Sep 26, 2016

Rogue Trader: What to buy?

I'm now into my third year of running a Rogue Trader campaign, and since I did a similar post for the Lord of the Rings card game, I realized I haven't posted anything about the various supplements Fantasy Flight Games sells - for the moment - for it. Here's my thoughts on what to buy and what to skip.

Definitely recommended:

Stars of Inequity

Unless you're running a really weird campaign where your players never visit an unexplored star system, I'd say this is the best single expansion in the whole game. The book is divided into four sections. The first gives you tools for randomly generating entire star systems from scratch, and it's actually quite good. It produces way too many habitable planets for my taste, and can be somewhat labor-intensive, but it's absolutely perfect for when you have no idea where to start. The second part is called Planetside Adventures, and is absolutely excellent. I don't think I've ever used the encounter tables straight up, but rather I've been inspired by them and lifted several mechanics from them and used them succesfully. There's also a treasure generator which lets you quickly create some very neat loot for your players. The third section details colony operations, and needed quite a bit of errata to fix, but still provides players with a way of generating profit factor in a way that's much more tangible than the infuriatingly vague "endeavours", and is a perfect hook for new adventures. Finally, the section with Koronus expanse fluff is mercifully short.

In my opinion, the slightly bizarrely named Stars of Inequity is the best value for money in Rogue Trader. To me at least, exploring uncharted star systems, lost colonies and what have you is the very essence of Rogue Trader, and the colony rules give you a living, breathing profit-generating empire to look after. If you only get one expansion, I would make it this one.

Buy this because: The various tables and generators will make your life so much easier.

Battlefleet Koronus

Sticking with value for money, Battlefleet Koronus is probably the second-best expansion you can get. For what it's worth, I like the space combat rules in Rogue Trader, as long as they're used like tabletop rules, not like a boardgame. Battlefleet Koronus expands those rules with torpedoes and attack craft, both of which I think are good additions. My players have been torpedoed a couple of times, and they haven't liked it! There are also lots of new ship hulls and components, and a craftsmanship system for the latter. There are also stats and rules for Ork, Eldar and Chaos ships, which give your players more interesting enemies to encounter, and are a good reference point for creating your own NPC starships. If your game involves starship combat at all, I think you'll find Battlefleet Koronus is worth buying.

Buy this because: New ship hulls and components, but especially torpedo and attack craft rules make space combat so much more interesting.

The Navis Primer

Given how important the Warp is to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the warp travel rules in the core book are disappointingly thin. The Navis Primer gives you some more detailed guidelines for navigating the warp, and also a bunch of new navigator and astropath powers. There are also some alternate career ranks, of which Awakened Psyker is undoubtedly the most interesting. This is another supplement which I wish would have had more useful content; there's a whole load of stuff on the different navigator houses of the Koronus Expanse, which is completely uninteresting if your campaign isn't set there. Still, if your campaign has any psykers in it, you'll probably want to get this. If anyone's interested in playing a rogue psyker, then this is a must-have for the Awakened Psyker alternate career rank and the Renegade psychic powers. After all, as long as the Inquisition doesn't notice...

Buy this because: The navigation rules, and lots of stuff for astropaths, navigators and, erm, other psykers.

Cautiously recommended:

Into the Storm

Into the Storm is the tabletop equivalent of a videogame that already has "extra" content on the disk when you buy it, but you need to pay for a separate DLC to activate it. The only actually new things here are alternate career ranks, Ork and Kroot player characters and vehicle rules; everything else just expands what was already in the core book. It also doesn't help that this is the most expensive supplement. Simply put, nothing in Into the Storm is particularly essential or even all that interesting. It only adds quantity. The only area where this is worth really bothering with is character creation. There's a whole host of new background options, including a whole new lineage row for the origin path. This wrecks the elegant simplicity of the core origin path system, but many of the options do provide useful and thematic additions to character creation. Having said that, I'm still not sure the whole is worth the price.

Buy this if: You want more character creation options. The other stuff's not really worth it.

The Koronus Bestiary

The Koronus Bestiary starts with a relatively uninspired Monster Manual lite of vaguely scifiy monsters, but the meat and potatoes here are the rules for Orks and Eldar, and the xenos generators. Whether to buy this or not really comes down to what kind of campaign you intend to run. If you're hell-bent on coming up with fairly detailed rules for a whole menagerie of xenos species, then this book is what you need. Similarly, if you absolutely have to know whether Warp Spiders or Striking Scorpions have a higher Weapon Skill, that's in here too. So basically if personal combat with aliens is going to be a big part of your campaign, then you'll want this. I'm actually pretty sure I could have done without it.

Buy this if: You want to create a whole bunch of alien species, and/or you want detailed rules for Orks and Eldar.

Hostile Acquisitions

While Hostile Acquisitions seems like a very promising expansion, it's unfortunately very heavy on mediocre Koronus Expanse fluff and light on useful gaming material. There's the usual smattering of equipment, but the only content worth noting are the alternate career ranks and the Nemesis system. The latter gives you an origin path of sorts for NPC villains, and can be used to personalize the bad guys. The alternate career ranks cover a variety of character types in, shall we say, some of the grey areas of Imperial law, like Cold Trade Broker and Manhunter, or well beyond it, like Reaver, Arch-Heretek and even Secessionist. If the alternate career ranks are something your players would be interested in, they're really the only reason to dish out money for this.

Buy this if: You want some of the alternate career ranks, or are really, really, really into fairly pedestrian fluff about the Koronus underworld. In either case, you'll probably feel a little disappointed.

