I may be some time…
I may be some time…
after a slightly longer pause than intended (I blame starting a new job), it’s time for the next installment in the Locations review.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should let you all know that The Ringmaker cycle is probably my least favourite so far – I never really liked the time mechanic, the Dunlendings felt thematically off, and it failed to deliver on early promise of finally fleshing out the Rohan trait.
For this article though, I’ll do my best to put as many of those personal gripes as I can aside (I can’t promise 100% success), and focus on the locations of the cycle: how they worked, when they were hideously convoluted, and the positive aspects.
The Deluxe itself- Voice of Isengard – laid the foundation for 3 fairly distinct settings in the campaign: the plains around Isengard itself, the wild hills of Dunland, and dark and ominous forests. Interestingly, comparatively few of the locations from this box actually found their way into the later adventures, with the enemies and treacheries being the cards more commonly carried over.
One of the few encounter sets which did show up repeatedly, was Broken Lands. First appearing in the Second Scenario, To Catch an Orc, it had 3 copies of 1 hideous location, the eponymous Broken Lands themselves. Whilst they only had 2 threat, they were a chunky 6 progress to explore, and has a passive effect which prevented progress being placed on locations in the staging area whilst they were in the staging area. The rest of the locations in that scenario were, actually, not that huge (average threat/progress of 3), but there was one – Methedras – which boosted the threat of all the others, and things could swiftly get out of control. Essentially, once you drew Broken Lands, you had to travel and clear it, before you drew another copy – in high-player counts, an early one of these basically meant instant location-lock.
The Woodland setting for into Fangorn kept threat on locations moderate, but required high numbers of progress to get anywhere.
Moving on into the cycle proper, the non-unique locations were generally not the central focus of the quests – although some, like The Three Trials, still hit you hard with the 3 non-unique, but only copy each Barrow locations, with an average threat of 3, and 8 progress required. Others like the Dunland Trap or The Antlered Crown spun on a quest-card mechanic that somewhat dwarfed the impact of individual cards in the staging area.
Easily my favourite scenario of this cycle was Trouble in Tharbad – it got a bit of stick when it came out (especially from some of the power-gamers) for being too easy, but in my book, that was a significant part of its charm: this was a scenario that allowed enough scope for players to try different things out, rather than just charging full-tilt with an aggro deck at everything. (it’s worth remembering that this is around the time that the One-Boromir-to-rule-them-all deck first came to prominence).
Tharbad also had some brilliantly simple and thematic locations. The Decrepit Rooftops sent all the enemies back to the staging area (you are hiding on the roof), whilst the Streets of Tharbad gave all the enemies -20 engagement cost (what do you expect walking down the road in broad daylight?)
The trouble with Tharbad is that it was followed up immediately with the absolute slog that is Nin-in-Eilph. The positive about this quest, is that it captured very well the feeling of trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost. The problem is that trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost is a fairly miserable experience – it isn’t really one which you want to recapture accurately! Finger of Glanduin acted like a reverse Northern Tracker, eating away the progress on locations, whilst Sinking Bog gave characters -1 to all their stats for each Item they had.
By the end of the cycle, the complexity was really starting to stack up. Celebrimbor’s Secret saw locations destroyed, which got them out of the staging area, but powered up some really nasty quest effects. The Antlered Crown was a fairly early experiment with separating the locations and (some of) the enemies into separate decks, it was a constant nightmare for attempting to keep track of all the different passive effects and triggers. Amongst all that, you had a pile of locations with time counters on, whose power to hurt you far outweighed their modest stats. As always, credit to the designers for their innovation, but by-and-large, these quests felt like a bit of a miss to me.
Number-crunching the Ringmaker cycle is slightly difficult. For one thing, the classic strategy of just about keeping your head above water until you can get a couple of Northern Trackers out and watch the locations go away was rarely viable in a quest that featured time, or in one which featured the Broken Lands. This was a cycle where you had to power quest every turn, take the big attacks on the chin, and be ready to hit back twice as hard. As such, the actual difficulty posed by the locations was probably greater than in a quest pre-time-mechanics where the average threat and progress values were the same. For that reason, the numbers generally look fairly reasonable: average threats around 3, with progress requirements probably nudging a bit closer to 4, it doesn’t look like a major step up from Against the Shadow, but it certainly had the potential to feel that way.
At least the Ringmaker cycle did give some scope to allow the players to tech against all these nasty locations. A new hero, Idraen was probably the first to interact directly with locations, and her ability to ready after a location was explored allowed long-neglected cards like Strength of Will to make a come-back: if you can travel to a location which only needs 2 more progress, this card essentially allows her to explore it for free.
Along with Idraen, the first of the scouts, we got some early support for the scout trait, in the form of the Warden of Arnor attachement. Once attached to a questing scout Hero, this placed a progress token on the first location revealed every round.
This card always felt a bit lacklustre to me: it draws my mind back to a “Strider” custom hero I made several years ago, a Spirit version of Aragorn who acted as a Thalin for locations, placing 1 progress on each location revealed whilst he was questing. Given the size of modern locations, I really don’t think that the card would have been overpowered if it had done this, and my lack of enthusiasm is unlikely to change, but it is at least cheap enough that if you’ve got a scout who’s going to be questing every round, there’s little reason not to slap it on her.
Aside from these two, there wasn’t really a lot more on offer for dealing with locations: Ringmaker saw the rise of the Silvans, talented multi-taskers, and sneaky little blighters, but with little in the way of direction location control. It did lead to a bit of a revival for the Lorien Guide, who was good at whittling away active locations, but did little for the staging area.
