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5/6/14

Into the Wild

"'Few now remember them,' Tom murmured, 'yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things that folk are heedless.'"

~ Tom Bombadil
The Fellowship of the Ring
Book I, Chapter VIII: Fog on the Barrow-downs

Throughout the Fellowship of the Ring, many of the characters within the Lord of the Rings story line begin their harrowing journeys, and though these journeys lead each protagonist in different directions before the end, their adventures often start out in good company.  Upon a harrowing trek through the backwoods of the Shire, a sinister time in the Old Forest, and ghastly frights on the Barrow-downs, the hobbits finally make their way to the ominous town of Bree.  The halflings proceed to enter the Prancing Pony Inn and acquire rooms for the night; however, they enjoy a bout of drinking leisurely a bit too much, and Mr. Underhill accidentally slips on the One Ring.  A mysterious figure in the parlour drags the hobbits aside and quickly explains the dire realism of their situation.  It isn't long before a few more scares happen, but eventually, the stranger, who goes by the name Strider, leads them out of Bree and into the wild...

One of the real joys of watching the Fellowship of the Ring motion picture is seeing the wilderness and natural setting of Middle-earth come alive on screen.  As Strider leads the four hobbits away from Bree along the paths leading to Rivendell, a great diversity of habitats are seen, including Midgewater Marsh, which contains the most vile assortment of insects that Middle-earth has to offer. (What do they eat when they can't get hobbit?)  The hobbits are hesitant to trust their new leader but agree that a true servant of the enemy would look fairer and seem fouler.  At any rate, they trudge through the wilds and are forced to skip second breakfast on multiple occasions.  


To coincide with this backwoods journey, the following player deck attempts to recreate the theme and personality of Strider and the hobbits as they carry forth on their eastward adventure.
  • Heroes
  • Allies
    • Gandalf (3x)
    • Arwen (2x)
    • Ethir Swordsman (3x)
            * A thematic sacrifice for the much needed willpower boost to this deck!
    • Haldir of Lorien (2x)
    • Gildor Inglorian (2x)
    • Bill the Pony (2x)
  • Attachments
    • Good Meal (2x)
    • Unexpected Courage (2x)
    • Silver Lamp (1x)
    • Elf-Stone (2x)
    • Fast Hitch (2x)
    • Wingfoot (2x)
    • Steward of Gondor (2x)
    • Sword that was Broken (2x)
    • Celebrian's Stone (2x)
    • Cram (2x)
    • Hobbit Cloak (1x)
  • Events
    • A Good Harvest (2x)
    • A Test of Will (3x)
    • Hasty Stroke (2x)
    • Radagast's Cunning (2x)
    • Secret Paths (2x)
    • Rumor from the Earth (1x)
    • Strider's Path (1x)
    • Sneak Attack (3x)
First off, this deck contains remarkably fewer allies than normal.  Usually, nearly half of my player decks are comprised of allies, but this time it only sums to 14.  This is due to the fact that this deck is heavily driven by attachments.  Likewise, for the most part, the attachments are aimed at greatly strengthening Strider's abilities, with the ultimate hope of expanding his influence into the Leadership and Spirit spheres.  

Speaking of attachments, this deck includes one that has not yet been released (it will be available once the Nin-in-Eilph adventure pack, the fourth of the Ring-maker Cycle, is in print.)  This attachment is the unique, Lore-specific Wingfoot, which can only be attached to a Ranger hero.   This title has the keyword: "Response: After attached hero commits to a quest, name enemy, location, or treachery.  If a card of the named type is revealed during this questing phase, ready attached hero."  Can you guess who this attachment is going on? That's right, Strider will become even more powerful with this ability.  While this player deck purposely lacks any form of scrying (a mechanism that simply isn't high on my appeal chart,) Wingfoot will allow for the designation of enemy encounter cards, and if they emerge, then Strider can immediately be readied to deal with them during the combat phase.  If instead a location or treachery arrives, then Strider won't be needed for his attack or defense anyways.  This handy attachment really provides a win-win set of actions all at once.  


Half of the 14 allies in this player deck are quite expensive in their resource cost.  But with that in mind, Haldir, Gildor, and Gandalf are all heavy hitters.  To get them into the action quicker, Elf-Stone and Sneak Attack have been placed in the deck.  Due to the lower amount of allies, the heroes will have many more responsibilities as well.  Therefore, events and attachments such as Cram, Fast Hitch, and Unexpected Courage are present and intended to fulfill this purpose.  Finally, tri-sphere decks are always inherently prone to suffer from lack of resources; thus, neutral player cards like A Good Harvest and Good Meal are aimed at making this process a bit more bearable until Strider can lend a hand to various spheres and churn out more resources with the Steward of Gondor attachment.   


Hopefully Wingfoot is one of several new cards that are focused on the unique Ranger archetype. More specifically, however, it would be really fantastic to see more support for the Dunedain trait.  As of now, both versions of Aragorn as well as Beravor are the only heroes that contain this trait, along with a handful of allies released very long ago.  Overall, the Dunedain trait lacks any real character or unique attribute that sets it apart.  The Signal attachments from the Leadership sphere are definitely interesting, but more recently they seem to be falling on their appeal, and they fail to create a definitive form of character development for Dunedain rangers.

Do you have ideas of what direction the Dunedain trait could (or should) take in the future?  Based upon preliminary promises from the developers, it is definitely a strong possibility that it will be one of the many areas of focus throughout the Ring-maker Cycle.  It certainly seems fitting that the Dunedain ranger trait should be focused on the mysterious aspects of nature as well as the continued development of signals, wanderings in the wild, and the like.  What do you think? 


5/4/14

Keeping the Beacons Lit

"It was just at this time that Gandalf reappeared after his long absence.  For three years after the party he had been away.  Then he paid Frodo a brief visit, and after taking a good look at him he went off again.  During the next year or two he had turned up fairly often, coming unexpectedly after dusk, and going off without warning before sunrise... Then suddenly his visits had ceased.  It was over nine years since Frodo had seen or heard of him, and he begun to think that the wizard would never return and had given up all interest in hobbits.
~ The Fellowship of the Ring
Book I, Chapter II: The Shadow of the Past


It is certainly an extended timeline that Tolkien establishes in the Fellowship of the Ring prior to the hobbits departing the Shire and the first steps of the quest to destroy the One Ring.  While this time span seems to be relatively short in Peter Jackson's movie, briefly showing Gandalf riding to the White City to study the darker events of Middle-earth's history, this process actually took well over 10 years in the novel.  

