Mar 20, 2017

LotR LCG: Between the Mountains and the Sea

Gondor! Gondor, between the Mountains and the Sea!
West Wind blew there; the light upon the Silver-tree
Fell like bright rain in gardens of the Kings of old.
O proud walls! White towers! O wingéd crown and throne of gold!
O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?
- Aragorn, the Lord of the Rings, book III, chapter II


Back while we were waiting for the Sands of Harad to show up, the logical thing to do seemed to be to move on to the last untouched deluxe expansion: Heirs of Númenor. Set in Gondor and centered on the battle against Sauron's armies, the second expansion to the game is renowned for its extreme difficulty. As I notoriously prefer thematically interesting decks to, well, efficient ones, we haven't done all that well against the more difficult scenarios thus far. So my confident expectation is that this is going to be an absolutely horrible experience. We're doing it anyway, because hell, the box is right there. And anyway, how hard can it be?


John Howe: Minas Tirith, 1989

**

Peril in Pelargir - DL 5


Our trip to Gondor begins with a bar brawl, and I approve entirely: I've GM'd enough fantasy role-playing games to know that this is a venerable, time-honored way to start an adventure. We've arrived in Pelargir, and a Gondorian nobleman called Alcaron wants us to deliver a scroll to Faramir.


Our first attempt at this scenario was way before Flame of the West, even, so I still had my old new Amazons. I'll admit that I had my doubts as to their usefulness, since Heirs notoriously includes a whole bunch of battle and siege questing, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. Thank the Valar for Idraen, without whom I'd barely have been able to muster any battle questing at all; I ended up deputizing Galadriel's Handmaiden to defend with Arwen's bonus and Cloak of Lórien, because it wasn't like she was doing anything else! Luckily we cleared the initial location pretty quick and survived a massive rush of Harbor Thugs; since most of the other enemies had only a couple of hit points, Thalin and a spear-wielding Boromir dealt with them pretty briskly. Finally, the last stage was regular old-fashioned questing, and finally my Handmaidens and West Road Travellers could do their thing, and we blasted right through, making our getaway from Pelargir.


This was a fun quest! It's like Trouble in Tharbad, only better: an urban adventure with a bit of a different feel to it than most other quests. I kinda wonder about how tough the street thugs in Pelargir are, if getting past them is a Battle quest, but fighting through Moria isn't... Still, though, we liked this!

**

Into Ithilien - DL 4


This quest is stupid. You start out with an active location that drops the engagement cost of all enemies to zero, and with one Southron Company per player in the staging area. You also get an objective ranger, who will die if you quest unsuccesfully or any characters leave play. Oh, and it's a Battle quest, meaning you use your characters' attack values to quest. So basically you need enough attack to clear the threat in the staging area and the active location, or a trick to get rid of it, or two Southron companies and any enemies you draw in staging attack immediately.


It's a bit disheartening to encounter a quest where I basically immediately know looking at the first turn that my deck is completely useless here. My Amazons are a mostly questing Spirit/Lore deck. There's almost nothing we can do in the first quest phase, and on their own, Team Boromir can't both battle quest and defend itself from enemies. On our next try, I switched decks, but we drew a Mûmak in our first staging, and since neither of us could actually defend it without a hero dying, that was the end of it; by the time we'd have done enough damage to it to kill it, my deck would've been destroyed.


I'll be honest: as a concept, battle questing sucks. One of the key challenges of nearly all quests in the game is getting the balance of fighting and questing right. Our current decks have a fairly strong division of labor, but both can also do a little bit of the other. This works great in ordinary quests. Battle questing, though, destroys this completely since all of a sudden one of the key variables doesn't matter at all any more. This quest is just straight up impossible for quite a few different decks. Admittedly this is a pretty key question of gameplay philosophy: are you interested in designing a new deck for every quest? If so, I'll bet this is a good challenge. If not, then I don't think it's worth bothering. To me, this is one of those quests that just kicks you in the head.

Oh, and did I remember to mention that this quest is DL 4? Because of course it is.

**

The Siege of Cair Andros - DL 7


In the last quest of the box, our heroes are participating in a siege. The are some clever mechanics here: certain locations take damage, but if you manage to clear them, you get to skip entire quest stages. Some of the encounter cards, like The Power of Mordor, are interesting; some, like Orc Vanguard, are awful.


Although this is a much more interesting quest than Into Ithilien, it's also even more restrictive in terms of what kinds of decks will be succesful with it. With Orc Vanguard stopping players from using any non-Tactics resources, and The Master's Malice punishing all non-monosphere decks, clearly mono-Tactics decks will have a considerable advantage. The weakness of Tactics has traditionally been questing, but since all we do here is battle quest or siege quest, which is the same except with defense, that doesn't matter. So again, this is one for those of you who want to create an optimized deck to beat it.

**

The player cards in Heirs of Númenor are a strongly thematic collection of Gondor cards. To start off, you get the Tactics incarnation of the best defensive hero in the game, Beregond, and the Leadership version of Boromir, who boosts all Gondor allies.


There are some outstanding cards here, like the best defending ally you can get, some invaluable resource smoothing for Leadership decks, and the Spear of the Citadel, not to mention the sassiest ally in the game. Spirit players might be a bit underwhelmed, although Blood of Númenor certainly has its place in the right deck. In general, a powerful collection of Gondor cards, essential for anyone interested in that archetype.

**

So, while I thought Peril in Pelargir was a pretty good quest, the next two aren't really ones I think we'll be playing again. This isn't to say that they're bad quests. On the contrary, I kind of liked Siege of Cair Andros. Rather it's that the combination of a very high difficulty level and battle/siege questing means that you'll almost certainly have to custom-build very specific decks to beat the last two quests. If you think you'd enjoy that kind of deckbuilding challenge, then this is the box for you. If, like us, you're not into that kind of thing, then we can't recommend buying this box for the quests.

