A Balrog of Morgoth (What did you say?)

Last year, there was a small flurry of controversy around a particular card in the Lord of the Rings LCG, namely The Balrog.

So far, we have seen 3 official versions of what is essentially the Balrog in this game – The Nameless Fear of the Khazad Dum Box, Durin’s Bane from Shadow and Flame and finally The Balrog from The Road Darkens.

The-Nameless-Fear All of these have been significant foes: The Nameless Fear had attack, defence and threat as X, where X was the number of points in the victory display, and the scenario actively pushed cards into that display. It had 27 hit points, and was immune to player-card effects. It wasn’t technically unkillable, but as it could not be engaged and was immune to play-card effects, it might as well have been. This first iteration didn’t really interact with you directly, it just loomed in the dark, contributing threat, and possibly smiting a hero at short notice.

Durin's-Bane Moving forward to Durin’s Bane, the stats had crystallised at 4 threat, 6 attack, 3 defence and – once again, 27 hit points. This time it had gained additional powers, in the shape of “regenerate 3” (a round-by-round self-healing ability) and “indestructible.” This keyword – so far seen only on Balrogs, Dragons, the Watcher in the Water, and – most recently – Old Man Willow, meant that simply accruing damage equal to its hit points would not kill it, and you had to use a built-in-to-the-quest mechanism to tumble it down a pit. It also attacked each player every round, unless you had some kind of threat-gain avoidance, or a blocking card.

the-balrog The third (and presumably, final) version, saw the Balrog unveiled in all its fiery terror. Finally having its real name displayed for all to see, the threat has risen to 5, the attack to 8. Defence is a whopping 9, although the hit-points are tempered slightly to 25. This Balrog was also indestructible, it was automatically engaged with the first player (and them only) and both the Balrog and its shadow cards were immune to player-card effects. The only chance for the heroes was to outrun it, or for a hero to sacrifice themselves on the bridge of Khazad-Dum to damage the Balrog and strip it of its keywords.

This is where things got messy.

The exact text of The Great Bridge is as follows:

Response: When The Great Bridge is explored, discard a hero from play to deal X damage to The Balrog. X is that hero’s threat cost. Then, The Balrog loses all keywords for the remainder of the game. Any player may trigger this response.”

The-Great-Bridge

So then, what keywords does it lose?

I think (hope?) that it’s easy enough to agree that the second paragraph on the Balrog is not a keyword

“While in the staging area, The Balrog is considered to be engaged with the first player and only the first player can declare attackers against The Balrog.”

That leaves only the first Paragraph which reads as follows:

“Indestructible. Cannot be optionally engaged. The Balrog and shadow cards dealt to The Balrog are immune to player card effects.”

That seems to offer us 3 possibilities for “keywords”

  1. Indestructible
  2. Cannot be Optionally Engaged
  3. Immune to Player Card effects.

For us, it seemed clear that it meant all three. After all, we’ve just sacrificed a hero to trigger this effect – unless you’ve got some Fortune or Fate shenanigans up your sleeve, their services are lost to you for the entire campaign. (Theme says you should use Gandalf, a long-view suggests that Fatty Bolger might be a more prudent option).

It was one of the highlights of our recent games to play this scenario and, having got 22 damage on the Balrog, drop in a Mirkwood runner, boosted up to three attack by Celeborn and have him slice through the Balrog’s defence for the win.

Mirkwood-Runner

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. After some arguments on the forums, and an amount of nerd-rage that might surprise anyone not familiar with either Gamers or Tolkien enthusiasts, FFG issued an official clarification in an FAQ that all that disappeared was “Indestructible” – the reference to Keywords seems to simply be future-proofing.

So, our victory was a false one, the designers have ruled and that is – of course- their right. However, as I reach the end of what has become a very long pre-amble, it does raise questions to me regarding the complexity of the rules of this (or indeed any living) game.

The Hall of Beorn’s Card search for the Lord of the Rings LCG currently lists 28 different key-words (assuming you treat “Time 1,” “Time 2,” “Time X” etc as one keyword) – of these 3 are from Ian’s First Age expansion, leaving 25.

Some of these are core features of the game- It’s hard to imagine the LCG without “Surge,” “Doomed,” “Ranged,” or “Sentinel.” Others, like “Time,” “Siege,” or “Battle” have come in for particular periods of the game, before diminishing as they go into the west. There have also been large numbers of keywords which appeared for only a single scenario, before disappearing – “Hide,” “Prowl,” “Villagers,” or “Underworld.”

The oddity though, is what it takes to qualify as a Keyword. Consider, for example a Hide Test from Black Riders, vs an Escape Test from The Dead Marshes. Superficially, these are very similar: at points dictated by the quest, you exhaust characters, discard cards from the encounter deck and compare a random figure. However, “Hide” is a keyword, whereas “Escape” is a trait. (Apparently)

Evil-Crow

If you come to Lord of the Rings from the world of competitive games like Magic, then this level of nuance is probably not a problem for you- in high-stakes competitive games, there are always going to be rules-lawyers, and you need a suitable amount of precision to deal with it.

