Jan 16, 2017

LotR LCG: Desert by night

He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace - all in a flash of thought that was quickly driven from his mind.

- The Lord of the Rings, book IV, chapter IV


The July announcement of a new deluxe expansion took us completely by surprise. Although undeniably logical as a sequel to City of Corsairs and somewhat foreshadowed by Boing, in terms of theme the Sands of Harad is quite a step into the unknown: Tolkien wrote very little about Harad or its people. Though they served Sauron in the War of the Ring, the Haradrim were in no way intrinsically evil. In his comments on W.H. Auden's review of the Return of the King (Letters, 183), Tolkien describes them as "humane", but under tyranny. This is followed by a fascinating commentary on Denethor:

Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without the use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful.

So basically all we know of the Haradrim and their lands is that the latter are to the south of Gondor, including the former Númenoran haven of Umbar and its corsairs, they're ruled by a tyrant or tyrants in the service of Sauron, and pretty much seem to end up with the short end of the stick in most scenarios. So off we go into the desert!


John Howe: The Mûmak of Harad, 1995

**

Escape from Umbar - DL 5


The first quest in the expansion picks up exactly where the last adventure pack of the Dream-chaser cycle left off, with our heroes stranded in Umbar and trying to, well, escape. If I wanted to be rude, I'd say it's Trouble in Tharbad with archery, but that'd be unfair; while this is a fast-paced urban adventure like Trouble in Tharbad and Peril in Pelargir (and should, therefore, have been called Umbrage in Umbar or something like that), it most definitely has a very distinctive flavor of its own. The archery alone makes this a tougher proposition than, say, Tharbad, but the locations are not only very thematic, but also quite well thought out in terms of combining advantages and disadvantages. Narrow Alleyway is a particular favorite of mine.


We first tried this three-handed with my Amazons, the hobbits and the Dúnhere deck; not an ideal bunch to be facing lots of archery with, and some of the enemies are actually a bit tough. We were eventually swarmed by too many of them and eliminated, but we had a decent time and the difficulty didn't feel way too high. Later, we beat the quest with my Amazons, my partner's Team Boromir and a dwarf deck using the new Gimli hero. Having the dwarves along to soak up archery damage really helped, and we were a little bit lucky with Enemy Pursuit only ever showing up on the first round of a quest stage. Then again, I lost count of how many times our plans were scuppered by Enfeebled! Eventually, though, we made our getaway.


We liked this quest! It's thematically succesful and well-designed in general, and to the extent that difficulty levels mean anything, DL 5 actually felt about right. So a strong start to this expansion.

**

Desert Crossing - DL 6


Our heroes have escaped Umbar and find themselves in the middle of the desert. As far as I'm concerned, this is the money quest of this expansion, and the one I'd been looking forward to the most. When the Grey Havens came out, it was sold as, obviously, the sailing expansion: therefore, since Voyage Across Belegaer was the sailing quest in the expansion, it had to be good. And it was! Since the theme of this expansion has very much been the desert - the Sands are right there in the title - Desert Crossing kinda needs to be at least decent or the whole thing's just going to feel pointless. Luckily, it's a whole lot more than decent.


I complained about Escape from Umbar, but only because it breaks naming convention: if not for that, it'd just be a great name, because you expect Snake Plissken to show up as an objective ally. Desert Crossing, though? This is the most boring name for a quest in history. It makes me think of some kind of hybrid of Animal Crossing and Desert Bus. As my brother-in-law points out, even the Crossing of the Desert would have been so much better.

Don't be fooled by the rubbish name, though: this is a really, really good quest. The objective is simple: make it across the desert. So that this wouldn't be too easy, the quest introduces a new way to die. Recorded on a spare threat dial, at the start of the quest the temperature is ten, and if it reaches sixty you lose. Various effects will raise it, and other effects are tied to it. I think it works great, and really creates a feeling of struggling to survive in a hostile environment without being in any way fiddly or artificial. The quest itself is similarly straightforward, but very intelligently designed: seemingly simple and almost innocuous effects will combine to create unexpectedly sticky situations while the temperature keeps sneaking higher... Some of the encounter cards are surprisingly clever, like Mirage, and they're all excellently thematic.


On our first attempt, my Amazons set off across the desert with the Rohan and Beorn decks. Since we make a point of playing new quests blind, none of us had any idea what to expect, but we made reasonable headway. None of the enemies are really all that tough, or most of the locations either, so at first this quest felt deceptively easy. What it does really well, though, is slowly wear away at you. A little bit of direct damage won't hurt, and a tiny temperature hike isn't going to make much difference, but before you know it everything starts adding up and interacting in surprising ways until all of a sudden you find yourself in serious trouble. We initially thought we were in for some smooth sailing, to the extent that a bear lumbering across a desert can be described as smooth sailing. We even found a Desert Oasis, where amazingly enough, we could heal Beorn!


Still, though, the damage kept piling up and the temperature was rising. It was getting harder and harder to make progress, and when a fairly horrible encounter side quest showed up, it slowed us down enough that by the time we were set for our very last questing push, the temperature had reached an absolutely scorching 58. Still, if we could just get through one last quest phase...


Below is the detritus of our loss, and a little record of Lord of the Rings Friday, which we started last November. Everyone was committed to the massive questing push that would've gotten us through the last quest stage - if only the temperature hadn't gotten us first. Arien is a cruel mistress.


An attempt with Team Boromir, and later a three-handed foray with the dwarf deck, both ended in the excruciating second quest stage. Again, it's not like the difficulty level numbers make much sense, but to us, this was a difficult quest that at no point felt unfair or impossible. You'll need some way to deal with direct damage, location control will help, and plenty of questing and fighting, especially as the temperature rises. Above all, though, this is one of the most succesfully thematic quests in the entire game. Because I think geography and travel are so important in Tolkien's works, I really enjoy wilderness travel quests, and this may be the best of them. I highly recommend it.

**

The Long Arm of Mordor - DL 7


In the last quest, our heroes have made it across the desert, and are recovering from their ordeal in a friendly Haradrim village. What this means in practice is that each player's heroes go in the staging area, and you have to quest succesfully to get them back. Instead of your own heroes, each player starts with one of the objective heroes in the scenario.


This is a pretty cool idea, but in practice, it's kind of a re-run of the Ring-maker quest format: quest like hell as fast as possible, or advancing becomes impossible. In this case, what you specifically need is lots of cheap questing allies that you can get into play quickly with the meager resources of your objective heroes. Unfortunately, what this does in practice is severely handicap any deck without them. My partner runs an attachment-heavy mono-Tactics deck, which is pretty much useless here. When I also failed to draw several cheap questing allies, we simply had no chance to advance. This is, I think, one of those quests that you're pretty much going to have to build a bespoke deck for, and we don't enjoy that.


So unfortunately, while we wanted to like this quest for its theme, and while it also has several clever ideas, we ended up quite discouraged by our first attempts.

