Category Archives: Review

Places we’ve been – part 3

Heirs of Numenor was the second Deluxe expansion for Lord of the Rings, and the starting point for the third cycle of the game’s life.

Heris.jpgOstensibly the biggest change in this cycle came with the new mechanics: Battle and Siege, which turned the game on its head as characters were required to quest using their Attack or Defence respectively, rather than their traditional Willpower. It was also, perhaps a last hurrah for the idea that this game was primarily based around Spheres of Influence, rather than the “Tribal” themes which drew together decks of mostly Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim, or Gondor, as the player-card pool received a series of cards which supported players running Mono-sphere decks.

However, in keeping with our ongoing series, I wanted to focus more today on the locations of the Against the Shadow, to trace the commonalities which remained and the subtle changes which came in.

Heirs

Heirs of Numenor itself contained several punishing quests: a brawl in the streets of Pelargir, a chance encounter with a Haradrim Army on the road through Ithilien, and finally the Siege of Cair Andros: each of these quests plagued us with new, brutal enemies and ghastly treacheries (Infinite Loop of Blocking Wargs anyone?) but the locations were also a significant part.

market-square

The art looks so innocuous

The urban locations of Peril in Pelargir look fairly innocuous at first glance, but they had a few nasty tricks up their sleeves – for example, the 1-progress location with the highish threat, a resource cost to travel, and an immunity to player-card effects. Having this kind of immunity on a non-unique location which just came out of the deck at random was a new and disturbing twist. It was combo-ed with the City Street, essentially a modern-day version of the East Bight – it only required 2 progress to explore, but it had double the threat, and that same requirement which meant you had to travel to it.

ithilien-roadStarting Active Locations with unpleasant effects were also a big thing in this cycle. Whereas earlier in the game’s life we had tended to see these locations start in the staging area, now it became more common for their effect to be in play from the word go – whether that be the Leaping Fish churning out enemies turn after turn, or the Ithilien Road ensuring that if you couldn’t win the quest by at least 4 on turn 1, all of those Haradrim enemies were coming to get you.

In terms of the overall stats, the locations in Heirs weren’t all that different from earlier cycles: average threat and progress values, at least for the non-uniques continued to hover around the same level. What had changed though, was the tricksyness. Instead of bringing Asfaloth and co and completely nullifying the issue, you now needed all those tools just to keep on top of things.

Against the Shadow

the-fourth-starThe Against the Shadow cycle itself saw a wide variety of locations, any many of them reflected that quest’s unique: Underworld in the Steward’s Fear, Villagers in Encounter at Amon Din, Hidden Cards in The Blood of Gondor. Even when the keyword itself was not directly carried across, there was a stronger sense of thematic tie-in in this cycle: for example all of the resource denial in Druadan Forest to complement the Prowl Mechanic, or the wat that locations in The Morgul Vale tried to add progress to To The Tower, or else simply flung things back to the staging area in order to slow the players down.

garden-of-poisonsThe overall effect of this was to make locations something that was much more of an issue than in earlier cycles – you certainly could just track away most of the places you went in the Steward’s Fear, but if you did so, there was a very real danger of getting suddenly ambushed by a large number of enemies from the Underworld deck. If you didn’t come with ways of dealing with the Druadan Forest, the Woses and their accompanying treacheries suddenly took on a rather fearsome aspect, with Threats of X and high archery totals. Encounter at Amon Din was largely an exercise in exploring as many locations as possible as fast as possible: Mostly low-threat, high progress, they look like ideal targets for the Northern Tracker, were it not for the Villagers burning alive round-by-round.

the-old-bridgeProbably the most notable Quest of the Cycle from a location perspective though, was Assault on Osgiliath. This was ostensibly a street-fight, a back-and-forth tussle to take the city, street by street, location by location. When a location was explored, the players took control of it, potentially bringing a benefit, but more commonly just another condition they needed to watch out for which could see that control lost if they left an attack undefended or a character was destroyed.

The lone quest card prevented progress from being placed on locations in the staging area, meaning that players needed to find lots of tricks to juggle locations around if they were to have any hope of exploring more than 1 per round, although some flat-out banned you from travelling there, instead having their own built-in mechanics to acquire progress.

retake-the-city-1bThe overall objective for Assault on Osgiliath was to control all the Osgiliath locations at the end of the round and, as originally printed, it was rather broken – you could choose the starting location which had the action “exhaust a hero to place a progress here” and then use Boromir to take control of it in a single turn. This got “fixed” in the Nightmare version and, even before the official changes, most people only used this trick once then got bored, and looked for other ways to beat it.

Overall, the locations of this cycle posed more challenges than those in the Dwarrowdelf – it wasn’t necessarily that the numbers were much higher: average progress requirements were up to averages of 3 or 4, only a little higher than Dwarrowdelf, and threats, for the most part, were no higher. The big difference this cycle was the greater synergy to the encounter decks overall, a different emphasis on punishing the players for things that seemed like they should be positives.

This One’s For the Players

As the problems caused by locations slowly ramped up in difficulty, the Player Card pool began to lag behind, with almost nothing appearing in this cycle to help the players out with location control.

a-watchful-peaceThe Heirs deluxe box probably contained the most direct attempt at location control, A Watchful Peace – this was a spirit event which allowed players to return innocuous locations to the top of the encounter deck after they left play – interesting, but hardly powerful.

Of course, with the advantage of a few year’s hindsight, the power of a Caldara deck has become fairly clear, and being able to jump multiple Northern Trackers or Lorien Guides into play in a single turn certainly shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of dealing with locations, but really, it was just accelerating the arrival of existing tools, rather than really giving us new ones.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the Against the Shadow cycle felt like it offered a sharper set of locations – locations that really felt like integral parts of the quests they came in- the difficulty certainly increased, and the proliferation of new in this quest, never seen again mechanics could be a bit frustrating, but overall the part played by locations in these quests was good.

 

Join me next time for a hurried, panicked dash through the locations of the Ringmaker cycle

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Places We’ve Been – Part 2

Khazad-Khazad!

khazadLast 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.

cave-torch 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!

doors-of-durin 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.

foul-airMuch 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.

Numbers

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.

Hobbit-places

hobbit-lands 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 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.

Massing

For a bit of an example of the power of Asfaloth, let’s take a look at a particular scenario: The Massing at Osgiliath.

captured-watchtowerMassing 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

thrors-key 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.

combo

The Combo that was Broken

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.

