Nov 23, 2015

LotR LCG: A solo interlude

One of the outstanding qualities of the Lord of the Rings living card game is how good solo play is. It adds a whole other dimension to the game and especially to deckbuilding: I normally play two-handed with a Tactics deck, but how the heck do I beat those enemies without Legolas, Boromir and the eagles? So in this post, I thought I'd talk about the solo gaming experience and how it's influenced my deckbuilding. I hope you'll forgive the utterly self-indulgent, thinking-out-loud nature of these posts; I was writing them as a form of therapy while slogging through the final stages of my master's thesis.


First, some bad news. Like I mentioned last time, I picked up Lost Realm on a lark, since I really like the setting and wanted something new to try out solo. The first quest, Intruders in Chetwood, is pretty straightforward: one quest stage, 30 progress, no engagement checks, raise your threat by one extra for each enemy in the staging area. So not only do you have to quest, you also have to either fight or manage your threat. Wait, did I say or? Silly me. You have to fight, because you can't win as long as any copies of Orc War Party are in play. As if that wasn't bad enough, over half the encounter cards have shadow effects, some of which are downright nasty, and many specifically punish chump blocking. Oh, and Orc War Party is immune to direct damage, so neither Descendant of Thorondor or Thalin can help us here, and can't have attachments, so no Forest Snare, either. You also can't really wait, either, because as soon as there are more enemies in the staging area, your threat will explode, and/or a horrible treachery will make them all attack you or something. The only thing you can do is straight up fight them, or if you can't, then I guess you can't beat this quest.

It's not just the Orc War Party, though: pretty much all the enemies are too much for my puny Spirit/Lore questing deck to handle. I took a couple of shots at this, but either my threat skyrocketed to 50 or my heroes died in combat. Two-handed attempts with my partner on Tactics didn't go one bit better. This game often walks the line between being highly challenging and maddeningly frustrating, and Intruders in Chetwood falls on the wrong side of that divide for me, so I gave up. There are some pretty good player cards - side quests are a great addition - but geez. Maybe we'll get back to Lost Realm one of these days, but for now, I'll just let it gather dust.

I strongly agree with the Dor Cuarthol blog:

That said, “Immune to Player Card Effects” is boring. It means that your only option is massed numbers, it means that all of the thought goes out of deck-tweaking, and you just need a Middle Earth version of Hulk Smash.

To me, this is true of all the restrictions on player card use, like no attachments or immune to player events or whatever. Sometimes they're thematically appropriate: you don't Forest Snare a Nazgûl, for instance, and the restrictions on the trolls in We Must Away worked brilliantly. I'm 100% in favor of restrictions on player card use if they make the gameplay experience more interesting. I'm absolutely against them if all they do is add a needless obstacle to using cards that you've paid money for, and stop you from thinking of clever ways to deal with enemies. To me, Orc War Party was an excellent example of the latter.

A large part of my disappointment is thematic. You've got the whole of Eriador to play with: Rangers, barrows, ruined kingdoms, the Witch-King, what have you, and what you came up with was "let's make them fight loads of orcs!" Brilliant. The other deluxe expansion we have is Khazad-dûm. So far, I've managed to beat the first quest solo, but I keep getting overrun by orcs in the second one. Given that it's Khazad-dûm, though, I don't really think I can complain: if I didn't want to be fighting orcs, why the hell did I buy a deluxe expansion set in Moria? I expected something a lot more interesting from Lost Realm, and it didn't deliver.


My first ever solo success with my current deck was, predictably, A Passage through Mirkwood. I've also managed to solo through Hunt for Gollum and Dead Marshes, but to be honest, these were all pretty easy (we're actually thinking about getting the nightmare decks). I feel that my first proper solo success was beating We Must Away and Over the Misty Mountains Grim, which I talked about earlier. It was while playing We Must Away that I first managed to lower my threat below 20, which gave me the idea of including Resourceful in my solo deck. I'm happy to report that the experiment was a success: in my second solo playthrough of Hills of Emyn Muil, I got my threat below 20 and managed to play Resourceful on Eleanor, who also had a Song of Wisdom at that point. To be fair, though, I blew through the quest so easily anyway that I can't really claim the extra resource made that much of a difference.

There's a decent post on Dor Cuarthol about solo play, which I pretty much agree with: the solo experience is different, at times much more difficult and frustrating, but also very satisfying. As I've said before, my feeling so far is that while multiplayer games obviously generate a lot more problems in staging, the fact that there are several players on hand to deal with them tends to more than make up for it, especially when players can tailor their decks to be more specialized than they could manage in solo. The solo experience tends to be much more random; even when something unexpectedly disastrous happens in multiplayer, the odds are that someone has something they can at least try, or at the very least some of the load can usually be shared. In solo, it's much more likely that there's simply nothing you can do.

The other major difference between solo play and multiplayer so far has been pace. Multiplayer games, at least with three or four players, rarely last a huge amount of turns in my experience; either you can deal with the deluge of encounter cards or you can't. At least for my deck, with a (comparatively, for non-Hobbit heroes) low starting threat and quite a bit of threat management, in many quests I can hang around for quite a while, getting all my allies and attachments and whatnot into play. In quests like We Must Away and Conflict at the Carrock, where hanging around is positively indicated, I can use the fantastic Henamarth Riversong to really manage my quest progress, and prepare properly for what's coming. By contrast, Henamarth's ability is dramatically less useful when there are three or four cards coming off the encounter deck every turn.

In my case, the biggest gameplay difference is definitely card draw. In a slower-paced solo game, I have several times drawn my entire deck with the help of Gléowine and Beravor. This was why I wanted to include Will of the West on my sideboard, and it's even made me contemplate ditching Gléowine from my solo deck. In multiplayer, not only are there less turns, but I also occasionally lend Beravor's and Gléowine's abilities to other, more draw-challenged decks, so far fewer cards pass through my hand.

The other key difference is that in solo play, secrecy becomes possible. Like I said, I've managed to get Resourceful in play already, and with some interesting encounter deck manipulation cards with secrecy in the Dwarrowdelf packs, I really might consider something along those lines for my solo deck. Out of the Wild is interesting, especially since Escape from Mount Gram but also on its own, and would combine nicely with Risk Some Light, while both that and Henamarth make Needful to Know a viable proposition.

As you can see, one of my problems is that I want my deck to be able to do everything and then some. But even if none of this secrecy/scrying stuff works out, it'll be good groundwork for a future Mirlonde/Rossiel Lore deck. A deck with Rossiel, Mirlonde and Beravor would have a starting threat of 23...


So, let's solo play! I started out by revisiting Passage through Mirkwood. Drew a good opening hand with Gandalf, Arwen, a Warden of Healing and Elrond's Counsel, meaning the Forest Spider wouldn't be coming at me just yet. Everyone except Eleanor quests, and Dol Guldur Orcs show up, doing two damage to Éowyn; they will be engaging us! Elrond's Counsel drops our threat and traveling to Old Forest Road readies Beravor; Eleanor defends the orcs easily with Arwen's bonus, and Beravor deals them two damage.

At this point, everything is more or less under control. On the second turn, I play the Warden and hang onto two Spirit resources. Éowyn and Arwen quest, revealing a King Spider, who exhausts the Warden of Healing. With an engagement cost of 20, the spider's coming for us as well, and at this point it's all we can do to defend both of them. Beravor defends the Dol Guldur Orcs, whose shadow card is... King Spider, which exhausts Eleanor. So now I'm taking the King Spider undefended. Its shadow card is Ungoliant's Spawn, which raises my threat by eight, and the attack does 3 damage to Beravor. The threat increase means I'm at 36 after this turn, so next turn the Forest Spider will be joining in as well.


Seriously though, this is why we play this game. Just like that, one of the easiest quests in the while game has left two of my heroes on the verge of death, and my party facing more enemies than we can defend.


In my opinion, there are two reasons to buy Over Hill and Under Hill: We Must Away is one of the best quests in the game, and you should never, ever leave home without OHaUH Gandalf. He will now save us.

Gandalf and Arwen quest, and we draw Mountains of Mirkwood. Gandalf, Eleanor and Beravor defend an enemy each, mercifully not taking any more damage, and Gandalf's questing left Éowyn free to use her massive attack of 1 to get rid of the Dol Guldur Orcs. Gandalf obviously sticks around, raising my threat uncomfortably high, but in two more turns there are no more spiders and we're happily making our way down Beorn's Path. Éowyn does manage to get Caught in a Web, vindicating my decision to bring along some Athelas, and soon enough we've made our way out of the woods.

Whew. That was a lot more nerve-racking than it should have been! I'm sure a nice, calming trip down the river will make everything better.


That's right, it's Anduin time. I feel like I've tried this quest solo a million times; only once did I get past the Hill Troll, and then I got swamped by the second stage. For a long time, beating Anduin solo looked damn near impossible. Hell, we couldn't even get anywhere three-handed at first. Now, though, having managed to scrape through Passage through Mirkwood by the skin of Gandalf's teeth, I'm giving it another shot.

