People, Feigned Voices and the like mean that you’re likely to get more than just single use out of the bonus – allies like the Naith guide which have an “enters play” effect benefit doubly from this recycling. You need multiple spheres in play to make use of most of these effects, but at this stage in the game, that’s hardly an impossible obstacle.

Tell-me-where-is-Gandalf-Front-Face

Although a figure of undoubted significance in the Lord of the Rings, Celeborn’s character is hardly the most developed you’ll see. The fact that he boosts Silvans makes sense, although the lack of Sindarin trait is still irksome, if consistent. 11 threat and fairly rounded stats that include a very solid 3 willpower make him a good choice for elves and thematically he’s far from terrible, without being able to be called brilliant – personally I’d have liked some kind of effect that allowed him to search for Gandalf (if the Hobbit III trailers are anything to go by, his first question to our favourite Istari may well be “what have you been doing with my wife?” )

Thorin

There could never really be much doubt that Thorin Oakenshield belongs in the leadership sphere. This hero is clearly a leader or dwarves, and he was one of the earlier cards in the “if you control 5 or more dwarves” vein – in this case, providing extra resources. The effect is powerful and, given that you’ll probably need to be running multiple spheres to get the dwarves properly swarming, he helps to smooth your resource issues, as well as being an obvious target for some sphere-fixing like Narvi’s belt. (Ori has always seemed the best partner for me, with the third slot being up for grabs).

Obviously, the vast majority of our unique dwarves are from the Hobbit ortheir families, but the general feel of Thorin still strikes me more as the leader of a small, close-knit band of followers than as the head of a grand army. If anything, I think Thorin and Dain would be more fitting the other way round- Thorin the inspiration, Dain the leader of hordes.

Balin

The last dwarf-lord of Moria, much referenced in the Lord of the Rings, but only actually appearing in the Hobbit. The Balin hero is the fourth dwarf in the leadership sphere, and is slightly unusual in this respect, in that he is probably worth considering outside out a primarily dwarven deck, given his ability to cancel shadow effects without the need for lore/spirit.

Balin’s aim between The Hobbit and his death was to re-occupy the Mines of Moria, and restore dwarven light to the darks of the Dwarrowdelf. In this respect, his ability seems fairly thematic, as it places him in the vanguard of the fight against the Shadow, yet does not offer the kind of automatic success that comes with a Hasty Stroke or a Burning Brand.

Sam Gamgee

The faithful companion of Frodo, the most famousest of Hobbits is perhaps an unusual choice for the leadership sphere. Admittedly he will one day break the record for the most re-elections as mayor of the Shire, but those days are some way off in the future.

This may not have been the actual pan Sam used, but it was the first picture I found that wasn't something to do with Tangled

This may not have been the actual pan Sam used, but it was the first picture I found that wasn’t something to do with Tangled

Sam was released in the Black Riders box, which was the moment when the Hobbit deck suddenly shot into overdrive. He has some obvious support cards, including Bill the Pony (free when Sam’s around) for extra hit-points, and a Hobbit-cloak. The trick to the deck is keeping your threat low, but so long as you can manage that, the Hobbits are a real power-house. Questing for three with a threat of only 8 would be good enough by itself, (and makes him viable in a non-Hobbity deck / combined with higher-threat heroes) but the potential to then block for 4 on the same round takes him to another level. With attachments like the new version of Sting, he can quickly get crazy – although sadly, still no Frying Pan attachment …

Thematically Sam is a little puzzling. His 3 hit-points presumably come from Peter Jackson’s insistence on having Gollum constantly refer to him as “the fat one” – even after a year walking in the wilderness, with little more than a few slices of Lembas bread to keep him going on (in his fight with Gollum in the pass of Cirith Ungol he is described as “stout” but I think that’s as far as it gets). The idea of finding unknown resources of courage and strength when confronted by sudden adversity is nice and hobbit though, so whilst we’re probably seeing some power-creep compared with a figure like Theodred, it doesn’t feel totally out of left-field.

So that’s it for the Leadership Heroes (at least for now) – I’ve deliberately not gone for specific “ratings” as numbers can be a bit arbitrary. I’d be interested to know what other people think of the various Leadership Heroes.