Summary

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.

Places We’ve Been – Part 1

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.

Anatomy

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.

locationanatomy

A slightly squished view of the summary in the Core Rulebook

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.

mountains-of-mirkwood

An early example of both a travel and a leaving play effect

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

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.

the-brown-lands

Who else remembers when these two together was about the nastiest draw you could get?

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.

Mirkwood

rhosgobel

Absolutely nothing to stop you from exploring this in the staging area…

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.

The Hills

rockslideIt’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.”

amonsIt 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.

northern-tracker

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.

legolasIt’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.

ride-to-ruin

it’s actually a decent card, but it’s not worthy of the name…

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.

Moving forwards

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.

How fortunate you are that your job is also your hobby

Some musings on Board Games, Blogging, and Growing old.

Darling

In a few short weeks, I will reach the grand old age of 33, my coming-of-age as a Hobbit. Aside from various annual medical tests, and remembering to change the batteries in the smoke alarm, this felt like a time to take stock of life and reflect. Combined with a recent episode of Cardboard of the Rings where they abandoned their typical Lord of the Rings focus to enthuse about their other favourite games, this put the idea into my head to offer a few musings on my gaming experiences, and life more generally.

Getting Started

TheClassics I don’t really remember how I got into Board Gaming – I owned things like Cluedo and Monopoly as a child, but never played them particularly often. I do remember a fair few afternoons of Scrabble at the pub as a Student, then coming into contact with some of the classic gateway drugs for my generation – Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, probably around the time I got married.

It was also around this time that I got back into miniature wargaming – a lapsed teenage hobby, and fell in with a crowd who were experiencing an angry backlash against rules-lawyers and millimetre measures, venting their frustrations through Richard Borg’s Commands and Colours system, and introducing me to the world of Memoir ’44.

I don’t really remember how I first encountered Board Game Geek (a website I now visit several times a day), or when I first discovered the world of Fantasy Flight Games with their high-quality, high-complexity, highly addictive Living Card Game model, but over time these things all accumulated to the point where I was a fairly obsessive gamer, and anyone looking at my diary, my bookshelf or my Christmas list knew it. With Solo gaming being fairly low on my priority list, I subjected friends and family to a whole range of games with varying degrees of success, before settling down on a reasonably consistent core of regularly-played games, with lots of points being scored for “anything cooperative” and “anything Lord of the Rings”

Franchises

It’s probably fair to say we live in the golden age of Board Gaming. There are more existing games available, and more games being made than at any point I can recall. The sheer range of games available in terms of theme, style, player-count, weight and length is incredible, and there really does seem to be something for everybody. Obviously, this blog has always been focused primarily on Lord of the Rings, but there are also really solid games out there tied to Game of Thrones, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly or any one of a load of others I can’t think of right now.

It might seem like the array of things out there is bewildering – with so many to choose from how can you possibly decide? The great thing is, that this being the age of the internet, there are literally thousands of unqualified interfering folk like me out there, which means that most questions you have about a potential game purchase can probably be answered by the internet.

Going Online

Dor1 I started my first blog about 2 years ago. Dor Cuarthol, named for “The Land of Bow and Helm,” where Turin and Beleg live as outlaws harassing Morgoth’s orcs, was a place where I would talk: notionally about all Lord of the Rings Games, and in practice mostly about the LotR Living Card Game.

There were a few factors leading up to this: Cardboard of the Rings had been looking for new hosts, and I had considered throwing my hat in the ring, but being on the wrong continent made the timings of recordings impossible, so I decided against applying for the post.

Still, I wanted to get more actively involved. Although I never sat down and codified things, Dor Cuarthol was essentially a place for me to

  1. Raise obscure thematic points, hopefully in some depth
  2. Share fun ideas for Custom Cards
  3. Launch ill-conceived projects that I would never have the man-hours to complete.

Of these, the first two were easy- I began with one of many attempts to re-create the Ride of the Rohirrim in card-game form, and followed it up with an extended rant about the misuse of the “Noldor” and “Silvan” traits in the game, and questioning the lack of Sindar or Teleri.

The larger projects side of things, was a bit more hit-and-miss. I took an idea suggested in a throw-away line elsewhere (I think it was a blog, which then got picked up by Cardboard of the Rings) and created an entire custom quest where characters used Hit-Points instead of Willpower, Attack or Defence. I managed to do a reasonable amount of play-testing, and ultimately came out with something I’m fairly happy with.

On the other hand, schemes like the Difficulty Rating project, never really worked out. I still maintain that this was a good concept, but it was never going to become a worthwhile resource as a one-man show: it needed a crowd-source type of approach for the sheer number of ratings received to cancel out the difference between individual preferences on play-style. Coupled with the need to play each quest 12 times (limited card-pool, generic modern deck, and customised deck, with each of the four player-counts, this just never quite got there. I’d like to dust this off again soon, but I can’t promise anything.

 

A Few Blogs More

Fistful1 Time passed, and a year or so later, I realised that LotR LCG wasn’t dominating my game-time in the way it had been: there were other games I was getting into in a lot of detail, and had thoughts about. For these, a standard forum on a publisher’s website, or on BoardGameGeek didn’t feel like the right place to be expounding my thoughts. I did a few comparison pieces on here, looking at LotR LCG side-by-side with the Pathfinder ACG, but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Hence, last summer, Fistful of Meeples was born.

Running two blogs at once was probably more work than I anticipated. I tend to play a small handful of games a lot, rather than just 1 or 2 plays of a very wide range, and as a result the content I could generate was somewhat sporadic: Fistful of Meeples carried the odd general musing, but often found itself focused on Pathfinder ACG, Dice Masters, Game of Thrones (LCG) or Marvel Legendary. Posting links on specialist Facebook groups and the like, I managed to get some traffic, but most of the responses / discussion stayed on the other sites.

 

Work

When I’m not playing, or writing about BoardGames, I spend most of my weekdays (and soon my evenings and some Saturdays, sadly) in a fairly mundane office-job. Like most jobs, it has occasional flashes of enjoyment as you manage to accomplish something / help someone, interspersed with long periods of tedium.

It’s been quite pleasing then, in the last few months as I’ve started another couple of part-time jobs on the side, which have impacted on my gaming somewhat.

Play-Testing

PlaytestEmail Before the paid work came, I managed to get involved in doing playtesting for one of my favourite games (whilst I haven’t actually had to sign an NDA, I’m still not supposed to reveal details publicly, so I won’t say which game).

