The Tale of Years

 

Happy Birthday!

6 years ago today, on 20th April 2011, Fantasy Flight Games released something new – Lord of the Rings the Card Game – a Cooperative, Living Card Game.

Gandalf.jpg

The LCG model was one they had been using for a few years – fixed distributions of cards rather than randomised boosters gave players a clearer idea of what they were buying, and went a long way to mitigate the problem where the player who spent the most money on cards had the best deck.

AGoT1I had come across FFG via their Game of Thrones LCG which, in turn, I had encountered after reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels. When I first discovered AGoT LCG, my Board Gaming was probably limited to a small handful of games – Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers, but I had found my way into a local gaming group, and even to a magical place called Board Game Geek.

I played Game of Thrones for a while – on a good day I wasn’t too bad at it, and made the cut in a few tournaments. Other times I failed dismally: there was no local play group, and whilst I subjected my wife (a big fan of the books) to many sessions of it, she was never interested in deck-building, and the games quickly became pointless and 1-sided as I knew every card in her deck, and she had little sense of what mine was up to.

A Cooperative game then, had a big appeal: we didn’t need to worry about it being too one-sided, and the fact that it was Lord of the Rings themed was a massive positive as well: Tolkien was one of my wife’s favourite authors (I think it was around this time that she introduced me to the Silmarillion), and this was a game that seemed to drip with theme.

 

The First Age

LotR CorePretty much on the day it came out, I went to fetch my first copy of Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game (tbh, I don’t remember the exact date, but 20th April is the date on the release article) – once we got past a few early mistakes (engaged enemies don’t contribute threat to the staging area, apparently!) it was a massive hit. We played the core scenarios to death, and picked up every expansion going – various friends were introduced to the game, and 2 or 3 played it dozens of times with us. We have successfully completed every single scenario in the first 3 cycles and all the Hobbit Sagas in all 4 player counts

In the early days I was very active on the FFG Forums. As time went on I discovered Podcasts about the game – first Cardboard of the Rings, and then the Grey Company. I designed my own custom cards for the game, discovered blogs, and even leant a bit of a hand to a guy who was putting together an entire custom expansion for the First Age.

By this time, I was heavily involved in the game and the community, and it was most of what we played, most of the time. When Cardboard of the Rings announced that they had a slot opening up for a new co-host, I was very excited about the chance to get involved…

About 2 emails later, I realised that joining us North-American Podcast from the UK would involve a lot of staying up until the small hours of the morning, and wasn’t going to be practical – I didn’t even bother submitting my audition. Instead, I decided to do the next best thing – I started my own Blog.

 

Reports from the Land of Bow and Helm

Dor Cuarthol launched in January 2014. I wanted Turin Turambar but that was already taken (Along with a few variations on it), so I opted for the Land of Bow and Helm, the place where Turin and Beleg lived for a while, harassing the forces of Morgoth.

The_Land_of_Bow_and_Helm

In February 2014 I started producing my first articles, and covered a fair range of topics over the first few years: lots about the Lore (why are all the Elves “Silvan” or Noldor” when most of them shouldn’t be?) a bit about deck-building (why bother with other readying effects when Unexpected Courage is so good) and, particularly in the early days, lots of custom card creations.

Over time, the blog seemed to collect a good following, no doubt thanks to Dan, and Ian at Hall of Beorn, and Tales from the Cards respectively who put links to this hidden corner of Middle Earth in their side-bars. Most people read in silence, but there were a few who commented, plenty of encouragement, and some responses to the hypothetical questions posed.

 

The Waning of the Age

Hill-Troll As I mentioned at the start, today is Lord of the Rings LCG’s 6th Birthday. The game has come a long way from the days of mono-sphere, 30-card decks when we could imagine nothing more terrifying than a Hill Troll. Where once there were only 12 heroes, now there are 80! (plus a handful of Bilbos, Frodos and Aragorns in the Baggins or Fellowship Spheres [it’s not a sphere!]) Beyond the heroes themselves, the possibilities for card combinations in decks is beyond calculation. The same character may appear multiple times, in multiple different guises (although only 1 of them can be in play at a time…)

It’s not just the player cards that have changed. Quests of today are very different from Passage Through Mirkwood or Journey Along the Anduin. The number of quests has grown just as the number of Heroes has, and today there are countless new keywords and mechanics to put a different spin on your adventures in Middle Earth.

Some things have definitely changed for the better: each Deluxe + Cycle of Adventure Packs now follows a far clearer and coherent narrative, with a story being told in the inserts. Encounter decks are generally leaner with far fewer generic, multi-purpose cards padding things out, making for a much less random experience.

 

Diminished

From my perspective though, there are also things that have changed for the worse. The difficulty of the game has ramped up significantly, and the stats on basic locations or enemies are a far cry from the early days.

It’s also clearer than ever that there is no One Deck To Rule Them All – whilst a good pair of decks could probably get you through the Core Box and all the Mirkwood cycle (aside from Rhosgobel, possibly) performing the same feat in a recent cycle would be far more impractical. Whilst this is good for players who like a puzzle to crack, it makes the game far less accessible – meeting up for a multiplayer game becomes an exercise in defeat, unless you can coordinate decks in advance. Even just playing at home, I need to decide whether I have my decks built ready for solo play, games with 2, or larger 3 or 4 player games – long gone are the days when someone could just suggest a game of LotR, and I could grab up 4 decks, knowing that we would have a good chance at, if not winning, at least having some fun.