None of my heroes can defend a Hill Troll even once without dying, so even if I'm going to use the time-honored tactic of Forest Snare, I need some help. Also, the troll's defence of 3 means it's going to take us a million years to get rid of him, snare or no, without Mirkwood Runner. Ideally, an opening hand would have a defence buff (Arwen or Protector of Lórien), Forest Snare and Mirkwood Runner.

Of these, all my opening hand has to offer is Arwen, but a copy of Elrond's Counsel means we'll have several turns to spend, hoping to catch at least Forest Snare. I probably should have gone for the mulligan, but I was tempted by the fact that I'd finally drawn a side quest, and didn't. It was my newest addition, too: Scout Ahead!

This is a brilliant card: not only does it let me see what's coming, I can get rid of an annoying enemy or treachery permanently. It's perfect here, since the Hill Troll means I'll end up stuck on the first stage of this quest longer than it would take me to muster up the progress to pass it anyway, so diverting some to a side quest is no loss. I played it straight away, along with Arwen, and got enough progress in on the first turn to clear it. The next cards in the encounter deck are Banks of the Anduin, Gladden Fields, Pursued by Shadow, Dol Guldur Beastmaster and Wargs. Guess which card I added to the victory display?

If you've ever played Journey Along the Anduin, I'll bet you did. Banks of the Anduin is a lovely location; Gladden Fields comes with victory points so I can't pick it anyway. Since I can set up Pursued by Shadow so that Eleanor can get rid of it without taking any chances, the choice came down to the Beastmaster and the Wargs. Even though two shadow cards can be trouble, his engagement threshold is 35, so I don't need to worry about him just yet. Honestly though, I didn't take too many seconds to think about this, because Wargs can be so incredibly annoying. And now there's only one of them left! This was a good start.

Knowing what was coming out of the encounter deck for at least the next three turns helped, and we not only cleared a couple of locations but also succeeded in drawing Forest Snare! It would hurt Beravor, but we were ready for the Troll.

Next turn, our questing cleared Banks of the Anduin, so we knew what shadow card the Troll would get, making this the perfect opportunity to engage it. Arwen's bonus raised Beravor's defence to 3, meaning she barely survived the Troll's attack. Next turn, we snared him! We started whittling away at the immobilized troll, fighting off some orcs as we did. Luckily, I got a Warden of Healing into play, as well as Henamarth and a Northern Tracker, essential for clearing locations away from the staging area. The attack of 2 helps quite a lot, too! A few turns more, and my Mirkwood Runner showed up, quickly finishing off the Troll.

For what it's worth, the second quest stage is actually much harder than the first. You reveal one extra encounter card in staging, and enemies don't make engagement checks, so you have to pull them out one by one. After our first staging, there were four enemies in the staging area: the Beastmaster, a Goblin Sniper, Wargs and some orcs. Enough threat was building up that it was Gandalf time again; we killed the orcs, got A Burning Brand on Beravor so she could defend the Beastmaster risk-free, and Gandalf and Elfhelm took him out. As soon as my Northern Tracker cleared out several locations, we waved goodbye to Gandalf; having him around had cost me a bunch of threat, but luck held and I drew both copies of The Galadhrim's Greeting, more than making up for it.

In fact, my threat was so low that when I hit the last quest stage and did the final staging of the quest, only the Wargs engaged me of their own accord! I had to engage both Eastern Crows in the staging area myself, and the damn Wargs took several attempts before they'd stay put. Only then could I finally engage the Goblin Sniper who'd kept my Warden of Healing permanently busy, and finish the quest.

That's right: I won! I still can't quite believe it. Again, Over Hill and Under Hill Gandalf popped by to act as a fourth hero for a couple of turns, and my threat-reducing cards certainly made life a lot easier. My latest additions were brilliant: the Warden of Healing made the Goblin Sniper little more than a nuisance, and Scout Ahead took a weight off my shoulders in the early going. I was lucky, too, drawing Marsh Adder, Chieftain Ufthak and the other Hill Troll as shadow cards. But still, before this it hadn't mattered one bit how lucky or unlucky I was as I'd always lost, and actually succeeding at a quest that I at one time thought would be impossible for this deck is a great feeling.


Since this troll-fighting thing seemed to suit my deck better than I'd anticipated, I also decided to take a shot at Conflict at the Carrock. To cut a long story short, I don't know how I could possibly do this solo thing without Henamarth. Knowing what's coming off the encounter deck almost feels like cheating! We had to tangle with a Hill Troll in the early going, but luckily Gandalf stopped by to deal him some direct damage, Protector of Lórien let me defend him and Gandalf's attack of 5 helped put him away expeditiously. The only real problem I had was that both of my copies of The Galadhrim's Greeting were stuck at the bottom of my deck, and since there was no way I was going to get those trolls in play before my threat was well under 34, we had to hang out on the first quest stage for quite a while.

Eventually I drew my entire damn deck, got my threat below 30, and off we went to fight the trolls! Since I had both copies of Forest Snare in my hand, I voluntarily engaged two of the monsters to snare them, leaving my Mirkwood Runners to whittle down their hit points. The next two we just fought straight up: with an attacking force of Beravor, Elfhelm, Haldir, a Northern Tracker, two Mirkwood Runners and both Éowyn and Henamarth or Eleanor chipping in, we can one-shot a Troll! Having done that twice, all that remained was finishing off the two snared trolls and we were done!

The best part of all this is that the only solo quest that I really got into any kind of trouble with was Passage through Mirkwood.


And as usual, my deck update. Despite my disappointment with Lost Realm, I did really like the idea of side quests, so I went and picked up The Wastes of Eriador when it came out, just so I could get a copy of the awesome Scout Ahead in my deck. It was also high time to upgrade my healing allies: although I quite like my Daughters of the Nimrodel, they have two major drawbacks: they can only heal heroes, and since they don't have the Healer trait, I can't attach Athelas to them. Both of these problems are easily fixed with The Long Dark from the Dwarrowdelf cycle, which includes three copies of Warden of Healing. I was also excited to include them for thematic reasons. I have one Rohan hero and several Rohan allies, one Dúnadan hero and several Dùnadan and related cards, and one Gondor hero - but no Gondor allies. Finally I can fix this!

Now that I've established my solo sideboard, i.e. the cards I swap in when playing solo, I can start making my deck a bit more specialized. Since my partner uses Legolas, preferably tricked out with one or more Blade of Gondolin, in quite a few quests we end up with no active location after the combat phase. I wanted to use Thror's Map to fix this, but the FAQ made that impossible by changing Thror's Map to a travel action. Boo! In my opinion, if this errata was prompted by players using Thror's Map to abuse Path of Need, surely that card could have been fixed instead. Another idea could have been to restrict Thror's Map to times when there is no active location.

One change I did make: I can't remember the last time I used Forest Snare in a multiplayer game. With Thalin a regular quester, I've been thinking about trying out Infighting to get rid of annoying Goblin Snipers and, Eru forbid, Hummerhorns, so maybe I'll make that swap and see how it goes.

The Amazons

52 cards: 26 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 8 attachments, 14 events, 2 side quests


Allies: 25 (13/9/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker (THfG) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Mirkwood Runner (RtM) x2
Gléowine x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 8 (1/6/1)
Unexpected Courage
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Athelas (TLR) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 14 (10/4)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Infighting (AJtR) x2
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths

Side quests: 2 (1/1)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
swap one Warden of Healing (TLD) for Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West
swap Infighting (AJtR) x2 for Forest Snare x2


Next time, multiplayer mayhem in the mines of Moria!

Nov 16, 2015

Sipilänomics, part 4: Wrecking the universities

In my previous Sipilänomics posts, I've looked at the current Finnish government's economic policies in general, and more specifically at their attempts to cut unit labor costs and restructure health care. It's high time to take a closer look at another great controversy of the Sipilä administration: higher education.

This is going to be a bit more personal than my previous Sipilänomics posts, quite simply because it's the closest to my everyday life. I graduated from the University of Helsinki with a Master's degree in political history this October, and my plan was to apply to a doctoral program there in the spring. So not only have I had a front-row seat for much of this process, but it very directly affects my future as well.


The current administration's attitude to the Finnish university system has been made abundantly clear. The current minister of finance and head of the coalition party, Alexander Stubb, has publicly declared that he has no interest in "the concoctions of docents", and prefers reports from civil servants to academic research. Last summer, when the Sipilä cabinet's swingeing education cuts were announced, he mocked university professors by making fun of their three-month summer vacations.

Here I'd like to interrupt with a personal anecdote. I wrote my master's thesis during that same summer, supervised by one of these afore-mentioned professors. We had a long meeting on my thesis in Midsummer week, after which he took his annual vacation. Our next meeting was when he had returned from vacation and had time to read my thesis in its then-latest incarnation. This was at the very beginning of August. It may seem slightly worrying that a former prime minister and current financial minister thinks that the distance from Midsummer to the beginning of August is three months, but on the other hand, math skills of that caliber would explain many of his fiscal policies.