This was a very interesting experience for me – obviously the fan-boy side of me was very excited by the sneak-preview aspect of things, and it was fascinating getting to try out new elements and ideas at the conceptual stage, along with the chance to have a limited element of dialogue with the developers.

That said, play-testing comes with a warning: the lead designers telling us loudly not to expect it to be fun. There’s a lot of repetition. A lot of things which don’t work / aren’t enjoyable, and it’s the job of the play-tester to find that out. It’s also an incredible amount of cutting, printing, copying etc, which I definitely didn’t expect.

Playtest On balance, I’m glad I’ve done play-testing. It’s given me a real appreciation of the work that goes on behind the scenes, and hopefully a more realistic sense of the finite nature of a playtest. It’s nice to look at something and be able to think “I helped make that a little bit better” – it also sheds the cold, harsh light of day on the custom content I tend to throw together on here, most of which arrives on screen without any playtesting at all.

On a good run, I’d say that roughly every other article I publish here will contain some kind of custom content, and I also did a bit of work on the original First Age expansion from “Tales from the Cards” – it’s a fairly safe bet that nothing I post on here will ever have been play-tested anywhere near as thoroughly as Ian’s output, and I’d suspect that he doesn’t have the resources to play-test as thoroughly as a company manufacturing games for a living.

Demonstrations

Moving to something that looks like a real job, first up was games-demonstration. I work on a casual contract for a major Games Distributor, demonstrating their games to the general public – I won’t mention their name as, they have no official awareness of these blogs, and they certainly don’t endorse my writing, but if you know much about the Board Games Industry in the UK, you probably know who they are.

DemoGames So far, most of the work I’ve done for them has been “store demos:” taking Dobble and something like Countdown (exactly like the TV show, including the music on the timer, excluding Rachel Riley) or Would I Lie To You (almost nothing like the TV show, this is Call My Bluff with a more current IP pasted over the top) and waving it at passers-by for 8 hours. Far more interesting (I hope) are the upcoming Conference Demos, where they send a team to Game, Comic or Sci-Fi Conventions, or even to Music Festivals, where we get to target audiences with more of a pre-existing interest in games, and play some more substantial offerings – aside from minimum wage and expenses, this job has the advantage of getting you supplied with demo copies of the games (although as noted, so far it’s been a lot of TV-based stuff that wouldn’t be top of my list of things to acquire), as well as getting into the conventions and the like to see games which I might not otherwise have the opportunity to play. It’s also a chance to make people realise that there are some great games out there, and good practice at explaining games to people.

Blogging

Reviewer

I wouldn’t say I was the only candidate for this job, but “Reviewer” is my middle name…

The second, and most recent job was game-blogging. Essentially taking what I was already doing, and doing it for someone else. I got into this by responding to a note on a mailing list, and found myself part of a small team who were being given copies of games by an online retailer, in order to write reviews of them. This seems like a good deal all-round. The retailer can direct undecided shoppers to a detailed explanation and evaluation of the game, the customer can make a more informed decision, and I get a free copy of a game in exchange for a bit of writing. Aside from ensuring that we get enough games played in a short burst of time, the only real challenge is guessing from online descriptions which games are likely to go down well, and resisting the urge to request a game just because it retails for £80!

 

The Gamer at work and play

The practical up-shot of these new jobs comes in a few different ways. First of all, it means I’m playing a bigger variety of games – so far, I’ve only received 3 different games to review, and have played them 4, 10 and 3 times respectively, but it does make an impact. Spending time on the new games, inevitably means spending less time on more established games, which means that some of the in-depth pieces on Dice Masters or Lord of the Rings become harder to write.

Storage On a practical level, I only have 1 set of shelves devoted to BoardGames, plus a nearby bookcase or 2 which are being gradually colonised. If I keep acquiring 2 new games a month, I’m going to have to be a lot stricter with myself in moving along some of the old games which don’t get played as much anymore. I had already started tracking all the games I play (I have a bit of a thing for spreadsheets), and there was already a possibility of selling or trading for games which went too long without being played: that threat grows considerably as the pressure on the shelves increases.

Unfinished Mathoms

As I mentioned at the start, I will shortly be coming of age as a Hobbit. I had long planned to mark the occasion by offering a custom-designed scenario for Lord of the Rings, representing Bilbo’s birthday party.

Some of the concepts have been fairly clearly mapped out for a while: locations around Hobbiton to be explored, whilst looking for the family spoons. With heavy penalties for using non-Hobbit characters (something like +1 threat each time a non-Hobbit enters play, maybe coupled with a Fireworks objective that a player controlling Gandalf can use to bring threat down again), the quest would probably involve some hide tests to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses, and the danger of the quest suddenly acquiring the “Battle” keyword via a Treachery representing happy hour at the Green Dragon. Lastly a show-down with Lobellia, which would probably be a willpower-based combat.

Whilst I’ve done a fair amount at the conceptual level, actual card stats, ratios, or anything approaching play-testing are currently stuck at zero. As a result, the chance of the quest appearing by a week Monday, or even “at all” look ever slimmer.

Whether this constitutes a curtailing of larger projects, or simply a more realistic outlook to projects that would never have been completed is slightly up for debate.

 

I still enjoy gaming. And now that I have both a job that pays me TO play board games, and a job that pays me IN board games, am now indeed in the fortunate position that my job is also my hobby. Sadly British Gas, Severn Trent Water and Sainsbury’s have all responded negatively to my offers to take payment in board games, so I’ll continue to stick at the office-job for now. I’m still waiting for a response from the landlord…

The Light of the Evenstar

 

ffg_arwen-undomiel-twitw Ally Arwen has been around for a while, and is widely regarded as one of the best allies in the game: 2-Cost in Spirit, she not only provides a solid 2 willpower for questing, but also offers a defence boost and sentinel for another character in play (typically her father or her brother). Up until now, if you were running Spirit, unless you were strongly pushing a thematic angle, the only real reason not to run her was if you were playing The Redhorn Gate or Road to Rivendell, where there was an objective-ally version in the way.

As fans of the game speculated on the appearance of a future hero Arwen, one of the biggest questions was: what could the designers bring to the table that would be good enough

Now though, all that has changed, with the arrival of The Dread Realm¸ we have our playable Arwen hero, and I thought I’d take a bit of a look at her today.

Like the rest of her family, Arwen has been stunningly depicted by Magali Villeneuve for the card (she also did the art for the Ally and the Objective Ally). I’m just going to put it here for you all to admire.