Whilst having more cards is a good thing for a deck-builder, the card pool these days feels bloated – too many cards that are binder-fodder because other cards weren’t balanced with the benefit of prophecy. The fact that early player cards were over-powered, has brought a reaction in too much that is “immune to player card effects” – in recent releases the designers have been quite canny in finding ways around this, but the overall problem still remains.

The release of the Arkham Horror LCG last year brought into focus for me just how aged LotR LCG feels these days. Locations in Arkham – a separate set of cards, entirely distinct from the more focused deck of Treacheries and Enemies – show what LotR might have been with the benefit of hindsight. However, for me, the attempts in the Dreamchaser cycle to move towards this sort of system for LotR didn’t work either- there was just too much of a legacy of player cards designed to deal with locations randomly churned out by an encounter deck to make the switch.

Map

Both Arkham and the 2nd Edition of Game of Thrones have featured cards released very early in the game’s life with built-in restrictions and balances to pre-empt broken combos long before they start. Fantasy Flight’s LCG design team have clearly learnt a lot in 6 years, but not all of it can be used to the benefit of Lord of the Rings

 

Beyond the Horizon

The last 6 years has also brought a lot of changes to the world of Board Gaming at large. Even as someone who likes to keep fairly well up on the state of the hobby, I can’t claim to be in a position to offer an exhaustive view of this, but I can at least give a few personal insights.

From a personal perspective I can look at the games I have played recently: of the 15 games I have played the most times this year (6 sessions plus), only 2 (Zombie Dice and Race for the Galaxy) even existed when LotR LCG was released. Similarly if I look back at the games I’ve played more than 20 times since Christmas 2014, only Mapominoes and Dominion get added to that list. All of those are games that are feeling their age, and by-and-large, new is the future.

 

DoomBox As I look to the future, my feeling is that the direction of LotR is not particularly likely to recapture my imagination: the recent announcement of the final Saga pack hit all the wrong notes for me, with Yet Another Frodo, Yet Another Aragorn, Doom going up to 100, and more Epic Multiplayer mode –I’m not wanting to say that these things are inherently bad (I really liked the 1 game of Epic Anuminas I played, but realistically, getting that many people together is unlikely to happen often), and I’m sure many people were very excited by the announcement, but for me this game falters when it tries to go too big. I’ve been much more excited in the past fortnight by the announcement of the next Deluxe for Arkham, and for the absolutely gorgeous Legend of the Five Rings.

It feels to me like this game has more-or-less run its course. I could definitely see an argument for a second edition but, honestly, they’d have to pull something fairly spectacular out of the hat to convince me to buy it.

 

Going Into the West

I still love Lord of the Rings the Card game, and it’s almost certainly the game I’ve played most over the course of my life, and it’s still a game I play a lot – but these days that’s a couple of plays a month, rather than 3 or 4 a week. I’ll finish the current cycle of APs and get the final Saga box for completeness sake, but I’m not sure whether I’ll keep buying after that – I’ve got enough from recent months that hasn’t been played at all, and plenty from before that which has been played, but has plenty of scope to be revisited. Even if I never bought another LotR LCG product again, I’ve got enough cards to last me for years.

 

RelaxedNed As most people probably guessed from my last post, I became a father in February. Gaming time is more limited these days – Ned can’t really manage peekaboo yet, so I think LotR will be beyond him for a few years, and blogging time is harder to find as well. Lord of the Rings is already competing against Arkham, Zombicide, Pathfinder, Aeon’s End, Elder Sign, Marvel Legendary, Destiny, Dice Masters, and Mansions of Madness to name but a few, even before I decide whether to get into Runewars, Gloomhaven or Legend of the Five Rings. Honestly I can’t see myself getting back to a position any time soon where I’m spending enough time on Lord of the Rings to warrant writing a blog about it.

I’m not going to take Dor Cuarthol down, but I don’t anticipate writing much more here any time soon. If you’re interested in my thoughts on gaming in general, then I’d recommend following my newer, more general blog, Fistful of Meeples – it’s also quite quiet right now, but I generally manage to post at least one article a month. Maybe in time I’ll even post a Lord of the Rings article or 2 there.

 

Thanks again to everyone who has read over the past 3 years. I wish you many more hours of happy gaming.

 

This is the END.

I am going.

I am leaving NOW.

GOOD-BYE!

 

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Places We’ve Been – Voice of the Ringmaker

after a slightly longer pause than intended (I blame starting a new job), it’s time for the next installment in the Locations review.

the-voice-of-isengard-matt-stewart-watermarked

In the interests of full disclosure, I should let you all know that The Ringmaker cycle is probably my least favourite so far – I never really liked the time mechanic, the Dunlendings felt thematically off, and it failed to deliver on early promise of finally fleshing out the Rohan trait.

For this article though, I’ll do my best to put as many of those personal gripes as I can aside (I can’t promise 100% success), and focus on the locations of the cycle: how they worked, when they were hideously convoluted, and the positive aspects.

 

Taking the Hobbits to Isengard (gard, gard, gard…)

The Deluxe itself- Voice of Isengard – laid the foundation for 3 fairly distinct settings in the campaign: the plains around Isengard itself, the wild hills of Dunland, and dark and ominous forests. Interestingly, comparatively few of the locations from this box actually found their way into the later adventures, with the enemies and treacheries being the cards more commonly carried over.

broken-lands-locationOne of the few encounter sets which did show up repeatedly, was Broken Lands. First appearing in the Second Scenario, To Catch an Orc, it had 3 copies of 1 hideous location, the eponymous Broken Lands themselves. Whilst they only had 2 threat, they were a chunky 6 progress to explore, and has a passive effect which prevented progress being placed on locations in the staging area whilst they were in the staging area. The rest of the locations in that scenario were, actually, not that huge (average threat/progress of 3), but there was one – Methedras – which boosted the threat of all the others, and things could swiftly get out of control. Essentially, once you drew Broken Lands, you had to travel and clear it, before you drew another copy – in high-player counts, an early one of these basically meant instant location-lock.

