Last time out, I thought a little bit about the locations we saw in the Core Set and the first cycle of the game. Today I want to look at the next period in the game’s evolution: Khazad-Dum and the Dwarrowdelf Cycle, along with the 2 Hobbit Saga Boxes
Technically, the second Hobbit landed slightly after the Heirs of Numenor Deluxe did, but it just feels much neater thematically to divide this way. Don’t worry though, everyone will get their turn…
And they called it a mine!
Khazad-Dum is a mine, whatever Gimli might try to tell you, and that meant lots of underground locations, and lots of stumbling around in the dark.
There were various different ways that they represented this – my personal favourite was the Cave Torch, which allowed you to place progress on a location, at the cost of possibly adding another enemy to the staging area. This is perfect thematically – if you shine a light, it’s easier for you to see the cave, but also a lot easier for a nearby goblin to see you – and also felt like it really added to the decisions you needed to make. There were plenty of other locations in the Kazad-Dum boxed set that offer similar high-cost options you could take to alleviate a problem, like the Zigil Mineshaft which allowed you to raise each player’s threat to add progress to it – as you might expect when searching for Mithril, it’s a very appealing prospect, but it may prove costly if you delve too deep.
Overall, I felt like Khazad-Dum hit a real sweet spot for the feel of the quests capturing the theme, whilst retaining something that worked mechanically, and offered some of the best quests in the game – there are plenty of unique locations with nasty effects, and a variety of difficulty levels, but between the confusing labyrinths and darkened halls, it really felt like you were wandering around in a dark mine, as much at risk from the collapse of the walls around you as from the goblins who dwell there.
Along the Misty Mountains
The Dwarrowdelf cycle began with a venture out onto the snow-swept mountainsides, and a strange quest that penalised you for a lack of Willpower – apparently a giant bear is no good for crossing a mountain pass!
Location-wise, there were still a few gems: the Warg Lair provides a very obvious yet effective way of punishing you for travelling (travel here, fetch a Warg) and there were definitely waters nearby that you wanted to steer well clear of.
Having slept through the second scenario in the cycle, with disastrous consequences, Watcher in the Water was primarily a boss fight, but it did bring us the rather unusual Doors of Durin – a riddle in card-game form: the reality of this was a little clunky, and it’s the only time I can ever recall deck-building for a scenario based on the names of cards in my deck!
The last half of the cycle took us back into the mines. I think it’s very interesting that two quests around this time did a lot to play with our sense of space without relying that heavily on innovative new locations. Foundations of Stone is another favourite quest of mine, which really translates the story into mechanic as the floor caves in, and the party is scattered across the dark underbelly of the caverns. Mostly though, this is just done through the quest cards, with the locations being recycled from the deluxe.
Much like quest 2 of the cycle, The Long Dark is a quest I’ve largely shunned, as it had what was essentially a “cancel this or lose” card – Foul air
The quest overall revolved around locate tests: these were another of these seen-only-once tests that required you to discard cards off of the encounter deck, trusting to blind luck that you might find a keyword printed on an all-too-small selection of the cards. For the most part this could be dealt with, and there was one location, Twisting Passage, that seemed very much designed to stop people from Northern Tracker-ing locations into irrelevance, but the Foul Air treachery was just plain hideous.
Whilst the general feel of locations in Khazad-Dum / Dwarrowdelf was not drastically different from Mirkwood, numbers were certainly higher. Average threats of non-unique locations tended to be more like 3-4 than the 2-3 of the previous cycle, a small but significant jump. It also became much rarer to see 1 or 2 progress locations, with averages around 3, and higher numbers appearing more often.
By and Large, the locations of the Hobbit boxes were not that numerically different from the others around in the game. Admittedly, there were a couple of really gentle locations before you left the shire, but overall, the numbers were not that much lower than the Dwarrowdelf cycle, and probably still a bit higher than Mirkwood numbers..
One of the trickiest things about assessing the difficulty of Hobbit locations, is the requirement in various instances to spend Baggins Resources to travel / explore them, or else travel penalties in real resources that paid a “when explored” dividend back into Baggins resources. Without getting into the whole question of the Baggins sphere and its comparative worth, it’s hard to say too much about these.
I think as a general point, I would say that the locations in this box vary from the very general to the very specific but that by-and-large, aside from a unique scenario-specific place like the troll camp, they tend to be fairly bland, with the scenario taking its flavour more from the enemies involved.
Have Horse, Will Travel
Overall, locations in the second cycle were bigger and nastier than in the first, but by-and-large, you could still interact with them, there was plenty that you could do. Obviously, whilst these new locations were being released for us to explore, the player card pool was also expanding, and there was one card which dominated the location landscape above all others.
Asfaloth, as most players of the game will know is a Lore Attachment. Too early in the game’s life to follow the conventions later established for Mounts, he is not Restricted, although he can only be attached to a Silvan or Noldor. Most of the time though, you’ll want to attach him to Glorfindel as, once you’ve done so, he can be exhausted to place 2 progress tokens on any location.