ArwenHero

As you’d expect, Arwen is a unique character, with the traits Noldor and Noble. FFG has never really gone into the Half-Elven heritage, and it was unlikely that they would suddenly conjure up a new trait which they hadn’t given to her father or brothers. She is still Spirit, and has a stat-spread of 3 willpower, 1 attack, 2 defence and 3 hit-points, for a total threat cost of 9. She fills the traditional spirit role of being a good quester but a lousy combatant, so don’t expect to kill anything with her, although she can probably survive a single hit from a small enemy, and overall, her stat / cost distribution seems good.

Arwen_Asfaloth

“If you want him, come and claim him!”

As a Noldor, you can give her Light of Valinor, Rivendell Blades or Bows, and even Asfaloth – there are better targets for all of these cards, and the only real reason to do it would be to troll Glorfindel. Despite this, her traits are still useful: as a unique Noldor, she fills the requirement for Elrond’s Counsel, if you do need to attack with her in a pinch, she can be targeted by Fair and Perilous, and of course, she benefits all-round from Lords of the Eldar.

Traits and stats aside, the key element of any hero is the ability text. In this area, Arwen opens up new ground, with the first real resource acceleration in Spirit.

“Action: Discard a card from your hand to add 1 resource to a Noldor hero’s resource pool, or to Aragorn’s resource pool. (Limit once per round.)”

It is worth noting that she can target herself with this ability, or any of her family, and it’s entirely fitting that the restriction is stretched enough to include Aragorn. On the other hand, card-draw is not an area where Spirit is particularly blessed, and the cost looks like a high one. You can, of course, pair her with Lore characters, to power this, and she looks like an obvious choice to go with Elrond (22 threat for these 2 characters means the 3rd will almost inevitably be Glorfindel).

To Help You on the Way

There are a couple of events that have come out at the same time as Arwen which are clearly designed to synergise with her, and deserve a place in this discussion.

A Little Light?

ElvenLight

Eowyn really wants this too, but all my copies are in the Arwen deck…

The first, is Elven Light, a 1-cost Spirit event which, like many of the new Noldor cards, can only be played from the discard pile. For your one resource, you pull it back to hand, and draw a card.

 

The synergy with Arwen is fairly obvious. First of all, you can discard the card for her ability, which solves the “how do you get it into the discard pile?” issue. Furthermore, if you don’t need to target someone else with her ability that round, you can give yourself the resource for discarding, and spend it to play the card. In essence, once you have this card in hand, Arwen’s ability could be re-written as “once per round, draw a card” – there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic power, and it’s particularly strong in Spirit: obviously, even with a Mulligan, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your Elven light (I’ve tried and failed plenty of times), but resource acceleration with the potential to become card-draw is a powerful ability nonetheless.

Blood of Luthien

Tinuviel The next card that I want to look at is Tale of Tinuviel. Thematically, this is another card clearly designer to go with Arwen, although in practice, you may find that Glorfindel or Galadriel are better triggers. For a cost of one, this card allows you to exhaust a Noldor to Ready a Dunedain, or vice-versa. In the core set, we had a card that allowed you to swap one hero for one without the trait benefit, so if this was all it said, you probably wouldn’t give this card much more thought. However, the icing on the cake here is that you get to add the willpower of the character you exhausted to the willpower, attack and defence of the readied character until the end of the phase.

Let’s walk through this in practice, to see just how powerful it can be:

Scenario 1: I have quested with all 3 heroes in my Glorfindel/Arwen/Elrond deck. Glorfindel is still ready thanks to Light of Valinor. The other player in the game is running a Dunedain deck with Tactics Aragorn, Amarthiul and Halbarad. Naturally the enemies are gravitating to the other side of the table, but this round we’re looking a bit swamped.

If I take an enemy, I either need to take it undefended, or block with Glorfindel, neither of which will do me much good: Glorfindel can swing back, but only for 3, which is unlikely to do much damage.

Realising I will not be able to deal with the enemy, the Dunedain player engages it, along with two they were previously fighting: the first 2 are blocked comfortably, but the newcomer has 5 attack, which is going to make a big hole in Aragorn.

After Aragorn is declared as a defender, I Play Tale of Tinuviel: Glorfindel, who would otherwise be sat twiddling his thumbs is exhausted, and Aragorn readies up. With +3 defence, Aragorn is able to resist the onslaught, then swing back for 6 (+ any weapons or other boosts he may already have).

 

Scenario 2: We are hard-pressed questing through the early stages of the game – I have not managed to draw Nenya, and whilst it’s nice being able to manage threat, being a hero light for questing is a struggle.

Add Tale of Tinuviel to the equation, and the picture changes. By exhausting Galadriel to play the card, I can effectively add her willpower to the quest for a +4. Throw in the readying effect and where previously I might have felt the need to hold him back for combat, I can quest with him, knowing he will still be on his feet when the arrows start flying- that’s an overall +6 I’ve added to the quest thanks to this one-cost card.

Glorfindel-Front-Face

I’ve always felt the official version was a bit under-powered…

Scenario 3: When you queue up the multi-card combinations, it’s possible for this to get silly: Core-Set Aragorn, complete with Celebrian’s Stone has quested for 4 and paid his resource to ready up. Galadriel was standing by to boost him if needed, but we cleared the quest, and she wasn’t needed. All that’s left is to smash the end-of-quest monster to win, an enemy that is currently engaged with the player controlling Glorfindel. Unfortunately, Glorfindel was exhausted by a treachery during staging.

 

Galadriel exhausts, and uses Nenya to boost Aragron’s willpower to 8. He then plays Tale of Tinuviel to ready Glorfindel, giving +8 to all his stats, for 11 willpower, 11 attack, 9 defence. The Glorfindel player then plays Fair and Perilous, to give Glorfindel a monstrous 22 attack, smashing aside the enemy for the win…

Ok, so that last one was a bit far-fetched, and may be a case of my inner Pippin getting carried away, but I think it still shows the potential for these cards. Indeed, the only shame is that the song about the fate of the poor Elf-Maid who gave her heart to a mortal doesn’t work better with Arwen.

