Category Archives: State of the Game

The Tale of Years

 

Happy Birthday!

6 years ago today, on 20th April 2011, Fantasy Flight Games released something new – Lord of the Rings the Card Game – a Cooperative, Living Card Game.

Gandalf.jpg

The LCG model was one they had been using for a few years – fixed distributions of cards rather than randomised boosters gave players a clearer idea of what they were buying, and went a long way to mitigate the problem where the player who spent the most money on cards had the best deck.

AGoT1I had come across FFG via their Game of Thrones LCG which, in turn, I had encountered after reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels. When I first discovered AGoT LCG, my Board Gaming was probably limited to a small handful of games – Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers, but I had found my way into a local gaming group, and even to a magical place called Board Game Geek.

I played Game of Thrones for a while – on a good day I wasn’t too bad at it, and made the cut in a few tournaments. Other times I failed dismally: there was no local play group, and whilst I subjected my wife (a big fan of the books) to many sessions of it, she was never interested in deck-building, and the games quickly became pointless and 1-sided as I knew every card in her deck, and she had little sense of what mine was up to.

A Cooperative game then, had a big appeal: we didn’t need to worry about it being too one-sided, and the fact that it was Lord of the Rings themed was a massive positive as well: Tolkien was one of my wife’s favourite authors (I think it was around this time that she introduced me to the Silmarillion), and this was a game that seemed to drip with theme.

 

The First Age

LotR CorePretty much on the day it came out, I went to fetch my first copy of Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game (tbh, I don’t remember the exact date, but 20th April is the date on the release article) – once we got past a few early mistakes (engaged enemies don’t contribute threat to the staging area, apparently!) it was a massive hit. We played the core scenarios to death, and picked up every expansion going – various friends were introduced to the game, and 2 or 3 played it dozens of times with us. We have successfully completed every single scenario in the first 3 cycles and all the Hobbit Sagas in all 4 player counts

In the early days I was very active on the FFG Forums. As time went on I discovered Podcasts about the game – first Cardboard of the Rings, and then the Grey Company. I designed my own custom cards for the game, discovered blogs, and even leant a bit of a hand to a guy who was putting together an entire custom expansion for the First Age.

By this time, I was heavily involved in the game and the community, and it was most of what we played, most of the time. When Cardboard of the Rings announced that they had a slot opening up for a new co-host, I was very excited about the chance to get involved…

About 2 emails later, I realised that joining us North-American Podcast from the UK would involve a lot of staying up until the small hours of the morning, and wasn’t going to be practical – I didn’t even bother submitting my audition. Instead, I decided to do the next best thing – I started my own Blog.

 

Reports from the Land of Bow and Helm

Dor Cuarthol launched in January 2014. I wanted Turin Turambar but that was already taken (Along with a few variations on it), so I opted for the Land of Bow and Helm, the place where Turin and Beleg lived for a while, harassing the forces of Morgoth.

The_Land_of_Bow_and_Helm

In February 2014 I started producing my first articles, and covered a fair range of topics over the first few years: lots about the Lore (why are all the Elves “Silvan” or Noldor” when most of them shouldn’t be?) a bit about deck-building (why bother with other readying effects when Unexpected Courage is so good) and, particularly in the early days, lots of custom card creations.

Over time, the blog seemed to collect a good following, no doubt thanks to Dan, and Ian at Hall of Beorn, and Tales from the Cards respectively who put links to this hidden corner of Middle Earth in their side-bars. Most people read in silence, but there were a few who commented, plenty of encouragement, and some responses to the hypothetical questions posed.

 

The Waning of the Age

Hill-Troll As I mentioned at the start, today is Lord of the Rings LCG’s 6th Birthday. The game has come a long way from the days of mono-sphere, 30-card decks when we could imagine nothing more terrifying than a Hill Troll. Where once there were only 12 heroes, now there are 80! (plus a handful of Bilbos, Frodos and Aragorns in the Baggins or Fellowship Spheres [it’s not a sphere!]) Beyond the heroes themselves, the possibilities for card combinations in decks is beyond calculation. The same character may appear multiple times, in multiple different guises (although only 1 of them can be in play at a time…)

It’s not just the player cards that have changed. Quests of today are very different from Passage Through Mirkwood or Journey Along the Anduin. The number of quests has grown just as the number of Heroes has, and today there are countless new keywords and mechanics to put a different spin on your adventures in Middle Earth.

Some things have definitely changed for the better: each Deluxe + Cycle of Adventure Packs now follows a far clearer and coherent narrative, with a story being told in the inserts. Encounter decks are generally leaner with far fewer generic, multi-purpose cards padding things out, making for a much less random experience.

 

Diminished

From my perspective though, there are also things that have changed for the worse. The difficulty of the game has ramped up significantly, and the stats on basic locations or enemies are a far cry from the early days.

It’s also clearer than ever that there is no One Deck To Rule Them All – whilst a good pair of decks could probably get you through the Core Box and all the Mirkwood cycle (aside from Rhosgobel, possibly) performing the same feat in a recent cycle would be far more impractical. Whilst this is good for players who like a puzzle to crack, it makes the game far less accessible – meeting up for a multiplayer game becomes an exercise in defeat, unless you can coordinate decks in advance. Even just playing at home, I need to decide whether I have my decks built ready for solo play, games with 2, or larger 3 or 4 player games – long gone are the days when someone could just suggest a game of LotR, and I could grab up 4 decks, knowing that we would have a good chance at, if not winning, at least having some fun.

Whilst having more cards is a good thing for a deck-builder, the card pool these days feels bloated – too many cards that are binder-fodder because other cards weren’t balanced with the benefit of prophecy. The fact that early player cards were over-powered, has brought a reaction in too much that is “immune to player card effects” – in recent releases the designers have been quite canny in finding ways around this, but the overall problem still remains.