Organised Nightmares

This past Monday, we had our first Lord of the Rings Organised Play event at our local game shop Chimera, and this week I thought I’d just jot down a few thoughts about it, and about organised play generally.

We had 8 people turn up in the end, 2 groups of two, a group of three of us, and a guy by himself – we divided into two tables of four to take on the Nightmare versions of the Hobbit: On the Doorstep Quests.

Our table was the three of us who had gone together (me, my wife, and a friend from work) and the guy who had come by himself. As the game-night kit only comes with a single copy of the Nightmare quests, and the other table had started with Flies and Spiders, we went straight to The Lonely Mountain.

The Lonely Mountain

The-Lonely-Mountain-Location

In its classic format, the Lonely Mountain was a push-your-luck quest: at the start of the game, the mountain itself is contributing only 2 threat, and the two-round set-up allows you to get a good foothold. If you can content yourself with just 1 or 2 Treasures, it’s really quite manageable to push through to stage 3 before things get nasty.

In Nightmare, unsurprisingly, this option is taken away from you- you HAVE to have all five treasures before you can advance, and that means that you are going to find yourself on stage 4, where Smaug comes and attacks you (repeatedly), unless you somehow avoid ever adding a single progress token to him from treacheries or forced effects.

On top of this, our fourth player had never played On The Doorstep before, and came with a tactics deck that relied on Legolas killing lots of things, aided by Rivendell blades and the like, then triggering Foe-Hammer and other similar effects- great for a normal game, but it struggled against a quest with only a single enemy, who was indestructible and immune to player-card effects. I was running a fairly high threat deck, with Boromir (Dead Marshes), Beorn and Eowyn, and with lots of threat-raising effects, we lost fairly quickly.

The Battle of Five Armies

We then turned our attentions to the Battle of Five Armies. In format this hasn’t changed all that much from non-Nightmare mode (at least until you reach stage 5), but the difficulty has been ramped up considerably. Bear in mind that this is already a quest with a 5-card set-up (Bolg + 1 per player) then typically 5 plus cards in round 1 (1 per player, with the first Goblin gaining surge as well as various surging treacheries).

Gundabad-Climber

Gone are the almost friendly little chaps like the Gundabad Climber, and in their place are massive Orc and Wargs ready to tear you limb from limb. Add to that several new locations with high threats, and large numbers of progress needed (5 or 6 apiece) which add threat or damage based on the number of quests with zero progress, and it was virtually impossible.

In our first game, we drew a new treachery in set-up which caused Bolg to attack each player, then drew another copy in turn 1 for almost instant death. In the end I think we tried that quest 4 or 5 times, building decks on the fly in an attempt to deal with one problem, only to get mown down elsewhere. We died from threat, destruction by too many enemies, and even by the elimination of Bilbo (which I had momentarily forgotten was a defeat condition).

Flies and Spiders

We did get a belated look at Flies and Spiders, although not actually a chance to play it – again, this didn’t seem massively changed in structure, just give a fresh burst of nastiness by new treacheries, including one that dealt a poison to each character in play, and some bigger, nastier spiders.

Overall Thoughts

I’m definitely glad that we did the event – it was nice to meet some new people who are interested in the game, even though we only got to play with one of them, and it’s always nice to come away with some swag- in this instance a Bard the Bowman Deck Box.

BardBox

That said, Nightmare just doesn’t seem to me like it’s the best way of doing Organised Play – I bumped into a friend’s brother at the shop, who was down for a Magic event, and was explaining the game to him – as it was we were winding up by then, but if we had had the time to demo a game, I’m not sure the annihilation that we received would have been a great encouragement to come back for more.

On a more general note, there’s the age-old issue of scaling. If people are going to turn up in 2s and 3s and (at least whilst this is a fairly new thing) everyone wants to play with the friends they came with, then most of the time, you’ll be playing large games- probably 4-player. Modern encounter decks just seem too highly tuned to give you that much of a chance in 4-player, unless you’re a.) very good, and b.) have done a lot of advance-planning to ensure your decks are perfectly synced. We could have played 3, 3 and 2 instead, but if we do that, we might as well stay at home.