**

The heroes were already spoiled way back in August, although with the theme of the expansion being heroes with different traits, we'd all pretty much guessed who was going to be in it. I still feel kind of ambivalent about them, though. Leadership Gimli is a heck of a hero to slot into a Dwarf deck, especially with Dáin, and is really pretty darn useful with anyone else as well. My only problem with him is the art! Spirit Legolas I'm really not sold on, though. To activate his ability, he needs to quest, which is a complete waste of an action with his stats, even if he gets the +1 willpower bonus, and means that someone else has to ready him in the combat phase, too. So Legolas ties up either Gimli's ability or an Unexpected Courage or something. That's just not a great action advantage investment. So at least my initial feeling is that while Gimli potentially works with almost anyone, Legolas is only really going to be useful with Gimli. Given how long everyone's been waiting for a new Legolas, that's a bit of a shame. We're pinning our hopes on Loregolas!

Each hero also gets their own attachment: Mirkwood Long-knife and Dwarven Shield. The shield's pretty solid and ties in to Gimli's ability. It also further reinforces the Gimli-Dáin combo: with shields on both, Dáin can defend with 4, and then Gimli with 3 and he can use his ability to ready Dáin so everyone gets his attack bonus. The main problem with the Long-knife is the art: I'm not at all convinced that knife can actually go into the sheath next to it. Also, I absolutely hate the ornate, ceremonial look they've gone for; it's far too 21st century movie fantasy for my tastes. In gameplay terms, obviously putting it on Legolas will make his ability make more sense, which is maybe a slightly backwards way to go about it. It would also complement a Haldir-Wingfoot combo quite nicely. To me, a problem is that Tactics Legolas has access to much better Tactics weapons, so for him to use this and Gimli's ability would be suboptimal.

There's also some ally symmetry going on: we got Spirit Legolas and Leadership Gimli, so we also get a Leadership wood elf and a Spirit dwarf. Oddly, though, while Greenwood Archer can probably find a welcome anywhere but matches this expansion's sub-theme by providing a readying effect, the Erebor Guard has a discard effect that's more at home with the "dwarf churn" deck type or even a Caldara deck, rather than with Legolas and Gimli. The focus on traits is rounded off by the excellently thematic Unlikely Friendship, and a pleasant surprise in Well Warned, which plays off the Scout and Noble traits.

The other big theme of the box is side quests. There's one, The Storm Comes, which is a real boon to multi-sphere decks, but the rest of the player cards also interact with the victory display. Dour-handed seems like the least useful one, especially since it costs a resource to play, but then again, maybe some folks go really nuts with their side questing. The Road Goes Ever On lets you find a side quest when you finish a quest, so ideally you'll want to play it on Gather Information... The two remaining allies, Vigilant Dúnadan and Halfling Bounder, both have abilities tied to a side quest being in the victory display, and they're useful ones, too. The Bounder especially gives Lore some proper cancellation, and also sports a Tom Bombadil-like wardrobe delightful enough to take a proper look at:


So on the whole, this is an interestingly mixed batch of cards. Nothing really jumps out at you, except Gimli and maybe the idea of a proper Three Hunters deck, but there's something here for quite a few different decks.

**


So, the Sands of Harad haven't quite dethroned the Grey Havens as the best deluxe expansion. However, we definitely enjoyed ourselves with the first two quests, and would definitely recommend buying the expansion to experience them. In general, what this expansion definitely did was make me feel optimistic about the future of the game. The quests are thematically excellent, intelligently designed, and bring lots of new ideas to the table without it seeming contrived or artificial. For what it's worth, Desert Crossing is up there as one of my all-time favorite quests.

At this point, I seriously never want this game to end. We're all expecting a deluxe expansion set in Dale and Erebor. Weneed to revisit Mirkwood and finally meet Thranduil. Hell, we can offset the desert with a deluxe and AP cycle with the Snowmen of Forochel. The Withered Heath is right there! Rhûn and fabled Dorwinion! Mordor, even. Some light-hearted adventures in the Shire. The Ered Luin. We're not going to run out of themes or locations any time soon, and Sands of Harad has made me so optimistic that like I said, I just want it to keep on going.

**

Finally, an update on the state of my deck. It's really useful to have cards like hero Arwen, spirit Éowyn and Daeron's Runes around, because if you constantly find yourself discarding the same cards to them, maybe you should reconsider having those cards in your deck in the first place. Lately, I've found myself discarding Concorde quite often.


He's certainly useful, and I think if someone was playing Elfhelm I'd definitely keep him around. However, with several other location control alternatives to choose from, especially Rhovanion Outrider, I wasn't sure two Lore resources was a good price any more. With City of Corsairs out, I know it isn't, because I can have Súlien instead. As a Spirit lady with a location control ability, she fits my deck perfectly.


Of the new cards in Sands of Harad, I'd really like to include Well Warned. With Arwen a Noble and Idraen a Scout, I could give anyone at the table free threat reduction. However, I can't really think of anything I'd be willing to leave out to accomodate it. So for now, I think I'll be content to just bring Súlien on board.

56 cards; 32 Spirit, 20 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 15 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 21 (14/6/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) 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

**

Also, here's a fairly basic Leadership-Lore dwarf deck I built for my brother-in-law to play and test out Leadership Gimli. We thought it was reasonably successful, and the Gimli + Dwarven Shield combo worked excellently.

53 cards; 33 Leadership, 19 Lore, 1 neutral; 22 allies, 15 attachments, 15 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat: 29

Gimli (TSoH)
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Bifur (Kd)

Allies: 22 (11/11)
Longbeard Orc Slayer x3
Glóin (OtD) x2
Longbeard Elder (FoS) x3
Dwarven Sellsword (TDRu) x3
Dori (OHaUH) x2
Erebor Hammersmith x3
Miner of the Iron Hills x3
Erebor Record Keeper (Kd) x3

Attachments: 15 (9/5/1)
Dwarven Shield (TSoH) x3
Hardy Leadership (SaF)
King Under the Mountain (OtD) x2
Cram (OHaUH) x3
Self Preservation x2
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Legacy of Durin (TWitW) x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 15 (12/3)
Lure of Moria (RtR) x3
Durin's Song (Kd) x3
To Me! O My Kinsfolk! (OtD) x3
We Are Not Idle (SaF) x3
Ancestral Knowledge (Kd) x3

Side quests: 1
Send for Aid (TToR)

Jan 9, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 28: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Bree was the chief village of the Bree-land, a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about.

The chapter starts off with several pages of exposition about the Bree-land, made up of four villages nestled on or around the Bree-hill, the chief of which is Bree itself. Hobbits live in Bree, but most of the population is "Men", i.e. humans. We get a brief description of the Men of Bree, and also of the other humans who hang around these parts, the mysterious Rangers, followed by an account of Bree and its famous inn. Bree stands at the crossroads of the East Road and what used to be the North Road but is now the Greenway, on account of having become overgrown, and the inn is a relic of the time when there was much more traffic. Now, only Rangers and dwarves travel on the East Road, apart from the occasional hobbit making the trip between Bree and the Shire, but they all still stop at the inn.

In case you're wondering, Bree and its inn aren't mentioned in the Hobbit, Tolkien presumably not having come up with it yet, but it's hardly a stretch to imagine Bilbo and the dwarves staying there for at least a night. In her Atlas of Middle-earth, the late Karen Wynn Fonstad tried to work out the discrepancies in travel time between Thorin Oakenshield's traveling circus and Frodo & co., where the dwarves seem to have taken absolute ages to get anywhere compared to Frodo and his bunch (pp. 97-101). I'd point out that when Bilbo and the dwarves did their con little song-and-dance routine about dragon-slaying and gold at Lake-town, they got a fortnight's free feasting out of it. If you figure they pulled the same act at Bree, and maybe some version at the Green Dragon too, I'd suggest that easily accounts for most of the discrepancy. As we're about to find out, the bardic talents of Frodo and company are, well, different.