This same attitude was put into slightly more practical form by minister for education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen in an astonishing open letter to the universities. She accused the universities of a "sleeping contentment", maintaining that Finnish tertiary education doesn't suffer at all from a lack of resources, but rather from gross inefficiency. If politicians have been at fault, she says, it's been because they've trusted the universities too blindly in giving them too many resources. Now other countries are "running faster", accomplishing more with less, because of our universities' lackadaisical approach.

Jouni Tilli, currently of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, has presented an excellent analysis of the minister's rhetoric, pointing out its reliance on scapegoating, and connecting it to the similar blame and atonement rhetoric of prime minister Sipilä's televised speech.

So the thinking behind the massive education cuts seems to be clear: the government has done everything to provide for the universities, but they have become entitled and inefficient, resting on past laurels, and are therefore falling behind in international competition. A more vulgar version of these notions can be seen in the comments to just about every news article on higher education: universities are entitled, politicized, left-wing wastes of money.

Is any of this true?


There are several rankings that compare different universities to each other; one of the most prominent is the Academic Ranking of World Universities, generally known as the Shanghai ranking. In the latest iteration, the University of Helsinki is reckoned the 67th-best university in the world. It's also the only Finnish university to crack the top 300, although I'm not sure if that accurately respects the achievements of some portions of the Aalto university conglomerate. So we're doing extremely well globally, but then again, so are the rest of the Nordic countries. In fact, the top universities in the Scandinavian countries rank higher than ours. Are we falling behind? Not on the Shanghai ranking, where the University of Helsinki has improved its position. Similarly, in 2015 Helsinki cracked the top 100 in the Times Higher Education ranking for the first time, so not only is Helsinki very highly ranked, but its position has also been improving. As far as my alma mater is concerned, minister Grahn-Laasonen's accusations seem completely unfounded.

How inefficient is the system, though? The University of Helsinki may be ranking very high, but what about the system as a whole?

One way of assessing this is through the Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems. It ranks 50 countries' higher education systems in Resources, Connectivity, Output and overall performance. In terms of resources, Finland is well-ranked, showing we do make - or have made - a considerable national investment in tertiary education.

What are we getting in return? Simply put, one of the highest outputs of any higher education system in the world.

In the overall ranking, ours is reckoned the fourth-best tertiary education system in the world.

In pure monetary terms, as one of my former teachers, Juhana Aunesluoma, points out, the University of Helsinki is competitive in world rankings with universities that have a larger budget than the entire Finnish university system, fully bearing out the findings of the U21 report. So there's really no two ways about it: the notion that the Finnish university system is inefficient is ludicrously false.


Minister Grahn-Laasonen has responded to some of the criticisms of her letter. One of the points she addresses is the complaint that actual research is becoming more and more difficult to do because of the constantly growing administrative demands on researchers. The minister sympathizes with this, and calls on universities and researchers to innovate ways to focus more clearly on research.

This is either fantastically dishonest or deeply ignorant - as usual, take your pick. The reason for this burgeoning bureaucracy is the minister's own Coalition party. As Jouni Tilli pointed out in his analysis, the Finnish university system went through extensive reforms in 2010, initiated by Vanhanen agrarian-coalition cabinet, which made universities nominally independent. What this meant in practice was that they remained dependent on government funding, but all research staff became increasingly preoccupied with constantly searching for funding. The following Katainen-Stubb coalition cabinet not only cut that funding, but introduced a "strategic research council" to assess research projects and distribute funds, leading directly to hundreds of doctoral work-hours wasted on drawing up funding requests for government bureaucrats. It's amazing for a minister to completely ignore the political decisions that have led to this situation and demand the people being regulated "innovate" around the regulations put in place by her party. Again, in the rhetoric of the Finnish right wing, the consequences of their decisions can be blamed on the people who suffer from them. Looking at their track record with science and education policy, the only innovation that would seem to have real consequences would be getting rid of the Coalition party.

The one relevant statistic Grahn-Laasonen could quite to support her position was an OECD finding, according to which Finland was spending more on tertiary education than some comparison countries and getting less in return. As I hope the previous section demonstrates, this is gravely misleading. But if there are inefficiencies in the Finnish university system, where are they?

Professor Roope Uusitalo of the University of Jyväskylä had a fascinating post over at Akateeminen talousblogi, on university policy in Finland. It's generally known that university admissions have increased considerably over the last half-century; a perfectly natural and necessary consequence of transitioning from an agrarian to a service and high-tech economy. But where has the growth taken place? Here's a graph he made, which I stole:

The overall number of university students in Finland has quadrupled over the last 50 years or so. However, what's striking is that the University of Helsinki has barely grown at all. Instead, the growth of university education has mostly taken place outside of Helsinki, for reasons of area politics. Minister Grahn-Laasonen has also pointed to the proliferation of regional universities as a key inefficiency of the system: with limited resources, we can't do everything everywhere. However, the Sipilä government's cuts specifically target the University of Helsinki. If the point of the reforms is supposedly to make the system more efficient, why are the largest cuts being targeted at the best-performing university in the country? Again, because of area politics. No agrarian administration will tamper with the regional universities. For Coalition politicians to talk about there being too many universities is completely dishonest, because they know perfectly well that they're in a cabinet that will never under any circumstances see this as a problem.

As professor Petri Mäntysaari of Hanken puts it, Finnish higher education policy as a whole is based on thinking that the ruling parties would never countenance in any other sector of society. Instead of encouraging competition and individual effort, the universities and their researchers are being choked with bureaucracy, and their funding is being increasingly placed in the hands of government bureaucrats. Minister for economic affairs Olli Rehn just announced that they will seek tighter controls on assessing university research, again increasing bureaucracy.

It remains utterly hypocritical that a government that claims to be liberalizing the Finnish economy and society is monomaniacally dedicated to bringing every single aspect of university research under tighter and tighter bureaucratical control. Their talk of consolidating the universities and eliminating inefficiencies is complete nonsense when they make the heaviest cuts to the best-performing institution. The key values of Finnish university politics are bureaucracy, government control and area politics.


Last week, Alexander Stubb spoke at an event at our university, and was met by a massive demonstration. I wish I could have been there. Stubb has since apologized for the education cuts, because they've made people at universities feel bad. As Janne Saarikivi says in the previous link, this is the worthless rhetoric of a politician: supposedly feeling sorry for decisions you've made, but not actually doing anything about them. It's also part of a deeply pernicious political trend of framing all discussions as emotional speech. I was absolutely appalled by the Finnish researchers' union's response to Grahn-Laasonen's epistle; the title they went with was "Minister's letter feels insulting to university people". Feels insulting? Feels? I've tried to go to some lengths here to demonstrate that the picture the minister gave of Finland's university system is in many ways completely false, and at best seriously misleading and dishonest when compared to the policies it's defending. And the best that the researchers' union can come up with is to comment on how it makes them feel? With unions like these, do we even need the right to wreck the universities?

The response of the University of Helsinki has also been thoroughly disappointing. Despite an unprecedented frontal assault on the universities by the cabinet, the university still meekly invites the ministers in charge of gutting its finances and mocking it in public to speak at its events, and deploys the staff these same politicians want to see sacked to wrestle for the doors to auditoriums to keep the poor ministers from hearing student protests. Their only conception of university autonomy seems to be which direction to roll over in when kicked. For those of us evaluating the University of Helsinki as a potential future employer, it's painfully clear that the university administration is not going to fight our corner.

In general, the mood among my demographic is captured perfectly by Sophy Bergenheim in her blog. None of us have at any point been under the illusion that pursuing an academic career of any description would be easy. However, the actions of the previous administration, followed directly by this current one, make us wonder whether there's any point any more. We've gone from a country that saw education as a key component of nation-building and competitiveness to one where universities are the targets of savage cuts and public derision. Certainly none of us expect young academics to be hailed as heroes, but an atmosphere that celebrates anti-intellectualism and vilifies science and research as socialist lies is deeply depressing. The financial and general working realities of postgraduate study in the humanities and social sciences are miserable enough today, and are constantly getting worse. Anyone considering postgraduate study now has to deal with the fact that there will be unprecedented layoffs that will still be glutting the job market when they graduate, and university funding as well as research funding in general will be at record lows, locked away behind a planned economy of byzantine bureaucracies. What's the point?

I don't have an answer to that.


As the excellent Soh Wan Wei puts it, the tertiary education cuts have no economic basis. My goal here has been to demonstrate that the view of the university system that they are based on is completely wrong. As I've explained before in the context of unit labor costs, there is no reasonable economic philosophy that considers stripping a national economy of its human capital to be a way toward growth. Instead, what the Sipilä government is doing can more accurately be characterized as a project to undevelop the Finnish economy.

If the current administration's economic and education policies make no sense, why are they doing all this? It's not because they're stupid or evil, at least in any more significant sense than politicians and people in general are. It's because the Sipilä administration's policies are essentially a performance designed to pander to a certain segment of voters. Their overall economic policy is designed to give a false impression of "austerity", while channeling money to the government parties' main supporters. The focus on reducing unit labor costs was similarly designed to give an impression of creating competitiveness while actually sacrificing it in favor of short-term benefits. The great health and social services reform project masqueraded as savings and rationalization while entrenching a massively expensive system of area subsidies. In sum, the main policy of the Sipilä administration is to pretend to reform the Finnish economy. The cabinet poses as rational business administrators making tough decisions and fighting a bloated, lazy, entitled public sector.