This game however, as we’ve so often said is co-operative. Whilst it certainly has depth and complexity, to a greater extent than Magic, or even than one of Fantasy Flight’s Competitive LCGs, it should be an opportunity for players to come together and enjoy a game immersed in the flavour of the world Tolkien has created. I know I have certainly introduced this game to people I would never have considered trying to teach Game of Thrones to (I don’t play Magic, and I think my wife and my bank manager probably want it to stay that way…)

Giant-Marsh-Worm The-Watcher The constant challenge for the designers is to keep the game fresh, and one of the ways they do that will inevitably be via new mechanics.

Equally, there is clearly a time for taking a concept previously tried and streamlining it. Compare the Giant Marsh worm with its rather long-winded “Forced: Remove 2 damage from Giant Marsh Worm at the end of each round” with the Watcher in the Water’s “Regenerate 2.” Both do exactly the same thing. The ability on the Watcher takes a lot less space, allowing other ideas to be placed on the card – however, it also requires you to understand what “Regenerate” does in a way that the Marsh Worm doesn’t.

For the most part, I think the designers have the game about right- given the number of things they need to be able to do, and the inevitably of some errors making it through even the most strenuous play-testing, the number of clarifications we have in the FAQs seem reasonable. At the same time, we are now dealing with a 17-page document, which is unlikely to be read, let alone remembered by casual players.

I don’t really have any suggestions as to how the designers can best manage the complexity of this game, and the balancing of intent vs function on new cards. However, I do think that they need to make sure that this game remains accessible to new players as well as those of us who have been in from the start, and hope they keep it in mind.

A Question of Theme

Recently, we had a LotR night at our local games shop. The plan was to test the relative merits of Elves vs Dwarves.

legolas-gimliInevitably, there were issues – I was providing the decks for three players, and the other two don’t deck build. One guy came by himself, and another two came with a pair of decks. In the end, we split into two threes, our table had a single dwarf deck and a pair of elves (although not the matched pair that had been built to go together), whilst the other table had the matched pair of dwarf decks and a lone Elven offering.

Aside from the inherent difficulty of deciding which was “best” we uncovered some fairly fundamental differences of understanding around what constitutes a “theme” deck. As I commented last time, I’m not happy building a Rohan deck with a non-Rohan hero in it (not that it can’t be a good deck, it just isn’t a “Rohan” deck). Equally, I’d raise an eyebrow or two at a deck where all the heroes, but none of the allies, attachments or events keyed into the particular theme.

Beyond that though, I think there has to come a point where practically being able to play the game overtakes questions of pure theme. My Dwarf swarm, to my mind, was a legitimate dwarf deck – Dain, Thorin and Ori, with allies including Fili, Kili, Gloin, Longbeard Elder, Orc-Slayer and Mapmaker, Erebor Record Keeper and Hammersmith. Legacy of Durin and Hardy Leadership are the key attachments, whilst it was Lure of Moria that enabled me to smash through two guardians before they knew what had hit them on stage 3 of the Three Trials.

However, at no point in the building of this “dwarf” deck, did I feel under any obligation to leave out Gandalf – in a deck without spirit, threat reduction is always an issue, and when you have access to sneak attack, leaving him out feels even more bizarre. I also threw in a Warden of Healing or two (although the non-unique character hate in Three Trials made this invariably a waste of time). The only characters I actively avoided were Elves in the Dwarf decks, and Dwarves in the Elf decks.

Northern-TrackerBy contrast- at the next table, a player was rebuked for having a Northern Tracker in their deck (a deck I had built, using the logic above), and when they drew Gandalf were instructed to discard him and draw a replacement. The Errand-riders, who could have smoothed the distribution of the resources being generated by Steward of Gondor, were also ruled out – although interestingly, Steward of Gondor itself was allowed to remain within elf-land (I had almost swapped it out for Ian’s “High Kingship of the Noldor” which does the same thing, just with a different thematic twist).

In large part, the issues we had are about how organised play works – if one part of a group has a discussion about what to do next time, a second group (containing some, but not all members of the original discussion, plus a few extras) then talk about it on the Facebook group, and a third group (containing all the previous folk plus a few more) turn up to play, then obviously there are going to be communication issues, but what I’m wanting to think about, is what makes for a good “theme” deck.

Part of this will, inevitably, tie-in to difficulty – if you are one of those unusual folk who find this game too easy, then deliberately tying your own hands to impose a very narrow limit on what you can include in a deck could be a good way of doing this: If you are playing Passage Through Mirkwood, with a matched pair of well-honed decks using the full card-pool up to the end of the Ringmaker cycle, then a ban on any character other than a Dwarf might be a sensible option. On the other hand, if you’re going for a three-player pick-up game of a Gen Con scenario, or something out of the Ring-Maker cycle, then this level of difficulty probably isn’t necessary.

