As I mentioned a few days back, I’ve recently been getting my teeth stuck into Tales From The Cards’ First Age Expansion. For financial reasons as much as anything, I’ve only got the Player Cards so far, but if you can get over the slightly surreal nature of Beren, Luthien and Finrod delivering a message through Mirkwood, or Feanor, Fingolfin and Finrod hunting for signs of Gollum, it’s been a blast.
Ian has said that he wants this first batch of cards to act like a new “core set” – and there’s certainly limited options, which remind me just how spoiled for choice we’ve become – non-unique allies are particularly thin on the ground, but it provides some good nostalgia for the early days of the official LCG.
One discussion which came up a lot in the early stages of the design process for First Age, was about which third-age cards could be included for first-age play. Obviously I’m now blurring the situation more by using these heroes on 3rd-age quests, but I’m sure people can see that having Bilbo and Frodo questing alongside Feanor would be a bit odd, to say the least. On the other hand, allowing Fingolfin to feint an enemy seems entirely plausible.
In the end, an official list was produced of the “approved” cards, but this left some gaps – cards which were just too crucial a part of the game to be left out, whilst simultaneously too much of a thematic mismatch to be included in the First Age set.
The biggest example of this was for resource acceleration in leadership. Having extra cash has always been the big thing of the leadership sphere, but making Fingon the Steward of Gondor just wouldn’t make sense.
The solution was a new card – High Kingship of the Noldor. As you can see, it looks suspiciously familiar, but transplants the theme back to the first age. (incidentally, it also fixes the pet peeve of many players that the official card wasn’t called Stewardship of Gondor). Once there, you’re just as free to play it on Turin or Haleth as you are to play it on Merry or Gimli in the third age, and you can make as few or as many thematic explanations for this as you like.
I think High Kingship of the Noldor is a great card- in fact it makes so much sense thematically, that I’m tempted to put it in 3rd-age elf-decks. After all, whilst Elrond was never technically the High King of the Elves, he did inherit Vilya from Gil-Galand, and it feels like an all-round better fit theme wise than making him the Steward of Gondor. However, it made we wonder a bit about how much cards in this game are driven by their mechanics, and how much it’s the theme over the top that makes them good or not.
I’ve commented previously on how I’m concerned that the new Silvan theme is going to be suspiciously similar to the Rohan theme – lots of allies leaving play for clever effects, and that they could have made a much more interesting “no-one leaves play” theme, taking up the idea from the Silvan Refugee – imagine a relatively weak character which gains a resource token at the end of the round if no character leaves play, and gains stat-boosts from those tokens (or can spend them to trigger powerful abilities, etc.)
Either way, the designers have made their decision, and the new Silvan deck does look like it will be fun to play, but I worry about the dangers of convergence in this game: Rohan is about controlling when your allies leave play, and gaining bonuses when they do, whereas Silvans are about moving characters in and out of play, and triggering effects from doing so. Dwarves are about reaching critical mass and overwhelming the staging area, whereas Outlands involves global stat boosts which mean that once you reach critical mass, you can overwhelm the staging area.
On Board Game Geek recently, I saw a particularly interesting example of this. A guy on there – “Banania” – who was a bit frustrated with the lack of development of the Ranger Trap archetype has created some additional player cards designed to mesh with this theme – A Faramir who provides a resource match for all Rangers and who reduces threat when you play a trap, or a Mablung who gets willpower boosts from traps, and can gain resources from Traps leaving play. Good quality cards, with some interesting options (although I do find the idea of a 2 hit-point hero moderately terrifying).
However, he then went one step further, and created another 20 or so cards which were exact copies of existing player-cards, but re-themed for Rangers. For example, Constant Watch, he comments, is just Elrond’s Counsel, which requires a Ranger rather than a Noldor.
Now, as with Elrond’s counsel, if you can meet the requirements (i.e. control a unique Ranger) and have a Spirit hero, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to run this card – it offers free threat reduction and a small willpower boost, but I feel like it has the potential to be the thin end of the wedge – the next deck you build, whether it be Silvan, Rohan, Dwarf etc, says “I need some cheap threat reduction,” and soon all your decks are mechanically identical with just a different type of art on top.
I know that the designers have always said that they see spheres as the main structural elements of the game, and that these should be what distinguishes between cards, which is all very well up to a point. The thing is though, if I want to encourage a friend to try this game based on their experiences of reading or watching Lord of the Rings, I’m much more likely to get a positive reaction if I can show them a deck that taps into the theme of a faction (Earlier this week, I got a very positive response to my Ent cards, which I was able to introduce along the lines of – “these are insanely powerful, so you get to smash stuff really hard, but they move at rather treeish speeds”) than if I try to sell them on a sphere – “yeah you can be the people who are really knowledgeable about the ways of middle earth.”
There certainly are different styles of deck available in this game, and I hope that this will continue, with lots of different archetypes that actually have a decent chance of beating newish quests. What I really hope on top of all that though, is that those different decks will tap into the lore that makes this game so popular in a way that continues to feel like we’re playing something where it’s more than just a coincidence that the action is taking place in Middle Earth.