The village of Bree itself is encircled by a ditch and a hedge, the first of which the road crosses on a causeway before being blocked by a gate in the hedge. This is where Frodo and company make their appearance in the lands of men. The gate is shut, but the gatekeeper is still on duty; he comes over to let the hobbits in, and subjects them to a bit of an interrogation. Frodo identifies himself as "Mr. Underhill", but is distinctly cagey about why they're there. I can't help thinking that some kind of cover story would really have been a good idea, but then again, these are young gentlehobbits on an adventure, so what can you expect? After the hobbits move on, a dark figure slips over the gate behind them.

Entering Bree, the hobbits, Sam especially, are somewhat intimidated by the tall buildings. Having always thought of Bree as very, well, rustic, I was a little surprised to find that it's described as consisting of a hundred stone houses. No wonder Sam finds it all a bit foreign! The door to the inn is open; apparently they don't have many nocturnal insects in Bree because to me, that feels like a properly bad idea. However, there's a sign with a fat pony and the words "The Prancing Pony" written on it, and light and song inside, so clearly the hobbits have found what they were looking for (for once!).

Inside, they encounter a comical fat innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur - a very sensible name for an innkeeper - and his comical hobbit assistants Nob and Bob, amidst the hustle and bustle of their trade. He leads the hobbits into a parlour where they refresh themselves and eat, and invites them to join the company in the common-room. Frodo, Sam and Pippin decide to do just that. In what seems to be a startling anachronism that would be more at home in the Hobbit, Merry reminds them to "mind your Ps and Qs". It turns out that the phrase might not be as anachronistic as I'd thought, but it's still a little jarring; if Tolkien had some opinion on its origins, I don't think it's been preserved for posterity. However it's phrased, though, it's sound advice: the last thing Frodo and company want to do right now is cause a commotion. Unfortunately, you must know by now what that means will happen next.

Frodo and company make their way to the common-room, where they're enthusiastically welcomed by the Bree-folk. Pressed for some reason why he's there, Frodo comes up with the notion that he's writing a book about hobbits, and is especially interested in the hobbits of Bree. This leads to an avalanche of anecdotes from the Bree-hobbits, but when Frodo fails to actually start writing a book on the spot, they return to swapping news, mostly with Sam and Pippin, who are soon right at home in the crowd.

Apart from the merry hobbits, the common-room is populated by men and dwarves, talking about unrest to the east and south and people on the move. One particularly strange-looking man catches Frodo's eye; Barliman Butterbur identifies him as a wandering ranger known as Strider. Strider waves Frodo over, and warns him about his friends: Sam and Pippin are perhaps beginning to feel a little too much at home, and in fact, Pippin is already telling the story of Bilbo's last birthday-party and disappearance - not exactly a story Frodo is keen to have people reminded of there and then. Strider prods Frodo to do something.

On its own merits, this isn't necessarily a bad idea, but the problem is that the intervention is going to be carried out by Frodo Baggins. He jumps on a table and starts improvising a speech, which not unreasonably gives his audience the impression that he's had far too much to drink. He does succeed in ruining Pippin's story, and when the crowd starts calling for a song, Frodo sings them a silly song Bilbo had written about the Man in the Moon getting drunk at an inn. Intensely uncomfortable at first, Frodo fingers the Ring in his pocket, quite understandably wanting to disappear, but the song is well received and he starts feeling good about his bardic acumen. During the encore, he punctuates the bit where the cow jumps over the moon with a leap of his own, loses his footing - and accidentally puts the Ring on.

The merriment is cut short as the crowd is shocked by the disappearing hobbit. Sam and Pippin are shunned as the disreputable companions of some kind of travelling warlock, and while several locals loudly complain to Butterbur, some others including the gatekeeper slip outside. Frodo, feeling like an idiot, crawls back to the dark corner where Strider was sitting, and takes off the Ring. Strider chastizes him, and calling him Baggins rather than Underhill, suggests they might have a word later. Frodo agrees, and tries to dispel some of the remaining crowd's suspicions by reappearing, claiming he'd simply tumbled under a table or something. This is given the credence it deserves, and the crowd breaks up in a huff. Frodo gets a talking to from Butterbur as well, who also wants to talk to him. The chapter closes with Frodo having made one hell of a commotion and a fool of himself, dreading the private conversations to come, and suspecting that everyone in Bree is in league against him.

**

This is really a very straightforward chapter: it tells the mercifully short story of a hobbit covert operation, and theoretically unbeknownst to us but actually almost certainly beknownst to everyone and heavily suggested by the title of the next chapter, introduces us to a key character. What I quite like is that while doing this, Tolkien also gives us both background information about a new place, Bree, and both a snapshot of the lands around it and its past, without collapsing into exhausting exposition. This chapter would actually almost work on its own as a short story. As part of the bigger story, the hobbits have now definitely left their home turf and are venturing further out into the wide world, something they really hardly seem ready to do. With the chapter closing on Frodo beginning to suspect everyone around him of being in on a conspiracy, one definitely gets the idea that they're in over their heads. There's a sharp contrast between the insular hobbits nattering about family gossip and the dwarves and men concerned with the wider world around them. Frodo and company are now moving firmly into the latter, with shall we say mixed success.

For all of Tolkien's high-church Catholicism, there's a definite Puritan streak in him as well: unlike, say, Patrick O'Brian's works, I don't think very many people have come away from a Tolkien description of a meal feeling hungry.

Next time, parlour games.

Jan 2, 2017

PhD blog 1/17: Half-year review

So, I've now been a postgraduate student at the University of Helsinki for half a year. The experience has been so thoroughly lonely, depressing and frustrating that I'm seriously considering quitting. When I wrote that there's no orientation for new students whatsoever, I wasn't exaggerating. I'm still not sure if my doctoral program knows I exist; if my name wasn't on their list of students, I'd be pretty sure no-one's told them I've been accepted into their program. My subject has at least noticed I'm around, but not much more.

The practical form my work this semester took was reading a pile of theory and background literature, and writing the first draft of my introduction, which clocked in at some 30+ pages. In addition, I completed the fall semester of teacher training. This was a pretty rough combination, and I'll admit that at times I was completely exhausted. Some time in November I hit a stretch where writing was incredibly difficult; I'd manage a single sentence at a time, followed by what I swear felt like an hour staring at the computer. But I finished it in the end, though, as well as my teacher studies. That's not the problem.

**

My fundamental problem with postgraduate study is that none of the above matters. I worked my ass off to produce that introduction, and nobody cares. I've unsuccesfully applied for both funding and work; all my applications were summarily rejected based on my CV. At no point does the quality of my work even begin to enter the equation. Nobody making decisions about my future knows or cares if what I'm writing is any good or not. Doing research and writing a PhD will get me nowhere. Instead of, you know, doing science, my priority would need to be building my CV in order to be able to do science. But even that's not as easy as it sounds.