**

With the arrival of the Mûmakil, we get our hands on the player card versions of the Harad objective heroes we met in the Long Arm of Mordor quest in the Sands of Harad box. Not only do I absolutely love the idea of Harad allies in general, but Jubayr is also a brilliant defender, especially with his sentinel and shadow-discarding abilities, and I have to at least try including him in my deck. Also, just because this is an Amazons deck, I need a copy of Firyal. I don't know where I'll ever be able to find the resources to pay for her, but what the hell.


To make way for them, I'll be leaving out the allies that I tend to be least pleased to see in an opening hand: my Wandering Ents. Yes, ents are a great bargain at two resources each, but those are Lore resources, which I tend to have other uses for. This is especially the case now that I mostly find myself playing three- to four-player games, where there tend to be less turns. Like I said, I have no idea where I'll find the resources to pay for Firyal if Wandering Ents feel prohibitively expensive! But I also used ents extensively in my Lore Silvan deck, and I feel that it's time to move on to new things, so I'm trying out the new Harad allies.

56 cards; 34 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 15 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

Arwen Undómiel (TDR)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 21 (16/4/1)
Jubayr (TM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Firyal (TM)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 15 (11/4)
Herugrim (TToS) x2
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
Snowmane (TLoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 18 (6/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests:
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Éowyn isn't around sideboard:
remove Herugrim (TToS) x2 and Snowmane (TLoS) x2
add Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3

Mar 13, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 30: A Knife in the Dark

As they prepared for sleep in the inn at Bree, darkness lay on Buckland; a mist strayed in the dells and along the river-bank.

Remember Fatty Bolger? The hobbit who was fat, stayed behind in Crickhollow to pretend to be Frodo and was fat? In Tolkien's stories, fat people are comical, constantly shamed for their weight, but occasionally in very real danger, and this is one of the latter cases. In the middle of the night, three Black Riders surround Frodo's house in Crickhollow, and in the darkest hour before dawn, they smash the door open and break in. Fredegar is nowhere to be found: as soon as he saw the shadows coming, he hightailed it out the back door amd ran a straight mile to the nearest house, without a fat joke in sight. The neighbors make out that he's been attacked somehow, and sound the alarm. Amidst the blowing of the hobbits' horns, the Black Riders charge out through the North-gate and vanish into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, in Bree, Frodo sleeps uneasily, dreaming of galloping horses and horn-calls. In the morning, the hobbits find their rooms ransacked and their beds torn apart. Barliman Butterbur is terrified, and when he hurries off to make preparations for Frodo and company's departure, the news only gets worse: the attackers - we presume the Black Riders - also opened the stable doors and drove out all the horses and ponies. After hours of searching, the only mount the hobbits can secure is a pony owned by Bill Ferny, available for a shocking price. Butterbur pays for it, and even compensates Merry for the loss of the hobbits' ponies. The narrative breaks continuity for a moment here to tell us that the ponies made their way to Tom Bombadil, who sent them back to Butterbur once he heard what happened, so Barliman ended up all right.

It's already midmorning when the hobbits and Strider eventually manage to leave, and a crowd has gathered to see them off. As they pass Bill Ferny's house, he shows up to taunt them, but Sam throws an apple at him. In one of our first encounters with Tolkienian racial profiling, they also spot the "sallow face with sly, slanting eyes" that belongs to the "southerner", who witnessed Frodo's performance at the inn, hanging out with Ferny. "He looks more than half like a goblin," thinks Frodo, who to our knowledge has never seen a goblin in his life, but is a well-bred enough gentlehobbit to immediately associate foreigners with orcishness.

Eventually, the crowd following them gives up, and soon thereafter Strider leads them off the road to the north. At first, they make as if they're heading for Archet, another village in Bree-land, and after several doublebacks and other rangerlike maneuvers, they strike out east for Weathertop. On the third day, they leave the Chetwood and enter the open country around Weathertop and find their first obstacle: the Midgewater Marshes. Finding a way through is difficult enough, and the hobbits are mercilessly assaulted by clouds of tiny midges that get all over them and bite the shit out of them. At night, the midges are joined by some "evil relatives of the cricket" that make a horrible racket. It takes the company several days to make their way through the marshes, and on the night of the fourth day, Frodo and Aragorn see mysterious white flashes of light, like lightning, on the eastern horizon.

As Frodo and company clear the marshes, the ground starts to rise, and they see a line of hills in the distance. Strider identifies the most prominent of them as Weathertop. He suggests they should head for it, hoping perhaps to meet Gandalf, although he admits the hope is slim. He leads the hobbits into the hills, where they find scattered ruins and a road leading toward Weathertop. Ruins make Merry nervous, so he asks if there's a barrow on the hill. Strider explains that the ruins are remains of the northern kingdom, and the road they're on was built to serve the great watchtower of Amon Sûl on what is now Weathertop, where Elendil awaited Gil-galad. The hobbits, who still think of Strider as something of a brigand, are astonished to hear him spouting ancient lore. No less astonishingly, when Merry asks who Gil-galad was, he gets an answer in the form of poetry - from Sam! It turns out Bilbo had taught him some of his translation of the Fall of Gil-galad. Showing his usual self-restraint, Pippin starts shouting about Mordor, only to be shushed by Strider.

Around noon, the travellers reach Weathertop. They find a sheltered hollow on the west side, where Sam and Pippin wait while the others head to the summit. There they find an impressive view of the country, traces of a fire among the ruins, and a mark possibly left by Gandalf, which they interpret as meaning that he had been there three days ago - when Frodo and Strider saw the flash of light on the horizon. Strider reasons that Gandalf must have been attacked there, and that they must make their own way forward. He reckons they have about a fortnight's journey ahead of them, avoiding the road.