The Soul Reaver

Most of the Soul Reaver is devoted to an adventure in which the players try to raid a Dark Eldar city. It didn't really appeal to me, but I didn't group this with the other adventure supplements because of the rules for Dark Eldar characters. There's a whole career path for Kabalite Warriors, and since there bizarrely isn't an Eldar Corsair player class anywhere, one could be improvised based on this. There's also Dark Eldar ships, weapons and whatnot, so if that appeals to you, then this is the supplement for you.

Buy this if: You want rules for the Dark Eldar, or someone wants to play an Eldar character.

Not recommended:

Game Master's Kit

Twenty bucks for a cardboard screen and a useless little pamphlet? Not worth it.

Faith and Coin

As a theologian, I was very disappointed in Faith and Coin. It contains practically no useful rules or mechanics; just a smattering of random artifacts and a whole bunch of uninteresting fluff about the Koronus Expanse. If, for some reason, you absolutely have your heart set on running a religion-focused campaign in the Koronus Expanse, you'll still be disappointed.

I also skipped all the campaign supplements like Lure of the Expanse and so forth. This is mostly because of a personal preference against running ready-made adventures, but also because frankly, I didn't think the adventures in the Rogue Trader products I do own were very good. The Koronus Expanse never struck me as particularly interesting, and to me, half the fun of running a game in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is the freedom of creating your own setting. So since I wasn't interested in these products, I don't have an informed opinion on them.

**

Finally, don't forget that if (when!) your player characters' corruption point totals start climbing, consider investing in a copy of Black Crusade.

Sep 19, 2016

LotR LCG: What to buy?

We've been playing the Lord of the Rings living card game for a little over a year now, and over that time, we've managed to infect our passion for it to a couple of other people as well. This has led to the subject of what to buy coming up. There are already quite a few expansions, after all! The best single resource for figuring out what to get is still the New Player Buying Guide at Tales from the Cards, and we have no notions of supplanting it. But since we've been asked, here are our thoughts on how to get started collecting the Lord of the Rings LCG.

**

First of all, we want to briefly go through the various kinds of expansions. We're going to be talking about deluxe expansions, adventure packs and saga expansions, since those are the ones that contain player cards, i.e. cards for your deck. There are also standalone scenarios and Nightmare decks, which we won't get into here.

Deluxe expansions come with two heroes, a pile of player cards and three quests. They're completely independent products; you never need anything except the core game to get everything out of a deluxe expansion. Adventure packs all contain a single quest, one hero and about ten different player cards. Adventure packs come in cycles of six packs; for example, the Redhorn Gate adventure pack is part of the Dwarrowdelf cycle. Each adventure pack cycle is associated with a deluxe expansion, meaning that in order to play the quest, you need both the adventure pack and the associated deluxe expansion. The Dwarrowdelf cycle is associated with the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion, so to play that quest, you need to own both the Redhorn Gate adventure pack and the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion. The first six adventure packs ever released, the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, are associated with the core set, so all you need to play those is the basic game box.

Here are the deluxe expansions and their associated adventure pack cycles:

Core set - Shadows of Mirkwood cycle
(The Hunt for Gollum, Conflict at the Carrock, A Journey to Rhosgobel, The Hills of Emyn Muil, The Dead Marshes, Return to Mirkwood)

Khazad-dûm - Dwarrowdelf cycle
(The Redhorn Gate, Road to Rivendell, The Watcher in the Water, The Long Dark, Foundations of Stone, Shadow and Flame)

Heirs of Númenor - Against the Shadow cycle
(The Steward's Fear, The Drúadan Forest, Encounter at Amon Din, Assault on Osgiliath, The Blood of Gondor, The Morgul Vale)

Voice of Isengard - Ring-maker cycle
(The Dunland Trap, The Three Trials, Trouble in Tharbad, The Nin-in-Eilph, Celebrimbor's Secret, The Antlered Crown)

The Lost Realm - Angmar Awakens cycle
(The Wastes of Eriador, Escape from Mount Gram, Across the Ettenmoors, The Treachery of Rhudaur, The Battle of Carn Dûm, The Dread Realm)

The Grey Havens - The Dream-chaser cycle
(Flight of the Storm-caller, The Thing in the Depths, Temple of the Deceived, more upcoming)

The Sands of Harad (upcoming) - Haradrim cycle (upcoming)

So at the time of this writing, there are five complete cycles, one about halfway through, and a seventh coming up. Then there are the saga expansions. Each contains a variable number of heroes, a bunch of player cards, and three quests. The first two saga expansions are Over Hill and Under Hill, and On the Doorstep: they take you through the story of the Hobbit. They're followed by the five Lord of the Rings saga expansions: The Black Riders, The Road Darkens, The Treason of Saruman, The Land of Shadow and The Flame of the West, with the sixth and last saga expansion presumably coming out next year. Each saga expansion can be played on its own, but since they basically form an ongoing plot, it makes sense to play through them in order.

So there: now that you've bought the Core Set, you only have 45 different expansions to choose from! If this all seems a bit bewildering, just remember the basic structure: deluxe expansions, adventure pack cycles, saga expansions.

**

If you don't have any particularly strong notions of what to buy first, in our opinion, you can't go very far wrong by starting with the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. In other words, if the very first thing you buy is The Hunt for Gollum, you've gotten off to a good start. The Shadows quests are good fun, with the possible exception of The Dead Marshes, they introduce you to different kinds of quests, and each adventure pack comes with some useful player cards that are easy to master and incorporate into your deck. As you play through the Mirkwood cycle, you'll probably also start to develop some notions of what kind of deck you want to start building, and/or what kind of quests you like, and this can guide your further purchases.

