Category Archives: Theme

Places We’ve Been – The Fellowship of the Ring

Moving sideways from the regular Deluxe and AP cycles, I want to think today about the locations in the Saga boxes that recreate the events of the first 2 Lord of the Rings books – Black Riders and the Road Darkens.

Black Riders was the first time we had seen the events of The Lord of the Rings itself directly represented in card form, and the box came with an almost ready-made new deck, the Hobbits who rely on low threat, and gain powerful extra effects when they take on foes who would not necessarily have noticed them. For that reason, the box is a favourite with many fans, but how do the quests themselves measure up?

rider

Hide!

Taking the idea of low-profile Hobbits and pushing it to its ultimate conclusion, the first scenario centred around the Hide test – another one of the “exhaust characters, discard cards from the deck, and hope you’ve beaten the arbitrary number that comes up” mechanics that appear as one-offs in quests. Many of the locations tie-in directly to the hide mechanic, making tests harder or easier, or simply requiring you to take another one of the tests.

ffg_bucklebury-ferry-tbrThere are quite a lot of locations in the first quest, and this becomes particularly problematic when you reach the final stage and are attempting to travel to the Buckleberry Ferry – this unique location is immune to player card effects, and can only be travelled to if there are no other locations in play. In our experience, this can lead to round after round where you smash the questing, but can’t clear enough locations in 1 go to be allowed to travel (there is some help available from the quest card, but in 4-player it’s often not enough).

 

Knives in the Dark

ffg_the-prancing-pony-tbrMoving on to Bree, there are more unique locations, starting with The Prancing Pony and proceeding on through Midgewater, to finally end up at Weathertop itself. The unique locations give shape to the overall narrative of the quest, and have fairly powerful effects, both good and bad. This pattern is continued in the Flight to the Ford, where the Last Bridge and Ford of the Bruinen draw directly from the books for their abilities.

 

I like the fact that the designers produced an expansion so obviously grounded in the source material, and some effects are pure narrative gold – there are few finer feelings in the game than exploring the Ford of the Bruinen and discarding a whole host of Nazgul.

ffg_ford-of-bruinen-tbrThat said, the decision-making in this box often felt very constricted: many of the unique locations are put into play by quest effects, or need to be explored before the stage can be completed. As such, whilst we see these iconic locations as we go along, there’s actually fairly limited interaction with them – you travel when you have to, and explore them once you’ve mustered enough progress. That’s about it.

 

The Road Darkens

the-great-bridgeBox 2 (for book 2, none of this nonsense about Lord of the Rings being a Trilogy) felt to me like they’d managed to strike more of a balance with the locations – the fact that we had already spent so much time in Moria meant that the designers had already had plenty of chance to play around with mechanics that might represent the Doors of Durin or the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, and these certainly felt like the refined version. The first quest out of Rivendell could well prove to be the death of the hobbits, as damage is scattered across locations, triggering in turn cascades of nasty effects.

The mines are really well done as ever – confusing passageways, and labyrinths which soak up your progress. Darkened ways which might reveal more enemies, or even a nice, defensible guard-room to make a brief stand. Obviously The Great Bridge is the centre-piece and it’s hard to argue with the thematic win of casting a hero into the abyss to remove the Balrog’s keywords – that said, I remain disappointed by / in denial of the notion that the Balrog only has one keyword. It never occurred to us when we first played it that “Immune to Player Card Effects” wasn’t a keyword, and I won’t allow FFG to take away the brilliant moment when we finished off the Balrog with a lone attack from a Mirkwood Runner for the last 2 damage.

seat-of-seeingThe final quest returns to the stacked sequence of unique locations, and gives you very little choice over what to do in the early rounds, along with providing heavy punishment for certain deck-types. Whilst the initial stages can get annoying though, I’m generally prepared to give them a pass, because I’m such a fan of the way the latter part of the quest is done: I really like the multiple staging areas, and the way cards move between them, it felt like a clever way of representing a party scattered across a fast-flowing river, and made for an enjoyable experience. In campaign mode, the Seat of Seeing adds another fun element of decision-making, as you have to weigh whether to stall the quest a little longer in an attempt to get rid of those burdens.

Reflections

pathless-countryOverall, I think the first 2 Saga Boxes for Lord of the Rings did a really good job of capturing the flavour of the books, and the latter box in particular managed to convert them into enjoyable quests to play. Although these two boxes relied quite heavily on having cards that were unique to each quest, I actually thought that some of the most interesting locations came in the sets that were shared across multiple quests, The Old Road and Pathless Country. Both of these offered fairly low-to-middling stat-lines, but combined them with effects that forced players to make choices – The Old Road can be gone in a heartbeat, if you take on the peril of another Burden. The Pathless County can be left and tracked over the course of several rounds, but it will take a long time, due to those conditional extra progress tokens – this type of mechanic, where players are given meaningful choices definitely scores them points in my book.