The co-op format of the game also makes it a bit tricky to decide how you divide up the stuff in the kit –in the end we diced for it, and I think most people went away happy (although I’m now kicking myself for not taking any pictures of the Nightmare deck, which went to someone else), but it’s a very different approach to most OP events, and a bit more thought may be wanted long-term.

I have high hopes for the next game night kit, and hope that Fog on the Barrow Downs will be a bit less crazy (It’d be nice if the old forest was out by then to combine the two, but I’m not over-optimistic). I look forward to getting some more events getting on at the shop, and maybe attracting a bit of passing interest from other people in the shop. It’s certainly given me a new appreciation for the people who organise these sorts of events regularly.

in the meantime, in true Dor Cuarthol tradition, here’s a custom card to help you on your organised play journey:

A bit like Gildor's Counsel, but on the house...

Victory & Defeat

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • The Counsel of Elrond – a loud consensus is reached that The Ring must be destroyed. Gimli rises from his seat and brings his axe crashing down up The Ring. The Ring shatters, and across the vast distance, Barad-Dur comes crashing down, lifting the shadow from the lands of Middle Earth. The Hobbits spend a few weeks longer at Rivendell before returning home with no-one any the worse for the expedition aside from Frodo and his shoulder.

  • Gandalf stands upon the Bridge of Khazad-Dum and issues a booming “you cannot pass!” the Balrog sweeps him contemptuously aside and proceeds to devour the fellowship. The Ring falls into the hands of the Orcs and takes only a matter of weeks to makes its way thence to Mordor, at which point Sauron regains physical form, and begins systematically destroying the free peoples.

I think it’s safe to say that if either of these were an accurate summary of the plot of Lord of the Rings, few of us would bother reading or watching it as we do – it’s possible that you might be able to contrive an ok story out this start, but doubtful that you’d produce something truly great.

Most of the time, most of us want to see our heroes triumph – but we don’t want it to have been so easy that there was never any jeopardy. Obviously we all know enough of Hollywood to expect the general curve, but there should be room for genuine surprises. How many people reading/watching Fellowship for the first time truly expected the loss of Gandalf or Boromir? Or in the first viewing of Two Towers expected Gandalf’s return.

Victory and Defeat in Games

Today I want to think about how that desire for a well-earned victory translates into the world of gaming. Most of us like to win, but we also recognise that it’s not always possible – if you sit down weekly with a group of 3 friends to play an ordinary board game then, assuming equal luck and skill, you’d expect to win about once per month. This is a normal part of life, and we all accept it.

But how about when it becomes a cooperative game? If one of the four of us wins all the time in a competitive game, then perhaps all four of the four of us should win each time in co-op? on the other hand, perhaps it should still be 1 in 4 – most of the time the game defeats us, and we are left to lick our wounds in mournful silence.

When Lord of the Rings LCG came out, there were a limited number of scenarios, and a limited number of deck-building options. Most people were in roughly the same position: multi-player, with a bit of luck, most quests were beatable. A second Hill Troll in Journey Along the Anduin could scupper you, as could the capture of Eowyn in Escape from Dul Guldur, but generally you knew where you were.

Asfaloth Beyond-Expectations

Over time though, the waters have muddied. Quests like Massing at Osgiliath appeared, with the deliberate aim of smashing all player decks before them. Then came Spirit Glorfindel with light of Valinor and Asfaloth, to eat Massing for breakfast. (East Bank? West Bank? Who cares)

More and more quests, more and more decks strategies. All good things, and necessary to keep the game alive.

But the trouble is, with all these cards, there are some incredibly powerful deck-types out there, and that can actually LIMIT the options for players.

When the designers make a new quest, they have to keep in mind the fact that these decks exist – if they make every quest so that it can be beaten with a mono-sphere core set only deck, then it will become boring for the more hardcore players. However, it’s easy to go the other way, so that anyone trying to get into the game late, or anyone without a PhD in deck-building just gets beaten down. More to the point, every quest needs to be especially built for- a quick pick-up game is becoming harder and harder to throw together.