In my experience, there are basically three groups of PhD students at our university. The first, most fortunate few are the people employed by the university as paid doctoral trainees or something similar. They actually work at the university, receive a salary, and get to be part of the university community and network with people and whatnot.

Then there are the people who've applied for a grant from a foundation and gotten one, meaning that one of the foundations that funds PhD work is going to support them for whatever period of time they applied for. This is a pretty good state of affairs, because hey, they're being paid. However, when the Kone Foundation gathered feedback from researchers they'd awarded grants to, a major problem they identified was that researchers on grants were being shut out of their university communities. This had been a problem in previous years as well, but has since gotten worse. So even if you have a grant that lets you work on your thesis full-time, it doesn't necessarily mean the university is willing to offer you anything.

At least they have a grant, though, because the third group is the rest of us. We have nothing, neither work nor grant, and are left to fend for ourselves. In my case, I can look forward to one meeting per semester with my supervisor. Apart from that, I'm on my own. There's a seminar that meets more or less once a week, but almost no-one attends it. That's pretty much it. I've barely even met many other doctoral candidates from my subject or program; there's very little reason for me to have anything much to do with either. So while grant researchers may feel shut out of the university community, from the point of view of a first-year postgraduate student, I'm surprised to hear that there is a university community out there somewhere. I've certainly seen nothing of it. Nobody gives a shit who we are or what we do.

It's difficult to escape the impression that we're already being quite aggressively sorted into haves and have-nots, in ways that aren't in any way based on the quality of our work. For those of us on the outside looking in, so to speak, it's tough to come up with anything to do to change that. Obviously trying to network with people is always something, but when you barely ever get an opportunity to meet anybody, that's very hard to do. When nobody really cares what you do, how are you supposed to distinguish yourself? I don't really see a way up the ladder, and that's pretty depressing. I don't know how to integrate myself into a community that doesn't want me. It's thoroughly demoralizing.

There's also a broader political angle to this. Our current right-wing cabinet has mounted an unprecedented assault on education. Massive budget cuts have been combined with a public campaign against universities; from the prime minister on down, they've heaped scorn on us, misrepresented statistics and told brazen populist lies about professors' summer vacations. How has our university responded? With complete craven surrender. Ministers who publicly insult and slander our universities are invited to speak at them, and when students protest, the university has its staff try to block them - the very same staff these ministers have attacked as superfluous and demanded be fired. During the current fiasco, it's become painfully obvious that the people in charge of our universities are reprehensible cowards. As a potential future employee, this tells me they're not going to stand up for me or anyone else. Our union has also failed to produce anything whatsoever of substance; snarky press releases that the media ignores aren't political action. So when I say that nobody cares about us, I also mean it in a wider sense.

**

This first semester, I set out to start familiarizing myself with theory and background literature, and write the first draft of my introduction. I've done both, the latter largely thanks to the excellent writing seminar run by my doctoral program. However, the semester's been so depresing and alienating that my first priority for spring 2017 is to try to figure out what to do with myself if and when this so-called academic career doesn't come together. Given the way things are at our university and the long-term career prospects on offer in the academic world, I'm not sure I can justify spending four years of my life on a piece of paper and a fancy title - especially if they're going to be four years like this. Basically, the work I do isn't worth shit to anyone.

So in short: if you're thinking about postgraduate study at the University of Helsinki, don't.

Dec 26, 2016

The year that was 2016

In September, neo-Nazis killed a guy on the street, next to the railway station. His name was Jimi Karttunen. I walk by there every day when I go to university. There had been a neo-Nazi rally outside the station; members of the so-called Finnish resistance movement had paraded with their flags and challenged passersby. One of them talked back, and spat at the nazis' feet. They killed him. A nazi ran up and kicked him. He fell, injured himself badly, and later died. It's 2016, and nazis killed a man on the street in my hometown for disagreeing with them.



Everyone thought things like this didn't happen, couldn't happen, any more. People were genuinely shocked. A sea of candles and tributes grew around the lamp-post he fell next to. You couldn't pass the railway station without noticing them. I saw them every morning, and I couldn't not think that that could have been me. If a nazi had accosted me on the street, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't like what I think. Have we become a country where you have to ask yourself if my opinion is going to get me killed? Several people, at least, didn't want that. Over twenty thousand of us marched in Helsinki, with hundreds in other cities, demanding a stop to racism and violent neo-Nazism.



After this massive demonstration, the prime minister promised immediate action against neo-Nazi extremism. Committees were founded, reports were commissioned, statements were made. And nothing was done. Politicians wrung their hands and told us that this was all very terrible, but there wasn't really anything they could do. So they did nothing. Never mind that the so-called "resistance movement" already breaks several Finnish laws just by existing. Never mind that a far-right member of parliament proudly posed for photos with the murderer and his organization, and continues to participate in their activities. His party remains in cabinet. Politicians from every party happily sit on committees with him. On independence day, the Nazis marched through Helsinki under heavy police protection, trashed the Hietaniemi cemetery and defaced the peacekeepers' memorial.

Nobody in power gives a shit that an innocent man was murdered on the street and that the Nazis who did it hold triumphal marches in our capital. The rest of us are wondering who will be next.

**

As if this wasn't bad enough, midsummer also brought us Brexit. I have an unpleasantly vivid memory of the vote. Since it was midsummer, we were out in the country, being plagued by wasps. One of the fuckers stung me, having decided for reasons of its own to fly into my armpit. I remember checking Twitter before going to sleep on the night of the election, and seeing Nigel Farage concede. While I slept, as someone put it on Twitter later, Farage unconceded, reconceded and reunconceded. I remember waking up and making my way toward breakfast, wondering why on earth people on my Twitter feed were talking about Brexit as if it was happening. Eventually I figured out that it was because they'd voted Leave.

2016, however, wasn't done with us yet. Over a hideously drawn-out year that felt like a fucking decade, the American people, or at least a minority of them, saw fit to elevate Donald Trump from reality television clown to Republican presidential nominee and eventually, unthinkably, President.

A number of myths need to be dispensed with. Trump's supporters were not "working class". Like Brexit voters, they were not economically disadvantaged. Neither were they oppressed by political correctness or victimized by neoliberalism. They didn't even care about free trade. What they were for the most part was racist authoritarians. In other words, fascists. And they voted for a fascist.

During his primary and presidential campaigns, the nature of Trump's game became abundantly clear. Not content with the usual Republican dog-whistling, he consistently ran on a platform of racism and white supremacy. He boasted of sexually assaulting women. He showed no comprehension of any political issues whatsoever, but deployed lies, hate and demagoguery in spades. He is literally a Nazi rapist. All of this was enough to boost a Democrat candidate with a historically low favorable rating to one of the most popular presidential candidates in US history; despite both a massive FBI media blitz and a sustained Russian disinformation campaign against her, she won the popular vote by a considerable margin. The American people voted for Hillary Clinton to be their president. However, the electoral college, supposedly an institution designed to stop a demagogue from capturing the presidency, has now elevated the most buffoonish rabble-rouser to ever aspire to that office to it over the will of the people.