Eagles-of-the-Misty-Mountains

Fly you Fools!

As far as the thematic relevance of these odd characters goes, the issue gets a little fuzzier. Gandalf was quite prepared to shove his nose in wherever he felt like it, and seems a fitting figure in any deck, whether it be themed around Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim or Gondorians. Even the most marginal deck-type, such as Eagles can accommodate Istari amongst their ranks comfortably. It has always struck me as ironic that the Gandalf from the Hobbit box is more like the Gandalf we see in Lord of the Rings (here for the long-haul, very powerful, but likely to attract the attention of the enemy) whereas Core Set Gandalf clearly draws inspiration from The Hobbit. (shows up, fixes things, disappears again).

Others could be considered on a case-by-case basis. A group of Silvan elves wandering the wilds of the North could easily have one of the Dunedain amongst their ranks (maybe they’ve been taking the advice from Thranduil at the end of the last film…) On the other hand, you have to admit that a Warden of Healing is probably less likely to go wandering in the woods, more likely hanging back in Minas Tirith – but even then, the presence of this old man on your journey is no more improbable than the Steward of Gondor and a Hobbit together facing down Smaug the Golden.

This, I think is where the difficulty lies – for this game to allow us to play as our favourite heroes from the books, it requires us to suspend our disbelief somewhat. Consider Passage Through Mirkwood, in which the players are delivering a message from Tranduil to Galadriel (or is it the other way around) – this is just the sort of task you might assign to Beravor and Thalin, possibly even to Elladan and Elrohir, but you can’t really imagine Theoden and Denethor doing it.

Personally, I still plan to keep building “thematic” decks. By thematic, I mean that the heroes, and many of the allies / events / attachments will fit into that theme. However, if there’s a card that makes a deck work that much better, but comes from elsewhere, I’m not going to leave it at home. Horn of Gondor will be in my Rohan decks and my Silvan decks (although possibly not my Gondor decks…) Steward of Gondor will continue to crop up in any deck with Leadership in.

My approach to this game has always been that having fun is more important than strict adherence, either to the rules minutiae when it comes to timing, or even to the more extreme constraints of theme on deck-building. I’d be interested to know others thoughts on these issues, but ultimately, I don’t plan to change much any time soon.

(Ro)Han Solo

Most people who have been reading this blog for a while, probably won’t be particularly surprised to know that, for a long time, I’ve been trying to put together a good, Rohan, true solo deck. My first aim was to solo the whole of the Mirkwood cycle with it, trying out some of the campaign-style modes that fans have created, before moving on to see if it can survive in the big wide world.

The problem is, that there has never really felt like there was a viable solo deck buildable. Various things were tried without success, and gradually the (Ro)Han Solo deck became more and more of a dream, less and less likely to hit the table. A mono-sphere deck is always tricky for solo: a Spirit deck is going to struggle for combat, and a tactics deck, even with Theoden, is probably going to come up short on will-power (not to mention cancellation and threat reduction). It might be possible to plug some gaps with one or more of the custom cards I’ve created, but at least initially, I wanted to do it the official way round.

Back in the autumn, I created a tri-sphere deck that I hoped might be up to it – Eowyn for questing, Eomer for killing things, and Theodred for resource acceleration. Unfortunately, it was still a bit lightweight- chump-blocking is good up to a point, as lots of Rohan things synergise off of characters leaving play, but eventually you’ll need a decent defender – with “eventually” being about turn 3, if you’re tackling Journey Down the Anduin. As a tri-sphere deck, it also struggled to get allies out, particularly on turn 1, as there just aren’t that many 1-cost allies around.

There was also a question of theme – Increasingly I was convinced that the best Leadership hero for my Rohan deck was Prince Imrahil. Now admittedly, if you’re going to have a non-Rohan hero in a Rohan deck, the father-in-law of the King (Eomer, not Theoden) seems like a sensible choice, but it still felt a bit wrong. If you start with Imrahil, where do you stop? – Gondorian shield, Knights of the Swan? All could potentially strengthen the deck, at each step, wandering further from the initial aim.

Erkenbrand

Fittingly, fresh hope came for the beleaguered Rohirrim with the arrival of Erkenbrand in the final pack of the Ringmaker Cycle. A starting 3 defence allowed him to block small / medium enemies out of the gate, with his ally accomplices adding a little more backbone to the deck as a whole, whilst maintaining the in-sphere access to Steward of Gondor, sneak attack etc. Finally, it seemed, we might have a solo Rohan deck ready to take on the perils of Mirkwood.

The first iteration I came up with was a bit flabby (most of my decks end up 60+ cards) and it lacked for card-draw (making it good against Dunlendings), but it was a good enough place to start.

Do you not know?

Do you not know?

