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.

Sticking Around

I’ve mentioned a few times in recent posts the idea of a “characters not leaving play” mechanic – whereas the Rohirrim or the Silvan have various effects which key off of characters bouncing in and out of your deck or hand, I wanted to see something which would reward you for leaving characters in play.

Obviously, to an extent the game inherently rewards you for keeping any character in play, because you still have the character. If you’re paying 2 or 3 resources for a single use, that’s a fairly steep price. If you get to use them repeatedly, it’s a much better return on your money.

However, I wanted to go beyond that, to find effects that would actively reward you for keeping all of your characters in play. In order to make this balance, it would need to be combined with things that punished you when characters leave play.

The first question – posed by Master of Lore last time, was which faction would be best suited to this. Whilst Silvan seemed to have a fair amount of logic behind it thematically, this flies directly in the face of the existing cards. Ents were also a possibility, but I’ve already created Ent cards, and I’m quite happy with the mechanic I’ve got going there.

Ultimately, I decided to opt for the Dunedain. Although small in number, the Dunedain are a highly influential group, both within the events of Lord of the Rings, and in the card game. Without Aragorn and his rangers, the Shire could have been attacked years earlier, and Gollum would never have been captured, most likely leading to Frodo being still at home when the Nazgul arrived. The Grey Company (the original one, not the podcast) provided Aragorn with vital support, as he faced the paths of the dead, and intercepted the Corsairs at Pelargir.

In the game, notable Dunedain characters are Aragorn, Beravor, and the Northern Tracker, without whom most of us would never have survived the Mirkwood cycle. Even today, after errata and changes to the meta-game, they are still vital components of many a quest.

Despite their valour, the Dunedain are the very last survivors in the north of the men of Numenor, and they cannot afford to sacrifice their lives every time a stray orc wanders their way. They are extremely hardy, and have lifespans beyond those of ordinary men. Their woodcraft and survival knowledge allow them to establish strong positions, and they need to be prepared so that they can fight again another day.

Cards

Having established thMighty powerful - if you can keep him ready until the Combat phase!e thematic background, I then went to work on a few cards. First of all, characters.

First of all, the archer. Very simple. He’s a powerful attacker, and cheap for his stats. However, you have to get this far into the round without losing a character to be able to take advantage of his ability.

For anything other than attack, I decided as a basic mechanic, to go for something which added resources each round, discarded the resources when characters left play, and gained additional power based on those resources. This was a bit clunkier than I would have liked, but seemed relatively workable, without needing to keep track of too many things.

  These are the allies I’ve created. I wanted to make sure that I had some kind of coverage for the spheres which currently lack Dunedain allies, as well as some solid character-based support for this whole theme.

 

Dunedain-Healer-Front-Face

 

Dunedain-Patrol-Front-Face Dunedain-Lookout-Front-Face

 

For attachments, I decided that limiting them to particular points in the round was the way forward – obviously they would need to be played in the planning phase, like any other attachment, but I decided to make their power trigger at the end of the round. In the meantime, there would be forced effects to either exhaust or discard them if a character left play. Unfortunately, this produced a bit of a dilemma mechanically. If I made it a refresh action, then the card would always be ready by the time it came to trigger the action. If I made it a combat action, then players would have the option to trigger it before defending attacks (which, evidently is major time for characters to be leaving play).

Sadly, this meant I had to go for something a bit clunky: Combat action: after you have finished resolving attacks, exhaust this to … – it’s not what I’d have liked, but hopefully it will do the job.

I decided to create an attachment in each sphere, and for each one, I wanted to tap into one of the core abilities of the sphere. Resource acceleration for Leadership, Damage for Tactics, Card-Draw for Lore, and Threat control for Spirit.

The next question was around power-level. I wanted to make sure that these cards were powerful enough to be worth having, without being too powerful. Obviously, anyone running these cards is not going to be able to make effective use of the various Rohan effects, The Tree People, Horn of Gondor, Valiant sacrifice etc. On the other hand, they stand a good chance of building up a decent-sized ally force.

In the end, I decided to try the following:

I'm fairly sure deadliness is a word? Dunedain-Knowledge-Front-Face Dunedain-Resourcefulness-Front-Face Dunedain-Stealth-Front-Face

 

As you all know, I’m more of a stickler for theme than the designers tend to be, so I’m restricting these to Dunedain heroes only. I considered “play only if you control at least 1 Dunedain hero” but that was just too many words on the card.

Overall, these feel fairly well balanced to me- evidently, there’s some very good potential here – repeat damage, threat control, resource acceleration or card-draw. However, it doesn’t have the predictability of the more powerful uniques like Steward of Gondor, and it’s still subject to standard attachment hate. I wondered about giving them traits, but they don’t really fit as “signals” (the existing Dunedain attachment theme) and there was nothing else which seemed like it would have a significant gameplay impact.

Lastly, I considered the idea of events. Events are tricky as they tend to be one-off effects which disappear before they’d have a chance to check whether anyone had left play. I decided to have a go though

The-Grey-Company-Front-Face

All in all, I think there’s enough here to provide for a Dunedain play-style across any or all of the spheres, which feels different from the existing trait-based decks, and which fits reasonably well with the existing cards – Dunedain Watcher is potentially a bit of a jar, but the various other mechanics, including secrecy all mesh fairly well.

