As you may have guessed by now, based on the amount of custom content I post on here, I don’t regard this card game as something where the rules are set in stone. There are times when adding a house rule or two seems to be the right thing to do, whether for fun, for balance, or for theme.
Obviously there are going to be people who are only interested in playing with the game as printed, who only ever use the official content, and the official rules. The great thing about this game, is that because it’s non-competitive, and has no real organised play structure, whatever works best for your group, and allows you to have the most fun, is all that really matters. You’re not going to be “cheating” by using your custom cards to gain an advantage. If I’m contributing to a discussion on the difficulty or ease of a particular scenario, or of using a specific deck-type, I always try to make it explicit where I’m using custom content. Some custom cards are very balanced, and won’t necessary change much about the game. Others are more for amusement
Aside from the actual cards that people create, I also wanted to have a bit of a think about some of the house-rules we’ve used in the past.
Theme > Ruletext
We play this game because we love the works of Tolkien. For my wife and I, that’s generally the books, including the wider universe (although we’re certainly not above throwing in a cheesy film-quote at an opportune moment), for others it might be exclusively the films that provides the inspiration. Either way, if something in the rules jars with a theme, chances are I’ll over-rule it.
As an example, take Smaug. In all his iterations, Smaug is immune to player card effects. By and large that makes sense – Lake Town would be a feeble scenario, if you could use “Feint” on Smaug – doubly so, if you’re using the Hama-lock.
However, let’s consider Bard the Bowman – when Bard the Bowman makes a ranged attack, the enemy gets -2 defence. Although Bard fights in the Battle of Five armies, this ability is clearly inspired by his defeat of Smaug.
When I’m playing, if Bard makes a ranged attack against Smaug, Smaug gets -2 defence.
In the Hobbit, after the trolls turn to stone, Bilbo and the dwarves visit the cave, and Bilbo finds Sting. From that point on, Bilbo carries Sting on all his travels, until he passes it on to Frodo.
Officially, you can only use Sting in the remaining Hobbit scenarios. However, as far as I’m concerned, if Bilbo really had set out on the hunt for Gollum (or to deliver a message through Mirkwood, explore Khazad Dum, etc.) then he would have taken Sting with him. If Bilbo is in the deck, so is Sting.
Obviously, with the treasures, there are dangers of getting carried away – you can make thematic arguments for many of them, and with no required sphere match or cost, they can overwhelm things (OHaUH Gandalf Battle Questing for 6 then attacking for 6 anyone?) – again, perhaps the best option is to go with custom cards to provide more balanced versions for general use. In the past, I have tended to go a little overboard with these, but tend to dial things back a little now.
Aside from conscious decisions made ahead of time, the other major issue, is any tweaks you might make as you go along. We’ve all felt that frustration of getting set-up and going, thinking everything is fine, then pulling the 1 ridiculous card that scuppers all your plans, spreading death and destruction. There’s always the temptation to play “alternate reality mode” – shuffle the card back in to the encounter deck, and reveal a replacement. Obviously, there are ups and downs of doing this – the game is meant to be fun, and most of the time, getting stomped on isn’t – it allows you to continue playing.
That said, if it’s impossible to lose, then winning loses its shine. Alternate Reality Mode is definitely a slippery slope.
This is an area where I think the designers have done great work over the past cycle and a bit – the encounter decks in the quests from the last year are a lot more consistent and generally more balanced. The addition of easy mode is also a major bonus. Sleeping Sentry was almost always a candidate for Alternate Reality. Southron Support in 4-player can still result in death, but it feels like enough of a fighting chance that we’ll typically play on.
The last set of changes we make, probably don’t even come under “house rules” at all – it’s more just a little flexibility with the space-time continuum. Refresh step. Everyone readies. “Oh hang on a minute, I forgot to use the Warden of Healing, take a damage each off of Legolas and Eomer.” “A character left play just now, didn’t they, have an extra resource for the Horn of Gondor.” Again I’m sure there will be people shuddering at this, and I can understand – I once played in a Game of Thrones tournament, where one guy kept forgetting to trigger his responses, then trying to do it two minutes later – by the end, I thought the third guy was going to strangle him! [Anyone who was playing AGoT at the time, can probably sympathise with the pain of sitting through a Game whilst a player totally controls the board, yet has had his only Maester killed, and still has 5 links attached to the Maester’s Path]
However, once again, that’s the difference between going to a competitive games tournament in a shop, with a cash prize, vs playing around the kitchen table where enforcing precision timing at the expense of the wine or the conversation is likely to leave me playing solo most of the time.
Obviously, this too is open to abuse – I have to plead guilty to having been involved in the occasional conversation which resembles this one: “Oh, you quested with the Westfold Horse-Breeder? I’d have thought you’d have left her to chump-block” – “You’re right, maybe she didn’t quest then” – I guess for many people, this would be a step too far.
FAQ / Errata
A slight aside from the question of “house rules” but still tied into “how we play the game” is the issue of corrections and clarifications published by FFG. 99% of the time, I will be the only person at the table who has been anywhere near the FFG website any time recently – I’ve been on the receiving end of foul looks for trying to convince someone that he could only have one resource for naming “4” and discarding a Longbeard Orc-Slayer to the Zigil Miner, instead of the 4 the player was expecting. I think the response went somewhere along the lines of “well I haven’t read the FAQ, so I’m having 4 resources.” On one level it’s a slightly trite response, but it also makes a good point. Not everyone playing the game is a rules lawyer.
In general, I don’t bother implementing the errata that nerf powerful cards. That said, I try not to abuse them. I never built the lore “draw your entire deck in a turn” deck. I built the Zigil Miner deck to try it, but decided it was dull. As far as I’m concerned Master of Lore reduces the cost of all my lore allies this phase, and if Bard uses Hands Upon the Bow, the enemy gets -2 defence (common sense as far as I’m concerned). If I have 4 cards to discard for Protector of Lorien, I might use them all in a phase, but the chances are that my hand isn’t that big. Likewise, if Beravor finds a way to exhaust twice in a round, great we’ll have 4 cards, but she’s not likely to get Unexpected courage until after Elrond, Legolas, Beregond (possibly Dunhere) or Eomer do, so this is only likely to happen after Grim Resolve.
As a final note, I want to mention timings. Generally speaking, we’re very woolly on these. Sometimes this is deliberate sometimes it’s just to make things easier. I know that Aragorn has to decide whether to pay his resource and re-ready when he commits to the quest (not after staging), but another player in our 4-player games never seems to grasp this detail. I’m not sure whether it’s deliberate on their part, but I’ve given up trying to explain, and it’s not really hurting anyone.
The last thing I’d say – there is always an action window!
What are other people’s thoughts on this? I really don’t think there’s an objective “right” or “wrong” for something like this going on in your own home – an organised play even would be a different matter. That said, I’m interested to know how other people find playing the game best suits them.