The Woodland setting for into Fangorn kept threat on locations moderate, but required high numbers of progress to get anywhere.

The Ringmaker

Moving on into the cycle proper, the non-unique locations were generally not the central focus of the quests – although some, like The Three Trials, still hit you hard with the 3 non-unique, but only copy each Barrow locations, with an average threat of 3, and 8 progress required. Others like the Dunland Trap or The Antlered Crown spun on a quest-card mechanic that somewhat dwarfed the impact of individual cards in the staging area.

Trouble in Tharbad

decrepit-rooftopsEasily my favourite scenario of this cycle was Trouble in Tharbad – it got a bit of stick when it came out (especially from some of the power-gamers) for being too easy, but in my book, that was a significant part of its charm: this was a scenario that allowed enough scope for players to try different things out, rather than just charging full-tilt with an aggro deck at everything. (it’s worth remembering that this is around the time that the One-Boromir-to-rule-them-all deck first came to prominence).

Tharbad also had some brilliantly simple and thematic locations. The Decrepit Rooftops sent all the enemies back to the staging area (you are hiding on the roof), whilst the Streets of Tharbad gave all the enemies -20 engagement cost (what do you expect walking down the road in broad daylight?)

Bogged Down

finger-of-glanduinThe trouble with Tharbad is that it was followed up immediately with the absolute slog that is Nin-in-Eilph. The positive about this quest, is that it captured very well the feeling of trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost. The problem is that trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost is a fairly miserable experience – it isn’t really one which you want to recapture accurately! Finger of Glanduin acted like a reverse Northern Tracker, eating away the progress on locations, whilst Sinking Bog gave characters -1 to all their stats for each Item they had.

By the end of the cycle, the complexity was really starting to stack up. Celebrimbor’s Secret saw locations destroyed, which got them out of the staging area, but powered up some really nasty quest effects. The Antlered Crown was a fairly early experiment with separating the locations and (some of) the enemies into separate decks, it was a constant nightmare for attempting to keep track of all the different passive effects and triggers. Amongst all that, you had a pile of locations with time counters on, whose power to hurt you far outweighed their modest stats. As always, credit to the designers for their innovation, but by-and-large, these quests felt like a bit of a miss to me.

Number-crunching the Ringmaker cycle is slightly difficult. For one thing, the classic strategy of just about keeping your head above water until you can get a couple of Northern Trackers out and watch the locations go away was rarely viable in a quest that featured time, or in one which featured the Broken Lands. This was a cycle where you had to power quest every turn, take the big attacks on the chin, and be ready to hit back twice as hard. As such, the actual difficulty posed by the locations was probably greater than in a quest pre-time-mechanics where the average threat and progress values were the same. For that reason, the numbers generally look fairly reasonable: average threats around 3, with progress requirements probably nudging a bit closer to 4, it doesn’t look like a major step up from Against the Shadow, but it certainly had the potential to feel that way.

Giving hope to Men

idraenAt least the Ringmaker cycle did give some scope to allow the players to tech against all these nasty locations. A new hero, Idraen was probably the first to interact directly with locations, and her ability to ready after a location was explored allowed long-neglected cards like Strength of Will to make a come-back: if you can travel to a location which only needs 2 more progress, this card essentially allows her to explore it for free.

Along with Idraen, the first of the scouts, we got some early support for the scout trait, in the form of the Warden of Arnor attachement. Once attached to a questing scout Hero, this placed a progress token on the first location revealed every round.

StriderThis card always felt a bit lacklustre to me: it draws my mind back to a “Strider” custom hero I made several years ago, a Spirit version of Aragorn who acted as a Thalin for locations, placing 1 progress on each location revealed whilst he was questing. Given the size of modern locations, I really don’t think that the card would have been overpowered if it had done this, and my lack of enthusiasm is unlikely to change, but it is at least cheap enough that if you’ve got a scout who’s going to be questing every round, there’s little reason not to slap it on her.

Aside from these two, there wasn’t really a lot more on offer for dealing with locations: Ringmaker saw the rise of the Silvans, talented multi-taskers, and sneaky little blighters, but with little in the way of direction location control. It did lead to a bit of a revival for the Lorien Guide, who was good at whittling away active locations, but did little for the staging area.

Final Thoughts

Ringmaker is still the cycle I look back on with the least fondness, and was the point at which I first let slip my ongoing aim of beating all new quests at least once with 1, 2, 3 and 4 players. The locations are more irritating than intriguing, and apart from Tharbad, they didn’t particularly interest me.

However, the Scout trait got its start there, and this was probably the first time we really got focused location-control decks (3 Spirit Heroes + 3 Northern Trackers doesn’t count), and those can still be used 2 or 3 cycles later, with the hills of Dunland far behind us, so it wasn’t a dead loss.

That’s about all for today, but I’ll be back in a week or 2 to take a look at the locations in the Saga boxes which represented The Two Towers.

Places We’ve Been – The Fellowship of the Ring

Moving sideways from the regular Deluxe and AP cycles, I want to think today about the locations in the Saga boxes that recreate the events of the first 2 Lord of the Rings books – Black Riders and the Road Darkens.

