Sep 17, 2018

Let's Play Fallout: the Board Game

The captain stood studying it through the periscope. If the Geiger counter was correct no life could exist there for more than a few days, and yet it all looked so normal in the spring sunlight that he felt there must be people there. There did not seem to be glass broken in the window, even, save for a pane here and there. He turned from the periscope. "Left ten, seven knots," he said. "We'll close the shore here, and lie off the jetty, and hail for a while."

- Nevil Shute: On the Beach

Fantasy Flight Games have come up with a Fallout board game, and of course we had to try it.

Nicholas Roerich: Tombs in the Desert, 1930


At first glance, the game appears bewildering: there's piles and piles of tokens, a massive card library and several encounter decks, and a map made up of hexagonal tiles that mostly start out face down. As seems to be standard with Fantasy Flight products, there's both a "learn to play" booklet and a heftier rules reference.

Appearances are deceptive, though, because once you sit down and start playing, Fallout is engagingly simple to pick up, and very much worth it. Each player controls a survivor, who treks through the wasteland, fighting monsters and completing quests. For every game, you pick a scenario, and they all start with some quests in play; completing them shuffles new cards into the encounter decks, gets you stuff and agenda cards, and so on. Ultimately the game is won by the first player who gains a set amount of influence from their (secret!) agenda cards.

Here's a shot from one of our first games; my Wastelander is armed with a sniper rifle and wearing metal armor, while on my left is a Brotherhood Outcast with a knife. Each player gets a cute little cardboard thing where we keep track of our hit points, rads and experience.


A recurring theme in our first, two-player games was that my friend really liked playing the Brotherhood Outcast, running around in power armor and stabbing the shit out of everything. He discovered this in our first game, then tried playing the Vault Dude in the next one and being serious, and went back to stabbing everything in the third game. When literally the first loot card he got was a Combat Knife, clearly the wasteland spirits wanted it, so who were we to argue?

Now, as it happens, I have quite a few Warhammer 40,000 bits lying around, so I decided to make him a little Fallout figure to capture his particular play style: a World Eater Chaos Space Marine.

He will stab you. Now, arguably I could just as well have made him a Blood Angel, but the Chaos bits are more fun and really, what's the difference anyway?

I even gave him a little World Eater logo transfer.


Next, it was time for a four-player attempt. The amount of influence needed to win the game decreases with the number of players, so there should be less turns with four players than with two. Overall, I think the game took a lot more time, though: there was more deliberation, and the possibility of trading with other players led to some complex trading schemes - and we didn't even trade any agendas!

Here's our World Eater Brotherhood Outcast in action, with my brother's ghoul literally hiding behind him.

Eventually, with three copies of the Freedom agenda, my brother won.

Each scenario has two factions, titled freedom and security: in the Capital Wasteland they're the Brotherhood and the Enclave, in the Commonwealth they're the Railroad and the Institute. If you hold one of their agendas, advancing that faction's interests will net you influence - but if either faction gains too much power, they win the game and all the players lose!


We tried another four-player game later, and while it was fun, it highlighted what I think is the most serious problem with the game: deadlock.

Especially with four players, it's likely that someone will be trying to advance both factions. Unfortunately, this can easily lead to a situation where advancing the main quest would mean losing the game for everyone, but a shortage of side quests means there's also few or no ways to get additional agenda cards. This is especially bad for players who end up with an unwieldy combo of agendas, like a straight freedom/security split. Effectively this means the game is deadlocked: no-one can win, but everyone will eventually lose as the factions gain power. It's a little frustrating; we ended up losing on purpose by advancing the main quest. That's not really a good outcome.


Still, though, we've enjoyed ourselves, and with an expansion already announced, we'll definitely be returning to the wasteland! There are lots of mechanics in this game that I like, it does a first-class job of capturing the spirit of the video games, and above all, it's a fun time.

Sep 10, 2018

LotR LCG: Return to Arnor

Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords.
- The Lord of the Rings, book I, chapter VII

Way back when we tried the Lost Realm deluxe expansion for the first time a couple of years ago, we weren't too impressed. It was a real shame, too, since I have a soft spot for Eriador. However, here we are: it was the last deluxe expansion before Wilds of Rhovanion that we haven't played, and since the Crossing of Poros was so interminably delayed, we had a bunch of time on our hands. So let's see what the experience is like with a considerably larger cardpool.


