Loyal bannermen of House Greyjoy may recognise this line borrowed from an entirely different IP, but it seemed a good lead-in for today’s topic, the undead.
Over recent times, we have seen a growing number of undead appearing in Lord of the Rings. They first showed up in the Gen-Con scenario Stone of Erech, represented through the “spectral mechanic” then last autumn in the Fellowship Event Fog on the Barrrow Downs, as the fiendish wights who trapped the hobbits and most recently, they have come back in force in the Lost Realm deluxe and its following cycle, Angmar Awakened, forming the lion’s share of the enemies in the final scenario of the big box, then returning in later scenarios to haunt our heroes.
Aside from these quests, we have also had occasional appearances from undead types in Nightmare scenarios, such as the Nightmare version of The Dead Marshes, where they represent the sinister-looking shades beneath the water, fallen bodies from battles at the end of the Second Age who try to tempt Frodo down to the dark depths beneath the water.
The Barrow Wights, the Spirits of the Marshes, and of course, the Ghost Army of Dunharrow are all lifted directly from the pages of Tolkien’s work. The manner in which players are brought in to conflict with them, however, is somewhat different. Neither Frodo nor his companions ever really “fight” the wights, they are simply subdued by them, and would doubtless be lying there still were it not for the timely intervention of Tom Bombadill.
In the Dead Marshes, Sam and Frodo are told not to follow the lights which the spirits set for unwary travellers, but otherwise their interaction is fairly minimal.
The ghost army are a rather more interactive bunch, but there appear to be only 2 real ways of dealing with them.
1.) Be the heir of Isildur, and demand their allegiance.
This latter option was taken by a long-lost lord of the Rohirrim, and probably by other lesser figures in former times, but by and large, everyone else has long since learned to simply give them a wide birth, and only when Aragorn comes with Anduril does that start to change.
Given that the undead are not simply creatures of flesh and blood like an Orc, a Haradrim Soldier, or a Dunlending, the question of how to depict them in the card-game is a difficult one. Something more than simply attack, defence and hit-points seems called for.
Who will call them from the Grey Twilight?
In the Stone of Erech scenario, the designers opted for the “Spectral” keyword – instead of using your attack value against enemies with the spectral keyword, you used your willpower, demonstrating your determination to resist the dread emitted by the ghosts.
Stone of Erech is a hideously difficult quest, with a time mechanic that simulates the fall of night (powering up the encounter deck as it goes), a boss-enemy who blanks all your text-boxes, getting rid of all the clever willpower boosts you’re incorporated (Eowyn, Dain etc), and then finally the curve-ball of the battle keyword on stage 3, forcing players to quest with their otherwise-useless attack. However, whilst the difficulty is a bit high for my taste, the basic concept of the Spectral Keyword is great- it acknowledges that defeating these enemies is not simply about skill with axe or bow, but depends instead on inner resolve.
The Kids are All Wight
(technically, the enemies in this quest do not have the “undead” trait, just “eight” however, they still feel like a fairly obvious thematic fit, so I’ve included them here.)
The Barrow Wights present a more conventional combat experience, albeit with “when-engaged” effects that shut down your card-draw, resource acceleration and threat-reduction. The real headache here is the location within the quest which suddenly shifts your defence from the traditional printed defence stat to willpower. This is a problem: as the location will not start in play, and may not appear at all, you need characters with good, printed defence stats: Beregond with his free shield seems like a good option. However, once the location comes out, Beregond’s defence is suddenly zero, and Eowyn is the star defender.
With low player counts, it may be possible to manage locations sufficiently that this one is largely avoided, but otherwise, you probably need to use characters with more balanced stats like Elrond, who will defend moderately well in either situation.
Fog on the Barrow Downs does a fairly good job of capturing the feel of the books, but it largely does so via quest mechanics and locations which are immune to player-card effects. When all is said and done, the wights themselves are remarkably ordinary.
A Dark Doom from Angmar
The current cycle is probably the point at which the designers have strayed the furthest from the written canon and into their own imagination. I don’t mean for a moment that I think it’s unrealistic for the wider setting: we know that Angmar was the Realm of the Witch King, chief of the Nazgul, and given the dark forces at work behind his actions, it should come as no surprise to find a swarm of undead in the area, even if we aren’t given a lot of detail on the relationship between Thaurdir and Daechnar of the card game and The Witch King himself (and I want to avoid spoiling the information we have been given), it would be no surprise to discover that they all come from a similar source.