Black Riders was the first time we had seen the events of The Lord of the Rings itself directly represented in card form, and the box came with an almost ready-made new deck, the Hobbits who rely on low threat, and gain powerful extra effects when they take on foes who would not necessarily have noticed them. For that reason, the box is a favourite with many fans, but how do the quests themselves measure up?

rider

Hide!

Taking the idea of low-profile Hobbits and pushing it to its ultimate conclusion, the first scenario centred around the Hide test – another one of the “exhaust characters, discard cards from the deck, and hope you’ve beaten the arbitrary number that comes up” mechanics that appear as one-offs in quests. Many of the locations tie-in directly to the hide mechanic, making tests harder or easier, or simply requiring you to take another one of the tests.

ffg_bucklebury-ferry-tbrThere are quite a lot of locations in the first quest, and this becomes particularly problematic when you reach the final stage and are attempting to travel to the Buckleberry Ferry – this unique location is immune to player card effects, and can only be travelled to if there are no other locations in play. In our experience, this can lead to round after round where you smash the questing, but can’t clear enough locations in 1 go to be allowed to travel (there is some help available from the quest card, but in 4-player it’s often not enough).

 

Knives in the Dark

ffg_the-prancing-pony-tbrMoving on to Bree, there are more unique locations, starting with The Prancing Pony and proceeding on through Midgewater, to finally end up at Weathertop itself. The unique locations give shape to the overall narrative of the quest, and have fairly powerful effects, both good and bad. This pattern is continued in the Flight to the Ford, where the Last Bridge and Ford of the Bruinen draw directly from the books for their abilities.

 

I like the fact that the designers produced an expansion so obviously grounded in the source material, and some effects are pure narrative gold – there are few finer feelings in the game than exploring the Ford of the Bruinen and discarding a whole host of Nazgul.

ffg_ford-of-bruinen-tbrThat said, the decision-making in this box often felt very constricted: many of the unique locations are put into play by quest effects, or need to be explored before the stage can be completed. As such, whilst we see these iconic locations as we go along, there’s actually fairly limited interaction with them – you travel when you have to, and explore them once you’ve mustered enough progress. That’s about it.

 

The Road Darkens

the-great-bridgeBox 2 (for book 2, none of this nonsense about Lord of the Rings being a Trilogy) felt to me like they’d managed to strike more of a balance with the locations – the fact that we had already spent so much time in Moria meant that the designers had already had plenty of chance to play around with mechanics that might represent the Doors of Durin or the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, and these certainly felt like the refined version. The first quest out of Rivendell could well prove to be the death of the hobbits, as damage is scattered across locations, triggering in turn cascades of nasty effects.

The mines are really well done as ever – confusing passageways, and labyrinths which soak up your progress. Darkened ways which might reveal more enemies, or even a nice, defensible guard-room to make a brief stand. Obviously The Great Bridge is the centre-piece and it’s hard to argue with the thematic win of casting a hero into the abyss to remove the Balrog’s keywords – that said, I remain disappointed by / in denial of the notion that the Balrog only has one keyword. It never occurred to us when we first played it that “Immune to Player Card Effects” wasn’t a keyword, and I won’t allow FFG to take away the brilliant moment when we finished off the Balrog with a lone attack from a Mirkwood Runner for the last 2 damage.

seat-of-seeingThe final quest returns to the stacked sequence of unique locations, and gives you very little choice over what to do in the early rounds, along with providing heavy punishment for certain deck-types. Whilst the initial stages can get annoying though, I’m generally prepared to give them a pass, because I’m such a fan of the way the latter part of the quest is done: I really like the multiple staging areas, and the way cards move between them, it felt like a clever way of representing a party scattered across a fast-flowing river, and made for an enjoyable experience. In campaign mode, the Seat of Seeing adds another fun element of decision-making, as you have to weigh whether to stall the quest a little longer in an attempt to get rid of those burdens.

Reflections

pathless-countryOverall, I think the first 2 Saga Boxes for Lord of the Rings did a really good job of capturing the flavour of the books, and the latter box in particular managed to convert them into enjoyable quests to play. Although these two boxes relied quite heavily on having cards that were unique to each quest, I actually thought that some of the most interesting locations came in the sets that were shared across multiple quests, The Old Road and Pathless Country. Both of these offered fairly low-to-middling stat-lines, but combined them with effects that forced players to make choices – The Old Road can be gone in a heartbeat, if you take on the peril of another Burden. The Pathless County can be left and tracked over the course of several rounds, but it will take a long time, due to those conditional extra progress tokens – this type of mechanic, where players are given meaningful choices definitely scores them points in my book.

 

What about us?

lorien-ropeOne thing that the Fellowship of the Rings boxes didn’t really offer a lot of, was new cards for players to deal with locations – in fact, there was nothing within the standard card-pool that would allow us to manipulate threat, progress, or effects on locations. The “Lorien Rope” Boon provided a powerful effect, reducing the threat of every location in the staging area by 2 for a round, but to trigger it, you had to remove the card from the campaign pool, so it wasn’t something you could really rely on, even in campaign mode (and wasn’t available at all outside of it).

One card that was interesting was the Elf-Stone: this actually added to the number of progress required to explore a location, but allowed you to put an ally into play when it was explored. This required some set-up – it could only attach to the active location, and only the first player got to place the free ally, so there was a danger that it would fail if not triggered properly, but with a bit of coordination, it allowed that low-cost, low-threat Hobbit deck to put Gildor, Faramir, or Beorn into play for a single Lore Resource and an extra willpower in questing.