Intruders in Chetwood - DL 4

In the first quest of the expansion, our heroes set off from Rivendell to help a ranger track a party of orcs heading for Bree. There's just a single quest stage, but you'll be hampered by encounter side quests, and also have to destroy all the Orc War Parties you come across. All the while your threat is raised by enemies in the staging area, but they don't make encounter checks so you have to pick them off one by one.

There's quite a bit of ally hate and some multiple attacks by enemies, which is decidedly less fun with post-errata Boromir. There's also a lovely uncancellable Treachery where everyone suddenly attacks you. So in all, you need to quest, fight and do location control while your threat is racing upward.

It's not a bad quest by any means, and I do have to say that the art on the locations is some of the best in the game. The enemies, however, are actually quite dull, which kind of detracts from the experience.


The Weather Hills - DL 5

After intercepting the orcs, our heroes hunt down the survivors in the wilderness. Here you have to explore locations to find orcs to kill, and once you've killed enough of them, the final quest stage unleashes a flood of encounter cards that you have to quest through in a limited time. All this is done while also dealing with a pile of nasty weather treacheries.

This is a quest I really want to like: it's got very pretty locations in Arnor, and very strongly Tolkien themes of ruins, travel and weather. In practice, though, we're facing almost the exact same orcs as in the previous scenario, and they're still boring. There's also an extra level of difficulty to the quest that we felt was unnecessary. I generally like it when different mechanics and themes in a quest interact with each other, but here they just pile difficulty on top of difficulty. Again, I wouldn't say this is a bad quest, but it's quite tough, and quite heavily dependent on either some strong combat ability or plentiful healing. I also suspect it would lend itself quite well to a We Must Away -style delay in finishing the first stage.


Deadmen's Dike - DL 7

In the last quest of the expansion, our heroes end up in Fornost or something, and you have to fight a horde of the undead, as well as a special undead bad guy. I actually feel we did better against this quest than the others, but maybe that's just luck. Some of the sorcery effects are interesting, and the location art remains excellent throughout, but I dunno, this quest didn't exactly captivate us either. We were eventually overrun by a massive pile of undead in the last quest stage.


As for player cards, this is a strongly thematic expansion, with almost every card directy associated with the Dúnedain trait. The heroes are Halbarad and Neil Young Aragorn, both of whose abilities are keyed to engaging enemies, which is what Dúnedain decks are all about.

There's also a whole stack of Dúnedain allies, and an attachment to get them into play faster - provided you're engaged with an enemy, of course. There's a couple of nice touches, like Weather Hills Watchman, who lets you fetch a Signal card from your deck - say, one of those handy little stat-boosting attachments from way back in the Mirkwood cycle - and Dúnedain Hunter, who fetches an enemy from the encounter deck. The latter is clearly very handy for Dúnedain decks, but we've also had some success using him to find someone for Legolas to kill. There's also Ranger of the North, a unique player card in that you shuffle it into the encounter deck.

A couple of other cards are also of broader utility: Secret Vigil gives Tactics some fairly rare threat reduction, and Athelas provides a whole bunch of healing, with a useful side effect of also removing a condition attachment. I should also mention the first-ever player side quest, Gather Information; after all, it's not every deluxe expansion that introduces a whole new card type.

So basically, if you want to build a Dúnedain deck, you need this expansion, and they're a lot of fun to play! If not, there might be something useful for you, but nothing particularly unmissable. This really is a fairly tightly focused set of player cards.


With a much broader card pool than last time, the quests of the Lost Realm are still difficult, but not kick-in-the-face difficult like, say, Heirs of Númenor. Still, there's a reason why I'm posting about this game so much less nowadays: it's that it's too hard to be fun any more. Each of these quests felt like a chore to play, because we barely felt we had a decent chance at beating them at all. The Dream-chaser cycle aside, where we actually managed to beat most of the quests, this has become the rule rather than the exception.

The fact is, me and my partner barely play any more at all; we only tend to get the cards out if there's a third person interested in playing. The quests are too big, too fiddly and too frustrating; if I'm up for something big and exhausting, I'll rather play a board game like Star Wars: Rebellion or Game of Thrones. I still enjoy the deckbuilding aspect of the Lord of the Rings card game, but it's becoming painfully obvious that it's not really possible to make a take-all-comers deck, and neither of us is at all interested in starting to create bespoke decks for single quests.

Increasingly, what this means in practice is that we'll buy new stuff, sometimes, for the player cards, but mostly we end up playing quests from the first two cycles, and some occasional later favorites. Because those quests were mostly fun. We still haven't even gotten round to starting the Lord of the Rings saga, and I don't even know if we will. I mean, I grew up playing Nethack, I enjoy a challenge; but we've been frustrated by so many quests that we found unreasonably difficult that the game just hasn't been fun any more.