The release of the Arkham Horror LCG last year brought into focus for me just how aged LotR LCG feels these days. Locations in Arkham – a separate set of cards, entirely distinct from the more focused deck of Treacheries and Enemies – show what LotR might have been with the benefit of hindsight. However, for me, the attempts in the Dreamchaser cycle to move towards this sort of system for LotR didn’t work either- there was just too much of a legacy of player cards designed to deal with locations randomly churned out by an encounter deck to make the switch.

Map

Both Arkham and the 2nd Edition of Game of Thrones have featured cards released very early in the game’s life with built-in restrictions and balances to pre-empt broken combos long before they start. Fantasy Flight’s LCG design team have clearly learnt a lot in 6 years, but not all of it can be used to the benefit of Lord of the Rings

 

Beyond the Horizon

The last 6 years has also brought a lot of changes to the world of Board Gaming at large. Even as someone who likes to keep fairly well up on the state of the hobby, I can’t claim to be in a position to offer an exhaustive view of this, but I can at least give a few personal insights.

From a personal perspective I can look at the games I have played recently: of the 15 games I have played the most times this year (6 sessions plus), only 2 (Zombie Dice and Race for the Galaxy) even existed when LotR LCG was released. Similarly if I look back at the games I’ve played more than 20 times since Christmas 2014, only Mapominoes and Dominion get added to that list. All of those are games that are feeling their age, and by-and-large, new is the future.

 

DoomBox As I look to the future, my feeling is that the direction of LotR is not particularly likely to recapture my imagination: the recent announcement of the final Saga pack hit all the wrong notes for me, with Yet Another Frodo, Yet Another Aragorn, Doom going up to 100, and more Epic Multiplayer mode –I’m not wanting to say that these things are inherently bad (I really liked the 1 game of Epic Anuminas I played, but realistically, getting that many people together is unlikely to happen often), and I’m sure many people were very excited by the announcement, but for me this game falters when it tries to go too big. I’ve been much more excited in the past fortnight by the announcement of the next Deluxe for Arkham, and for the absolutely gorgeous Legend of the Five Rings.

It feels to me like this game has more-or-less run its course. I could definitely see an argument for a second edition but, honestly, they’d have to pull something fairly spectacular out of the hat to convince me to buy it.

 

Going Into the West

I still love Lord of the Rings the Card game, and it’s almost certainly the game I’ve played most over the course of my life, and it’s still a game I play a lot – but these days that’s a couple of plays a month, rather than 3 or 4 a week. I’ll finish the current cycle of APs and get the final Saga box for completeness sake, but I’m not sure whether I’ll keep buying after that – I’ve got enough from recent months that hasn’t been played at all, and plenty from before that which has been played, but has plenty of scope to be revisited. Even if I never bought another LotR LCG product again, I’ve got enough cards to last me for years.

 

RelaxedNed As most people probably guessed from my last post, I became a father in February. Gaming time is more limited these days – Ned can’t really manage peekaboo yet, so I think LotR will be beyond him for a few years, and blogging time is harder to find as well. Lord of the Rings is already competing against Arkham, Zombicide, Pathfinder, Aeon’s End, Elder Sign, Marvel Legendary, Destiny, Dice Masters, and Mansions of Madness to name but a few, even before I decide whether to get into Runewars, Gloomhaven or Legend of the Five Rings. Honestly I can’t see myself getting back to a position any time soon where I’m spending enough time on Lord of the Rings to warrant writing a blog about it.

I’m not going to take Dor Cuarthol down, but I don’t anticipate writing much more here any time soon. If you’re interested in my thoughts on gaming in general, then I’d recommend following my newer, more general blog, Fistful of Meeples – it’s also quite quiet right now, but I generally manage to post at least one article a month. Maybe in time I’ll even post a Lord of the Rings article or 2 there.

 

Thanks again to everyone who has read over the past 3 years. I wish you many more hours of happy gaming.

 

This is the END.

I am going.

I am leaving NOW.

GOOD-BYE!

 

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The Old and the New

“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”

Some thoughts on both of Fantasy Flight’s Cooperative LCGs

robert-baratheon

and of course, smashing people in the face with Robert Baratheon…

About 6 or 7 years ago now, I used to play the Game of Thrones LCG – first edition. There was a lot I liked about the game: the overall mechanics, the deck-building aspect, the way the card-pool was constantly refreshed, with new options becoming viable and, above all, the way that the game took a world that I was a fan of from the books, and allowed things to be played out in game form.

There were problems though: I played the game a few times at home, but my wife didn’t want to deck build, and soon got tired of the one-sided games which resulted when I knew every card in her deck, and she had no real notion of what was in mine: I attempted to introduce the game to others too, but had similar problems. None of the people I knew were sufficiently big on both Game of Thrones and Card Games to get into it heavily, and it just didn’t work as a casual game.

Giving Hope to Men

Then

Then something happened: Fantasy Flight Games announced something new – a cooperative Living Card Game set in Middle Earth – taking that little-illuminated period between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the day Frodo sets out from the Shire, this was a game that would allow players to make their own adventures in this world.

lord-of-the-rings-lcgI bought the Lord of the Rings LCG the day it came out, and loved it. We made some stupid mistakes to begin with (counting the threat of engaged enemies was a big one), but gradually we figured out what we were doing. I played it solo, with my wife, and with groups of friends in 3 and 4-player. For years I bought every product that they made for this game, although after the first few cycles, I gave up on the Nightmare decks.

When a new pack came out, I would instantly look to play the quest, and to build with the player cards. I made a point of using every hero at least once, even if there were obvious favourites or duds, and played all the different deck-styles that came along.

Now

Fast-forward 5 and a bit years, and things have changed a lot: the game is harder, it’s deeper – with much more complex board states, and it’s generally just more involved. Any thought of “1 deck to rule them all” has long since ceased to seem plausible, and more-and-more, each quest requires a deck specifically tailored to its demands. The sheer number of different deck-types that are possible has multiplied beyond imagining.