It’s worth pausing for a moment at this point to consider what exactly it is that I was expecting from this deck – aside from being able to make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs! – My current expectation of a successful (Ro) Han Solo deck, is that it will cope fine with Passage Through Mirwkood, and probably be ok on about half of the other Mirkwood quests. I worry about Dol Guldur, as a captured hero could choke things completely, as well as the trolls of the Carrock, the Healing (and ranged requirement) of Rhosgobel, and the Threat of Return to Mirkwood.

Han

When it came to the actual play-testing, things ran less smoothly than I might have hoped. I got through Passage Through Mirkwood ok, but came up short against Journey Along (or is it “down,” they never seem entirely sure) the Anduin. The opening Hill Troll, which has to be engaged on turn 2, is just too much of a problem – twice I lost all 3 of my heroes (the turn where Evil Storm wiped out 5 characters, including all three heroes was particularly special) and only once did I successfully make it through to stage 2 in order to threat out under the weight of that second card per turn.

Unfortunately, the deck feels pulled in too many directions. Chump-blocking is always dangerous against a Hill Troll, just because of the huge amount of threat you have to swallow, and even with Dunedain Warning in opening hand, Erkenbrand can only really defend it once.

As far as I can tell, to even have a hope in this quest, you probably need the troll to be the revealed card in set-up. You then need some early treacheries that just mis-fire completely, and/or a benign location or two – that way, with a lot of luck, you can quest on turn 2 with an Escort from Edoras who leaves play, use Erkenbrand to pay for an Envoy of Pelargir, transferring the resource to Eomer. He then feints the Troll, and with Firefoot, attacks for 7, plus two from Erkenbrand, putting six damage on the Troll. At the start of turn 3, sneak-attack Gandalf finishes the troll off, and you’re good to go.

This is all your fault...

This is all your fault…

The sheer amount of luck involved in this sequence of events is mind-boggling, and makes it clear that there is simply no way this deck will ever beat the second quest. Aside from lack of combat power (and questing, due to constantly having to chump-block), I noticed that this deck either ran constantly short of cash or – if you managed to make Eowyn Steward of Gondor, ran out of cards – I therefore threw in a few mathoms, having taken out some cards like Elfhelm, which were never likely to see the table. It helped – as did the fun combo of letting Eomer smash some Eastern Crows, then use Firefoot to carry the damage over to the troll, but not enough. This deck just wasn’t going to cut it.

Even before the dismal failure of the first incarnation, I had realised that some quests would prove beyond me, I thought I’d look at some alternatives for the specific quests. The most obvious one to me that was most likely to throw a large spanner in the works is Journey to Rhosgobel, and I thought I’d have a look at combatting this by swapping in some Lore. The focus of the deck means that I basically have to pick Leadership as the sphere to be dropped, and the determination to keep this thematic, means that Grima comes in, standing on the far , where Eomer can keep his eyes on him, well out of the way of Eowyn.

Too long have you watched my sister

Too long have you watched my sister

Without Leadership, I need an alternative way to deal with resource acceleration, and in a solo deck with Grima, “Doomed” seems the obvious choice, with a copy or two of the Keys of Orthanc. Although typically a card I avoid as being too expensive, Forest Snare suddenly looked like a plausible answer to over-sized enemies which might come my way (this isn’t ideal for the Carrock Trolls, as their powers rely on being engaged with you, but anything which avoids multiple attacks of 5 or 6 has got to be good). Healing was going to be a definite necessity – it’s one of the obvious drawback of this deck in its non-Lore version, along with card draw.

Even with this alternative version, I still felt that a sidebar was required for Rhosgobel – events for healing rather than allies (due to the “remove from game” requirement) along with some eagles to cover the combat against bats and flocks. I even threw in Radagast as (hopefully) a means of eagle acceleration, and a last-ditch method for eagle healing.

All this, though, is getting ahead of myself. I still needed to test out the deck on some more normal quests. Once again, the result was the same. The deck coped well with Passage Through Mirkwood, the addition of healing (when I could draw it) made it much more solid in combat, and the card-draw was nice too. I did get a bit concerned by threat, but never actually threated out.

Out on the banks of the Anduin though, it all went wrong again. I managed to kill the troll a few times, and the mix of attack, healing and blockers made me at least feel like it might be possible to eventually clear this quest (maybe 1 time in 30 as opposed to 1 in 100 for the previous deck) but I just don’t have the time for that many play-throughs.

Wormtongue

It’s been interesting building, and testing these decks, even though it’s delayed this article by a few weeks. Sadly though, I don’t think there’s a properly viable Rohan True Solo deck out there. Hopefully Treason of Saruman will come with a new version of Theoden that will spring things into life, but for now, it will have to be left to others to fight on alone.