Ringmaker is still the cycle I look back on with the least fondness, and was the point at which I first let slip my ongoing aim of beating all new quests at least once with 1, 2, 3 and 4 players. The locations are more irritating than intriguing, and apart from Tharbad, they didn’t particularly interest me.
However, the Scout trait got its start there, and this was probably the first time we really got focused location-control decks (3 Spirit Heroes + 3 Northern Trackers doesn’t count), and those can still be used 2 or 3 cycles later, with the hills of Dunland far behind us, so it wasn’t a dead loss.
That’s about all for today, but I’ll be back in a week or 2 to take a look at the locations in the Saga boxes which represented The Two Towers.
Moving sideways from the regular Deluxe and AP cycles, I want to think today about the locations in the Saga boxes that recreate the events of the first 2 Lord of the Rings books – Black Riders and the Road Darkens.
Black Riders was the first time we had seen the events of The Lord of the Rings itself directly represented in card form, and the box came with an almost ready-made new deck, the Hobbits who rely on low threat, and gain powerful extra effects when they take on foes who would not necessarily have noticed them. For that reason, the box is a favourite with many fans, but how do the quests themselves measure up?
Taking the idea of low-profile Hobbits and pushing it to its ultimate conclusion, the first scenario centred around the Hide test – another one of the “exhaust characters, discard cards from the deck, and hope you’ve beaten the arbitrary number that comes up” mechanics that appear as one-offs in quests. Many of the locations tie-in directly to the hide mechanic, making tests harder or easier, or simply requiring you to take another one of the tests.
There are quite a lot of locations in the first quest, and this becomes particularly problematic when you reach the final stage and are attempting to travel to the Buckleberry Ferry – this unique location is immune to player card effects, and can only be travelled to if there are no other locations in play. In our experience, this can lead to round after round where you smash the questing, but can’t clear enough locations in 1 go to be allowed to travel (there is some help available from the quest card, but in 4-player it’s often not enough).
Moving on to Bree, there are more unique locations, starting with The Prancing Pony and proceeding on through Midgewater, to finally end up at Weathertop itself. The unique locations give shape to the overall narrative of the quest, and have fairly powerful effects, both good and bad. This pattern is continued in the Flight to the Ford, where the Last Bridge and Ford of the Bruinen draw directly from the books for their abilities.
I like the fact that the designers produced an expansion so obviously grounded in the source material, and some effects are pure narrative gold – there are few finer feelings in the game than exploring the Ford of the Bruinen and discarding a whole host of Nazgul.
That said, the decision-making in this box often felt very constricted: many of the unique locations are put into play by quest effects, or need to be explored before the stage can be completed. As such, whilst we see these iconic locations as we go along, there’s actually fairly limited interaction with them – you travel when you have to, and explore them once you’ve mustered enough progress. That’s about it.
Box 2 (for book 2, none of this nonsense about Lord of the Rings being a Trilogy) felt to me like they’d managed to strike more of a balance with the locations – the fact that we had already spent so much time in Moria meant that the designers had already had plenty of chance to play around with mechanics that might represent the Doors of Durin or the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, and these certainly felt like the refined version. The first quest out of Rivendell could well prove to be the death of the hobbits, as damage is scattered across locations, triggering in turn cascades of nasty effects.
The mines are really well done as ever – confusing passageways, and labyrinths which soak up your progress. Darkened ways which might reveal more enemies, or even a nice, defensible guard-room to make a brief stand. Obviously The Great Bridge is the centre-piece and it’s hard to argue with the thematic win of casting a hero into the abyss to remove the Balrog’s keywords – that said, I remain disappointed by / in denial of the notion that the Balrog only has one keyword. It never occurred to us when we first played it that “Immune to Player Card Effects” wasn’t a keyword, and I won’t allow FFG to take away the brilliant moment when we finished off the Balrog with a lone attack from a Mirkwood Runner for the last 2 damage.
The final quest returns to the stacked sequence of unique locations, and gives you very little choice over what to do in the early rounds, along with providing heavy punishment for certain deck-types. Whilst the initial stages can get annoying though, I’m generally prepared to give them a pass, because I’m such a fan of the way the latter part of the quest is done: I really like the multiple staging areas, and the way cards move between them, it felt like a clever way of representing a party scattered across a fast-flowing river, and made for an enjoyable experience. In campaign mode, the Seat of Seeing adds another fun element of decision-making, as you have to weigh whether to stall the quest a little longer in an attempt to get rid of those burdens.
Overall, I think the first 2 Saga Boxes for Lord of the Rings did a really good job of capturing the flavour of the books, and the latter box in particular managed to convert them into enjoyable quests to play. Although these two boxes relied quite heavily on having cards that were unique to each quest, I actually thought that some of the most interesting locations came in the sets that were shared across multiple quests, The Old Road and Pathless Country. Both of these offered fairly low-to-middling stat-lines, but combined them with effects that forced players to make choices – The Old Road can be gone in a heartbeat, if you take on the peril of another Burden. The Pathless County can be left and tracked over the course of several rounds, but it will take a long time, due to those conditional extra progress tokens – this type of mechanic, where players are given meaningful choices definitely scores them points in my book.