A lot of people online will recommend that you buy everything in the order it was originally released, and that's not a bad idea. There are also some other priorities you can have, though. One is theme; after all, this isn't just some generic fantasy world, but Tolkien's Middle-earth! Do the Mines of Moria call to you? Then get Khazad-dûm. If the high seas are more your thing, The Grey Havens. If you really liked the Hobbit, Over Hill and Under Hill is a great expansion; if you're more into the Lord of the Rings, go on straight to The Black Riders. The release order is an easy guideline to follow, but there's no reason you couldn't start somewhere completely different. In fact, it might make for some really interesting decks!

Another possible priority could well be deckbuilding, especially if you've got other people to play with. If, for instance, you want to build a Hobbit deck, the place to start is most definitely The Black Riders. The Lost Realm will get a Dúnedain deck going, while either Voice of Isengard or Treason of Saruman are great choices for a Rohan deck. If playing with someone else's deck or messing around with the core set left you with a definite notion of what kind of deck you're interested in, then go on and build one!

You can use the various card databases to figure out which player cards you want and how to get them. CardgameDB has a very good search function, the only problem being that it still can't handle side quests. Hall of Beorn can, and also has a more comprehensive library of encounter cards. If you're just interested in the player cards, you can simply buy whichever expansions have what you want without worrying about adventure pack cycles or sagas or whatever. For example, an unnamed contributor to this blog decided they liked Beorn, and figured that Honour Guard is a pretty handy ally for him to have around. Therefore, their very first purchases after the core set were Over Hill and Under Hill, and The Wastes of Eriador, because why not?

Solo play is also great fun, and an excellent way to get a perspective on deckbuilding. So another thing you could prioritize is getting the best quests. This is going to be a matter of finding out what you like, but for our money, the best deluxe expansions in this respect are Khazad-dûm and The Grey Havens. Both of them also have some excellent associated adventure packs, like The Watcher in the Water and Flight of the Storm-caller. The first four quests of the Mirkwood cycle are also all pretty good, as are the first two quests in Over Hill and Under Hill. But this is very much a question of taste!

**

So there are several ways to go about this, and no one true answer. What we did was a combination of all of these: we bought much of the early stuff more or less in release order, but since we both wanted more allies for our decks, we skipped ahead to some expansions that had player cards we liked. We've also not been playing through the quests in any particularly rigorous order; we went from the Mirkwood cycle to Khazad-dûm and the Dwarrowdelf quests, and then straight to The Grey Havens when it came out. It's been fun!

The one piece of advice I would give is that while it's possible, buy either the current deluxe expansion or the next one as it comes out. There's a little community active around the game, and it's fun to get in on the action when it's happening. Right now, for example, you can read the previews for The Sands of Harad and the first adventure pack in the Haradrim cycle, keep your eyes peeled for more news, and follow the Upcoming page for when the new stuff will come out. You can also read the forums, where someone will tell you that this latest AP cycle is a horrible crime against Tolkien and they're never buying anything again, sphere bleed is ruining the game, and also that they're really excited about the new player side quest, and why isn't there a card for Thranduil yet. In all seriousness, it's fun to get in on the excitement of the new stuff, so I do very much recommend that. Personally, I'm really looking forward to the Sands of Harad.

If you have no particular player card desires, we'd strongly recommend starting with either Over Hill and Under Hill, Khazad-dûm or The Grey Havens, because we think those are the best boxes. They all have some quality player cards, and very good quests that aren't overwhelmingly difficult for new players. If you get Khazad-dûm, The Watcher in the Water is one of the best quests in the game; if you choose the Grey Havens, get Flight of the Stormcaller as well. The Hunt for Gollum is also a pretty good scenario to get started with, as is Conflict at the Carrock. On the other hand, if you want a strong deck in one box, get the Black Riders because you're playing hobbits. Our various expansion reviews and other posts on the game can be found here.

All in all, then, our suggestion is to figure out what you like, and go get that. If you're stumped, release order is never a bad idea, but feel free to mix it up as much as you like. Above all: have fun!

Sep 12, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 24: A Conspiracy Unmasked

'Now we had better get home ourselves,' said Merry.

The chapter starts with the hobbits and their basket of mushrooms taking the ferry across the Brandywine river. As Merry punts them through the gradually lifting evening mist, we're given our first taste of Tolkien's metaphorical river crossings:

Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. He scratched his head, and for a moment had a passing wish that Mr. Frodo could have gone on living quietly at Bag End.

This is the first of what will be many symbolic river-crossings in the Lord of the Rings. Here it follows a brief description of Buckland, the easternmost part of the Shire that the hobbits are now entering, and underlines the way in which Hobbiton and their previous lives in it are falling behind.

The mood of the opening paragraphs is relaxed, even idyllic: a quiet river crossing on a dark night, the lights of Brandy Hall peeping through the mist ahead. However, as the hobbits reach the eastern shore, Sam looks back and sees a Black Rider searching the western landing. Merry now gets his first look at Frodo's pursuers, and the four hobbits flee quickly down the lane. Yes, in other words, it's the old horror movie trick where just when you think you've gotten away, the monster shows up again, but it works quite well here as a sudden reminder that the danger isn't past, and also as a way of bringing Merry into the loop, so to speak.

