Are We Having Fun?

I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game since it was release, back in 2011. Aside from some more recent Nightmare packs, and last year’s GenCon Quest (which hasn’t reached the shops here yet) I own every quest released, and I have always considered this to be one of my most-played games.

Going out of Fashion?

Recently, I had a sense that this game wasn’t getting played as much as it used to, so I decided to run the numbers and check:

AveragesIf I want to go all the way back to 2011, I only have figures for how often I won this game. In this context, long-term numbers look healthy. After an initial wave of excitement, gameplay really fell off in 2012 (not coincidentally, 2012 was when I started my first real job), but then rose year-on-year for the next three years. 2015s average was over 9 plays per month. 2016 has been quiet so far: only averaging just over 4.5 wins per month by the end of the first quarter.

Figures for the number of times this has actually hit the table are slightly harder to get at, as I only have these logged from Christmas 2014 onwards. In this light, 2016 doesn’t look so barren: 14.6 last year down to 10.7 this year.  However, if you take out the 17 failed attempts I had at beating Battle of Carn Dum over a single weekend in January (I’m considering getting a new version of Thaurdir printed with a white whale as the artwork), it plummets.

I was also interested to see the shifts in the number of play-counts for games over the years. Again, it fluctuates, but overall, solo is on the rise, whilst big-group games have been in decline for a while now.

At the end of the day, that’s quite a convoluted way of saying that I definitely do still play this game, and whilst I’m not playing it as much currently as I have in the past, the shift isn’t cataclysmic.

Fun?

Despite all of that, the question I’ve been asking myself more recently, is whether I’m still enjoying it? I had a vague sense that whenever a new quest came out, I was more struck by the trial of having to take on a new quest, and figure out how to beat it than I was excited about getting to build with the new player-cards.

I think it’s definitely the case that quests over the past year or so have increasingly presented unique challenges, and that it isn’t possible to beat nearly as many quests with One Deck to Rule them All as it used to be- it’s also the case that quest difficulty generally seems to be getting harder, which is bad news if you’re as bad at deck-building as I am.

War-Pig-Front-Face

Sorry Peter Jackson, no war-pigs in organised play…

Once a month (health and basic organisational competence permitting, and so far in 2016 it hasn’t!) I play LotR LCG at the Friendly Local Gaming Store- I’ll be providing 1 or 2 decks (mine, and my wife’s if she’s around) and playing with a mixture of other folks who turn up with their own decks. The rest of the month, will mostly be playing at home, 2-player or solo games, but with the possibility that occasionally some friends will come round wanting a 4-player game, and I need to work out at short notice whether I have 4 decks which can all play together, and what quest they will be able to beat. In practice, this leads to lots of cards being swapped back and forth between decks, lots of cards then being forgotten about (because they got borrowed by another deck and never returned). At home, I use custom cards, both my own and those created by the good people of the internet, but I do then need to remember to take them out when going to more official events.

IncompleteAs it stands, ignoring Nightmare and as-yet-unavailable Print On Demand quests, there are only 2 quests I have yet to complete in 2-player on standard difficulty, 10 needing a solo run, 16 for 3-player, and 19 for 4-player. The part of me that likes spread-sheets (in fairness, that’s most of me) sees the opportunity for a 4-player game, and really wants to win, so I can tick one off of the list, and keep the “incomplete” record down to a single sheet. However, as most people will be aware, winning a pick-up game in multi-player is by no means guaranteed – as often as not, we’ll reach the end of store game night, without a victory under our belts.

Under Pressure

All of this leads to a general, over-arching sense of pressure.  Playing Lord of the Rings stops being fun, and just becomes a chore, something that needs to be kept on top of.

In a recent episode (not all that recent, I was just several episodes behind) of the Grey Company Podcast, several of the team praised the designers for the innovative decisions they had made in designing recent quests, as they felt it ensured that the game stayed fresh, rather than stagnating. I found myself listening and feeling the exact opposite: In recent times, the only time I can recall being actually excited by new quest mechanics were in Escape From Mount Gram and Murder at the Prancing Pony. The rest of the Angmar Awakened cycle, and all the Grey Havens quests just felt fiddly and annoying:

  • 20 more willpower committed than threat in the staging area? – sorry no progress, as that treachery just made it Night again.
  • That undead enemy you killed? He’s back again.
  • There’s a Safe Location over there… never, mind a troll smashed your head in before you could get to it. (the troll revealed from the encounter deck, not the troll who decided to print the Dori Hero)
  • Sailing was a pain: it felt too random, and the swing in difficulty of effects depending on whether or not you were on course was too big (on course, everything is basically simple, off-course, you might as well just give up now).
  • Double-sided locations! That’s cool right? Well no, it just felt awkward really. Another thing not behaving like it should and making it harder to keep track of what’s actually happening in the game.

Now, I don’t want this to sound like I think the designers are doing a bad job – for one thing, there are clearly plenty of people out there who are getting plenty of enjoyment out of the new content, and even without that, the fact that I’m not appreciating the latest things doesn’t necessarily mean that the content itself is bad.

That said, there’s definitely a problem. I only really feel like I can experiment with new decks for two-player games, and even then, a lot of the time, if I want to try out something new, it feels like we’re being funnelled towards a very narrow set of quests that don’t have lots of awkward mechanics.

Too hard, too fiddly

It seems like there are two distinct elements at play in the game: increased complexity and increased difficulty. I’ll say straight out for anyone who’s not familiar with my overall thoughts: this game is too hard.

thaurdir_captainI’ve long since bowed out of getting new Nightmare decks, but even in standard difficulty, there are just too many quests which are nothing short of stupid – Battle of Carn Dum remains the standout example (in 3 or 4 player, unless I see a video or a card-by-card account of a supposed victory, I don’t believe it happened), but the overall trend seems to be for ALL new quests to incline this way.

The problem with making quests this difficult, is the way it constricts deck-building. It is basically impossible to build thematic decks in this game, if you also want to be able to tackle a decent spread of modern quests – now, I’m not saying that every deck should be able to defeat every quest in every player count, but the ratio should be better than it is.

Obviously, there are some very talented deck-builders out there, both in terms of people who build very efficient “normal” decks, and the people who find broken combos, post them on the internet, and inspire an FAQ which spoils the game for the rest of us. This last seems to be another major issue: it feels like when the designers produce a new set, they’re working on the assumption that the only people playing the game are Seastan and the Grey Company.

What’s the game again?

Many people, perhaps most notably Matthew from The Grey Company, have complained about people who limit themselves by refusing to build non-thematic decks. I certainly agree it’s possible to take this too far: “I won’t have a single dwarf in this elf-deck regardless of how good it would be mechanically” is the kind of restriction which will clearly inhibit your deck’s power-level. However, at the end of the day, a lot of people are playing this game specifically because it’s Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason characters aren’t called “generic defending guy 2” or “leadership questing character 1” if you don’t pay ANY attention to theme when you’re deck building, then why play a game themed around an IP in the first place? Why does it matter whether that card I’m trying to take out is an Orc, a TIE fighter, Cthulhu, or a Traffic Warden? There has to be some sense in which this game remains part of Tolkien’s world, or else there’s no point playing a Lord of the Rings card game.

It’s also worth reiterating the fact that this is the only cooperative LCG out there. When I play Game of Thrones, I expect a level of sharpness and complexity to people’s play – if I turn up to a tournament with a poor deck, or not having practised enough and I get smashed, that’s only to be expected. But that’s also why most of the people I know who play Game of Thrones are fairly hard-core tournament gamers.

Silas-Surrounded-Board-Game

I’d still rather be facing this lot than fighting Thaurdir…

Lord of the Rings used to be a game I could introduce to friends with only a more casual interest in gaming, the sort of people who would never consider getting sufficiently invested in a competitive LCG to play it well, and the nature of the game meant that it didn’t matter if I built all their decks, they could still pilot them fairly autonomously, without my increased knowledge of what they had skewing the game balance. That no longer feels like the case – If I’ve got a group of friends over, we’re more likely to have a game of Zombicide, where we feel we can still do things and have fun before dying horribly, than take a punch to the face from the undead armies of middle earth.