 

What about us?

lorien-ropeOne thing that the Fellowship of the Rings boxes didn’t really offer a lot of, was new cards for players to deal with locations – in fact, there was nothing within the standard card-pool that would allow us to manipulate threat, progress, or effects on locations. The “Lorien Rope” Boon provided a powerful effect, reducing the threat of every location in the staging area by 2 for a round, but to trigger it, you had to remove the card from the campaign pool, so it wasn’t something you could really rely on, even in campaign mode (and wasn’t available at all outside of it).

One card that was interesting was the Elf-Stone: this actually added to the number of progress required to explore a location, but allowed you to put an ally into play when it was explored. This required some set-up – it could only attach to the active location, and only the first player got to place the free ally, so there was a danger that it would fail if not triggered properly, but with a bit of coordination, it allowed that low-cost, low-threat Hobbit deck to put Gildor, Faramir, or Beorn into play for a single Lore Resource and an extra willpower in questing.

 

Overall, the Fellowship boxes were good. I’m not a fan of Shadow of the Past, due to the way you can so easily get stuck on stage 3, and Bill Ferny is more trouble than he ought to be, but from a locations perspective, these boxes are a particular high-point in conveying the designers’ love of the source material. I think that the second box is better in terms of how enjoyable the locations actually make the quests to play and having re-visited the cards to write this article, I’m keen to actually re-play some of these quests soon.

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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

Sailing Away

It won’t have escaped your attention that the Grey Havens box and the Dream Chaser cycle that followed it, featured boats. Perhaps not as many boats as we first expected, but sailing has certainly been a feature of the most recent cycle and, having completed City of Corsairs a couple of days ago and seen the final bit of sailing we will have to do, I thought it might be a good time to take a bit of a look back, and see how the sailing had been overall.

thesea

To The Sea?

To be honest, there haven’t been as many sailing quests as I first expected: there was the first quest of the Deluxe, Voyage Across Belegaer, the first AP of the cycle, Flight of the Storm Caller, then a prolonged period where we were either on a ship but not sailing it (Thing in the Depths) or simply back on dry land (Temple of the Deceived, Drowned Ruins). A Storm on Coba’s Haven returned us to the waves, and the first part of City of Corsairs saw the Dreamchaser off for one last hurrah – only 3 1/4 Sailing quests all-told! When the cycle was first announced, I certainly had the impression that there would have been far more of these, but given the need for the ships that came in the Deluxe (not to mention that the next cycle involves a desert), I’m not holding my breath for any more (any chance of a camel with the “ship-of-the-desert-objective card type? …)

Having reached the end (presumably) of new shipping content, I want to look at how it changed the game: with our ships, the encounter deck ships, and other things which came along into the bargain.

Friendly Ships

There are 4 ships included in the Grey Havens box – one, the Dreamchaser is always part of your fleet when you are sailing, and is the compulsory first pick. Once one player has taken the Dreamchaser, each other player chooses one of the remaining ships to take, and in solo you get a second ship for yourself – at best, this means picking 1 or 2 out of 3 possibilities to use (once you’re using all of them, it no longer really feels like a “pick”) and more often than not assembling your fleet just becomes an argument about who gets lumbered with the Dreamchaser.

There are certainly a selection of interesting effects available from the ships, but as I say, the choice does feel limited – I’d assumed we would get additional ships during the cycle, to give us an incentive to go back and re-play earlier quests again, but the original list was never expanded upon.

narelenyaAs we’ve played this cycle mostly 2-player with a little bit of solo, it’s generally been about choosing a single escort for the Dreamchaser, and  the choice has almost always been Narelenya. The once-per-round cost reduction of an ally is a really powerful effect in almost any deck, and it’s particularly true of my wife’s current Gondor deck, and of course, my tried-and-tested solo deck: Play as many Dwarves as you can.

Of the remaining two ships, the extra card-draw of the Dawn Star is obviously very useful, but +3 starting threat is a heavy penalty: most decks I build either have too high a threat already for this to be safe, or else have a particular reliance on their low threat (secrecy, reliance on non-engagement of enemies etc), and can’t afford the bump.

silverstarOn the flip side, threat reduction is nice, as offered by Silver Wing, but is the +1 attack per hero worth it? Potentially with the difficulty of Corsair bashing this is one we should investigated in more detail but I can’t recall ever using this solo or 2-player. Perhaps a Lorgaron deck might be able to get better mileage out of, but for us it never felt worthwhile. It would actually be quite nice if you could leave out the Dreamchaser, and have Dawn Star and Silver Wing balance each other out in solo, but sadly this is never an option.