For now, though, Merry rides ahead to prepare Frodo's new digs for their arrival. Said digs are a small hobbit-house in Crickhollow, an out-of-the-way corner of Buckland a couple of miles from the ferry. Merry and Fatty Bolger have been busy furnishing the house to look as much like Bag End as possible, and Frodo, beset by the thought that he has to leave soon, is forced to pretend he's very happy with it. Frodo and company bathe, and Pippin sings a bath-song. I seem to recall there's a bit in Tolkien's Letters, which I couldn't find again just now, where someone reading the Lord of the Rings prior to publication had complained about too much hobbit-stuff, and I imagine this must be where that would happen. Luckily, though, things move on quickly through a supper of mushrooms to the centerpiece of the chapter: Frodo's dramatic revelation to his friends.

As Frodo fumbles his way toward his undoubtedly grand speech, Merry undercuts him by stating outright that they all know he's leaving. Frodo is shocked, and Pippin rubs salt in the wound:

"Dear old Frodo!" said Pippin. "Did you really think you had thrown dust in all our eyes? You have not been nearly careful or clever enough for that! You have obviously been planning to go and saying farewell to all your old haunts since April. We have constantly heard you muttering: "Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder", and things like that. And pretending that you had come to the end of your money, and actually selling your beloved Bag End to those Sackville-Bagginses!"

Frodo is then thoroughly dumbfounded by the revelation that his friends know about the Ring. The source of the information, in a way, is the Sackville-Bagginses: Merry had once happened to see Bilbo use the Ring to hide from them in plain sight. Merry had concealed himself more conventionally, and spotted Bilbo's reappearance and the Ring.

I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the fact that a crucial plot point of the early part of the Lord of the Rings is premised on the fact that the Sackville-Bagginses are such awful people that their fellow hobbits will literally hide in hedges and bushes if they see them coming down the road.

Merry's inquisitiveness, however, only got the conspirators started. Most of what they know comes from their chief undercover informant: Sam. As Frodo wavers between feeling betrayed and being touched by his friends' concern, Sam reminds him that both Gandalf and Gildor did tell him to not go alone, and eventually Frodo is won over. There's an impromptu celebration and a song, and then the hobbits get down to practicalities. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger will stay behind to keep the house and maintain the illusion that Frodo is staying there for as long as possible, while the four others set off for Rivendell. There's a disagreement over how to get there, though. Frodo thinks the only option is to avoid the main road and head out through the Old Forest, an idea supported by Merry and strongly opposed by Fredegar, who's horrified by the very idea. Since he's staying behind, though, his opposition loses out, and the four hobbits decide to hit the woods the very next morning. The chapter closes on Frodo dreaming of a tower overlooking the sea.

**

This, then, is our last chapter in the Shire. I know there are people who can't stand hobbits, and it's easy to see where they're coming from: at worst, they're insufferably cutesy with their little songs and folksy ways. As the awful prologue demonstrates, Tolkien had a particular love for the minutiae of hobbit lives that doesn't exactly translate into gripping prose. At the same time, though, it's impossible to ignore the ways in which the Shire is also a meditation on parochial small-mindedness, provincialism and even xenophobia, unless you're wearing the kind of blinkers far too many Tolkien critics seem to find necessary. Because he also includes this side of the Shire, and after the way in which the story alienates both Frodo and the reader from it, it's quite clear to me that Tolkien never intended the Shire to be a pure utopia. Because I think that authorial intent in general can go take a hike, and furthermore having never been much of a fan of the rural idylls in the first place, I've always seen the Shire less as a paradise to be protected and more as a place to escape from. Personally, I'd take a tenement in Minas Tirith over a hobbit-hole any day of the week, no matter how pleasant the pastures or clouded the hills. Et in Arcadia blecch.

Hobbit bath-songs notwithstanding, this is a pretty efficient transition chapter, taking us over the symbolic river to a momentary haven, where the adventure can pause for a moment so we can work out some tensions and get our bearings. This is a pattern that will repeat itself. I like the way in which the dramatic revelation of Frodo's imminent departure is built up and then immediately subverted by letting us know that Merry and Pippin know exactly what he's going to say. On the whole, there's a nice feeling of camaraderie and detetmination that closes out the Shire chapters of the first book on a positive note. Next time, the hobbits tackle their first Forest.

Sep 5, 2016

PhD blog 9/16: Introduction and mission statement

This summer, I applied to and was accepted into the Doctoral Programme in Gender, Culture and Society at the University of Helsinki, majoring in Political History. In practice, this means that for the next four years, I'll be attending postgraduate studies and writing a dissertation, with the eventual goal of receiving a doctorate in social sciences. I'm going to do my best to document this process in a series of blog posts, starting right here.

There are a couple of reasons why I want to do this. The first and most directly relevant is the very toxic public atmosphere in Finland right now. As part of their campaign of supposed "austerity", the current Finnish government has made massive cuts to higher education, resulting in hundreds of layoffs at the University of Helsinki alone. When these cuts were announced, the prime minister led his cabinet in a round of public mockery of universities and their staff. He told us that researchers are good for nothing; the then-finance minister claimed that the only reason anyone becomes a professor is the three-month summer holiday (professors in Finland do not have three-month summer holidays). The minister responsible for education attacked universities as overfunded, inefficient and complacent. The same rhetoric was echoed across the comment sections some Finnish media still bizarrely maintain: the universities are staffed by communists doing pseudoscience with tax money. In many circles, the university cuts were met with glee. Just last month, the universities were hit again with surprise cuts of millions of euros, for completely nonsensical reasons.