One thing that the Fellowship of the Rings boxes didn’t really offer a lot of, was new cards for players to deal with locations – in fact, there was nothing within the standard card-pool that would allow us to manipulate threat, progress, or effects on locations. The “Lorien Rope” Boon provided a powerful effect, reducing the threat of every location in the staging area by 2 for a round, but to trigger it, you had to remove the card from the campaign pool, so it wasn’t something you could really rely on, even in campaign mode (and wasn’t available at all outside of it).
One card that was interesting was the Elf-Stone: this actually added to the number of progress required to explore a location, but allowed you to put an ally into play when it was explored. This required some set-up – it could only attach to the active location, and only the first player got to place the free ally, so there was a danger that it would fail if not triggered properly, but with a bit of coordination, it allowed that low-cost, low-threat Hobbit deck to put Gildor, Faramir, or Beorn into play for a single Lore Resource and an extra willpower in questing.
Overall, the Fellowship boxes were good. I’m not a fan of Shadow of the Past, due to the way you can so easily get stuck on stage 3, and Bill Ferny is more trouble than he ought to be, but from a locations perspective, these boxes are a particular high-point in conveying the designers’ love of the source material. I think that the second box is better in terms of how enjoyable the locations actually make the quests to play and having re-visited the cards to write this article, I’m keen to actually re-play some of these quests soon.
“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”
Some thoughts on both of Fantasy Flight’s Cooperative LCGs
About 6 or 7 years ago now, I used to play the Game of Thrones LCG – first edition. There was a lot I liked about the game: the overall mechanics, the deck-building aspect, the way the card-pool was constantly refreshed, with new options becoming viable and, above all, the way that the game took a world that I was a fan of from the books, and allowed things to be played out in game form.
There were problems though: I played the game a few times at home, but my wife didn’t want to deck build, and soon got tired of the one-sided games which resulted when I knew every card in her deck, and she had no real notion of what was in mine: I attempted to introduce the game to others too, but had similar problems. None of the people I knew were sufficiently big on both Game of Thrones and Card Games to get into it heavily, and it just didn’t work as a casual game.
Then something happened: Fantasy Flight Games announced something new – a cooperative Living Card Game set in Middle Earth – taking that little-illuminated period between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the day Frodo sets out from the Shire, this was a game that would allow players to make their own adventures in this world.
I bought the Lord of the Rings LCG the day it came out, and loved it. We made some stupid mistakes to begin with (counting the threat of engaged enemies was a big one), but gradually we figured out what we were doing. I played it solo, with my wife, and with groups of friends in 3 and 4-player. For years I bought every product that they made for this game, although after the first few cycles, I gave up on the Nightmare decks.
When a new pack came out, I would instantly look to play the quest, and to build with the player cards. I made a point of using every hero at least once, even if there were obvious favourites or duds, and played all the different deck-styles that came along.
Fast-forward 5 and a bit years, and things have changed a lot: the game is harder, it’s deeper – with much more complex board states, and it’s generally just more involved. Any thought of “1 deck to rule them all” has long since ceased to seem plausible, and more-and-more, each quest requires a deck specifically tailored to its demands. The sheer number of different deck-types that are possible has multiplied beyond imagining.
Even something as simple as playing all the heroes has become a challenge. Historically, I’ve given myself the goal of winning at least one scenario with each new hero – specifically that means it’s got to be me piloting the deck and, as noted, that I need to win. At the time of writing though, Spirit Beregond, Cirdan, Elfhelm, Tactics Eowyn, Na’Asiyah, and Tactics Imrahil are all failing on this count (although I have had success with the new Legolas and Gimli)..
There is some mitigation to this: Beregond, Cirdan and Eowyn have all brought success for my wife and other players in our games, and Elfhelm has attempted several quests, even if he’s not actually managed to secure victory.
Looking back over the records of the past years, there are 5 heroes who have been used over 100 times, and a further 8 who have hit the table more than 50 times. By contrast, the most recent heroes are struggling to see victory at all – from the latest deluxe/ AP cycle, only Denethor has made it past 5 wins, and only Damrod out of the last 2 Saga boxes. To put this in a broader context, the only older heroes played fewer than 5 times are Dori, Erestor, Spirit Pippin and Tactics Theoden – 3 of which are useless, and one 1 which is just a bit too fiddly for me (Erestor).
I’m still plugging away at LotR, trying to get it back to the table more often. After 36 games in the first quarter, it dropped off – only 5 in the second quarter, then back up to 15 for the third. Final quarter is currently at 25, but with a little time left on the clock. Compared with 2015, where 30 was the lowest count for any quarter, there’s clearly an issue of overall reduced play-count: less than half as many games as last year.
At times this year, I’ve definitely approached quests in a state of near despair, learned helplessness. Whichever deck(s) I try to bring prove themselves completely unsuited for the task, and the sheer number of possibilities out there, half of which aren’t really viable, is just a bit too overwhelming to know how to carry on. When I build a deck and it doesn’t work, is it because I’ve brought it to the wrong quest? Or because the deck needs changing? – if the deck does need changing, there are just so many good cards out there, that it’s nearly impossible to know which to include.
Arkham Horror the card game is also a cooperative LCG from Fantasy Flight, and it shares a designer along with several recognisable features with LotR. That said, there is also a lot about it that’s different.
For one thing, Arkham has only been out a month or two, and there is currently only the one product available, the Core Set (there are two print-on-demand scenarios out there somewhere, but they haven’t reached the UK distributor) – that means that there are only 5 Investigators (the closest equivalent to LotR’s Heroes) and only a very small pool of cards for them to build their decks from – in fact, unless you have bought 2 copies of the Core Set, you can’t really do any deck-building worthy of the name.