Even something as simple as playing all the heroes has become a challenge. Historically, I’ve given myself the goal of winning at least one scenario with each new hero – specifically that means it’s got to be me piloting the deck and, as noted, that I need to win. At the time of writing though, Spirit Beregond, Cirdan, Elfhelm, Tactics Eowyn, Na’Asiyah, and Tactics Imrahil are all failing on this count (although I have had success with the new Legolas and Gimli)..

unusedThere is some mitigation to this: Beregond, Cirdan and Eowyn have all brought success for my wife and other players in our games, and Elfhelm has attempted several quests, even if he’s not actually managed to secure victory.

Looking back over the records of the past years, there are 5 heroes who have been used over 100 times, and a further 8 who have hit the table more than 50 times. By contrast, the most recent heroes are struggling to see victory at all – from the latest deluxe/ AP cycle, only Denethor has made it past 5 wins, and only Damrod out of the last 2 Saga boxes. To put this in a broader context, the only older heroes played fewer than 5 times are Dori, Erestor, Spirit Pippin and Tactics Theoden – 3 of which are useless, and one 1 which is just a bit too fiddly for me (Erestor).

I’m still plugging away at LotR, trying to get it back to the table more often. After 36 games in the first quarter, it dropped off – only 5 in the second quarter, then back up to 15 for the third. Final quarter is currently at 25, but with a little time left on the clock. Compared with 2015, where 30 was the lowest count for any quarter, there’s clearly an issue of overall reduced play-count: less than half as many games as last year.

At times this year, I’ve definitely approached quests in a state of near despair, learned helplessness. Whichever deck(s) I try to bring prove themselves completely unsuited for the task, and the sheer number of possibilities out there, half of which aren’t really viable, is just a bit too overwhelming to know how to carry on. When I build a deck and it doesn’t work, is it because I’ve brought it to the wrong quest? Or because the deck needs changing? – if the deck does need changing, there are just so many good cards out there, that it’s nearly impossible to know which to include.

 

Arkham

arkham-lcg-boxArkham Horror the card game is also a cooperative LCG from Fantasy Flight, and it shares a designer along with several recognisable features with LotR. That said, there is also a lot about it that’s different.

For one thing, Arkham has only been out a month or two, and there is currently only the one product available, the Core Set (there are two print-on-demand scenarios out there somewhere, but they haven’t reached the UK distributor) – that means that there are only 5 Investigators (the closest equivalent to LotR’s Heroes) and only a very small pool of cards for them to build their decks from – in fact, unless you have bought 2 copies of the Core Set, you can’t really do any deck-building worthy of the name.

skids_o_toole

You could be next…

This translates fairly directly into hard numbers: so far, three of the investigators have been played in 4 games, with Skids and Daisy reaching the dizzier heights of 11 and 12 games – one of them may yet be a Lore Glorfindel waiting to happen, but for now there’s no room for passengers.

Deck-Building in Arkham is very different from LotR – decks are smaller, and you can only have a maximum of 2 copies of a card, rather than 3. The game is designed for campaign play from the outset meaning that, instead of the Treasurers or Boons which we’ve seen in LotR (Cool but frustratingly limited in when you can use them) you have “upgraded” cards designed to make your deck more powerful as it goes. As I noted in a recent article over at Mythos Busters though, the card pool is currently so small that there are very few high-level cards in play, making character class a lot less important than it feels like it ought to be.

Since I first decided to get this game, it’s been my hope that it would act as a positive for my LotR deck-building. The reminder of what it feels like to play a brand new LCG, to be building decks with only the barest number of cards makes you appreciate the embarrassment of riches that we have in the veteran amongst Co-op LCGs.

Death?

There has been a lot of discussion on the internet since the announcement of Arkham about whether its arrival heralds the death knell of LotR. This is hardly surprising: people have been convinced that the game was dying long before this came along.

On a more cynical note, FFG are devoting a lot of resources to developing their Arkham line at the moment, and it would make a fair amount of sense if that led to cut-backs elsewhere. However, all the indications in the past have been that LotR sells well, and it would seem unlikely that they would get rid of a product line that makes them money.

lost_islandIt’s quite easy to see the mark of LotR in Arkham – the way locations are done in this game definitely feels like it got a test-run in the Dreamchaser cycle, and the end result is a more polished, cleaner implementation – hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to see the favour returned: concepts piloted in Arkham, and then put to use in LotR. Game of Thrones LCG recently hosted their Battle of the Trident event, where players were able to cast their votes for the development of a particular trait in the game’s future. Anyone familiar with the history of the Legend of the Five Rings games (soon to be re-booted as an FFG LCG), will know that having the player-community influence the long-term direction of the game has long been central to this IP. To me this definitely feels like the designers are testing the waters for a way to have community-driven content in an FFG game, and I don’t think anyone expects them to abandon AGoT any time soon.

 

My hope for the future, is that the arrival of Arkham will strengthen the world of Co-op LCGs. After all, there are twice as many of them as there were last year! I hope it will lead to new ideas and innovations at designer level, and on a more personal note, I hope that playing each will remind of the things I like about the other, increasing my enjoyment of the old along with the new.

mumakil

I think it’s fairly certain that we’ll get the Haradrim Cycle and the final Saga box to finish off the Return Of The King. Beyond that, I don’t know, any more than anyone else without FFG insider contacts does: I think that there’s still scope to keep expanding the game (I’m still holding out hope for a Maglor objective ally), but even if they did stop printing new content, I think that there’s so much out already that we could keep playing for a few years yet. I certainly don’t have any intention of abandoning this blog any time soon, even if there are inevitably things which get in the way of posting quite as often as I’d like.

 

I’d be interested to know whether other people have picked up Arkham, and where you feel the future of the 2 games lies…

 

Peering in to the Palantir

A few thoughts on what the near future has in store for Lord of the Rings the LCG…

 

I haven’t managed to get quite where I wanted to with any of the next few articles I have in the works, but I didn’t want to fall off of the wagon already for the promised “at least 1 thing per fortnight” so I decided that this would be a good moment to take a little while to think about some of the things we’ve seen spoiled and teased for the coming months.