As a whole, this exposition reminds me somewhat of how my experiences and (relatively brief) history with the Lord of the Rings LCG is like.  Similar to Gandalf's visits to the Shire, I will often have periods where I enjoy playing the LCG at a fairly often pace, usually coinciding with new releases of adventure packs or deluxe expansions, but then I will go through very long periods where I don't play or perhaps even think about the game (although these droughts have never quite lasted nine years yet, nor have I ever thought once of giving up all interest in hobbits!)

So, that leads me to the overall topic of this post: what keeps the motivation to play this continually expanding card game alive?  One way of answering that question is perhaps going over the pros and cons of the game itself.  I am genuinely curious as to what everyone finds to be the best and worst aspects of the game, as well as how often they spend playing it on a weekly or perhaps even monthly basis.  I'll do my best to cover the characteristics that I find to be most appealing as well as the ones I distinctly dislike.  

Beginning with one of my favorite attributes of the Lord of the Rings LCG, I would undoubtedly say that the abundantly prevailing reason I play, collect, and enjoy this card game is the very fact that it is an immersive way to enjoy Middle-earth and all the interesting characters and stories within it.  When I first received the game in July of 2013, I was well behind on its initially print debut.  Likewise, I had never played a card game before and had no real history in tabletop games at all for the matter.  But I did my very best to grasp the basics and thankfully, I finally managed to beat the Hill Troll on the 5th or 6th try!  I was hooked.  I immediately started buying up all the adventure packs and expansions I could find, but that leads me to my first negative of the game.


If you aren't a long time fan or collector of this series, it can be brutally difficult to get into.  While I was only just a bit over a year late to the party (the dragon fireworks had long ceased,) I found it very hard to complete the existing collection at that point.  I now know that Fantasy Flight Games does periodic print runs of most of their card and board games on a cycle by cycle basis.  Once they complete and sell their initial print runs on a new product, it can be months if not years before they reprint them.  Unfortunately, I got into the game at a bad time for getting many of the earliest adventure packs, namely from the Dwarrowdelf Cycle.  I searched, searched, and searched the internet for any place that sold them, but all to no avail.  They were simply impossible to find at the time.  To my great fortune, a set finally appeared from an eBay merchant, and I was able to complete my collection.  Several months later, the Dwarrowdelf Cycle was reprinted and available; however, I cannot attest to how long they were available from that point on.  All in all, I suppose this vicious cycle of releasing and disappearance suggests the popularity of the game, but it can be frustrating, especially for players just getting into the game.  Thankfully, I am completely caught up now, and when new content is released, it is often ordered that very same day.  

Speaking of content, that is assuredly another one of my favorite aspects of this card game.  From my very first days with the core set and on until today, I have remained astounded by the quality of the artwork on the cards themselves.  While a very select few are duds in my opinion (I'm looking at you, Erebor Battle Master) the vast majority of the cards in this game do an amazingly diverse job of representing the fundamentals of Tolkien's lore in a physical form.  The hobbit characters and locations are plump and peaceful, the Riders of Rohan are fueled with dynamic energy, and the Orcs and Goblins are always gnarly and just asking to be beheaded by a strong Dwarven Axe.  As I previously said, prior to this game I had very little experience with collectible card games, and therefor, I can't really compare the artwork of this game to others.  Yet, overall, I would be very doubtful that very many other card games could come close to this one on their level of artwork.  

Since we're on the topic of artwork and content, let's go ahead and expand that to cover the storylines and unique experiences the game provides.  I'll be quite forward in saying that I enjoy the quests designed to represent the books more than the newly created ones that are set in the same time span.  The two Hobbit deluxe expansions as well as the Black Riders are absolutely amazing.  I feel as though they have truly captured the sense of adventure and theme present throughout the stories they're intended to represent.  However, that's not to say that I dislike the standalone quests designed by the experts at Fantasy Flight Games.  They, too, are very enjoyable for the most part; however, there is one aspect about all of the quests that can sometimes prove to be frustrating: the vastly varying degrees of difficulty. 


I know many readers are going to instantly question my decision to consider variances in difficulty as a negative of the game.  Doesn't this allow for various skill levels to play the game and appeal to more people overall?  Well, yes, I suppose that it does, but let me explain my reasoning.  As said before, I enjoy the thematic narratives of the game the most.  Equipping Boromir with a Gondorian Shield, Horn of Gondor, and soon-to-be-released Captain of Gondor attachment, followed by a quest to reclaim the ruined city of Osgiliath is just beyond awesome.  But then... when, during the first couple rounds, I've been defeated and many of my plans and hopes for the approaching the quest have been utterly destroyed by compounding shadow effects or surging encounter cards, I get rather bummed out and, well... frustrated.   

Many players will see this as a chance to tweak their deck and try to conquer the quest again and again until they manage a victory.  Likewise, they're also more than willing to bring Frodo and Glorfindel to some of the most dangerous places in Middle-earth due to their very powerful abilities.  To that end, this game definitely has some powerful cards and synergies, but it gets very tricky to include many of them in certain decks if you're hoping to keep a thematic cohesion within that deck.  This goes back to the age-old debate of thematic gamers verses power gamers (a topic brought up by one of the developers in a recent article.)  I'm not going to try to sugarcoat it in any way: I'm a thematic gamer.  I like to have the experience of creating unique stories rather than calculating the cold statistics of winning and losing.  But, with all that in mind, the great variances in difficulty can create a very challenging atmosphere for thematic players a lot of the time.  Now, easy mode has recently been formulated by the developers, but I do my best to steer away from it because it often requires you to remove many unique cards from the encounter deck.  Even though they're brutal, I don't want to take them out of my pathways of experiencing the story itself!  Overall, I believe this is a very difficult topic to both discuss in detail and correct.  I enjoy the thematic aspects of the game the most, but I also enjoy winning and prevailing over the dark forces of Mordor.  Yet, these two occurrences don't always go hand in hand.  

I suppose I'll end this post on that note.  I could go on to discuss minor things and features that I find enjoyable (and the ones not so much) but I've covered the big ones, I think.  