We did finally get the last two adventure packs of the Haradrim cycle, and they come with some excellent cards. One I absolutely have to try is Flight to the Sea: it lets you shuffle a copy of the brilliant Wind from the Sea into the encounter deck.

This is the first player encounter card we've seen since Ranger of the North - introduced, appropriately enough, in the Lost Realm. Unlike Ranger of the North, Wind from the Sea has a shadow effect, and it doesn't have surge. In short, I think this is going to be a really, really good card, and I'm very much looking forward to trying it out.

Another thematically irresistible card, especially now that I'm playing the sequel to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, is Magic Ring.

At a limit of one per deck, I think this is kind of a no-brainer to include, but we'll see. Certainly it's high time we saw some magic items whose use carries risks!

A change I'm considering is swapping Arwen for Lanwyn and Elven-light for ally Arwen. I had some success with Lanwyn in my hobbit support deck, and I might want to take a shot at building a Dale deck when(ever) Wilds of Rhovanion shows up. Her ranged attack and ally Arwen's sentinel-granting ability should make combat a little bit easier, and give us a little boost when facing surge, all at the cost of one willpower and Arwen's discard ability. But we'll leave that to the future, and concentrate on trying the new additions for now.

56 cards; 30 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 24 allies, 12 attachments, 16 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 24 (17/6/1)
Jubayr (TM)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC)
Elrohir (TMoF)
Lindir (TBoCD)
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x2
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Dúnedain Pathfinder (RAH) x2
Elladan (TMoF)
Mablung (TLoS)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 13 (6/6/1)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x2
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2
Magic Ring (TCoP)

Events: 17 (6/8/3)
Flight to the Sea (TCoP)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x2
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x2
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 2
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Sep 3, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 48: Helm's Deep

The sun was already westering as they rode from Edoras, and the light of it was in their eyes, turning all the rolling fields of Rohan to a golden haze.

The action opens with our heroes heading west, toward the fords of the Isen. They soon learn that Saruman's army is on the march, and has shattered the forces of Rohan at the fords. Saruman's forces are making for the great fortress of Helm's Deep (the most sensible opening move for Isengard in War of the Ring), so Théoden leads his army there as well, while Gandalf rides off and announces he'll meet them there.

To be specific, Helm's Deep is a narrow mountain valley, blocked by the Númenoran fortress of Hornburg and a wall. The Riders of Rohan deploy on foot to defend it, and soon enough the enemy is there. They fight a bunch: Éomer and Aragorn lead a sortie to stop a battering ram, and Gimli and Legolas have a contest to see who kills the most orcs. Saruman's guys blow up part of the wall with like wizard dynamite or something, there's a bunch more fighting, and eventually Théoden leads his riders out on what they figure will be a last cavalry charge just before dawn. As dawn breaks, Gandalf arrives, leading the Rohirrim who were scattered at the Isen, and also some trees are suddenly there. The enemy is routed.


Helm's Deep is the first major battle scene in the Lord of the Rings, and probably where Tolkien comes closest to glorifying, even carnevalizing war with Gimli and Legolas and their orc-killing contest.

It feels necessary to point out that neither Gimli nor Legolas are supposed to be moral exemplars. Would you trust either of then with the Ring? If you answered yes, you really haven't been paying attention. As fallen creatures, they can take pleasure in killing, even if it's wrong. I mean, you may remember that one time when Gimli's dad and his pals nearly started a war with the Woodland Realm over a gemstone.

But in the end, Tolkien doesn't portray killing as wrong. To me, this is another case of the Nordic saga traditions winning over Christianity. Incidentally, if you haven't experienced the Geoffrey Chaucer version of Snakes on a Plane, do. There's a Christian action story! The battle of Helm's Deep isn't.

There's also a strong real-life parallel to Legolas and Gimli's killing competition in modern snipers. There are rankings online and in literature that list military snipers by their "confirmed kills", as if it was a sports statistic or an arcade game high score. Some of them, like Simo Häyhä, shunned publicity; figures like Chris Kyle reveled in it. Some people have always experienced war as fun. Given the nature of Tolkien's military service, I highly doubt he was one of them; but in judging his depictions of war, it really is worth remembering that he was a veteran of one of the most bloody and senseless wars in human history. And once again, if you ever come across texts that really do glorify war, you'll find Tolkien does no such thing.