The Prince of Dol Amroth

prince-imrahilPrince Imrahil is one of the most important book characters not to make it into Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation, but he has long had an important place in the card-game. His simple, yet effective ability to ready when a character leaves play means that he pairs brilliantly with his son-in-law (Eomer), but can also offer you great action advantage in conjunction with Silvans, chump-blockers, or anyone using sneak-attack Gandalf a lot.

As well as the Hero version, we were recently treated to an ally version – who becomes a Hero when you have another hero in your discard pile, making him an instant favourite with Caldara players who are desperately trying to muster the resources for Fortune or Fate.

The biggest disappointment with Imrahil was the utter lack of synergy with the Outlands trait. Outlands wants to stay in play and build an army, but their Captain relies on people bouncing around, and is traited as simply “Gondor.” A long time back, I created some alternative versions of Imrahil and his Outlanders (which I thought I’d posted on here, but now can’t find…) but until now, there was nothing official.

As the Dreamchaser Cycle draws to a close though, we are about to get the opportunity to form the dream-team, with a 3-cost unique attachment that makes Imrahil an outlands character.

dol-amrothAlthough I’ve not seen it used in action yet, Prince of Dol Amroth already feels like a great choice – alongside Hirluin and possibly one other, you can run that mono-leadership build that you want to trigger Lord of Morthond and Strength of Arms, but you can now also give those stat-boosts to someone who has worthwhile stats to begin with. In a heavy Outlands deck, the 3-cost is probably worthwhile anyway, but the extra ability to accelerate your resources suggest that once Imrahil gets going, his Outlands army should be truly unstoppable.

The attachment comes in the same pack as a new Hero version of Imrahil as well, a Tactics character with a sort of pseudo sneak-attack, allowing him to put an ally into play if it shares a trait with Imrahil. This looks like it could have some serious potential for janky combos that have got my inner Pippin very excited (I want to pair it with Elf-Friend so that he can bounce Silvans) but I’ll leave that for the future.

 

Pack your Trunks!

mumakilNot long after Prince Imrahil, things are going to heat up as we head way, way, down south, to the hot sand of Far Harad. Detail is still fairly sparse at this stage, but we do know that alongside battling desert wildlife and searing heat, we can also expect to see Mumaks, and plenty of them. More Mumak enemies isn’t what anyone needs to see, and there’s a card fan which suggests the defeating them may be dependent on some kind of random shuffle and discard mechanic which I’m never that big a fan of, but at least this might be the impetus I need to finally get that Rivendell Blade /Tactics Aragon / Hama/ Straight-shot deck put together.

The thing that makes the march of the Mumaks bearable is the news that came in the spoiler article for the second pack in the upcoming cycle: after however many years it’s been of being trampled by Mumaks, we finally get to ride them!

tamed-mumakSo far, we’ve only had objective Mumaks spoiled, and it’s unclear whether we’ll get a proper player-card Mount attachment that’s a Mumak, but we can hope.

Not being all that taken with Ships, and not a big fan of Uncharted Locations, I had strongly been considering calling it quits after the Dreamchaser cycle, aside from picking up the final Saga box when it lands. Lord of the Rings doesn’t get played as reliably as it used to, and I’m a bit behind with quests (I haven’t attempted any from Flame of the West or Drowned Ruins, and our brief maulings at the hand of Thing in the Depths were so 1-sided I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry). The Harad announcement was enough of a bomb to get my attention again though, and all the spoilers so far have managed to whet my appetite.

 

Mixed Traits

In the past, I have lamented, loud and often, the lack of incentive/ability that the game has given us to build “tribal” decks –Dwarves have been a thing for a long time, but too few of the others have really felt powerful historically.

That’s certainly been shifted in recent cycles – Dunedain and Silvans are definitely viable builds now, probably Noldor too, although it’s not my favourite play-style. Gondor and Rohan I’m still not quite convinced on.

Harad looks like it will be shifting things up again, by giving us cards that actively encourage you to run characters with different traits. Part of me feels like I should be angry about this, but actually I quite like it, and it’s because I feel like it’s coming from a strong place thematically.

leggim

The Heroes for the Harad Deluxe expansion are new versions of Legolas and Gimli, each of them with an ability that is decent in isolation and becomes really powerful when couple with the other. This is reinforced with the event Unlikely Friendship, a card that requires you to have a Silvan and a Dwarf together, and features art with Legolas and Gimli on it.

As tribal-deck haters have been pointing out to us for years, a lot of Lord of the Rings is about unlikely allies, people coming together because of greater threats. That has always been true, but now it feels like it’s being done consciously rather than just lumping together cards with no thematic link because they synergise well, and for me that makes a world of difference. So long as they don’t print a card which rewards me for having Haldir (or worse, Arwen) at Helm’s Deep, then I’m happy to see where they take this.

 

Final Thoughts

I still haven’t got all that much LotR gaming done lately – a nightmare day at work last week meant I missed the monthly game night at the store, and Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, followed yesterday by Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu have been doing a lot to attract my attention. That said, there are things here that look like they will be worth some time, and I look forward to getting the cards in hand. The Harad cycle looks like it will support various existing mechanics like Side-Quests as well as its new combination cards, so stick around to see what they ultimately bring.

Sphere Bleed? What Sphere Bleed?

Back when the game was first launched, there was a brief explanation included on the website, and then in the rules, of what the 4 different spheres of influence in the game were supposed to represent.

Where it Began

Even without the official descriptions to hand, after half a cycle or so, there was a fairly clear picture of what the different spheres were all about.

SpiritStaplesSpirit was good at questing, and hard cancellation: Eowyn is still the queen of willpower 5 years in to the game’s life, and Test of Will is always one of the first cards I put into a deck featuring a Spirit hero. Spirit was also the home of Threat reduction, and had most of the limited location control that existed (i.e. Northern Tracker). Despite its strengths, Spirit couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag, and ignoring the strange things going on around Dunhere, it stayed as far away from a fight as it could.