The United States of America are founded on violent white supremacy, an ideal that to this day is enforced by the police forces that so many white Americans seem to worship. Trump's fascist presidency, however, is something altogether different. As if his election wasn't shocking enough, it's also been amazing to watch the speed at which the entire American political right seems to be collapsing into full fascism. The Trump cabinet, so far, consists of generals and billionaire businessmen, resembling nothing so much as an eighties fever dream of a future corporate-fascist America brough to lurid reality television life. We may have thought cyberpunk was the future; it turns out JG Ballard was much more on the money.

Trump and Brexit have several things in common. Both the Leave camp in Britain and the Trump campaign compulsively told childishly stupid lies. They were openly contemptuous of fact-checking, indeed of journalism, and in both countries, the media accomodated them. In Trump's case it was abjectly terrifying that seemingly no matter what he said or did, the news cycle rolled on regardless, and within a week, all was forgotten. Both campaigns falsely represented themselves as the champions of the economic worries of "ordinary people", a strategy they share with our home-grown fascists. Both employed prominent racists and drew freely on racist iconography and tropes. Both were energized by the most obdurately illiterate conspiracist thinking, where people who read one "news item" of dubious providence are willing to defend it to their grave because it accords with their prejudices. It remains one of the bitterest ironies of our new facism that its proponents relentlessly preach a critical thinking that they are in fact completely incapable of. Any information that would challenge their deeply stupid convictions is simply dismissed outright as whatever the euphemism of the day happens to be for a Jewish plot. Both are strongly supported by Russian special services, who relish their chance at taking apart the Western coalition that defeated them in the Cold War.

These people cannot, in my experience, be persuaded or reasoned with. They're not interested in arguments or reason. On the contrary, they will in all seriousness present "arguments" that can be thoroughly debunked in unit minutes with a search engine. Doing this, however, will make no difference. The people who support fascism are animated by privilege and hatred, energized by their communities and empowered by the nods and winks of politicians and the spineless complacency of the media. They're directly supported by the secret police of both the United States and Russia. They will not just go away or give up. They need to be fought and defeated. They will certainly not scruple to do the same to everyone who disagrees with them. They've already started killing people.

**

I live in Finland. Why am I bothered if the Americans elect a fascist and Britain decides to leave the EU? Obviously both elections are going to have their impacts on the economy, for starters. The downturn or at least prolonged recession will almost certainly be real, and in the case of Trump, if he manages to pass anything even remotely like his lunatic tax plans, he's setting up the US for a huge bust in the future. None of this bodes well for the supply-side lunacy of our right wing, so it's very likely that the racist idiocy of both British and American voters will also have profound economic consequences for the rest of us.

Other consequences may end up being more serious. To the extent that Trump had any discernible foreign policy views when campaigning, they were disastrously idiotic. Trump was openly supported by the Russian government's disinformation operations, most notably by Wikileaks, and he reciprocated that support with a warm bromantic adoration of Vladimir Putin. The main animating idea of the Trump campaign, racism, also informed his foreign policy anecdotes, from the puerile fantasy of the miraculous border wall and the xenophobic diatribes against Mwxican immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, to his childishly ignorant view of world trade as a zero-sum game and the denigration of America's allies as freeloaders profiting off US naïvete. In openly embracing dictators and mocking US alliances, Trump effectively campaigned on a full-scale assault on the structures of Western collective security.

One of the best things I've read on the twin disasters of 2016 was David Runciman's essay in the London Review of Books. I quote:

That is what the vote for Trump has in common with Brexit. By choosing to quit the European Union, the majority of British voters may have looked as if they were behaving with extraordinary recklessness. But in reality their behaviour too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed that it was still capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice. It is sometimes said that Trump appeals to his supporters because he represents the authoritarian father figure who they want to shield them from all the bad people out there making their lives hell. That can’t be right: Trump is a child, the most childish politician I have encountered in my lifetime. The parent in this relationship is the American state itself, which allows the voters to throw a tantrum and join forces with the worst behaved kid in the class, safe in the knowledge that the grown-ups will always be there to pick up the pieces.

Looking at the profound shock that the eminently predictable results of Brexit seem to be causing in the UK, and the shape that the Trump administration seems to be taking, this really does seem to be the case. Both countries are heading into economic disaster, and we're all going to suffer for it. Similarly, it seems inconceivable that anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with foreign and security policy could possibly believe that either Brexit or Trump could in any way lead to anything good. It seems eminently believable, though, that people simply didn't understand that they'd lead to anything really bad, either.

We may be witnessing the birth of the post-Cold War international order. History obviously didn't end with the Cold War, and if the rise of fascism in the west is a harbinger of things to come, then the years between the Berlin Wall and the Trump Wall may well turn out to have been a brief interregnum before the world splits along new ideological lines. If Trump really ushers in some kind of alliance with Putin, things don't look very good for those of us who are first in line to be dealt away at a new Yalta. Worse, he may inadvertently start a major war. Trump has already demonstrated his spectacular ineptitude in starting a pointless diplomatic spat with China. The idea of an idiot like Trump - a self-proclaimed "smart person" who believes he doesn't need intelligence briefings - being called upon to exercise command of the world's most powerful armed forces in a time of crisis is terrifying. Even without going that far, there's simply no way that either Trump or Brexit can possibly make the world a more peaceful, stable or predictable place.

**

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the wrecking of the Finnish economy continues. Prime minister Sipilä eventually managed to wrangle the unions into a "competitiveness agreement", in which he traded away the threat of larger pay and benefit cuts for an agreement to make each working day six minutes longer. I am not joking. Health care reform remains a complete mess. The university cuts were, of course, carried out, and this past fall has been by far the most chaotic I've ever experienced at our university. To give you an idea of what it's like: our professors were polled by the professors' union. Of the professors at our university, half were not satisfied with their possibilities for research, and 70% didn't trust university administration. According to the government broadcaster, university professors basically agree that recent changes at our universities have been decisively for the worse. What's at stake here is certainly my professional future, but also the wider societal issue of human capital. We remain committed to competing through cheap labor, and the government is working on destroying our education system to achieve it.

A particularly ugly political phenomenon that's been raising its head here has been the cult of the entrepreneur as a "value producer". This hit an absurd high note in a television shouting match on job creation, when several rich white men tried to shout down a politician by demanding to know how many companies she had founded. A more popular manifestation of this is a recurring meme where people look at the amount of income tax paid by high earners, and use this to claim that the rich are actually paying for everything in society and everyone else is just living off their work. This line was enthusiastically echoed by a racist sports personality, who was fired for homophobic tweets and later found to have actually paid no taxes whatsoever himself. So as you can see, we have our own little Donald Trumps everywhere. The idea that we have some kind of Randian hero-entrepreneurs who conjure value out of thin air in splendid isolation but are unjustly forced to share it with the ungrateful howling mob is monstrously, ludicrously idiotic, but it works as a bizarre rhetorical device to allow the very people who complain the most about taxes to use the fact that they pay them as a tool to dehumanize the majority of the population. As a potentially terrifying sign of things to come, our politicians have elected a woman to head our social security apparatus who dreams of replacing it with forced labor.