The various accusations made by our ministers were false, sometimes ludicrously so. The overall effect was still somewhat shocking. Finland had, supposedly, been a country that valued education and science; suddenly these alleged mainstays of our national success story were under vicious attack. The same atmosphere still persists: just last month, Finland's largest daily published a ridiculous editorial, claiming that Finnish academics hadn't reacted to the purges of Turkey's universities at all, because all we care about are ourselves. This was an outrageous lie; Finnish universities, several individual academics, the researchers' union and the student unions had all strongly condemned the events in Turkey. Rather than retract a blatant, offensive falsehood, the paper printed a rebuttal as a "counterclaim" and refused to admit any wrongdoing.

That Finnish ministers will lie without compunction, and that our major media aren't interested in calling them out but prefer to join in bashing our universities with false accusations is deeply worrying, but it's far beyond my abilities to fix. Instead, I've tried to take to heart what a Finnish historian said on the social media some time after the huge cuts were announced: have we really been this terrible at selling ourselves? This is not to say that the coördinated political campaign to attack the universities is somehow our own fault, because I don't for one minute accept that it is. Our current descent into a positively Trumpian world of outrageous lies was plotted elsewhere. However, the eager reception the news of the university cuts had does strongly suggest that there's a widespread ignorance in our society as to what it is that academics and universities actually do. That I can hopefully do something to fix. Hence these blog posts.

Even if this toxic climate hadn't been created, I still think that academics have a responsibility to be transparent about what we do. We are, after all, doing this on taxpayers' money. Not directly, since the majority of PhD students in this country don't get paid a dime for our work, but our teachers and supervisors do (mostly), and many of the facilities we use are publicly financed. So for that reason alone, I think we owe the public at large some account of what we get up to.

Finally, I believe there's also a sound academic reason to keep a sort of PhD diary. Not only is this a helpful tool for self-reflection, but it's also a record of my work. In other words, if three years from now I find myself wondering just what the hell it was I was thinking in October 2016, I can find out. Also, doing research in the humanities isn't just about gathering material and analyzing it; especially at the thesis level, it's also about creating your own way of working. Hopefully, this blog can also serve as a record of that. If I'm honest, this is the only part I really believe in.

**

One of the chief thrusts of the current government's assault on higher education has been their insistence that public universities need to serve business interests. In their rhetoric, the role of research is to produce "innovations", which the private sector can then monetize. Because I want to be as honest as possible, I freely admit that by these criteria, my dissertation is worthless. I think I can reasonably guarantee that no Finnish corporation will be able to make use of it to create a product they can sell. If the value of research is how well it serves the interests of corporate profits, then my dissertation has no value whatsoever.

My subject is the development of Finnish military doctrine, from the founding of the regular Finnish armed forces in 1918 to the outbreak of the Winter War in 1939. This has been studied before, in the way that military doctrine is often studied: the various field regulations and war plans have been read and summarized, and the ways they change have been tracked. Obviously this is valuable research, and I'll most likely be starting out by doing the same thing. The trouble is that this tells us what happened, but rarely why. For example, we know that Finnish army doctrine started out with a very strong emphasis on the offense, and had only gradually begun to come around to the idea that defensive battles might sometimes be necessary before the Second World War broke out. Hence the name of the previous study on Finnish doctrine is Hyökkäyksestä puolustukseen, from attack to defense. But we can't really convincingly explain why this happened. I intend to try.

In my Master's thesis, I looked at prewar Finnish armored doctrine as a sort of microcosm of this process. Finland was an early adopter of armor, buying 32 Renault FT tanks from France in 1919. However, by 1939, what started out as a fairly cutting-edge tank force had been largely neglected, and Finland went to war with no modern tanks and barely any anti-tank defences at all. I wanted to know how that happened. My starting point was Elizabeth Kier's thesis: to understand military doctrine, you have to understand military culture. In the case of Finnish armor doctrine, the key was understanding how Finnish officers saw Finnish terrain and its effects on military operations. Because of the particular importance of the forest to Finnish nationalism, this turned out to be intimately tied to nationalist thought. So what I took away from my thesis was the importance of seeing military doctrine as more than the technical problem-solving it's usually presented as, but rather as an integral part of nation-building. So that's what I'll be doing, only now with the whole army.

So from now on, most of my time will be spent taking classes, writing papers, working through a massive pile of literature, and reading field regulations and who knows what in the national archives. It sounds like it's going to be fun.

Aug 8, 2016

LotR LCG: Rohan adventures, aka the Dúnhere deck

Since we got the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion, it was high time I put together a Rohan deck. The obvious starting point is the Rohan hero I used in my first deck ever:


Still arguably the best questing hero in the game, Éowyn has been a mainstay of my Amazons deck. She was one reason I liked the Spirit starter deck so much; Dúnhere was the other.


Unfortunately, an attack of 3 wasn't great when he could only really attack on his own. Now, though, I could get The Morgul Vale, the last adventure pack in the Against the Shadow cycle, to get him Spear of the Mark, which boosts a Rohan character's Attack by 1, or 2 when attacking into the staging area. A tailor-made attachment for Dúnhere if ever there was one. The other obvious choice is Dagger of Westernesse, but Spear of the Mark is more thematically appropriate. For his other Restricted attachment, I'll be hoping to get him a Rohan Warhorse.