As with the Wights, direct combat with these undead is remarkably vanilla. They hit, you him them back. The unique end-boss is indestructible, but otherwise, combat is very normal.
They do, of course, have their own characteristics: the oh-so-irritating ability to re-spawn from the discard pile of the Cursed Dead is a fittingly “undeadish” aspect, – perhaps a good candidate for Rossiel to chuck into the victory display (especially as these scenarios are typically all undead, so the key-word match is a benefit).
Others that play around with your own cards, penalising you for having duplicates in the discard pile, milling out your deck, or even reanimating them as enemies that will battle against you.
The Undead in the Marshes are a fairly minor element, which have grown with each new sweep of the area. First time out, the players were focused on herding Gollum north and towards Mirkwood, and avoided them altogether, but they made an appearance for the nightmare re-fit. They are nastier than most of the standard enemies in the set, but that is largely just a reflection of the change in emphasis from the Original Mirkwood Cycle to its Nightmare incarnation.
By the time Sam and Frodo reached the Dead Marshes in Land of Shadow, the undead love-fest was in full swing, and these were all the enemies there were. Slightly disappointing then, that their only distinguishing feature was a prohibition on the engaged player lowering their threat (and a bit of hate against chump-blockers, but there’s nothing undead-specific about that). Attack and defence was otherwise completely normal.
It wouldn’t be right to mention undead in LotR LCG without a reference to Culling at the Barrow Downs, a fan-made quest created early in the life of the game by Foenix, better-known today as Matt Newman who nowadays, along with Caleb Grace, is the game’s lead developer. Back in his days as just another member of this game’s awesome community, he created this quest, which can perhaps be seen as a precursor of the Gen Con wights quest, although with an indestructible end-boss reminiscent of Thaurdir. It’s almost as if Matt has a fondness for the undead. Obviously, you now have many ways of getting your hands on Matt’s later work, but if you’re interested, The Culling can still be found on Board Game Geek.
Not all Undead are Created Equal
Overall, the way the undead have been dealt with in the game is interesting, but I do wonder about the consistency. Other games, Like the Pathfinder ACG have a much higher level of consistency in how certain enemy types interact with the players: anything which is a variation on a crab will make you re-roll your successful attack (akin to giving it an armour save), all undead are immune to the mental and poison traits, and all sharks “cannot be evaded.”
I feel like it would be nice to see this kind of consistency in LotR – for example ensuring that all Undead had the spectral keyword, all flying things (bats, crows, etc) could only be fought by ranged or eagle characters or the like.
Early on in the game’s life, it seems that there was a bit of an attempt to do this with Wargs – a definite recurring theme around returning to the staging area after the attack, but otherwise it has been fairly inconsistent. A particular quest or encounter set will operate in a particular way, but enemies of the same type in a different cycle or expansion will operate very differently. Spiders are another major example of this. Very early on, there was a vague idea that spiders exhausted characters, or otherwise entangled them in webs, but that was played out very differently when the Hobbit Saga quests took us back through Mirkwood (ostensibly the same wood, albeit at an earlier point in time) and instead we became focused on venom, and the negative side-effects of being poisoned.
Given the number of different enemies that we deal with over the life of this game, it may well be that keeping this kind of distinguishing trait wouldn’t have been possible – certainly, the distribution model of an LCG isn’t set up to allow them a generic set of Wargs who get shuffled in every time a quest is wolf-y, or similar, and it may well be that the designers would have lost the will to live years ago if every single Warg had to have some variant on “if X, return this enemy to the staging area after it attacks” (that particular one is also a REALLY annoying mechanic if you don’t have some means of attacking the staging area, so the players would probably have been equally dismayed.) It would also mean that particular cycles of the game would likely get very same-y if all the orcs, or all the undead had identical mechanical interactions.
As usual, whilst I’ll happily offer my opinion, which comes with a liberal dose of “I’d like it to be more thematic” I don’t have the wider view of the card game that the designers have, and I don’t have to take the business view that FFG do (I basically buy all the content for this game, aside from the newer Nightmare decks, which just feel a bit needless), so shifting cards between sets is much less of a problem for me than it probably would be for official quest design. Moans aside, I do think that the quests we’ve been given provide an interesting gameplay experience,and the undead of this cycle have made interesting foes – although I think I’ll be glad to go back to fighting flesh and blood in the next Deluxe.