This translates fairly directly into hard numbers: so far, three of the investigators have been played in 4 games, with Skids and Daisy reaching the dizzier heights of 11 and 12 games – one of them may yet be a Lore Glorfindel waiting to happen, but for now there’s no room for passengers.
Deck-Building in Arkham is very different from LotR – decks are smaller, and you can only have a maximum of 2 copies of a card, rather than 3. The game is designed for campaign play from the outset meaning that, instead of the Treasurers or Boons which we’ve seen in LotR (Cool but frustratingly limited in when you can use them) you have “upgraded” cards designed to make your deck more powerful as it goes. As I noted in a recent article over at Mythos Busters though, the card pool is currently so small that there are very few high-level cards in play, making character class a lot less important than it feels like it ought to be.
Since I first decided to get this game, it’s been my hope that it would act as a positive for my LotR deck-building. The reminder of what it feels like to play a brand new LCG, to be building decks with only the barest number of cards makes you appreciate the embarrassment of riches that we have in the veteran amongst Co-op LCGs.
There has been a lot of discussion on the internet since the announcement of Arkham about whether its arrival heralds the death knell of LotR. This is hardly surprising: people have been convinced that the game was dying long before this came along.
On a more cynical note, FFG are devoting a lot of resources to developing their Arkham line at the moment, and it would make a fair amount of sense if that led to cut-backs elsewhere. However, all the indications in the past have been that LotR sells well, and it would seem unlikely that they would get rid of a product line that makes them money.
It’s quite easy to see the mark of LotR in Arkham – the way locations are done in this game definitely feels like it got a test-run in the Dreamchaser cycle, and the end result is a more polished, cleaner implementation – hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to see the favour returned: concepts piloted in Arkham, and then put to use in LotR. Game of Thrones LCG recently hosted their Battle of the Trident event, where players were able to cast their votes for the development of a particular trait in the game’s future. Anyone familiar with the history of the Legend of the Five Rings games (soon to be re-booted as an FFG LCG), will know that having the player-community influence the long-term direction of the game has long been central to this IP. To me this definitely feels like the designers are testing the waters for a way to have community-driven content in an FFG game, and I don’t think anyone expects them to abandon AGoT any time soon.
My hope for the future, is that the arrival of Arkham will strengthen the world of Co-op LCGs. After all, there are twice as many of them as there were last year! I hope it will lead to new ideas and innovations at designer level, and on a more personal note, I hope that playing each will remind of the things I like about the other, increasing my enjoyment of the old along with the new.
I think it’s fairly certain that we’ll get the Haradrim Cycle and the final Saga box to finish off the Return Of The King. Beyond that, I don’t know, any more than anyone else without FFG insider contacts does: I think that there’s still scope to keep expanding the game (I’m still holding out hope for a Maglor objective ally), but even if they did stop printing new content, I think that there’s so much out already that we could keep playing for a few years yet. I certainly don’t have any intention of abandoning this blog any time soon, even if there are inevitably things which get in the way of posting quite as often as I’d like.
I’d be interested to know whether other people have picked up Arkham, and where you feel the future of the 2 games lies…
Heirs of Numenor was the second Deluxe expansion for Lord of the Rings, and the starting point for the third cycle of the game’s life.
Ostensibly the biggest change in this cycle came with the new mechanics: Battle and Siege, which turned the game on its head as characters were required to quest using their Attack or Defence respectively, rather than their traditional Willpower. It was also, perhaps a last hurrah for the idea that this game was primarily based around Spheres of Influence, rather than the “Tribal” themes which drew together decks of mostly Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim, or Gondor, as the player-card pool received a series of cards which supported players running Mono-sphere decks.
However, in keeping with our ongoing series, I wanted to focus more today on the locations of the Against the Shadow, to trace the commonalities which remained and the subtle changes which came in.
Heirs of Numenor itself contained several punishing quests: a brawl in the streets of Pelargir, a chance encounter with a Haradrim Army on the road through Ithilien, and finally the Siege of Cair Andros: each of these quests plagued us with new, brutal enemies and ghastly treacheries (Infinite Loop of Blocking Wargs anyone?) but the locations were also a significant part.
The urban locations of Peril in Pelargir look fairly innocuous at first glance, but they had a few nasty tricks up their sleeves – for example, the 1-progress location with the highish threat, a resource cost to travel, and an immunity to player-card effects. Having this kind of immunity on a non-unique location which just came out of the deck at random was a new and disturbing twist. It was combo-ed with the City Street, essentially a modern-day version of the East Bight – it only required 2 progress to explore, but it had double the threat, and that same requirement which meant you had to travel to it.
Starting Active Locations with unpleasant effects were also a big thing in this cycle. Whereas earlier in the game’s life we had tended to see these locations start in the staging area, now it became more common for their effect to be in play from the word go – whether that be the Leaping Fish churning out enemies turn after turn, or the Ithilien Road ensuring that if you couldn’t win the quest by at least 4 on turn 1, all of those Haradrim enemies were coming to get you.
In terms of the overall stats, the locations in Heirs weren’t all that different from earlier cycles: average threat and progress values, at least for the non-uniques continued to hover around the same level. What had changed though, was the tricksyness. Instead of bringing Asfaloth and co and completely nullifying the issue, you now needed all those tools just to keep on top of things.