Moving On

So there you are: I’m still playing a fair amount of Lord of the Rings – although not quite as much this year as last. Overall though, the biggest problem is that playing this game increasingly feels like a chore, and I need to do something about that.

I could stop playing this game. Inevitably that would mean that this blog came grinding to a halt, which I don’t want to do, but this optional is unappealing for more reasons than that: I’ve invested a lot of time and money into this game over the years, and simply to walk away would be a shame.

I could stop caring about completion. I say that. I’m not entirely confident that I could – having lists to write, quests to cross off, it all gives structure to the meta-gameplay (in case you hadn’t guessed, I’m quite OCD). This might relieve pressure in a sense, but I don’t know that it would bring back the fun.

One obvious possibility is to play more Easy Mode. Already, this seems to be how we have to play quests first time round, but there’s still a part of me that can’t get over the idea that beating a quest in Easy Mode “doesn’t really count.” Of course, from the completionist angle I’d then need to go back and replay the whole of the first two or three cycles in Easy Mode, as it didn’t exist at the time.

MountGramThe thing I would most like to see, is the one thing I certainly can’t see happening: More fun quests like Escape From Mount Gram or Trouble in Tharbad. Interestingly, both of these quests are very different from the basic “just make x progress per stage” and/or “kill this boss baddie,” but the difficulty is low enough to actually have fun building decks and trying out different styles and strategy: perhaps I wouldn’t hate Hide tests, enemy recursion, hand-size hate or whatever else it might be if the quests they came in weren’t already hammering you with so many other things. They would still be able to cater for the masochists with Nightmare decks, but they could stop punishing the rest of us by making them the target audience for the main product-line.

Where do we go from here?

I said above that I don’t think the designers are doing a bad job- but I do think they’re getting the balance of the game wrong, and I think that may be – at least in part – due to the fact that most of the noise on the internet is from the “Too Easy” crowd. That’s a large part of why I’ve written this rather rambling article, instead of just packing up and disappearing – I want to be sharing my opinion that they’re not hitting the right spots.

I’m not quite sure how I’ll proceed from here – it may go a little quiet on here for a while, although I certainly won’t let this be the last post. If I do decide to shut down, I’ll post something properly. Maybe I just need to take a short break from the game, or find some other way to refresh things, who knows…

How fortunate you are that your job is also your hobby

Some musings on Board Games, Blogging, and Growing old.

Darling

In a few short weeks, I will reach the grand old age of 33, my coming-of-age as a Hobbit. Aside from various annual medical tests, and remembering to change the batteries in the smoke alarm, this felt like a time to take stock of life and reflect. Combined with a recent episode of Cardboard of the Rings where they abandoned their typical Lord of the Rings focus to enthuse about their other favourite games, this put the idea into my head to offer a few musings on my gaming experiences, and life more generally.

Getting Started

TheClassics I don’t really remember how I got into Board Gaming – I owned things like Cluedo and Monopoly as a child, but never played them particularly often. I do remember a fair few afternoons of Scrabble at the pub as a Student, then coming into contact with some of the classic gateway drugs for my generation – Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, probably around the time I got married.

It was also around this time that I got back into miniature wargaming – a lapsed teenage hobby, and fell in with a crowd who were experiencing an angry backlash against rules-lawyers and millimetre measures, venting their frustrations through Richard Borg’s Commands and Colours system, and introducing me to the world of Memoir ’44.

I don’t really remember how I first encountered Board Game Geek (a website I now visit several times a day), or when I first discovered the world of Fantasy Flight Games with their high-quality, high-complexity, highly addictive Living Card Game model, but over time these things all accumulated to the point where I was a fairly obsessive gamer, and anyone looking at my diary, my bookshelf or my Christmas list knew it. With Solo gaming being fairly low on my priority list, I subjected friends and family to a whole range of games with varying degrees of success, before settling down on a reasonably consistent core of regularly-played games, with lots of points being scored for “anything cooperative” and “anything Lord of the Rings”

Franchises

It’s probably fair to say we live in the golden age of Board Gaming. There are more existing games available, and more games being made than at any point I can recall. The sheer range of games available in terms of theme, style, player-count, weight and length is incredible, and there really does seem to be something for everybody. Obviously, this blog has always been focused primarily on Lord of the Rings, but there are also really solid games out there tied to Game of Thrones, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or any one of a load of others I can’t think of right now.

It might seem like the array of things out there is bewildering – with so many to choose from how can you possibly decide? The great thing is, that this being the age of the internet, there are literally thousands of unqualified interfering folk like me out there, which means that most questions you have about a potential game purchase can probably be answered by the internet.

Going Online

Dor1 I started my first blog about 2 years ago. Dor Cuarthol, named for “The Land of Bow and Helm,” where Turin and Beleg live as outlaws harassing Morgoth’s orcs, was a place where I would talk: notionally about all Lord of the Rings Games, and in practice mostly about the LotR Living Card Game.

There were a few factors leading up to this: Cardboard of the Rings had been looking for new hosts, and I had considered throwing my hat in the ring, but being on the wrong continent made the timings of recordings impossible, so I decided against applying for the post.

Still, I wanted to get more actively involved. Although I never sat down and codified things, Dor Cuarthol was essentially a place for me to

  1. Raise obscure thematic points, hopefully in some depth
  2. Share fun ideas for Custom Cards
  3. Launch ill-conceived projects that I would never have the man-hours to complete.

Of these, the first two were easy- I began with one of many attempts to re-create the Ride of the Rohirrim in card-game form, and followed it up with an extended rant about the misuse of the “Noldor” and “Silvan” traits in the game, and questioning the lack of Sindar or Teleri.

The larger projects side of things, was a bit more hit-and-miss. I took an idea suggested in a throw-away line elsewhere (I think it was a blog, which then got picked up by Cardboard of the Rings) and created an entire custom quest where characters used Hit-Points instead of Willpower, Attack or Defence. I managed to do a reasonable amount of play-testing, and ultimately came out with something I’m fairly happy with.

On the other hand, schemes like the Difficulty Rating project, never really worked out. I still maintain that this was a good concept, but it was never going to become a worthwhile resource as a one-man show: it needed a crowd-source type of approach for the sheer number of ratings received to cancel out the difference between individual preferences on play-style. Coupled with the need to play each quest 12 times (limited card-pool, generic modern deck, and customised deck, with each of the four player-counts, this just never quite got there. I’d like to dust this off again soon, but I can’t promise anything.

 

A Few Blogs More

Fistful1 Time passed, and a year or so later, I realised that LotR LCG wasn’t dominating my game-time in the way it had been: there were other games I was getting into in a lot of detail, and had thoughts about. For these, a standard forum on a publisher’s website, or on BoardGameGeek didn’t feel like the right place to be expounding my thoughts. I did a few comparison pieces on here, looking at LotR LCG side-by-side with the Pathfinder ACG, but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Hence, last summer, Fistful of Meeples was born.

Running two blogs at once was probably more work than I anticipated. I tend to play a small handful of games a lot, rather than just 1 or 2 plays of a very wide range, and as a result the content I could generate was somewhat sporadic: Fistful of Meeples carried the odd general musing, but often found itself focused on Pathfinder ACG, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones (LCG) or Marvel Legendary. Posting links on specialist Facebook groups and the like, I managed to get some traffic, but most of the responses / discussion stayed on the other sites.

 

Work

When I’m not playing, or writing about BoardGames, I spend most of my weekdays (and soon my evenings and some Saturdays, sadly) in a fairly mundane office-job. Like most jobs, it has occasional flashes of enjoyment as you manage to accomplish something / help someone, interspersed with long periods of tedium.

It’s been quite pleasing then, in the last few months as I’ve started another couple of part-time jobs on the side, which have impacted on my gaming somewhat.

Play-Testing

PlaytestEmail Before the paid work came, I managed to get involved in doing playtesting for one of my favourite games (whilst I haven’t actually had to sign an NDA, I’m still not supposed to reveal details publicly, so I won’t say which game).

