Tag Archives: Prancing Pony

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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Dark Deeds in Bree

4 bands of strangers approached the Prancing Pony in Bree. The sign creaked in the night as it flapped in the wind, and the rain drove hard into their faces. All the travellers were huddled under their cloaks, seeking what scant protection they could from the rain, but as they passed inside, there was an audible gasp from the common-room, as they cast aside their hoods, and revealed their faces.

PrancingPonyOne party were dwarves, 3 stout and sturdy chaps travelled from far to the east, perhaps even from Erebor itself. Some whispered that their leader was none other than Dain Ironfoot himself, the King Under the Mountain.

Most of the others were elves, that was clear to see. Again, the rumours quickly began to spread as to the identities of these mysterious strangers: the Elf-Lord of Imladris, the Prince of the Woodland Realm, even the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien. No-one knew for certain, and it was not long before one drunkard in the corner had confidently proclaimed them Beren and Luthien returned.

The most troubling of the strangers for the folk of Bree stood a little way apart from the others. A huge, dark figure, he said little and moved slowly: indeed those who saw him out of the corner of their eyes seemed to be caught in wonder for a moment, convinced that they had seen a tree.

Fortunately, Barliman Butterbur, proprietor of the Prancing Pony was more accustomed to strange folk visiting his tavern from time to time and, once he had confirmed that they did not require any of his food or ale, he confided in them of the recent murder which had shaken the village. Whoever the incomers were, they were clearly upstanding folk, and they swiftly agreed to investigate the matter for him, and bringing the villain to justice.

DSC01184Yesterday, we had our first Lord of the Rings Fellowship event, convening at our FLGS to investigate a murder at the Prancing Pony. The format is fairly simple: there are 5 “suspect” enemies, and 5 “hideout” locations. At the start of the game, one of each are selected at random, and put to one side, whilst the remaining 8 cards, along with a couple of irksome treacheries, are shuffled into an “investigation deck” – exploring active locations allows the players to view cards from the investigation deck, and hopefully enables them, by process of elimination, to identify the villain, and where they are hiding.

As the distributors had insisted that the event be run on a weekend, and at short-notice, we just had the one 4-player game going, and we may have brought a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, with the decks we had chosen: Treebeard/Rossiel/Haldir for me, and Celeborn/Legolas/Brand son of Bain, Glorfindel/Elrond/Galadriel, and Dain/Ori/Nori for the others. The player of the Noldor deck was wearing Nenya and an Evenstar, but sadly these were adjudged to have no in-game benefit. Instead, armed with our decks, and a box of biscuits, the Fellowship of the Party Rings set out… (on reflection, maybe I should have brought some Brie as well

I've been waiting since Black Riders to do this...

I’ve been waiting since Black Riders to do this…

Stage 1 requires players to either raise their threat at the start of the round, or reveal extra cards, so we ploughed through as quickly as possible, opting for the threat increase very time: Nori was keeping threat under control for the Dwarf-deck, whilst Galadriel patched things up for the other 3 teams. The quest card has a “max 4 progress per round” limit, and needs 12 progress, so it’s three rounds minimum, but we didn’t take any longer. The highlight of the first stage was Haldir hitting Bill Ferny with a Black Arrow to kill him in the staging area, and get rid of his very irritating effect. We also managed to clear an active location each round, and had successfully eliminated 2 suspects and 3 locations by the time we hit stage 2.

Advancing to Stage 2 reveals a location per player and, having revealed 3 locations in round-3 staging, we were now in an awkward position of having 7 locations in the staging area, and nothing else. The biggest problem was the Market Square, which puts your threat up every time you place progress on a location in the staging area: 2 copies of this at once meant that it would have cost us a staggering 14 threat to trigger one of the Northern Trackers. Fortunately, the dwarf player had Thror’s Map and Key, enabling us to gradually remove the Squares, then track away everything else. I added the first square to go to the Victory display, with Leave No Trace, allowing me cancel the next one to appear, with The Door Is Closed.

DSC01187Stage 2 is slightly difficult to hang around on: every time you place progress, you are forced to either advance to stage 3 or reveal extra encounter cards. Fortunately, I had drawn Gather Information early on, and when we explored it, another player was able to fetch her copy, letting us kill some time – it also meant that we could find some of the missing pieces for card combos – the Dwarf deck was now in full-swing, and the Elves had double Northern Tracker, but I was pleased to get my very cheesy and unthematic, but helpfully powerful Elf-Friend Treebeard + Silvan Tracker combo out (he was also the Steward of Gondor).

We had narrowed down both the suspect and the hideout to two possibilities, and it felt like every investigation was leading us back into cards we had seen before, so we decided to bite the bullet and make a guess.

When you advance to Stage 3 of this quest, you have to name a suspect and a hideout – if you have successfully eliminated all the other possibilities by looking through the whole investigation deck, this should correspond directly with the two cards put to one side at the start of the game. If not, you have stumbled onto bigger plots, and suddenly find yourself faced with extra villains and locations. Our first player for the turn guessed at Todd the Troll and Bill Ferny’s house – and she was wrong on both counts!

Suddenly, we found ourselves faced with Todd the Troll and Old Orc-Eyes, as well as Bill Ferny’s House and the Combe Storehouse. The suspect enemies automatically engage the first player at the start of the encounter phase, and cannot be damaged whilst there are any Hideouts in play. The hideouts are, of course, large, with nasty travel effects – including the resurrection of Bill Ferny, and the inevitable immunity to player-card effects.

Fortunately, by this time, we had big enough forces out to withstand the onslaught. Todd the Troll’s 7 attack with threat-trample was probably the biggest concern, but was dealt with by the marvellous combination of Dain Ironfoot, made sentinel by Arwen, and auto-healing each round thanks to being an elf-friend, and sharing the table with a Silvan Tracker and Elrond – it turned out to be very powerful, which was fortunate, as we’d only done it because the idea of “elf-friend Dain” seemed funny.

After two rounds we cleared the second hide-out, killed Bill Ferny again for good measure, and jumped on the villains. The silvan/tactics player had clearly been looking forward to this moment, and was fairly close to being able to kill both suspects outright herself, and Brand readying an extra dwarf when the first suspect bit the dust, was enough to finish off the other.

Card-sleeves: good for protecting your decks, bad for photography under artificial light!

The victorious heroes, and the defeated villain

All-in-all, it was a good evening. Whilst the encounter deck certainly had some nasty tricks up its sleeve, and things could easily have gone a lot worse for us, this quest feels much more like the right sort of level for casual, shop-based games than the nightmare quests did (I still don’t really believe that 4-player Nightmare Battle of Five armies is even possible). The quest also feels like it has good replayability value, and whilst there is some frustration to be had from the randomness of the investigation deck, it’s not like Redhorn Gate where you are actually just stuck in an infinite loop – you always have the option to guess and take the extra cards/threat and press on. I can definitely see this one getting played more than just the once on the event night.

I feel like it has taken a while for this game to find the sweet-spot for Organised Play: there are still issues to be ironed out, including how we would have decided the “winners” of the play-mats and quest decks if we’d had a larger group turn up, and the amount of notice and leeway the distributors give the shops to run their events, but I hope this way of doing things continues, and that we get more quests that are this much fun to play.

I’d love hear tales of other people’s fellowship events: epic moments of triumph or despair, any tales worthy to live on in song. Comment below, or on Facebook.