Having said that, the orcs and "wild men" are fairly dehumanized enemies here, so it's hardly likely to occur to most readers to question killing them. Here, also, the sagas win out over the gospels.

I find Théoden's variable moods quite convincing: while Gandalf is still around, he's upbeat, but then basically resolves to commit suicide by cavalry charge after stewing in the Hornburg.

Finally, the end of the chapter has Tolkien's revenge on Shakespeare, so to speak: Great Birnam wood did march to war.


Next time: road trip.

Aug 20, 2018

Let's Play a Game of Thrones: the Board Game (2nd ed.)

So, anyway, it turns out that Recently Headless Ned had a variety of sons who did not get pushed out of windows. One of them is Robb, and he wants to be King of Mystical Dragon Land! But Cersei has a son, Joffrey. He is the current King of Mystical Dragon Land! So Robb has to overthrow Joffrey, but also, Dead King Robert had brothers, who have figured out that Cersei’s babies were caused by illicit, brother-in-law fuck-times. And you’re not going to believe this, but Brother One (Renly) and Brother Two (Stannis) BOTH want to be King of Mystical Dragon Land! Then there’s Daenerys. She, too, wants to be Queen of Mystical Dragon Land, but is currently side-tracked, what with her being worshiped by various non-white populations. And yet! Robb had a foster-brother, Theon, who comes from a disgraced house of Viking equivalents. Theon is convinced that Viking equivalents should be the Kings of Mystical Dragon Land! Who will emerge victorious as the One True King of Mystical Dragon Land? I sure hope you didn’t want an answer to that, because it turns out there are like five more books in this series.
- Sady Doyle, Enter Ye Myne Mystic World of Gayng-Raype: What the “R” Stands for in “George R.R. Martin”

We took another of our tax-free booze and cheaper board games trips to Sweden last spring, and came home with Fantasy Flight's Game of Thrones board game.

It promises to be an epic strategy board game of plots and intrigue for the domination of Westeros - or, more to the point, Diplomacy, but fun. The first player to control seven castles or strongholds wins!

Anders Finer: Asha Greyjoy


As I've explained before, the only rightful rulers of Westeros are House Targaryen. Sadly, France Essos isn't included in the game, so everyone has to play a squabbling faction of filthy rebel scum. For our first game, I picked House Greyjoy, because of, well, Asha. Here we are, all smiles before the actual game began!

Below is the opening setup for five players. My Greyjoys are tucked away in Ironman's Bay, between the Starks in the north and the Lannisters to the south. Further south are the Tyrells, and to the east, the hated usurper. Because we're missing a sixth player, House Martell is replaced by a pile of neutral force tokens in the southeast.

The action kicked off with a Baratheon blitz into the continental Crownlands, capturing King's Landing and threatening to carve up Dorne. Lannister reacted by seizing Harrenhal, and the Tyrells moved into the inland Reach. I grabbed Seagard, but my problem was simple: Baratheon was threatening to win the whole thing, but I could only get to him through someone else. Either I'd have to attack the Lannister rear, or get in the way of the Starks' glacial advance down the east coast. I didn't fancy either option, as both would have taken quite a bit of pressure off the Baratheons. I was also slightly hamstrung by being on the last place on the King's court track, which meant the others could use the special Consolidate Power order to muster troops, and I couldn't. Also, we drew no mustering cards from the Westeros decks for several turns, meaning I was stuck with my initial forces while the others could expand their armies.

If I'd have known how passive Stark and Lannister were going to be, I'd have burned either Winterfell or Lannisport to the ground. After a succesful Baratheon spoiling attack on Harrenhal, House Lannister spent the rest of the game sitting on their hands, apart from a few desultory attacks on Seagard and the Reach. The Stark advance got bogged down in indecisive sea battles in the east, and eventually it came down to a Tyrell-Baratheon showdown. Baratheon overextended trying to grab Dorne, and eventually Tyrell rolled up the Baratheon position and won. I succeeded in grabbing Riverrun off the Lannisters, but it was too little, too late.

In retrospect, we all played too passively - except the Baratheons! I finished shared second, but my major mistake was imagining that Stark and Lannister were going to do something. However, what we all learned was that this is a really, really good game. It's fairly approachable, and the bidding mechanisms for the various tracks, as well as the combat rules, are easy to pick up once you actually start using them.


We're working on scheduling another game, this time with the full complement of players. Also, I was delighted when Fantasy Flight announced a new expansion, featuring House Targaryen! So this is a subject we will be returning to. In the mean time, expansions or not, this game is a steal for its price and definitely worth playing. Highly recommended!

