Moving sideways from the regular Deluxe and AP cycles, I want to think today about the locations in the Saga boxes that recreate the events of the first 2 Lord of the Rings books – Black Riders and the Road Darkens.
Black Riders was the first time we had seen the events of The Lord of the Rings itself directly represented in card form, and the box came with an almost ready-made new deck, the Hobbits who rely on low threat, and gain powerful extra effects when they take on foes who would not necessarily have noticed them. For that reason, the box is a favourite with many fans, but how do the quests themselves measure up?
Taking the idea of low-profile Hobbits and pushing it to its ultimate conclusion, the first scenario centred around the Hide test – another one of the “exhaust characters, discard cards from the deck, and hope you’ve beaten the arbitrary number that comes up” mechanics that appear as one-offs in quests. Many of the locations tie-in directly to the hide mechanic, making tests harder or easier, or simply requiring you to take another one of the tests.
There are quite a lot of locations in the first quest, and this becomes particularly problematic when you reach the final stage and are attempting to travel to the Buckleberry Ferry – this unique location is immune to player card effects, and can only be travelled to if there are no other locations in play. In our experience, this can lead to round after round where you smash the questing, but can’t clear enough locations in 1 go to be allowed to travel (there is some help available from the quest card, but in 4-player it’s often not enough).
Knives in the Dark
Moving on to Bree, there are more unique locations, starting with The Prancing Pony and proceeding on through Midgewater, to finally end up at Weathertop itself. The unique locations give shape to the overall narrative of the quest, and have fairly powerful effects, both good and bad. This pattern is continued in the Flight to the Ford, where the Last Bridge and Ford of the Bruinen draw directly from the books for their abilities.
I like the fact that the designers produced an expansion so obviously grounded in the source material, and some effects are pure narrative gold – there are few finer feelings in the game than exploring the Ford of the Bruinen and discarding a whole host of Nazgul.
That said, the decision-making in this box often felt very constricted: many of the unique locations are put into play by quest effects, or need to be explored before the stage can be completed. As such, whilst we see these iconic locations as we go along, there’s actually fairly limited interaction with them – you travel when you have to, and explore them once you’ve mustered enough progress. That’s about it.
The Road Darkens
Box 2 (for book 2, none of this nonsense about Lord of the Rings being a Trilogy) felt to me like they’d managed to strike more of a balance with the locations – the fact that we had already spent so much time in Moria meant that the designers had already had plenty of chance to play around with mechanics that might represent the Doors of Durin or the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, and these certainly felt like the refined version. The first quest out of Rivendell could well prove to be the death of the hobbits, as damage is scattered across locations, triggering in turn cascades of nasty effects.
The mines are really well done as ever – confusing passageways, and labyrinths which soak up your progress. Darkened ways which might reveal more enemies, or even a nice, defensible guard-room to make a brief stand. Obviously The Great Bridge is the centre-piece and it’s hard to argue with the thematic win of casting a hero into the abyss to remove the Balrog’s keywords – that said, I remain disappointed by / in denial of the notion that the Balrog only has one keyword. It never occurred to us when we first played it that “Immune to Player Card Effects” wasn’t a keyword, and I won’t allow FFG to take away the brilliant moment when we finished off the Balrog with a lone attack from a Mirkwood Runner for the last 2 damage.
The final quest returns to the stacked sequence of unique locations, and gives you very little choice over what to do in the early rounds, along with providing heavy punishment for certain deck-types. Whilst the initial stages can get annoying though, I’m generally prepared to give them a pass, because I’m such a fan of the way the latter part of the quest is done: I really like the multiple staging areas, and the way cards move between them, it felt like a clever way of representing a party scattered across a fast-flowing river, and made for an enjoyable experience. In campaign mode, the Seat of Seeing adds another fun element of decision-making, as you have to weigh whether to stall the quest a little longer in an attempt to get rid of those burdens.
Overall, I think the first 2 Saga Boxes for Lord of the Rings did a really good job of capturing the flavour of the books, and the latter box in particular managed to convert them into enjoyable quests to play. Although these two boxes relied quite heavily on having cards that were unique to each quest, I actually thought that some of the most interesting locations came in the sets that were shared across multiple quests, The Old Road and Pathless Country. Both of these offered fairly low-to-middling stat-lines, but combined them with effects that forced players to make choices – The Old Road can be gone in a heartbeat, if you take on the peril of another Burden. The Pathless County can be left and tracked over the course of several rounds, but it will take a long time, due to those conditional extra progress tokens – this type of mechanic, where players are given meaningful choices definitely scores them points in my book.
What about us?
One thing that the Fellowship of the Rings boxes didn’t really offer a lot of, was new cards for players to deal with locations – in fact, there was nothing within the standard card-pool that would allow us to manipulate threat, progress, or effects on locations. The “Lorien Rope” Boon provided a powerful effect, reducing the threat of every location in the staging area by 2 for a round, but to trigger it, you had to remove the card from the campaign pool, so it wasn’t something you could really rely on, even in campaign mode (and wasn’t available at all outside of it).
One card that was interesting was the Elf-Stone: this actually added to the number of progress required to explore a location, but allowed you to put an ally into play when it was explored. This required some set-up – it could only attach to the active location, and only the first player got to place the free ally, so there was a danger that it would fail if not triggered properly, but with a bit of coordination, it allowed that low-cost, low-threat Hobbit deck to put Gildor, Faramir, or Beorn into play for a single Lore Resource and an extra willpower in questing.
Overall, the Fellowship boxes were good. I’m not a fan of Shadow of the Past, due to the way you can so easily get stuck on stage 3, and Bill Ferny is more trouble than he ought to be, but from a locations perspective, these boxes are a particular high-point in conveying the designers’ love of the source material. I think that the second box is better in terms of how enjoyable the locations actually make the quests to play and having re-visited the cards to write this article, I’m keen to actually re-play some of these quests soon.
I’m glad to read of an experienced player who was put out by the Buckleberry Ferry debacle. I beat it recently (full disclosure: Easy mode) but the last three turns consisted of twisting cards through right angles and back again so my Northern Trackers could grind out the win. Once you get used to the Hide concept it works really well, Hobbits ducking and diving, but the theme was undermined by what amounted to an exercise in bookkeeping.
I haven’t played through all of the quests, and in fact, part of my inhibition to do so (other than waiting for all the boxes to be released) is the fiddliness of the 1st box’s quests. I think the sailing tests, whatever people’s opinions of the boats may be, from the Grey Havens Box, did a great job of making the “exhaust allies to match number” effect a little more enjoyable. It wasn’t willpower based, it was just X characters must be greater than Y number. Like you said, the locations get out of hand in some of those quests and having to devote extra willpower on top of that is a little cumbersome if not unenjoyable at times.
I’d be curious to hear how people have reacted to the nightmare versions of these quests. Obviously there is an increase in difficulty but have some of the issues you mentioned been resolved?
Last thing – I agree the 2nd box is more fun to play. It’s also my favorite part of Fellowship, so I may be bias.