This is the second part in a review of all the heroes currently available in the game. Last time we looked at Leadership, today it’s time for tactics.
Gimli was one of the first tactics heroes we ever saw, back in the days of the core set, and like all good things in tactics, he’s nice and straightforward. His basis stats are fair- 2 willpower in tactics is still none-too-shabby, and his two attack, 2 defence and 5 hit points make him serviceable in attack or defence. Where Gimli really shines, though is the way that each point of damage he takes increases his attack by one, giving him the potential for 6 attack without resorting to any kind of shenanigans. Once you slap a citadel plate (or two) on him his hit pool, and his corresponding attack, can start to get seriously large and brush aside all but the biggest of enemies.
Whilst other cards have come along since the core set which offer alternatives to Gimli (Dwarven axe is no longer the only weapon offering a guaranteed attack boost), the addition of Dain has made Gimli even more powerful, and he still offers real choices – how much damage do you risk taking, when a little can give you an attack boost, and a nasty shadow card can give you a dead hero.
Thematically, Gimli makes a certain amount of sense –he’s a formidable warrior, and the idea that he gets more powerful as he gets more enraged makes perfect sense. It will be interesting to see whether we get a new version of Gimli any time soon, but for now, this one is doing a decent job.
Alongside Gimli, the other obvious choice for a core set tactics hero was, of course, Legolas, ensuring that from the word go, these two members of the fellowship could be competing to kill the most Orcs. Less sturdy in defence than his dwarven comrade, Legolas has fewer hit-points and less willpower, but as a result a noticeably lower threat cost, to allow him to sneak up on enemies. 3 attack and ranged remain respectable today, and with access to Rivendell Bows and Blades, Legolas has the ability to be a potent slayer of foes.
Legolas is also able to make up for one of the greatest weaknesses in tactics, the difficulty of making progress on quests or locations. This often makes him an ideal option to receive not only the weapon attachments, but also readying effects such as Unexpected Courage, which enable you to get multiple attacks out of him in a round. In fact, Legolas is (I believe) the only way to complete Passage through Mirkwood in 2 rounds!
Quite what Legolas’s progress tokens are supposed to represent thematically, I’ve never been entirely certain. The overall shape of his stats certainly feels appropriate, and there’s an element of the skilled tracker/woodsman to the ability. Either way it’s powerful enough that no-one’s complaining too loudly.
Thalin belongs to an unusual little sub-group of characters in Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game. Entirely absent from Tolkien’s work, Thalin was originally created for Fantasy Flight’s previous game, Middle Earth Quest, and along with Beravor and Eleanor, made the transition to the LCG.
As a tactics hero, Thalin comes with an ability that helps to kill things, specifically by damaging enemies as they are revealed from the Encounter Deck. This was particularly useful in the days of the Core Set and the Mirkwood Cycle, when those pesky Eastern Crows showed up in every other quest, and surged into another card (and another, and another, if there were enough crows left in the deck) – with Thalin around, the crows die before they can ever surge, and you have much less to deal with.
This far into the game, Thalin’s ability is less spectacular than it used to be. There are very few enemies around with a single hit point, or even with two or three (which would allow him to weaken them enough to be finished off by a Gondorian Spearman or similar) he is also slightly puzzling a character who you primarily want questing, yet has only 1 willpower. Like any dwarf, the very fact that he counts has the “dwarf” trait counts strongly in his favour, as he receives the global stat boosts from Dain, contributes to your “5 or more dwarves” and can benefit from a wide variety of events and attachments. His ability is also still far from useless, although it does require an additional level of thought and deck-building, compared with what you used to be able to get away with.
It’s hard to talk about theme with a doubly-fictional character. Thalin certainly doesn’t feel at odds with dwarves as a whole, and is an interesting hero, if not the most powerful in the game.
Brand son of Bain
Brand, son of Bain, son of Bard, is the grandson of the legendary hero of Laketown who killed Smaug. Brand himself receives a brief mention towards the end of return of the King, fighting alongside Dain in a battle at the gates of Erebor, in a scene which would surely be coming to a screen near you if Peter Jackson were making Lord of the Rings now (doubtless as a 6-film series).