Their reckonings are interrupted, however, when Frodo spots riders on the road below them. Strider and the hobbits take cover and leave the summit, but there's no doubt that the enemy is here. Back in the dell, Sam and Pippin have found water and firewood, and thoroughly trampled some tracks that Strider had neglected to examine. As they discuss their situation, Merry quite intelligently asks whether the Riders can, in fact, see. Strider explains that their horses can see, and they can sense living creatures - and the Ring. If they left the dell now, they'd almost certainly be seen before they made it far. His plan is to camp there and build a fire, using it for defence; the Riders, he says, fear fire.

This they do, and as evening draws near, they have a frugal meal and bemoan their lack of provisions. Strider tells them stories of ancient times, culminating in a song several pages long about Beren and Lúthien. He also gives them a prose version of the story: Beren's love for Lúthien, their quest for the Silmarils and their deaths, and their descendants, Elrond and the kings of Númenor.

When Strider is finished, night has already fallen, and the moon is rising. Soon, they find themselves surrounded by Black Riders. While the other hobbits are overcome with terror, Frodo feels an irresistible compulsion to put on the Ring. As he does, he can suddenly see the spectral figures of the Black Riders under their robes. As they advance on him, he throws himself at the nearest one, stabbing at its feet and shouting Elbereth. He feels a stabbing pain in his shoulder, and as he slips the Ring from his finger, everything goes dark.

**

This is quite a chapter: it's almost as long as the previous two combined, and while those were set in the very restricted confines of Bree and a parlor at the Prancing Pony, here we pop back to the Shire, deal with the aftermath of an attack in Bree and range over the wood and marshes of the Lone-lands, and hear the tale of Beren and Lúthien. I very nearly didn't finish this post on time! I did very much enjoy the chapter. Like I've said, I like Tolkien's travelogues, and Strider gives him a vehicle to start getting us properly acquainted with the mythical history of Middle-earth.

I hate to second-guess a ranger, but going to Weathertop seems to have been a terrible idea. Reading closely, I'm struck by how uncertain Aragorn is of what to do in the absence of Gandalf.

"We might reach it by noon tomorrow, if we go straight towards it. I suppose we had better do so."

(...)

"I think," answered Strider slowly, as if he was not quite sure, "I think the best thing is to go as straight eastward from here as we can, to make for the line of hills, not for Weathertop. (...) Then we shall see what we shall see."

Here's my objection. If you look at any map of Eriador, there is literally nothing between Bree and Rivendell except the Road and Weathertop. This is the Black Riders' logic at Bree: missing the hobbits there is fine, because there's nowhere they can possibly run or hide once they leave Bree. The Riders will ride them down on the Road. However, their plan fails because the hobbits meet Strider, who can get them to Rivendell without using the Road. Once Frodo and company go off-road, what can the Riders do? It seems like it would be almost impossible for them to track a ranger in the Lone-lands. All they can do is patrol the Road, probably keeping a close eye on the bridges, and head to Weathertop. Since it's an excellent observation post and the only actual landmark or location of any significance between Bree and Rivendell, it's a natural place to keep watch.

In other words, by heading to Weathertop, Strider chooses to go to the one location in Eriador where the Black Riders are most likely to be found. This is honestly another one of those "you had one job" -situations. So why does a massively experienced ranger like Aragorn make such a horrible mistake? He damn near gets Frodo killed and loses the Ring to the Enemy.

The only textual explanation I can give is that the hope of meeting Gandalf is so important to Strider that it outweighs the massive dangers of Weathertop. Indeed, he says as much himself:

"I was too careless on the hill-top," answered Strider. "I was very anxious to find Gandalf; but it was a mistake for three of us to go up and stand there so long."

Not only was staying on the hill-top a careless mistake, but so was coming there in the first place. It's now led to the most dramatic chapter ending so far, with Frodo collapsing to the ground after being stabbed.

Next time: trolls, elves and a flood.

Mar 6, 2017

PhD blog 3/17: How the Finnish cadre army works

There seems to be endemic confusion in English-language discussions about how the Finnish cadre army system works, and indeed about cadre systems in general. Because I'm working on a PhD dissertation on the Finnish army, I thought I'd take a moment to try to explain.

The British and US armies have for quite a while now been made up of the regular army, which is supplemented by reservists and the National Guard or Territorial Army respectively. To understand the Finnish system, Anglo-American readers need to completely exorcize these concepts from their minds. These institutions do not have Finnish equivalents. William R. Trotter's generally pedestrian A Frozen Hell commits its worst howlers precisely by imagining that the Finnish army mirrors the US in these respects.

In the Anglo-American sense of a permanent body of professional soldiers at more or less combat strength, there's never been such a thing as a Finnish regular army. Various bodies of regular troops existed along the tenure army system while present-day Finland was part of Sweden, and after Sweden lost those provinces to Russia, a single Guards battalion - the Finnish Guard - and some auxiliary units were maintained in Finland as part of the imperial military. These were disbanded at the start of the 20th century, and Finland became independent in 1917 without an established military. The civil war of 1918 was essentially fought by armed civilians, more or less organized into civil guards and Red guards respectively, and bolstered on both sides by some ex-imperial army veterans and on the White side by the Finnish Jäger battalion that had fought on the German eastern front, and eventually also direct German intervention.

After the war, the Jäger and ex-czarist officers set out to create the Finnish army. Initially the army was conceived of as a quasicolonial auxiliary to the Imperial German army, much as Finland was intended to become a German vassal state with a German king as head of state. The collapse of the German empire left Finland more independent than the victors of the civil war had intended, and the army retained its German-derived structure into the thirties.

There was widespread agreement in the political class of the newly-founded state that national defense would be based on assigned male conscription, but the precise form this would take was debated. The agrarian party favored a Swiss-style militia system of decentralized local defence forces, while the Right pressed for a centralized national army. The Right eventually prevailed, and a centralized army was established.

