It won’t have escaped your attention that the Grey Havens box and the Dream Chaser cycle that followed it, featured boats. Perhaps not as many boats as we first expected, but sailing has certainly been a feature of the most recent cycle and, having completed City of Corsairs a couple of days ago and seen the final bit of sailing we will have to do, I thought it might be a good time to take a bit of a look back, and see how the sailing had been overall.
To The Sea?
To be honest, there haven’t been as many sailing quests as I first expected: there was the first quest of the Deluxe, Voyage Across Belegaer, the first AP of the cycle, Flight of the Storm Caller, then a prolonged period where we were either on a ship but not sailing it (Thing in the Depths) or simply back on dry land (Temple of the Deceived, Drowned Ruins). A Storm on Coba’s Haven returned us to the waves, and the first part of City of Corsairs saw the Dreamchaser off for one last hurrah – only 3 1/4 Sailing quests all-told! When the cycle was first announced, I certainly had the impression that there would have been far more of these, but given the need for the ships that came in the Deluxe (not to mention that the next cycle involves a desert), I’m not holding my breath for any more (any chance of a camel with the “ship-of-the-desert-objective card type? …)
Having reached the end (presumably) of new shipping content, I want to look at how it changed the game: with our ships, the encounter deck ships, and other things which came along into the bargain.
There are 4 ships included in the Grey Havens box – one, the Dreamchaser is always part of your fleet when you are sailing, and is the compulsory first pick. Once one player has taken the Dreamchaser, each other player chooses one of the remaining ships to take, and in solo you get a second ship for yourself – at best, this means picking 1 or 2 out of 3 possibilities to use (once you’re using all of them, it no longer really feels like a “pick”) and more often than not assembling your fleet just becomes an argument about who gets lumbered with the Dreamchaser.
There are certainly a selection of interesting effects available from the ships, but as I say, the choice does feel limited – I’d assumed we would get additional ships during the cycle, to give us an incentive to go back and re-play earlier quests again, but the original list was never expanded upon.
As we’ve played this cycle mostly 2-player with a little bit of solo, it’s generally been about choosing a single escort for the Dreamchaser, and the choice has almost always been Narelenya. The once-per-round cost reduction of an ally is a really powerful effect in almost any deck, and it’s particularly true of my wife’s current Gondor deck, and of course, my tried-and-tested solo deck: Play as many Dwarves as you can.
Of the remaining two ships, the extra card-draw of the Dawn Star is obviously very useful, but +3 starting threat is a heavy penalty: most decks I build either have too high a threat already for this to be safe, or else have a particular reliance on their low threat (secrecy, reliance on non-engagement of enemies etc), and can’t afford the bump.
On the flip side, threat reduction is nice, as offered by Silver Wing, but is the +1 attack per hero worth it? Potentially with the difficulty of Corsair bashing this is one we should investigated in more detail but I can’t recall ever using this solo or 2-player. Perhaps a Lorgaron deck might be able to get better mileage out of, but for us it never felt worthwhile. It would actually be quite nice if you could leave out the Dreamchaser, and have Dawn Star and Silver Wing balance each other out in solo, but sadly this is never an option.
As well as the player-controlled ships there were, of course, also the enemy ships, and typically these were fairly big, nasty, beasts.
Most Ship enemies had a few things in common – big stats, the “Boarding” Keyword, and limited interaction with other player-card types.
The big stats make sense. A ship is a significant thing, and it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be only hitting as hard as an orc. Likewise, the limited interaction with player cards: only a ship you control can defend against a Ship enemy.
The squire of the citadel might be able to stand in the path of horde of Dunlendings, or even a few Undead (and by “stand in the path” I mean “occupy them for a round whilst they brutally slaughter him”) but the idea that he’s going to hold up a ship for a noticeable amount of time is a bit more of a stretch: he’ll either be dragged under, or smashed by the timbers, either way, the Squire is ending up dead and the crew of the boat probably doesn’t even notice.