Enemy Ships

As well as the player-controlled ships there were, of course, also the enemy ships, and typically these were fairly big, nasty, beasts.

light-cruiserMost Ship enemies had a few things in common – big stats, the “Boarding” Keyword, and limited interaction with other player-card types.

The big stats make sense. A ship is a significant thing, and it wouldn’t make any sense for it to be only hitting as hard as an orc. Likewise, the limited interaction with player cards: only a ship you control can defend against a Ship enemy.

The squire of the citadel might be able to stand in the path of horde of Dunlendings, or even a few Undead (and by “stand in the path” I mean “occupy them for a round whilst they brutally slaughter him”) but the idea that he’s going to hold up a ship for a noticeable amount of time is a bit more of a stretch: he’ll either be dragged under, or smashed by the timbers, either way, the Squire is ending up dead and the crew of the boat probably doesn’t even notice.

The biggest problem I had with ships though (generally), was the Boarding Keyword: essentially, a requirement to engage a Corsair Enemy whenever you engage a ship. Again, this makes a lot of sense thematically: when your boat tries to fight another boat, you’ll probably find that there’s a crew to tangle with, so I can’t fault them on that front. The execution though, was rather different.

For one thing, I’m never a great fan of anything that requires me to divide the encounter deck into two different decks: the card-backs are all the same, and it’s all-too easy to get the cards mixed up, or put something in the wrong discard pile, and find them getting shuffled into the wrong deck. “Extra decks” have been an ever-more-common feature of the game as its life has gone on, and they always feel fiddly.

umbar-raiderBeyond that though, it just made the burden of combat feel too uneven. We’ve played quite a few quests this cycle combining a fight-y Gondor deck and a Spirit Questing deck – once the Spirit deck has properly got set up, it has some decent combat potential (Idraen and Lanwyn are amongst heroes, and it also runs ally Glorfindel, Northern Trackers and Rhovanion Outriders) – against a normal enemy or two, it can handle a fight. What it can’t deal with is a massive boat AND a few random pirate enemies thrown in on top, especially when many of those pirates have resource-stealing mechanics which make them more and more powerful if you can’t kill them in a single round. Even for the Gondor deck, defending a ship with their ship, defending a handful of Corsairs and being expected to strike back again, is a major problem – if you don’t have Boromir the Steward of Gondorian Fire set up, along with a bucketload of threat-reduction, it’s just not feasible, and that’s coming from a deck that’s designed to be able to handle combat.

cunning-pirate

Not too bad if he only discards Cram, but otherwise can get pretty nasty.

As well as being uneven, the Boarding mechanic also increases the sheer number of cards you have to deal with each round: It feels like a particularly cruel trick on the part of the designers to finally give us some limited consolation against surge, in the form of Lanwyn, then bring in a mechanic that does all the nasty aspects of surge without actually bearing the keyword (and therefore not triggering her ability.)

In a lot of ways the Corsairs felt a bit like the Dunlendings – they’ve taken a really interesting idea, tying together a group of enemies with a particular theme/mechanic, but then putting it on top of base stats that are simply too high: someone like the Cunning Pirate is likely to be starting at 4 attack, 4 defence, 4 hit-points, and the Umbar Raider only needs to survive a round or two before he’s going to be smashing clean through anything and everything that comes along to stand in his way: not a nice prospect for someone who always arrives as part of a crowd.

Sailing

Whilst you’re dealing with all these million enemies, it’s worth remembering that you also need to sail: it’s easy enough to forget with only that little keyword tucked in to the side. If you only learn one thing about sailing quests, make sure it’s this.

Make sure you always pass the sailing test.

If you’re on-course, a lot of the location / treachery effects in these quests really aren’t that bad- some of them won’t do anything at all. On the other hand, if you’re even slightly off-course, you can expect to be battered, bruised and broken as the waves toss you in all directions.

As sailing is one of those rather frustrating “reveal X cards from the encounter deck and hope you do / don’t find a random symbol printed in the corner” type checks, you regularly have to over-commit in order to ensure you stay on course (even scrying is of fairly limited use unless you happen to hit a success on the very first card), leaving you without the excess hands you’d need to deal with all the other things going on. In some quests, the proportion of cards in the deck which actually counted as a pass in the sailing test was so low that once I got knocked off course (for example to avoid a ship returning to the staging area and re-boarding me next turn), it was almost impossible to pull it back.

moreships

The fact that the Dream Chaser can commit to sailing tests even when not controlled by the first player does help a little with smoothing, but I’m still not sure I can see the logic thematically – given that each player is notionally on their own ship, Sailing Tests feel like they should be done by the whole party, rather than player-by-player, and it certainly feels galling later on in the game having to put in a 5 willpower ship to the sailing test when a player who isn’t doing the check has a couple of 1 or 0 willpower guys sat around twiddling their thumbs.