From the beginning, this army was, in peacetime, a training establishment only. All of the formations you can see on a map of Finnish army forces, then or today, are conscript training organizations, not standing forces. There's no Jäger regiment in Santahamina right now, for instance; in fact, as far as I know, Jäger regiments don't exist in the Finnish wartime army at all. When the wartime army mobilizes, the Guards Jäger Regiment in Santahamina isn't brought up to wartime strength and deployed, but on the contrary ceases to exist, and its staff and the conscripts it has trained are mobilized to form a variety of wartime units. The structure of the Finish wartime army, in other words, is not the peacetime army plus reservists, but a completely different organization trained by the peacetime training establishment. The peacetime army is not analogous to the US or UK regular army. Conscripts would serve in a formation and be assigned a wartime placement, usually in a unit that would be created on mobilization.

Prior to and during the Second World War, the Civil Guard existed as an organization nominally subordinate to the army, but actually fairly independent, especially politically. Although the Civil Guard maintained its own formations in peacetime, these were made up of army reservists, whose continued training was the chief military responsibility of the Civil Guard organization. In wartime, these reservists were mobilized into the wartime army like everyone else. In other words, the Civil Guard was never an organization parallel to the military like the US National Guard or the UK Territorial Army, but was always made up of army reservists. Trotter, bizarrely, never seems to have understood this, and imagines that the Civil Guards were some kind of auxiliary militia, contrasting them unfavorably to the so-called regular army. In fact, the members of the Civil Guard were the best-trained soldiers in the entire army!

In the Second World War, the Finnish army mobilized in stages. First, the conscripts then in service and the border guards formed the first echelon (suojajoukot, covering force), which deployed to the border to cover the mobilization of the rest of the army. Should the enemy attack before mobilization was complete, the covering forces would delay and attrit the enemy while the main body of the army deployed behind them. Finnish doctrine of the time held that they would immediately go on the offensive and rout the invading enemy. That didn't quite work out, but it was how they thought. Behind the main force, the remaining training establishments and those Civil Guards not mobilized to the front formed the Home Forces, responsible for rear-area security and the ongoing training of new conscripts.

To sum up, in pre-World War II Finland, there was no regular army or separate Civil Guard militia. Rather, there was a peacetime training establishment made up of professional officers and NCOs, who trained the reservists who would make up the wartime army. Upon mobilization, this training establishment broke up to form the higher commissioned and non-commissioned ranks of the wartime army. Meanwhile, although the Civil Guard had its own merry quasifascist existence in peacetime, its primary military task was keeping its members trained for their wartime duties, and upon mobilization the civil guardsmen joined the same wartime army as everyone else.

The Civil Guard was outlawed as a fascist organization after Finland lost the so-called Continuation War, and voluntary defence has remained in a strange limbo ever since, but other than that, the Finnish army still works essentially similarly. Upon completing their conscript service, reservists are either assigned a wartime posting or passed into the general reserve; on mobilization, assigned reservists and active members of the peacetime military would form wartime units. These days there are some full-time professional soldiers in the Finnish army, but we still don't have a regular army in the sense that the US or UK do. Finnish peacekeepers deployed abroad are volunteer reservists and professionals, not active service troops.

As far as I know, this is more or less how most other European conscript cadre armies worked as well, but you'd have to consult an expert on them. As for the Finnish army, I'd recommend avoiding Trotter's Frozen Hell, unless you're especially keen on a vulgarly nationalist storybook version of the Winter War that thoroughly misunderstands the structure and functioning of the Finnish army. In general, this is what feminist scholars mean when they say that knowledge is situated: the Finnish army works the way the Finnish army works, which may or may not be how, say, the US Army works. Don't assume, find out.

Feb 27, 2017

Sipilänomics V: Competitiveness boogaloo

I first posted about Sipilänomics, or Finland's fake austerity in September 2015, followed by further posts on unit labor costs, the healthcare reform and the wrecking of the universities. That's almost two years ago. So how's it going?

**

This January, the Economic Policy Council released a report on just that. With regard to the deficit, under the headline "Fiscal policy targets will not be reached" in the summary, the report states the following:

The prolonged recession has had serious consequences for public sector finances. Despite the spending cuts by the current and the previous governments, general government gross debt has increased from 32.7% of GDP in 2008 to 64.3% of GDP in 2016. Debt will continue to grow, the general government deficit is projected to be 2.4% of GDP at the end of 2016. According to current forecasts the deficit will still be 1.5% of GDP in 2019. In fact, the deficit is projected to increase during 2017 due to tax concessions adopted in connection with the competitiveness pact.

So, while the recovery of the Finnish economy, no longer technically in recession, is expected to eventually start eating into the budget deficit, for the moment, debt will continue to go up. This is still nothing even remotely like austerity. In fact, as the report notes, the 2017 budget is being submitted at a value of 55.2 billion euros, which is 800 million more than the 2016 budget, and two billion more than the 2015 budget submitted by the previous cabinet. So just as before, central government expenses continue to rise, and the deficit is getting worse, not better. The key message of the Economic Policy Council report is that the Sipilä government is highly unlikely to meet the goals it set for itself. They've made massively destructive cuts to public spending, yet that spending has continued to increase. By their own standards, they have thoroughly failed.

**

A large part of this failure is the ludicrously idiotic "competitiveness pact" mentioned in the quote above. The pact, negotiated between the government, the labor unions and the employers' organizations after massive public dramatics, shifts some pension payments from employers to employees, and lenghtens working hours by six minutes every day. Yes, really. Both of these measures mean that employers are paying less for labor, and workers get less pay. To offset this pay cut, the government introduced sweeping tax cuts that, we were promised, would mean that employees ended up with as much money in hand as before.

According to the Economic Policy Council, the pact is expected to generate no new jobs, but the tax cuts add 900 million to the deficit (p. 105). The best-case estimate is that in the long term, the competitiveness pact will be cost-neutral; in other words, at best the new jobs or additional value generated will compensate for the tax cuts. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the pact represents yet another transfer of wealth to employers, at the expense of workers and the state. Its impact on the deficit looks set to be at best minimal, if it doesn't actually make things worse.