Tactics was the fighting sphere. More attack, bigger fighters, weapons and armour, direct damage. That was Tactics’ stock in trade. It gradually acquired more and more cards to manipulate combat, although Feint and Quick Strike are Core set staples that never really go away. In direction contrast to Spirit, Tactics was the sphere that couldn’t Quest to save its life – some of the heroes might get up to 2 willpower, but it was highly unlikely that the allies would. If you wanted to place progress in Tactics, you were going to need to do it with Legolas or a Blade of Gondolin.

Lore was the knowing stuff sphere. Specifically knowing how to get more cards, and how to fix things that were broken, although with a bit of knowing what the encounter deck was up to thrown in (Incidentally, the 3 Core Set Lore Heroes each fit one of these patterns). As time went on, the card-draw and healing aspects probably got the most development, and we started to see movement towards shadow protection and location management.

Leadership was, in many respects, the Jack-of-all-trades, Master-of-none sphere. It lacked the obvious identity of the other spheres, and dabbled slightly, with good all-round stats, a little bit of card draw, and some great toolbox cards like Sneak Attack. The only area where Leadership was the clear master was in resource acceleration – to this day, there isn’t really a card better than Steward of Gondor for making money.

 

Moving to the Present

Fast-forward 5 years, and it’s a very different landscape we see now.

SpiritFighters

This lot look like they could handle themselves in a fight

Spirit has 3 heroes with 3 printed Attack – Glorfindel, Idraen, and Lanwyn. Lanwyn has the ranged keyword as well, allowing her to snipe enemies engaged with others. They also (with the most recent release, of Flame of the West), have a character with 4 printed defence. This doesn’t suddenly, or magically make Spirit the most powerful combat sphere in the game, but it seriously calls into question the idea that they can’t handle their own share of Combat.

Likewise, Tactics has acquired willpower. The average tactics ally is still not going to contribute much to the quest, but you can run a mono-tactics deck with Theoden, Eowyn, and Merry (quite thematic, really), and quest for 11 on turn 1 with just your heroes (and a starting threat of 24).

Spirit can still bring a big stack of willpower, but if you want to rack up the biggest total, you might want to look to Leadership – chuck out a swarm of cheap Gondor allies, and chain them together with ally Faramir, Aragorn wielding the Sword that was Broken, and Visionary Leadership on a hero with a spare resource, and you’re looking at totals that Spirit will be hard-pressed to keep in touch with.

AntiDamageHealing remains mostly in Lore, but other spheres have damage cancellation, which looks a lot like the same thing a lot of the time. Shadow cancellation can be found dotted around the place, with tactics getting the most recent boost in this regard. Tactics is still the go-to for killing things, but you’d be a fool to underestimate the smashing power an assembled field of Ents (mostly lore) or Dwarves (anywhere, although most numerous in Leadership or Lore).

 

Does it Matter?

One possible, and obvious response to this, is “who cares?” does it particularly matter if a given sphere’s ability is now being replicated by another – it means that when you need to go really heavy on something, you can load up on the main-sphere staples AND throw in some auxiliary support from another sphere. It also makes it more viable to play without certain spheres, which is particularly helpful in games with low player-counts.

Theodens

Convoluted, overpowered, confusing. My Theoden (r) may be many things, but I still think he makes more sense thematically…

More than that though, I think the sphere-bleed we have seen represents a fairly fundamental shift in the game, away from sphere-based deck-building, to faction-based deck-building. In the early days I mostly built mono-sphere decks, and even a two-sphere construction would require considerable thought, and multiple songs. These days, the in-faction synergy tends to be good enough that it’s worth suffering the resource curve issues to make sure that your deck has a coherent theme to it. Dwarves were the first faction to really do this, and we’ll probably never get another card on a comparable level with Dain Ironfoot, but Leadership Boromir, Celeborn and others have shown alternate takes on ways to encourage building around a trait rather than just a sphere.

For me, the rise of trait-based decks is undoubtedly a good thing. With all the other things that have been going on, if I was still having to chuck together random heroes united by nothing more than a common “sphere” then I think I’d probably have packed the game in by now. The hope of actually being able to assemble the horse lords of Edoras, the returning Sons of Gondor, or the watchful Dunedain of the North gives the game that added bit of flavour I need to tie back into the theme which drew me to the game in the first place.

 

Multi-cards

Arrows Without necessarily pushing the sphere bleed itself (although that has definitely been happening), the current cycle (Dreamchaser) has been doing something else to push you in the direction of multiple spheres with the new cards that get played out of one sphere, and can then have a bonus effect from another.

These cards are certainly an interesting new direction, and they can be used to great effect – in our 3-player game of Wastes of Eriador, the Hobbit player (with Black Riders Pippin) was able to prevent any of the large pack of wolves from engaging us, allowing my Lore Rangers to play Arrows from the Trees, and the tacticians of Rohan to add a further 3 resources to leave some seriously battered and bloodied wargs in the staging area.

As a concept, these cards are fun, although the utility feels very varied. Having to evaluate them both as an initial effect and if you manage to trigger the second stage makes life complicated. Of course, you also need to factor in the fact that the allies can be triggered over multiple rounds, so you only need the initial cost now, and can save up for the bonus ability in later turns. Events by contrast are 1-and-done, so if it’s not going to go off all at once, it’s probably not going to happen at all.

Knife-work As already mentioned, Arrows from the Trees, is a card we’ve already managed to use to good effect, and I plan to keep running it for a while. Tides of Fate, starts out as simply a more-limited version of test of will: instead of cancelling a shadow effect for 1 resource, it can boost your defence in response to an attack-boosting shadow. However, if you can find the 2 tactics resources, readying that defender and giving them +3 attack could mean a dead enemy rather than a live one. The spoiled, upcoming “Knife Work” also looks like a good deal, with 1 resource to give every enemy engaged with a player -1 defence looking like a good deal straightaway, even if you can’t afford the 2 lore resources to let that person draw a card for each enemy they destroy this phase.

In terms of the characters, Deorwine as a 3-defence, 3 hit-point character is a really solid defending ally, and the ability to cancel shadow effects removes a lot of the danger that ally-defence is typically fraught with. Others, like Eldahir or Ceorl feel far more marginal, their ability too dependent on a fortunate series of events, or just not that powerful.