Brand is a ranged hero, which tied in nicely to the Journey to Rhosgobel AP in which he first appeared, allowing him to deal with bats and crows that soar out of the reach of ordinary heroes. It also enables his ability, which is to ready a character controlled by the engaged player after you destroy an enemy in a ranged attack. With 2 willpower for early questing, and a fair 3 attack, this seems like a good deal, especially when you consider some of the fun tricks you can do with this (with enough defenders and a bit of attack boost, the player controlling Merry can engage all the enemies [Hammer Stroke] then Merry and Brand can attack on an infinite loop, readying each other each time they destroy an enemy.
Despite this, Brand is not a massively popular hero in this game, and the question needs to be asked, “why?” – the first, if slightly harsh point, is that the artwork for Brand has come in for some criticism over the years. For people used to the striking beauty of a Magali Villeneuve elf, Brand is certainly pulling a funny face, but this hardly seems like good reason to throw him out in the cold.
A further point against Brand, is his origin. He has the Dale trait, which as most people will know interacts with exactly nothing in the game- it does appear on another card, but that card is in a different sphere and again makes no reference to its trait. Beyond that, there are doubtless people who have picked up this game with the explicit intention of letting Boromir sacrifice himself against hordes or orcs, or having Legolas and Gimli battle for the most kills. It’s hard to imagine many folk being driven by a desire to re-enact the adventures of Brand son of Bain.
Boromir, or Tactics Boromir as we should probably call him, since a Leadership version appeared in Heirs of Numenor was the second tactics hero after the core set, and a fitting representation of Gondor’s favourite son. Boromir has a very small amount of Willpower (prone to corruption by the Ring), a powerful three attack, and a solid 2 defence on top of a hit-pool of five. Where he really comes into his own, is with his ability, which allows to you raise your threat by one to ready him. This action is restricted only by the threat threshold, and allows him to attack and defend many times in a turn, which instantly make him an obvious target for any kind of stat boost, such as support of the eagles, which can quite easily make him 6 attack, or a Gondorian shield for 4 defence.
With increased ways to control your threat, and more options for boosting stats, Boromir grows stronger as the card-pool increases. It’s still possible to cause yourself terrible problems by being reckless with his abilities, but the choices you make are both fun and thematic. Finally, Boromir also comes with a single-use ability, allowing you to discard him from play in order to damage every enemy engaged with a player. This beautifully captures Boromir’s valiant sacrifice at the end of Fellowship (or possibly the beginning of Two Towers in the books, I can’t remember off the top of my head), and used right it can be another immensely powerful ability. Although he’s been around a while, Boromir still offers some fun and thematic choices for game play.
The other one of the sons of Elrond (see the Leadership Heroes run-down for some general thoughts on his brother), this is ‘the attacking one.’ Whilst it would be odd to run one without the other, for me Elladan is the more useful of the two by far. His 2 willpower is far more useful in a tactics deck, being a sphere that traditionally struggles with questing, and attacks are not subject to the law of diminishing refunds in the way that defences are. 3 Attack, whilst about as good as most heroes get, is not enough to dispatch many enemies in a single turn these days, but it’s a good starting point. Personally, my favourite combo is to give Elladan a Rivendell blade (enemy gets -2 defence) and Orcrist (hero gets +2 attack, gain a resource from killing an orc) throw in Rivendell Bow to make him ranged, and he can attack on an infinite loop, so long as there are goblins to squish [if you’re playing properly, you’ll only have Orcrist in Hobbit Saga quests, so there’s a decent chance of finding Orcs, Over the Misty Mountains Grim and Battle of Five Armies are the most obvious choices.
Hama was the first Rohan tactics hero in the game, and was seized up on by lots of people for that reason alone, despite there being a general lack of in-sphere trait support. He is also the linchpin of various cheese-decks, which try to break the game by making use of his ability. In essence, every time Hama attacks something, you can return a tactics event to your hand, at the cost of a card. Pre-errata, this enabled players to ensure that the Balrog never attacked, as he could be targeted with a feint each time, and the quest became rather dull.
Aside from not being very interesting, the Hama-Lock deck quickly became bogged down, as you had to discard a card each time you triggered the ability. This meant that whilst it could hold the Balrog / Watcher / etc at bay, the deck couldn’t really do anything else.
That doesn’t mean that there are no interesting things to do with Hama. Now that there’s a bit more in-sphere support for Rohan, there are cards worth recycling to make game-play a bit more dynamic- Forth Eorlingas! to attack the staging area, is the most obvious thematically, whilst others have tried using him to cycle Prepared for War to ensure a constant Battle-quest. Personally I’m a big fan of the Foe-Hama (kill an enemy, exhaust a weapon to play Foe-Hammer and draw three cards, recycle with Hama and repeat) as it overcomes the generally poor level of card draw in tactics.