Harping On

HarpIt’s worth making a passing mention of the Silver Harp, a card which appeared together with Erestor, but also has a place in an Arwen deck. As noted above, Arwen can ditch cards to gain resources, and there are some cards which you want to end up in the discard pile, but if you don’t have Elven Light or Lords of the Eldar to hand, then burning through cards can be a big cost. The Silver Harp allows to “discard” cards to trigger effects, but keep them in hand. The effect isn’t that exciting, but over the course of a longish game, it can make a major difference to the number of cards you have in hand, and give a lot more power to something like Protector of Lorien.

Overall, I think Arwen is a good card, she feels thematic, balanced, and appropriately powered. I’ve already used her in a couple of different decks, including the deck FFG provided on their website with her brothers, and an attempt of my own with Glorfindel and Elrond (like most of my decks, this one currently weighs in at about 63 cards…)

Despite all that though, it’s always fun to think where the card-pool could go next. As it’s been a while since I offered a proper custom-card, I thought this would be a good moment to add in some key elements from the Tale of Arwen and Aragorn. The last one is a bit wordy, but I hope you find the ideas interesting…

 

-A-Mortal-Life-Front-FaceBanner-of-the-King-Front-FacePlighted-Troth-Front-Face

Something Fishy This Way Comes

As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, when I get stuck on a quest, particularly in solo, I have one major default strategy to fall back on: throw many dwarves at it!

Almost useful...

Almost useful…

The dwarf archetype got a lot of love around the Dwarrowdelf Cycle/Hobbit Saga period, to the point where it was possible to generate insane amounts of power – with a ready Dain Ironfoot providing +1 Attack +1 Willpower to all dwarf characters in play, and access to various effects for flooding the tables with allies, it was possible to overwhelm most things with sheer weight of numbers – even Nalir could be almost useful.

Dwarves were probably the most powerful archetype in the game (depending on your feelings on Outlands) and the other factions were given a bit of love for a while. But on the dwarf front, things went quiet.

Really quiet.

Where now the Dwarf and the Miner?

In the Against the Shadow cycle, there was one new dwarf ally, and one neutral event for dwarf-decks. The Ring-Maker cycle, again, had a single ally, and the Lord of the Rings Saga boxes had an ally version of Gimli, but that was basically it. You could still play a dwarf-deck: the power-level had been high enough that they could survive without too much ongoing support, but there was little to keep it fresh.

BofursAlso, once you got into the specifics, your options were actually quite limited. Leadership and Lore were brimming with dwarves, but in Spirit and Tactics, the options were more limited. Tactics had only 2 dwarf heroes: Gimli and Thalin, both from the Core Set, and both showing their age – Thalin particularly is of fairly limited use in a world of bigger hit-points, or even toughness. There was a single unique ally (Bofur – who clashed with another version of the same character in Spirit) and only 3 non-uniques. In Spirit there were three heroes, 3 unique allies (1 of them being the aforementioned Bofur, 1 being Dwalin who was also one of the heroes, and the last being Kili, who is probably happier alongside his brother in a leadership deck) and 3 non-uniques (the last of whom only appeared in the Ring-Maker. That secondary, support, dwarf-deck was rather dubious.

Now though, it looks like the dwarven star may be on the rise once more: whilst not getting the level of support currently being seen by the Ents, dwarves are making an appearance once again, with a new non-unique tactics ally, and a new dwarven tactics hero. It is now finally possibly to run 4-player mono-sphere dwarf decks (although whether you’d want to is another matter entirely).

Longbeard-SentryConsidering the ally first, he is the Longbeard Sentry, and he is decidedly ordinary – neither leaping out as brilliant, or terrible. At 3-cost he’s a little pricy, but 2 defence and 3 hit-points make him a passable blocker. His ability, which allows him to discard cards to make that defence 3 and give him sentinel is certainly an interesting one, although you’re unlikely to get the best use out of it in a mono-tactics deck. I might even consider sticking Ring Mail on this guy, for what suddenly looks like a fairly solid character.

Holding out for a Hero

Dori The real change though, is the fact that we get a new dwarf hero, for the first time in over a year. This hero, unlike the fairly straightforward ally, is an altogether more baffling proposition. Dori comes in at ten threat, 1 higher than Thalin, but 1 lower than Gimli, he has a bland 1 willpower, mediocre 2 attack, and a puzzling blocking ensemble of 2 defence, 5 hit-points and sentinel. Sentinel suggests that you should be using him to cover for your friends, but with two defence, he’s not going to be doing it often.

He then goes from weakness to weakness with his even more confusing ability, which reads: “Response: After another hero is declared as a defender, exhaust Dori to add his Defense to the defending hero’s Defense for this attack”

Confused? Good, me too.

A few things to note: Dori’s effect is a response, and the trigger is when another hero is declared as a defender- that means it’s before shadow cards are revealed. The other defender has to be a hero, and that hero is being targeted by this effect, so it wouldn’t work on Beorn.

Stand-Together Overall then, you’ve got a way of adding a low amount of defence to an existing defence, at the cost of a hero’s action. As people have already noted, this is somewhere between a repeatable Stand Together, and a Gondorian Shield that generates a resource each round (and puts your starting threat up by 10).

By comparison with the ally version of Dori, this is disappointing to say the least: the ally Dori can be exhausted and to absorb damage which would otherwise be dealt to a hero. Given that it targets the damage rather than the character, it can be used to get Beorn out of a jam and with a 3-cost ally, holding him back/wasting the action seems much less of a big deal.

Obviously, you can try to kit Dori out to make him more effective. A single set of ring-mail takes him to 3 defence and six hit-points, which is already starting to look interesting, although you’ll still need healing around to make repeated use of him. Action advantage allows him to buff better defenders repeatedly, but again, you have to question whether it would have been simpler just to give the action advantage to them in the first place.

Currently, Dori exists only as a preview to me – his AP isn’t out in the UK yet, and I probably won’t have a copy for another week or two. I’ll be sure to try him out when he does land, but I can’t say I’m overly optimistic.

In the meantime, I’ve come up with a slight twist on Dori’s ability that seems a bit more useful…

Dory-Front-Face

Heroes IV – Lore

Today we come to the final article in this series, taking a look at the Lore heroes – I had planned to break up the series with something a little bit different, but for reasons which will hopefully become obvious in the course of time, that article has been pushed back a couple of weeks.

Denethor

For people only familiar with the films, Gondor’s jowly steward and unappreciative dad might seem like an odd choice for a hero, but back in the time before his heart was filled with despair by the distorted images he saw in the Palantir, and when his wife Finduilas was still alive, Denethor was a significant figure amongst the wise of Middle Earth.