Aug 13, 2018

Let's Play Star Wars: Rebellion

“My lord,” said Anakinn, “The Jedi Fjord men cast their magic openly. They are not such men as cut runes in the roots in the twilight, but rather they use their magic for prophecy and for healing. But the Seith-men cast dark spells and dissemble; and if they give men help, it is only because they expect that they will then help them.”
- Tattúínárdǿla saga, Chapter 12: Concerning the Secret Counsel of King Falfathinn

Back in May, we had the distinct pleasure of trying Star Wars: Rebellion: an epic board game that's kind of like War of the Ring, but in space.

There's a huge map, covering a bunch of systems outward from Coruscant, and a boatload of figures from stormtroopers to Death Stars, and of course, several decks of cards and piles of tokens. Below, the map.

The two sides have different objectives. The Empire has to find and destroy the secret rebel base; if the rebels survive long enough and gain enough prestige while doing it, they win. Both sides have their fleets and armies, but everything revolves around leaders: only they can move forces on the map or complete missions. This both limits the number of available actions and is great for theme, because you're never moving, say, a star destroyer to this square; you're sending Vader to Geonosis. The leaders all have unique abilities that affect how likely it is they'll succeed at missions or how effective they'll be as commanders, and they can be captured, converted or even frozen in carbonite.


Our first attempt would be a three-player game, which works the same as War of the Ring, with two players sharing control of the bad guys. Since I'm something of a fan of General Tagge (he was right about the Death Star!), I elected to play the role of the Imperial General, with my brother-in-law, a TIE Fighter veteran, joining me as the Imperial Admiral.

The Empire, of course, starts with a crushing military superiority, and we cheerfully made use of this, happily humming along to the Imperial March as we wiped out the rebel military. However, we were having no luck finding their base...

At one point, Princess Leia went on a mission to Mygeeto, which was either a ploy to draw us away from the rebel base, or a ploy to make us think it was a ploy to draw us away from the rebel base. However that was, we'd just recruited Boba Fett, so we sent him to capture her, and succeeded!

Soon, Tarkin's Super Star Destroyer and the Death Star we were building at Dagobah spooked the rebels into abandoning their base at Utapau, but now we had no idea where they were. Tarkin was at Geonosis; Vader and the Death Star were at Nal Hutta, wondering whether to head for Kessel or Tatooine; Tagge was looking for the rebels at Yavin; our forces on Mygeeto were stuck with no transports and we couldn't deploy them any because of a very inconveniently placed sabotage marker, and Colonel Yularen was getting nowhere interrogating Leia. Everything was threatening to unravel; by now, I was convinced that the rebel base was on Dantooine and we'd never make it there in time with enough forces. That is, until, guided no doubt by the Force, the Emperor personally led a single Imperial Assault Carrier and one unit of Stormtroopers to Malastare, where he found the newly relocated rebel base, and won us the game.

We made several mistakes, and no doubt played very unoptimally, but we had an absolutely tremendous time doing it. Even when you don't know what you're doing, the game is wonderfully Star Wars in its execution, and it really feels like an epic story unfolding. We simply loved it.


I also got the chance to try a two-player game over Midsummer, again with the first game rules as it was my opponent's first time playing.

I decided to utilize my previous experience when picking a base location.

I was determined to use the Rebel fleet aggressively and take the fight to the Imperials, drawing them as far away from my base as possible.

To that end, on my first turn, Mon Mothma secured the loyalty of Utapau, and I massed the fleet at Rodia. This drew an Imperial response immediately, with one fleet attacking Utapau and another subjugating Naboo.

It was time to go on the offensive. Jan Dodonna had been captured infiltrating Naboo, and Admiral Ackbar led the rebel fleet there to rescue him and liberate Naboo. Despite the Emperor himself commanding the occupation force, they were wiped out in the First Battle of Naboo.

That victory, however, would be short-lived, as Grand Moff Tarkin led the Death Star to Naboo. The rebels lost a Corellian corvette in the space battle, and while the rebel ground force managed to take down an AT-AT, they were wiped out by a devastating bombardment from the Death Star. There was nothing to do but fall back on Rodia, but the sacrifice was worth it: the Death Star was moving ever further from my base.