Final thoughts

I think that that the shift in emphasis away from spheres, generally, has been a good thing and, as I’ve noted above, being able to build viable, trait-based decks has been vital in keeping my interest.

There is a part of me that worries the sphere-bleed may be going too far: as soon as every sphere can do everything, decks lose coherence, and you end up with too many things not being dealt with.

The multi-sphere cards this cycle have been good, and I hope we see more of them in the second-half of the cycle. I look forward to seeing what’s left to come.

 

Hope Rekindled

I didn’t play Lord of the Rings at all in April. In light of everything I talked about last time out, it felt like it would do me some good to take a break.

Having had a bit of a chance to recharge my batteries, I’m ready to return though – we played for the first time in a while on Monday night. Moreover, the internet has brought a couple of things that have caught my interest: A new website, and a new spoiler – of possibly the most significant Hero this game has seen in years.

Rings DB

RingsDBFirst of all, the website. RingsDB has attracted quite a bit of buzz on the Podcasts: Cardboard of the Rings and The Grey Company have both been enthusing about it – essentially it’s a place to share deck-lists.

Whilst the functionality of the site is undoubtedly good, I have to confess to being a little bit underwhelmed: whilst it does what it does very well, it doesn’t do all that much. However, once I’d allowed the hype and the resultant anti-climax to pass, I started thinking a bit more about the value of the site.

There are often times in this game when I feel like I’m head-butting a brick wall with certain quests (BoCD again…) and it’s always irksome (to say the least) when people are confidently proclaiming how easily they beat it. Simply having access to deck-lists in a user-friendly format goes a long way towards fixing this: I can build the deck, run it against the quest, and hopefully get a sense that a.) the quest is beatable after all, b.) I’m much worse at playing this game than I thought, or c.) that the person who posted it is either lying or insane [I’m not expecting much recourse to option c, but I wanted to make sure I had a comprehensive list of possibilities.]

An extension of the bonuses of RingsDB comes in the form of “Fellowships”. A fellowship is a set of decks that has been designed to work together. Obviously there are issues with this, not least the question of what happens when you take a deck out a fellowship, or combine a 2-deck fellowship with a third, but again it offers a logical companion to some of the power decks out there, allows you to run up against some of the particularly hideous quests, feeling like you have a fighting chance.

As I get back into the swing of playing this game, I’m sure I’ll make good use of RingsDB. I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s a site I’m massively excited about, but I can recognise its use, and would advise people to go and have a look.

Back at the FLGS

ArwensWhilst being able to see successful decks – and sets of decks – built by others is useful, it still isn’t a magic bullet – I printed off Seastan’s 2-handed “these decks can beat any quest” build, and took it along to the FLGS: One person hadn’t seen my Facebook message and was running hero Arwen whilst our decks were basically reliant on the Ally version to function. Another player was running secrecy Hobbits, which meant that the pile of Doomed cards in my deck were essentially useless (technically, I could have just played them regardless of the objections of others, but it felt like poor form).

We died quickly and horribly at the hands of The Antlered Crown (one player had requested we do Ringmaker cycle, then couldn’t make it: we suspect that he may have been stitching us for death by Dunlending), before having a fun game, playing Trouble in Tharbad: a quest that is often derided for being too easy, but allowed us to enjoy playing the game rather than just getting our heads smashed in.

DoomThe highlight of the game was the ongoing battle between tactics Boromir and Sam Gamgee, to see who could get the most attachments – Sam eventually triumphed 8-7, although (as Boromir’s controller) I blame this on the bias of the Elf player who gave Sam, Loragorn and finally Merry copies of Elf-Friend, whilst shunning Boromir. The in-quest mechanic for threat lowering allowed me to play Deep Knowledge and Legacy of Numenor without starting a riot, and Ranged/Sentinel Boromir with Gondorian Fire, Blood of Numenor, Song of Wisdom for Burning Brand and a stack of cash (he was the Steward) allowed him to block and/or kill pretty-much anything he liked. All-in-all, the only downside about the game was that it was a scenario I’d already completed with 4 players previously…

 

Flame of the West

Moving from the real-world of gameplay, back to the interwebs, the other thing which has really caught my attention this past week or so has been the announcement article for Flame of the West, the 5th Saga box for the Lord of the Rings story.

In a lot of respects, this looks like it will be more of the same – highly complex board states, a million and one things to keep track of, and a series of enemies and encounter card effects that are on a ridiculously punishing scale.

However, the announcement article also came with a Player-Card Spoiler (I’m ignoring the new Fellowship Aragorn for the moment) and, as mentioned above, this is a big deal. Without having complete visibility of every game of LotR played, It’s hard to say really, how much impact heroes have, but anyone who’s active on the forums etc can get a vague impression, and I think we could be looking at a shift comparable with the rise of Dain Ironfoot or Spirit Glorfindel.

The new hero is Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan and, as many people had long expected, she has been transplanted to the tactics sphere, ready to kill the Witch King.

Eowyn

When a character has multiple hero incarnations in the game (ignoring Fellowship or Baggins spheres) they have tended to keep the same stats, and we’ve known for a long time that a tactics hero with 4 Willpower would be a big deal. Sure enough, this is what we have received – as in her Core set Spirit version, Eowyn is a 4 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defence, 3 hit-point hero. Flimsy stats for a combatant, but in the sphere that is best suited to cover the shortfall. To add to the fun, her ability lowers your starting threat by 3, giving her an effective cost of 6.

A blank tactics hero with a threat-cost of 6 and 4 willpower would almost certainly be a game-changer – suddenly a mono-tactics deck in true solo looks like it might be worth considering, at least for some quests. If you have the tactics version of her uncle in play, she quests for 5. (as people have already noted, a tidily thematic mono-tactics deck of Merry, Theoden and Eowyn can put down 11 willpower out of the gate).