This was a very interesting experience for me – obviously the fan-boy side of me was very excited by the sneak-preview aspect of things, and it was fascinating getting to try out new elements and ideas at the conceptual stage, along with the chance to have a limited element of dialogue with the developers.

That said, play-testing comes with a warning: the lead designers telling us loudly not to expect it to be fun. There’s a lot of repetition. A lot of things which don’t work / aren’t enjoyable, and it’s the job of the play-tester to find that out. It’s also an incredible amount of cutting, printing, copying etc, which I definitely didn’t expect.

Playtest On balance, I’m glad I’ve done play-testing. It’s given me a real appreciation of the work that goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully a more realistic sense of the finite nature of a playtest. It’s nice to look at something and be able to think “I helped make that a little bit better” – it also sheds the cold, harsh light of day on the custom content I tend to throw together on here, most of which arrives on screen without any playtesting at all.

On a good run, I’d say that roughly every other article I publish here will contain some kind of custom content, and I also did a bit of work on the original First Age expansion from “Tales from the Cards” – it’s a fairly safe bet that nothing I post on here will ever have been play-tested anywhere near as thoroughly as Ian’s output, and I’d suspect that he doesn’t have the resources to play-test as thoroughly as a company manufacturing games for a living.

Demonstrations

Moving to something that looks like a real job, first up was games-demonstration. I work on a casual contract for a major Games Distributor, demonstrating their games to the general public – I won’t mention their name as, they have no official awareness of these blogs, and they certainly don’t endorse my writing, but if you know much about the Board Games Industry in the UK, you probably know who they are.

DemoGames So far, most of the work I’ve done for them has been “store demos:” taking Dobble and something like Countdown (exactly like the TV show, including the music on the timer, excluding Rachel Riley) or Would I Lie To You (almost nothing like the TV show, this is Call My Bluff with a more current IP pasted over the top) and waving it at passers-by for 8 hours. Far more interesting (I hope) are the upcoming Conference Demos, where they send a team to Game, Comic or Sci-Fi Conventions, or even to Music Festivals, where we get to target audiences with more of a pre-existing interest in games, and play some more substantial offerings – aside from minimum wage and expenses, this job has the advantage of getting you supplied with demo copies of the games (although as noted, so far it’s been a lot of TV-based stuff that wouldn’t be top of my list of things to acquire), as well as getting into the conventions and the like to see games which I might not otherwise have the opportunity to play. It’s also a chance to make people realise that there are some great games out there, and good practice at explaining games to people.

Blogging

Reviewer

I wouldn’t say I was the only candidate for this job, but “Reviewer” is my middle name…

The second, and most recent job was game-blogging. Essentially taking what I was already doing, and doing it for someone else. I got into this by responding to a note on a mailing list, and found myself part of a small team who were being given copies of games by an online retailer, in order to write reviews of them. This seems like a good deal all-round. The retailer can direct undecided shoppers to a detailed explanation and evaluation of the game, the customer can make a more informed decision, and I get a free copy of a game in exchange for a bit of writing. Aside from ensuring that we get enough games played in a short burst of time, the only real challenge is guessing from online descriptions which games are likely to go down well, and resisting the urge to request a game just because it retails for £80!

 

The Gamer at work and play

The practical up-shot of these new jobs comes in a few different ways. First of all, it means I’m playing a bigger variety of games – so far, I’ve only received 3 different games to review, and have played them 4, 10 and 3 times respectively, but it does make an impact. Spending time on the new games, inevitably means spending less time on more established games, which means that some of the in-depth pieces on Dice Masters or Lord of the Rings become harder to write.

Storage On a practical level, I only have 1 set of shelves devoted to BoardGames, plus a nearby bookcase or 2 which are being gradually colonised. If I keep acquiring 2 new games a month, I’m going to have to be a lot stricter with myself in moving along some of the old games which don’t get played as much anymore. I had already started tracking all the games I play (I have a bit of a thing for spreadsheets), and there was already a possibility of selling or trading for games which went too long without being played: that threat grows considerably as the pressure on the shelves increases.

Unfinished Mathoms

As I mentioned at the start, I will shortly be coming of age as a Hobbit. I had long planned to mark the occasion by offering a custom-designed scenario for Lord of the Rings, representing Bilbo’s birthday party.

Some of the concepts have been fairly clearly mapped out for a while: locations around Hobbiton to be explored, whilst looking for the family spoons. With heavy penalties for using non-Hobbit characters (something like +1 threat each time a non-Hobbit enters play, maybe coupled with a Fireworks objective that a player controlling Gandalf can use to bring threat down again), the quest would probably involve some hide tests to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses, and the danger of the quest suddenly acquiring the “Battle” keyword via a Treachery representing happy hour at the Green Dragon. Lastly a show-down with Lobellia, which would probably be a willpower-based combat.

Whilst I’ve done a fair amount at the conceptual level, actual card stats, ratios, or anything approaching play-testing are currently stuck at zero. As a result, the chance of the quest appearing by a week Monday, or even “at all” look ever slimmer.

Whether this constitutes a curtailing of larger projects, or simply a more realistic outlook to projects that would never have been completed is slightly up for debate.

 

I still enjoy gaming. And now that I have both a job that pays me TO play board games, and a job that pays me IN board games, am now indeed in the fortunate position that my job is also my hobby. Sadly British Gas, Severn Trent Water and Sainsbury’s have all responded negatively to my offers to take payment in board games, so I’ll continue to stick at the office-job for now. I’m still waiting for a response from the landlord…

The Ins and Outs of Deck-Building – Part 2

Last week I started taking a look at the issue of deck-building, via my ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a quad-sphere Hobbit deck. Whilst that enterprise was unsuccessful, I’m still looking at the issue of deck-building, this time with a slightly different deck, before going on to look at some more general principles and tips.

In High Spirits

The other deck I’ve been inspired to build recently, is a mono-spirit one. Instantly, the one-spirit limitation puts some useful restrictions on what I can possibly include (unless I start getting carried away with Songs) so I was more optimistic about getting a compact build out of this one.

ArwenCaldaraThain The plan here is for something involving Hero-Arwen, Caldara, and Sword-Thain. Arwen makes it easy to put allies into your discard pile, and generates some money, Sword-Thain gives you a 4th Spirit Hero, so Caldara can return 3 allies instead of 2, and the combination of Arwen’s resource-generation and that extra hero make it easier to pay for Fortune or Fate to bring her back and go round again.

There are 12 unique allies in Spirit, of which one is Arwen, who can’t be in play at the same time as her Hero version. Out of the remaining 11, there are various good candidates for who to make the Hero although as Seastan noted on a recent Episode of Cardboard of the Rings, Dwalin is a good choice as you can use Well-Equipped to put Sword-Thain on him for free – an easy thing to set up if you’re using an Imladris Stargazer.

The first run at this deck then, felt like it should be a lot easier that trying to build a slightly schizophrenic quad-sphere: the deck has a clear idea of what it’s doing, and isn’t pulling in too many directions. Lots of Spirit Allies are the obvious starting point, including high-cost ones to maximise the benefit of Caldara-ing them into play, rather than paying normally. You also need some key glue cards like Sword Thain, Imladris Stargazer and Fortune or Fate, utility cards like Elven Light (Card-Draw), Dwarven Tomb (recycling) and the Spirit Staples such as Test of Will, Hasty Stroke, Elrond’s Counsel. Just sitting down and throwing things together, I came out with a first pass of 65 cards.

Damrod I managed to do some whittling just by leafing through a couple of times, but suddenly it became apparent that the “clear idea” this deck had wasn’t as clear as it might seem. I knew I needed lots of Spirit allies, but how many? As noted above, I put in lots of the high-cost characters to maximise the resource gain from Caldara, but I also needed some low-cost options for early rounds where I was playing normally. I’d chosen Frodo as my third hero, which also raised question-marks about how much threat control I needed. With defence taken care of, there was still the question of attack, which remained a slightly hazy area, depending on whether I was using the deck Solo (in which case it really needs to be able to handle combat) or multi-player, where it could be a question deck opposite a Tactics Aragorn and the Dunedain deck.