Difficulty Project – The Black Riders

When I first posted about my plan to come up with a new difficulty rating system, I was fairly clear on the two elements I was going to be focusing on –

  1. Number of players, and
  2. Whether or not a deck was custom-built for that quest.
In 4-player, a couple of these can get nasty REALLY quickly

In 4-player, a couple of these can get nasty REALLY quickly

I’ve read numerous reviews and descriptions which have been done carefully and thoughtfully, but by players who only play solo or two-handed solo, and the game-play experiences they describe just don’t match up to mine. Quests like Druadan Forest were being rated as easy to the point of boredom, whereas in 4-player, it can often end in violent and bloody death as the various encounter deck effects synergise to steal all your resources, then deal damage, or raise threat for each resourceless hero.

The player-scaling is still something I’m very keen to include, but it was soon fairly obvious that rather than focusing on generic vs custom-built decks, there was more of an interest in the difficulty of a quest when building with a full vs limited card-pool.

Evidently, this makes a fair amount of sense. By and large, difficulty ratings are probably going to be of interest to new players who haven’t played quests, more than they are to people who have already played every scenario ten times. Likewise, new players are unlikely to own all the cards needed to construct the most powerful decks, which draw on cards from a dozen different expansions. It’s impossible to predict the order in which cards will be acquired, but a reasonable work around, is to use the notion of cards available at point of release.

For practicality’s sake, I’ve decided to simplify the question of an existing, or “limited” card pool a little – for Core Set quests, the card pool is the core set, simple enough. For the Mirkwood cycle, I’m grouping them all together- so whether it’s Hunt for Gollum or Return to Mirkwood, the “limited” card pool will be core set + those six adventure packs. Likewise, for anything in the Dwarrowdelf, I’ll work on the basis of players owning Khazad-Dum and the six decks following it – partly, this is because I think it reflects the way the designers have designed the cards, and partly because it makes it more feasible for me to build decks to test.

For the Saga expansions, I’m also going to do a bit of lumping – I’ll do the 6 (maybe 7 if I’m feeling brave) Hobbit quests, using only cards from the core set and the two Hobbit boxes. For Black Riders and The Roads Darkens, I’ll similarly be lumping together.

Ever-VigilantThe Lord of the Rings Saga boxes were where I decided to start, and I built up the suggested decklists from the notes inside Road Darkens. This is a pair of (roughly) matched decks using Aragorn, Sam and Pippin on one side, Gandalf, Fatty and Merry on the other. It was certainly an interesting experience- cards like Ever Vigilant had been gathering dust in the box for months, if not years, and probably good to challenge some of my deck-building assumptions (I generally go “3 of” if I’m bothering to include a card).

That said, it was still fairly obvious that these were not the most powerful decks that could be built, even within this broad archetype – there were various times when we found ourselves wishing for other cards – Expert Treasure Hunter, Ring Mail, some kind of Song for the tri-sphere deck, cards that would clearly have made life easier. The difficulty, then, was definitely affected by the building restrictions.

In terms of the quests themselves, here are a few thoughts below:

Shadow of the Past

Before we get started, I’ll say up-front that this has never been a favourite scenario of mine, Hide Tests are a pain, but they pale into insignificance against the challenge of getting the staging area free of locations so you can actually travel to Bucklebury Ferry. This becomes more of an issue, the more players you have.

Bucklebury-Ferry

For a two-player game, this turned out not to be too bad. Having mostly Hobbits, we were painfully aware of our combat limitations, and focused instead on questing past the Nazgul most of the time, and being forced to pay serious attention to the Hide Tests – very thematic. We had a Northern Tracker out to keep the staging area relatively location light – although we still had to travel to pathless country when it came up, but all-in-all, whilst this was often tense, it was manageable.

  • Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 5/10

A Knife in the Dark

I believe I’ve said in the past, this is another quest which winds me up somewhat – Bill Ferny is annoying, I fully appreciate that. However, what he isn’t, is a boss-level baddy. Bill Ferny is the sort of enemy who can be dealt with using nothing more than a well-thrown apple, which makes me fairly irritated when he turns an awkward quest into nigh-on impossible.

MidgewaterIt took us several attempts to manage this one, with Bill shuffling in his extra Nazgul, no access to things like Hands Upon the Bow to take him out in the staging area, and actually worse than that, Midgewater, which locked up the staging area a few times, allowing us a brief respite from being killed, but only replacing it with location-lock and massive threat instead.

We eventually managed to clear the early stages with some good starting hands, and a really big push out of the gate, enabling us to reach- and then clear Midgewater before the staging area got too rammed. Even then, the sudden wave of Nazgul which hits the instant you get to Weathertop is fairly horrific, especially for a Hobbit-heavy party (aside from the presence of Gandalf, Hobbits + Strider is about as thematic as you can get for Weathertop), but we managed to survive the first wave, thanks to some stalwart defending from ally Boromir, and gradually managed to whittle them away for the win.

Overall, a hard-fought victory, requiring a lot of luck

  • Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 9/10

Flight to the Ford

As I’ve said at length on previous occasions, I’m not a great fan of the rush, rush, rush quests. That said, this is one of the ones which I feel works better. The “Ringbearer’s Life” mechanic provides an over-arching maximum time-limit for the quest, with nasty effects that can bring it down / force you to make difficult choices, without tying so tightly into a given quest stage that it becomes impossible.