 

Overall, the Fellowship boxes were good. I’m not a fan of Shadow of the Past, due to the way you can so easily get stuck on stage 3, and Bill Ferny is more trouble than he ought to be, but from a locations perspective, these boxes are a particular high-point in conveying the designers’ love of the source material. I think that the second box is better in terms of how enjoyable the locations actually make the quests to play and having re-visited the cards to write this article, I’m keen to actually re-play some of these quests soon.

The Old and the New

“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”

Some thoughts on both of Fantasy Flight’s Cooperative LCGs

robert-baratheon

and of course, smashing people in the face with Robert Baratheon…

About 6 or 7 years ago now, I used to play the Game of Thrones LCG – first edition. There was a lot I liked about the game: the overall mechanics, the deck-building aspect, the way the card-pool was constantly refreshed, with new options becoming viable and, above all, the way that the game took a world that I was a fan of from the books, and allowed things to be played out in game form.

There were problems though: I played the game a few times at home, but my wife didn’t want to deck build, and soon got tired of the one-sided games which resulted when I knew every card in her deck, and she had no real notion of what was in mine: I attempted to introduce the game to others too, but had similar problems. None of the people I knew were sufficiently big on both Game of Thrones and Card Games to get into it heavily, and it just didn’t work as a casual game.

Giving Hope to Men

Then

Then something happened: Fantasy Flight Games announced something new – a cooperative Living Card Game set in Middle Earth – taking that little-illuminated period between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the day Frodo sets out from the Shire, this was a game that would allow players to make their own adventures in this world.

lord-of-the-rings-lcgI bought the Lord of the Rings LCG the day it came out, and loved it. We made some stupid mistakes to begin with (counting the threat of engaged enemies was a big one), but gradually we figured out what we were doing. I played it solo, with my wife, and with groups of friends in 3 and 4-player. For years I bought every product that they made for this game, although after the first few cycles, I gave up on the Nightmare decks.

When a new pack came out, I would instantly look to play the quest, and to build with the player cards. I made a point of using every hero at least once, even if there were obvious favourites or duds, and played all the different deck-styles that came along.

Now

Fast-forward 5 and a bit years, and things have changed a lot: the game is harder, it’s deeper – with much more complex board states, and it’s generally just more involved. Any thought of “1 deck to rule them all” has long since ceased to seem plausible, and more-and-more, each quest requires a deck specifically tailored to its demands. The sheer number of different deck-types that are possible has multiplied beyond imagining.

Even something as simple as playing all the heroes has become a challenge. Historically, I’ve given myself the goal of winning at least one scenario with each new hero – specifically that means it’s got to be me piloting the deck and, as noted, that I need to win. At the time of writing though, Spirit Beregond, Cirdan, Elfhelm, Tactics Eowyn, Na’Asiyah, and Tactics Imrahil are all failing on this count (although I have had success with the new Legolas and Gimli)..

unusedThere is some mitigation to this: Beregond, Cirdan and Eowyn have all brought success for my wife and other players in our games, and Elfhelm has attempted several quests, even if he’s not actually managed to secure victory.

Looking back over the records of the past years, there are 5 heroes who have been used over 100 times, and a further 8 who have hit the table more than 50 times. By contrast, the most recent heroes are struggling to see victory at all – from the latest deluxe/ AP cycle, only Denethor has made it past 5 wins, and only Damrod out of the last 2 Saga boxes. To put this in a broader context, the only older heroes played fewer than 5 times are Dori, Erestor, Spirit Pippin and Tactics Theoden – 3 of which are useless, and one 1 which is just a bit too fiddly for me (Erestor).

I’m still plugging away at LotR, trying to get it back to the table more often. After 36 games in the first quarter, it dropped off – only 5 in the second quarter, then back up to 15 for the third. Final quarter is currently at 25, but with a little time left on the clock. Compared with 2015, where 30 was the lowest count for any quarter, there’s clearly an issue of overall reduced play-count: less than half as many games as last year.

At times this year, I’ve definitely approached quests in a state of near despair, learned helplessness. Whichever deck(s) I try to bring prove themselves completely unsuited for the task, and the sheer number of possibilities out there, half of which aren’t really viable, is just a bit too overwhelming to know how to carry on. When I build a deck and it doesn’t work, is it because I’ve brought it to the wrong quest? Or because the deck needs changing? – if the deck does need changing, there are just so many good cards out there, that it’s nearly impossible to know which to include.

 

Arkham

arkham-lcg-boxArkham Horror the card game is also a cooperative LCG from Fantasy Flight, and it shares a designer along with several recognisable features with LotR. That said, there is also a lot about it that’s different.

For one thing, Arkham has only been out a month or two, and there is currently only the one product available, the Core Set (there are two print-on-demand scenarios out there somewhere, but they haven’t reached the UK distributor) – that means that there are only 5 Investigators (the closest equivalent to LotR’s Heroes) and only a very small pool of cards for them to build their decks from – in fact, unless you have bought 2 copies of the Core Set, you can’t really do any deck-building worthy of the name.

skids_o_toole

You could be next…

This translates fairly directly into hard numbers: so far, three of the investigators have been played in 4 games, with Skids and Daisy reaching the dizzier heights of 11 and 12 games – one of them may yet be a Lore Glorfindel waiting to happen, but for now there’s no room for passengers.

Deck-Building in Arkham is very different from LotR – decks are smaller, and you can only have a maximum of 2 copies of a card, rather than 3. The game is designed for campaign play from the outset meaning that, instead of the Treasurers or Boons which we’ve seen in LotR (Cool but frustratingly limited in when you can use them) you have “upgraded” cards designed to make your deck more powerful as it goes. As I noted in a recent article over at Mythos Busters though, the card pool is currently so small that there are very few high-level cards in play, making character class a lot less important than it feels like it ought to be.