The large amount of discard involved in this deck, through cards like Zigil Miner, Well-Equipped, and even a copy of Emery, plus the repeatable draw from Arwen + Elven Light mean that I’m likely to see more cards than usual, and a slightly over-sized deck isn’t necessarily the end of the world. However, every extra card in the deck makes it roughly 1% less likely that I’ll have drawn my key card after Mulligan (with multiple ways to draw/discard, I think the Imladris Stargazer is probably the key card to set-up everything else).

I gave this a couple of runs in Khazad-Dum, 2-player: it managed to pull-off the discard for a Northern Tracker and a Lorien Guide, getting rid of a pair of watchful eyes that were attached to Caldara, before bringing her back for +2. As expected though, combat was a challenge, and the swarmy nature of all those little goblinses meant we were often in danger of getting overrun. I’m fairly confident of getting this into a decent shape with a bit more table-time, and whilst 50 is probably not likely to happen, at-least sub-60 should be doable

Slimming Techniques

BomburGoing back to the decks which bloat then, the question remains: how do you decide what to leave out?

Speaking as the person least equipped to answer this question, I think it’s important now that the card-pool has reached this size, to have a clear idea in mind of what do you want your deck to do? There is no “One Deck to Rule Them All” – you may be able to build a deck which is sufficiently good at something (such as getting allies out) that it manages to cover a lot of aspects of the game, but it will be doing it from a particular direction. The crucial second step of this process, is to recognise what your deck isn’t trying to do! To put all this another way, don’t just include something because it’s a “Good Card” – include it because it’s a Good Card for this deck.

You also need to think about your Resource Curve. Better Men and Bears than me have explained this concept in a lot of detail before, but it’s possible to state fairly simply: If you have one Hero in a particularly sphere, you need to think hard before you put a 4 or 5-cost card in of that sphere. Or before you put in loads and loads of 3-costers.

BeaconsThe next thing is probably the one I struggle most with, but there are times when you need to ask yourself, what is an unaffordable luxury? Something might seem like a really nice effect, but if you can’t really set it up, pay for it, or in other ways trigger it, then it’s probably time to think again. Ally Faramir and Sword That Was Broken on Aragron, are both great cards in a deck focused on spitting out dozens of cheap allies to swarm the quest with. If you’ve got a build which focuses on getting 2 or 3 big allies into play, you’ve potentially just spent a lot of money on a fairly limited effect.

Obviously, there is a certain amount of overlap between all these areas. The Galadhrim’s Greeting is a great card- who doesn’t love -6 threat (or -2 threat each for several of you). However, if you’ve only got a single spirit Hero, who is saving resources for cancellation, and trying to put out some key allies, are you really going to have 3 spare Spirit Resources to play it? It’s not doing what you want your deck to do, it doesn’t match your resource curve, and overall, it may well be an unaffordable luxury.

SpiritStaplesThe last thing I’d add, is that you need to make the hard choices. Despite all I’ve said above, it’s very rare that I build a deck with Spirit in that doesn’t have at least one copy of Galadhrim’s Greeting. And an Unexpected Courage or Two. And some Northern Trackers… Every time I touch on an area, or a sphere, there are a dozen other cards I just instinctively want to drop in alongside it. If you want to build effective decks for this game, you need to avoid my mistakes, and stay sharp.

Theme

RohanEvents As an aside, it’s worth mentioning the possibility of making deck-building decisions based on theme. Obviously there is a mechanical element to this: If you’ve got Celeborn in play, lots of Silvan Allies and lots of bouncing effects will make sense – it helps you maximise that +1/+1/+1 benefit. Equally though, you may choose to leave out the Warden of Healing, and include the Daughter of Nimrodel because she’s a better fit thematically, even if the Warden is more flexible (and in the same game as Hero Elrond, just plain better).

Conclusion

As noted at the start, I’m a terrible deck-builder, and probably the last person you should be taking advice from, but I hope this has been a helpful pair of articles, as a cautionary tale, if nothing else, offering hope to those of us without the skills to build like the masters. I’d be interested to know what strategies anyone else uses when building- how you decide what to leave out, and how you keep that deck trimmed.

The Ins and Outs of Deck-Building – Part 1

 

When you build a deck, whether that be in LotR LCG or any other game of this type, there are (broadly) two things you need to do.

  • You need to figure out which cards you need to put in your deck to make it work
  • You need to decide which cards you need to leave out

Of these two areas, I’d consider myself fairly good at the former, and really bad at the latter (which may explain why I’ve been having a decent level of success in the rebooted Game of Thrones LCG, where the card-pool is very small, and I’ve only bought two copies of the Core Set.)

Over the next two weeks, I want to go through a couple of worked examples of deck-building, crunch some numbers, and finish by offering some tips on how to avoid bloat when building decks.

Evolving Decks

GimliA lot of the time, I have decks which hang around for a long time, with the odd card getting added or cut, but without a fundamental overhaul. My Dain / Thorin / Ori deck has been largely unchanged for a couple of years now, despite the addition of individual cards like Ally Gimli, and it’s still one of the best true-solo decks I have.

Recently however, I sat down to build a completely new deck. I played the Black Riders Hobbits when the box first came out, and had been wanting to try them again with some of the more recent cards – Staff of Lebethron, Taste it Again etc.

However, I also wanted to try something different – whilst Sam, Merry and Pippin go very well together, there are a lot of Hobbit-related cards which are excluded by being in Spirit. Obviously, you could sub in Fatty or Frodo, or even the alternate versions of Merry or Pippin, but none of these felt that appealing. Spirit Merry feels like he belongs in a different deck-type, and Spirit Pippin feels like he belongs in the bike-spokes.

three-hobbits

When running Lore Pippin and Tactics Merry, the number of Hobbit Heroes you control is also a big factor: both attack and enemy engagement costs are directly pushed up by having more, so I didn’t want to just build 2 Hobbit decks.

Whilst dealing with some other decks and quests, I’d also been experimenting with Sword-Thain, a fun if rather expensive card which allows you to turn a unique Ally into a Hero. The two came together, and thus an idea was born: the quad-sphere Hobbit deck!

All the Hobbitses

As stated before, the starting Heroes were fairly clear: I needed Sam, Merry and Pippin, all in their Black Riders iterations. For “Hero” number 4, Bilbo Baggins felt like the obvious choice: Aside from Farmer Maggot, he is the only Unique Hobbit ally, and he comes from the missing sphere.

Farmer-Maggot

After not picking him as the 4th Hero, I added insult to injury by forgetting to put him in the deck at all…

A lot of the cards for a Hobbit-deck pick themselves – for leadership, you want Bill the Pony, Hobbit Cloak, Taste it Again. In my opinion, if you don’t have hero Gandalf in play, there’s never a good reason not run 3x Sneak-Attack and 3x Gandalf (Core) in Leadership. For Tactics, Halfling Determination, Daggers of Westernesse, Ring-Mail and the already-mentioned Farmer Maggot are all good hobbit-specific cards, whilst staples like Feint are always worth a look. Lore gives you card-draw, some healing, Enemy-Management cards like Take no Notice and In the Shadows, as well as allies like Barliman Butterbur. If you’re looking to get big bodies out on the table, Elf Stone is a good way to go, and as soon as you put that in, Second Breakfast and Erebor Hammersmith seem like good ideas too.

On top of this, I had a specific aim: getting Ally Bilbo in play with Sword Thain on him – Bilbo and the Sword-Thain themselves obviously belong in the deck then, along with some cards to make use of having a spirit hero once he gets there, beyond simply powering up Merry and Pippin. Given the number of working parts involved in getting to that point, I also wanted to add some resource smoothing through Good Harvest and Song of Travel.

I sat down for an hour or so, threw some cards together, shuffled things around, and before long I had a fully-built deck…

…of 80 cards.