As the Steward of Gondor who struggled to hold Minas Tirith, and later Osgiliath against the forces of Sauron against all cost, Denethor has a fittingly high defence- 3 was the unequalled highest of any character during the days of the Core Set, although little willpower or attack. He also had a disappointingly small pool of hit-points, a mere 3 making him rather fragile if he was employed in that defender role.

a-burning-brand-catcDenethor’s Gondor trait has ensured that he has grown in utility as the game has progressed – being a lore hero, he was able early on to take a Burning Brand, and act as a reliable defender, and the addition of a Gondorian Shield to take him upto 5 defence produces a solid enough combat option even for some of the more modern quests.

Denethor’s ability is also nicely thematic, with a Palantir-like scrying effect which enables him to view the top card of the encounter deck, and potentially move it to the bottom –in some respects, the benefits of this ability are limited – you don’t know what the next card is if you do decide to move, and the bottom of the encounter deck can potentially become highly destructive, a particular problem with modern encounter decks which tend to be thinner, and make it more likely that you will go all the way through the deck, possibly several times in a game.

Overall, I would say that Denethor is highly thematic, and certainly still playable in the right deck. He’s easily to kit out as a solid defender, and if no enemy appears to block, his ability can give you a handy preview of what’s coming next- interestingly, he can not only spy out encounter cards, but also look at shadow cards, so you know when it’s safe to take an undefended attack.

Beravor

Beravor was another of Fantasy Flight’s in-house heroes, recycled from Middle Earth Quest. She was also the first hero in the game to receive an errata, which gives us a pretty clear indication of the power of her ability. With 2 willpower, 2 attack, 2 defence, and an ability which requires her to exhaust, Beravor is an obvious candidate for any kind of readying ability. Despite these fairly rounded stats, she seems most often to be used for her ability to draw 2 cards for any player – the fact that the card-draw is not limited to the card’s controller allows you to dig through the deck of whichever player is currently struggling to find the card needed to get your party moving.

Beravor has both the Dunedain and Ranger traits (making her a good target for the new ‘wingfoot’ attachment), and has the general broad skill-set you’d expect of someone roaming the wilds of the north. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to say a lot about theme with these doubly-fictional charactersr, but Beravor’s abilities as a card certainly don’t jar with her thematically. Some might considerthe breadth of her stats to be wasteful – you’re paying 10 threat for a character who may not contribute to quest or combat in a given round, but personally I like the utility, and think she’s still a very playable character.

Glorfindel

the perils of not being illustrated by Magali...

Remember me?

It’s hard to consider Glorfindel without making allowances for his Spirit counterpart. As many of you will know, Tolkien’s canon contained two Glorfindels, a captain of Gondolin who died battling a Balrog during the fall of Gondolin and allowing the young Earendil to escape, and another who rescued Frodo and faced down the Nazgul at the Ford of the Bruinen. Given that Tolkien stated elsewhere that Elven names are unique, this strongly suggests that the same elf had in fact returned from the Halls of Mandos to the east (and that whoever named one of the elves in Thranduil’s wine-cellar “Elros”  in the second Hobbit film had no idea what they were on about.)

Returning more specifically to the hero card, Glorfindel has the stats we’ve come to expect: 3 willpower, 3 attack, 1 defence, 5 hit points. The main difference that leaps out about this earlier version is that he has 12 threat cost, instead of 5 – on the flip side, rather than a detrimental forced effect, he actually has an ability- spend 1 resource from Glorfindel to heal a damage from any character.

Glorfindel has a good, solid set of stats, a threat level that’s entirely in keeping with the game at large and a useful ability – in the time of the core set, there was no other repeatable healing for allies unless you were prepared to put self-preservation on them. His threat was a little on the high side, but not impossibly so – if Asfaloth and Light of Valinor had come out in the Mirkwood cycle, I expect that Glorfindel would have received fairly wide use in the game, and easily pulled his weight.

Unfortunately for him, his doppleganger, back from the Halls of Mandos, with the 5 threat is just so much easier to build around – Lorefindel’s healing ability would couple brilliantly with Elrond, to up the power, but that puts you at 25 threat just for 2 heroes, combine Spirit Glorfindel with Elrond, and you’re at a much more comfortable 18.

Moving momentarily to theme, Glorfindel’s stats are perfectly fitting for an Elf-lord of old, the fact that he is styled as a healer, rather than something more befitting a warrior is a little odd, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Writing this bit of the article has inspired me to revisit the original Glorfindel, and I may try to put together something which will take advantage of his powers soon, otherwise though, he’s not a very common sight these days.

Bilbo Baggins

The first ever post-core-set hero was, rather fittingly, Bilbo Baggins. He was also, unusually an early exception to the rule that a hero’s threat cost was the sum of their stats: with 2 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defence, and 2 hit points, his stats totalled a mere 6, whereas his threat was 9 –the fact that this was the same number upside-down even led many to suspect a mis-print for a while.

Bilbo’s ability was a passive effect, allowing the first player to draw additional cards, which invited inevitable comparisons with Beravor. If using them for questing and card-draw, Bilbo can match her on the first, whilst continuing to provide steady card acceleration, whereas Beravor was typically tied to one or the other. However, Bilbo’s ability cannot be targeted, and goes off almost at random, meaning that you cannot chose a particularly needy player to gain the extra cards. Furthermore, his diminutive stats make him essentially useless in combat, and a pool of only two hit-points make even questing a dubious proposition in the Mirkwood world of the Necromancer’s Reach.

As an aside, the artwork on Bilbo makes him look like a cross between the 6th Doctor Who and a 70s disco star – my wife refuses to have the card on the table, and I had to mock-up a version with Martin Freeman’s picture on before he could be used…

Thematically, the somewhat aged, but very well-travelled Mr Baggins fits nicely into Lore, and the fact that he’s learned a thing or two on his travels probably feeds relatively logically into his card-draw boost.

Some people are big fans of Bilbo, but personally I’ve never seen the appeal – at 6 threat I might bother throwing him in, but by 9, he’s up into the range of better heroes who can do far more.

Bifur

Bifur came in the Khazad-Dum expansion, at the very early stages of the dwarven avalanche which was to follow. A smallish chap with unimpressive stats, he benefits from low threat cost, the stat-boosts which Dain gives to all dwarves, and the fact that he can provide some much-needed resource-smoothing in multi-sphere decks, as he takes the excess resources given by another player/hero, and spends them on cards in lore, a sphere often short on cash.