In the context of this grand narrative, it doesn't matter that the university system is none of these things. The kind of Audi-driving engineer with A Real Job who passionately supports the Sipilä administration knows that the universities are corrupt, stagnant pools of left-wing social justice warriors leeching on public funds, and the administration is putting into effect an education policy designed specifically to pander to him. The universities are convenient scapegoats, not only as examples of the supposedly gigantic and wasteful public sector, but especially for the failures of previous administrations' educational policies. This is manifestly obvious in the ways in which minister Grahn-Laasonen demands that universities innovate around the difficulties created by her party, as if the problem wasn't stupid and short-sighted policy but rather researchers' failures to think up ways to get around it. Facts don't matter; responsibility doesn't exist. The only coin of the realm is the public image of the cabinet parties as stalwart warriors fighting entitled fatcat professors with three-month summer holidays.

In pursuing this image, the current administration is doing deep and long-lasting damage to one of the best university systems in the world. As so many other aspects of the Sipilä cabinet's policies, their university policy poses as tough thinking on long-term problems, but is actually cheap populism of the worst kind, which sacrifices the long-term health of the economy and the entire country to score cheap political points by pandering to voters' prejudices.

Nov 9, 2015

Sipilänomics, part 3: Health zones and falling cabinets, oh my

Last Thursday, Finland suddenly found itself in a crisis when prime minister Juha Sipilä threatened to dissolve his cabinet. There was high drama until around 1 am Saturday, when we were told that the situation had been resolved. The crux of the argument was sote: the social and health services reform. To explain what this is all about, we need a short lesson in Finnish administrative history.


For most of Finnish independence, there were three main administrative tiers in the country: the municipality, the province and the state. Of these, the Finnish municipality in its current form dates back to the 1865 decree of municipalities, passed when Finland was still a grand duchy of Russia. At this time, a secular local administration separate from the church parish was created. Some of the responsibilities of the state were devolved to the municipalities, and municipal councils started to be established. Another 19th-century development was municipal taxation. These laid down the basis for the municipality as a local unit with theoretically independent finances and a large and growing array of responsibilities to provide services for its inhabitants. In the 21st century, the constitution guarantees municipalities autonomy.

Over time, two things happened. First, with the general growth of the state, municipal responsibilities also mushroomed. Contributing to this was the decline of the provinces. Back in 1996, there were still twelve provinces in Finland:

Coming into the 2000s, that number dropped to five, until the agrarian-led second Vanhanen cabinet abolished the provinces entirely in 2010. The weakness and eventual disappearance of this intermediate level of administration meant that Finnish municipalities ended up being saddled with a huge number of responsibilities. Finland is almost unique in Europe in having practically no intermediate level of government whatsoever between the municipality and the state.

Secondly, continuing urbanization made the municipal structure unviable. Because the original municipalities were based on parishes, there were a lot of them. Below is a map of Finnish municipalities in 2007:

That's a total of 432 municipalities. Today, that number is 317. The financial autonomy of the municipalities was never really possible, and all kinds of co-operative arrangements were created between municipalities to produce services more economically. With the continuing movement from the countryside into the cities, the state of municipal finances became so dire that several grand local government reforms have been attempted since the 1960s. Real progress only started to be made under agrarian and coalition administrations in the 2000s, but municipal reform has been a constant battleground between parties and areas.

With healthcare forming such a large part of overall state and local expenditures, the bewildering array of administrative arrangements created to provide them has been identified as a prime target for rationalization ages ago. Back in 2005, a working group comprised of all parliamentary parties forged an agreement to centralize healthcare and social services in five national "social and health" (sote) areas. The actual implementation of this was delayed in the general clusterfuck that was the Katainen/Stubb administration, but when prime minister Sipilä took office on his messianic mission to rescue the Finnish economy, it was clear from the get-go that the sote reforms would be a key project.

So the Sipilä administration inherited an agreement on five sote zones, based on expert consensus. The coalition party had set a maximum of twelve sote zones in their electoral program coming in, as this had been identified as the maximum viable number. Despite this, the prime minister demanded that the Coalition party agree to a system of eighteen zones. Experts condemned this as completely unworkable, but the prime minister insisted that it was either eighteen zones or he would dissolve cabinet.

Why? What happened?


As Sipilä explained in his dramatic live press conference last Friday, his aim is not only to provide healthcare and social services efficiently. Instead, the agrarian party has hijacked the sote reform, and instead of creating healthcare and social service zones, they are now insisting that the reforms produce comprehensive, autonomous local government units that will combine a far wider variety of administrative powers.

Whether it's left-wingers occupying the universities or an agrarian local government scheme, the definition of autonomy in Finland is that a group of people decide what they want to spend money on, and make someone else pay for it. What Sipilä is doing is taking a healthcare reform project with almost universal parliamentary support, and turning it into an agrarian pork-barrel scheme to funnel endless streams of money into what they are pleased to call "area politics".

After the Second World War, Finland was still largely an agrarian economy. By the 1960's, the mechanization of agriculture and forestry work made the small farmer's life largely untenable, and a wave of urbanization started, leading to the evolution of Finland from an agrarian to a high-tech and service economy. The simplest way to explain what prime minister Juha Sipilä's agrarian party stands for is to say that they are doing their best to stop this evolution from happening. At their most demented, they condemn urbanization as an artificial, politically created process that can be reversed, in a sort of Finnish agrarian version of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

The raison d'être of the agrarian party is the pork barrel. Under the guise of farm subsidies, area subsidies and the wonderful euphemism "area equality", the Finnish state dumps billions of euros every single year into what is called "keeping all of Finland inhabited". It's difficult to comb through the various state budgets to figure out exactly how much money is being spent on various area subsidy schemes; it becomes a herculean task to estimate how much money is constantly being wasted in retarding the development of the Finnish economy. The chimera of "area equality" is almost certainly the most colossal waste of resources by the Finnish government. Dispensing with it would fix the deficit immediately, and make life better in this country for everyone. Maintaining it, on the other hand, creates this:

That right there is a map of Finland with each municipality color-coded by the party that got the most votes there in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Guess who's dark green.

This scheme, where the agrarian party makes sure the money keeps flowing from the state and the cities into the countryside and the voters keep on voting, is the machine that powers Sipilä's party. Because it gets dressed up in various nationalistic notions of food autarky, the exceptional purity of Finnish food and other ridiculous mirages, it's politically very difficult to oppose openly anyway, but to the agrarian party, it's absolutely crucial. Crucial enough that healthcare reform and even the entire Sipilä cabinet can be laid on the line to safeguard it.


At the time of this writing, the word was that a compromise had been reached: there would be 15 sote zones and 18 autonomous administrative areas. This sounds like a terrible compromise, and a decisive defeat for the Coalition party, who effectively surrendered to Sipilä's blackmail. At worst, it will be ruinous for the nation. Compared to the more reasonable four- or five-area model, the Sipilä scheme is at least a billion euros more expensive. A billion.

Sipilä's sote project will take a system of healthcare and social services that was supposed to save money by centralizing services and turn it into a permanent pork-barrel system of autonomous local administrations, whose actual task will be to keep this political machine running in perpetuity. So what is being sold to the public as a scheme to cut the deficit is, in fact, again, the opposite. This is entirely in line with the Sipilä cabinet's fake austerity policies in general, and their project to undevelop the Finnish economy.

So the headline you may have seen, that says health care reform is bringing down the Finnish government, is dead wrong. Sipilä's insistence on turning health care reform into a pork barrel electoral machine and sacrificing his cabinet to make it happen is what caused this crisis, and the Coalition party's capitulation means it's being resolved in the worst possible way. If the government really wanted to reform healthcare, it wouldn't be this hard. To paraphrase Lenin, it's not what the mouth says, it's what the hands do. As ever for the Sipilä cabinet, these are two completely different things.

Nov 2, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 14: Fire and Water

Now if you wish, like the dwarves, to hear news of Smaug, you must go back again to the evening when he smashed the door and flew off in rage, two days before.

While Thorin and Company are busy bumbling around under the Mountain, it's now time for the Lake-men to reap what Bilbo and the dwarves have sown. We find some of them gazing north across the waters of the Long Lake at night, wondering what the occasional light they see in the distance is. Optimists suggest it's the dwarves forging gold under the Mountain; a "grim-voiced fellow", later identified as the archer Bard, descendant of the last lord of Dale, maintains it's much more likely to be the dragon.

"You are always foreboding gloomy things!" said the others. "Anything from floods to poisoned fish. Think of something cheerful!"

I don't know if the floods and poisoned fish are meant to suggest Bard as a kind of Old Testament prophet; I suppose the thought only occurs to me because I'm aware of the author's faith, but the Lake-men's enthusiasm about the treasures of the Mountain does have something of the golden calf about it. Properly speaking, a prophet shouldn't warn you that a dragon is coming now, but rather that because everyone is so wicked and impious, a dragon will come ten generations later. And anyway, the theological fact is that you're not a real prophet unless you can summon bears. Although I may have to revisit this later!