Final Thoughts

For all my curmudgeonly thoughts, I’m glad that the designers are still trying to be innovative with how they approach the game. For me, sailing was an area where they didn’t quite hit the mark, but things could certainly have been a lot worse. As I’ve already mentioned, it seems fairly certain that the Sands of Harad will be fairly light on oceangoing vessel, but I look forward to seeing what new perils they have in store for us instead.

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.

The Enemy of My Enemy is my Objective Ally

Warning this article contains spoilers for the Lord of the Rings novels (throughout), and some of the over-arching plot arcs created for Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game (later on, with further warning).

“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.” (Faramir, plagiarised from Sam Gamgee, via Peter Jackson)

Apart from those who dislike “excessive” description of what an individual mountain/tree/house looks like, one of the most frequent criticisms I see levelled at Tolkien’s writing, is that his characters are too black-and-white.

Aragorn, of course, is the pinnacle of nobility, strong, calm, and selfless. Despite what Peter Jackson would have you believe, he is not the reluctant hero, but a man who has spent his entire life preparing to take the Throne of Gondor, and is ready to do so – he will allow no selfish or dark thoughts to threaten his progress towards his goal, and only puts it aside temporarily in a quest to protect the Ringbearer who holds in his hands the fate of all the free peoples.

fallenBeyond that though, it’s a lot more complex. Boromir may have fallen into evil for a while, but he clearly rallied at the last moment, sentinel defended a number of attacks, and then discarded himself to deal 2 damage to each enemy in play.

For those who still find the towering figures of the third age insufficiently 3-dimensional, a wander back into the times of the Silmarillion reveals any number of troubled and complex figures, driven by powerful forces and great pain. Try telling Turin Turambar that Tolkien doesn’t know how to write a hero filled with conflict, flaws, or darkness.

Whatever your feelings on the characters that Tolkien created, the designers of Lord of the Rings the card game have a slightly different challenge – first of all, they have to find a way to portray the complexities of character that do exist in a game context, and secondly they have to create their own characters and tales that feel true to Tolkien’s world. Those are the two things I want to talk about today.

Doom

saruman Saruman the White, head of the order of the Istarii, and a mighty Maiar sent to Middle Earth for the aid of the free peoples. Of course, we all know that he went bad in the end, but for a long time, he at least seemed to be working on the side of good (although from watching the White Council scenes in the Hobbit films, you would have to wonder how everyone else missed what he was up to…)

FFG depicted Saruman’s ‘assistance’ through a Doomed player-card. An ally with powerful stats and a fairly low cost, but offset by a steady ramp in everyone’s threat every time you play him. Personally, I don’t find Saruman’s abilities quite worth the trade-off (my decks either have too much threat already, or they care too much about keeping it down), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. At least the ally version doesn’t mess you up as much as when he reappears as an enemy in Treason of Saruman (the title was a warning!)

Grima

grimaGrima Wormtongue is another figure who fans of the books or the films will struggle to see as anything much besides a villain. However, he has appeared in 3 very different guises in the card-game: As a hero, an enemy, and an objective ally.

In Hero form, Grima takes the Isengard trait alongside the Rohan one and, given the lack of other Rohan cards in Lore (just Gleowine iirc), and his focus on the Doomed Mechanic, he definitely leans more towards the Isengard side of things than towards synergy with his homeland.

His Enemy version is one of those annoying cards that looks feeble in turns of his printed stats, but has a nasty effect that’s remarkably hard to nullify, simply because of his ability to slink off back to the encounter deck, and throw some other pain your way.

The card I find most interesting for Grima though, is his objective ally form. As an objective ally, he can quest, attack, or defend like any other player card, albeit with meagre stats. He also has an ability, providing you with card-draw, which everyone knows is one of the most powerful effects in the game, right?

Well, it depends. As much as we normally love card-draw, Objective Ally Grima appears in the Voice of Isengard, perfectly timed to synchronise with the arrival of the Dunlendings, who punish you for having lots of cards in hand, and for drawing cards. Is Grima really helping you? Or is he already doing his best to undermine you?