I buy every expansion that comes out for this game (not to mention making my own), and when a new quest comes out, I want to be able to play it with a decent chance of success. At the same time, I deck-build primarily for theme, and tend not to notice the super-combos which seem to power some of the particularly mighty decks. The increased synergy of the encounter decks makes this particularly bad for 4-player, and there have already been a few scenarios where the only real option for us 4-player was to put it back in the box, and give the player-card pool 6 months to catch up.

We also need to realise that different people have different ideas about winning – some groups will probably be happy with a 50/50 win loss ratio, which I think would make most of my group give up. On the other hand, ever since this game began Turin’s Bane, that great fire breathing wyrm of the north has been complaining on a wide variety of forums that the game is too easy, and needs to be made harder- clearly this isn’t an easy situation for the designers to solve.

The Road Darkens

Earlier this week, Fantasy Flight posted an article about the upcoming “road darkens” expansion, which will cover the second half of the events of Fellowship of the Ring – flavour-wise they look brilliant, and you can tell that the designers are definitely real fans of the game. However, the difficulty raises concerns for me.

the-balrog

The Balrog has 5 threat, 8 attack, 9 defence and 25 hit points. He is indestructible and both he and his shadow cards are immune to player card effects. Only a single player can attack him at a time (regardless of ranged or other tricks).

As Caleb points out, the Balrog is indeed meant to be “a foe beyond any of us,” it would be anti-climactic at best if we were able to 1-shot it, but there are effects that we’ve seen on the Nazgul of Minas Morgul or the Mumak that can make enemies harder to kill than just being big, without getting silly.

the-great-bridge

The effect on The Great Bridge will allow us to at least have a chance to defeat the Balrog, but at the cost of a hero, which is a particularly significant loss if you’re playing in campaign mode, where that character – in all forms – will be banned for future use. My current thinking involves bringing in Fatty Bolger, to absorb some of the Balrog’s threat, then discarding him, as he’s unlikely to be needed in the future – I certainly don’t plan on sticking to the story and discarding the brand-new Gandalf hero, at least not unless the Treason of Saruman features a new Gandalf the White card.

 

In the meantime, here’s a completely non-playtested alternative for all your Two Towers needs.

 

Gandalf-the-White-Front-Face

Not all those who wander are lost

This week saw the start of GenCon 2014, typically one of the biggest weekends in the gaming calendar. As thousands gather to demo, play, and buy the newest additions to the board game world, the news for Lord of the Rings fans has been a little bit mixed.

On the one hand, there was remarkably little in terms of actual new content: The Road Darkens, which is the second Saga expansion for the main Lord of the Rings story, and which will allow players to play through the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring, was not only absent, but it now has a 4th quarter of 2014 release date, meaning it will be months at the earliest before anyone can get their hands on the new cards.

In terms of new game announcements, there also seems to have been a bit of a blank – Fantasy Flight, who have historically been one of the big producers of Lord of the Rings games are currently focusing most of their energies on Star Wars, with ever more games and expansions appearing in that sector.

Despite all this, there was still some news for fans of the LCG, the next Saga expansion, and the next deluxe expansion, along with its attendant cycle of adventure packs.

The next Deluxe will be The Lost Realm focusing around Bree, the Shire, and further north, a theme which will be developed in the 2015 AP cycle “Angmar Awakened.” The Third Saga box will be The Treason of Saruman¸ and will focus on the events from the two towers around Rohan and Orthanc.

One of our new Aragorns

One of our new Aragorns

Whilst these are exciting enough as teasers, we know very little about these expansions as yet – The Grey Company and Cardboard of the Rings have posted photos of the box, inside a glass display case, but it’s difficult to make out much from the cards, the one thing we do know is that BOTH these big boxes will feature a new Aragorn hero. One Saga-specific Fellowship hero, and one of an un-confirmed sphere, but probably tactics (based on the combat-themed abilities which can be vaguely made out, and the reddish tinge to the background.)