 

How Big?

There is, of course, no upper-limit to the number of cards you can have in a deck in this game: 50 is fine, but so is 150 (at least in theory). In practice however, the bigger your deck, the lower the odds of seeing one key card. With quite a bit of help from a friend with a Maths PhD and the Internet, I worked out that if I need to see one particular card out of a deck of 50, assuming I’ve got 3 copies in there, then that’s a 32% chance of seeing it in my opening hand – rising to 54% after a Mulligan. In an 80-card deck, the 12 cards you see across a starting hand and a mulligan are a much lower percentage of your deck: the odds fall to 21% before Mulligan, and 37% after.

This is when it starts to get really complicated.

BilThainWith the example of the Quad-Sphere deck, I need (optimistically) two cards in hand for the deck to work: Bilbo AND Sword-Thain. Going back to the Maths Doctor, she managed to put together a formula sufficiently idiot-proof for me to tweak, and I worked out that this gives a 14% chance after mulligan of pulling two specific cards from a 50-card deck (assuming 3 copies of each) – in an 80-card deck, that plummets to just under 7% – i.e. about 1 game in 14 will see you actually get those two cards. Even this is an optimistic model, as it makes no provision for how Bilbo is actually going to get into play in the first place, although thankfully there are multiple options for this.

ProbabilityIncreasingly, I was starting to worry that this deck simply wasn’t viable: Steward of Gondor is great for resource acceleration, but if you see it too early in a tri/quad-sphere deck, you risk putting it on the wrong character. Big Allies (Beorn, Treebeard, Legolas, Northern Tracker) are great for dropping into play with Elf-Stone, but if you don’t draw that (or get the right location to put it on), then they are prohibitively expensive to play.

As always, the real thing to do was to actually play the deck through a few games and see how it fared. I took this against Passage Through Mirkwood solo, and it worked after a fashion – I did manage to get Bilbo out, with Sword-Thain on him, but even with the vast amount of card-draw this deck can generate, this didn’t really feel like it worked: if I’d spent the time and energy I spent setting up Bilbo and digging for combo-pieces on just questing through, I could probably have finished the quest a couple of rounds earlier. I think I’ll just trim this down to a standard tri-sphere with no Sword-Thain, maybe hanging on to a single Northern Tracker which I can play via the Elf-Stone.

There can be only 1!

I want to come back though, to that figure from the earlier paragraph – if you run three copies each of two different cards, there’s only a 14% chance that you’ll have both in your starting hand after a mulligan. (That’s without even considering the question of what to do when you draw one but not the other in your first hand) Now of course, you don’t have to have every card in your starting hand, but you do need to be realistic about how much of your deck you’re going to see over the course of a game.

If you’ve drawn the first half of your combo in set-up, you’re now essentially looking for 1 copy of a 3x card in a 44-card deck. Each card you draw is about a 7% chance, so you’re looking at around 7-9 cards before you hit an even chance of drawing that second card.

If your deck has lots of draw, this might not be too problematic: Pippin, Sam and Hero Bilbo could net you three cards per round fairly easily, and by turn 4 you’ve got a good chance of having drawn that card – however, this assumes that you can trigger all your card draw without getting whatever-it-is-your-deck-does up and running: do you really want to be engaging at least one high-threat enemy each round without weapons and armour to fight with?

I think it’s clear to anyone who has played this game a lot that you want decks to have multiple options: If you have ten cards in your deck that can get you started, whether they are multiple copies of the same thing or all different, then there is a very good chance that you will get at least one, even in bigger decks (74% at first try, 93% after mulligan, based on a 60-card deck). The tragedy for my inner Pippin, is that the more moving parts you have in the deck you want to build the less likely it is that you’ll ever get it to work.

All of this number-crunching has also given me an interesting insight into card-quantities in decks: Running 3 copies of a card you don’t need to see repeatedly, particularly a unique one, is often described as a risk in this game: you’re desperately trying to get something to stem the tide, and instead you draw a dead card.

However, next time you’re considering cutting a card, bear this in mind – 2 copies instead of 3 in a 50-card deck cuts the odds of seeing it in your opening hand from 32% to 22% – if you really want it, pack 3.

Coming Soon

That’s all for the first part of this article. Next week, I’m going to take a look at another deck-building exercise, and try to pin this all down to some helpful rules for deck-building in the future.

Thaurdir

Of Battles Lost and Won

This year I’ve played the Lord of the Rings LCG about 25 times. As it’s only mid-February, that doesn’t sound like a bad total at all.

However, three quarters of those games came in a single 48-hour period, against a single scenario, after which the game didn’t make it out of the box in a fortnight, and I’m fairly sure I know why.

CarnDumThe Battle of Carn Dum was the penultimate adventure in the Angmar Awakened cycle, and it saw the heroes trying to fight their way past a literal army of Undead, Orcs and other nasties, in order to rescue their friend Iarion who was trapped inside: It combined epic-scale combat with a big-boss showdown.

In the life of this game, there have been many quests, but this one is far and away the most difficult that I’ve played (I haven’t played the Nightmare versions from Voice of Isengard onwards).

A lot of quests in this game are difficult – the numbers are high, and you need to amass a lot of stuff to deal with it. A lot (and this seems to be a growing trend) require you to custom-build your deck. Others skew significantly against particular player-counts: some are straightforward in solo mode but impossible in large groups, others practically require you to have a large group.

Carn Dum is different, it seems at first glance like you can approach it with groups of any size, and of any deck-type, and still get stomped. We’ve tried and failed this with Boromir decks, and Erestor Decks. Black Ridders Secrecy Hobbits, and Dain’s Dwarf Swarm. Dunedain Engagement tricks and Rohan questing surge. None have got us anywhere.

On one particular 3-player game, I had the Perfect start for my dwarf deck (Dain, Thorin, Ori) I had the 1-cost Lore ally in my opening hand, along with We Are Not Idle, Fili (or Kili – the Purple one…), and A Very Good Tale – by the end of turn-1 planning, I had 5 allies out, and we looked destined to bring the encounter deck to its knees with sheer weight of numbers… …until a Shadow card increased an attack by the number of allies I controlled, Dain died, and everything fell to pieces.

The Highlights

The problem with this quest is that it has everything:

  • High Threat Enemies and Locations – check
  • Destructive Treacheries – check
  • Surge – check
  • Shadows which make attacks worse – check
  • Shadows which throw out extra enemies – check
  • A Big Boss enemy who can kill most heroes in a single swipe – check
  • Intermittent Battle and Willpower questing – check
  • Effects which increase the threat in the staging area – check
  • Really high percentage of cards with Shadow Effects – check

If you take a small party against this, the threat is overwhelming (you have a minimum of 6 threat, Battle-Questing on turn 1, and probably need to fight at least one enemy). If you go with a bigger group, you remove any real chance of avoiding the particularly nasty cards that can end you in one turn.

Crunching some Numbers

To analyse it a bit more closely, you have a 48-card encounter deck, on which 9 cards have surge, and a further 3 have either conditional surge, or a surge-like effect, meaning that roughly one card in three will generate extra.

Orc-GruntsThere are 18 enemies – if you ignore the fairly small “Orc grunts” (on the basis that they have surge, and will be additional to whatever else you’ve encountered) no enemy has a defence/hit points total of less than 6, and some have significantly more. Most have high attack – several 4s and 5s, along with high threats that make it problematic to leave things lying around in the staging area. The side quest that gives all Orc enemies +1 Attack, Defence and Threat is basically a game-ender.

Where the Shadows Lie

Where this quests gets particularly brutal though, is with the Shadows. 38 of the 48 cards have a Shadow effect, and game mechanics make it quite likely that an enemy will have two or more shadow cards when you fight it. These shadow effects can increase the enemy’s attack, or make it attack again, meaning that even your stoutest defender can suddenly find themselves in trouble.