The Against the Shadow cycle itself saw a wide variety of locations, any many of them reflected that quest’s unique: Underworld in the Steward’s Fear, Villagers in Encounter at Amon Din, Hidden Cards in The Blood of Gondor. Even when the keyword itself was not directly carried across, there was a stronger sense of thematic tie-in in this cycle: for example all of the resource denial in Druadan Forest to complement the Prowl Mechanic, or the wat that locations in The Morgul Vale tried to add progress to To The Tower, or else simply flung things back to the staging area in order to slow the players down.
The overall effect of this was to make locations something that was much more of an issue than in earlier cycles – you certainly could just track away most of the places you went in the Steward’s Fear, but if you did so, there was a very real danger of getting suddenly ambushed by a large number of enemies from the Underworld deck. If you didn’t come with ways of dealing with the Druadan Forest, the Woses and their accompanying treacheries suddenly took on a rather fearsome aspect, with Threats of X and high archery totals. Encounter at Amon Din was largely an exercise in exploring as many locations as possible as fast as possible: Mostly low-threat, high progress, they look like ideal targets for the Northern Tracker, were it not for the Villagers burning alive round-by-round.
Probably the most notable Quest of the Cycle from a location perspective though, was Assault on Osgiliath. This was ostensibly a street-fight, a back-and-forth tussle to take the city, street by street, location by location. When a location was explored, the players took control of it, potentially bringing a benefit, but more commonly just another condition they needed to watch out for which could see that control lost if they left an attack undefended or a character was destroyed.
The lone quest card prevented progress from being placed on locations in the staging area, meaning that players needed to find lots of tricks to juggle locations around if they were to have any hope of exploring more than 1 per round, although some flat-out banned you from travelling there, instead having their own built-in mechanics to acquire progress.
The overall objective for Assault on Osgiliath was to control all the Osgiliath locations at the end of the round and, as originally printed, it was rather broken – you could choose the starting location which had the action “exhaust a hero to place a progress here” and then use Boromir to take control of it in a single turn. This got “fixed” in the Nightmare version and, even before the official changes, most people only used this trick once then got bored, and looked for other ways to beat it.
Overall, the locations of this cycle posed more challenges than those in the Dwarrowdelf – it wasn’t necessarily that the numbers were much higher: average progress requirements were up to averages of 3 or 4, only a little higher than Dwarrowdelf, and threats, for the most part, were no higher. The big difference this cycle was the greater synergy to the encounter decks overall, a different emphasis on punishing the players for things that seemed like they should be positives.
As the problems caused by locations slowly ramped up in difficulty, the Player Card pool began to lag behind, with almost nothing appearing in this cycle to help the players out with location control.
The Heirs deluxe box probably contained the most direct attempt at location control, A Watchful Peace – this was a spirit event which allowed players to return innocuous locations to the top of the encounter deck after they left play – interesting, but hardly powerful.
Of course, with the advantage of a few year’s hindsight, the power of a Caldara deck has become fairly clear, and being able to jump multiple Northern Trackers or Lorien Guides into play in a single turn certainly shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of dealing with locations, but really, it was just accelerating the arrival of existing tools, rather than really giving us new ones.
Overall, the Against the Shadow cycle felt like it offered a sharper set of locations – locations that really felt like integral parts of the quests they came in- the difficulty certainly increased, and the proliferation of new in this quest, never seen again mechanics could be a bit frustrating, but overall the part played by locations in these quests was good.
Join me next time for a hurried, panicked dash through the locations of the Ringmaker cycle
It won’t have escaped your attention that the Grey Havens box and the Dream Chaser cycle that followed it, featured boats. Perhaps not as many boats as we first expected, but sailing has certainly been a feature of the most recent cycle and, having completed City of Corsairs a couple of days ago and seen the final bit of sailing we will have to do, I thought it might be a good time to take a bit of a look back, and see how the sailing had been overall.
To be honest, there haven’t been as many sailing quests as I first expected: there was the first quest of the Deluxe, Voyage Across Belegaer, the first AP of the cycle, Flight of the Storm Caller, then a prolonged period where we were either on a ship but not sailing it (Thing in the Depths) or simply back on dry land (Temple of the Deceived, Drowned Ruins). A Storm on Coba’s Haven returned us to the waves, and the first part of City of Corsairs saw the Dreamchaser off for one last hurrah – only 3 1/4 Sailing quests all-told! When the cycle was first announced, I certainly had the impression that there would have been far more of these, but given the need for the ships that came in the Deluxe (not to mention that the next cycle involves a desert), I’m not holding my breath for any more (any chance of a camel with the “ship-of-the-desert-objective card type? …)
Having reached the end (presumably) of new shipping content, I want to look at how it changed the game: with our ships, the encounter deck ships, and other things which came along into the bargain.
There are 4 ships included in the Grey Havens box – one, the Dreamchaser is always part of your fleet when you are sailing, and is the compulsory first pick. Once one player has taken the Dreamchaser, each other player chooses one of the remaining ships to take, and in solo you get a second ship for yourself – at best, this means picking 1 or 2 out of 3 possibilities to use (once you’re using all of them, it no longer really feels like a “pick”) and more often than not assembling your fleet just becomes an argument about who gets lumbered with the Dreamchaser.
There are certainly a selection of interesting effects available from the ships, but as I say, the choice does feel limited – I’d assumed we would get additional ships during the cycle, to give us an incentive to go back and re-play earlier quests again, but the original list was never expanded upon.