This will leave us with no less than 4 total versions of Aragorn, putting him level with Bilbo (1 hero, 2 saga hero, 1 ally, forthcoming in The Road Darkens) and ahead of Frodo (1 hero, 2 saga hero), so I thought this might be a good time to provide a bit of a reminder of who exactly Aragorn is, and why he’s so important to the story of Lord of the Rings.

Aragorn II 

After the fall of Sauron at the end of the Second age, the realm of the men of Numenor was divided, with Isildur and his heirs ruling in the North, whilst his brother Anarion, and his heirs ruled the south. In Gondor, the line of Anarion lasted for roughly 2000 years, before it failed, and rule of the kingdom passed to the stewards for the next millennium. In the north Isildur’s heirs ruled the kingdoms of Arnor and Arthedain for only a little less time, before the kingdom fell, and the head of the house was reduced to the status of a chieftain.

It was into this line of chieftains of the northern Dunedain that Aragorn was born. His father Arathorn had just succeeded his father as the chieftain when Aragorn was born, and held the post for roughly 3 years before being slain by orc-arrows whilst riding with Elladan and Elrohir. The young boy Aragorn was given the name “Estel” meaning hope, and fostered in the house of Elrond, where his lineage and true identity were kept hidden from all, even himself, throughout his youth.

At the age of twenty, Aragorn’s true identity was revealed to him by Elrond, and (having briefly tried and failed to win the heart of Arwen) he spent the next thirty years, fighting in Gondor and Rohan, against various forces of the enemy. He was a captain of Gondor during the rule of the steward Ecthelion, father of Denethor, and won a great victory against the Corsairs of Umbar, under the name of Thorongil.

Father-in-LawAfter this time, Aragorn and Arwen met for the second time, and fell in love. As one of the half-elven, Arwen had the choice between elven immortality, eventually sailing west into Valinor, or a mortal life, being parted beyond death and the end of the world from her people. Understandably a bit miffed at this prospect, Elrond told Aragorn that he would allow Arwen to wed no mortal man less than the king of the restored realms of Gondor and Arnor combined, which should provide a bit of perspective for anyone who ever thought their own father-in-law was a bit demanding.

In the years leading up the War of the Ring, Aragorn continued to range, and became ever more instrumental in the plans of the wise, leading Gandalf’s hunt for Gollum, and guarding the Shire and its oblivious residents from those who would seek to do them ill. It was in this guise that he was known, although little understood by the Breelanders who called him “Strider” in recognition of his long legs, and his ability to roam far and wide across the northern country, and this is the man whom the Hobbits first meet in the Prancing Pony.

As the Lord of the Rings unfolds, more is revealed of Aragorn, and by the end of Return of the King, he has been crowned as King Elessar (meaning Elfstone), the triumphant king of Gondor, who shows the truth of his claim by his healing hands as much as by his sword. He marries Arwen, and we are told that he rules fairly and wisely for 120 years, (although as George R. R. Martin notes, we are never told about his tax policy, or what he did about the remaining orcs) before laying down his life “an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

So there you have it, a brief summary of the life of Aragorn (read the appendices of Return of the King for more detail) and it is clear why he should be a big part of the Lord of the Rings gaming experience. However, with this new Fellowship hero, it means that for the saga box, you’ll actually have to take Aragorn out of your decks, as the rules prevent us from having two copies of a card with the same title in play at once.

Luckily for you, here at dor Cuarthol, we have dug up some old cards, and come up with just the solution to this problem, enabling you to continue Aragorn-ing to your heart’s content.

Estel Thorongil

Strider Elessar

Location, Location, Location

Or: Where on Middle Earth are we?

 One of the great things about Tolkien’s writing, is the places that he creates. Rather than simply finding characters travelling through a generic forest, plain, or mountain range, he injects real life and flavour into these places, with vivid description to give them a life of their own.

It only makes sense then, that when players are playing games set in Middle Earth, they should want to immerse themselves in these locations, and to feel like the setting as well as the gameplay is properly tied to that creation.