BifurThe fact that he doesn’t really fit the “5 dwarves or more” deck has limited Bifur’s use in recent times, along with the fact that there is now an ally version who does. It’s not particularly that there’s anything wrong with Bifur, simply that others are better. (and that playing the hero prevents you from playing the ally).

Thematically, I struggle to really remember anything much about Bifur (is he the one with the axe in his head?) again, his ability doesn’t jar with me, as being horrifically misplaced, but it’s not a stand-out home-run either.

Aragorn

Lore Aragorn, or Loragorn as he is sometimes known was the first time we had seen a repeat of a hero in the game, and much like Glorfindel, who followed hard on his heels, he was a potential game-changer.

In basic abilities, Loragorn is much like his Leadership predecessor, 2 willpower, 3 attack, 2 defence, 5 hit points and sentinel, but instead of a re-readying effect, Aragorn allows you to reset your threat to its starting level once per game. This has all sorts of possibilities – If you have a Boromir deck, particularly on where his stats have been boosted by support of the eagles, Loragorn allows you a measure of abandon to charge with Boromir, readying him multiple times per turn to destroy all comers. I also built a fun solo doomed deck, using Grima, Theodred and Loragorn to ramp up to insane levels of power in the first couple of rounds, before hastily resetting to a threat that was about to hit 50.Desperate-Alliance

The fact that FFG have ruled that the “limit once per game” is per player opens up even stronger options, using Desperate Alliance to pass Loragorn to someone else who can then reset their threat as well.

Thematically, this is more of a “Strider” persona of Aragorn, hiding in the shadows, taking you on secret paths through the wild. The specific go back to starting threat / once per game is a bit game-y, but it could certainly be worse.

I’m not sure which of the Aragorns gets the most table time- and knowing that we have a Fellowship Aragorn AND a Tactics Aragorn coming in the next 6 months means that there will be even more of a scrap for table time amongst them.

Elrond

Elrond was one of the major big beasts of the Lord of the Rings story who had been notably absent from the game, and he made his appearance at the end of the Dwarrowdelf cycle. As you’d expect from Elrond, he has high stats and a comparably high threat, with a threat cost of 13, at that time the highest we’d seen.

By himself, Elrond is already powerful, being able to pay for allies from any sphere. Add in the fact that he adds 1 to the effectiveness of any healing effect, and he becomes really powerful – Warden of Healing suddenly becomes a lot more useful than a Daughter of the Nimrodel when Elrond is in town.

On top of that, as a Lore hero, Elrond can add a burning brand to his 3 defence to make him a decidedly serious blocker. He can also take Light of Valinor to quest without exhausting (assuming you don’t have Spirit Glorfindel around) for double actions.

VilyaDespite all that, no assessment of Elrond can truly be considered complete without looking at Vilya. Vilya is a unique ring attachment which allows you to exhaust Elrond and put a card into play for free. Whilst the cost of exhausting Elrond seems a big price to pay, realising that you can get a free Gildor, Northern Tracker, Ally Beorn or Galadhrim’s Greeting helps to put things into perspective- a fun combination is to use Vilya to put Unexpected Courage onto Elrond and re-ready him.

Unfortunately, Vilya does require a certain amount of scrying – Imladris Stargazer is good for this, as is Hero Gandalf, allowing you to use Vilya with complete certainty – for a while I shied away from this deck type, as I didn’t want to be minus a hero’s action each round, but once it gets going, this deck is just so powerful, that it seems foolish not to use it.

Thematically, Elrond is the leader of great armies and coalitions, as well as the convener of the council of the ring, so his ability to pay for all allies makes sense. He is also the only able to save Frodo from the wound inflicted by the Morgul blade, so the healing boost makes sense as well.

Such a conspicuous figure as Elrond will inevitably attract the attention of the great eye, and his threat cost appropriately reflects the need to plan carefully, but in the right deck, he’s probably one of the best heroes out there.

Mirlonde

Mirlonde was something of a departure from the standard approach to heroes, in that she was neither a character from Tolkien’s work, nor was she a recycling from a previous FFG game. As a female silvan hero, it would only have taken the slightest stretch of the imagination to name her Tauriel, but whatever the reason (probably legal) they didn’t, and the world is probably a calmer place for it.

Superficially, Mirlonde is a rather uninspiring character, with a fairly meagre pool of stats, and only a passive ability. However, 2 willpower is not insignificant, even if 1 defence and 3 hitpoints make her essentially useless as a defender. Her ability lowers the threat cost of each lore hero by 1, meaning that in a mono-lore deck, she is essentially a no-ability hero costing 5.

There are definitely benefits to Mirlonde – if you’re looking to get benefits out of Lorefindel, she can alleviate his starting threat (An Elrond/Lorefindel/Mirlonde deck would only have a starting threat of 30), and combined with already low-threat characters you can get secrecy, or close enough that most of the bigger enemies will ignore you.

Theme-wise, being silvan ties in fairly logically with staying hidden, and thereby low threat, although it would have been nice to see an additional trait on her: probably ranger or scout. As far as I’m aware, Mirlonde doesn’t exist outside of the Living Card Game, so there’s little else to really say for her.

Faramir

For a long time, many of us had been hoping for a hero version of Faramir, to allow a character much maligned by his father and brother to step up and take his rightful place in the front rank of those facing off against the shadow.

What we got, in the midst of the Third cycle of the game, was this card – an 11-threat hero, with stats of 2, 2, 2, five hit points, the ranged keyword, and an attack that grows commensurately with the number of enemies in the staging area.

In many respects, this is a good card – aside from an additional hit-point, he has an essentially identical starting point to Beravor, who has already been commended for her rounded stats, and the ranged trait adds to his flexibility. However, two and a bit cycles into the game, the difficulty of quests had ramped up to the point where a set of twos no longer really cut the mustard. The attack which is contingent on the staging area is only really useful if you have two things: a low enough threat to leave enemies in the staging area, and a means of attacking the staging area.

med_hands-upon-the-bow-safBoth of these things are available to players, but to a large extent they pull in opposite directions- mono lore allows players to play an event ignoring engagement checks, whilst combining with tactics allows you to play Hands Upon the Bow (attacking the staging area for a minimum of five), or Great Yew Bow for a more repeatable option. Of the two, the tactics options seems the best one, but with a starting threat of 11, avoiding having to engage those enemies is going to be difficult. Potentially a deck with Mablung and Lore Pippin could play take no notice, but that’s cutting against Mablung’s ability.