It’s also worth noting that most of the anti-shadow tech players have at their disposal is in Spirit or Lore, whereas the big defenders are in tactics or Leadership. (Anti-Shadow effects like Balin or Erkenbrand just won’t work in this quest, as the killer shadows are way too common).

thaurdir_captainWhilst all this is going on, you will also face a constant battle with threat: there are treacheries, shadows, and locations all of which can ramp your threat rapidly, not to mention the difficulty of breaking even on (Battle) questing in the early rounds.

 

All of this, of course, is just dealing with the generic cards of the encounter set. Thaurdir, the unique boss enemy of the quest starts at 6 attack, and may pounce on you at any moment.

 

Going Solo

After getting smashed in a variety of different ways by this, I set myself the task one weekend in January of beating this.

I tried a few of my own decks, and posted an appeal on BoardGameGeek for someone who had actually beaten this. There were a few suggestions which I built and tried out.

the-long-defeat

This card was much too apt for my liking…

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and one strategy I saw appealed to my inner Pippin: as this quest prevents unresolved Shadow-cards from being discarded at the end of the turn, try to get as many cards as possible turned into unresolved Shadows, and eventually the encounter deck will mill itself out. Aside from this far-distant goal, it also allows you to trigger various Dunedain effects like Amarthiul’s extra resource and Tactics icon, as well as the cost reduction and character readying abilities of some of the other recent cards. Knowing that you’re going to be resetting, you also take cards like Deep Knowledge to ensure you see the key pieces early enough

Using Lore Aragorn, Damrod and Amarthiul, you eat threat in the early rounds whilst you set up, then reset. Damrod guarantees you can afford a Forest Snare each round, whilst Amarthiul takes Steward of Gondor to become a mega-defender with Gondorian shield.

After a few false-starts (i.e. violent deaths), It was going well it was going well until I reached stage 2, which read “When Revealed: raise each player’s threat by X where X is the number of shadow cards in play. X was 23 (no Laura Kinney reference intended), and I was dead.

favor-of-the-valarI tried again with Favour of the Valar and a Test of Will thrown into the deck (relying on Aragron getting Celebrian’s Stone to play this, there was no point running 3 of). Again there were failed runs, and violent deaths. I finally got into stage 2 without threating out, but Thaurdir was laying waste to my allies, and I couldn’t get the bodies required to quest through. Finally, the Accursed Battleground re-appeared, allowing me to move back to Battle-questing. Amarthiul had Gondorian Fire and a whole stack of resources, and was able to heave us over the line.

So after nearly 20 attempts, I finally had a victory in solo.

What of the Fellowship?

The question though, was how to tackle this in multi-player? All the suggested approaches I had seen – this trapping tactic, a build centred around Frodo with Sentinel, Song of Wisdom (to allow him to have Burning Brand), Fast Hitch, Burning Brand and numerous other accessories – all relied on resetting your threat with Aragorn – fine for a single player, but much more problematic as a group.

I pondered this for a while: Decks lay gathering dust whilst I sank into dark gloom. And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost. History became legend, legend became myth, and for two-and-a-half weeks, the Battle was forgotten.

 

GreyHavensAt length, spurred to action by Facebook angrily reminding me that it had been a while since I posted anything, and by the realisation that the new deluxe would be arriving next week, I dusted that cards off once more and rebuilt. I took the Burning Frodo deck that had been posted on BGG, and combined it with a Boromir, Glorfindel and Galadriel deck, designed to make maximum use of Boromir’s re-readying (hopefully balanced by Galadriel and Elrond’s Counsel) with Eagle-y support. I took as much “When revealed” cancellation as possible, but Shadows were still a major issue (I decided not to bother trying to pull off the Song of Travel on Boromir / Shadows Give Way combo, as Galadriel alone isn’t enough card-draw).

The first few attempts went the same old way – death, destruction and despair. Threat, swarming by enemies, a single knock-out blow, or good old-fashioned location lock all undid us in the early rounds.

Finally we got a bit of luck – Frodo managed to assemble his full collection of attachments: Steward of Gondor, Song of Wisdom, Burning Brand, Hobbit Cloak, Dunedain Warning, Gondorian Shield and triple Fast-Hitch. Combined with ally Arwen (obviously it took us a few rounds to reach this point) this enabled him to defend 3 or 4 times a turn anywhere on the table, without having to worry about the shadow cards.

Even then, this was only possible thanks to a fair slice of luck. My wife was playing the Boromir deck, and managed to get several Vassals of the Windlord to cover gaps during the early rounds of Battle-Questing, and once we had Asfaloth and a Northern Tracker in play, we were able to avoid the nastiest of the Active Location / Travel effects. The fact that Glorfindel had Light of Valinor and a Rivendell Blade can’t be underestimated either, and at least one of the early enemies was only dispatched thanks to a timely appearance from Fair and Perilous.

So eventually, battered and bruised, we staggered across the finish line. It had taken something like a dozen or more rounds of play, and we were exhausted.

 

After the Battle

Beating a quest – especially one that has been putting up a major fight, should come with a decent sense of triumph, or at least achievement. This didn’t it was simply relief that this could go back in its box, and stay there untouched for a long while to come.

MountGramThere are two quests in this past cycle that I’ve really played a lot. The first was Escape From Mount Gram, which is generally reckoned to be one of the easier quests in some respects, although it certainly poses a lot of unique challenges. It was also the most fun quest I can remember playing in a long time, and there are lots of other decks, combinations, and player-counts where I look forward to trying it out as soon as I get the time.

The second quest was this one, Carn Dum, which (as mentioned above) I believe to be the most difficult quest yet for the game. I played it a lot because I got fixated on beating it, and now I have. But at no point was it ever fun: we played with a resigned sense of impending doom, and the chances are that we made mistakes whilst playing, which could have prevented the win. I don’t care. This quest is going away now, and if I never see it again, I won’t be sorry.

The new cycle for this game will be here in a few days. I know there will be new mechanics, lots of ships, and more Noldor draw-and-discard shenanigans. I just hope the difficulty is pitched more sensibly so that we can actually get back to enjoying things.

The Light of the Evenstar

 

ffg_arwen-undomiel-twitw Ally Arwen has been around for a while, and is widely regarded as one of the best allies in the game: 2-Cost in Spirit, she not only provides a solid 2 willpower for questing, but also offers a defence boost and sentinel for another character in play (typically her father or her brother). Up until now, if you were running Spirit, unless you were strongly pushing a thematic angle, the only real reason not to run her was if you were playing The Redhorn Gate or Road to Rivendell, where there was an objective-ally version in the way.

As fans of the game speculated on the appearance of a future hero Arwen, one of the biggest questions was: what could the designers bring to the table that would be good enough

Now though, all that has changed, with the arrival of The Dread Realm¸ we have our playable Arwen hero, and I thought I’d take a bit of a look at her today.

Like the rest of her family, Arwen has been stunningly depicted by Magali Villeneuve for the card (she also did the art for the Ally and the Objective Ally). I’m just going to put it here for you all to admire.

ArwenHero

As you’d expect, Arwen is a unique character, with the traits Noldor and Noble. FFG has never really gone into the Half-Elven heritage, and it was unlikely that they would suddenly conjure up a new trait which they hadn’t given to her father or brothers. She is still Spirit, and has a stat-spread of 3 willpower, 1 attack, 2 defence and 3 hit-points, for a total threat cost of 9. She fills the traditional spirit role of being a good quester but a lousy combatant, so don’t expect to kill anything with her, although she can probably survive a single hit from a small enemy, and overall, her stat / cost distribution seems good.

Arwen_Asfaloth

“If you want him, come and claim him!”

As a Noldor, you can give her Light of Valinor, Rivendell Blades or Bows, and even Asfaloth – there are better targets for all of these cards, and the only real reason to do it would be to troll Glorfindel. Despite this, her traits are still useful: as a unique Noldor, she fills the requirement for Elrond’s Counsel, if you do need to attack with her in a pinch, she can be targeted by Fair and Perilous, and of course, she benefits all-round from Lords of the Eldar.

Traits and stats aside, the key element of any hero is the ability text. In this area, Arwen opens up new ground, with the first real resource acceleration in Spirit.