As we’ve played this cycle mostly 2-player with a little bit of solo, it’s generally been about choosing a single escort for the Dreamchaser, and the choice has almost always been Narelenya. The once-per-round cost reduction of an ally is a really powerful effect in almost any deck, and it’s particularly true of my wife’s current Gondor deck, and of course, my tried-and-tested solo deck: Play as many Dwarves as you can.
Of the remaining two ships, the extra card-draw of the Dawn Star is obviously very useful, but +3 starting threat is a heavy penalty: most decks I build either have too high a threat already for this to be safe, or else have a particular reliance on their low threat (secrecy, reliance on non-engagement of enemies etc), and can’t afford the bump.
On the flip side, threat reduction is nice, as offered by Silver Wing, but is the +1 attack per hero worth it? Potentially with the difficulty of Corsair bashing this is one we should investigated in more detail but I can’t recall ever using this solo or 2-player. Perhaps a Lorgaron deck might be able to get better mileage out of, but for us it never felt worthwhile. It would actually be quite nice if you could leave out the Dreamchaser, and have Dawn Star and Silver Wing balance each other out in solo, but sadly this is never an option.
As well as the player-controlled ships there were, of course, also the enemy ships, and typically these were fairly big, nasty, beasts.
Most Ship enemies had a few things in common – big stats, the “Boarding” Keyword, and limited interaction with other player-card types.
The big stats make sense. A ship is a significant thing, and it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be only hitting as hard as an orc. Likewise, the limited interaction with player cards: only a ship you control can defend against a Ship enemy.
The squire of the citadel might be able to stand in the path of horde of Dunlendings, or even a few Undead (and by “stand in the path” I mean “occupy them for a round whilst they brutally slaughter him”) but the idea that he’s going to hold up a ship for a noticeable amount of time is a bit more of a stretch: he’ll either be dragged under, or smashed by the timbers, either way, the Squire is ending up dead and the crew of the boat probably doesn’t even notice.
The biggest problem I had with ships though (generally), was the Boarding Keyword: essentially, a requirement to engage a Corsair Enemy whenever you engage a ship. Again, this makes a lot of sense thematically: when your boat tries to fight another boat, you’ll probably find that there’s a crew to tangle with, so I can’t fault them on that front. The execution though, was rather different.
For one thing, I’m never a great fan of anything that requires me to divide the encounter deck into two different decks: the card-backs are all the same, and it’s all-too easy to get the cards mixed up, or put something in the wrong discard pile, and find them getting shuffled into the wrong deck. “Extra decks” have been an ever-more-common feature of the game as its life has gone on, and they always feel fiddly.
Beyond that though, it just made the burden of combat feel too uneven. We’ve played quite a few quests this cycle combining a fight-y Gondor deck and a Spirit Questing deck – once the Spirit deck has properly got set up, it has some decent combat potential (Idraen and Lanwyn are amongst heroes, and it also runs ally Glorfindel, Northern Trackers and Rhovanion Outriders) – against a normal enemy or two, it can handle a fight. What it can’t deal with is a massive boat AND a few random pirate enemies thrown in on top, especially when many of those pirates have resource-stealing mechanics which make them more and more powerful if you can’t kill them in a single round. Even for the Gondor deck, defending a ship with their ship, defending a handful of Corsairs and being expected to strike back again, is a major problem – if you don’t have Boromir the Steward of Gondorian Fire set up, along with a bucketload of threat-reduction, it’s just not feasible, and that’s coming from a deck that’s designed to be able to handle combat.
As well as being uneven, the Boarding mechanic also increases the sheer number of cards you have to deal with each round: It feels like a particularly cruel trick on the part of the designers to finally give us some limited consolation against surge, in the form of Lanwyn, then bring in a mechanic that does all the nasty aspects of surge without actually bearing the keyword (and therefore not triggering her ability.)
In a lot of ways the Corsairs felt a bit like the Dunlendings – they’ve taken a really interesting idea, tying together a group of enemies with a particular theme/mechanic, but then putting it on top of base stats that are simply too high: someone like the Cunning Pirate is likely to be starting at 4 attack, 4 defence, 4 hit-points, and the Umbar Raider only needs to survive a round or two before he’s going to be smashing clean through anything and everything that comes along to stand in his way: not a nice prospect for someone who always arrives as part of a crowd.
Whilst you’re dealing with all these million enemies, it’s worth remembering that you also need to sail: it’s easy enough to forget with only that little keyword tucked in to the side. If you only learn one thing about sailing quests, make sure it’s this.
Make sure you always pass the sailing test.
If you’re on-course, a lot of the location / treachery effects in these quests really aren’t that bad- some of them won’t do anything at all. On the other hand, if you’re even slightly off-course, you can expect to be battered, bruised and broken as the waves toss you in all directions.
As sailing is one of those rather frustrating “reveal X cards from the encounter deck and hope you do / don’t find a random symbol printed in the corner” type checks, you regularly have to over-commit in order to ensure you stay on course (even scrying is of fairly limited use unless you happen to hit a success on the very first card), leaving you without the excess hands you’d need to deal with all the other things going on. In some quests, the proportion of cards in the deck which actually counted as a pass in the sailing test was so low that once I got knocked off course (for example to avoid a ship returning to the staging area and re-boarding me next turn), it was almost impossible to pull it back.