So to make the deck work, we need a Tactics hero to pay for Dúnhere's spear and horse, not to mention Unseen Strike. Since Dúnhere's going to be busy attacking and Éowyn is in charge of questing, ideally we'd need a hero defender, especially since there aren't going to be too many powerful defenders in the deck. I did briefly consider Beregond, since a Gondor hero would hardly be out of place in a Rohan deck, but I chose to stay true to the theme of the deck, and went for Éomer.


With a defense of 2, relying on Éomer to defend would be risky, so it looks like we're going with a questing hero and two attacking heroes. The Dunland Trap adventure pack gets us his trusty steed Firefoot, who boosts his attack to 5. Westfold Horse-breeder will be on hand to fetch mounts for our heroes, and chump block or Ride to Ruin to activate Éomer's attack boost.

**

My overall theme for this deck is obviously Rohan, so I'll want to include a whole bunch of Rohan allies, starting with the ones I was using in my first Amazon deck: Elfhelm, Escort from Edoras and West Road Traveller. With so many Rohan characters in play, Éomund also seems to be an obvious choice, and Voice of Isengard gives us the afore-mentioned Westfold Horse-breeder and Westfold Outrider.


The glaring weakness of this deck is defense. A thematically appropriate solution would be Erkenbrand and some Wardens of Helm's Deep, but given that I need Tactics for Dúnhere's attachments, that would mean tri-sphere, and I'd rather have some of the slightly more expensive Spirit cards. So I stretched theme a bit and included three copies of Defender of Rammas. If we imagine that this deck represents part of the army of Rohan heading into the battle of the Pelennor, it's hardly unlikely that they might have been joined by some of the Gondorian troops guarding the Rammas.

Having assembled some allies, a couple of attachments and events immediately suggest themselves. With a Rohan theme, how can I not include Astonishing Speed? With Éomer and Éomund present, Ride to Ruin also needs to make an appearance.


In a pinch, this deck could, for instance, quest with absolutely everybody and then play Ride to Ruin to discard Éomund, thus readying everyone for combat and also giving Éomer a +2 attack bonus.


Apart from the now-obligatory side quests, the focus of this deck is on maximizing Dúnhere's ability. To this end, I'll include Spear of the Mark, Rohan Warhorse, Quick Strike and Unseen Strike, all basically for his use. In general, I'm going to be hoping to kill enemies in the staging area, which should offset our lack of defense. The Galadhrim's Greeting should help keep my threat low so as few enemies as possible will engage us. Finally, three Ancient Mathoms will provide some much-needed card draw.

**

Here's the first version:

50 cards; 25 Spirit, 23 Tactics, 5 neutral; 22 allies, 13 attachments, 12 events, 3 side quests. Starting threat 27.

Éowyn
Dúnhere
Éomer (VoI)

Allies: 22 (13/6/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Éomund (CatC) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x3
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Westfold Horse-breeder (VoI) x3
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x3
Westfold Outrider (VoI) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 13 (3/9/1)
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Firefoot (TDT) x2
Spear of the Mark (TMV) x3
Rohan Warhorse (VoI)
Secret Vigil (TLR) x3
Song of Battle

Events: 12 (6/6)
Astonishing Speed (RtM) x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Ride to Ruin (THoEM) x2
Quick Strike x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3

Side quests: 3
Double Back (TWoE)
Delay the Enemy (AtE)
Gather Information (TLR)

**

With the deck built, it's time to test it. We took a couple of runs at Passage through Mirkwood together with the Tactics deck, and both times, the best argument in favor of Dúnhere in the core set showed up: Hummerhorns.


Even though I included Éowyn and a bunch of Spirit allies, Passage through Mirkwood was already enough to highlight that questing isn't exactly a strength of this deck combo. The combination of Dúnhere and Quick Strike was handy in knocking out enemies in the quest phase, and when Ungoliant's Spawn showed up, Éomer and Legolas dealt with it in one go.

After Mirkwood, the next obvious test was A Journey Down/Along the Anduin. We dealt with the Hill Troll (actually both Hill Trolls) snappily enough, and Dúnhere was worth his weight in gold in the second quest stage. Sadly, our questing deficiencies and a couple of Necromancer's Reaches ended our journey there. Still, though, I was liking the combat output of the deck, so to speak, so our next stop was The Seventh Level to really try it out.


With over half the encounter deck made up of enemies, from Goblin Scouts to Cave-trolls, you can hardly ask for a better quest to test your deck in combat. Why this is the only quest in the whole damn game to have a difficulty level of 3 is one of the enduring mysteries of the world.

If one foundational weakness of this deck was questing, the more serious one is defence. Until I got a Defender of Rammas into play, I was stuck either chump blocking or using Éomer to defend, which is kind of a waste of his abilities. Once I got him Firefoot, I did get to feel quite good for myself when I chump blocked an enemy with a Westfold Horse-breeder to activate Éomer's ability, and then play Quick Strike to wipe out everyone engaged with me before they even get to attack. The son of Éomund is a force of nature. A kingdom for Dúnedain Cache on him in multiplayer! Meanwhile, Éowyn kept the questing going, and Dúnhere came in surprisingly handy with the plethora of shadow cards adding enemies to the staging area in the combat phase.

We were doing great until the shadow effect on the generally awful Undisturbed Bones forced me to discard my Defender of Rammas, turning the Goblin Swordsman's attack into a strength five undefended attack. Frankly, it went pretty rapidly downhill from there, and we eventually succumbed to the endless goblin hordes.