It has been about four or five weeks since I've even had a chance to play the Lord of the Rings LCG.  I've been quite busy with my final semester of undergraduate education, working on my senior thesis, studying, and all the other fun commitments of a full-time student.  Thus, I've had little free time to spend building decks and questing throughout Middle-earth.  Graduation is quickly approaching, however, and I foresee several weeks of free time in my near future; so, I wanted to jump right back into playing and enjoying the game.  I also hope to have the time to complete new posts covering thematic decks as well as the upcoming Ring-maker Cycle.  The Dunland Trap will be here before we know it, and I am more than ready for new content and new adventures!

Thanks for reading, and please leave behind a comment detailing your favorite and least favorite aspects of the game as well as how often you get a chance to play it.


2/27/14

Abandoning Reason for Madness

"Beneath the mountain's arm within the Wizard's Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard. Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old; and, Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle... This was the stronghold of Saruman, as fame reported it; for within living memory the men of Rohan had not passed its gates, save perhaps a few, such as Wormtongue, who came in secret and told no man what they saw."  
~ The Two Towers
Book III, Chapter VIII: The Road to Isengard

This opening narrative takes place in The Two Towers after the great battle of the Hornburg.  Gandalf the White leads King Theoden and the Three Hunters into the territory of their defeated enemy, Saruman the White.  They find Isengard absolutely wrecked by the Ents who descended upon the dark wizard, destroying the forge works, cavern catacombs, and vile industries of the White Hand.  By this time, the once supremely powerful wizard Saruman is little more than an old man placed under house arrest.  He has one last foul deed to play out in the Lord of the Rings story line, but for the most part, Saruman's clenching dominion in Middle-earth has lost its tension.

Not long before the events of The Two Towers, Saruman the White was highly respected and sought after for his deep pools of knowledge.  It is unclear just how long Saruman had been on the path of treachery in the dark obsidian halls of Orthanc, but before his fall, he dutifully provided his commanding voice as the head of the White Council.  Likewise, Isengard itself had a rich history as a location of nobility and authority.  It was initially built in the Second Age of Middle-earth by the Numenorians, the kingly line of Men who eventually formed the realms of Arnor in the North and Gondor in the South.


As the centuries unfolded in Middle-earth, the horsemen kingdom of Rohan was established in the immediate region south of Isengard, but Gondor continued to hold claim over the stronghold of Isengard.  In spite of this, warlike tribes of barbarian wild men from Dunland, a region also near Isengard, emerged and began to wage war upon Rohan.  During these battles between Rohan and the Dunlendings, Isengard fell to the control of the wild men, and for the first time, Gondor lost control of the stronghold to the enemy.  However, their defeat was short-lived: the Rohirrim overthrew the barbarians' rule of Isengard and reclaimed the stronghold.

Gondor played little part in these ongoing wars between Rohan and Dunland; however, they still considered their stronghold of Isengard to be an important asset to their kingdom.  Without a proper army to maintain Isengard, however, Gondor instead made a deal with a wizard.  Saruman the White, the head of the Istari Order, arrived from the distant eastern stretches of Middle-earth and offered to protect the fortress of Isengard, serving as the guardian himself.  Gondor agreed to this alliance, and it wasn't long until Saruman took up residence in Orthanc, and thus the valley in which Isengard was located became known as the Nan Curunir, or in the common tongue: the Wizard's Vale.


Saruman's arrival to Isengard marked a stark shift in the role that Isengard took for both the immediate geographic area and perhaps Middle-earth as a whole.  Previously functioning solely as a architectural relic echoing days of greater strength for the world of Men, Isengard now shifted to a location of knowledge, guidance, and wisdom, all of which centered around Saruman.  Gandalf the Grey would often venture to Orthanc to seek Saruman's counsel on various topics, but the chiefest source of the wizard's power within Isengard came from the fact that Orthanc housed one of the palantiri, mystical seeing stones that allowed their beholder to communicate with other such stones throughout Middle-earth.  This magical tool plays a greater role in the events leading up to the conclusion of the Third Age; however, in the early days it served mainly to further extend Saruman's degree of insight on the goings and comings of Middle-earth.

It is into this introductory timeline that players starting the Voice of Isengard expansion to the Lord of the Rings: LCG are confronted with.  Being an untold number of years before the distinct events of the Lord of the Rings take place, Isengard is still ever much a stronghold as it was in the days of Gondorian rule.  Yet, Saruman's presence in Isengard has increased its power beyond the simple physical nature into a more mystifying place capable of deep insights into the future.  Saruman now spends most of his time studying and striving toward powerful perceptions concerning forbidden knowledge.  Coincidentally, to accompany this unfolding story line, a whole host of new player cards have been created for the LotR LCG to thematically instill this dark pursuit of power.  Each of these new cards have very strong effects, but in turn, they also carry a weighty level of threat gain - denoted by the Doomed keyword.


So, in an effort to use a majority of these new cards, I decided to put together a couple player decks that capture the ominously dominant feeling of the Wizard's Vale.  They feature all three of the Istari wizards as well as all of the new Doomed player cards released in the Voice of Isengard expansion.  In order to make these player decks function from a mechanical perspective, however, the hero choices themselves serve a more functional role than a thematic one.  With the ongoing rise in each player's threat level that stems from using these new cards, it is vital to have heroes and other cards to counteract them; therefore, a low starting threat and threat-reducing cards of all varieties are also an element in these two player decks.  