As I explained before, the whole notion of competing through lower unit labor costs isn't supported by any data. This doesn't seem to deter our right-wingers, whose vision of the future for our country is basically a massive sweatshop. One sure way to get closer to that is to de-educate the population, and that's actually happening: according to the statistics, my age group will be the first in Finnish history to end up less educated than our predecessors. The Sipilä government, of course, has made massive cuts to education, accelerating brain drain even further with entire research teams quitting the country. Not only is this policy well in line with the prime minister's Trumpian contempt for education and expertise, it also serves the right's objective of de-education.

Once again, if you believe in national competitiveness, then declining education levels and overall human capital are a much bigger issue than six minutes more work per day. Joseph Stiglitz called this "robbing from your children".

In the face of the broad criticism the government's education and research cuts evoked, they commissioned a report from the OECD on Finnish research and development. Judging from the Helsingin Sanomat article on the report, the way it's being spun is that the government should give more money to corporations. Surprise!

**

The competitiveness pact is almost certainly going to be a catastrophic failure. Massive amounts of time, effort and political capital were expended to create a deal that cements the baroque corporatist collective bargaining system in place, transfers money to corporations and at best does nothing to reduce the deficit. Or I don't know, maybe people working an extra six minutes per day will cause an explosion of innovation and productivity. I wouldn't bet on it. The people running our country are.

The Sipilä cabinet took power on a mandate of decisive masculine leadership that would fix our economy. It has done no such thing. On the contrary, so far the administration has made massively destructive cuts that are wreaking havoc on our future and dismantling what little remains of the welfare state, only to squander most of the money saved on wealth transfers to corporations, and boondoggles like the "key projects" and the fiasco that is the Talvivaara mine, a combined financial and economic disaster with few, if any parallels in our history. But don't worry, many corporate shareholders, including the Prime Minister's family, are doing quite nicely out of it. You might think that sounds like corruption, but we don't have corruption in Finland so it can't be. I'm really not qualified to correct a Nobel laureate, but when Stiglitz said this administration is robbing from its children, I disagree: to be specific, they're robbing other people's children and distributing the spoils to their own.

The Economic Policy Council estimates that in order to reach the fiscal goals they set for themselves, the Sipilä cabinet needs to come up with at least a billion euros' worth of cuts on top of everything they've already done. Reaching their long-term goals would require another billion. So in theory, their choices are to either start making even more massive cuts at huge political cost, up to and including the cabinet breaking up and a new election being called, or jettison their goals and admit to the nation that they failed. As Sipilä famously promised that he would either get results or get out, either alternative should mean that we'll finally be rid of him.

This is all well and good in theory. In practice, however, you have to remember that we're dealing with what is almost certainly the most incompetent cabinet in Finnish history, led by a complete moron who is as belligerently ignorant of politics or the economy as he is unable to tolerate the slightest criticism or dissent. We may think there are two choices before them. Somehow, they'll find a third way that's even worse. It's what they've done so far. Sipilä already appeared before Parliament in February, where he lied about the deficit and lied about long-term unemployment, which may give us some pointers on what's to come.

The lesson in all this? Don't elect an ignorant jackass to run your country just because he acts butch and claims to be rich. My heartfelt condolences to the Americans. We can't seem to get rid of ours either.

Feb 20, 2017

War of the Ring: Three Is Company

Last summer, I got myself a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame, and was lucky enough to get to play it as both the Shadow and the Free Peoples. However, these were both two-player games, and they left us wondering: if a two-player game was such a massive, exhausting and epic experience, what would a three-player game be like? Obviously we had to find out.


**

The three-player version of War of the Ring has one player controlling the Free Peoples and two splitting Shadow duties: one controls Sauron's forces, while the other plays as Saruman, commanding Isengard, the Haradrim and the Easterlings. I took the latter role while my brother picked Sauron. We did a little bit of role-playing and agreed to not co-ordinate our actions; it's not as if Sauron and Saruman saw eye to eye on anything! We figured it'd be more fun this way.

The rules for a three-player game involve the Shadow players splitting event cards between them and taking turns to use their shared action dice. To compensate for each Shadow player's relative action disadvantage, the lone Free Peoples player can't use an action on units of the same nation twice in a row. Other than those things, though, it plays pretty much exactly the same as a one-on-one game. So here goes!

Right off the bat, the Free Peoples got into serious trouble. After several unsuccesful Hunt rolls, they ended up stuck at the Fords of Bruinen for ages, racking up considerable corruption and losing both Legolas and Gandalf. We reckon that the crebain found them, guided some wargs in, and eventually our troops:


With the Fellowship struggling to make their way to Lórien, we decided to press the issue, and went on the attack. Saruman's forces stormed out of Isengard, the Haradrim massed outside Pelargir, and the Witch-king led the forces of Mordor to Minas Tirith.


The result? Stalemate. The Uruk-hai were defeated outside Helm's Deep and had to retreat. The brave defenders of Pelargir fought off the Southron horde. Finally, in a massive field battle outside Minas Tirith, the armies of Mordor inflicted grievous casualties on the Gondor defenders, but the line held.

Meanwhile, the Fellowship was once again in trouble in the Parth Celebrant: Gimli had set off on a personal errand across Mirkwood - where he spent the rest of the game - and Pippin had become separated from the fellowship, finding himself in Fangorn. He eventually made his way to Edoras, where he raised a Rohan army and led it east, where they nearly routed the Witch-king's retreating forces!