Since I first decided to get this game, it’s been my hope that it would act as a positive for my LotR deck-building. The reminder of what it feels like to play a brand new LCG, to be building decks with only the barest number of cards makes you appreciate the embarrassment of riches that we have in the veteran amongst Co-op LCGs.

Death?

There has been a lot of discussion on the internet since the announcement of Arkham about whether its arrival heralds the death knell of LotR. This is hardly surprising: people have been convinced that the game was dying long before this came along.

On a more cynical note, FFG are devoting a lot of resources to developing their Arkham line at the moment, and it would make a fair amount of sense if that led to cut-backs elsewhere. However, all the indications in the past have been that LotR sells well, and it would seem unlikely that they would get rid of a product line that makes them money.

lost_islandIt’s quite easy to see the mark of LotR in Arkham – the way locations are done in this game definitely feels like it got a test-run in the Dreamchaser cycle, and the end result is a more polished, cleaner implementation – hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to see the favour returned: concepts piloted in Arkham, and then put to use in LotR. Game of Thrones LCG recently hosted their Battle of the Trident event, where players were able to cast their votes for the development of a particular trait in the game’s future. Anyone familiar with the history of the Legend of the Five Rings games (soon to be re-booted as an FFG LCG), will know that having the player-community influence the long-term direction of the game has long been central to this IP. To me this definitely feels like the designers are testing the waters for a way to have community-driven content in an FFG game, and I don’t think anyone expects them to abandon AGoT any time soon.

 

My hope for the future, is that the arrival of Arkham will strengthen the world of Co-op LCGs. After all, there are twice as many of them as there were last year! I hope it will lead to new ideas and innovations at designer level, and on a more personal note, I hope that playing each will remind of the things I like about the other, increasing my enjoyment of the old along with the new.

mumakil

I think it’s fairly certain that we’ll get the Haradrim Cycle and the final Saga box to finish off the Return Of The King. Beyond that, I don’t know, any more than anyone else without FFG insider contacts does: I think that there’s still scope to keep expanding the game (I’m still holding out hope for a Maglor objective ally), but even if they did stop printing new content, I think that there’s so much out already that we could keep playing for a few years yet. I certainly don’t have any intention of abandoning this blog any time soon, even if there are inevitably things which get in the way of posting quite as often as I’d like.

 

I’d be interested to know whether other people have picked up Arkham, and where you feel the future of the 2 games lies…

 

Places we’ve been – part 3

Heirs of Numenor was the second Deluxe expansion for Lord of the Rings, and the starting point for the third cycle of the game’s life.

Heris.jpgOstensibly the biggest change in this cycle came with the new mechanics: Battle and Siege, which turned the game on its head as characters were required to quest using their Attack or Defence respectively, rather than their traditional Willpower. It was also, perhaps a last hurrah for the idea that this game was primarily based around Spheres of Influence, rather than the “Tribal” themes which drew together decks of mostly Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim, or Gondor, as the player-card pool received a series of cards which supported players running Mono-sphere decks.

However, in keeping with our ongoing series, I wanted to focus more today on the locations of the Against the Shadow, to trace the commonalities which remained and the subtle changes which came in.

Heirs

Heirs of Numenor itself contained several punishing quests: a brawl in the streets of Pelargir, a chance encounter with a Haradrim Army on the road through Ithilien, and finally the Siege of Cair Andros: each of these quests plagued us with new, brutal enemies and ghastly treacheries (Infinite Loop of Blocking Wargs anyone?) but the locations were also a significant part.

market-square

The art looks so innocuous

The urban locations of Peril in Pelargir look fairly innocuous at first glance, but they had a few nasty tricks up their sleeves – for example, the 1-progress location with the highish threat, a resource cost to travel, and an immunity to player-card effects. Having this kind of immunity on a non-unique location which just came out of the deck at random was a new and disturbing twist. It was combo-ed with the City Street, essentially a modern-day version of the East Bight – it only required 2 progress to explore, but it had double the threat, and that same requirement which meant you had to travel to it.

ithilien-roadStarting Active Locations with unpleasant effects were also a big thing in this cycle. Whereas earlier in the game’s life we had tended to see these locations start in the staging area, now it became more common for their effect to be in play from the word go – whether that be the Leaping Fish churning out enemies turn after turn, or the Ithilien Road ensuring that if you couldn’t win the quest by at least 4 on turn 1, all of those Haradrim enemies were coming to get you.

In terms of the overall stats, the locations in Heirs weren’t all that different from earlier cycles: average threat and progress values, at least for the non-uniques continued to hover around the same level. What had changed though, was the tricksyness. Instead of bringing Asfaloth and co and completely nullifying the issue, you now needed all those tools just to keep on top of things.

Against the Shadow

the-fourth-starThe Against the Shadow cycle itself saw a wide variety of locations, any many of them reflected that quest’s unique: Underworld in the Steward’s Fear, Villagers in Encounter at Amon Din, Hidden Cards in The Blood of Gondor. Even when the keyword itself was not directly carried across, there was a stronger sense of thematic tie-in in this cycle: for example all of the resource denial in Druadan Forest to complement the Prowl Mechanic, or the wat that locations in The Morgul Vale tried to add progress to To The Tower, or else simply flung things back to the staging area in order to slow the players down.

garden-of-poisonsThe overall effect of this was to make locations something that was much more of an issue than in earlier cycles – you certainly could just track away most of the places you went in the Steward’s Fear, but if you did so, there was a very real danger of getting suddenly ambushed by a large number of enemies from the Underworld deck. If you didn’t come with ways of dealing with the Druadan Forest, the Woses and their accompanying treacheries suddenly took on a rather fearsome aspect, with Threats of X and high archery totals. Encounter at Amon Din was largely an exercise in exploring as many locations as possible as fast as possible: Mostly low-threat, high progress, they look like ideal targets for the Northern Tracker, were it not for the Villagers burning alive round-by-round.

the-old-bridgeProbably the most notable Quest of the Cycle from a location perspective though, was Assault on Osgiliath. This was ostensibly a street-fight, a back-and-forth tussle to take the city, street by street, location by location. When a location was explored, the players took control of it, potentially bringing a benefit, but more commonly just another condition they needed to watch out for which could see that control lost if they left an attack undefended or a character was destroyed.