When a blaze lights up the northern end of the lake, the townspeople are overjoyed: the King of the Mountain is turning the river golden! That was one hell of a show the dwarves put on as they passed through. Bard, of course, realizes it's actually the dragon, and rushes to call out the warriors to defend Lake-town.


Smaug's descent on Lake-town is a very modern battle: the dragon swoops down on the town like a strafing aircraft, met not by individual heroes but by disciplined anti-aircraft fire and damage-control parties. Even Bard, the hero of the scene, leads his men like a modern officer, not a warrior from the sagas:

At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon's wrath blazed to its height, till he was blind and mad with it. No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age; nor would they have dared now, if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.

Even the way we learn Bard's name in a parenthesis is the exact opposite of the heroic saga traditions, and fighting to the last arrow is another one of Tolkien's deliberate anachronisms. Even the description of the battle appearing to onlookers as surpassing all fireworks, and the last company of archers grimly standing their ground are very modern images.

At this point, I have to mention the most shocking detail in this chapter: a woman! For what I believe is the first time in the entire book, women are present:

Already men were jumping into the water on every side. Women and children were being huddled into laden boats in the market-pool. Weapons were flung down. There was mourning and weeping, where but a little time ago the old songs of mirth to come had been sung about the dwarves. Now men cursed their names.

There they are! Granted, as useless non-combatants being loaded onto boats like so much cargo, rather than acting for themselves, let alone speaking, but at least they exist.

As for cursing the dwarves, well they might: inevitably, the dragon is overwhelming the Lake-men's defenses, and the town is going up in flames. Even Bard and his great yew bow are running out of arrows, and around him the archers are fleeing. But as Laketown is paying the price for Bilbo's clever riddling, so will Smaug pay for his vanity: the thrush Bilbo threw a rock at lands on Bard's shoulder. As a descendant of the men of Dale, Bard can understand the thrush, who, having overheard Bilbo reporting back to the dwarves, tells him to look out for the unprotected spot in the hollow of the dragon's left breast. The conversation is another example of Tolkien's notions of heredity and lineage, and has dramatic results: Bard fires his last shot, his prized black arrow, into Smaug's one vulnerable point, and the dragon crashes to his death on the ruins of Lake-town.


With Smaug dead and the town destroyed, the survivors gather on the shore of the Long Lake. Fully a quarter of the townspeople are dead, and more will die of their wounds; it's the innocent folk of Lake-town who pay the highest price for Bilbo's dragon adventure, and get the least in return. As they shiver on the beach, the townspeople are irate at their Master's lack of leadership and wish they could proclaim Bard king. When it turns out that Bard survived the battle, the crisis comes to a head, but the Master defuses the situation with a clever speech, reminding his people that none of this is his fault: if you want someone to blame for the destruction of your town, blame the dwarves. I think this is the first occurrence in Tolkien's works of the savvy, manipulative politician character. In this case, though, he's right, and soon enough, the townsfolk and even Bard are carried away with visions of the dragon's vast treasure lying unprotected under the Mountain.

As the Lake-men recover from their ordeal, news of the fall of Smaug spreads far and wide: his death is the talk of birds from the Long Lake to the Misty Mountains, and soon enough everyone from Beorn to the goblins of the mountains has heard the news. To the Lake-men's fortune, so has King Thranduil of the Wood-elves, who leads his host forth to get his share of the treasure. Fleet of foot, the elves soon arrive at the lakeshore, and help the former inhabitants of Lake-town as best they can. Having seen to them, a combined force of elves and men heads for the Mountain.

Next time: dwarven diplomacy.

Oct 26, 2015

My thesis: Forests, nationalism and Finnish armored doctrine

For those of you that read Finnish, my master's thesis in political history should now be available for download at the University of Helsinki digital repository. The title is "Onko hyökkäysvaunuilla mitään tulevaisuutta meillä?" Suomalainen panssariajattelu ja puolustusvoimien maastokäsitys 1919-1939; roughly translated: "Do tanks have any future with us?" [the title of a 1924 article]: Finnish armored thought and the armed forces' conception of Finnish terrain, 1919-1939. I use the term "armored thought" to capture the fact that the way the military sees the potential use of the tank influences more than just tank doctrine proper, but also anti-tank weapons and organization, and the whole role of both friendly and enemy tanks in battle.

The starting point for my thesis was a question: what happened to the Finnish armored force? In 1919, the newly founded Finnish government brought a stack of surplus war materiel from France, including some thirty Renault FT tanks. These were organized into what was officially called the Tank Regiment, but was actually a battalion. At the time, this gave Finland the largest armored force in Northern Europe, and that distinction was maintained for several years; Finnish armor outnumbered and outclassed the Soviets well into the 1920's. However, by the time the Winter War rolls around, the main strength of the Finnish armored forces is still those same Renaults. They were dug in as armored strongpoints and destroyed in battle. The Vickers 6-ton tanks that should have replaced them were bought too late; only a handful of them saw combat, and most were lost. At the same time, the rest of the army was suffering terribly from a complete neglect of anti-tank defenses that had only begun to be remedied when war broke out.

So what happened? How did the Finnish army go from being at the forefront of armored warfare in North Europe to facing the mechanized Soviet onslaught in 1939 with a handful of completely obsolete World War I tanks and desperately improvised anti-tank weapons? Why did we drop the ball on this so spectacularly? That's what I aimed to find out.


Previous research held that Finland's ex-czarist officers were to blame for the neglect of armored warfare. In the years before the Second World War, the Finnish army officer corps basically consisted of three groups. There were some older Finnish officers who had served in the Imperial Russian Army when Finland was a part of Russia. Their political opponents were the Jäger officers, who as young activists had left Finland covertly during the First World War and enlisted in the German army. The third group were some youg officers who had joined up during the Finnish civil war in 1918, and those joining up through the Finnish army itself. This last group were obviously very junior in the 1920s, but their influence would naturally grow.

The accepted story of Finnish armor has been that the ex-czarist officers were hostile to armored warfare and were convinced that tanks couldn't be used at all in Finland's forests. The trouble is that this claim is very poorly sourced. The better histories of the Finnish army tend to all refer to the same sources on this, chief among which is a 1924 article in Suomen Sotilasaikakauslehti, a military periodical. Written by a young lieutenant in the Tank Regiment, it obliquely refers to a general notion that tanks are unusable in Finnish terrain. The more specific claim that czarist officers were responsible can be found in the armored corps' histories, and most directly in the memoirs of Aarne Sihvo, the highest-ranking of the Jäger officers and a bitter enemy of the "czarists".

These sources aren't very persuasive, and there is also evidence against them. Moreover, in the "Jäger revolt" of 1924, the Jäger officers effectively staged a coup in the army and had the majority of the "czarist officers" thrown out. If the ex-Russian Army officers were to blame for the neglect of armor and the notion of the unusability of tanks, surely things would change when they were sidelined. But they didn't. So there are several problems with the accepted story.

My goal was to find out how Finnish officers thought about armored warfare between the world wars. Interwar armored doctrines are interesting because they're a great showcase for the relationship between technology and doctrine: technology sets a framework for doctrine (the tanks can only go so fast, for instance), but different armies with access to the same technology will create very different doctrines. I started from Elizabeth Kier's idea of an army's culture determining what doctrinal options it "sees". Did the Finnish army not see tanks as viable weapons of war in Finland? If so, why not, and why did their opinion change?

As material I used articles published in Finnish military periodicals from 1919 to 1939 dealing with armored warfare. When it became obvious that I was dealing with a wider matter than armor, I also looked at articles that dealt with the military geography of Finland. My method was discourse analysis. I wasn't all that interested in what the articles were saying about armored warfare, but rather how they were saying it: what kind of arguments were being used, what was not being said, and so on. My main perspective was the history of ideas. Military thought is often quite wrongly segregated from the rest of society. Especially the majority of earlier studies on Finnish doctrine tend to view the development of doctrine as simple, apolitical, technical problem-solving, where field regulations neatly succeed one another. I wanted to see if Finnish military thought and even armored doctrine could be linked to broader Finnish politics and culture of the era.

Another perspective I used was critical geopolitics. Critical geopolitics maintains that concepts of terrain and geography in general aren't objective reconstructions of natural facts, but rather ideological and political constructs. Geographical ideas are created for various reasons, and they both influence and are influenced by culture and politics. In this case, the Winter War did demonstrate rather conclusively that tanks could indeed be used in Finnish terrain. So why would Finnish officers think differently?

As a curiosity, I happened to read James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State while working on this thesis, and it definitely had an influence. Military doctrine is also a product of "state sight"; the war of the future that doctrine is created to fight is necessarily imaginary, and based on theoretical abstractions. For a cadre conscript army like Finland's, even most of the army's own formations only exist in theory before actual mobilization. What my thesis ended up being was a look at one abstract model: the Finnish army's changing concept of the military geography of Finland.


