Last year, there was a small flurry of controversy around a particular card in the Lord of the Rings LCG, namely The Balrog.
So far, we have seen 3 official versions of what is essentially the Balrog in this game – The Nameless Fear of the Khazad Dum Box, Durin’s Bane from Shadow and Flame and finally The Balrog from The Road Darkens.
All of these have been significant foes: The Nameless Fear had attack, defence and threat as X, where X was the number of points in the victory display, and the scenario actively pushed cards into that display. It had 27 hit points, and was immune to player-card effects. It wasn’t technically unkillable, but as it could not be engaged and was immune to play-card effects, it might as well have been. This first iteration didn’t really interact with you directly, it just loomed in the dark, contributing threat, and possibly smiting a hero at short notice.
Moving forward to Durin’s Bane, the stats had crystallised at 4 threat, 6 attack, 3 defence and – once again, 27 hit points. This time it had gained additional powers, in the shape of “regenerate 3” (a round-by-round self-healing ability) and “indestructible.” This keyword – so far seen only on Balrogs, Dragons, the Watcher in the Water, and – most recently – Old Man Willow, meant that simply accruing damage equal to its hit points would not kill it, and you had to use a built-in-to-the-quest mechanism to tumble it down a pit. It also attacked each player every round, unless you had some kind of threat-gain avoidance, or a blocking card.
The third (and presumably, final) version, saw the Balrog unveiled in all its fiery terror. Finally having its real name displayed for all to see, the threat has risen to 5, the attack to 8. Defence is a whopping 9, although the hit-points are tempered slightly to 25. This Balrog was also indestructible, it was automatically engaged with the first player (and them only) and both the Balrog and its shadow cards were immune to player-card effects. The only chance for the heroes was to outrun it, or for a hero to sacrifice themselves on the bridge of Khazad-Dum to damage the Balrog and strip it of its keywords.
This is where things got messy.
The exact text of The Great Bridge is as follows:
“Response: When The Great Bridge is explored, discard a hero from play to deal X damage to The Balrog. X is that hero’s threat cost. Then, The Balrog loses all keywords for the remainder of the game. Any player may trigger this response.”
So then, what keywords does it lose?
I think (hope?) that it’s easy enough to agree that the second paragraph on the Balrog is not a keyword
“While in the staging area, The Balrog is considered to be engaged with the first player and only the first player can declare attackers against The Balrog.”
That leaves only the first Paragraph which reads as follows:
“Indestructible. Cannot be optionally engaged. The Balrog and shadow cards dealt to The Balrog are immune to player card effects.”
That seems to offer us 3 possibilities for “keywords”
- Cannot be Optionally Engaged
- Immune to Player Card effects.
For us, it seemed clear that it meant all three. After all, we’ve just sacrificed a hero to trigger this effect – unless you’ve got some Fortune or Fate shenanigans up your sleeve, their services are lost to you for the entire campaign. (Theme says you should use Gandalf, a long-view suggests that Fatty Bolger might be a more prudent option).
It was one of the highlights of our recent games to play this scenario and, having got 22 damage on the Balrog, drop in a Mirkwood runner, boosted up to three attack by Celeborn and have him slice through the Balrog’s defence for the win.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. After some arguments on the forums, and an amount of nerd-rage that might surprise anyone not familiar with either Gamers or Tolkien enthusiasts, FFG issued an official clarification in an FAQ that all that disappeared was “Indestructible” – the reference to Keywords seems to simply be future-proofing.
So, our victory was a false one, the designers have ruled and that is – of course- their right. However, as I reach the end of what has become a very long pre-amble, it does raise questions to me regarding the complexity of the rules of this (or indeed any living) game.
The Hall of Beorn’s Card search for the Lord of the Rings LCG currently lists 28 different key-words (assuming you treat “Time 1,” “Time 2,” “Time X” etc as one keyword) – of these 3 are from Ian’s First Age expansion, leaving 25.
Some of these are core features of the game- It’s hard to imagine the LCG without “Surge,” “Doomed,” “Ranged,” or “Sentinel.” Others, like “Time,” “Siege,” or “Battle” have come in for particular periods of the game, before diminishing as they go into the west. There have also been large numbers of keywords which appeared for only a single scenario, before disappearing – “Hide,” “Prowl,” “Villagers,” or “Underworld.”
The oddity though, is what it takes to qualify as a Keyword. Consider, for example a Hide Test from Black Riders, vs an Escape Test from The Dead Marshes. Superficially, these are very similar: at points dictated by the quest, you exhaust characters, discard cards from the encounter deck and compare a random figure. However, “Hide” is a keyword, whereas “Escape” is a trait. (Apparently)
If you come to Lord of the Rings from the world of competitive games like Magic, then this level of nuance is probably not a problem for you- in high-stakes competitive games, there are always going to be rules-lawyers, and you need a suitable amount of precision to deal with it.
This game however, as we’ve so often said is co-operative. Whilst it certainly has depth and complexity, to a greater extent than Magic, or even than one of Fantasy Flight’s Competitive LCGs, it should be an opportunity for players to come together and enjoy a game immersed in the flavour of the world Tolkien has created. I know I have certainly introduced this game to people I would never have considered trying to teach Game of Thrones to (I don’t play Magic, and I think my wife and my bank manager probably want it to stay that way…)
Equally, there is clearly a time for taking a concept previously tried and streamlining it. Compare the Giant Marsh worm with its rather long-winded “Forced: Remove 2 damage from Giant Marsh Worm at the end of each round” with the Watcher in the Water’s “Regenerate 2.” Both do exactly the same thing. The ability on the Watcher takes a lot less space, allowing other ideas to be placed on the card – however, it also requires you to understand what “Regenerate” does in a way that the Marsh Worm doesn’t.
For the most part, I think the designers have the game about right- given the number of things they need to be able to do, and the inevitably of some errors making it through even the most strenuous play-testing, the number of clarifications we have in the FAQs seem reasonable. At the same time, we are now dealing with a 17-page document, which is unlikely to be read, let alone remembered by casual players.
I don’t really have any suggestions as to how the designers can best manage the complexity of this game, and the balancing of intent vs function on new cards. However, I do think that they need to make sure that this game remains accessible to new players as well as those of us who have been in from the start, and hope they keep it in mind.