Some Lord of the Rings games don’t really do this – The Hobbit, for example makes no reference to location. Nazgul distinguishes simply between whether or not a location has walls and whether it is an Elven, Rohan or Gondor location. The Dice-Building game uses locations simply as a proxy for different stages in the story, adding in additional enemies, and eventually triggering the victory conditions, once you reach Mount Doom or the Grey Havens.

The two games which, to my mind, do the best job of capturing the flavour of Middle Earth are Middle Earth Quest, and the Living Card Game, and I want to think a bit more about them today.

Middle Earth Quest

middleearthquestmapMiddle Earth Quest is probably my favourite board game that I don’t play. It’s a spectacular creation which at 3 hours + is just a bit too much of an undertaking for my group to really get into (of course to an extent, this is a vicious cycle, as the less it is played, the longer it takes, due to a lack of familiarity from the players.) The reason I love it so much, despite its sprawling nature, is the way that it seems to capture so perfectly the level at which Lord of the Rings game should be played. Set between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the Ring departing the shire, players represent unsung heroes of Middle Earth, essentially running errands for Gandalf and the wise, trying in little ways to slow down the advance of the shadow. Sauron meanwhile is not yet trying to destroy the free people in one fell swoop, but he will do everything in his power to corrupt, weaken and undermine those who would seek to oppose him.

The other great thing about Middle Earth Quest, is that I comes with an enormous map of Middle Earth as the game board. For a company who regularly make big boards, this one was too big for Fantasy Flight to issue as a single component, and it comes as two separate lumps of card. Purely as a visual spectacle, it’s brilliant, and the way that travelling is tied in to the terrain type gives you a good sweep of how the land lies.

Locations in The LotR LCG

Aside from Middle Earth Quest, the Living Card Game is the only other serious contender for really engaging with the location of whichever adventures the players are engaged in and, to my mind, it does it better. Admittedly locations and travel often receive criticism as the weak link of the game, but locations form (roughly) a third of the encounter cards in this game and there are well over a hundred different locations which we have seen during the life of the card game, each with their own art, stats and effects.

The concept of an active location is a fairly simple one- this is the place you are currently exploring. The locations in the staging area are a little more abstract, but can basically be seen as places adjacent to your current location, the possibilities for future travel.

the-old-ford-thfgOver the course of the game, there have been some good stand-outs in terms of thematically fitting locations – it could be as simple as a road which allows easier travel and therefore readies a hero, river banks which replicate themselves as you flow endlessly down the river, or even a ford which becomes more dangerous and more time-consuming to cross the bigger your party.

The designers have also experimented with restrictions on locations. During the Massing art Osgiliath, you can see locations from both sides of the Anduin, but you can only travel to the ones of your side of the river. In Siege of Cair Andros, you have to physically fight the enemy for control of the locations.

The travel effects are another way of adding theme. When you choose between the branching paths, the chances are that you will have stumbled into a new dark location. When you wander into the mountains, there’s a chance you’ll run into additional perils.

Part of the difficulty with maintaining theme is the same across the whole game – it’s easy to be distracted by the mechanic, and not spend any real time considering the art, the flavour text and soforth. Ultimately, this is down to individual players and their groups to arrange as they wish.

The other difficulty with locations is how they are dealt with. For a while nasty travel effects and restrictions were all the rage, then along came Asfaloth with his repeatable ability to put progress on locations in the staging area, and travelling became almost unnecessary. The constant challenge for the designers is to make locations which offer not only challenges for players, but also decisions.

pathless-country-tbrPathless Country from the Black Riders is a nice example of this. At first glance, it’s a fairly innocuous location, with 2 threat, 3 quest points to explore, and no nasty passive effect which will cause you problems whilst it’s sat there. However, players have to decide whether they really want to travel to the pathless county (meaning that they can’t travel to one of the more pressing locations – Chetwood, the Marish, the Stockroad) or leave it in the staging area knowing that its +4 quest points whilst not the active location will mean that Asfaloth and the Northern Tracker are going to struggle to get rid of it any time soon, unless they concentrate a disproportionate amount of effort to it.

How many locations?