The first player deck is derived from the Leadership and Tactics sphere.  The heroes are Sam Gamgee, Merry, and Legolas.  The starting threat of these three heroes is 23.  The Hobbits will contribute a generous amount of willpower for questing, and as everyone knows, the prince of Mirkwood has many uses, but in this deck he will focus on acquiring a weapon attachment or two and attempting to beat his current kill count recorded in the Desolation of Smaug movie (Can it be done?  Very doubtful.)
  • Allies
    • Bill the Pony (2x)
    • Snowbourn Scout (3x)
    • Orthanc Guard (3x)
    • Vassal of the Windlord (3x)
    • Winged Guardian (3x)
    • Gandalf (Core Set, 3x)
    • Radagast (3x)
  • Attachments
    • Celebrian's Stone (2x)
    • Steward of Gondor (3x)
    • Dagger of Westernesse (3x)
    • Rivendell Blade (2x)
    • Black Arrow (1x)
    • Keys of Orthanc (2x)
  • Events
    • Sneak Attack (3x)
    • Legacy of Numenor (3x)
    • Halfling Determination (2x)
    • The Wizard's Voice (3x)
    • Feint (3x)
    • The Seeing-Stone (3x)

The two new Leadership player cards, Orthanc Guard and Legacy of Numenor, serve as great reminders of the history and original purpose of Isengard.  The Numenorians built it as a stronghold, and to this day that legacy endures, allowing players to freely use the Legacy of Numenor to gain a large surge of supporting resources for a colossal threat gain of four.  Likewise, Isengard has always been guarded by a garrisons of able-bodied soldiers who are always at the ready, and the Orthanc guards are ever at the ready to defend the stronghold if the wild men decide to try their luck once again.


When Saruman took over the role of defending Isengard, he gained the Keys of Orthanc from the current Steward of Gondor.  Though this attachment must be played on a hero (rather than Saruman) it still echoes the effects of the Legacy of Numenor event, allowing players to gain one resource whenever a Doomed effect occurs.  Furthermore, this is a unique attachment, signifying that there can only be one true master of Isengard.  The illustration on the card shows several different keys on the ring; so, one can only guess at all the mysterious doors they open within Orthanc...
The two remaining Doomed events in this player deck, The Wizard's Voice and The Seeing-Stone are also direct player card adaptations of Saruman's authority.  Taking a brief aside from the thematic approach to describing these cards, The Wizard's Voice allows each player to block an engaged enemy from attacking for one round, and while this is always a useful ability to have, it does also come with a hefty threat gain of three.  So, perhaps the best use of this would be in a three or four player game in which that many different enemies could be blocked at once without the original threat gain scaling at all.  For one or even two players, Feint will most likely always be the better option.  Anyways, transitioning back to the thematically perspective, The Seeing-Stone carries a uniquely similar ability as the palantir that the card art shows, allowing players to search through their entire deck for the exact Doomed card they desire, adding it to their hand.  The mere act of using this seeing stone carries a threat gain as well, however, so gaze with caution!

Most of the other allies, attachments, and events in this player deck have fairly obvious support roles.  While the main threat-reducing power will come from the next deck about to be covered, this deck will provide some level of defense and attack power during quests.  Radagast took a break from consuming mushrooms in order to assist the heroes in calling in various eagle allies, and a Celebrian's Stone or Steward of Gondor attachment, when purchased, will be relayed to the other player deck.  


Let's transition on to the second player deck, which represents the other two spheres: Lore and Spirit.  The heroes here are Grima, Aragorn, and Glorfindel.  Collectively, the starting threat is 26.  The more specific roles that each of these heroes play in this deck will be expanded upon a bit later. 
  • Allies
    • Isengard Messenger (3x)
    • Ethir Swordsman (3x)
    • Arwen Undomiel (2x)
    • Damrod (2x)
    • Gandalf (OHaUH, 3x)
    • Saruman (3x)
  • Attachments
    • Elf-Stone (3x)
    • Asfaloth (2x)
    • Light of Valinor (3x)
    • Song of Earendil (3x)
    • Song of Travel (3x)
  • Events
    • Word of Command (3x)
    • Deep Knowledge (3x)
    • A Test of Will (3x)
    • Hasty Stroke (3x)
    • The Galadhrim's Greeting (3x)
    • Elrond's Counsel (3x)
    • Dwarven Tomb (2x)
    • Power of Orthanc (2x)


The Lord of Isengard himself, Saruman the White, received a neutral ally card in the Voice of Isengard, and this player deck felt like the best fit for him out of the two.  Saruman does require each player to escalate their threat levels by three when he is put into play; however, impressive stats and a unique ability may prove to be worth the foreboding assistance of this darkly powerful wizard. 


Ultimately, players may also choose to disregard Saruman's aid in questing and battle to instead use him for the most powerful card drawing effect in the game: Word of Command.  Though the Gandalf ally included in this deck can stick around for several turns and may be a better choice for this card, he may fail to show up in time.  Furthermore, having three copies of Saruman, three copies of Gandalf, and three copies of this event in the player deck provides a strong likelihood that it will see use, maybe even more than once.  But what are the best cards to pick out of all of the ones still remaining left undrawn?  That really all depends on the current level of threat each player deck is sitting at. 

Grima, Aragorn, and Glorfindel are quite possibly the best three heroes available to use when building this sort of deck with opposing mechanics of threat gain and threat loss.  Grima continually raises the threat to purchase cards more cheaply and once the threat is too high, Aragorn can drop it  like it's hot (once per game.)  Glorfindel, on the other hand, starts out with an extremely low threat cost and can purchase cards like The Galadhrim's Greeting, Elrond's Counsel, and the Song of Earendil to lower not only this deck's threat level but the other one's as well. The Dwarven Tomb event can even bring these threat-reducing events back after they've been used for an additional use.  Finally, even though his ability is highly conditional depending on the quest, Damrod could potentially provide a huge threat decrease as well if their are a wealth of enemies in the staging area.

The Isengard Messenger and Ethir Swordsman will provide a strong boost to willpower to aid in questing, and the Elf-Stone can be employed to put the higher cost allies into play (in either deck) at a very cheap cost.  But let's transition back to the Doomed event cards in this particular player deck.   Aside from Grima and Saruman, this deck contains the last two new Doomed player card effects, both of which are events.

First up is Deep Knowledge, a powerful (and free) Lore event that allows each player to draw two cards at a price of two threat.  This may be one of the best Doomed cards out of all of them because it has a much more reasonable threat cost (when compared to three or even four on others) and it allows every player to have the same advantage of drawing two cards.  Traditionally, Lore does not have many problems with drawing cards within its sphere, but it can be harder to trigger this effect for other players.  Yet, Saruman's studying of the darker sides of Middle-earth is proving to be beneficial for all the heroes, and by the looks of his library of tomes and manuscripts on the card art, there appears to be no end to the unfurling wisdom.  