The most obvious card I haven’t made a version of here, is Halbarad. There are already a few versions of him out there, and to be honest I really hope that they bring out an official version soon. If I haven’t seen one by the end of the cycle, I might revisit this.

For anyone not familiar with the Dunedain – check out Master of Lore’s Beravor review article for some more background.

Faction: Mechanic and Theme

As I mentioned a few days back, I’ve recently been getting my teeth stuck into Tales From The Cards’ First Age Expansion. For financial reasons as much as anything, I’ve only got the Player Cards so far, but if you can get over the slightly surreal nature of Beren, Luthien and Finrod delivering a message through Mirkwood, or Feanor, Fingolfin and Finrod hunting for signs of Gollum, it’s been a blast.

Ian has said that he wants this first batch of cards to act like a new “core set” – and there’s certainly limited options, which remind me just how spoiled for choice we’ve become – non-unique allies are particularly thin on the ground, but it provides some good nostalgia for the early days of the official LCG.

One discussion which came up a lot in the early stages of the design process for First Age, was about which third-age cards could be included for first-age play. Obviously I’m now blurring the situation more by using these heroes on 3rd-age quests, but I’m sure people can see that having Bilbo and Frodo questing alongside Feanor would be a bit odd, to say the least. On the other hand, allowing Fingolfin to feint an enemy seems entirely plausible.

In the end, an official list was produced of the “approved” cards, but this left some gaps – cards which were just too crucial a part of the game to be left out, whilst simultaneously too much of a thematic mismatch to be included in the First Age set.

The biggest example of this was for resource acceleration in leadership. Having extra cash has always been the big thing of the leadership sphere, but making Fingon the Steward of Gondor just wouldn’t make sense.

The solution was a new card – High Kingship of the Noldor. As you can see, it looks suspiciously familiar, but transplants the theme back to the first age. (incidentally, it also fixes the pet peeve of many players that the official card wasn’t called Stewardship of Gondor). Once there, you’re just as free to play it on Turin or Haleth as you are to play it on Merry or Gimli in the third age, and you can make as few or as many thematic explanations for this as you like.

I think High Kingship of the Noldor is a great card- in fact it makes so much sense thematically, that I’m tempted to put it in 3rd-age elf-decks. After all, whilst Elrond was never technically the High King of the Elves, he did inherit Vilya from Gil-Galand, and it feels like an all-round better fit theme wise than making him the Steward of Gondor. However, it made we wonder a bit about how much cards in this game are driven by their mechanics, and how much it’s the theme over the top that makes them good or not.

I’ve commented previously on how I’m concerned that the new Silvan theme is going to be suspiciously similar to the Rohan theme – lots of allies leaving play for clever effects, and that they could have made a much more interesting “no-one leaves play” theme, taking up the idea from the Silvan Refugee – imagine a relatively weak character which gains a resource token at the end of the round if no character leaves play, and gains stat-boosts from those tokens (or can spend them to trigger powerful abilities, etc.)

Either way, the designers have made their decision, and the new Silvan deck does look like it will be fun to play, but I worry about the dangers of convergence in this game: Rohan is about controlling when your allies leave play, and gaining bonuses when they do, whereas Silvans are about moving characters in and out of play, and triggering effects from doing so. Dwarves are about reaching critical mass and overwhelming the staging area, whereas Outlands involves global stat boosts which mean that once you reach critical mass, you can overwhelm the staging area.

On Board Game Geek recently, I saw a particularly interesting example of this. A guy on there – “Banania” – who was a bit frustrated with the lack of development of the Ranger Trap archetype has created some additional player cards designed to mesh with this theme – A Faramir who provides a resource match for all Rangers and who reduces threat when you play a trap, or a Mablung who gets willpower boosts from traps, and can gain resources from Traps leaving play. Good quality cards, with some interesting options (although I do find the idea of a 2 hit-point hero moderately terrifying).

However, he then went one step further, and created another 20 or so cards which were exact copies of existing player-cards, but re-themed for Rangers. For example, Constant Watch, he comments, is just Elrond’s Counsel, which requires a Ranger rather than a Noldor.

Now, as with Elrond’s counsel, if you can meet the requirements (i.e. control a unique Ranger) and have a Spirit hero, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to run this card – it offers free threat reduction and a small willpower boost, but I feel like it has the potential to be the thin end of the wedge – the next deck you build, whether it be Silvan, Rohan, Dwarf etc, says “I need some cheap threat reduction,” and soon all your decks are mechanically identical with just a different type of art on top.

I know that the designers have always said that they see spheres as the main structural elements of the game, and that these should be what distinguishes between cards, which is all very well up to a point. The thing is though, if I want to encourage a friend to try this game based on their experiences of reading or watching Lord of the Rings, I’m much more likely to get a positive reaction if I can show them a deck that taps into the theme of a faction (Earlier this week, I got a very positive response to my Ent cards, which I was able to introduce along the lines of – “these are insanely powerful, so you get to smash stuff really hard, but they move at rather treeish speeds”) than if I try to sell them on a sphere – “yeah you can be the people who are really knowledgeable about the ways of middle earth.”

There certainly are different styles of deck available in this game, and I hope that this will continue, with lots of different archetypes that actually have a decent chance of beating newish quests. What I really hope on top of all that though, is that those different decks will tap into the lore that makes this game so popular in a way that continues to feel like we’re playing something where it’s more than just a coincidence that the action is taking place in Middle Earth.