I quit blogging about all this last year, because there didn't seem to be any point. Our major media continue to toe the government line. For example, our largest daily printed outrageous lies about the number of jobs available, in a transparent effort to support the government's view that unemployment is caused by laziness and entitlement, rather than by the fact that there aren't enough jobs to go around. We have two major yellow afternoon papers; one is run by a facist sympathizer, the other demanded our universities be turned into research and development faciliies for Finnish businesses. But lest someone be concerned by actual issues like the economy, our biggest daily's weekly supplement helpfully incited a ridiculous media conflagration by completely misrepresenting new teaching guidelines on gender. Oh, and do you think there was critical discussion about racism and neo-Nazism in the wake of the murder? Of course not. A few days later, we were right back to inventing wildly overblown headlines about crazy bureaucrats banning whatever. The few times someone tries their hand at investigative journalism not convenient to the government, they get harassed and driven out of their job; our glorious leader managed to get denounced by Reporters without Borders for suppressing media coverage of his financial ties to the disaster that is the Talvivaara mine. Those stupid foreigners just don't understand his masculine Christian leadership.

So in short, everything in Finland is like it was, but worse. The overwhelming weight of the media is behind our government's right-wing fantasies of oppressive bureaucracy and the shiftless hordes of the unemployed. Any and all discussion of actually existing racism in our society has been completely stifled. Whenever a right-wing populist blurts out something exceptionally hateful, there will be a momentary kerfuffle over it, but nothing ever happens. Our most overtly racist party seem to have destroyed about half of their support through complete idiocy, but the others are more than happy to carry on their policies without them, and there's nothing any of us can do about it. Murderous neo-Nazis march on our streets, protected by the police.

Mutatis mutandis, I believe what David Runciman wrote about Trump applies completely to Finland as well. If there's one characteristic of Finnish culture that I think is ingrained and widespread enough to qualify as "national", it's an almost childlike belief in the state. Outside progressive leftist Twitter and the vanishingly minute number of liberals, notions like a critique of police violence are completely unfathomable. The police cannot be wrong. They are the nice men who protect us. The blind faith of Finns in the state lets them mount their childish tantrums against "bureauslavia", "the immigration business", "multiculturalism", "the bloated public sector" or whatever the righteous fury buzzword of the day is, sanguine in the belief that no matter how hard they try to undermine and straight up burn down the structures of the welfare state, somehow it will still be there to look after them in the end. We don't seem to understand that the institutions and well-being we take for granted were built by people, and they can be broken by people. If our current policies of privileged resentment and deliberate wrecking go on, they will be.

No wonder, then, that educated people are fleeing the country. Personally, I'd be more than happy to join them. The level of public hostility to science and education in Finland is at an amazing high, and because of the massive cuts, the situation at our universities is becoming intolerable. I find it very difficult to see any kind of academic career happening for myself here, or much of any other kind of career either. There's also next to no chance of a change, so what the future has in store is almost certainly more cuts, public mockery and outright hatred. The question isn't why we're leaving; the question is why any of us would stay.

**

I don't know if this is true or not, but I've come to at least entertain the hypothesis that over the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, we've become so secure in our well-being that far too many of us have genuinely forgotten what the point of politics is. It's been allowed to devolve into a completely irrational symbolic game, a culture war where people are positively encouraged to be as irrational and emotional as they possibly can, and care for nothing except their own particular shade of righteous resentment. Millions of Americans will vote for a Nazi rapist to spite whoever on earth they imagine they're spiting, completely unmindful of the fact that everything he has promised he'll do will make the lives of the people he purports to represent so much worse. Finnish right-wingers incessantly bleat about how we need to reform the corrupt and bloated state, and cheerfully support an utterly incompetent Finnish Trump who enriches his own family through corruption while entrenching the worst aspects of the agrarian-corporatist state and wrecking everything he ideologically despises. Or, worse, they vote for completely empty-headed demagogues with no discernible policies except racism. The British people have voted to destroy their economy in order to poke the elites in the eye - as if it were those elite who will suffer from, say, wrecking the NHS. Meanwhile, far too many of our purported intelligentsia disdain such ideas as actually engaging in some way with the rise of fascism and the destruction of the welfare state, but rather fulminate on how politics is all a game and surely nothing bad can possibly happen to anyone because it's all just talk.

We've forgotten that politics isn't just talk and symbols. That it isn't simply a public arena where the best performance wins, but also where decisions that genuinely affect our lives are made. Because we think it's a game and we refuse to take it seriously, actual fascism is back, and it's deliberately targeting the very institutions that have given so many of us the basic well-being that's brought us up to think that politics don't matter. The destruction that fascism and the cynical profiteers riding its coat-tails wreaks will, obviously, be blamed on the existential enemies the fascists claim to oppose. Your healthcare is being wrecked by shameless right-wing profiteering, but here are the Daily Mail and Ilta-Sanomat to tell you that it's the immigrants' fault somehow. We're making gigantic cuts to education while pouring hundreds of millions into "infrastructure projects" that are a bewildering combination of utter ineptitude and naked graft, but the reason the school system is collapsing is obviously multiculturalism and political correctness. And so on. Meanwhile, the major media outlets have either become so entranced by their own Olympian "objectivity" that they've completely lost touch with any discernible reality, or have openly sided with the fascists.

It's one of the brutal ironies of patriarchy and white supremacy that in the wake of both Brexit and Trump, major newspapers castigated "identity politics", but obviously not the childish racist resentments of the privileged, which is what got us into this whole mess in the first place.

We're going to look back on the brief interregnum following the Cold War and wonder how on earth we fucked this up so badly. It barely took us twenty years to go from the "end of history" - the final victory of liberal democracy - to the rise of 21st century fascism, complete with actual Nazis in the White House. I think we've forgotten that politics is about real things. I'm afraid we're going to be painfully reminded.

**

To sum up, then, 2016 was a uniquely horrible year in my lifetime. Fascism is with us again. No longer just a specter haunting Europe, it has become horrifying flesh among us. In Britain, fascism marches in the hate crimes and petty bigotry of Brexit, and the terrifying rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. In Finland, it leers in our brutally inhuman immigration policies, dreams forced labor fot the "unfit" and spills blood on our streets. A fascist dictator directs the Russian military in its slaughter of innocents in both the Ukraine and Syria. His ideological comrade is taking up residence in the White House.

The lights are going out all over the world. In the heady days around the turn of the millenium, even if we didn't believe that it was the end of history, so many of us thought that the lights of human rights, tolerance and reason would burn brightly in our lifetimes. Now they're going out; not blotted out by any external threat, but deliberately switched off by one country after another falling prey to their darkest impulses. Fifteen years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that the US and far too many European countries would rush headlong to embrace fascism. But here we are.

What are you going to do about it?

Dec 19, 2016

LotR LCG: Further hobbit adventures

I've been on a bit of a deck-building spree lately, and now it's time to revisit my hobbit deck. Since I originally created it for other people to play, I never really got to take a proper go at it myself. I now intend to fix this.


John Howe: Beorn (1979). I can't stop thinking of this as a New Yorker cartoon.

**

After the debut of the hobbit deck, I made a couple of changes to it: I stole the three Unseen Strikes for the Rohan deck. In exchange, I added in our three Wardens of Healing; the hobbits with their low hit points had been more than a little vulnerable to direct damage in our multiplayer games!