The lone quest card prevented progress from being placed on locations in the staging area, meaning that players needed to find lots of tricks to juggle locations around if they were to have any hope of exploring more than 1 per round, although some flat-out banned you from travelling there, instead having their own built-in mechanics to acquire progress.

retake-the-city-1bThe overall objective for Assault on Osgiliath was to control all the Osgiliath locations at the end of the round and, as originally printed, it was rather broken – you could choose the starting location which had the action “exhaust a hero to place a progress here” and then use Boromir to take control of it in a single turn. This got “fixed” in the Nightmare version and, even before the official changes, most people only used this trick once then got bored, and looked for other ways to beat it.

Overall, the locations of this cycle posed more challenges than those in the Dwarrowdelf – it wasn’t necessarily that the numbers were much higher: average progress requirements were up to averages of 3 or 4, only a little higher than Dwarrowdelf, and threats, for the most part, were no higher. The big difference this cycle was the greater synergy to the encounter decks overall, a different emphasis on punishing the players for things that seemed like they should be positives.

This One’s For the Players

As the problems caused by locations slowly ramped up in difficulty, the Player Card pool began to lag behind, with almost nothing appearing in this cycle to help the players out with location control.

a-watchful-peaceThe Heirs deluxe box probably contained the most direct attempt at location control, A Watchful Peace – this was a spirit event which allowed players to return innocuous locations to the top of the encounter deck after they left play – interesting, but hardly powerful.

Of course, with the advantage of a few year’s hindsight, the power of a Caldara deck has become fairly clear, and being able to jump multiple Northern Trackers or Lorien Guides into play in a single turn certainly shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of dealing with locations, but really, it was just accelerating the arrival of existing tools, rather than really giving us new ones.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the Against the Shadow cycle felt like it offered a sharper set of locations – locations that really felt like integral parts of the quests they came in- the difficulty certainly increased, and the proliferation of new in this quest, never seen again mechanics could be a bit frustrating, but overall the part played by locations in these quests was good.

 

Join me next time for a hurried, panicked dash through the locations of the Ringmaker cycle

Sailing Away

It won’t have escaped your attention that the Grey Havens box and the Dream Chaser cycle that followed it, featured boats. Perhaps not as many boats as we first expected, but sailing has certainly been a feature of the most recent cycle and, having completed City of Corsairs a couple of days ago and seen the final bit of sailing we will have to do, I thought it might be a good time to take a bit of a look back, and see how the sailing had been overall.

thesea

To The Sea?

To be honest, there haven’t been as many sailing quests as I first expected: there was the first quest of the Deluxe, Voyage Across Belegaer, the first AP of the cycle, Flight of the Storm Caller, then a prolonged period where we were either on a ship but not sailing it (Thing in the Depths) or simply back on dry land (Temple of the Deceived, Drowned Ruins). A Storm on Coba’s Haven returned us to the waves, and the first part of City of Corsairs saw the Dreamchaser off for one last hurrah – only 3 1/4 Sailing quests all-told! When the cycle was first announced, I certainly had the impression that there would have been far more of these, but given the need for the ships that came in the Deluxe (not to mention that the next cycle involves a desert), I’m not holding my breath for any more (any chance of a camel with the “ship-of-the-desert-objective card type? …)

Having reached the end (presumably) of new shipping content, I want to look at how it changed the game: with our ships, the encounter deck ships, and other things which came along into the bargain.

Friendly Ships

There are 4 ships included in the Grey Havens box – one, the Dreamchaser is always part of your fleet when you are sailing, and is the compulsory first pick. Once one player has taken the Dreamchaser, each other player chooses one of the remaining ships to take, and in solo you get a second ship for yourself – at best, this means picking 1 or 2 out of 3 possibilities to use (once you’re using all of them, it no longer really feels like a “pick”) and more often than not assembling your fleet just becomes an argument about who gets lumbered with the Dreamchaser.

There are certainly a selection of interesting effects available from the ships, but as I say, the choice does feel limited – I’d assumed we would get additional ships during the cycle, to give us an incentive to go back and re-play earlier quests again, but the original list was never expanded upon.

narelenyaAs we’ve played this cycle mostly 2-player with a little bit of solo, it’s generally been about choosing a single escort for the Dreamchaser, and  the choice has almost always been Narelenya. The once-per-round cost reduction of an ally is a really powerful effect in almost any deck, and it’s particularly true of my wife’s current Gondor deck, and of course, my tried-and-tested solo deck: Play as many Dwarves as you can.