The fact that the Dream Chaser can commit to sailing tests even when not controlled by the first player does help a little with smoothing, but I’m still not sure I can see the logic thematically – given that each player is notionally on their own ship, Sailing Tests feel like they should be done by the whole party, rather than player-by-player, and it certainly feels galling later on in the game having to put in a 5 willpower ship to the sailing test when a player who isn’t doing the check has a couple of 1 or 0 willpower guys sat around twiddling their thumbs.
For all my curmudgeonly thoughts, I’m glad that the designers are still trying to be innovative with how they approach the game. For me, sailing was an area where they didn’t quite hit the mark, but things could certainly have been a lot worse. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems fairly certain that the Sands of Harad will be fairly light on oceangoing vessel, but I look forward to seeing what new perils they have in store for us instead.
Last time out, I thought a little bit about the locations we saw in the Core Set and the first cycle of the game. Today I want to look at the next period in the game’s evolution: Khazad-Dum and the Dwarrowdelf Cycle, along with the 2 Hobbit Saga Boxes
Technically, the second Hobbit landed slightly after the Heirs of Numenor Deluxe did, but it just feels much neater thematically to divide this way. Don’t worry though, everyone will get their turn…
Khazad-Dum is a mine, whatever Gimli might try to tell you, and that meant lots of underground locations, and lots of stumbling around in the dark.
There were various different ways that they represented this – my personal favourite was the Cave Torch, which allowed you to place progress on a location, at the cost of possibly adding another enemy to the staging area. This is perfect thematically – if you shine a light, it’s easier for you to see the cave, but also a lot easier for a nearby goblin to see you – and also felt like it really added to the decisions you needed to make. There were plenty of other locations in the Kazad-Dum boxed set that offer similar high-cost options you could take to alleviate a problem, like the Zigil Mineshaft which allowed you to raise each player’s threat to add progress to it – as you might expect when searching for Mithril, it’s a very appealing prospect, but it may prove costly if you delve too deep.
Overall, I felt like Khazad-Dum hit a real sweet spot for the feel of the quests capturing the theme, whilst retaining something that worked mechanically, and offered some of the best quests in the game – there are plenty of unique locations with nasty effects, and a variety of difficulty levels, but between the confusing labyrinths and darkened halls, it really felt like you were wandering around in a dark mine, as much at risk from the collapse of the walls around you as from the goblins who dwell there.
The Dwarrowdelf cycle began with a venture out onto the snow-swept mountainsides, and a strange quest that penalised you for a lack of Willpower – apparently a giant bear is no good for crossing a mountain pass!
Location-wise, there were still a few gems: the Warg Lair provides a very obvious yet effective way of punishing you for travelling (travel here, fetch a Warg) and there were definitely waters nearby that you wanted to steer well clear of.
Having slept through the second scenario in the cycle, with disastrous consequences, Watcher in the Water was primarily a boss fight, but it did bring us the rather unusual Doors of Durin – a riddle in card-game form: the reality of this was a little clunky, and it’s the only time I can ever recall deck-building for a scenario based on the names of cards in my deck!
The last half of the cycle took us back into the mines. I think it’s very interesting that two quests around this time did a lot to play with our sense of space without relying that heavily on innovative new locations. Foundations of Stone is another favourite quest of mine, which really translates the story into mechanic as the floor caves in, and the party is scattered across the dark underbelly of the caverns. Mostly though, this is just done through the quest cards, with the locations being recycled from the deluxe.
Much like quest 2 of the cycle, The Long Dark is a quest I’ve largely shunned, as it had what was essentially a “cancel this or lose” card – Foul air
The quest overall revolved around locate tests: these were another of these seen-only-once tests that required you to discard cards off of the encounter deck, trusting to blind luck that you might find a keyword printed on an all-too-small selection of the cards. For the most part this could be dealt with, and there was one location, Twisting Passage, that seemed very much designed to stop people from Northern Tracker-ing locations into irrelevance, but the Foul Air treachery was just plain hideous.
Whilst the general feel of locations in Khazad-Dum / Dwarrowdelf was not drastically different from Mirkwood, numbers were certainly higher. Average threats of non-unique locations tended to be more like 3-4 than the 2-3 of the previous cycle, a small but significant jump. It also became much rarer to see 1 or 2 progress locations, with averages around 3, and higher numbers appearing more often.
By and Large, the locations of the Hobbit boxes were not that numerically different from the others around in the game. Admittedly, there were a couple of really gentle locations before you left the shire, but overall, the numbers were not that much lower than the Dwarrowdelf cycle, and probably still a bit higher than Mirkwood numbers..
One of the trickiest things about assessing the difficulty of Hobbit locations, is the requirement in various instances to spend Baggins Resources to travel / explore them, or else travel penalties in real resources that paid a “when explored” dividend back into Baggins resources. Without getting into the whole question of the Baggins sphere and its comparative worth, it’s hard to say too much about these.
I think as a general point, I would say that the locations in this box vary from the very general to the very specific but that by-and-large, aside from a unique scenario-specific place like the troll camp, they tend to be fairly bland, with the scenario taking its flavour more from the enemies involved.
Overall, locations in the second cycle were bigger and nastier than in the first, but by-and-large, you could still interact with them, there was plenty that you could do. Obviously, whilst these new locations were being released for us to explore, the player card pool was also expanding, and there was one card which dominated the location landscape above all others.
Asfaloth, as most players of the game will know is a Lore Attachment. Too early in the game’s life to follow the conventions later established for Mounts, he is not Restricted, although he can only be attached to a Silvan or Noldor. Most of the time though, you’ll want to attach him to Glorfindel as, once you’ve done so, he can be exhausted to place 2 progress tokens on any location.