The sole Doomed event for the Spirit sphere is Power of Orthanc.  Again free of cost except for a threat increase of two for each player, this event allows each player to discard a condition that they're afflicted with.  Previously, everyone chipped the Miner of the Iron Hills into their Lore decks for this role because he was the only option available for removing nasty conditions.  Now, however, there appears to be other ways of removing conditions: the Power of Orthanc Doomed event as well as the upcoming Elrond ally card.  Even though not all quests have conditions, this card will provide an increased level of assurance that treacheries such as Watchful Eyes or the Black Breath will be less of a nuisance than they have been in the past.

Overall, these decks are my initial foray into meddling with the Doomed player cards.  Since the beginning of the game, the Doomed trait has been around but restricted to the encounter deck only.  Now, it seems as though players have the option of abandoning reason for madness on their pursuit of victory, escalating their threat levels in exchange for formidably powerful effects.  I sincerely hope that the Isengard trait receives continual development as the game grows, and I would particularly like to see more player cards that benefit from Doomed effects triggering such as the Keys of Orthanc, Isengard Messenger, and Orthanc Guard.  I believe there is still a vast wealth of creative freedom that could be used in further designing Isengard player cards, while also continuing to keep it on the risky side to use extensively.

What are your thoughts on all these new Doomed player cards as well as the Isengard trait as a whole?  Also, do you have any suggestions on tweakings, additions, or deletions from these two decks?  They are definitely still a work in progress and require substantial play testing before they're deemed to be dependable.  At any rate, just remember: Saruman has given us the chance to aid him willingly; so, it's imperative to do so rather than electing the way of pain!




2/22/14

Home of the Horse Lords

"Their horses were of great stature, strong and clean-limbed; their grey coats glistened, their long tails flowed in the wind, their manes were braided on their proud necks. The Men that rode them matched them well tall and long-limbed; their hair, flaxen-pale, flowed under their light helms, and streamed in long braids behind them; their faces were stern and keen. In their hands were tall spears of ash, painted shields were slung on their backs, long swords were at their belts, their burnished shirts of mail hung down upon their knees."
~ The Two Towers
Book III, Chapter II: The Riders of Rohan

After many months of waiting, the Voice of Isengard expansion has finally been released!  Over the course of this long wait, Fantasy Flight Games has continually published articles that introduced and teased many of the new mechanics, quests, characters, and options available to the players.  The three quests in this expansion take place around the Wizard's Vale of Isengard and players now have the option of using both Saruman (as an ally) and Grima (as a hero) before their inevitable downfall into the darkness.  Likewise, Rohan, the kingdom of horse lords, receives a large portion of the spotlight in this expansion as well.  

Even though the Voice of Isengard has been officially released, I haven't had a chance to play it quite yet.  It is due to arrive on my doorstep in just a couple of days.  So, in an attempt to not go completely insane from the plight of waiting these forty-eight hours, I thought it would be a great idea to devise a couple player decks that flesh out the Rohan trait in full force.

Rohan previously received a well rounded degree of attention in the Shadows of Mirkwood Cycle, which added several new allies and events to the card pool that Eowyn, Dunhere, and Theodred could make use of.  However, during this time, Rohan was almost entirely confined to the Spirit sphere and their primarily role was to provide a huge level of willpower for questing purposes.  There was a long pause in which no new developments for the Rohan trait were released, lasting all the way up to the last couple Adventure Packs of the Against the Shadow Cycle.  Once again, Rohan made an appearance with a new ally, Guthlaf, a new weapon, a mount attachment, an event, and even Rohan's king, Theoden, as a hero.  Finally, not only were these brand new Rohan additions, but they marked an emergence of the trait into another sphere: Tactics.


To provide an even finer degree of development, Rohan has received even more player cards that strengthen the trait in the Voice of Isengard expansion.  To coincide with the recent Tactics emergence, these new player cards are primarily in that sphere as well, featuring another new hero, Eomer, as well as a new ally, the Westfold Outrider, and a new mount, the Rohan Warhorse.  The Spirit sphere also received a new ally too, the Westfold Horse-Breeder

So, with that brief introduction out of the way, let's jump into a couple player decks that serve to flesh out the newly evolved Rohan trait, both in the Spirit and Tactics spheres.  The first deck is focused more on the traditional role that Rohan has served before recent expansions: questing.  All three of the heroes that make up this deck come from the Core Set, going to show just how relevant the original cards still are to the ever growing state of the game.  Representing the Leadership sphere is the king's son, Theodred.  Since the Voice of Isengard quests take place before the formal events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Theodred is alive and an able-bodied warrior in the field of battle.  Accompanying Theodred are Eowyn and Dunhere, both of whom represent the Spirit sphere.  To this day, Eowyn is perhaps the single best hero at questing out of all the ones available.  Additionally, Dunhere, a valiant Captain of the Rohirrim, provides his ever useful ability of attacking enemies in the staging area.  

 

Supporting these three heroes are allies, attachments, and events that are almost entirely restricted to the Spirit sphere.  As previously discussed, most of the older Rohan player cards are located in this sphere, and they definitely make up the bulk of this particular deck as well. 
  • Allies
    • Snowbourn Scout (3x)
    • Westfold Horse-Breeder (2x)
    • Westfold Horse-Breaker (2x)
    • The Riddermark's Finest (3x)
    • West Road Traveller (2x)
    • Escort From Edoras (3x)
    • Rider of the Mark (2x)
    • Elfhelm (2x)
    • Eomund (2x) 
  • Attachments
    • Unexpected Courage (2x)
    • Song of Travel (3x)
    • Steed of the Mark (3x)  
  • Events
    • A Test of Will (3x)
    • Hasty Stroke (3x)
    • The Galadhrim's Greeting (3x)
    • Renewed Friendship (2x)
    • Ride to Ruin (2x)
    • Mustering the Rohirrim (3x)
    • Astonishing Speed (3x)
    • We Do Not Sleep (2x) 
This may be one of the few decks that I have ever devised that haven't featured everyone's favorite wizard, Gandalf, but there are just too many Spirit Rohan allies that had to be featured in his stead.  Since all of these player cards are from the Spirit sphere (excluding the Snowbourn Scout) it is important to get a Song of Travel onto Theodred fairly early on, and any others that may show up may be discarded to boost Eowyn's willpower.  The only new Voice of Isengard player card here is the Westfold Horse-Breeder, who will serve the main function of finding the Steed of the Mark followed by adding a small bit of questing willpower afterwards (unless a bloodthirsty Orc says otherwise.)  I have never used the Renewed Friendship event before; however, the other player deck about to be covered has several great attachments that could be placed on these heroes; so, it may finally get to see the light of play.  

