after a slightly longer pause than intended (I blame starting a new job), it’s time for the next installment in the Locations review.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should let you all know that The Ringmaker cycle is probably my least favourite so far – I never really liked the time mechanic, the Dunlendings felt thematically off, and it failed to deliver on early promise of finally fleshing out the Rohan trait.
For this article though, I’ll do my best to put as many of those personal gripes as I can aside (I can’t promise 100% success), and focus on the locations of the cycle: how they worked, when they were hideously convoluted, and the positive aspects.
Taking the Hobbits to Isengard (gard, gard, gard…)
The Deluxe itself- Voice of Isengard – laid the foundation for 3 fairly distinct settings in the campaign: the plains around Isengard itself, the wild hills of Dunland, and dark and ominous forests. Interestingly, comparatively few of the locations from this box actually found their way into the later adventures, with the enemies and treacheries being the cards more commonly carried over.
One of the few encounter sets which did show up repeatedly, was Broken Lands. First appearing in the Second Scenario, To Catch an Orc, it had 3 copies of 1 hideous location, the eponymous Broken Lands themselves. Whilst they only had 2 threat, they were a chunky 6 progress to explore, and has a passive effect which prevented progress being placed on locations in the staging area whilst they were in the staging area. The rest of the locations in that scenario were, actually, not that huge (average threat/progress of 3), but there was one – Methedras – which boosted the threat of all the others, and things could swiftly get out of control. Essentially, once you drew Broken Lands, you had to travel and clear it, before you drew another copy – in high-player counts, an early one of these basically meant instant location-lock.
The Woodland setting for into Fangorn kept threat on locations moderate, but required high numbers of progress to get anywhere.
Moving on into the cycle proper, the non-unique locations were generally not the central focus of the quests – although some, like The Three Trials, still hit you hard with the 3 non-unique, but only copy each Barrow locations, with an average threat of 3, and 8 progress required. Others like the Dunland Trap or The Antlered Crown spun on a quest-card mechanic that somewhat dwarfed the impact of individual cards in the staging area.
Trouble in Tharbad
Easily my favourite scenario of this cycle was Trouble in Tharbad – it got a bit of stick when it came out (especially from some of the power-gamers) for being too easy, but in my book, that was a significant part of its charm: this was a scenario that allowed enough scope for players to try different things out, rather than just charging full-tilt with an aggro deck at everything. (it’s worth remembering that this is around the time that the One-Boromir-to-rule-them-all deck first came to prominence).
Tharbad also had some brilliantly simple and thematic locations. The Decrepit Rooftops sent all the enemies back to the staging area (you are hiding on the roof), whilst the Streets of Tharbad gave all the enemies -20 engagement cost (what do you expect walking down the road in broad daylight?)
The trouble with Tharbad is that it was followed up immediately with the absolute slog that is Nin-in-Eilph. The positive about this quest, is that it captured very well the feeling of trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost. The problem is that trudging around in a swamp whilst hopelessly lost is a fairly miserable experience – it isn’t really one which you want to recapture accurately! Finger of Glanduin acted like a reverse Northern Tracker, eating away the progress on locations, whilst Sinking Bog gave characters -1 to all their stats for each Item they had.
By the end of the cycle, the complexity was really starting to stack up. Celebrimbor’s Secret saw locations destroyed, which got them out of the staging area, but powered up some really nasty quest effects. The Antlered Crown was a fairly early experiment with separating the locations and (some of) the enemies into separate decks, it was a constant nightmare for attempting to keep track of all the different passive effects and triggers. Amongst all that, you had a pile of locations with time counters on, whose power to hurt you far outweighed their modest stats. As always, credit to the designers for their innovation, but by-and-large, these quests felt like a bit of a miss to me.
Number-crunching the Ringmaker cycle is slightly difficult. For one thing, the classic strategy of just about keeping your head above water until you can get a couple of Northern Trackers out and watch the locations go away was rarely viable in a quest that featured time, or in one which featured the Broken Lands. This was a cycle where you had to power quest every turn, take the big attacks on the chin, and be ready to hit back twice as hard. As such, the actual difficulty posed by the locations was probably greater than in a quest pre-time-mechanics where the average threat and progress values were the same. For that reason, the numbers generally look fairly reasonable: average threats around 3, with progress requirements probably nudging a bit closer to 4, it doesn’t look like a major step up from Against the Shadow, but it certainly had the potential to feel that way.
Giving hope to Men
At least the Ringmaker cycle did give some scope to allow the players to tech against all these nasty locations. A new hero, Idraen was probably the first to interact directly with locations, and her ability to ready after a location was explored allowed long-neglected cards like Strength of Will to make a come-back: if you can travel to a location which only needs 2 more progress, this card essentially allows her to explore it for free.
Along with Idraen, the first of the scouts, we got some early support for the scout trait, in the form of the Warden of Arnor attachement. Once attached to a questing scout Hero, this placed a progress token on the first location revealed every round.
This card always felt a bit lacklustre to me: it draws my mind back to a “Strider” custom hero I made several years ago, a Spirit version of Aragorn who acted as a Thalin for locations, placing 1 progress on each location revealed whilst he was questing. Given the size of modern locations, I really don’t think that the card would have been overpowered if it had done this, and my lack of enthusiasm is unlikely to change, but it is at least cheap enough that if you’ve got a scout who’s going to be questing every round, there’s little reason not to slap it on her.
Aside from these two, there wasn’t really a lot more on offer for dealing with locations: Ringmaker saw the rise of the Silvans, talented multi-taskers, and sneaky little blighters, but with little in the way of direction location control. It did lead to a bit of a revival for the Lorien Guide, who was good at whittling away active locations, but did little for the staging area.
Ringmaker is still the cycle I look back on with the least fondness, and was the point at which I first let slip my ongoing aim of beating all new quests at least once with 1, 2, 3 and 4 players. The locations are more irritating than intriguing, and apart from Tharbad, they didn’t particularly interest me.
However, the Scout trait got its start there, and this was probably the first time we really got focused location-control decks (3 Spirit Heroes + 3 Northern Trackers doesn’t count), and those can still be used 2 or 3 cycles later, with the hills of Dunland far behind us, so it wasn’t a dead loss.
That’s about all for today, but I’ll be back in a week or 2 to take a look at the locations in the Saga boxes which represented The Two Towers.
At least they made up for it with some gorgeous artwork. Just look at that Finger of Glanduin. So evocative!