In the meanwhile, we picked up the Land of Shadow saga expansion, which came with a whole pile of cards that looked damn handy for a hobbit deck. For starters, I swapped out the Song of Wisdom and both Burning Brands for three copies of Staff of Lebethron; theoretically that makes the hobbits more vulnerable to the Dol Guldur Beastmasters of the world, but it feels like a better thematic fit, and goes right on Sam without messing about with songs.


I also don't remember seeing a single succesful use of Hobbit-sense in our games, which may well be an artifact of multiplayer. Still, though, I'm dropping it, because how am I supposed to play a hobbit deck with Sam and not include the wonderfully thematic Taste it Again!? A final card from Land of Shadow to make the cut is Anborn, whose ability fits perfectly into a hobbit deck. To make space, I'm leaving out the attractive but sadly unthematic Naith Guide. Keen-eyed Took will also make way for Gimli. Finally, since I intend to try this deck solo, I'm including ally Boromir; for multiplayer games, we can swap him out for the spectacularly succesful Dúnedain Cache.


So this is what we end up with:

50 cards; 15 Leadership, 17 Lore, 12 Tactics, 4 Neutral; 23 allies, 16 attachments, 11 events; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 23 (6/8/6/3)
Gimli (TToS) x2
Anborn (TLoS) x2
Bill the Pony (TBR) x2
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM) x2
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Beorn x2
Boromir (TRD) x2
Farmer Maggot (TBR) x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 16 (6/6/3/1)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
Staff of Lebethron (TLoS) x3
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Song of Kings (THfG)

Events: 11 (5/3/3)
Taste it Again! (TLoS) x3
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3
Halfling Determination (TBR) x3

Multiplayer sideboard:
swap Boromir (TRD) for Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

**

Our first stop was, predictably, Passage through Mirkwood. On my first attempt, literally everyone died. A King Spider showed up, exhausting the only character I had who could have defended it, and its shadow card was Hummerhorns, which killed everyone. That spider is just plain nasty.


On my second attempt, the going was tough to begin with: early staging gave us a Dol Guldur Beastmaster and Ungoliant's Spawn, which we were in no position to tackle, soon joined by some threateningly hovering Hummerhorns. We cleared a couple of locations and fought off some Dol Guldur Orcs in the process. Those two points of damage to a questing character made me deeply grateful that I'd included those Wardens of Healing! Maybe they're not a perfect fit thematically, but hobbits are so vulnerable to direct damage that I'm fully willing to argue that Merry's time at the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith more than justifies including them.

We were barely making any progress questing, but I did manage to get some allies into play, including Anborn. With Elf-stone nowhere to be seen, I paid full price for Gildor, but he was worth every resource. Gildor's three willpower turned our questing around, and I began to contemplate a plan to engage Ungoliant's Spawn. My first attempt featured Gandalf, but I was foiled when East Bight Patrol turned up in staging. These super-low engagement threshold cards are potentially murderous for hobbits! Cool art, though.


I did engage the Beastmaster, though, since we had enough attackers to destroy him after taking care of the East Bight Patrol. Next turn, we went after Ungoliant's Spawn. Finally outfitted with a Hobbit Cloak and a Staff of Lebethorn, Sam defended the Spawn and discarded its shadow card. Merry led the attack with his Dagger of Westernesse, the final and decisive point of damage being contributed by Bill the Pony.

Once we hit the second quest stage, A Fork in the Road, I had to be careful in case I ended up having to tackle Ungoliant's Spawn again. I spent most of my Tactics resources on getting Boromir in play, and - finally! - played an Elf-stone on my active location. It had taken us long enough to get here, but now, if my sums were right, I was going to win this in one turn.

Sure enough, I passed the second quest stage and drew Don't Leave the Path, bringing Ungoliant's Spawn right back out of the discard pile. First, I used Anborn to deal it one damage and raise its engagement threshold by 5. That meant that when I voluntarily engaged it in the combat phase, Sam readied and got his bonuses. Once again, the Spawn was defended, and finished off by Merry, Boromir and the recently-elf-stoned-in Beorn. That's right: you bring a spider, I bring a bear.


Even though we got off to a rocky start, I was able to bring in a big enough bunch of allies that I managed a hefty chunk of questing and enough attack to knock out Ungoliant's Spawn in the same turn, so I'm very pleased by how this turned out! Playing this deck is just a lot of fun.

**

The next test for any deck is A Journey down the Anduin. As a warmup, I took it on with Team Boromir, and we were succesful. The two decks actually have some decent synergy: while I didn't get to play a Staff of Lebethron on Boromir, Merry did get a very handy Rohan Warhorse, which in conjunction with Fast Hitch enabled Merry to both quest and help Legolas clear all four remaining enemies out of the game on the last turn.

My first solo attempt ended mercifully quickly: Sam had to take two damage when Dol Guldur Orcs showed up, and next turn, The Necromancer's Reach killed him and Merry. Like I said, direct damage... It's almost enough to make me buy a second copy of The Wastes of Eriador so I could get the hobbits their own Honour Guard.


On my second attempt, we got off to a pretty nice start. I was able to Elf-stone in Beorn and Anborn, and we quested through the first stage with no real trouble, sending Chieftain Ufthak into the victory display. When I was eventually ready to engage the Hill Troll, the encounter card I revealed in staging was the other Hill Troll. That put a bit of a wrinkle in my plans, but we managed: Beorn defended the first Hill Troll and the combined attack of Sam, Merry, Anborn and Farmer Maggot finished him off. For the second troll, I had to Sneak Attack in Gildor to take the attack, and then he joined his buddy in the victory display.

After the troll twins, the second quest stage was almost anticlimactic, and we quested through in just a couple of turns. For the final battle, we faced Wargs and Misty Mountain Goblins; the latter were no problem, but obviously the former went right back into the staging area. The next turn, I elected to defend them with Sam, which meant taking two damage, but he could use the Staff of Lebethron to make sure the Wargs stayed put long enough to be killed. So on the whole, a resounding success! In fact, despite both trolls showing up in the first stage, I don't think I've ever got through Anduin this easily.

Flush with success, I decided that clearly hobbits are natural troll-slayers and took a shot at We Must Away, Ere Break of Day. To make a short story shorter, the shot in question was delivered by Merry, dual-wielding his Daggers of Westernesse. We killed two trolls, got our hands on the Troll Key and soon enough, Troll Cave was looted and poor old William was turned to stone.

**

So on the whole, this has been a brilliantly succesful deck. I'm going to keep on testing it; I think continuing the Hobbit quests sounds like fun, and maybe I should also see how the hobbits deal with Moria. So far, I've made very few changes to the deck. Flight of the Stormcaller did bring us Glorfindel, who'd be an awfully tempting and thematically perfect character to Elf-stone in. More card draw would be good as well, but the deck is working so well I don't really want to mess around with it. I'm also thinking that not only would Keen as Lances be great here for our multiplayer games, but the low costs of the hobbit-related cards have occasionally meant that I've found myself sitting on enough resources to almost use it on my own.

I'm horribly tempted to include ally Bilbo and Sword-thain, but that would just be silly. Right? A far more reasonable candidate for Sword-thain is Robin Smallburrow, who's a perfect fit here anyway. One swap I'm definitely making involves Halfling Determination: potentially a great card, but one I don't really find myself using. I want to try Ring Mail, as I think it'd be brilliant on Sam and might even let Merry defend the odd low-power attack.