This stalemate cost the Free Peoples troops they could hardly afford to lose, but it cost the Shadow time we couldn't afford. After the massive losses on both sides, there was a lull as both sides built up their forces, and the fellowship made use of this to sneak all the way down to Minas Tirith. Here, Aragorn and the other remaining companions stayed behind to lead the battle, while Frodo and Sam, soon joined by Gollum, made their perilous way toward Mordor. By this point, as the Shadow players, since our initial gambit at a military victory had failed, we had to divide our efforts between trying to stack the Hunt pool against the fellowship and wearing down the remaining Free Peoples armies. Soon enough, we were making progress: an Easterling horde took Dale and the Woodland Realm, the dwarves sitting out in aloof neutrality and Gimli still lost somewhere in Mirkwood, and penetrated as far west as the Carrock. Boromir fell heroically in the defense of Pelargir, but eventually the Haradrim took the city, and the Corsairs of Umbar landed in Dol Amroth. A combined Mordor-Isengard force stormed Helm's Deep, routing Rohan for good.

Unfortunately, it was all in vain, because the fellowship, teetering on the edge of corruption, made it to the Cracks of Doom.


Almost unbelievably, the game ended in as close a shave as my first attempt: the Shadow had nine victory points and was closing on a tenth when the Fellowship made its last move on the Mordor track. This time, the Hunt pool was so depleted that it came down to pretty much a coin toss: about half of the tiles would have either stopped the Fellowship or inflicted enough corruption to end the game. The coin landed on the other face, so to speak, but once again, it's hard to see how the game could have been much closer.

**

Once again, a thoroughly exhausting but awesome time was had. Finally, some observations. Based on our very limited sample of three games, my feeling at this point is that playing as the Shadow is harder. At this point, this is just a hypothesis, but having tried both, I think the Free Peoples have the easier job because you have a clearer focus: get the Fellowship to Mordor and try to survive until they reach the volcano. A Free Peoples military victory is, in my mind at least, either something you go for from the beginning, or a response to mistakes by the Shadow side. In any case, I think the Free Peoples side is in this sense at least easier to play. The Shadow player(s), on the other hand, need to divide action dice and units between hunting the Fellowship and pursuing a military victory. This is complicated by the fact that paradoxically, the closer the fellowship gets to Mordor, the less opportunities the Shadow has to hinder it. At least in this game, once the Fellowship made it to Minas Tirith, there wasn't a whole lot we could do except draw character cards, try to get new Hunt tiles into play and generally hope for cards we could use to harass the Fellowship. Based on our few games, co-ordinating all this seems a lot harder than focusing on getting the hobbits to Mordor.

Our experience of the three-player format, however, was overwhelmingly positive. In so far as there's a point to this blog post, it's to encourage anyone with the opportunity to play War of the Ring to try it with three players, because it really is that much more fun. Not only is it a more social experience, but especially if the two Shadow players refrain from directly co-ordinating, it creates lots of interesting dynamics. I wish there was a way for the Saruman player to hunt the Ring himself! Even without that, though, splitting the Shadow side really makes for a much better game.

All in all, War of the Ring remains one of the greatest board games I've ever played. Next time, we're trying an expansion!

Feb 13, 2017

LotR LCG: Doom

Doom, doom rolled the drum-beats, growing louder and louder, doom, doom.
- the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter V



John Howe: Grima Wormtongue, no year given.

**

I have some unusual friends. One of them has never read the Lord of the Rings, but having seen some movies named after it, they were quite taken with, of all characters, Gríma. As it happens, I'd been toying around with the idea of building a Gríma deck for some time, so obviously I took advantage of the opportunity.


Grìma is one of the few heroes in the game to have a deck type named entirely after himself. His ability to lower the cost of cards at the cost of threat for everyone makes him a powerhouse in solo play, and a somewhat unwelcome visitor in multiplayer. Combined with Keys of Orthanc, he can effectively play a two-cost ally per turn for free.

Having Gríma and a whole bunch of Doomed cards around is going to mean lots and lots of threat. What we need, then, is a hero who can do something to counteract that: Lore Aragorn.


An additional bonus is that in multiplayer games, Celebrian's Stone will give Aragorn a Spirit icon, letting us play Desperate Alliance, which may make other players a little less upset by their skyrocketing threat. Aragorn also lets us make use of the Sword that was Broken, which is not only excellent in general, but also very handily gives him a Leadership icon for extra resource smoothing.

Our third hero needs to be from the Leadership sphere, because some of the crucial Doomed cards I want to try out here are in Leadership. We could really use a defender, and luckily enough, there's an arguably perfect thematic choice available: Erkenbrand.


We'll be hoping to get Self Preservation on him so he can take a hit and keep on using his shadow-cancelling ability. The combined threat of 31 is a bit high, but we'll see how it goes.

With the heroes chosen, it's time for the deck itself. The point of this exercise for me is to try out the various Doomed cards, so we'll start with those. From the Voice of Isengard, we have Deep Knowledge for cards, Legacy of Númenor for resources and The Seeing-Stone to find other Doomed cards. For allies, we get Orthanc Guard, Isengard Messenger and, of course, Saruman.

To keep the Doomed theme going, I also included Herald of Anórien and Mirkwood Pioneer, and used the latter as a dubious thematic justification for throwing in a card I'd wanted to try out, i.e. Mirkwood Explorer. A final event was Waters of Nimrodel. The allies were rounded out by the geographically appropriate Gléowine, Warden of Helm's Deep and some good old Snowbourn Scouts.

**

52 cards; 16 Leadership, 26 Lore, 10 Neutral; 26 allies, 13 attachments, 12 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat 31.