Of the remaining two ships, the extra card-draw of the Dawn Star is obviously very useful, but +3 starting threat is a heavy penalty: most decks I build either have too high a threat already for this to be safe, or else have a particular reliance on their low threat (secrecy, reliance on non-engagement of enemies etc), and can’t afford the bump.

silverstarOn the flip side, threat reduction is nice, as offered by Silver Wing, but is the +1 attack per hero worth it? Potentially with the difficulty of Corsair bashing this is one we should investigated in more detail but I can’t recall ever using this solo or 2-player. Perhaps a Lorgaron deck might be able to get better mileage out of, but for us it never felt worthwhile. It would actually be quite nice if you could leave out the Dreamchaser, and have Dawn Star and Silver Wing balance each other out in solo, but sadly this is never an option.

Enemy Ships

As well as the player-controlled ships there were, of course, also the enemy ships, and typically these were fairly big, nasty, beasts.

light-cruiserMost Ship enemies had a few things in common – big stats, the “Boarding” Keyword, and limited interaction with other player-card types.

The big stats make sense. A ship is a significant thing, and it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be only hitting as hard as an orc. Likewise, the limited interaction with player cards: only a ship you control can defend against a Ship enemy.

The squire of the citadel might be able to stand in the path of horde of Dunlendings, or even a few Undead (and by “stand in the path” I mean “occupy them for a round whilst they brutally slaughter him”) but the idea that he’s going to hold up a ship for a noticeable amount of time is a bit more of a stretch: he’ll either be dragged under, or smashed by the timbers, either way, the Squire is ending up dead and the crew of the boat probably doesn’t even notice.

The biggest problem I had with ships though (generally), was the Boarding Keyword: essentially, a requirement to engage a Corsair Enemy whenever you engage a ship. Again, this makes a lot of sense thematically: when your boat tries to fight another boat, you’ll probably find that there’s a crew to tangle with, so I can’t fault them on that front. The execution though, was rather different.

For one thing, I’m never a great fan of anything that requires me to divide the encounter deck into two different decks: the card-backs are all the same, and it’s all-too easy to get the cards mixed up, or put something in the wrong discard pile, and find them getting shuffled into the wrong deck. “Extra decks” have been an ever-more-common feature of the game as its life has gone on, and they always feel fiddly.

umbar-raiderBeyond that though, it just made the burden of combat feel too uneven. We’ve played quite a few quests this cycle combining a fight-y Gondor deck and a Spirit Questing deck – once the Spirit deck has properly got set up, it has some decent combat potential (Idraen and Lanwyn are amongst heroes, and it also runs ally Glorfindel, Northern Trackers and Rhovanion Outriders) – against a normal enemy or two, it can handle a fight. What it can’t deal with is a massive boat AND a few random pirate enemies thrown in on top, especially when many of those pirates have resource-stealing mechanics which make them more and more powerful if you can’t kill them in a single round. Even for the Gondor deck, defending a ship with their ship, defending a handful of Corsairs and being expected to strike back again, is a major problem – if you don’t have Boromir the Steward of Gondorian Fire set up, along with a bucketload of threat-reduction, it’s just not feasible, and that’s coming from a deck that’s designed to be able to handle combat.

cunning-pirate

Not too bad if he only discards Cram, but otherwise can get pretty nasty.

As well as being uneven, the Boarding mechanic also increases the sheer number of cards you have to deal with each round: It feels like a particularly cruel trick on the part of the designers to finally give us some limited consolation against surge, in the form of Lanwyn, then bring in a mechanic that does all the nasty aspects of surge without actually bearing the keyword (and therefore not triggering her ability.)

In a lot of ways the Corsairs felt a bit like the Dunlendings – they’ve taken a really interesting idea, tying together a group of enemies with a particular theme/mechanic, but then putting it on top of base stats that are simply too high: someone like the Cunning Pirate is likely to be starting at 4 attack, 4 defence, 4 hit-points, and the Umbar Raider only needs to survive a round or two before he’s going to be smashing clean through anything and everything that comes along to stand in his way: not a nice prospect for someone who always arrives as part of a crowd.

Sailing

Whilst you’re dealing with all these million enemies, it’s worth remembering that you also need to sail: it’s easy enough to forget with only that little keyword tucked in to the side. If you only learn one thing about sailing quests, make sure it’s this.

Make sure you always pass the sailing test.

If you’re on-course, a lot of the location / treachery effects in these quests really aren’t that bad- some of them won’t do anything at all. On the other hand, if you’re even slightly off-course, you can expect to be battered, bruised and broken as the waves toss you in all directions.

As sailing is one of those rather frustrating “reveal X cards from the encounter deck and hope you do / don’t find a random symbol printed in the corner” type checks, you regularly have to over-commit in order to ensure you stay on course (even scrying is of fairly limited use unless you happen to hit a success on the very first card), leaving you without the excess hands you’d need to deal with all the other things going on. In some quests, the proportion of cards in the deck which actually counted as a pass in the sailing test was so low that once I got knocked off course (for example to avoid a ship returning to the staging area and re-boarding me next turn), it was almost impossible to pull it back.

moreships

The fact that the Dream Chaser can commit to sailing tests even when not controlled by the first player does help a little with smoothing, but I’m still not sure I can see the logic thematically – given that each player is notionally on their own ship, Sailing Tests feel like they should be done by the whole party, rather than player-by-player, and it certainly feels galling later on in the game having to put in a 5 willpower ship to the sailing test when a player who isn’t doing the check has a couple of 1 or 0 willpower guys sat around twiddling their thumbs.

Final Thoughts

For all my curmudgeonly thoughts, I’m glad that the designers are still trying to be innovative with how they approach the game. For me, sailing was an area where they didn’t quite hit the mark, but things could certainly have been a lot worse. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems fairly certain that the Sands of Harad will be fairly light on oceangoing vessel, but I look forward to seeing what new perils they have in store for us instead.