Finally, with the arrival of the Sands of Harad, The Storm Comes is pretty much a must-have for a deck with allies from all four spheres, and we'll see if we couldn't make some use of Halfling Bounder as well.

The moral of the story? Make a hobbit deck. You'll enjoy it. This one's also been a big hit with people new to the game.

**

53 cards; 15 Leadership, 20 Lore, 10 Tactics, 2 Spirit, 5 Neutral; 25 allies, 19 attachments, 8 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 25 (4/12/5/2/3)
Gimli (TToS)
Anborn (TLoS)
Bill the Pony (TBR) x2
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM)
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x2
Halfling Bounder (TSoH) x3
Robin Smallburrow (TDRu) x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Beorn x2
Boromir (TRD) x2
Déorwine (TotD)
Glorfindel (FotS)
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 19 (6/6/5/2)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
Staff of Lebethron (TLoS) x3
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Ring Mail (TLD) x2
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Sword-thain (TDR) x2

Events: 8 (5/3)
Taste it Again! (TLoS) x3
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3

Side quests: 1
The Storm Comes (TSoH)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

**

As part of my deck-building spree, I was going through the rest of our cards, and it occurred to me that there is, in fact, a thematically delightful and tactically excellent hero to build a deck around specifically to combine with this hobbit deck: Beorn.


My thinking is that with his inexhaustible sentinel defence, Beorn could get the hobbit deck out of quite a few defensive wrinkles, at least until Sam gets kitted out, and even then he could be invaluable against annoyingly low-threshold enemies like Dol Guldur Orcs and so on. Since this deck is specifically meant to work together with another deck, a hero with a ranged attack would be supremely useful, meaning I've finally found somewhere to use Bard the Bowman. That's basically our defender and attacker right there, so we still need a quester. Did someone mention ranged attack and Dale?


With her readying ability, Lanwyn can provide questing and also chip in on the attack. Since the theme of this deck is pretty clearly the War of the Ring North nation and ranged attack, I pretty much went through the rest of our Spirit and Tactics cards and grabbed everything that suited that theme. This is what I ended up with:

50 cards; 17 Spirit, 32 Tactics, 1 neutral; 16 allies, 10 attachments, 23 events, 1 side quest

Lanwyn (TTitD)
Bard the Bowman (OtD)
Beorn (OHaUH)

Allies: 16 (2/14)
Northern Tracker x2
Landroval (AJtR) x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x3
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM)
Rúmil (TTT) x2
Fornost Bowman (TDR) x3
Galadhon Archer (TNiE) x3

Attachments: 10 (4/5/1)
Thror's Key (OtD) x2
Warden of Arnor (TTT) x2
Support of the Eagles (RtM)
Great Yew Bow (OtD)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF)
Song of Travel (THoEM)

Events: 23 (10/10)
Fortune or Fate x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will
Hasty Stroke x2
Tides of Fate (FotS) x3
Swift Strike x2
Feint
Hands Upon the Bow (SaF) x3
Quick Strike
Close Call (TDT) x3
Straight Shot (OtD) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)

**

Since this deck was literally created by grabbing everything that looked interesting, I really had no idea what would happen when I played it. Therefore the safe thing to do was to shunt it off to an unsuspecting victim while I played the Hobbit deck. We passed the first test by beating Passage through Mirkwood fairly effortlessly. I next got my partner to put aside Team Boromir for once in favor of the hobbits, and tried Beorn and pals myself. We made several attempts on A Journey down the Anduin, which turned out to be an educational experience. I'd wondered if Northern Tracker could possibly be worth including in a deck with only one Spirit hero, but he saved us from near-terminal location lock. Sadly, that wasn't enough, as we drew two Necromancer's Reaches in the same staging, which killed Lanwyn and wiped out the hobbits. Next time around, we were making great progress on the second stage, until we drew Necromancer's Reach, Evil Storm and another Necromancer's Reach in one turn. At that point we decided to try something different.

Feeling a little bruised by the non-stop treacheries, we dug out Hunt for Gollum and gave it a shot. It's not a particularly tough quest, but it can take a while, so you do get some feel for how the deck works. We took ages, managing to draw every single copy of Signs of Gollum as a shadow card. Lanwyn's readying/willpower-boosting ability came in handy quite a few times, and an unexpected bonus was how useful Thror's Key was. I included it because it caught my eye and has at least a dubious thematic connection to the deck, but when The Old Ford came along, I was very happy to have it! I also got to try the then-almost brand new Tides of Fate when I used Bard to defend an attack; my interpretation is that it wouldn't work on Beorn. It's not quite Hasty Stroke, but the +3 defense is usually enough to handle an attack-boosting shadow, and it's free. Finally, we got some Signs and set up our last questing push. This was very damn nearly derailed by Goblintown Scavengers and some very unlucky discards, but luckily I had a Galadhon Archer standing by, and Hands Upon the Bow saw to the goblins.

After that game, I had a sudden, bizarre revelation. Instead of Bard, should I actually use Brand, son of Bain? His ability could potentially create a massively stupid combo with Merry where they ready each other. Also a little less threat!


Switching from Bard to Brand, it turns out, was a great idea. He works ridiculously well with Merry; when we tried Temple of the Deceived, they fairly wiped the board clean of enemies every time. I even got to use Fortune or Fate to bring Beorn back after he defended a bunch too many attacks.

This could obviously be a much better deck if so many of the good Spirit and Tactics cards weren't in use elsewhere. One addition I did make, because it felt perfect: Ally Imrahil from Flame of the West. Should Beorn leave play, he can step in to help generate Spirit resources for Fortune or Fate. Also, now that Tactics Éowyn showed up, my partner gave up Bofur, who also fits in here quite nicely. So this is what we end up with:

53 cards; 17 Spirit, 30 Tactics, 2 neutral; 23 allies, 8 attachments, 20 events, 2 side quests

Lanwyn (TTitD)
Brand son of Bain (THoEM)
Beorn (OHaUH)

Allies: 23 (4/19)
Northern Tracker x2
Prince Imrahil (TFotW) x2
Landroval (AJtR) x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x3
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM)
Bofur (OHaUH) x2
Rúmil (TTT) x2
Fornost Bowman (TDR) x3
Galadhon Archer (TNiE) x3
Marksman of Lórien (TDRu) x3

Attachments: 8 (2/5/1)
Thror's Key (OtD) x2
Support of the Eagles (RtM)
Great Yew Bow (OtD)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF)
Song of Travel (THoEM)

Events: 20 (10/10)
Fortune or Fate x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will
Hasty Stroke x2
Tides of Fate (FotS) x3
Swift Strike x2
Feint
Hands Upon the Bow (SaF) x3
Quick Strike
Close Call (TDT) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)
The Storm Comes (TSoH)

**

For now, teaming a bear up with the hobbits is working very well, and the hobbit deck remains my favorite solo deck of them all. Again, I highly recommend trying one; all you need to get going is the Black Riders box. I've managed to infect my enthusiasm for Beorn decks onto another poor soul, so hopefully I'll be able to bring you some updates on how building a Beorn deck from the core set on goes. Next time, though, it's time to tackle another deluxe expansion!