The Flip

gollum1The concept of this card that might be working for you, and might be working against you was taken to another level with the rise of the double-sided card. The most obvious character from Tolkien’s lore to be given this treatment is Gollum/Smeagol.

Gollum has appeared several times in the life of the game – the original Mirkwood cycle began with “The Hunt For Gollum” and by the time the Heroes reached the Dead Marshes, they had tracked him down, earning themselves a burden to drag around for the last two scenarios.

gollsmeag It was only when Gollum re-appeared for Land of Shadow, the second of the two Saga boxes to cover The Two Towers, that this was really taken to the next level. Land of Shadow Gollum starts out as a remarkably resilient enemy (the quest card gives him randomised defence boosts which really get in the way of trying to take him down) who can – ultimately – be defeated, and flipped over to the objective-ally Smeagol. Smeagol is now an objective ally, someone who will help the players, guiding them through the Dead Marshes. Even then though, you need to be careful, as an unfortunately-timed treachery, or a poor quest phase, can flip him back to Gollum again at a moment’s notice.

My first instinct is to dislike double-sided cards as excessively fiddly. However, what the designers have done here just seems to fit really well from a narrative perspective: I felt like this scenario really captured the sense of the Hobbits having to trust this creature for direction, despite knowing that he probably wanted nothing more than to rob and murder them.

The Expanded Universe

alcaronally[This is where the Spoilers start] Of course, whilst much of what we see in Lord of the Rings LCG is drawn from Tolkien’s Lore, the designers have also, particularly in recent cycles, put a lot of effort into creating their own characters, to develop new stories. This, of course, gives them more space to explore the idea of characters whose motives may be more complex than they appear.

Lord Alcaron was introduced to us off-stage in the Heirs of Numenor box, as a vaguely-described yet benevolent figure who had entrusted us with the delivery of an important scroll. Over the next few adventures, he appeared in person, and helped us rescue villagers from the burning settlement of Amon Dim, and defend against the ambush at the Crossroads.

alcaronenemy For some people, there was always something about Alcaron that felt a bit off- his uncanny knack of turning up just as things were falling apart – it all seemed rather suspicious. Personally I had missed the hints we were given, but once we entered The Morgul Vale, all doubt was removed, as he was revealed- a Black Numenorian who had been plotting against us all along, and who was behind the kidnap of Faramir.

Alcaron’s enemy version was not particularly tied in to his objective-ally version mechanically: he was just one of the scenarios 3 “Captain” enemies, depicted on a new card for that set. Evidently, the whole narrative arc of the cycle would have been ruined if he had appeared in Heirs as a double-sided card. Still, it showed the willingness of the designers to push the envelope of what was possible in this game, and who we could trust.

The Corsairs

sahirnasenemyFast forward a couple of years to the present and, early in 2016, we got two new enemies – Captain Sahir and Na’asiyah. As prominent Corsairs, these FFG-created characters seemed like logical inclusions for ship-to-ship fighting, but they had the interesting additional feature of being double-sided, capable of becoming allies at a later point in time. We didn’t know what this meant for the future, but we had to assume the cards had been printed like that for a reason.

sahirnasally Intrigued but uninformed, we continued into the Dreamchaser cycle, still hunting pirates, all the way up until Thing in the Depths, at which point the sudden assault from a giant sea monster made us all re-think our priorities, and Sahir and Na’asiyah became our allies as we fought for mutual survival.

The shaky alliance held, and we made our first forays onto the lost island still accompanied by these enemies of our enemy. Like the mercenaries Corsairs and Pirates are generally assumed to be, you needed to spend resources to really get the best out of them, but they could definitely prove valuable in a fight.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happens at the end of The Drowned Ruins, but as Assault on Coba’s Haven lands in the next week or so, one thing will become clear as we see Na-asiyah, our first Corsair Hero!

nashero Na-asiyah’s Hero ability mirrors the text on both her Enemy and Objective Ally cards, with resources being turned into attack and defence. It is clear that she is still not trusted by everyone, as her resources cannot be used to pay for allies, but for now at least, she is fighting alongside us.

I haven’t had a chance to do any deck-building with her yet (I’ll wait until I have the card in hand), but it feels like there is some serious potential here, perhaps in combination with Elrond (who can pay for allies of any sphere to help smooth the resource curve), with Hama (who can recycle events she can pay for), or simply as a self-buffing defender each round. Either way, a nice new direction to take hero cards in.

The Future

southronWe already know from the various spoiler articles we have seen, that the next cycle will see our heroes finding themselves in Far Harad, and that there will be at least one Haradrim ally. It looks like the designers will continue to explore the question of who t is truly “evil” and who can be redeemed. I look forward to seeing where it takes us.