Erkenbrand (TAC)
Gríma (VoI)
Aragorn (TWitW)

Allies: 26 (12/11/3)
Warden of Helm's Deep (TAC) x3
Herald of Anórien (TTT) x3
Orthanc Guard (VoI) x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Mirkwood Explorer (TTitD) x3
Gléowine x2
Isengard Messenger (VoI) x3
Mirkwood Pioneer (TNiE) x3
Saruman (VoI) x3

Attachments: 13 (7/2/2/2)
The Sword that was Broken (TWitW) x2
Celebrian's Stone x2
Roheryn (FotW)
Steward of Gondor x2
Self Preservation x2
Keys of Orthanc (VoI) x2
Ring of Barahir x2 (TSF)

Events: 12 (3/6/3)
Legacy of Númenor (VoI) x3
Waters of Nimrodel (TAC) x3
Deep Knowledge (VoI) x3
The Seeing-stone (VoI) x3

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Desperate Alliance (OtD) x3

**

Our first trial run was Passage through Mirkwood, with the Doom deck and my Amazons, both to test the deck and introduce the game to a new player. We had no real trouble at any point, and after some straightforward questing, Saruman dropped by to see to Ungoliant's Spawn. We next joined Team Boromir for a three-handed swing at Hunt for Gollum, which also went pretty smoothly. Incidentally, this was the first time I got to use Súlien, and she was excellent at dealing with a staging area full of locations. Both Erkenbrand and the Wardens of Helm's Deep were excellent. As sometimes happens in this quest, we found a grand total of one single copy of Signs of Gollum, which ended up going on Loragorn, because by then Gríma's questing army, bolstered by the Sword that was Broken, was steamrolling through the quest.


Because we managed to deploy such an impressive questing horde in such a short time, I'm actually thinking I need to add Faramir to make it even sillier. Speaking of silly, Trouble in Tharbad is excellent fun with a Gríma deck.

The first time we ran into any trouble was when we tried Voyage Across Belegaer. We set off three-handed with Gríma, my Amazons and our Beorn deck, and at first, everything went smoothly; we were thrown off course by some treacheries, but managed to clear a pile of locations, and Gríma's gang and the Beorn deck sank a Scouting Ship. It's quite entertaining to visualize how Beorn's sentinel defense works at sea. Then, however, we got into trouble. First, we hit a storm, with Winds of Wrath decimating our allies and Thrown Off Course doing, well, just that. To top it all off, a Scouting Ship also engaged us. Still, we survived - only for the next staging step to bring us two Light Cruisers and another Scouting Ship. Unfortunately, Gríma's antics, a Legacy of Númenor and some Deep Knowledges had left our threats high enough that all of them engaged us, and in the ensuing battle, all the heroes of the Beorn deck died, and Gríma's ship sank, ending our journey. That was the first time the increased threat got us into trouble we couldn't get out of.

**

So what have we learned? Certainly that having Gríma along makes for a somewhat different game. Funnily enough, we've mostly had the Gríma deck along in three- or four-player games of either the Grey Havens, the Dream-chaser cycle or the Sands of Harad, where threat hasn't actually been that big of a deal; the increase in threat has been somewhat offset by the faster buildup that cards like Deep Knowledge and especially Legacy of Númenor offer. Obviously decks relying on low threat, like hobbits or Dúnhere, will be completely hosed by the rising threat, but so far, in multiplayer games we've found Gríma makes less of a difference than we might have expected.

Anyway I would most definitely recommend trying a Gríma deck. It's excellent fun, and you really get all the key components from one deluxe expansion. Here's ours in its final form:

53 cards; 25 Leadership, 16 Lore, 10 Neutral, 2 Spirit; 25 allies, 14 attachments, 12 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 31.

Erkenbrand (TAC)
Gríma (VoI)
Aragorn (TWitW)

Allies: 25 (14/8/3)
Faramir x2
Warden of Helm's Deep (TAC) x3
Herald of Anórien (TTT) x3
Orthanc Guard (VoI) x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Gléowine x2
Isengard Messenger (VoI) x3
Mirkwood Pioneer (TNiE) x3
Saruman (VoI) x3

Attachments: 14 (7/2/3/2)
The Sword that was Broken (TWitW) x2
Celebrian's Stone x2
Roheryn (FotW)
Steward of Gondor x2
Self Preservation x2
Keys of Orthanc (VoI) x2
Song of Kings (THfG)
Ring of Barahir x2 (TSF)

Events: 12 (3/6/3)
Legacy of Númenor (VoI) x3
Waters of Nimrodel (TAC) x3
Deep Knowledge (VoI) x3
The Seeing-stone (VoI) x3

Side quests: 2
Send for Aid (TToR)
Gather Information (TLR)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Desperate Alliance (OtD) x3

**

As a sort of followup to this, I'm seriously considering a Gríma-Na'asiyah-Kahliel deck...

Feb 6, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 29: Strider

Frodo, Pippin, and Sam made their way back to the parlour.

After an entirely succesful minding of Ps and Qs and certainly not drawing any unwanted attention to themselves, Frodo and company withdraw to their parlour for a conversation with Strider. The latter introduces himself, and offers Frodo information, but for a price: the hobbits must take him with them. In an unexpected attack of common sense, Frodo is skeptical, and demands to know who Strider is and what he wants. Strider applauds this, and admits that he overheard the hobbits agreeing to not mention the name Baggins. This interested him, because he and his associates are looking for a hobbit named Frodo Baggins.

Frodo and Sam burst out of their seats at this, and I'm wondering what on earth they were going to do. Strider, however, calms them down with a sobering warning: black horsemen have been seen in Bree. This sobers Frodo into self-reflection; perhaps, he says to Sam and Pippin, they shouldn't have gone to the common room at all. It's testament to Strider's self-control and leadership that he doesn't sarcastically applaud this. The reflectiveness quickly fades, though, with Frodo admitting that yes, some men on horses have been chasing him, "but now at any rate they seem to have missed me and to have gone away". Somehow, Strider isn't impressed by this, and tries to convince the hobbits that not only will the riders not give up that easily, but that they also have allies in Bree - Bill Ferny is named - who will be quite eager to tell them about Frodo's performance mishap. The hobbits can't possibly follow the Road any more, because the Black Riders will surely catch them, so Strider reiterates his offer to guide them. As he's trying to persuade Frodo, he even has a bit of a flashback about the riders, and then puts the question:

"Strider can take you by paths that are seldom trodden. Will you have him?"