One of the biggest difficulties with locations is the issue of scaling. No matter how many players in the game, the players collectively can travel to one location per round (provided there is currently no active location). For single player, this is fine – so long as you quest sufficiently, you will always be able to move that location along. For bigger groups it can be a challenge: 4-player Hills of Emyn Muil can easily see you revealing 3 or 4 locations per round. The quest then quickly becomes a race to draw and play enough Northern Trackers to make those locations disappear before they overwhelm you.

It’s to this last issue of scaling that I’ve decided to turn my hand today. A simply scaling rule for locations with more players goes as follows:

Advanced-Travel-Rules-Front-Face

This helps to alleviate the issue of location-lock, without making the game massively easier- after all, you’ll still have the travel costs, and you’ll be potentially doubling the amount of progress which is going to be absorbed by active locations before you actually make progress on the quest.

That  said, having done something to reduce the likelihood of location lock, I want to bring in a bit more thought / choice to the “direct progress” aspect of the game (Northern Tracker, Ride to Ruin, Asfaloth etc) that provided something a little more nuanced than “Northern Tracker it all to death.” The game designers have introduced a little of this with locations that have negative effects when progress is placed, but this would be more of a general sweep that could be applied to any scenario.

There seemed to be 2 basic options: limit the number of locations which could have progress placed on them each round, or limit the number of progress tokens which could be placed. In either instance, I wanted to relate the number to the number of players in the game, to allow for an element of scaling. It would need to be high enough to allow for a sudden flourish of locations in the staging area, but low enough to be worthwhile having such a limit.

Having established the basic concept, the next step is to play-test. Unfortunately, mustering enough multiplayer games to have an exhaustive play-test is a bit tricky, especially with one of the members of our semi-regular 4-player group being a doctor with a long string of weekend and night shifts coming up. I’ve had a few chances to do a bit of brief experimenting and considering, and I’m going to start with “No more than X progress may be placed on locations in the staging area each round, where X is twice the number of players in the game.” – I’d really appreciate it if people could give this a try, and let me know their thoughts- does this feel like a balanced limit to set? Does this prevent you from effectively dealing with locations, or do you never find that this even comes into effect? It’d also be really helpful if you could give me an idea of the sort of deck you’ve been using, and the type of location-management cards you’re running (Trackers, horses etc)

Co-operation, Victory and Glory

Renier Knizia’s year 2000 “Lord of the Rings” game was not the first co-operative board game, but it was the inspiration for a significant number of subsequent games, including probably all of the Lord of Rings co-op games we have today.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it simply means that rather competing against each other, players compete as a team against the game itself, all losing or all winning collectively. This is the format of the Renier Knizia Lord of the Rings, the Fantasy Flight Living Card Game, and various other games outside of Middle Earth (Pandemic, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game etc).

my money's on Denethor...

my money’s on Denethor…

There are variations possible on this theme –for example, one player representing the forces of evil whilst the remainder, collectively are the forces of good. This is the set-up in Middle Earth Quest, where one player is Sauron, and the others represent the free peoples of Middle Earth. As a twist, the player acting on behalf of ‘evil’ may be masquerading as one of the good guys, as you find in games like Shadows Over Camelot, or the Cylon in Battlestar Galactica.

A more recent development, is the idea of the “semi-cooperative” game. Before I go any further, I want to clarify this term a bit – it is sometimes used for games like Shadows Over Camelot, where there is a hidden traitor, or even for games with multiple teams working together against other teams (who may or may not know that they are on the same team.) I’m using it here specifically to refer to those games in which players have to co-operate sufficiently to ensure that they overcome the game (as infighting will simply lead to defeat). However, if they win, there will be a winner, typically the one who has earned the most Glory / Victory Points /etc.

There are (at least) two games in the Lord of the Rings Universe which feature the semi co-op mechanic, The Lord of the Rings the Dice-Building Game, and Lord of the Rings: Nazgul. (henceforth Dice and Nazgul for short). These came out in 2012 and 2013 and are both published by Whizzkids. They share a lot of characteristics, aside from the LotR semi co-op mechanic, there are the movie visuals (lots of glossy colour photos, no artwork), and the fact that the rules give the impression of having been originally written in Swahili and then translated by a computer into something closely approaching English.