 

Riding headlong into the battlefield are Theoden, Eomer, and Hama.  This mono-Tactics deck is built almost entirely around the prospect of unleashing large attacks against the enemy.  Unfortunately, there still is not a wealth of Rohan Tactics allies to choose from; therefore, a few noble eagles may fly in to assist the horse lords during the heat of battle.  

 

These fearsome horsemen ride out fully equipped with the weaponry and skills needed to best any foes that come before them.  By successfully blocking oncoming attacked followed by a hard galloping assault, these heroes will fiercely patrol the borders of Rohan and beyond.  
  • Allies
    • Gandalf (Core Set, 3x)
    • Horseback Archer (3x)
    • Westfold Outrider (3x)
    • Guthlaf (2x)
    • Vassal of the Windlord (3x)
    • Winged Guardian (3x)
  • Attachments
    • Book of Eldacar (3x)
    • Spear of the Mark (3x)
    • Dagger of Westernesse (3x)
    • Rohan Warhorse (3x)
    • Mighty Prowess (3x)
  • Events
    • Feint (3x)
    • Thicket of Spears (3x)
    • Forth Eorlingas! (3x)
    • Quick Strike (3x)
    • The Hammer-Stroke (2x)
    • Swift Strike (2x)
    • Blade Mastery (2x) 
Similar to Renewed Friendship, I don't believe I have ever used the Mighty Prowess attachment before.  For quests that contain many of the same enemy type, it could truly be a devastating skill to have, though.  The Westfold Outrider and Rohan Warhorse are the two new player cards from the Voice of Isengard that I am excited to try out for the first time, and they should provide an excellent enhancement to the combat proficiency of this deck.  


Like I said, at this time I have not yet received my copy of the Voice of Isengard expansion, but I am positively bursting at the seams waiting to play it!  These two decks might prove to be a total bust against the new quests in the expansion; however, I can think of many quests off hand that they would hold up well to, providing an exciting thematic experience as well as covering most of the gameplay functionality bases too.  There are, of course, several other new player cards debuting in the Voice of Isengard expansion as well, though.  Many of these revolve around raising with your threat level through the Doomed keyword to receive powerful allies and events to take place.  So, I am very interested to see how these new player cards work with other deck types, and with that in mind, perhaps a Saruman/Doomed based player deck will be on the horizon before too long.   


Thanks for reading, and please share any of your thoughts or ideas considering the newly expanded Rohan trait as well as any of the other latest additions to the Lord of the Rings LCG you're excited about.




2/10/14

The Marks of Soft Feet

"If a man must needs walk in sight of the Black Gate, or tread the deadly flowers of Morgul Vale, then perils he will have. I, too, despaired at last, and I began my homeward journey. And then, by fortune, I came suddenly on what I sought: the marks of soft feet beside a muddy pool. But now the trail was fresh and swift, and it led not to Mordor but away."
~ Aragorn
The Fellowship of the Ring
Book II, Chapter II: The Council of Elrond


Though I'm a little late to the party, I have finally had the chance to play all three of the core set nightmare mode renditions of the original quests.  My initial thoughts on each one were that they do a great job of updating these quests while also making them feel much more thematic and distinctive.  My favorite nightmare makeover was, without question, Journey Along the Anduin due to how different it felt and the increased level of peril throughout it.  After playing each of these three "new" quests, I began to develop a few expectations for the next round of nightmare mode enhancements that are focused on the Shadows of Mirkwood Cycle.

The first expectation is a rather obvious one: each of these quests will all be harder, but not in a hit your head against an Osgiliath ruin way, but rather in a more engaging, thematic, and involving manner.  Another expectation that I had was that I would enjoy the new nightmare mode enhancements better than the original version of the quest.  But enough about all that, let's start off with the very first Adventure Pack quest to be released, the Hunt for Gollum, to see just how different it is once you travel there in an all new nightmarish reality.

In the original Hunt for Gollum scenario, I really enjoyed the gameplay mechanism in which the players are searching for Signs of Gollum, or clues, in order to pick up his trail.  The opening narrative explains that everyone's favorite grey wizard has asked the heroes to search for the skulking creature and they begin their hunt in the Anduin River Valley between the Misty Mountains on the West and the dark forest of Mirkwood to the East.  The whole quest revolves around the ongoing pursuit for these hidden clues, but it is enhanced by the fact that the heroes are not the only ones looking.  There are several dangerous Hunters from Mordor who are also searching for Gollum, and they become much more fearsome when there are fresh tracks and additional clues unearthed from the encounter deck.  To further build upon the theme and location setting, there are also some scurrying Goblintown Scavengers that have descended from the depths of their Misty Mountain home to cause some trouble.

Before the horrendous search begins, let's introduce the heroes that Gandalf specifically chose to hunt the creature down.  Serving the roles of Leadership and Lore are Sam Gamgee, Pippin, and Faramir.  By and large, this player deck is a Ranger/Trap one with several affiliated allies, a couple Forest Snares, and three copies of my personal favorite trap card: Ranger Spikes.  As always, Sam is joined by his trusty steed, Bill the Pony, and is also on the lookout for a Steward of Gondor to purchase for Faramir in an effort to adequately fuel the allies and traps.


Accompanying the Hobbits and young Gondorian Ranger are Legolas, Beregond, and Glorfindel, hailing from the Tactics and Spirit spheres, respectively.  The Elves know the Anduin River Valley region well and bring a powerful attack strength that will be invaluable against the agents of Mordor, and Beregond brings his usual assortment of attachments to prepare him for any hostilities that may arise.  Patrolling Vassals of the Windlord and Winged Guardians also kettle high above the area and may drop in to assist the heroes if need arises.


From the onset of the quest, one of the first things nightmare mode does to further complicate the heroes' search is to add several treachery cards that give a distinct advantage to the Orcs and Goblins who are also traipsing about the river lowlands.  When The Enemy's Trail is encountered, a previously "missed" clue (usually due to its appearance only as a shadow card effect) is revived from the encounter discard pile and placed on a Mordor traited enemy in play. However, if the heroes have already successfully discovered a clue and claimed it, the Restless Hunters treachery effect takes it directly off of them and places it on a Mordor enemy instead.