Theme-wise, it’s not particularly clear what Hama’s power represents. It certainly doesn’t tie obviously into the other Rohan themes. Also, Hama as Theoden’s door-guard would seem more logically to be a defender rather than an attacker, which his stats and ability both lean towards. There’s some fun to be had with Hama, and he does make it possible to run a mono-tactics Rohan deck, but he’s neither the best nor the most thematic hero out there.
Beregond is one of the most prominent book characters who fails to make it into Peter Jackson’s films and, as such, may have been something of a revelation to some when he appeared in the card-game.
Beregond is the classic example of the focused, or 1-dimensional hero, depending on your perspective. He has massive defence, little attack, and no willpower at all. Given that the main thing you want to be doing with Beregond is defending, this is generally a good thing, but it does make him vulnerable to things which target characters with shortfall in other stats (i.e. crossing Caradhras).
Beregond’s ability ties in well to his key strength, in that you can play weapons and armours on him more cheaply – a turn-1 Gondorian shield for free, gives you a 6-defence sentinel character, and is definitely not something to be underestimated. Citadel Plate or Spear of the Citadel are good options for the additional restricted slot, and having access to damage cancellation in Gondorian Discipline covers you against direct damage from Shadow cards.
Thematically, Beregond was a guard of the citadel, and his status in the game as a solid defender is fitting. He would be well-equipped fighting within the walls of Minas Tirith, and doesn’t do anything flashy, but stands firm against the advancing forces of darkness. A welcome beacon of theme in a patch of Rohan confusion.
The only tactics hero of the Against the Shadow cycle, Theoden has rather fallen foul of the “mono-sphere” agenda which was being pushed at the time. Probably a significantly younger version of Theoden than we see during the war of the ring, this tactics hero is a battle-hardened figure, with 3 attack, 2 defence and sentinel. He also has 2 willpower, which is none-too-shabby in tactics. The most baffling thing however, is his ability. He gives heroes with the printed tactics icon a willpower boost. I’ve complained about this before, but I feel the need to re-state, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. Whilst Theoden is in play, Brand son of Bain and Theoden are inspired by his presence and quest more powerfully. Eowyn and Theodred however remain unimpressed.
There are a few things which help to explain how this happened – after the power of Dain, the designers were probably wary of creating anything with the same level. Also they were pushing the “mono-sphere” agenda fairly hard at the time, and Theoden made some sense in this context. The problem however, is that he doesn’t really work as Theoden. Beyond that, there’s a fairly big “why” element to it all – giving your tactics characters extra willpower can have some niche uses – crossing Caradhras, Stone of Erech etc, but most of the time, you don’t want to be questing with your tactics heroes (Thalin excepted) you want to be fighting with them.
It’s hard to decide whether Theoden is really useless or not. In a 4-player game, with so many tactics heroes around that you’ve got spares for questing, he could certainly have uses. There are certainly particular quests or particular shadow effects which he is useful for overcoming. However, it’s a lot of work to build a good Theoden deck – realistically, you need several players all building for the one aim, and at the end what you get doesn’t feel worth the input.
Where Theoden is a thorough disappointment the third, and thus far final, Rohan tactics hero is Eomer. Eomer starts with 3 attack, but can boost this up to five if a character leaves play this round. Given the number of characters you’ll find popping in and out of play, particularly if running a Rohan or Silvan deck, this is a relatively easy effect to trigger, and allows him to hit hard from the word go. Tooled up with spears or daggers, or better still, his trusty steed, Firefoot, he can become monstrous fairly quickly.
Thematically, this is capturing the moment when Eomer found Theoden and Eowyn lying (seemingly) dead on the Pelennor field and went into a frenzy, almost single-handedly defeating the armies of Harad. Personally, I think I might have added a little more flavour to his boost- +2 attack if a character leaves play, +4 if a unique Rohan character leaves play instead perhaps- but this is a very minor quibble. This Eomer is fun to play, fits well with his people (and his father-in-law), and generally works on both a gameplay and a thematic level.