The fact that it is a rush definitely favours fast decks – this deck has a fairly even spread, not really producing masses of willpower, even once the allies are out, although key attachments can make all the difference (Hobbit Cloak, Gandalf’s Staff etc). The burden cards are also a bit hit-and-miss: some can let you off fairly lightly, whilst others are simply devastating.

The Ford of the Bruinen is a particularly interesting twist in this quest – I suspect that at times, it may be easier to ignore it, and deal with the quest normally. However, thematically, I struggle to bring myself to do anything besides engaging as many Nazgul as possible, then exploring the Bruinen to wash them away.

Ford-of-Bruinen

The fact that this quest is always over fairly quickly makes it feel easier than Shadow of the Past, which invariably drags on for a while. Looking at it more closely though, and considering some of the cards that can wipe you out (not to mention the sheer fact that it features the Witch King), I think it ultimately deserves a harder rating.

  • Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 6/10

That gives me my first 3 ratings for the scaleable difficulty project- obviously, these are only my own opinions, and the project will become a lot more useful as we build up a bigger stock of data. I’ll average out scores sent in by others, and update a table over time.

As much as I’m tempted to just provide difficulty ratings for everything at once, so that the starting position is a bit less bare, I’ve decided not to, as I want to re-play each scenario as I rate it – I’ll continue to produce a series of these articles, somewhere between play-through and review over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, please feel free to send any ratings in, or just generally let me know your thoughts on the quests.

2014 – some thoughts

I started this blog last Spring, with only a very limited idea of what I was going to do with it. I had been playing Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game since its launch a few years ago, was impressed by the extent of the online community for the game, and wanted to be more involved – I had considered applying for the vacancy for a new co-host on Cardboard of the Rings which had recently appeared until I realised that, living in England, I would need to record at about 2 in the morning. Podcasting by myself wasn’t a particularly appealing prospect, so I decided to opt for a blog instead. I initially tried to put content out at one article per week, before realising that this wasn’t particularly sustainable, and moving down to an average of around fortnightly.

Last week, WordPress sent me an email saying that the blog had been viewed 10,000 times in 2014. Even allowing for a few hundred views which I can write off as me refreshing pages to check they had uploaded correctly, that was a pleasant surprise: there were various points last year, when I started to suspect that I was writing solely for my own benefit – most of the time, I’m not even sure whether my wife (who I hold entirely responsible for my Lord of the Rings addiction) is even reading these, never mind anybody else.

These are not the dwarves you're looking for...

These are not the dwarves you’re looking for…

Last year saw some interesting changes in LotR play for me – for one thing, we got ourselves hooked on the Pathfinder ACG, which probably saw Lord of the Rings take a major hit in terms of amounts of play time, but it also saw the start of a regular(ish) organised play group at our friendly local gaming shop.

This was the first time I’d ever played the game with people who I hadn’t taught the rules to – it proved an interesting mixture of seeing cards and combinations used that I’d never have thought of, with the challenge of suddenly having to co-ordinate decks and heroes, rather than just grab any set of decks out of the cupboard. I think you know you’re involved in a pick-up game, when the heroes of you dwarf deck are Thorin, Ori and Celeborn!

https://hallofbeorn.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/history-absent-but-not-forgotten/Organised play also meant a bit of a divergence in custom cards – on the one hand, doing this blog gave me the impetus to think a bit more concretely about the custom cards I periodically design, and to actually get some of them printed out. On the other hand, ensuring legal decks to turn up at an official event for has occasionally involved last-minute panics, and arriving with a barely-functional elf deck that relies on the now-absent Celebrian ally to function properly (apparently Hall of Beorn isn’t an official FFG site)

The year to come looks good for Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game- I’m looking forward to The Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Treason of Saruman expansion, combined with the new Erkenbrand (technically he’s already out, but no sign in the UK yet) and the next cycle set amongst the Dunedain in the North. The biggest items on my want list are a new version of Theoden (Leadership probably, although I could see Lore) and an objective ally Maglor appearing in the Lost Realms! (ok, this is never going to happen, but I may make one anyway…) The multiplayer difficulty rating system is turning out to be a much bigger project than I’d imagined, but I’m still optimistic of getting something in place that can be a useful resource for players.

lotr-dice_buidling_play-area

Although you (or I) might easily forget, this isn’t solely a blog for the LCG, but for Lord of the Rings related gaming generally. Hopefully this will be the year where I finally get enough time to play enough games of Middle Earth Quest to work out a variant with a shorter run-time (bit of a vicious cycle here, if the game was shorter, I’d be able to play it more often, then I wouldn’t need to create a shorter variant…) I also hope to spend more time on the Lord of the Rings Dice-Builder and see whether there’s potential here for a Lord of the Rings Dicemasters (It’s an idea I’ve seen mooted on Board Game Geek – I suspect it won’t work, but I still want to try). I also hope that this will be the year when I finally get round to doing as much work for Ian’s First Age project as I always intend to.