While the rebel fleet regrouped, I deployed some forces at Nal Hutta and scattered ground units at various systems like Kashyyk and Cato Neimoidia, which even got the Coruscant garrison moving. At this point, pretty much the entire Imperial fleet, bar a single star destroyer at Felucia, was east of Coruscant. Even better, I managed to hit a jackpot: using the Infiltration mission to churn through the objective deck got me the Death Star plans, and I drew General Dodonna's mission card, which allows you to attack a system with an Imperial ship in it with units from the Rebel base. My fleet had already destroyed half of the Death Star's fighter screen at Second Naboo; I now sent Chewbacca on a sabotage mission to blow up the last two TIEs, and the coast was clear. The Death Star's defenses shot down our Y-wing, but the two X-wings finished the job, and that's how Jan Dodonna blew up the Death Star.

Meanwhile, part of the Coruscant garrison had made its way to Alderaan, and the Imperial fleet at Felucia advanced to Dathomir, searching for my base. My fleet destroyed the Imperial ships at Toydaria, but we lost the ground battle. At this point, it was only a question of time until the Empire found my base, but I had high hopes that I had killed enough time to stop them from gathering enough forces to overrun it before the game ended. With that in mind, I used Rapid Mobilization to move the remnants of my fleet to the base.

Thus, when Moff Jerjerrod's task force found my base on Dantoiine, we wiped them out.

Now that the base was revealed, it was a question of time: would the Empire be able to mass enough forces to destroy the base before time ran out? It didn't look good, but they had one fiendish trick up their sleeve: Boba Fett captured Admiral Ackbar and delivered him to Darth Vader, who had him frozen in carbonite! This cost us one reputation and actually extended the game by one turn.

Still, even that wasn't enough: a huge Imperial force was bearing down on Dantoiine, but time ran out for them and the rebellion was victorious.

It was a damn near-run thing, but the rebels held out and we had a great time seeing it through. I should also mention that while none of the Imperial forces could reach my base in the last turn, what they did have time to do was convert Admiral Ackbar to the dark side.


As with War of the Ring, I think the three-player experience is excellent. With both games, though, I wish there was some incentive for the players on the bad guys side to not co-operate; a prestige tracker or something like that. Even without it, though, I think the three-player game offers the best possible combination of strategy and social interaction. Mind you, this doesn't mean the game isn't great fun with two players!

In my opinion, there are a couple of things that really elevate the Rebellion experience. First and foremost, theme. The game does a great job capturing memorable moments from the original trilogy, but in a freeform enough way that the people and circumstances around them can change: this time, Jan Dodonna destroys the Death Star. The leaders are really important for this, but so are the units: from a gameplay perspective, it's not necessary to have both AT-STs and AT-ATs, but it does wonders for theme. Also, the miniatures are excellent, and really contribute to the feel of the game.

Second, I can't see two games ever being exactly the same. There are at least five good choices for the rebel base location based purely on geography (astrography?), and that's without factoring in the psychological aspects. Similarly, the way the missions amd objectives come up will change games a lot; our second three-player game was completely turned around when we drew and succesfully played Homing Beacon.

More importantly, there's a great psychological game going on with the Imperials trying to guess where the rebel base is, and the rebels trying to guess where the Imperials think it is, and both trying to mislead the other, and I don't see this playing out the same way many times either. The psychological and social dynamics are an absolute treat.


We've also got a copy of the Rise of the Empire expansion, so we'll be returning to Rebellion later! For now, suffice to say that this is an absolutely tremendous game, and I'm looking forward to playing it many, many more times. It's like War of the Ring, but not nearly as stressful or complicated, while still being a wonderfully intriguing strategic challenge. It also seems to be excellently balanced: you can find threads on Boardgamegeek where people are convinced the rebels win every time, and another where someone sold their copy of the game because it's so boring when the Empire wins every time. All I can say at this point is that I've thoroughly enjoyed playing both, and I highly recommend this game.

Aug 6, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 47: The King of the Golden Hall

They rode on through sunset, and slow dusk, and gathering night.

Gandalf and Co. ride through the night, and as dawn breaks, they catch sight of the town of Edoras, and overlooking it, the golden hall of Meduseld. They pass the burial-mounds of the kings of Rohan, and get a history lesson and some poetry from Aragorn. At the gates of Edoras, the guards challenge them in the language of the Rohirrim, demanding their business. Eventually the companions are allowed through, only to face another questioning at the doors of Meduseld. Háma, the door-warden, demands they leave their weapons behind. In a reversal of our heroes' previous attempt, this time it's Aragorn who seems keen on suicide by Rohirrim when he won't leave his sword behind at the door. Gandalf defuses the situation, but in turn refuses to leave his staff behind. Eventually Háma allows them through.