Sam speaks up, and says no: they know nothing about Strider, and shouldn't trust him. Frodo disagrees. He thinks Strider isn't really what he looks like, but doesn't understand why. As Strider is about to explain, Butterbur shows up with candles and hot water. Strider steps back into a corner, and while Nob hauls water to the hobbits' rooms, the innkeeper addresses Frodo. He makes a series of apologies for his forgetfulness, but eventually gets to the point: he has a letter, to Frodo from Gandalf, which he never remembered to have delivered. Gandalf had also asked him to help Frodo out if he ever came to Bree, which he's also apparently only just remembered. Apologizing profusely and more than a little scared of Gandalf, Butterbur promises to do anything he can to help. Black riders, he too reports, have been asking after a hobbit named Baggins, and "that Ranger, Strider" has been asking questions as well. At this, Strider reveals himself; Butterbur is skeptical of taking up with a Ranger, and Strider retaliates by calling him fat. It has actually been several chapters since someone was fat-shamed! Unless you count naming a pony "Fatty", in which case it hasn't.

Unfazed by the insult, Butterbur offers to lodge the hobbits at his inn until the trouble blows over, but Frodo has to decline. He and Strider explain that the Black Riders hunting him come from Mordor, which scares the crap out of poor Barliman. It's agreed that the hobbits will leave at dawn. When I say hobbits, by the way, I mean Frodo, Sam and Pippin; no-one's noticed that Merry's missing until Butterbur asks after him. Barliman now gets to be the Beorn of the piece and pass judgement on the traveling circus:

"Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!" said Butterbur.

No objections whatsoever. While Nob is sent out to look for the forgotten Merry, Frodo finally sits down with Gandalf's letter. Briefly, it tells Frodo to leave at once and try to find a man called Strider. The letter is dated Midyear's Day; Frodo, never having received it, only set off in late September, and by Fonstad's reckoning, arrived in Bree on the 29th of September: over three months after Gandalf left the letter there. As Frodo says, if he'd only gotten the letter sooner, they'd be safe in Rivendell already, perhaps even without seeing a hint of the Black Riders.

After the letter authenticates Strider, so to speak, the hobbits agree to follow his lead. Strider's plan is to leave the road as soon as possible to shake off pursuit, and make for Weathertop, a hill north of the Road, and from there to Rivendell. The idea is that this will also give them a chance to find Gandalf, whose absence worries both Frodo and Strider. As this is being discussed, Merry bursts in, reporting Black Riders in the village. He'd gone out for a walk, and apparently almost stumbled across Bill Ferny talking to a Black Rider. The rider's breath had stunned him, but Nob had luckily happened on the scene and woken him. Strider reckons that the Black Riders must now know everything that had transpired at the inn, and that they may well attack it in the night. It isn't their style to storm lit and populated places, especially when they know that they'll have all of Eriador to hunt the hobbits across, but Strider nonetheless strongly suggests the hobbits sleep in the parlor rather than in their rooms. This is done, and Frodo and company camp out on the parlor floor, with Strider watching over them.

**

If the previous chapter could've been a short story, this is almost a short stage play: all the action takes place in a parlour in the Prancing Pony, with characters entering and exiting and occasionally reporting on what goes on outside. Strictly speaking, the scope of the story has narrowed dramatically: this is basically a dialogue between Frodo and Strider in a single room. In terms of the evolution of the story, however, while Butterbur and Nob are still around for some rustic comedy, the Shire and its birthday-parties, and even the perils of the Old Forest, are falling steadily behind. The threat Frodo and company have to contend with is now the active malice of Mordor.

I have to admit that of all the characters in Tolkien's works, I think I'm most fond of Strider. He accords very well with my sensibilities, and given the very young age at which I first read the Lord of the Rings, has almost certainly had a hand in shaping them as well. One of my favorite bits is in this chapter:

"But I must admit," he added with a queer laugh, "that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship. But there, I believe my looks are against me."

I sympathize strongly. However, we barely get to know Strider at all here; we know he's a weather-beaten ranger who looks for all the world like a brigand, that his name is Aragorn, and that he's friends with Gandalf. The real content of this chapter is the cautious conversation between him and Frodo, which may not be up there with the Bilbo-Smaug dialogues, but that I nonetheless enjoyed. To the extent that any wider points are being made, the one that gets repeated by both Frodo and Pippin is that they didn't really suspect Strider of evil, because he "looked foul and felt fair", whereas a servant of the Enemy would have been the opposite. So certainly the hobbits seem to have a great deal of faith in their witch-smelling powers. To Tolkien, one suspects, intuition was another kind of providence.

It's also fascinating to realize that Barliman Butterbur damn near won the War of the Ring for Sauron before it even started. It was sheer luck (providence) that a Black Rider showed up at Bag End the night Frodo left, rather than, say, a few hours earlier. In fact, by all indications, if Gandalf's letter had been properly delivered, Frodo and company could have taken a leisurely stroll down the Road to Rivendell with no trouble at all. Thorin and company, traveling in no hurry, took about a month to get from Hobbiton to Rivendell, so Frodo could easily have been there in August. According to the timeline in Appendix B, the Black Riders only crossed the Isen on September 18th. So if Butterbur wasn't useless, and if Gandalf hadn't inexplicably trusted him, all the travails Frodo and company had to get through to get to the Last Homely House East of the Sea could have been avoided. Again, you'd think that if divine providence wanted to get Frodo to Rivendell, you'd think it'd have been a damn sight easier to remind Butterbur in, say, July, but like I said, it's not like the idea of providence actually makes any sense. I'm sure there's a fat joke in this somewhere.

There really ought to be a Shadow event card in War of the Ring called Mind like a Lumber-room, that prevents the Fellowship from moving that turn.

Next time, into the wild.