Nazgul currently has an average rating on BoardGamegeek of 5.79/10 based on just over a hundred ratings, Dice 5.87/10 from just under three hundred ratings. (For reference, the Living Card Game, which has received nearly 9,000 ratings, scores a rather more respectable 7.64/10).

In terms of what the games represent, they are very different. In Dice players start off with dice representing Frodo and Sam and try to recruit additional, typically more powerful, dice to confront the forces of Sauron as the game progresses. Assuming players successfully reach the Grey Havens, the one who has accrued the most “glory” is the winner, otherwise all lose. In Nazgul, players represent the ring-wraiths, bent on crushing the armies of the Free Peoples before they get to Mount Doom. Again, should this activity be accomplished, there will be a ‘winner,’ this time the one who has accrued the most ‘favour’ from Sauron.

You can find a more detailed review for Dice elsewhere on the site for the general mechanics and components (review for Nazgul to follow), but my main concern here is the theme. The whole idea of a game being “semi co-operative” in the world of Middle Earth.

Dice initially struck me as the most unlikely setting for this mechanic. Evidently, there are many different people who take part in the war of the Ring, but can we really say that any of them do it for “glory?” Frodo, the one who arguably suffers the most and who ultimately destroys the ring itself is little-regarded after the war back in the Shire- Tolkien tells us that it is Sam, the many-times mayor of Hobbiton, and Merry and Pippin as the Thain and the Took who gain the public recognition. Admittedly he does ultimately earn himself passage to Valinor, but that was hardly what led him to set out from Bag End in the first place.

BoromirOf the Fellowship, perhaps the best argument of one seeking glory is Boromir. Despite the touching flashback scene of the re-taking of Osgiliath in the films [Two Towers, extended edition, if you’re not watching the extended edition, go and get it now], Tolkien tells us that Boromir insisted that he should be the one sent to Rivendell, and sought to bring back Isildur’s Bane to be the salvation of Gondor.

"I'll have no pointy-ear out-scoring me!"

“I’ll have no pointy-ear out-scoring me!”

Even then though, the notion that Boromir would be the “winner” if he were still alive at the end of the books and had gained the most “glory” is an awkward one. Sam would probably count himself as having done fairly well to have returned safely home to raise a large brood of children with Rosie Cotton, even if he were never heard of again in Minas Tirith or Edoras. Simply slaying the most monsters just isn’t that big of a concern for most of the free peoples.

By contrast, Nazgul seems, on the surface of it, to be a far more logical setting for some back-stabbing. After all, these are the bad guys, and a bit of jostling for position amongst them seems sensible – surely they would push their luck as far as they thought they could without word getting back to the great eye? Possibly further if Cirith Ungol is anything to go by.

All of which is fine for Orcs and Goblins, but doesn’t work nearly so well for Nazgul. The Nazgul are depicted as being so completely under the power of the one ring, and are portrayed so entirely without individuality that the notion of self-assertion and bickering for personal interest just doesn’t quite fit. Even amongst the most hardcore of Tolkien fans, you’ll struggle to find someone who can subdivide the Nazgul more clearly than “The Witch King” and “the other 8.”

It's his fault - he let them get away...

It’s his fault – he let them get away…

Theme aside, the mechanic is an issue. If a player is losing, there is little incentive from a game-play perspective to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If Fellowship were a semi co-operative board game, then Boromir would have known by the final chapters that he was in last place having tried to take the ring from Frodo, and probably hidden behind a tree whilst the Uruk-hai dealt with Merry and Pippin. Likewise, whichever Nazgul let Frodo give him the slip at Buckleberry Ferry might think twice before piling into the Ford of the Bruinen – why not let the others check whether the water is safe first? Ultimately, neither the honest heroism of the Fellowship, nor the stifling control exercised upon the Ring-Wraiths really allows for a semi co-operative game to make any real sense here.

Fortunately, both of these games have fully co-operative variants (although particularly in the case of Nazgul, successfully deciphering it from the rule-book should earn you enough glory to claim instant victory), and it is possible to play these games in a manner that feels more fitting to the theme of Tolkien’s world.