Asfaloth can target locations in the staging area or active locations. His ability is just an “action” with no restrictions to a specific phase of the game, so you can do it after staging and before quest resolution. Whilst he is hard-capped at 2 progress per round, unlike a Northern Tracker who can potentially generate very large numbers of progress tokens with enough locations in play, the point-and-click nature, along with the lower cost makes him so powerful: as time has gone on, we’ve seen more and more locations which do bad things when progress is placed on them, which can be nasty when they are being tracked 1 token at a time. Asfaloth puts the progress only where you want it, and not where you don’t.
Although I’m talking a lot about 1 card (and not even a Hero, a unique attachment at that) I think it’s hard to overstate the impact of Asfaloth on the game. The only real cost is having to play Glorfindel, and as Asfaloth was released around the same time as Glorfindel’s Spirit version, regularly rated as one of the most (over-)powerful Heroes in the game, it’s not much of a draw-back. (Of course, you can attach Asfaloth to a different Noldor or Silvan – the progress he places is halved, but 1 progress anytime anywhere still isn’t bad for a one-off cost of 2.
It’s long been a source of frustration for me that most Mounts in this game have the “Restricted” Keyword – I can’t see how being on a horse would stop you from carrying a sword and a shield. To my mind, it would make a lot more sense thematically, without being noticeably less balanced mechanically to get rid of “Restricted” but add “limit 1 mount per character.” Aside from any general impact this would have on the game, it would add a real element of cost to playing Asfaloth, as it would at least limit the other attachments you could put on your hero.
For a bit of an example of the power of Asfaloth, let’s take a look at a particular scenario: The Massing at Osgiliath.
Massing was the first Gen-Con scenario, a place that has typically seen the most punishing and brutal quests hurled at players. The game starts with 3 enemies in play per player, and concludes with a boss fight against the Witch King whose 666 stats were considered truly frightful at that point in the game’s life.
One of the most unique features of Massing though, was the way it moved players from one side of the Anduin to the other. The crossing itself was perilous – costing you a hero if you hadn’t managed to draw the right objective ally from the encounter deck – but it also fundamentally changed the way you interacted with locations. Locations were either “East Bank” or “West Bank” and depending on whether or not you had crossed the Anduin, the might acquire extra threat or simply be impossible to travel to.
Asfaloth however, doesn’t care which bank of the Anduin you’re on: got threat problems from a newly revealed location that is on the wrong side of the river? – send the horse! Got a location which will damage all your characters if active? – send the horse! Really want to travel to one place, but another location will punish you for not travelling there instead? – send the horse!
Thror and others
Of course, Asfaloth wasn’t the only location control card released during this period, he was just much, much better than the others. It is still worth spending a few moments thinking about some of the others though, even if their impact was less than the mighty Asfaloth.
Thror, Grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield had a few family Heirlooms that were quite handy if you found yourself needing to break in to Erebor. For the LCG their purpose was expanded somewhat to serve the purpose of general location management.
The first allowed you to blank a location’s text. Obviously this was limited, as it had to be a location that wasn’t immune to player-card effects, for you to be able to attach it in the first place, but if you knew that there was one place which was really going to mess you up, this offered a good way out. It’s also worth noting that you had to play the key onto a hero, then as a response to a location being revealed, you could move it across – so it wasn’t going to help against locations that come out in set-up (randomly, or by scenario rules).
The other tool of Durin’s folk was arguably even more powerful, allowing you to swap out an active location. We had already seen Strider’s Path and the West Road Traveller offer this effect on a one-off basis, but it was now repeatable, and much more flexible in timing.
Sadly, the Map received an errata, largely due to people using it in what was felt to be a broken combination with the Leadership approach to location control in this cycle: Path of Need.
Path of Need was the first card in the game to bear the “limit 1 per deck” restriction, and at 4 resources, even in Leadership, that was going to need to be a powerful effect.
It certainly wasn’t bad- assuming that you could get it out, Path of Need could be attached to a location, and whilst that location was active, Heroes did not need to exhaust to quest, attack or defend. Of course the chances were that with all your heroes questing, you were going to clear the location in a single round, so it was basically a 1-shot, ideal one big quest phase if you put it on the active location during planning, or a big round of combat if you put it on a location in the staging area that you were confident of travelling to.
The problem was that when you put the Path and the Map together, you could keep Path of Need around indefinitely. Declare questers (not exhausting) do the staging step, then swap out the location before you resolved questing. Travel to the same location again, and no exhaustion for combat either. So long as you had a new location to travel to each round, you could do this indefinitely.
Whether the errata was necessary or not is ultimately a matter of opinion: in a game-climate that contains Gather Information and Heed the Dream, combos that require “Limit 1 per deck” cards are less improbably than they used to be, so there is probably merit to the decision, but it’s still a little saddening. Now, Thror’s Map is a travel action only – it still has some uses, as a handy little get-out-of-jail card, or an undo button when you realise you really shouldn’t have travelled to X last round, but it feels a lot harder to justify its inclusion in a deck, especially given the size of the modern card pool.
By the end of the game’s second cycle then, we had seen a fair few changes to the sorts of locations we encountered. A scenario-defining unique location was still a possibility, but it was also much more likely that a location would have an unusual keyword or effect. By and large, they still weren’t massive (either in terms of threat or progress required), but the shadow of Asfaloth had fallen, and changes were brewing – by the time of Heirs of Numenor, things would have changed significantly.