The biggest problem I had with ships though (generally), was the Boarding Keyword: essentially, a requirement to engage a Corsair Enemy whenever you engage a ship. Again, this makes a lot of sense thematically: when your boat tries to fight another boat, you’ll probably find that there’s a crew to tangle with, so I can’t fault them on that front. The execution though, was rather different.
For one thing, I’m never a great fan of anything that requires me to divide the encounter deck into two different decks: the card-backs are all the same, and it’s all-too easy to get the cards mixed up, or put something in the wrong discard pile, and find them getting shuffled into the wrong deck. “Extra decks” have been an ever-more-common feature of the game as its life has gone on, and they always feel fiddly.
Beyond that though, it just made the burden of combat feel too uneven. We’ve played quite a few quests this cycle combining a fight-y Gondor deck and a Spirit Questing deck – once the Spirit deck has properly got set up, it has some decent combat potential (Idraen and Lanwyn are amongst heroes, and it also runs ally Glorfindel, Northern Trackers and Rhovanion Outriders) – against a normal enemy or two, it can handle a fight. What it can’t deal with is a massive boat AND a few random pirate enemies thrown in on top, especially when many of those pirates have resource-stealing mechanics which make them more and more powerful if you can’t kill them in a single round. Even for the Gondor deck, defending a ship with their ship, defending a handful of Corsairs and being expected to strike back again, is a major problem – if you don’t have Boromir the Steward of Gondorian Fire set up, along with a bucketload of threat-reduction, it’s just not feasible, and that’s coming from a deck that’s designed to be able to handle combat.
As well as being uneven, the Boarding mechanic also increases the sheer number of cards you have to deal with each round: It feels like a particularly cruel trick on the part of the designers to finally give us some limited consolation against surge, in the form of Lanwyn, then bring in a mechanic that does all the nasty aspects of surge without actually bearing the keyword (and therefore not triggering her ability.)
In a lot of ways the Corsairs felt a bit like the Dunlendings – they’ve taken a really interesting idea, tying together a group of enemies with a particular theme/mechanic, but then putting it on top of base stats that are simply too high: someone like the Cunning Pirate is likely to be starting at 4 attack, 4 defence, 4 hit-points, and the Umbar Raider only needs to survive a round or two before he’s going to be smashing clean through anything and everything that comes along to stand in his way: not a nice prospect for someone who always arrives as part of a crowd.
Whilst you’re dealing with all these million enemies, it’s worth remembering that you also need to sail: it’s easy enough to forget with only that little keyword tucked in to the side. If you only learn one thing about sailing quests, make sure it’s this.
Make sure you always pass the sailing test.
If you’re on-course, a lot of the location / treachery effects in these quests really aren’t that bad- some of them won’t do anything at all. On the other hand, if you’re even slightly off-course, you can expect to be battered, bruised and broken as the waves toss you in all directions.
As sailing is one of those rather frustrating “reveal X cards from the encounter deck and hope you do / don’t find a random symbol printed in the corner” type checks, you regularly have to over-commit in order to ensure you stay on course (even scrying is of fairly limited use unless you happen to hit a success on the very first card), leaving you without the excess hands you’d need to deal with all the other things going on. In some quests, the proportion of cards in the deck which actually counted as a pass in the sailing test was so low that once I got knocked off course (for example to avoid a ship returning to the staging area and re-boarding me next turn), it was almost impossible to pull it back.
The fact that the Dream Chaser can commit to sailing tests even when not controlled by the first player does help a little with smoothing, but I’m still not sure I can see the logic thematically – given that each player is notionally on their own ship, Sailing Tests feel like they should be done by the whole party, rather than player-by-player, and it certainly feels galling later on in the game having to put in a 5 willpower ship to the sailing test when a player who isn’t doing the check has a couple of 1 or 0 willpower guys sat around twiddling their thumbs.
For all my curmudgeonly thoughts, I’m glad that the designers are still trying to be innovative with how they approach the game. For me, sailing was an area where they didn’t quite hit the mark, but things could certainly have been a lot worse. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems fairly certain that the Sands of Harad will be fairly light on oceangoing vessel, but I look forward to seeing what new perils they have in store for us instead.