Thematically, the solid nature of Faramir’s stats makes sense, as does the knowledge of the wild that this ranger has. The release of Wingfoot, long-since spoiled also makes me wonder whether it’s time to give Faramir another try, but outside of Battle Questing, the hero has always felt underpowered, particularly when you consider the potential impact of ally Faramir on a swarm deck.

Grima

One of the most distinctive of the heroes we’ve had, Grima is both a Rohan and an Isengard hero, and one who plays to the “Doomed” keyword.  A passable quester with 2 willpower, but a feeble attacker at 1, and a fragile defender with 2 defence and only 3 hit-points, Grima is not going to be making the greatest contribution to your party, based on stats alone. What he CAN do however, is lower the cost of 1 card each round by raising threat instead- used right, this can allow you to get powerful cards out far more quickly than would otherwise have been possible, allowing you to steamroller the quest in a way that ultimately leads you finishing more quickly.

As I noted earlier, I’ve used Grima to good effect in conjunction with Theodred and Loragorn. Theodred was apparently unaware that Grima would ultimately have a hand in his death, and has happy to pass along extra resources to get solid allies out before we ultimately triggered the threat reset. However, the Loragorn “once per game clarification” notwithstanding, this only really works as a solo deck- that much doom in multi-player is quickly going to kill other players in the game.

Thematically, the doomed cards seem to represent meddling with darker forces to bring more powerful weapons to bear in the fight against the enemy. As these effects are typically associated with Saruman and Isengard, Grima is an obvious hero choice to support this deck archetype. As for his other traits, Grima is  still a man of Rohan, but is suitably depicted as an outsider, by his outlier positioning in the Lore sphere, and his lack of synergy with the other Rohan cards.

I’ve never yet tried putting Grima into anything other than a specialist solo-doomed deck, so I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has.  Otherwise, I’d say that he’s playable, but only in a very narrow, specific deck. At least he’s good thematically.

Haldir of Lorien

Haldir is one of the most recent heroes introduced to the game, and he ties into a number of existing themes. He’s a scout and a ranger (allowing you to make him the Warden of Arnor, or Give him wingfoot), and provided you don’t engage an enemy that round, he can make a lone attack against an enemy not engaged with you, during the contact phase – in essence, this copies dunhere’s staging area attack, or serves as a ranged quick-strike, allowing him to kill an enemy before it attacks.

rivendell-bladeI’ve been using Haldir fairly constantly since he appeared – loaded up with a Rivendell Blade, a Rivendell bow, and now a Bow of the Galadhrim, and he can easily be attacking for 6, whilst neutralising 2 points of defence. Whilst his ability is more conditional than Dunhere’s, the fact that he can use it even when enemies are coming down and engaging players makes him more useful, as does the fact that his base attack of 3 (plus various elven weapons) is more powerful than Dunhere’s 2.

Haldir of course, was the woodsman who managed to creep up on the fellowship as they entered Lorien, and it seems entirely fitting that he should be able to pick off enemies, provided he’s not dealing with a more immediate foe of his own. The silvan deck has been one of the most pleasing developments of the current cycle, and Haldir is a major part of it.

Ori

Going back in time a bit, to the Hobbit saga boxes, we have Ori, a Lore dwarf who ties in to the “5 or more dwarves” archetype. His ability allows you to draw additional cards, which is hardly a weakness of the Leadership/Lore dwarf deck, but still a welcome boost.

Generally with dwarves, I go for Dain / Thorin / Ori deck, which can chuck out lots of dwarves quickly, giving a global boost to all of them, and it tends to work well – any additional dwarf heroes in play tend to be tied in to more nuanced deck strategies, but get to benefit from Dain’s inspiring presence.

Thematically, Ori is another of those dwarves who fade into the general short and bearded background, and I can’t remember a particular thematic thing about him to justify this ability, but as a general “lore ability” it makes a decent amount of sense.

Some people prefer Bombur (see below) to get the dwarf swarm moving more quickly, but I think Ori is probably the more powerful option long-term option, and makes you less dependent upon drawing Legacy of Durin.

Bombur

This guy is really fat. Yep, that’s right, the sole premise behind this card seems to be a fat joke. We’ve already established that having 5 or more dwarves is a good thing, so why not start with a guy who counts as 2?

BomburStats-wise, Bombur is nothing to write home about – he can make a passable defender in a pinch, with 2 defence and 5 hit points, but 1 attack and zero willpower is not going to do a lot, even when boosted by Dain. He can help you to get the dwarf-swarm moving more quickly than might otherwise be possible, as you only need to play one dwarf ally to hit that magic threshold, and if they ever introduce a fellowship sphere Gimli, it will open up all kinds of interesting possibilities.

Thematically, I really can’t make up my mind on how I feel  about Bombur. On the one hand, having a character whose sole characteristic is “being fat” seems a bit cheesy – on the other hand, I really can’t recall any more detailed character development of him in the book, so expecting FFG to do otherwise when already trying to deal with a dozen or more dwarves seems a bit unfair.

Game-wise, he is definitely playable to give you a quick start, but as I noted above, I prefer something that offers a bit more in the long-run.

Pippin

The last Lore hero was Pippin, coming from the Black Riders box, and rounding out the Hobbit deck. If Hobbits are about staying low, and only fighting things with a higher engagement cost than your threat, then Pippin is ideal, adding 1 to each enemy’s engagement cost for each Hobbit hero you control. On top of that, he provides regular card-draw when you do engage an enemy, ensuring that you have the tools in hand to defeat the enemy just engaged. He also boosts Merry, and gives you in-sphere access to Fast Hitch, Take no Notice, and other cards which fit well with an overall Hobbity strategy.

Pippin

Is that flavour text, or game-play advice?

Like most Hobbits, Merry is small, and his stats make him of little use in combat, but with only 6 threat cost, his two willpower makes him a decent quester, allowing Sam and Merry to take the more proactive role in the quest.

Threat-wise, this Pippin is as much a puzzle as the other one – the fool of a Took would be expected to make enemies more likely to engage you rather than less, as he alerts the orcs of Moria to your presence and gazes into the Palantir, but instead he increases your chances of slipping by unnoticed.

I’m hopeful that one day we’ll get a Gondor-traited Pippin, and Rohan-traited Merry. In the meantime though, the undeniable playability of this version is enough for most to overcome any thematic objections they might have.