I found that the accepted view of the ex-czarist officers' hostility toward tanks is almost certainly wrong. While these officers ran the army high command, the Tank Regiment featured in their wartime planning. Hell, they're the ones who bought the damn things in the first place! In the early- to mid-1920's, there are several articles on mechanization, machine warfare and armor in the periodicals, expressing a variety of views from a Fulleresque obsolescence of the infantry to a dogmatic rejection of armor as unsuitable to Finland. Several young officers from the armored regiment took to the pages to defend their branch of service. It's also at this time that Sihvo adapts the French 1919 tank regulations to Finnish use, publishing several books on the subject. There were both pro- and anti-tank views being aired, as it were.

By contrast, after the "Jäger coup", this discussion dies down. A consensus forms that tanks can't be used in Finnish terrain at all, and both the armored corps and anti-tank defences are completely neglected. It's paradoxical that the Jägers, many of whom strongly identified as a young, dynamic force sweeping away the old, stagnant "Russians" and their outdated military thinking should have been so hostile to modern warfare. During the civil war, Sihvo had called the ex-czarist officers the "men of the retreat system", as opposed to the fervently offensive-minded Jägers. Elsewhere in Europe, young, dynamic revolutionary movements often went together with a modernist cult of the machine and the future; it's no accident that J.F.C. Fuller was a Fascist, or that armored doctrine was developed in such forward-looking ways in Germany and the Soviet Union. In Finland, by contrast, a system of military thought developed that almost harked back to the attaque á outrance of early World War I days. Why?

The key is terrain. Finnish officers formulated a view of Finnish terrain as diametrically opposite to Central Europe. One writer compared it to a photograph and a negative: compared to Finland, Central Europe had exactly the opposite proportion of forests. Central European tactics and organization were developed for this open environment, while Finnish tactics and doctrine had to work in the Finnish forests. The officers of the 1920's held that positional and machine warfare were impossible in the forests, as the dramatically reduced visibility drastically favored the offensive, and the tree cover effectively neutralized artillery, both by detonating the shells too high and early, and making resupply so difficult that sustained barrages couldn't be fired. Tanks couldn't be used in the woods at all, so neither armor nor anti-tank defences were necessary. So in effect, in the Finnish forests it would be as if the First World War had never happened.

This view is quite extraordinary, and completely wrong. Below is what a Finnish forest looks like after heavy artillery fire in the Winter War (SA-kuva):

Tanks were also used by both sides, and en masse by the Soviets. Both the Winter and Continuation wars saw prolonged periods of positional warfare, and the deployment of the entire conventional arsenal of machine warfare. While the war to the north of the Ladoga was very much forest fighting, in the crucial theater of the Karelian Isthmus, a brutal battle of attrition was fought that was exactly the kind of warfare Finnish officers of the late 1920's and early 30's had considered impossible.

I believe there are several reasons why they thought this. One was a lack of funding in the 20's, and a lack of ambition by officers, which led to most marches being carried out over roads and most battle exercises being fought over exercise grounds. There were very few large-scale manoeuvres. So it seems likely that many officers actually had very little practical experience of forest fighting. Similarly, practical knowledge of the effects of modern artillery fire on Nordic forests was in short supply.

Bizarrely, what little practical evidence there was contradicted the notion of the military exceptionality of the Finnish forest and the unique ability of the Finns to operate in it. In the Finnish civil war, both sides had effectively been restricted to the roads for both movement and combat, since poorly trained Finnish troops were entirely unable to operate effectively in the woods. The Renault tanks of the Tank Regiment had not only been tested in the terrain of the Karelian Isthmus and found usable, but the regiment had regularly toured Finnish military bases, demonstrating the tanks' ability to function in all environments. Yet this practical experience was ignored.

More importantly, though, there is a long tradition of Finnish thought (pdf) that identifies the Finns as "people of the forest", as opposed to Swedish-speakers or Russians. The unique nature of Finnish terrain has been synonymous with the uniqueness of the Finnish people, and still is: in his unprecedented televised address last month, Finland's current prime minister appealed to Finns' "unique relationship to nature". Finnish army officers, after all, weren't just concerned with training conscripts for war. The Finnish nation had only very recently been invented, and one important reason why Parliament had chosen a cadre system of conscription over several other alternatives was that a centralized national army would be more effective in indoctrinating conscripts into a proper Finnish nationalism. In order to achieve this, army officers used nationalist writings from the 19th century, which were steeped in the mythology of "forest Finland". The majority of the officers, especially the Jägers who stayed in the army after the civil war, were fanatical nationalists. Most of them also had at best a rudimentary military education.

Like I explained earlier, in order to formulate doctrine, a model of the terrain and forces involved has to be created. In the mental model of the Jäger officers, their Finnish conscripts were natural forest fighters, and the Finnish landscape was composed almost exclusively of impassable forests where "Central European" tactics and machine warfare wouldn't work at all. This "mental forest" was one where tanks simply couldn't operate. It was this that led to the idea often expressed in the late '20s and early 30's in the periodicals that tanks were unusable in Finland. So far from the former Imperial Russian officers being to blame, it was in fact the nationalist ideology of the Jägers that gave rise to the "anti-tank fallacy" of the interwar period.


Previous research has maintained that Finnish thinking on armored warfare changed in the 1930's, when Finland's military attaché in Moscow, Aladár Paasonen, reported on the growing mechanization of the Soviet army. In response to Paasonen's report, trials were arranged in the Karelian Isthmus, which demonstrated that tanks could, after all, be used in Finnish terrain. This caused a complete shift in Finnish doctrine, but the re-equipping of the army was still a work in progress when the Winter War broke out.

Again, this is at best partially true. The shift in thinking had actually started earlier, because the decade of neglect for the armored corps ended in 1933 when field trials were arranged to determine the successor of the obsolescent Renault FTs. Similarly, an anti-tank regulation - a translated Soviet manual! - had been published, along with a program of anti-tank training for the infantry. On the other hand, it's puzzling why it took the Finnish army so long to react to Soviet mechanization, which had started in 1928. While Finnish periodicals had actively followed international discussions on tank doctrine in the earlier 1920s, by the time of the internationally influent Salisbury Plain experiments in 1928-29, the Finnish defence press was ignoring tank warfare.

What we do know is that in the early 1930's, there was a cultural shift in the Finnish army. The Finnish army had been massively influenced by Germany, both through the military training of the Jägers and the numerous German army officers who acted as consultants in the early years of the Finnish army. Interestingly, Sihvo was a prominent critic of the German influence: he felt that the Finns were nothing but expendable colonial troops to the Germans. His biographer believes this is the main reason why Sihvo, an illustrious public figure at the time, was forced into resigning from the army in 1919. In the early 30's, concerns similar to Sihvo's were given official acceptance in a memorandum drafted by the army high command, under two successive Jäger chiefs of staff. The memorandum decried the fact that more than a decade after independence, Finland still didn't have its own army, but rather a force created to serve the needs of a foreign power. I believe that this reorientation gives rise to the change in Finnish military thought in the 1930's in general. Later in the decade, the first actual large-scale trials of forest fighting demonstrated that the Finnish army regimental organization was unsuitable to forest warfare. It was also found that the effectiveness of artillery in the forest was far greater than had previously been assumed.

This general shift in thinking seems to also have led to the armor question being re-examined. This didn't actually mean that any new information was produced. The 1934 trials in the Isthmus were held using some new Vickers tanks and the single Carden-Loyd tankette in Finland - but the majority of the tanks were Renaults. Effectively, the Finnish armored corps demonstrated in 1934 what they had already demonstrated in 1920 and the following decade: that Renault FTs could be used in Finnish terrain. What was unacceptable in the 1920's became acceptable in the 1930's, and Finnish armored thinking changed.


The fact that practically identical trials in 1920 and 1934 had opposite effects on Finnish doctrine highlights the way in which military thought cannot be seen as simple, technical problem-solving. As Elizabeth Kier said, understanding military culture is crucial to understanding the development and change of doctrine. Specifically, an examination of the army's conception of Finnish terrain through critical geopolitics and the history of ideas is crucial to understanding how the army saw the useability of tanks and the necessity of anti-tank defenses. To understand what doctrines armies arrive at, we have to understand how they see.

And that, in brief and unscientific form, was pretty much my master's thesis. It clocked in at 97 pages, and was both incredibly stressful and incredibly rewarding to write. The whole project took off in a completely unexpected direction by the time I found myself reading articles on the effectiveness of various kinds of artillery munitions in forests, but it was worth it. Overall, though I'm very much a fan of new military history, I feel that my thesis also demonstrates that re-examining topics of "old military history" like doctrine and tactics with a cultural studies approach and apparatus can be worthwhile, at least in providing new perspectives.

Oct 19, 2015

LotR LCG: The Mirkwood cycle

Ever since we got into the Lord of the Rings living card game over midsummer, we've been collecting the various expansions in some kind of order. The first releases after the core set were the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, so you only need the core set to use them. In fact, our very first LotR LCG purchase included a Shadows of Mirkwood pack, namely The Dead Marshes, because my partner was keen on Boromir. Overall, the Mirkwood packs are tremendous value for money: not only are there some excellent player cards for all spheres, but almost all of the quests are good fun as well. If you're just getting into the game, I can't think of a better way to start collecting beyond the core set than the Mirkwood cycle adventure packs.