**

I also tried the deck solo. Passage Through Mirkwood was a breeze, and I'm delighted to report that I actually beat A Journey Down the Anduin! I will admit it took several attempts. On most of them, it wasn't actually the Hill Troll that sunk me. I basically had two strategies for him: either Gandalf would defend him, or if I could get Dúnhere properly equipped, maybe I could get some shots in while he was still in the staging area. I thought I might get a shot at the latter when I drew a Spear of the Mark and two Galadhrim's Greetings, but as luck would have it, the encounter card I revealed in setup was Pursued by Shadow, meaning my threat was high enough that the Hill Troll engaged us on the first turn.

My first attempt ended in pretty terrible location lock, but other than that, what I mostly struggled with was either questing when my questing allies didn't show up, or defending a bigger bunch of enemies, especially if my combat allies didn't show up. Generally we managed to handle the troll all right, but several times my progress embarassingly stalled in the first stage. On something like my fifth shot, everything finally kind of came together. I got Gandalf in to quest and defend the Hill Troll, whom Éomer and Dúnhere then finished off. I even got to use West Road Traveller's ability to swap out an East Bight for a Necromancer's Pass, and we went into the second stage with an empty staging area.


Dúnhere again shone in the second stage. I mostly didn't even have to bother defending anything, and the normally infuriating Wargs were free to stay in the staging area as far as I was concerned. On what looked like a likely last round, we were all set for the final showdown. I dropped in Gandalf to lower my threat just in case. He, Éowyn and Éomund quested, and Elfhelm and my Defenders of Rammas were ready to handle the defending. So obviously the first card is Evil Storm, which kills Éomund and wipes out the Defenders. Next we draw Eastern Crows, which surges into Dol Guldur Orcs. I'm lucky Gandalf is there to take the damage, and his and Éowyn's combined questing is enough to pass the second stage. The third stage then adds Banks of the Anduin and a Goblin Sniper to the staging area, so we have our work cut out for us. Everyone except the sniper engages us.

Luckily Éomund's death readied Éowyn, who defends the Crows, and Elfhelm stops the Dol Guldur Orcs. Éomer and Firefoot wipe out both of the engaged enemies, and in a fitting finale for the deck, Dúnhere charges into the staging area and destroys the Goblin Sniper. Victory!

**

So, what have I learned? First, that Dúnhere can definitely make a useful contribution. Second, that Éomer is pretty darn awesome. Card draw and defense are the most obvious drawbacks, which Ancient Mathom and Defender of Rammas respectively go some distance toward redressing. Still, though, beating A Journey Down/Along the Anduin made me feel really good about this deck! It's got potential.

As a random thought, something that could combine really well with Dúnhere would be traps; now that we have the Land of Shadow expansion, I have to try putting together an "Auxiliaries of Gondor" deck with Dúnhere, Beregond and Damrod. The same expansion included Gamling the Old, who I clearly have to fit into this deck somehow. I could actually just drop a couple of side quests; the amount of trouble I've had with questing suggests that I'm hardly going to be able to make use of them on my own.

In the meantime, though, I stole Éowyn and the West Road Travelers for a new attempt at an Amazon deck, and the Gondor deck has an admittedly strong claim to those Defenders of Rammas. With what's left, I built an alternate version with Santa Théoden, which won over at least one new player with Dúnhere. Háma was worth his weight in gold as a defender here, which strongly suggested that as soon as we got our hands on Temple of the Deceived, I should add Déorwine to the mix.


51 cards; 28 allies, 10 attachments, 12 events, 1 side quest.

Théoden (TToS)
Dúnhere
Éomer (VoI)

Allies: 26 (17/7/2)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Éomund (CatC) x2
Gamling (TLoS) x2
Háma (TToS) x2
Rider of the Mark (RtR) x3
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x3
Westfold Horse-breeder (VoI) x3
Déorwine (TotD) x2
Grimbold (TFotW) x2
Guthlaf (TBoG) x2
Westfold Outrider (VoI) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2

Attachments: 10 (9/1)
Firefoot (TDT) x2
Rohan Warhorse (VoI)
Secret Vigil (TLR) x3
Spear of the Mark (TMV) x3
Song of Battle (TDM)

Events: 12 (6/6)
Astonishing Speed (RtM) x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Ride to Ruin (THoEM) x2
Quick Strike x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)

**

Using only the cards left over from our other decks, it was possible to create a deck that did decently solo and more or less pulled its weight in multiplayer. If we really bent our card pool to the task, I'm pretty sure we could do even better. Having said that, these Dúnhere decks have been great fun to play, and the whole Rohan archetype just keeps on delivering.

Aug 1, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 23: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

In the morning Frodo woke refreshed.

When Frodo wakes up, the elves are gone. As the hobbits set up breakfast, Pippin is bouncing around and singing, all thoughts of Black Riders gone from his mind. This prompts some soul-searching from Frodo on the morality of taking his young friends with him, and when Pippin bounces off for some water, he has a little chat with Sam.