Eowyn has two traits – Rohan and Noble, both of which are positives to have – as a noble, she can be the target of some beneficial card effects, and as Rohan, there are various willpower boosts or non-exhausting tricks available.

All of this suggests that Eowyn is a good choice to include in your party – true, you lose access to the discard-a-card-for-willpower-boost that the Spirit version offered, but it feels like a price worth paying – the crazy thing is, that we haven’t (really) got to her ability yet.

Once per game (and it really is once per game, no Desperate Alliance shenanigans going on here), you can raise your threat by 3 to ready Eowyn and give her +9 attack. Obviously, the thematic reference here is to striking down the Witch King, but this has potential against any number of big boss enemies – or even to be combined with a bit of action advantage (Rohan Warhorse?) to pick off a string of medium-sized foes. Give her Firefoot and engage a suitably tiddly orc, and she could even get rid of the oh-so-irritating turn 1 Hill Troll in Journey Down the Anduin.

Obviously, much more (digital) ink will be spilled on the subject of Eowyn over the coming months – single-handedly, she makes new deck options viable, and if there is decent player-card support to go with her (there’s a card fan which pictures her once again on the zero-cost “sterner than steel” but we have no idea what it does…) she could be truly awesome to play.

Flame of the West isn’t expected to land until “the third quarter of 2016” which could mean July, but is more likely to mean September [or, more probably, a limited run at Gen Con, only properly surfacing for the masses in November], but it looks like it should be worth the wait.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to play, and to write: I can’t promise the most prolific spell ever, but I’ll try to keep up a minimum of an article a month. Hopefully people will enjoy reading enough to make it worthwhile.

Are We Having Fun?

I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game since it was release, back in 2011. Aside from some more recent Nightmare packs, and last year’s GenCon Quest (which hasn’t reached the shops here yet) I own every quest released, and I have always considered this to be one of my most-played games.

Going out of Fashion?

Recently, I had a sense that this game wasn’t getting played as much as it used to, so I decided to run the numbers and check:

AveragesIf I want to go all the way back to 2011, I only have figures for how often I won this game. In this context, long-term numbers look healthy. After an initial wave of excitement, gameplay really fell off in 2012 (not coincidentally, 2012 was when I started my first real job), but then rose year-on-year for the next three years. 2015s average was over 9 plays per month. 2016 has been quiet so far: only averaging just over 4.5 wins per month by the end of the first quarter.

Figures for the number of times this has actually hit the table are slightly harder to get at, as I only have these logged from Christmas 2014 onwards. In this light, 2016 doesn’t look so barren: 14.6 last year down to 10.7 this year.  However, if you take out the 17 failed attempts I had at beating Battle of Carn Dum over a single weekend in January (I’m considering getting a new version of Thaurdir printed with a white whale as the artwork), it plummets.

I was also interested to see the shifts in the number of play-counts for games over the years. Again, it fluctuates, but overall, solo is on the rise, whilst big-group games have been in decline for a while now.

At the end of the day, that’s quite a convoluted way of saying that I definitely do still play this game, and whilst I’m not playing it as much currently as I have in the past, the shift isn’t cataclysmic.

Fun?

Despite all of that, the question I’ve been asking myself more recently, is whether I’m still enjoying it? I had a vague sense that whenever a new quest came out, I was more struck by the trial of having to take on a new quest, and figure out how to beat it than I was excited about getting to build with the new player-cards.

I think it’s definitely the case that quests over the past year or so have increasingly presented unique challenges, and that it isn’t possible to beat nearly as many quests with One Deck to Rule them All as it used to be- it’s also the case that quest difficulty generally seems to be getting harder, which is bad news if you’re as bad at deck-building as I am.

War-Pig-Front-Face

Sorry Peter Jackson, no war-pigs in organised play…

Once a month (health and basic organisational competence permitting, and so far in 2016 it hasn’t!) I play LotR LCG at the Friendly Local Gaming Store- I’ll be providing 1 or 2 decks (mine, and my wife’s if she’s around) and playing with a mixture of other folks who turn up with their own decks. The rest of the month, will mostly be playing at home, 2-player or solo games, but with the possibility that occasionally some friends will come round wanting a 4-player game, and I need to work out at short notice whether I have 4 decks which can all play together, and what quest they will be able to beat. In practice, this leads to lots of cards being swapped back and forth between decks, lots of cards then being forgotten about (because they got borrowed by another deck and never returned). At home, I use custom cards, both my own and those created by the good people of the internet, but I do then need to remember to take them out when going to more official events.

IncompleteAs it stands, ignoring Nightmare and as-yet-unavailable Print On Demand quests, there are only 2 quests I have yet to complete in 2-player on standard difficulty, 10 needing a solo run, 16 for 3-player, and 19 for 4-player. The part of me that likes spread-sheets (in fairness, that’s most of me) sees the opportunity for a 4-player game, and really wants to win, so I can tick one off of the list, and keep the “incomplete” record down to a single sheet. However, as most people will be aware, winning a pick-up game in multi-player is by no means guaranteed – as often as not, we’ll reach the end of store game night, without a victory under our belts.

Under Pressure

All of this leads to a general, over-arching sense of pressure.  Playing Lord of the Rings stops being fun, and just becomes a chore, something that needs to be kept on top of.

In a recent episode (not all that recent, I was just several episodes behind) of the Grey Company Podcast, several of the team praised the designers for the innovative decisions they had made in designing recent quests, as they felt it ensured that the game stayed fresh, rather than stagnating. I found myself listening and feeling the exact opposite: In recent times, the only time I can recall being actually excited by new quest mechanics were in Escape From Mount Gram and Murder at the Prancing Pony. The rest of the Angmar Awakened cycle, and all the Grey Havens quests just felt fiddly and annoying:

  • 20 more willpower committed than threat in the staging area? – sorry no progress, as that treachery just made it Night again.
  • That undead enemy you killed? He’s back again.
  • There’s a Safe Location over there… never, mind a troll smashed your head in before you could get to it. (the troll revealed from the encounter deck, not the troll who decided to print the Dori Hero)
  • Sailing was a pain: it felt too random, and the swing in difficulty of effects depending on whether or not you were on course was too big (on course, everything is basically simple, off-course, you might as well just give up now).
  • Double-sided locations! That’s cool right? Well no, it just felt awkward really. Another thing not behaving like it should and making it harder to keep track of what’s actually happening in the game.