For this post, I thought I'd go through the packs one by one, sharing our experiences with the quest and discussing a player card or two.


The Hunt for Gollum - DL 4

The overall theme of the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle is Gollum: your heroes have been recruited by Gandalf to find the slimy bastard and bring him to the Elven-king's halls in Mirkwood. The first quest finds us searching for signs of Gollum along the banks of the Great River.

As I mentioned before, the notion that this quest is as difficult as A Journey Along the Anduin is ridiculous. The Hunt for Gollum is a fairly leisurely stroll along the river looking for clues. It's not a complete pushover; if, for instance, the Hunters from Mordor show up when there are several clue cards in play, things can get nasty. I have been defeated by this quest a few times! Most of the time it's fairly easy, but not boring; a basic, fun enough quest that's a nice introduction to further adventures in Middle-Earth, especially for new players devastated by A Journey Along the Anduin.

Card spotlight: Winged Guardian

I think there are some Eagle cards in just about every Mirkwood adventure pack, and my partner's deck is pretty much based on them by now. Winged Guardian is one of the best defenders in the early game, with a defence of 4 that's almost surreally high right after the core set. The cost of 2 is incredibly low, but the only downside is that Winged Guardian leaves play after defending, unless you spend a resource. Still, though, it's a brilliant card, and I don't know where we'd be without it. The Eagle cards are a great addition to any Tactics deck.


Conflict at the Carrock - DL 7

After finding Gollum's trail by the Great River, we hear that a group of Trolls has taken up residence at the Carrock, and Grimbeorn has gone to kill them, so off we go to give him a hand!

I've heard Conflict at the Carrock (which, by the way, sounds exactly like a WWE pay-per-view event) described as a quest that can't be beat on the first attempt. Well, I'm here to tell you that isn't true. This is basically a prequel version of the Hobbit saga expansion quest We Must Away, Ere Break of Day: there's a benign first stage, and then suddenly trolls, sacks and mayhem. This time, there are four trolls, and you have to defeat every troll in play to win.

Rather like our first multiplayer experience with We Must Away, our first swing at Carrock went disastrously wrong. We were playing three-handed (my Spirit/Lore, my partner's Team Boromir Tactics Eagles, and a Leadership dwarf deck), and not only did we pretty much barge straight into the quest trolls, but managed to draw a Hill Troll from the encounter deck as well! So now there were five trolls to deal with.

Strangely enough, we did just that: the dwarf deck laid into the Hill Troll and finished it off with a bit of help, just in time before the dwarves' threat got high enough that the trolls came in. To stop them from having to take on all four at once, both other decks voluntarily engaged one troll each. I had to chump block mine at first, but hell, I actually managed to do some damage in return with the help of the invaluable Haldir of Lórien! Meanwhile, the Tactics deck was holding its own quite nicely and using Horn of Gondor to benefit from all the chump blocking and, very appropriately, summon Beorn himself to help out. Over at the Leadership end, it's amazing what Thorin Oakenshield can do sometimes, and an improbable dwarven Steward of Gondor got enough resources in play to get us Grimbeorn's fantastic troll-fighting help.

Long story short, even though our situation looked worse than dire at one point, we defeated the trolls! This is a really, really good scenario, and we had a hell of a time. Although I can't imagine how I could ever manage to beat it solo, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my deck did in combat. I would highly recommend buying this adventure pack for the quest alone.

Card spotlights: A Burning Brand, Song of Wisdom

Having said that, if you use Lore, you want to get this pack for the player cards as well. A Burning Brand is a mainstay of Lore decks for its shadow-canceling ability; defending becomes that much more predictable, and you can laugh at Dol Guldur Beastmasters. The Khazad-dûm expansion already has some pretty damn nasty shadow cards, and they start getting nightmarish by Lost Realm, so this is a must-have.

I wanted to highlight Song of Wisdom as well because I use it myself in combination with A Burning Brand. The Mirkwood packs include four Song cards, one for each sphere, which you can attach to your heroes to give them that sphere's resource icon. This is obviously great for multi-sphere decks, since that hero's resources can then be used to pay for cards from both their original and new sphere. My heroes are Éowyn, Eleanor (both Spirit) and Beravor (Lore); giving Eleanor Song of Wisdom lets me use her resources to pay for both Spirit and Lore cards, which makes my life a lot easier. The Song cards can also let you do all kinds of other stuff that's dependent on your heroes' spheres. In my case, Song of Wisdom also means I can give Eleanor a Burning Brand, which, along with Protector of Lórien, makes her a reasonably competent defender.


A Journey to Rhosgobel - DL 6

After defeating the trolls, we follow Gollum's trail further along the Anduin, where we encounter Wilyador, a badly wounded great eagle. We can't save him, but Radagast can, so off we go to Rhosgobel.

This is another three-stage quest, where you race against time to get an Eagle ally to safety before time runs out: poor Wilyador takes two points of damage at the end of every round, and at the end of the quest, you have to heal him completely to succeed. To do this, you gather Athelas objectives, each of which will heal five points of damage from Wilyador. The trouble is, they don't tell you that. When you clear the second stage, the quest is over, and only then are you told that if you don't have at least one Athelas objective for every five damage on Wilyador, sorry, game over! Obviously this was the end of our first three-handed attempt, none of us having any idea this was coming as I absolutely refuse to spoil quest cards. This is just terrible, terrible design! Once you know this, though, you'll know you have to pace your questing appropriately.

A Journey to Rhosgobel may require the most specialized deck of all the Mirkwood scenarios; not only will some healing come in real handy, but there are also enemies in the encounter deck that can only be engaged by Eagles or cards with the "ranged" keyword. Luckily, we've got both eagles and healing in our decks; even more luckily, we didn't really need either on our two-handed attempt. This is a fun and different quest: threat is a complete non-issue, and deck abilities like healing and ranged combat that are normally just nice extras are suddenly vitally important. We like it!

Card spotlights: Escort from Edoras

Where my partner has eagles, I have my Rohan allies. Since Éowyn is one of my heroes, including Rohan characters feels thematically appropriate, but it's also extremely useful: since I mostly play two-handed with a Tactics deck, the questing tends to be mostly my responsibility, and Rohan allies are excellent questers. Case in point: Escort from Edoras. For a measly two Spirit resources, you get a one-time questing ally with four willpower. It's like having Gandalf along! When I started out with my Spirit/Lore deck from the core set, questing power and allies were my most immediate need, and Rohan is the answer.


Hills of Emyn Muil - DL 4

We here at this blog aren't afraid to voice controversial opinions. This is largely because no-one reads this blog, but unafraid we are nonetheless. Here's what the Tales from the Cards blog has to say about the Hills of Emyn Muil: "I’ll be blunt, this quest is widely regarded as the weakest of all the LOTR LCG scenarios, and I would have to concur." Or: "unremarkable and tedious". A bear called it "obnoxious" and "a tedious experience".

Well, they're all wrong. We like the Hills of Emyn Muil a lot. It's a different quest, both in terms of mechanics and theme, and stands out to its advantage in the Mirkwood cycle. The plot of the quest is that the heroes have lost Gollum's trail in the Emyn Muil, and have to search the area to find him again. There's only a single quest stage, and you don't clear the quest by getting enough progress, but by gathering victory points: the win condition is that you need to have twenty victory points and no Emyn Muil locations in play. In practice, this means clearing quite a few locations. The high initial threat can make this a bit tough, but if you can get rolling, the quest is challenging, but not frustrating. We've beaten it twice three-handed, but two-handed (Amazons/Tactics) took several attempts; we had an excellent time. Playing solo, I found the quest quite easy, but fun. The gorgeous art on the Emyn Muil locations deserves a special mention.

I fully understand that if what you love about the game is desperate, fast-paced combat or whatever, you won't enjoy this quest. To me, though, geography is vital to Tolkien's works, far more so than hacking and slashing your way through orcs and trolls and whatnot. I guess that's why this quest feels so thematically strong and satisfying to me. I strongly recommend it. Don't listen to the naysayers and enjoy yourself.

Card spotlight: Descendant of Thorondor

Yup, another eagle. What distinguishes Descendant of Thorondor is a great direct damage effect: you get to deal 2 damage to an enemy in the staging area when the Descendant enters or leaves play. This is a great combo with Meneldor's Flight, effectively letting you do 4 damage in the staging area for 4 resources (3 if you have Horn of Gondor). When you're up against a Goblin Sniper hiding behind high-threat enemies you really don't want to engage, or, Eru forbid, Hummerhorns, having a way to do damage in the staging area is absolutely brilliant.


The Dead Marshes - DL 5

Set in a very memorable part of Middle-earth, this adventure pack provides a climax of sorts to the whole cycle: we finally catch Gollum! Or, well, it's meant to, at least. I already talked about this quest before, so I won't repeat myself; suffice to say that it's boring, poorly designed and far too easy. You're chasing down Gollum and have to keep making escape tests, effectively questing twice, or he gathers enough resource tokens to escape. Theoretically, this is a bad thing, but in practice it just absolves you of bothering with the escape tests until he pops out of the encounter deck again - an encounter deck weak enough that you can hang around waiting for him. We once had him escape and then get discarded as a shadow card, meaning we had to work our way through the entire encounter deck and then some - and still won. This is easily the worst quest in the whole Mirkwood cycle.

