Part 1 of a series looking back at the locations of Lord of the Rings LCG
From the very beginning of the life of Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game, there have been 3 basic types of Encounter card that we have had to face, and remarkably little variation in what those 3 are: Enemies, Locations and Treacheries.
Enemies, of course, are the baddies you need to fight against (or at least avoid getting killed by) whilst Treacheries are the bad events which do something sudden and unpleasant. What I want to look at over the next few weeks though, is the locations, the places in Middle Earth, and how they have been represented, thematically and mechanically.
Before going in to the specifics, it’s worth thinking about the basic anatomy of a location card. Each location has a threat value, i.e. how much it is doing to slow your progress/raise your threat whilst it’s sat in the staging area. Even today, this is going to be one of the first things you look at when trying to decide where to travel – which is the location contributing loads of threat that you need to get out of the way?
The other number, is the number of quest points the location has – once you do travel there (or start putting progress on it by other means) how much work is it going to take before it actually goes away? Even when there is no other location to travel to, going somewhere with a very low threat and loads and loads of quest points is likely to slow you down more than it helps you.
Beyond the hard numbers of locations, your next consideration is the effects. Amongst the effects commonly seen on locations are such diverse elements as: “global,” “whilst in the staging area,” “travel,” “whilst active,” and “when explored/when leaves play.” (writing that last sentence got a bit Spanish Inquisition during the drafting process).
A global effect is one that applies whenever the location is in play, and it’s often a big incentive to get something gone. There don’t tend to be all that many of these, unless it’s the scenario’s unique signature location, but there have been exceptions, which we’ll think about when we get to them.
Effects which come from a location whilst in the staging area, basically function as a big neon sign saying “travel here immediately!!!” again, these aren’t the most common, but when you get one, you need to have a plan to deal with it.
Travel effects or costs were one of the earliest things that we saw lots of. In the early days of the core set, some of them were actually positive effects, although costs have become much more common over time
The “while active, players may not / must do X” formula is a very simple one, which offered the designers a lot of scope for penalising players in different ways. Not being able to draw cards, heal damage, lower threat, or even attack enemies have all been pointed our way in this fashion.
Effects that trigger when the location leaves play, either as an explored location, or via some other card effect can go either way – sometimes these will be rewards, other times punishments.
One last type of effect that I didn’t mention earlier is the scenario-specific / keyword effect. These have occurred in so many different guises that it’s not really worth trying to cover them here, but I’ll try to get to them all as and when I reach the appropriate cycle.
The Core Set of the game, along with the Mirkwood cycle, set the standard for locations, and established a model that has stayed with us through the game. All the basic features outlined above have been common from the start.
In the core set, a lot of locations were remarkably nice by today’s standards – turn 1 of Passage Through Mirkwood allows you to travel to the Old Forest Road and actually ready a hero for doing so! Even the locations which didn’t offer an active benefit tended to be fairly low on interaction, and provided you managed to avoid the dreaded Brown Lands / East Bight combo, locations probably weren’t going to be a big part of the problem.
The recent retrospective series on the early quests done by the Master of Lore has done a great job of highlighting some of the bizarre inconsistencies in these quests, with places from hundreds of miles away somehow cropping up as you sail along the Anduin or investigate strange goings on at Dol Guldur.
The locations of the first cycle, by and large, didn’t really do too much to break the pattern from early on. Most locations weren’t very interactive, threats and progress requirements were fairly low, and although you needed to keep an eye out for signature challenges like The Carrock or Rhosgobel, you could still expect to be given an opportunity as often as a really unpleasant challenge.
To crunch some specific numbers, the non-unique locations added in the Hunt For Gollum, Conflict at the Carrock, Journey to Rhosgobel, Dead Marshes and Return to Mirkwood all had average threats somewhere between 2 and 3. For the most part these locations had between 2 and 4 quest points with each set having an average of 3 or less. The Dead Marshes did offer an impassable bog which required a mighty 12 progress to clear it, but with only 1 threat, it could generally be ignored.
None of the non-unique locations had any nasty passive effects. There were quite a few things that were unpleasant whilst active, or which had an added cost to travel to, but there were also plenty of locations which actually provided benefits, particularly once you’d explored them.
It’s worth giving specific mention at this point to The Hills of Emyn Muil, one of the most heavily criticised quests of the early days of the game. Hills required players to amass a certain number of victory points, and have no Emyn Muil locations in the staging area.
With very few enemies, and only a couple of treacheries that could really make life difficult, this quest quickly turned into “play a few Northern Trackers, have Eleanor ready to cancel rockslide, and just wait until you win.”
It wasn’t necessarily an easy quest – the 2 locations which started the game in play were both big, and had nasty effects that could really put the hurt on you. That said, if you were still alive by turn 3 or 4, and had a Northern Tracker out, it was probably going to be plain sailing from hereon in…
There have been location-focused quests since Hills of Emyn Muil, but none that have taken the issue of exploration in such a straightforward manner. For most people, that’s generally considered to be a good thing, as Emyn Muil typically gets slated in “best quest” / “worst quest” lists. Personally, I quite liked the change of pace, although it certainly hasn’t aged all that well (the challenge these days is much more in terms of “how hard can you smash this quest?” rather than ‘can you beat it?’)
Tools of Travel
At the same time that we’re looking at locations in the early game, it’s also worth adding a bit of context in terms of the tools that players had available to them for dealing with those locations.
The Northern Tracker, back in the Mirkwood days, was the undisputed king of location control.
At 4-cost in spirit, he wasn’t particularly cheap, nor particularly quick, but once you’d got one (or even two) into play, locations more-or-less stopped being an issue. You could explore them all in the staging area, never have to deal with any of those travel or “whilst active” effects and generally feel confident that you weren’t going to get location locked. As time went on, and it was easier to get the card draw / resource acceleration out early to guarantee having that Northern Tracker in play more of the time and earlier on, so it became increasingly necessary for the designers of the game to come up with other things to challenge players.
It’s also worth mentioning Core Set Legolas. Whilst 2 progress may not seem like a huge amount, it’s surprising just how many locations in those early days could be taken out with only 1 or 2 progress tokens. That meant that if you were confident of having Legolas kill something during the combat phase (and as a 3-attack ranged character, the odds were always good), then locations which ramped your threat during the refresh phase, or stopped you from drawing cards during the resource phase wouldn’t actually stick around long enough to be a problem.
Other early-days options for a bit of location management included the original chump-blocker, the Snowbourn Scout, the active location-shrinker, Lorien Guide, and the almost-never-used event, Strength of Will all of which came from the core set. Spirit was definitely the sphere best-placed to deal with locations in the early days, and they reinforced this with a sub-theme of Spirit Rohan, which allowed players to place progress (typically through discarding allies), or switch the active location with one n the staging area. Lore also had a few early tricks through event cards that allowed them to ignore the threat of a location, or to travel to it immediately when it was revealed without resolving its travel effect, but they were definitely only in second place.
Most of what we’ve looked at today will be fairly familiar to most folks – by and large these are Core Set cards, that anyone who has ever bought the game will be familiar with. Next week, I’m going to look at what came after, with our first forays underground, to the world of Khazad-Dum, the Dwarrowdelf cycle, and the first Saga boxes which dealt with the stories of The Hobbit.