During my first playthrough, both of these treacheries appeared early on when there were no clues in play yet; so, they simple surged to the next card without an effect.  If these effects occurred late in the game, however, they could culminate in some seriously bad results, especially in the final phase of the quest in which each player must have a clue attached to one of their heroes in order to participate in the questing phase.  To further deter the players, a few inhospitable locations have also been added that the heroes must deal with in their search for Stinker.  To add to the restrictions caused by lack of attached clues, the Watched Path location prevents all players from drawing cards through card effects if they have yet to acquire any Signs of Gollum.  Though this isn't the most damaging of restrictions, it does also bring a hefty threat of three to the staging area.  Likewise, also sitting at three threat are the Dark Pools which are immune to progress tokens while in the staging area (sorry Asfaloth lovers!)  This murky location comes with a rather nasty forced effect once the heroes travel to it: "After Dark Pools becomes the active location, each player must discard an ally with the highest printed cost among the allies he controls."  I found myself leaving this location in the staging area for the duration of the quest in order not to make my best two allies start a new northerly segment of the Dead Marshes.  


"...where the warg howls, there also the Orc prowls."   ~ Aragorn, FotR

Remember some of the previously mentioned boosts that the Hunters from Mordor receive in nightmare mode?  Well, they're not over quite yet.  These big bad Orcs are now patrolling with a scouting pack of Hunting Wargs as well as a Hunter's Lookout to fall back to and build up their defenses.  This new enemy and location both assure that more of the Orc Hunters will be on the prowl as well as much more dangerous to the heroes.  Overall, the trickiest part of this quest is to find the perfect time to seize the clues in the staging area and escape the region (beat the quest) as quickly as possible before the Hunters get out of control.  At one point, there were two clues in play, which made each Hunter of Mordor surmise a threat and attack strength of six.  Luckily, a handy copy of Radagast's Cunning kept the quest phase from going completely downhill, but it goes to show that these Orcs are not messing around as the search heats up.


That just about sums up many of the new treacheries, locations, and enemies in the new nightmare enhancement of the Hunt for Gollum.  I have saved the best (well, my favorite) new addition for last, and that goes to the other new Creature traited enemy: the Ravenous Hawk.  Perhaps it's my favorite because I'm a huge fan of birding and raptors or perhaps it's because the artwork of a deranged hawk eating a deer carcass is awesome beyond words.  At any rate, I was actually looking forward to these guys soaring out the encounter deck and extending their talons toward Beregond's face.  Unfortunately, that young whippersnapper Faramir decided it'd be a good idea to throw some traps in the staging area, and both of the evil hawks that arrived on the scene were imprisoned!  So, throughout the quest, I never had the heart to engage and kill these awesome birds (and coincidentally, Faramir didn't mind the attack boost either!)


My initial reactions to the Nightmare Hunt for Gollum quest are positive across the board.  The original quest was never a particularly difficult one, and even with this nightmare mode enhancement, it didn't appear to be too over-the-top on the brutal scale.  It's just a fun, thematically distinct quest that is now even more focused toward finding clues and high-tailing it out of there before the Hunters from Mordors find you (or the Ravenous Hawks gouge your eyes out.)   I'm really looking forward to my additional playthroughs of this quest using other heroes and deck builds.

Thanks for reading!



2/8/14

A Tale of Torture

"There lies the fastness of Southern Mirkwood. It is clad in a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither. In the midst upon a stony height stands Dol Guldur, where long the hidden Enemy had his dwelling. We fear that now it is inhabitated again, and with power sevenfold." 
    ~ Haldir
    The Fellowship of the Ring
Book II, Chapter VI: Lothlorien


After taking the Fellowship on their perilous yet ultimately victorious Nightmare Journey Along the Anduin, it was time to try out the third and final Nightmare mode enhancement of the core set quests: Escape From Dol Guldur.  I'd like to start out by saying that this particular quest has never been one of my favorites due to its inherently difficult nature.  Now, don't take that the wrong way; I like plenty of this game's exceedingly difficult quests such as Massing at Osgiliath, the Battle of Lake-town, and the Siege of Cair Andros, but for some reason I just don't ever find myself too excited to play this one.  Perhaps it was from the initial scaring and repeated beatings I took during the early days of playing, but I also think that it just has a bit too much going on and sometimes it can be hard to keep track of it all, such as the three different acquired objective card effects, the one ally played per turn, and the forced effects triggering all around.    

Nevertheless, I am a completionist and at just under $6.00, it was a no brainer to add this to my collection anyways.  So, let's get started on some of my experiences with this nightmare enhancement.  Rather than building up a couple new decks to tackle this undoubtedly challenging quest, I decided to just use the same Fellowship heroes that I had been playing Nightmare Journey Along the Anduin with.  This might not have been the best decision when considering what I was going up against, but I mainly wanted to see how the scenario had changed rather than necessarily beating it.  As it played out, Boromir became the prisoner of Dol Guldur, and my other heroes delved into the dark fortress in an attempt to save him.  During setup, one of the new gameplay additions to this quest was encountered.  A new location, the Torture Chamber, came into play as a guarded effect of one of the objective cards, and to trigger its nasty ability, a Catacomb Inspection treachery card also arrived.  This card (which also surged another encounter card) reads "When Revealed: Add 1 resource token to each Dol Guldur location in play." Since the Torture Chamber fit the bill, it gained a resource token and upon a closer look at its text, I learned that "if Torture Chamber has 4 or more resource tokens on it, all "prisoners" were killed, and the players have lost the game."  Well, that could certainly ensure an early game defeat if any more catacomb inspections occurred!  


Luckily, the surging effect did not bring out any more nasty treacheries or resource additions to the Torture Chamber (so Boromir had it easy this time) and I was able to continue on with the first turn.  It didn't take too long for the enemies to pile up on the fortress and begin their onslaught against my weakening heroes.  On the first turn, I took care of a Cavern Guardian and Dungeon Jailor, two of the original enemies to the quest; however, the following turn I encountered two of the new nightmare enemies.  The first one was a Crazed Captive with relatively pathetic stats but a ridiculous forced effect that reads: "If Crazed Captive is defeated, raise each player's threat by 7." So, similar to the Brown Water Rats in the previous nightmare mode quest, this guy probably isn't going anywhere unless each deck wants to sky rocket on the threat meter.  To continue the new mechanic of resource accumulation on Dol Guldur locations, the Torture Master also arrived from the encounter deck to add another resource to each location in play.  This steroid-infused Orc has a very high threat but a weak attack strength; likewise, he was quickly dispatched and soon Boromir was saved and the second phase of the escape quest began.