Thanks to all who read, comment, like and follow the blog – it’s always nice to have feedback, especially when the feedback is helpful / constructive. I’d also encourage people to like the Facebook page, as it’s a much less unwieldy way of posting short notes, comments, and updates from game company websites without needing a full article – I’d love it if we could get some proper conversations going on there this year.

Wishing you all a good year of gaming.

Twelve Days of Tolkien

On the first day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: One Ring to Rule them all

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

On the second day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Two Glorfindels and a Ring to Rule them all

Not only Fantasy Flight’s LCG, but Tolkien himself had two Glorfindels in his work – the first was the Captain of Gondolin who killed a Balrog during the fall of the city, buying enough time for Tuor, Idril and Elendil to escape. His body was born away by Thorondor, lord of the eagles, and buried. Yet by the time of the Battle of Fornost (3rd Age 1975) Glorfindel was again on hand to see the overthrow of the Witch King of Angmar, and prophesy that his ultimate downfall would not come at the hands of a man. This Glorfindel was also the rider who rescues Frodo and brings him safely to the Bruinen (No, it wasn’t Arwen). Given that Tolkien stated that Elven names are unique, this has caused a great deal of confusion as to whether the first figure in fact returned to Middle Earth from the Halls of Mandos. Either way, it seems only reasonable to be still allowed to play Glorfindel in campaign mode after having him die once…

On the third day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

The jewels wrought by Feanor in Valinor contained the light of the Trees, from before the rising of the Sun and the Moon, and drive most of the major plot elements of the Silmarillion. Eӓrendil the mariner bears a Silmaril on his brow as he sails the heavens as a star, whose light was bottled in the phial of Galadriel, and given to Frodo.

On the Fourth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Obviously there were many more Hobbits than four, and this number does leave out The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins himself, but The Fellowship of the Ring contained just the four.

On the Fifth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Watching the latest film instalment, we were struggling to work out exactly which five this was – Men of the Lake, Elves of Mirkwood, Dwarves of the Iron Hills, Orcs of Gundabad and the Eagles? (this somewhat ignores Thorin’s company, Beorn, and the Dol Guldur Orcs)

On the Sixth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

During the first age, Beleriand was repeatedly the site of many conflicts between the forces of Morgoth and the armies of Elves and Men. However, six battles stand above the others as the “Great” battles of the Age – stretching from the first struggle of the Sindar and the Laiquendi against Morgoth, before the coming of the Noldor, all the way down to the Sixth battle, during the War of Wrath, which saw the Valar return to Middle Earth, to smite down Morgoth and destroy Beleriand entirely.

On the Seventh day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

It always amuses me that there are Seven Dwarf families in Tolkien’s work. In case anyone is interested, Snow-White would be “Lossëa” in Quenya, although I’m not aware of a character by this name…

On the Eighth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Eight Aratar-a-ruling, Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

The Aratar were the greatest of the Valar: Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë.

On the Ninth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Nine Riders Riding, Eight Aratar-a-ruling, Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Known simply as “The Nine” who else could it be for this day?

On the Tenth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Ten Black Cats of Beruthiel, Nine Riders Riding, Eight Aratar-a-ruling, Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Beruthiel was a Queen of Gondor in the middle of the Third Age, a Black Numenorian who spied on the people of Gondor by means of her cats, until she was eventually exiled from the kingdom and set sail past Umbar. Without spoiling with too much detail, the Against the Shadow Cycle of quests allude to various aspects of the legacy of the Black Numenorians.

On the Eleventh day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Eleven Jackson Oscars, Ten Black Cats of Beruthiel, Nine Riders Riding, Eight Aratar-a-ruling, Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Return of the King won an incredible 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I doubt that The Battle of Five Armies will be troubling the judges to the same extent…

On the Twelfth day of Christmas, Tolkien gave to me: Twelve Tarn Aeluin Outlaws, Eleven Jackson Oscars, Ten Black Cats of Beruthiel, Nine Riders Riding, Eight Aratar-a-ruling, Seven Dwarves-a-mining, Six Beleriand Battles, Five Armies. Four Shirelings, Three Silmarils, Two Glorfindels, and a Ring to Rule them all

Many remember Beren as the first mortal man to wed one of the elder children, but he could not have had so high a Doom had his father, Barahir, not survived in the wilds as an outlaw, along with his eleven companions.

Merry Christmas from Dor Cuarthol!

Score, Difficulty, and Keeping Track

For some, a large part of the beauty of the Lord of the Rings Card game was the simplicity – you could just pick up a deck, set-up a quest, and go.

Glorfindel_MagaliVilleneuveThe more the game goes on, the harder this becomes: quests are built with more and more specific requirements, requiring players to tailor their decks, the multiple versions of unique characters make it ever more likely that players will have clashes with both trying to use the same hero (probably Spirit Glorfindel) and, as if that wasn’t enough, now there’s Gandalf Guy, showing up with his hero to make Ally Gandalf unplayable for the entire game.