Moving to the Saga boxes, the first tactics hero we find is a great big bear. Thematically, Beorn is very straightforward: he doesn’t really have willpower to commit to the quest, but he does have massive attack, and an enormous pool of hit points. He can defend too, for a anyone who needs it although his defence is low, and he relies instead on a large pool of hit-points to see him through.
As befits a bear, Beorn won’t be riding a horse, wielding a dagger or an axe, or generally benefitting from your standard bag of tricks, he both “no attachments” and “immune to player card effects” on his card. This means that whilst his base attack of 5 is mighty, it won’t be getting any higher, and any damage he takes will be sticking around for good.
Thematically, Beorn makes a lot of sense. As already noted, he is a bear, and that’s what this card represents. He also has a high threat, as Bears are not notorious for moving stealthily and undetected. Personally, I would have liked a smaller pool of hit points coupled with “regenerate 1” to allow him to heal himself a little, but again it’s a minor gripe.
The best thing about Beorn is how strong he is out of the gate, and the fact that he does not exhaust to defend makes him ideal in scenarios like Massing at Osgiliath, where you will be swarmed by lots of tiny enemies, and need someone to soak up the damage, then hit back. “Immune to player card effects” is also slightly less restrictive than it might at first appear – Dori and Landroval both work well with Beorn, as Dori’s effect targets the damage, not the character, and Landroval triggers when Beorn is out of play, and his text does not apply. Personally, I find Beorn a bit awkward to play, and he definitely fits better in an agro deck than the more controlled style I prefer, but thematically he’s brilliant, and certainly far from useless.
Bard the Bowman was the second tactics hero in the Hobbit Saga boxes, and so far the only card in the game with the “Esgaroth” trait. Bard makes for an interesting comparison with his grandson, the previously discussed Brand. Both have a ranged attack of 3, 2 willpower and 2 defence, although Bard has an additional hit point, raising his threat cost by 1.
Their abilities both key into attacking across the table, although whereas Brand re-readies characters, Bard reduces defence, effectively giving him a built-in Rivendell Blade when making a ranged attack. Whilst it may lack some of the repeatability of Brand, Bard’s ability strikes me as better, in that it does not use any of his restricted slots, leaving him free for weapons. The 4th hit-point also makes him feel a lot less fragile when direct damage is being dealt.
Whilst Bard suffers from the lack of trait synergy that Brand does, he somehow feels more playable. The potency of his ranged attacks captures some of the flavour of the arrow that brought down Smaug, and somehow, getting a Black Arrow onto him and 1-shotting a massive enemy just feels more epic. As a final note, the artwork for Bard is another fine creation from Magali Villeneuve.
The last tactics hero (so far) is Merry, who came in The Black Riders, the first of a planned series of six Lord of the Rings Saga boxes. For an unprecedentedly low threat cost in tactics (6), Merry can quest for a respectable 2 willpower, which along with providing an additional tactics resource without massively ramping your threat is enough by itself to earn him a place in many tactics decks.
Where Merry really shines though, is in an all-Hobbit deck. He gets +1 attack for each Hobbit hero you control, meaning he can easily swing for 3 (4 in saga mode if you control Fellowship-sphere Frodo). Given how low the starting threat of a Hobbit deck usually is, this goes well with Dagger of Westernesse or Unseen Strike, making it relatively common to take out a Nazgul in a single swing.
On top of his variable attack, Merry has the ability to re-ready a character who joins him in attacking and destroying an enemy. This is clearly an ability with some major potential (as mentioned earlier, there’s a possible infinite loop with Brand), although in Hobbit decks, I’ve found that it doesn’t necessarily get all that much use. I’m tempted to try putting him opposite Legolas, to get extra progress from destroying enemies, but haven’t got round to it yet.
As a general rule, the low-threat / “don’t underestimate us” type mechanic of the Hobbits seems reasonably sensible, but the idea that simply being surrounded by Sam and Pippin can make Merry as powerful an attacker as Legolas or Boromir does seem a bit odd (although not quite as strange as the idea that Pippin makes it easier to sneak past enemies). Overall, I’d say Merry is definitely VERY playable, but not the best thematic result ever.
All in all then, the tactics heroes are generally a fairly solid bunch. They typically excel in attacking, with far fewer solid defenders, and their questing prowess is generally minimal. Tactics probably remains the narrowest of the sphere in terms of the limitations it has (threat, questing etc), and it will be interesting to see what the designers do to keep the sphere interesting without it just bleeding indistinguishably into all the others.