Asfaloth can target locations in the staging area or active locations. His ability is just an “action” with no restrictions to a specific phase of the game, so you can do it after staging and before quest resolution. Whilst he is hard-capped at 2 progress per round, unlike a Northern Tracker who can potentially generate very large numbers of progress tokens with enough locations in play, the point-and-click nature, along with the lower cost makes him so powerful: as time has gone on, we’ve seen more and more locations which do bad things when progress is placed on them, which can be nasty when they are being tracked 1 token at a time. Asfaloth puts the progress only where you want it, and not where you don’t.
Although I’m talking a lot about 1 card (and not even a Hero, a unique attachment at that) I think it’s hard to overstate the impact of Asfaloth on the game. The only real cost is having to play Glorfindel, and as Asfaloth was released around the same time as Glorfindel’s Spirit version, regularly rated as one of the most (over-)powerful Heroes in the game, it’s not much of a draw-back. (Of course, you can attach Asfaloth to a different Noldor or Silvan – the progress he places is halved, but 1 progress anytime anywhere still isn’t bad for a one-off cost of 2.
It’s long been a source of frustration for me that most Mounts in this game have the “Restricted” Keyword – I can’t see how being on a horse would stop you from carrying a sword and a shield. To my mind, it would make a lot more sense thematically, without being noticeably less balanced mechanically to get rid of “Restricted” but add “limit 1 mount per character.” Aside from any general impact this would have on the game, it would add a real element of cost to playing Asfaloth, as it would at least limit the other attachments you could put on your hero.
For a bit of an example of the power of Asfaloth, let’s take a look at a particular scenario: The Massing at Osgiliath.
Massing was the first Gen-Con scenario, a place that has typically seen the most punishing and brutal quests hurled at players. The game starts with 3 enemies in play per player, and concludes with a boss fight against the Witch King whose 666 stats were considered truly frightful at that point in the game’s life.
One of the most unique features of Massing though, was the way it moved players from one side of the Anduin to the other. The crossing itself was perilous – costing you a hero if you hadn’t managed to draw the right objective ally from the encounter deck – but it also fundamentally changed the way you interacted with locations. Locations were either “East Bank” or “West Bank” and depending on whether or not you had crossed the Anduin, the might acquire extra threat or simply be impossible to travel to.
Asfaloth however, doesn’t care which bank of the Anduin you’re on: got threat problems from a newly revealed location that is on the wrong side of the river? – send the horse! Got a location which will damage all your characters if active? – send the horse! Really want to travel to one place, but another location will punish you for not travelling there instead? – send the horse!
Of course, Asfaloth wasn’t the only location control card released during this period, he was just much, much better than the others. It is still worth spending a few moments thinking about some of the others though, even if their impact was less than the mighty Asfaloth.
Thror, Grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield had a few family Heirlooms that were quite handy if you found yourself needing to break in to Erebor. For the LCG their purpose was expanded somewhat to serve the purpose of general location management.
The first allowed you to blank a location’s text. Obviously this was limited, as it had to be a location that wasn’t immune to player-card effects, for you to be able to attach it in the first place, but if you knew that there was one place which was really going to mess you up, this offered a good way out. It’s also worth noting that you had to play the key onto a hero, then as a response to a location being revealed, you could move it across – so it wasn’t going to help against locations that come out in set-up (randomly, or by scenario rules).
The other tool of Durin’s folk was arguably even more powerful, allowing you to swap out an active location. We had already seen Strider’s Path and the West Road Traveller offer this effect on a one-off basis, but it was now repeatable, and much more flexible in timing.
Sadly, the Map received an errata, largely due to people using it in what was felt to be a broken combination with the Leadership approach to location control in this cycle: Path of Need.
Path of Need was the first card in the game to bear the “limit 1 per deck” restriction, and at 4 resources, even in Leadership, that was going to need to be a powerful effect.
It certainly wasn’t bad- assuming that you could get it out, Path of Need could be attached to a location, and whilst that location was active, Heroes did not need to exhaust to quest, attack or defend. Of course the chances were that with all your heroes questing, you were going to clear the location in a single round, so it was basically a 1-shot, ideal one big quest phase if you put it on the active location during planning, or a big round of combat if you put it on a location in the staging area that you were confident of travelling to.
The problem was that when you put the Path and the Map together, you could keep Path of Need around indefinitely. Declare questers (not exhausting) do the staging step, then swap out the location before you resolved questing. Travel to the same location again, and no exhaustion for combat either. So long as you had a new location to travel to each round, you could do this indefinitely.
Whether the errata was necessary or not is ultimately a matter of opinion: in a game-climate that contains Gather Information and Heed the Dream, combos that require “Limit 1 per deck” cards are less improbably than they used to be, so there is probably merit to the decision, but it’s still a little saddening. Now, Thror’s Map is a travel action only – it still has some uses, as a handy little get-out-of-jail card, or an undo button when you realise you really shouldn’t have travelled to X last round, but it feels a lot harder to justify its inclusion in a deck, especially given the size of the modern card pool.
By the end of the game’s second cycle then, we had seen a fair few changes to the sorts of locations we encountered. A scenario-defining unique location was still a possibility, but it was also much more likely that a location would have an unusual keyword or effect. By and large, they still weren’t massive (either in terms of threat or progress required), but the shadow of Asfaloth had fallen, and changes were brewing – by the time of Heirs of Numenor, things would have changed significantly.
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