Now, I don’t want this to sound like I think the designers are doing a bad job – for one thing, there are clearly plenty of people out there who are getting plenty of enjoyment out of the new content, and even without that, the fact that I’m not appreciating the latest things doesn’t necessarily mean that the content itself is bad.

That said, there’s definitely a problem. I only really feel like I can experiment with new decks for two-player games, and even then, a lot of the time, if I want to try out something new, it feels like we’re being funnelled towards a very narrow set of quests that don’t have lots of awkward mechanics.

Too hard, too fiddly

It seems like there are two distinct elements at play in the game: increased complexity and increased difficulty. I’ll say straight out for anyone who’s not familiar with my overall thoughts: this game is too hard.

thaurdir_captainI’ve long since bowed out of getting new Nightmare decks, but even in standard difficulty, there are just too many quests which are nothing short of stupid – Battle of Carn Dum remains the standout example (in 3 or 4 player, unless I see a video or a card-by-card account of a supposed victory, I don’t believe it happened), but the overall trend seems to be for ALL new quests to incline this way.

The problem with making quests this difficult, is the way it constricts deck-building. It is basically impossible to build thematic decks in this game, if you also want to be able to tackle a decent spread of modern quests – now, I’m not saying that every deck should be able to defeat every quest in every player count, but the ratio should be better than it is.

Obviously, there are some very talented deck-builders out there, both in terms of people who build very efficient “normal” decks, and the people who find broken combos, post them on the internet, and inspire an FAQ which spoils the game for the rest of us. This last seems to be another major issue: it feels like when the designers produce a new set, they’re working on the assumption that the only people playing the game are Seastan and the Grey Company.

What’s the game again?

Many people, perhaps most notably Matthew from The Grey Company, have complained about people who limit themselves by refusing to build non-thematic decks. I certainly agree it’s possible to take this too far: “I won’t have a single dwarf in this elf-deck regardless of how good it would be mechanically” is the kind of restriction which will clearly inhibit your deck’s power-level. However, at the end of the day, a lot of people are playing this game specifically because it’s Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason characters aren’t called “generic defending guy 2” or “leadership questing character 1” if you don’t pay ANY attention to theme when you’re deck building, then why play a game themed around an IP in the first place? Why does it matter whether that card I’m trying to take out is an Orc, a TIE fighter, Cthulhu, or a Traffic Warden? There has to be some sense in which this game remains part of Tolkien’s world, or else there’s no point playing a Lord of the Rings card game.

It’s also worth reiterating the fact that this is the only cooperative LCG out there. When I play Game of Thrones, I expect a level of sharpness and complexity to people’s play – if I turn up to a tournament with a poor deck, or not having practised enough and I get smashed, that’s only to be expected. But that’s also why most of the people I know who play Game of Thrones are fairly hard-core tournament gamers.

Silas-Surrounded-Board-Game

I’d still rather be facing this lot than fighting Thaurdir…

Lord of the Rings used to be a game I could introduce to friends with only a more casual interest in gaming, the sort of people who would never consider getting sufficiently invested in a competitive LCG to play it well, and the nature of the game meant that it didn’t matter if I built all their decks, they could still pilot them fairly autonomously, without my increased knowledge of what they had skewing the game balance. That no longer feels like the case – If I’ve got a group of friends over, we’re more likely to have a game of Zombicide, where we feel we can still do things and have fun before dying horribly, than take a punch to the face from the undead armies of middle earth.

Moving On

So there you are: I’m still playing a fair amount of Lord of the Rings – although not quite as much this year as last. Overall though, the biggest problem is that playing this game increasingly feels like a chore, and I need to do something about that.

I could stop playing this game. Inevitably that would mean that this blog came grinding to a halt, which I don’t want to do, but this optional is unappealing for more reasons than that: I’ve invested a lot of time and money into this game over the years, and simply to walk away would be a shame.

I could stop caring about completion. I say that. I’m not entirely confident that I could – having lists to write, quests to cross off, it all gives structure to the meta-gameplay (in case you hadn’t guessed, I’m quite OCD). This might relieve pressure in a sense, but I don’t know that it would bring back the fun.

One obvious possibility is to play more Easy Mode. Already, this seems to be how we have to play quests first time round, but there’s still a part of me that can’t get over the idea that beating a quest in Easy Mode “doesn’t really count.” Of course, from the completionist angle I’d then need to go back and replay the whole of the first two or three cycles in Easy Mode, as it didn’t exist at the time.

MountGramThe thing I would most like to see, is the one thing I certainly can’t see happening: More fun quests like Escape From Mount Gram or Trouble in Tharbad. Interestingly, both of these quests are very different from the basic “just make x progress per stage” and/or “kill this boss baddie,” but the difficulty is low enough to actually have fun building decks and trying out different styles and strategy: perhaps I wouldn’t hate Hide tests, enemy recursion, hand-size hate or whatever else it might be if the quests they came in weren’t already hammering you with so many other things. They would still be able to cater for the masochists with Nightmare decks, but they could stop punishing the rest of us by making them the target audience for the main product-line.

Where do we go from here?

I said above that I don’t think the designers are doing a bad job- but I do think they’re getting the balance of the game wrong, and I think that may be – at least in part – due to the fact that most of the noise on the internet is from the “Too Easy” crowd. That’s a large part of why I’ve written this rather rambling article, instead of just packing up and disappearing – I want to be sharing my opinion that they’re not hitting the right spots.

I’m not quite sure how I’ll proceed from here – it may go a little quiet on here for a while, although I certainly won’t let this be the last post. If I do decide to shut down, I’ll post something properly. Maybe I just need to take a short break from the game, or find some other way to refresh things, who knows…