Card spotlights: Boromir, Elfhelm

As I've mentioned, Boromir is the reason we bought this pack in the first place, and he's worth it. Not only does he have excellent stats, but his ability to ready at the cost of a threat increase can really save the day, letting him either defend multiple times or both defend and attack, for instance. A very powerful Tactics hero who's a great fit with the core set heroes as well.

Elfhelm is another fantastic Rohan ally with heroic stats, but more importantly, he negates threat gain from encounter cards and failed questing. Together with Éowyn's willpower boost from card discards, Elfhelm can negate damage from a failed questing phase, and he lets you laugh at Doomed 1 treacheries. Also, since his ability requires him to be ready during questing, he's also there to provide emergency defence or an extra bit of offensive punch in the combat phase.

The player cards aren't half bad in general, so even though the quest is the weakest in the whole cycle, the pack isn't a complete waste of money. Oh, and if you're looking to build a Hobbit deck, you'll need this pack.


Return to Mirkwood - DL 7

Having finally caught Gollum, our last task is to deliver him to King Thranduil. This is by far the most difficult quest of the cycle, as it should be. One player has to guard Gollum, which comes with all sorts of unspeakable treacheries, attacks and a constant increase in threat. As if that wasn't bad enough, the quest itself is difficult enough, and many of the enemies are just awful.

We gave this three attempts two-handed; we won once, but twice we drew a Hill Troll, Ungoliant's Spawn and Attercop, Attercop (or two) right off the bat, and there was just nothing we could do. So I'd say that while this is an appropriately epic quest, I find it a bit too dependent on the luck of the draw. One Attercop we can deal with; two (Attercop, Attercop, Attercop, Attercop?), Ungoliant's Spawn and a Hill Troll? No chance. When you do manage to beat a quest like this, it's immensely satisfying, but the other times it just felt pointless, because we never had a chance. That can be massively frustrating. I would think that as a general design principle, you wouldn't want people to walk away from your game thinking "why did I even bother".

Card spotlights: Dáin Ironfoot, Eagles of the Misty Mountains, Support of the Eagles, Mirkwood Runner, West Road Traveller

Yeah, there's a couple of these, for the simple reason that there's something in this pack for everyone. I absolutely agree with Tales from the Cards that if you're going to buy one Mirkwood pack for the player cards, make it this one.

First, the lord of the Iron Hills. I haven't covered any Leadership cards so far, for a simple reason: I play Spirit/Lore, and my partner uses Tactics. Dáin, though, is so essential a hero that we can hardly ignore him: he's the mainstay of the Dwarf deck, one of the most powerful theme decks in the game. As long as he's ready, Dáin provides all Dwarf characters with +1 attack and +1 willpower. This is an incredibly powerful effect, especially in multiplayer. Dwarf decks generally benefit from having several dwarven characters in play, and Dáin makes them all that much better. An absolute must-have if you want to build a Dwarf deck.

If Dáin is the keystone of dwarven synergy, Eagles of the Misty Mountains and Support of the Eagles complete the Eagle deck provided by the Mirkwood expansions. The Eagles are a great ally in their own right, with the added bonus that other Eagle cards leaving play can be attached to them to boost their combat stats further.

Support of the Eagles, on the other hand, lets you lend any eagle ally's attack or defense abilities to your heroes. These are both tremendous cards that give eagle-themed Tactics decks a whole new dimension.

How many good things can I say about Mirkwood Runner? At the moment, there are exactly two (2) Spirit or Lore allies with an attack higher than two. This pretty much means that even Mirkwood Runner's base attack of 2 is considerable, but it's the special ability that makes this card so noteworthy: when attacking alone, Mirkwood Runner ignores an enemy's defence stat. So you can either lay down two damage on just about any enemy, or add an extra two attack to Elfhelm and whoever else you've got on hand for the job. In our usual two-handed setup, the combination of one point of initial damage from Thalin and a guaranteed two from Mirkwood Runner is enough to see to quite a few enemies, letting me help out with combat so the Tactics deck can concentrate on the nasty stuff. When I play solo, Mirkwood Runner probably accounts for 80% of all combat damage I inflict, my favorite tactic for taking out large enemies being to Forest Snare them and let Mirkwood Runner look after the rest. An absolutely essential card go make Lore decks a bit more fighty.

And finally, West Road Traveller. Two willpower for two resources is still a fantastic deal. How I could ever have made it through We Must Away without my three West Road Travellers, I don't know. Their location-switching ability is a bit marginal, but it can be useful to avoid some nasty location effects that are keyed to the refresh phase, like raising threat. Mostly, though, these ladies do the legwork on questing along with Éowyn, and they're absolutely indispensable. It would be a very strange Spirit deck that left them out, unless there was a very specific theme that for some reason excludes incredibly useful cards like this one.


Overall, the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs are excellent. We quite liked both Conflict at the Carrock and Hills of Emyn Muil. A Journey to Rhosgobel is very good, despite the last quest stage being glaringly stupid the first time around. The Hunt for Gollum is fun, but a bit too easy; Return to Mirkwood is a good quest that suffers from being randomly murderously difficult. Dead Marshes is the only dud in the whole cycle, and even that pack comes with some very good player cards to offset the disappointing quest. All in all, this is a really good set of expansions for a truly fantastic game.


Finally, a deck update. We're aiming to sort of more or less get the various expansions in order, but I do have to admit that I cheated a bit and grabbed a copy of The Lost Realm. Eriador is a region very dear to me, not least because my first role-playing campaign ever was set there, so I was really keen to get Lost Realm, and eventually succumbed to the temptation. And hey, it comes with Neil Young Aragorn. So far, I've only included a couple of cards from it; I switched my copies of Lore of Imladris for Athelas, if only to have a way of dealing with Condition attachments after a traumatic experience with Watchful Eyes, and included a side quest. Side quests are a new card type introduced in The Lost Realm: you can play a side quest from your hand to the staging area, accumulate progress on it like on any other card, and reap benefits when you complete it. This one, Gather Information, lets each player search their deck for a card of their choice and add it to their hand. For a measly four progress, that's brilliant in multiplayer! It also comes with the added bonus of being a reliable way to delay advancing a main quest in scenarios like We Must Away.

I've wanted to stick to a single deck as much as possible, and so far I feel I've been quite successful with it. Obviously some quests would become much easier if I customized my deck to suit them more precisely, but to me, that takes away so much of the fun of deck-building. I did at this point decide to make one exception. I've found that solo play is in many ways quite different than playing with several others; so far, one key difference has been that multiplayer games tend to take far less turns. This is especially true since my deck has both a lower starting threat than the others I tend to play with, and because I have the most powerful threat management tools. At one point, I've actually managed to lower my threat below 20 in solo play! Given that Beravor and Gleowiné provide me with plentiful card draw, it hasn't been uncommon for me to work through my entire deck in a solo game. This was obviously why I included a copy of Will of the West, which lets me recycle my discard pile into my deck. In multiplayer, though, Will of the West is pretty much a waste of space, because the discard piles rarely get big enough to justify using it. On the other hand, the Gather Information side quest is fantastic in multiplayer, but not really very useful in a solo game where I end up drawing my entire deck. So what I've decided to do is have a sideboard of cards that I can swap in for solo play. In addition to Will of the West, I decided to include Resourceful for a laugh, just in case I have another brush with Secrecy!

Next time around, I'll be sharing some of my solo experiences. Until then, here's my deck as of this writing:

The Amazons

52 cards: 26 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 10 attachments, 13 events, 1 side quest


Allies: 25 (13/9/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker (THfG) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner (RtM) x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 10 (1/8/1)
Unexpected Courage
Forest Snare x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Athelas (TLR) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 13 (10/3)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
swap one Daughter of the Nimrodel for Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West


And my partner's Tactics deck:

Team Boromir

51 cards: 49 tactics, 2 neutral; 3 heroes, 19 allies, 18 events, 11 attachments

Boromir (TDM)

Allies: 19 (17/2)

Landroval (AJtR)
Radagast (AJtR)
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM)
Eagles of the Misty Mountains x3 (RtM)
Bofur (OHaUH)
Gondorian Spearman x2
Winged Guardian x3 (THfG)
Vassal of the Windlord x3 (TDM)
Dúnedain Hunter (TLR)
Gandalf (Core) x2

Events: 18

Swift Strike
Thicket of Spears
To the Eyrie (AJtR)
Blade Mastery x2
Feint x2
Quick Strike
Tireless Hunters (TLR)
Goblin-Cleaver x2 (OHaUH)
The Eagles are Coming! x3 (THfG)
Foe-Hammer x3 (OHaUH)
Meneldor's Flight (THoEM)

Attachments: 11

Citadel Plate
Support of the Eagles x2 (RtM)
Dwarven Axe x2
Secret Vigil x2 (TLR)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Horn of Gondor
Born Aloft (CatC)