Tag Archives: Location

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.

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.

Location, Location, Location

Or: Where on Middle Earth are we?

 One of the great things about Tolkien’s writing, is the places that he creates. Rather than simply finding characters travelling through a generic forest, plain, or mountain range, he injects real life and flavour into these places, with vivid description to give them a life of their own.

It only makes sense then, that when players are playing games set in Middle Earth, they should want to immerse themselves in these locations, and to feel like the setting as well as the gameplay is properly tied to that creation.

Some Lord of the Rings games don’t really do this – The Hobbit, for example makes no reference to location. Nazgul distinguishes simply between whether or not a location has walls and whether it is an Elven, Rohan or Gondor location. The Dice-Building game uses locations simply as a proxy for different stages in the story, adding in additional enemies, and eventually triggering the victory conditions, once you reach Mount Doom or the Grey Havens.

The two games which, to my mind, do the best job of capturing the flavour of Middle Earth are Middle Earth Quest, and the Living Card Game, and I want to think a bit more about them today.

Middle Earth Quest

middleearthquestmapMiddle Earth Quest is probably my favourite board game that I don’t play. It’s a spectacular creation which at 3 hours + is just a bit too much of an undertaking for my group to really get into (of course to an extent, this is a vicious cycle, as the less it is played, the longer it takes, due to a lack of familiarity from the players.) The reason I love it so much, despite its sprawling nature, is the way that it seems to capture so perfectly the level at which Lord of the Rings game should be played. Set between Bilbo’s Eleventy-First birthday and the Ring departing the shire, players represent unsung heroes of Middle Earth, essentially running errands for Gandalf and the wise, trying in little ways to slow down the advance of the shadow. Sauron meanwhile is not yet trying to destroy the free people in one fell swoop, but he will do everything in his power to corrupt, weaken and undermine those who would seek to oppose him.

The other great thing about Middle Earth Quest, is that I comes with an enormous map of Middle Earth as the game board. For a company who regularly make big boards, this one was too big for Fantasy Flight to issue as a single component, and it comes as two separate lumps of card. Purely as a visual spectacle, it’s brilliant, and the way that travelling is tied in to the terrain type gives you a good sweep of how the land lies.

Locations in The LotR LCG

Aside from Middle Earth Quest, the Living Card Game is the only other serious contender for really engaging with the location of whichever adventures the players are engaged in and, to my mind, it does it better. Admittedly locations and travel often receive criticism as the weak link of the game, but locations form (roughly) a third of the encounter cards in this game and there are well over a hundred different locations which we have seen during the life of the card game, each with their own art, stats and effects.

The concept of an active location is a fairly simple one- this is the place you are currently exploring. The locations in the staging area are a little more abstract, but can basically be seen as places adjacent to your current location, the possibilities for future travel.

the-old-ford-thfgOver the course of the game, there have been some good stand-outs in terms of thematically fitting locations – it could be as simple as a road which allows easier travel and therefore readies a hero, river banks which replicate themselves as you flow endlessly down the river, or even a ford which becomes more dangerous and more time-consuming to cross the bigger your party.

The designers have also experimented with restrictions on locations. During the Massing art Osgiliath, you can see locations from both sides of the Anduin, but you can only travel to the ones of your side of the river. In Siege of Cair Andros, you have to physically fight the enemy for control of the locations.

The travel effects are another way of adding theme. When you choose between the branching paths, the chances are that you will have stumbled into a new dark location. When you wander into the mountains, there’s a chance you’ll run into additional perils.

Part of the difficulty with maintaining theme is the same across the whole game – it’s easy to be distracted by the mechanic, and not spend any real time considering the art, the flavour text and soforth. Ultimately, this is down to individual players and their groups to arrange as they wish.

The other difficulty with locations is how they are dealt with. For a while nasty travel effects and restrictions were all the rage, then along came Asfaloth with his repeatable ability to put progress on locations in the staging area, and travelling became almost unnecessary. The constant challenge for the designers is to make locations which offer not only challenges for players, but also decisions.

pathless-country-tbrPathless Country from the Black Riders is a nice example of this. At first glance, it’s a fairly innocuous location, with 2 threat, 3 quest points to explore, and no nasty passive effect which will cause you problems whilst it’s sat there. However, players have to decide whether they really want to travel to the pathless county (meaning that they can’t travel to one of the more pressing locations – Chetwood, the Marish, the Stockroad) or leave it in the staging area knowing that its +4 quest points whilst not the active location will mean that Asfaloth and the Northern Tracker are going to struggle to get rid of it any time soon, unless they concentrate a disproportionate amount of effort to it.

How many locations?

One of the biggest difficulties with locations is the issue of scaling. No matter how many players in the game, the players collectively can travel to one location per round (provided there is currently no active location). For single player, this is fine – so long as you quest sufficiently, you will always be able to move that location along. For bigger groups it can be a challenge: 4-player Hills of Emyn Muil can easily see you revealing 3 or 4 locations per round. The quest then quickly becomes a race to draw and play enough Northern Trackers to make those locations disappear before they overwhelm you.

It’s to this last issue of scaling that I’ve decided to turn my hand today. A simply scaling rule for locations with more players goes as follows:

Advanced-Travel-Rules-Front-Face

This helps to alleviate the issue of location-lock, without making the game massively easier- after all, you’ll still have the travel costs, and you’ll be potentially doubling the amount of progress which is going to be absorbed by active locations before you actually make progress on the quest.

That  said, having done something to reduce the likelihood of location lock, I want to bring in a bit more thought / choice to the “direct progress” aspect of the game (Northern Tracker, Ride to Ruin, Asfaloth etc) that provided something a little more nuanced than “Northern Tracker it all to death.” The game designers have introduced a little of this with locations that have negative effects when progress is placed, but this would be more of a general sweep that could be applied to any scenario.

There seemed to be 2 basic options: limit the number of locations which could have progress placed on them each round, or limit the number of progress tokens which could be placed. In either instance, I wanted to relate the number to the number of players in the game, to allow for an element of scaling. It would need to be high enough to allow for a sudden flourish of locations in the staging area, but low enough to be worthwhile having such a limit.

Having established the basic concept, the next step is to play-test. Unfortunately, mustering enough multiplayer games to have an exhaustive play-test is a bit tricky, especially with one of the members of our semi-regular 4-player group being a doctor with a long string of weekend and night shifts coming up. I’ve had a few chances to do a bit of brief experimenting and considering, and I’m going to start with “No more than X progress may be placed on locations in the staging area each round, where X is twice the number of players in the game.” – I’d really appreciate it if people could give this a try, and let me know their thoughts- does this feel like a balanced limit to set? Does this prevent you from effectively dealing with locations, or do you never find that this even comes into effect? It’d also be really helpful if you could give me an idea of the sort of deck you’ve been using, and the type of location-management cards you’re running (Trackers, horses etc)