“Action: Discard a card from your hand to add 1 resource to a Noldor hero’s resource pool, or to Aragorn’s resource pool. (Limit once per round.)”

It is worth noting that she can target herself with this ability, or any of her family, and it’s entirely fitting that the restriction is stretched enough to include Aragorn. On the other hand, card-draw is not an area where Spirit is particularly blessed, and the cost looks like a high one. You can, of course, pair her with Lore characters, to power this, and she looks like an obvious choice to go with Elrond (22 threat for these 2 characters means the 3rd will almost inevitably be Glorfindel).

To Help You on the Way

There are a couple of events that have come out at the same time as Arwen which are clearly designed to synergise with her, and deserve a place in this discussion.

A Little Light?

ElvenLight

Eowyn really wants this too, but all my copies are in the Arwen deck…

The first, is Elven Light, a 1-cost Spirit event which, like many of the new Noldor cards, can only be played from the discard pile. For your one resource, you pull it back to hand, and draw a card.

 

The synergy with Arwen is fairly obvious. First of all, you can discard the card for her ability, which solves the “how do you get it into the discard pile?” issue. Furthermore, if you don’t need to target someone else with her ability that round, you can give yourself the resource for discarding, and spend it to play the card. In essence, once you have this card in hand, Arwen’s ability could be re-written as “once per round, draw a card” – there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic power, and it’s particularly strong in Spirit: obviously, even with a Mulligan, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your Elven light (I’ve tried and failed plenty of times), but resource acceleration with the potential to become card-draw is a powerful ability nonetheless.

Blood of Luthien

Tinuviel The next card that I want to look at is Tale of Tinuviel. Thematically, this is another card clearly designer to go with Arwen, although in practice, you may find that Glorfindel or Galadriel are better triggers. For a cost of one, this card allows you to exhaust a Noldor to Ready a Dunedain, or vice-versa. In the core set, we had a card that allowed you to swap one hero for one without the trait benefit, so if this was all it said, you probably wouldn’t give this card much more thought. However, the icing on the cake here is that you get to add the willpower of the character you exhausted to the willpower, attack and defence of the readied character until the end of the phase.

Let’s walk through this in practice, to see just how powerful it can be:

Scenario 1: I have quested with all 3 heroes in my Glorfindel/Arwen/Elrond deck. Glorfindel is still ready thanks to Light of Valinor. The other player in the game is running a Dunedain deck with Tactics Aragorn, Amarthiul and Halbarad. Naturally the enemies are gravitating to the other side of the table, but this round we’re looking a bit swamped.

If I take an enemy, I either need to take it undefended, or block with Glorfindel, neither of which will do me much good: Glorfindel can swing back, but only for 3, which is unlikely to do much damage.

Realising I will not be able to deal with the enemy, the Dunedain player engages it, along with two they were previously fighting: the first 2 are blocked comfortably, but the newcomer has 5 attack, which is going to make a big hole in Aragorn.

After Aragorn is declared as a defender, I Play Tale of Tinuviel: Glorfindel, who would otherwise be sat twiddling his thumbs is exhausted, and Aragorn readies up. With +3 defence, Aragorn is able to resist the onslaught, then swing back for 6 (+ any weapons or other boosts he may already have).

 

Scenario 2: We are hard-pressed questing through the early stages of the game – I have not managed to draw Nenya, and whilst it’s nice being able to manage threat, being a hero light for questing is a struggle.

Add Tale of Tinuviel to the equation, and the picture changes. By exhausting Galadriel to play the card, I can effectively add her willpower to the quest for a +4. Throw in the readying effect and where previously I might have felt the need to hold him back for combat, I can quest with him, knowing he will still be on his feet when the arrows start flying- that’s an overall +6 I’ve added to the quest thanks to this one-cost card.

Glorfindel-Front-Face

I’ve always felt the official version was a bit under-powered…

Scenario 3: When you queue up the multi-card combinations, it’s possible for this to get silly: Core-Set Aragorn, complete with Celebrian’s Stone has quested for 4 and paid his resource to ready up. Galadriel was standing by to boost him if needed, but we cleared the quest, and she wasn’t needed. All that’s left is to smash the end-of-quest monster to win, an enemy that is currently engaged with the player controlling Glorfindel. Unfortunately, Glorfindel was exhausted by a treachery during staging.

 

Galadriel exhausts, and uses Nenya to boost Aragron’s willpower to 8. He then plays Tale of Tinuviel to ready Glorfindel, giving +8 to all his stats, for 11 willpower, 11 attack, 9 defence. The Glorfindel player then plays Fair and Perilous, to give Glorfindel a monstrous 22 attack, smashing aside the enemy for the win…

Ok, so that last one was a bit far-fetched, and may be a case of my inner Pippin getting carried away, but I think it still shows the potential for these cards. Indeed, the only shame is that the song about the fate of the poor Elf-Maid who gave her heart to a mortal doesn’t work better with Arwen.

Harping On

HarpIt’s worth making a passing mention of the Silver Harp, a card which appeared together with Erestor, but also has a place in an Arwen deck. As noted above, Arwen can ditch cards to gain resources, and there are some cards which you want to end up in the discard pile, but if you don’t have Elven Light or Lords of the Eldar to hand, then burning through cards can be a big cost. The Silver Harp allows to “discard” cards to trigger effects, but keep them in hand. The effect isn’t that exciting, but over the course of a longish game, it can make a major difference to the number of cards you have in hand, and give a lot more power to something like Protector of Lorien.

Overall, I think Arwen is a good card, she feels thematic, balanced, and appropriately powered. I’ve already used her in a couple of different decks, including the deck FFG provided on their website with her brothers, and an attempt of my own with Glorfindel and Elrond (like most of my decks, this one currently weighs in at about 63 cards…)

Despite all that though, it’s always fun to think where the card-pool could go next. As it’s been a while since I offered a proper custom-card, I thought this would be a good moment to add in some key elements from the Tale of Arwen and Aragorn. The last one is a bit wordy, but I hope you find the ideas interesting…

 

-A-Mortal-Life-Front-FaceBanner-of-the-King-Front-FacePlighted-Troth-Front-Face

Arise now, Riders of Theoden

Just before Christmas, I finished re-reading the Lord of the Rings book, something I hadn’t done for a few years. As always, I was struck by just how powerfully written the chapters Ride of the Rohirrim and the Battle of the Pelennor are: the descent of those riders onto that field of battle, the glory and sacrifice that so many make: it leaves me feeling thoroughly inadequate as a word-smith, and reminded of just why so many regard Tolkien as a master of his craft.

Ride-to-Ruin It’s been a recurring theme over the past couple of years that I’ve been running this blog, but that is how I want playing a Rohan deck to feel – by all means, it can be costly, difficult, but it should be powerful and glorious. Too often in the past, Rohan has been a utility set of cards for questing and location management, but something which somehow fails to click into a broader archetype. The card “Ride to Ruin” is a well-established example of this: discarding a Rohan ally, and paying a single spirit resource to place 3 progress on a location is a solid effect. If the ally you chose is a Snowbourn Scout, and if someone has the Horn of Gondor, or Eomer and Imrahil are in the party, it can be far more of a gain than a cost as your inner Pippin watches the single stone start a bigger landslide…

But for all of that, it never feels impressive. The card never lives up to the name. It never feels in tune with the flavour text – “DEATH! RIDE! RIDE TO RUIN AND THE WORLD’S ENDING” – this should be the Hail Mary Pass of the card game – and all-or-nothing play.

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I can almost hear the music…

This sense of frustration has been around for a while – as I sit, mourning the fact that I will never have the time, money, or natural ability, to learn to play the Hardanger Fiddle – I have designed countless custom cards to fill the hole, or thought about how an existing card could be re-designed to fit better with the theme.