Everything quickly went downhill from this point on.  A horrific questing phase and some truly nasty encounter cards made both player deck threat meters rise to staggering heights and it wasn't long before one of them reached a concluding level of 50.  So, during this playthrough, I didn't even get a chance to take a crack at the Nazgul of Dol Guldur boss enemy, but his threat definitely contributed to my heroes' downfall.  I must admit, though, that I did enjoy many of the new additions to the quest.  The addition of the Torture Chamber, Torture Master, Catacomb Inspection, and Dark Interrogation make the imprisoned hero theme stand out much more than in the original.

 Yet, many of the same elements that I disliked from the original are still present, such as using your top player card to act as an "Orc Guard" during the final quest phase, Out of the Dungeons.  That always just felt a bit too contrived, and even though it would further increase the difficulty, I wish it would instead read: "Each player must choose an enemy in the encounter deck or discard pile and engage that enemy."  I do plan on revisiting this Nightmare mode quest sometime in the future with a more detailed deck build specifically designed to deal with the ridiculous amounts of threat gain that occur throughout it.  However, even with the Nightmare mode enhancement, Escape From Dol Guldur remains one of the more lackluster quests in my book.

Thanks for reading and leave a comment expressing some of your thoughts on this quest!


2/6/14

The Road Darkens Saga Expansion News!


Fantasy Flight Games recently released the first full article detailing the next Lord of the Rings: LCG Saga Expansion: The Road Darkens!  You can check out the article here as well as the homepage for the new expansion here.  The main page also introduces the three iconic quests that will make up this final Saga Expansion for the Fellowship of the Rings story line.

The first quest, The Ring Goes South, takes the newly formed Fellowship out of the peaceful valley of Imladris to begin their quest to destroy the One Ring.  While in Rivendell, however, it is apparent that the nine members of the Fellowship made some allies that will always be there to aid them in their time of need.  Two of these allies (brand new to this expansion) are Elrond and Bilbo Baggins.  Likewise, they both contain very unique abilities iconic to their characters.

With absolutely amazing stats, the new Elrond ally comes into play similar to Gandalf in that he is only available for one round then he departs.  His stats are identical to the hero version of Elrond, and instead of costing five resources like Gandalf, he is only three Lore resources.  Elrond's response ability, however, is where he truly stands out: "After Elrond enters play, choose one: heal all damage from a hero, discard a Condition attachment, or each player draws 1 card."  Gandalf also comes into play with several nice options; however, they always only apply to the player who just put him into play.  Elrond's ability, on the other hand, can benefit any player and provides a much needed player action of removing all those nasty conditions that crop up from the encounter deck.

Also present in Rivendell during the time of the Fellowship's departure is an aging, yet still wise and witty Bilbo Baggins.  After his unexpected journey over sixty years before, he has settled down into a peaceful retirement.  Yet, he now sees that his dear nephew, Frodo, is going out into the wild; so, he decides to make himself available for willpower.  Not only does Bilbo provide a wonderful two willpower for his Spirit sphere cost of two resources, but he also provides an excellent way to get pipe attachments into play with the response "After Bilbo Baggins enters play, search your deck for a Pipe attachment and add it to your hand."  The Hobbit Pipe, as well as its Spirit companion event, Smoke Rings, was introduced in the Black Riders Saga Expansion, and while they combo quite nicely together, they can sometimes be tricky to set up properly.  It now looks like everyone's favorite four foot burglar is going to help to remedy that problem.

Eventually, no amount of preparation can ready the adventurers better than experiencing the wilds of Middle-earth for themselves.  They eventually reach the slopes of the Misty Mountains, as they venture into the mysterious hills of Hollin.  The quest promises to throw villainous enemies of all kinds at the Fellowship such as wargs, crebain, and orcs.  They ultimately reach the solitude of Moria, but only after a horrific fight with the Watcher in the Water.  In the next quest of the Saga Expansion, Journey in the Dark, the Fellowship must endure the long dark of Moria, discover Balin's tomb, fight for their lives in a tumultuous escape, and ultimately lose their leader in the chasm of Khazad-Dum.  

From the description above, all these events may seem a bit familiar since we've visited many of these locations and enemies before.  I have faith, however, that they will play out much differently than they did in the Dwarrowdelf Cycle.  For one thing, these will be much more in line with the literature itself like the Hobbit and Black Riders expansions were; so, we will be able to witness the actual events much better than we did in the more open-ended early quests that lacked a strong narrative.  Furthermore, since the earlier quests of the game, many of the gameplay mechanics have been vastly improved as well.  For the past few days, I've been playing the Nightmare mode enhancements of the core set quests, and they play out so much more vividly, both mechanically and thematically.  I really feel like the designers at FFG are making a solid effort to consider every option and avenue to make the game function better.  So, rather than the classic Hama-Feint combo on the Balrog in the depths of Moria, I think we will have a vastly improved boss battle where perhaps Gandalf is an objective ally that must battle to the end with the ancient fire demon.  

Once the grief-stricken Fellowship escapes the clutches of evil in Moria, they make their way to Lothlorien, where they are somewhat revitalized and continue upon their journey to Mordor.  However, more tragedy befalls them and this is told in the final quest of the expansion, The Breaking of the Fellowship.  The FFG news article is quite vague on what this quest will entail specifically, but it does imply that there will be a physically splitting of heroes as they search for Frodo, who has vanished from their company.  Will Boromir's corruptive advance to seize the One Ring play out as it does in the literature or will other heroes risk becoming too lustful and fall?  Only time will tell.

At any rate, this new article has me thoroughly excited for what's to come, both with this Saga Expansion as well as the Ring-maker cycle of Adventure Packs.  All of this news almost makes me forget that the Voice of Isengard is arriving soon as well!  For the sake of my sanity, I hope the wait for that expansion is nearing its end.