Another issue with this game, which may seem unrelated, is that of the score. The score system is fairly simple: T+W+D-V+10R (where T = total of players threat, W = total damage on heroes, D = threat cost of dead heroes, V = victory points + R = number of rounds).

Many people don’t really bother keeping score- so long as nobody’s threat hits 50, and the heroes aren’t dead, a win is a win.

Stats

Player 2’s name deleted, so she doesn’t have to admit to knowing me…

I like spread-sheets.

I have a spread-sheet which logs every game of LotR LCG I’ve ever won. It gives the quest, the date, the heroes used, the scores. It has averages for each player of scores, spheres used and the like. It even has pie-charts: It keeps track of all the things I used to record on the FFG online quest log before I got fed up with its unreliability and the fact that I could only log myself, not the other players in the game.

I’m writing this, not to shatter any illusions anyone might have had about me being cool (come on, this is Lord of the Rings Gaming Blog, you knew I wasn’t cool), but to show you that I was always going to be the sort of person who kept score. Other people, obviously are very different – some simply don’t like the idea of keeping score, others might like the idea, but find the current scoring system too crude. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are quests which are intrinsically unfriendly to scores- anything where the structure of the quest imposes additional rounds for a start: The current score system is based on the false assumption that all quests are created equal.

Caught-in-a-WebAll quests are not created equal – from the very inception of this game, the designers have recognised that, and quests are given a difficulty rating: Passage Through Mirkwood was a 1. Journey along the Anduin, I believe was a 4, and escape from Dol Guldur is a 7 or 8. On the face of it, that seems reasonable – Passage is a fairly generic introductory quest, Journey begins with a Hill Troll in the staging area, and Escape sees one of your heroes captured, a limit on the number of allies which can be played, and a Nazgul.

However, stepping back a little, the difficulty rating system is far from perfect: Whilst Passage may seem simple, it has plenty of cards that can cause serious difficulties for players: Caught in a Web, Ungoliant’s Spawn, or the ever-unpleasant Necromancer’s Reach. The notion that this is the easiest quest which ever has been or will be is clearly wrong.

this is AFTER the errata to make it easier...

this is AFTER the errata to make it easier…

Perhaps the most notorious for the comedic nature of their difficulty ratings are the Heirs of Numenor quests- generally regarded as a fairly brutal collection of quests, one of these was (bafflingly) rated as a 4! – If you find Blocking Wargs and the Southron Company (in a battle quest, with a location that gives them a zero engagement cost) no more of a challenge than a single Hill Troll and the occasional Dol Guldur Orc, I’d love to hear from you.

Difficulty is also a concept which cannot be separated from scaling – some quests are simple solo but impossible in four-player, others may be the reverse. Some quests can be approach with a generic deck that has some questing and some fighting, whilst others need very specific builds – this is becoming increasingly the case as we go along. In the Mirkwood cycle, Journey to Rhosgobel was probably the only quest which required custom deck-building, due to the need for Healing events and ranged attacks. These days, each new quest will probably need at least a tweak to your deck, if not starting from scratch.

What I’d like to see is a more elaborate difficulty system – one which gives each quest somewhere upto 8 difficulty ratings – 1, 2, 3 or 4 player, and with “generic” decks, or custom-built ones. This would give a difficulty sufficiently meaningful that it could be incorporated into a score system. Ultimately, it would be possible to actually compare players’ success in one game to that in another, despite the fact that they had been playing different quests with different numbers of players, and different decks.

Ultimately, I’m not really sure whether this is particularly practical to achieve. The amount of play-testing needed to generate these ratings this far in to the game would be phenomenal. The game designers have shown no particular inclination to do it, and I strongly suspect that I don’t have the time – but I’m going to try anyway. I’ve created a whole new section of the website outlining the project – I’ll be posting this on Board Game Geek and other places, but it will live or die by the amount of response i get from the rest of the community.

You might ask what the point of all of this is –  am I just bemoaning a lack of something which only I want? I can still tell that a two-player game of Passage Through Mirkwood in which we finish we a score of 208 and 4 heroes had died went rather less well than a 4-player game of Steward’s Fear where we finished with the same score. I can continue to keep track of scores in my own spread-sheet, and create whatever modified systems for doing so I wish.

The problem is though, that there is still a meta for this game, even though it may be less easy to define than for the competitive games with their tournaments. As I’m noting in another article, the fact that nobody keeps score is part of an issue in the rise of “turtle decks,” leading in turn to a major shift in quest-design that narrows the field of options for players. People might not feel like they’re particularly missing out in not having a score system that’s widely in use, but the fact that there isn’t one has a massive impact on the way quests are designed for the future.

I’d be interested to know whether others keep records of their play-throughs of this game, what systems they use, and whether there are any variations that you can see as being feasible to introduce?