Inside Meduseld, it is dark. An ancient, decrepit man sits on a throne, attended by a young woman and a counsellor. When Gandalf greets them, King Théoden receives him scornfully, saying he had wished Gandalf was dead. His counselor, Grimá Wormtongue, agrees, and insults Gandalf. The wizard shuts Wormtongue up, and speaks to the king alone. Gandalf's words cut through the despair Wormtongue had the king sunk into, and he casts aside his walking-stick. Revitalized, Théoden realizes the malice of Wormtongue, and Gandalf denounces Grimá as an agent of Saruman. At Gandalf's advice, Théoden resolves to go to war against Saruman - or rather to admit that Saruman is at war already. Éowyn is left behind to lead the Rohirrim, and Théoden, Gandalf and Co. and the host of the Rohirrim rides west to war.


What is it with these guys and picking fights with the Riders of Rohan?

In his capacity as Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien was something of an expert on Beowulf, and this chapter has what I think is the most direct homage to that epic poem in the Lord of the Rings: the double introductions at Edoras. When Beowulf lands in the country of the Scyldings, he is first challenged by a coast-guard, and then by the door-wardens of Heorot. He has to explain himself to both of them before he is allowed to see the king. Similarly, Gandalf and company are first questioned at the gates of Edoras, and then at the doors of Meduseld. Háma the door-warden eventually comes to the same conclusion as the Scylding coast-guard in Beowulf: the new-comers are friends.

Weard maþelode, ⁠ðær on wicge saet,
ombeht unforht:⁠ “Æghwaþres sceal
scearp scyld-wiga ⁠gescād witan,
worda ond worca, ⁠sē þe wel þenceð.
Ic þæt gehyre, ⁠þæt þis is hold weorod
frēan Scyldinga.

I also read a reference to this in Aragorn's words to Éomer and his riders on their first meeting: a man's part is to discern deeds and words; good and evil. Crucially, Éomer and Háma both succeed at this, even when the malice of Wormtongue deceives so many others. Háma, by the way, is the namesake of a hero mentioned in Beowulf, strengthening the parallel. The distinction between worda and worca also fairly prefigures Saruman!


Éowyn, first introduced here, is a character I'll be returning to later, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to provide some context for her. As I've mentioned before, Rohan is based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and it's noteworthy that women played an exceptionally strong part in Mercia (see Pauline Stafford: Political Women in Mercia, Eighth to Early Tenth Centuries, in Michelle P. Brown & Carol A. Farr (ed): Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Leicester University Press 2001). Tolkien says of Éowyn:

Though not a 'dry nurse' in temper, she was also not really a soldier or 'amazon', but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis. (Letters, 244)

Even though Éowyn is left behind to lead in Théoden's absence, she does so wearing armor and bearing arms, and this is in no way commented on as unusual or strange. Tolkien must have been aware of the shield-maiden tradition in Scandinavian sagas, and clearly this is who Éowyn is intended to represent - with the added psychological dimension of Saruman's influence through Wormtongue. Again, for all of Tolkien's supposed rampant misogyny, there is absolutely no trace here of the kind of categorical statements on gender that one finds even in Ursula le Guin's Earthsea; no-one insists that women cannot fight or lead because they are women. Neither is there the leering mockery of George RR Martin's treatment of Brienne. Yes, Éowyn is left behind; however, she is specifically requested as a leader because "[s]he is fearless and high-hearted. All love her." I read Háma's words as a veiled rebuke to Théoden, who thinks the House of Eorl consists of himself and Éomer, forgetting Éowyn. Éowyn is a tragic figure, but never a comical one or an object of derision. But she isn't presented as in any way transgressive, either: she simply is. Looking back, Éowyn made a strong impression on me as a boy for exactly this reason.

Sticking with the House of Eorl, Gandalf's revitalization of Théoden is still one of the most moving moments in the books for me. While he banishes Wormtongue, more importantly Gandalf restores hope to Théoden. The entire episode of Wormtongue's influence on the court is a powerful Tolkien moral on corruption and hopelessness, and the power of words: in this, Wormtongue prefigures his master. There's also a fairly unsubtle Christian message in Wormtongue's speech to Gandalf: "Why indeed should we welcome you, Master Stormcrow? Láthspell I name you, Ill-news; and ill news is an ill guest they say." Grimá, of course, is saying the opposite of the truth. Laþspell is Old English for bad news; its opposite is gōdspel, or good news - or more specifically, gospel: εὐαγγέλιον. So Wormtongue is pretty much straight up calling Gandalf the Bible. There's a sensus spiritualis for you!


Next time: war. What is it good for?