We all know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that Eomer is far from underpowered – the ability to get 5 attack (at least for a turn) without using a restricted attachment is solid, and once he gets Firefoot, the results can be devastating. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting more. As I re-read the passage where Eomer finds (he believes) the fallen corpse of his dead sister and, seized by the red-mist, single-handedly routs half the army of Harad, part of me thinks his ability should be “after a character leaves play, Eomer gets +2 attack until the end of the round (if the character is a Noble, Rohan character, he gets +4 attack instead, and does not exhaust to attack until the end of the round) (Limit once per round)”

It would be ridiculous – it would be beyond broken, especially with Eomund (actually, scratch that, apparently Eomund isn’t Noble…) but it would be awesome

Eomer-Front-Face

There is probably no deck that is reliably, consistently awesome to play- if it was too powerful, it would become dull, if underpowered, there will always be times when it fails. What I was hoping for though, was that we had now reached the point where it’s possible to build a couple of solid, mostly-Rohan decks that can take on a broad range of quests by themselves and have a good chance.

Santa Theoden, like his Tactics Counterpart, suffers from the fact that his stats are pulling in different directions, and it never really feels like you get your money’s worth – the fact that his threat cost exceeds the sum of his stats is a big negative in this respect, but the real issue is that he has stat points widely spread, and can’t get the action advantage to make use of them all: Sentinel makes you want to defend with him, but 2 defence / 4 hit-points is flimsy for a main-defender. Steed of the Mark does allow him to re-ready, so you can quest and fight, or attack and defend, but the resource each round is a high-cost. Likewise, whilst Theoden allows you to play those allies cheaply, to trigger their discard abilities, or to pay for events, this only really works until about turn 4, where you find that the lack of card-draw has left you with no more allies to play, and the deck stalls out.

Finally though, in the dying weeks of 2015, the Land of Shadow box arrived, and I was able to add what I hoped had been the missing ingredients. Weirdly, despite having waited so long for the box, there were only actually 2 cards that I was waiting for – Snowmane and Gamling. However, they looked like they might provide the tipping point for making the Spirit side of Rohan really click

Snowling For a one-off cost of 1 (rather than a round-by-round cost), and fetchable with a horse-breeder, Snowmane allows you to use Theoden for questing and combat, at which point, he can finally start to be useful – if you can get Herugrim in there it becomes nice and smashy. It does have the extra requirement that you quest successfully every round, but if this deck isn’t questing well, it probably isn’t doing anything.

Gamling on the other hand, provides the recycling you need for your discarded allies: For a significant, but not impossible investment of 3 (more likely 2 if he is the first ally of the round), you can retrieve an ally each round. As an ally, he’s going to contribute very little directly, but giving up that action can allow you to keep cycling someone like the Escort from Edoras for 4 willpower per round.

These are the cards I’d been waiting for all these months, and it was finally time to build a deck with them. I put aside all of the home-brewed cards, to see how an authentic Rohan experience felt in the modern day.

Mustering the Rohirrim

I decided on Theoden (Treason of Sarumann), Eowyn, and Theodred for the first deck.

I sat down for a while, threw some cards together, and found myself with a 75-card deck. I then reminded myself why I was building the deck, and took out all the homebrewed cards (mine and the ones made by the good people of the internet). After another couple of sifts through, I managed to get in down to 51 cards, which was as close as I was likely to get, whilst retaining allies, as much card draw as I could find in-sphere, and a bit of threat/location control.

For the first few outings, I paired the deck with a pre-existing Ent build I had, that used Beravor, Mablung and Beregond: the two decks meshed nicely, and we beat Passage of the Marshes on the second attempt.

Hill-TrollI then branched out solo, and went right back to basics: Passage Through Mirwkood. The draws were not kind to me, with 2 rounds in a row of Dol Guldur Orcs [the “2 damage to a questing character” really stings], at the end of which I limped home from even this rather tame challenge. I certainly didn’t feel ready for Journey Along the Anduin.

The main problem with the mostly spirit deck, is that it just requires too many moving pieces. You need Gamling to recycle your allies, and you need Herugrim to ever stand a chance of killing anything. You need Snowmane to get a decent action economy out of Theoden, and you also need some kind of card-draw to keep all the pieces working, and even when you’re done, you still can’t really fight against modern enemies (no character with more than 3 defence, and your best hero defender is also your only decent attacker).

 

Riding to War

Whilst some amount of solo capability would be nice, most of the time, I’ll be pairing the Spirit-ish deck with a more martial partner: using Eomer, Hama, and Imrahil (as noted in the past, Imrahil is my choice for most thematic non-Rohan hero in a Rohan deck).

Whilst I didn’t want to abandon the Rohan theme altogether, I did allow a broader sprinkling of things from outside the box: some Gondor allies, which allow Imrahil to power up the questing with Visionary Leadership were the main concession here. As Imrahil himself can take a Gondorian Shield to get a reasonably solid 4 defence, you won’t die quite so quickly to normal-sized enemies, whilst Eomer + Firefoot is always a good attacking option.

FoeHamaThe deck still has its struggles, of course. The most powerful, repeatable card-draw in Tactics is the Foe-Hama, but the deck doesn’t naturally lend itself to weapons (Eomer wants at least one of his restricted slots for a horse, we don’t have the staging-area capability to make use of Spear of the Mark, and threat is too high to get much mileage out of Dagger of Westernesse, so getting the initial cards to tee things up can be tricky.

 

Defensive?

I’ve mentioned several times the lack of good defence options in Rohan. I do use the Warden of Helm’s deep, who does a solid job for an ally if you can get him out, and some of the higher-cost unique allies have good stats, but overall the options are not spectacular.

Erkenbrand I’m aware that there is someone I haven’t mentioned up until now, Rohan’s defender in chief, Erkenbrand. 3 Defence, 4 hit-points and Sentinel makes him a more solid blocker than anyone else in Rohan, and the ability to cancel shadow-effects allows you to defend with a lot more confidence. Compared with Theodred, whose stats can probably best be described as “feeble” he seems to make a good case for inclusion.

The trouble with Erkenbrand though, is that his stats come at a cost: his threat is 2 higher than Theodred, which might not seem like a lot, but in a deck with Theoden and Eowyn, it is the difference between the Hill Troll coming to get you on turn 1, or having a few seconds’ breathing-space. Also, whilst Theodred’s statistics are woeful, the extra resource every round that the young prince brings can be vital when churning out allies at a rate of knots. Even the shadow-cancellation Erkenbrand offers is limited in its utility when neither deck has any healing, as it can only be used 3 times at most, with the 4th proving fatal.

There certainly is scope for getting good use out of Erkenbrand, but I don’t think it’s within the context of an all-Rohan set-up.

Still Left behind?

It’s also worth noting that whilst the Rohirrim were being (slowly) mustered, others have not lain idle: Ents are a thing now, as are Dunedain, whilst the Noldor have new tricks to play with your discard pile. All of this means that the newer quests continue to get harder. Battle of Carn Dum is probably the most brutal quest we’ve encountered so far, but even a slightly calmer modern-day offering like Treachery of Rhudaur (allegedly a mere 5) is a real challenge.

Mustering-the-Rohirrim

Why isn’t this card called “here now the horse and the rider?”

I’ll continue to experiment with the Rohan decks – if you can generate the resource acceleration, an Eowyn deck is a reasonable one in which to put Elven-Light for a little bit more card-draw (discard for a will-power boost, then pull it back to draw a card). Currently I’m using Ancient Mathom, which is yet another card that just requires a bit too much setting up (need to draw, have a location to attach it to [i.e. one that isn’t immune] then explore it, all for a one-off boost of 3 cards). Cards like Mustering the Rohirrim feel like they should have a place in this deck, but the fact that you only get 1 ally, not “any” is a bit too restrictive (compare The Eagles are Coming, or Ent Moot)

Ultimately, I expect I’ll end up swapping back in some of the custom cards – between some of the things I’ve brewed myself, and a guy on board-game geek who has re-tooled some of the Core Set / Mirkwood Cycle allies to bring them in line with a more contemporary power-curve, there are some decent options out there. I continue to hope though, for a few official cards to enable a deck that I want to take to Organised Play events…

Now-for-Wrath!-Now-for-Ruin!-Front-Face