Jul 9, 2018

Middle-earth: Shadow of War review

I talked about Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor before, and I quite liked it, because I thought it was a very succesful take on Middle-earth, and great fun to play. Eventually, I also got around to picking up the sequel, Shadow of War.

John Howe: Shelob, 2000.


To start with the least surprising stuff, the timeline is still all over the place, as it was in the previous game. The watch on the Black Gate ended in the year 1640 of the Third Age; Minas Ithil falls in 2002. So 360 years separate the initial events of both games. In Minas Ithil, Idril (again everyone, even Gondorian warriors, have high-elven names!) is told to take some items to the refuge of Henneth Annûn; quite a task, seeing as how it was built nine hundred years after the fall of Minas Ithil. The player character finds artifacts from Rohan in a city that fell hundreds of years before Eorl the Young was born. They even manage to mention Eärnur, the last king of Gondor - who died in Minas Morgul. So, y'know.

The plot is also just a complete mess. There's a new ring, but there's also Shelob, who readers of the Lord of the Rings will know as a giant fucking spider, but who is represented in the game by a bizarrely beautiful barefoot woman. I mean it makes sense that she's barefoot, because a spider wouldn't wear shoes, but the rest of it I'm not so sure about.

Another interesting character is Baranor, who was the subject of some hype for being the first person of color in the Lord of the Rings "universe", which is certainly not true as Kahliel beat him to it. But more diversity is always appreciated!

Now, I certainly don't think any kind of justification is necessary for including a person of color in a Tolkien-derived work - the "all-white" Middle Ages are a white supremacist fever dream and nothing else - but interestingly, there is one in Tolkien's letters. Namely in letter 211, where he briefly describes Gondor:

The Númenórans of Gondor were proud, peculiar, and archaic, and I think are best pictured in (say) Egyptian terms. In many ways they resembled "Egyptians" - the love of, and power to construct, the gigantic and massive. And in their great interest in ancestry and tombs.
(Letters, 211)

Minas Ithil in this game is quite Roman, but I would absolutely love to see a heavily Egyptian take on Gondor. All obelisks and pyramids and giant mortuary temples. Baranor is also a very proper Gondorian name, which is refreshing.

Unfortunately, that was the good stuff. Shadow of War has started taking considerably larger liberties with the background material, and it's just plain silly at times. We learn the identities of several Nazgûl, for instance, and they're completely ridiculous. In general, where Shadow of Mordor mashed up the chronology to tell a story that was surprisingly Tolkienian, Shadow of War throws together a hodgepodge of elements lifted from the books and makes a mess of it. This becomes a problem for reasons that I'll return to.


As for gameplay, all the good stuff from the previous game is there: the combat system is brilliant, the orc-captains have even more personality, and the settings are very well done. A particular peeve, though, is that the designers seem to have fallen in love with their dialogue: some of the orc-captains give massively long speeches that feel like they take forever.

At first, the game is great fun, just like its predecessor: roaming around the different areas, fighting orcs and being ambushed by captains while picking up collectibles, is wonderfully diverting and probably worth the price of the game on its own. What lets the whole thing down are the missions. For starters, there's so much going on and the plot is so incoherent that at times it's difficult to understand what it is that you're supposedly doing again and why.

The far bigger problem, though, is that the missions become repetitive. At a point not that far into the game, you've fought the Nazgûl so many times that it becomes boring. You know how to parry their attacks while fighting orcs, and it just stops being interesting. So yes, they've managed to make Ring-wraiths boring, but it gets so much worse than that. There's an entire questline where you fight a Balrog, and it's... boring. There are several quicktime events, a couple of bossfights and eventually a sequence where you fight a Balrog while riding a dragon and it's boring. Honestly, that's kinda impressive.

About halfway into the game - at least in terms of my completion percentage - the problems of gameplay begin to meet the problems of plot. The game is drifting further and further from Tolkien, which means my interest in the plot is dying, and the repetitiveness of the missions begins to make them into a chore. What ended up happening is that I never finished the damn thing. I couldn't be bothered.


So, to sum up: Shadow of Mordor's bigger sequel is more bloated, less Tolkien, and a lot more boring. There are hours upon hours of fun to be had, so if you finished Shadow of Mordor and were left wanting more, then you'll definitely get that here. But in the end, the incoherence of the plot, the loss of theme and the sheer repetitiveness of the missions got the better of me. This could have been a great game, but in the end it collapses under its own weight. I've understood that there's a bleak and dramatic finale, but sadly, I can't be bothered to find out.