The Sam we were introduced to in the second chapter was a figure of rustic comedy, with his lor-bless-you-sir, there-ain't-no-eaves-at-Bag-End lines, alternating between cringing fear of Gandalf, childish excitement at elves and open weeping at the prospect of leaving. In the third chapter, he curls up to sleep at his master's feet while Frodo has A Serious Conversation with a high-elf, effectively appearing as an occasionally talking dog. Now, though, when Frodo somewhat patronizingly asks him what he thinks of elves, it's Sam who gives a serious, adult answer, and also articulates his reasons for wanting to go with Frodo in a way that Frodo himself doesn't quite understand. So far, then, the treatment of Sam has been twofold: he's been treated as a child, if not a pet, and now suddenly as an adult. Frodo realizes this sudden change in Sam, even looking for a physical manifestation of it. The reader is left wondering if the actual change is in Frodo; Sam is no longer his clearly lower-class gardener, but a traveling companion and confidant. If you want to read this trajectory subversively, Sam's truckling in front of Frodo and Gandalf was a performance that tells us a lot about the class society that is the Shire, and nothing at all about Sam himself, except that he knows how to play the part expected of him. I'm inclined to think that Tolkien's treatment of Sam reflects the typically ambivalent attitude of a right-wing intellectual to the lower classes; on the one hand they're idealized as steadfast and reliable salt-of-the-earth types, on the other hand infantilized and patronized as children in adult bodies. Throughout the story, Sam vacillates between the two; this is our first encounter with, dare I say it, serious Sam.

It's a hot day, with rain-threatening clouds on the horizon. After breakfast, Frodo and Pippin debate their route. As evidenced by his previous bounciness, Pippin has firmly put the terror of the Black Riders behind him, and is now arguing that they should continue on the road, rather than cut cross-country as Frodo wants to do. Frodo's argument that the direct way is in fact considerably shorter eventually wins the day, and Pippin is forced to admit he'd been planning on getting to the Golden Perch inn and its famous ale by nightfall. Much to his and Sam's regret, they set off into the bush.

The three hobbits descend a steep bank into a thicket, where they soon find a stream blocking their path. As they're considering crossing it, Sam looks back, and spots a black cloaked figure and a horse atop the same bank. The hobbits quickly hide, and now there's no alternative but to keep going. They beat their way through the bush and find a place to ford the stream. Soon enough, the rain starts. After midday, they stop for lunch, and find the elves had filled their water-bottles with some kind of elven mead, which apparently immediately goes to the hobbits' heads, because they start up a drinking-song. As they're starting up the second verse, the song is cut short by a blood-chilling wail on the wind. It freezes the hobbits right in their tracks, and is soon answered by another one further away. Eventually Pippin tries to make light of it, but Frodo maintains he heard words in the cry, but that no hobbit could have produced it. The Black Riders obviously spring to mind, and soon enough, the hobbits get underway again.

In the afternoon, they come out of the woods into the open lands by the Brandywine. Initially this makes Frodo and company quite nervous, but as they trek through the orderly Shire countryside, the memory of the Black Riders seems to fall behind. Eventually they come to a gate, which Pippin recognizes as an entrance to Farmer Maggot's lands. This fairly terrifies Frodo, who used to steal mushrooms from Maggot when he was young, but Pippin persuades him to go and meet Maggot, as he'll be good to know now that Frodo is coming to live in Buckland again.

Maggot's ferocious dogs intercept the hobbits, but don't hurt them, and Maggot, recognizing Pippin, meets the trio and invites them in. He reacts sharply to the name Baggins, and not just because he remembers Frodo's mushroom-related escapades. With the slow relish of a person for whom unexpected events are rare, he takes his time telling his guests about a creepy visitor he had who spooked his dogs, asked for Baggins and offered gold. Maggot sent him packing, and offers Frodo his guess that this all has something to do with "those strange doings of Mr. Bilbo's". The provincial Sam mistrusts Maggot because he isn't from Hobbiton, and Maggot tells Frodo that no doubt all this trouble is caused by his living among queer and unhobbitlike folk in Hobbiton. Slightly incomfortable with the farmer's guesses, Frodo tries to make his excuses and leave, but Maggot offers to drive them to the Brandywine ferry himself if they'll stay for dinner; an invitation that Frodo graciously accepts.

After a hearty dinner, they set off in Maggot's cart. Night is falling and a mist is rising from the river, and the pony-cart makes its slow way toward the ferry. Just as they're getting there, they hear the sound of hooves on the road ahead. Maggot parks the cart and goes forward to confront the rider, who turns out to be Merry, out looking for Frodo. Maggot leaves Frodo and company there, handing them a basket from Mrs. Maggot as he goes. It contains a parting joke: mushrooms.

**

This is among the shortest chapters in the whole book, clocking in at just about ten pages. It continues the theme of Frodo's alienation from the Shire, from his gloomy musing on the ethics of taking his friends along to his silence at Farmer Maggot's. The whole encounter with Maggot underlines how Frodo is leaving his old world behind: Pippin's casual reference to Frodo getting to know Maggot is a reminder that he's operating under false pretenses, and even if the farmer's guesses are called shrewd, in the end he still has no idea of what's at stake. Even if Maggot correctly guesses that the trouble involves Bilbo's treasure, he still thinks of it in terms of gold and jewels, and his simple solution of living in Buckland among sensible people is hopelessly naïve. To him, the Shire is still the world, and problems happen because other people won't be reasonable and hobbitlike; it's a simple but effective commentary on hobbit parochialism that Maggot repeats essentially the exactly same doubts about the proper-hobbitness of Hobbiton people that they voiced about Buckland. Incredibly, his wife gets a line in, meaning we're already up to two talking female characters.

Another major theme is the weight of Frodo's task. One of the often-repeated accusations against Tolkien is that he writes carefree Boys' Own adventures, which is again difficult to understand when actually reading the text. Even the Hobbit at times subverted the notion of "adventure" as a rollicking good time, but the Lord of the Rings sets up Frodo's mission to Mount Doom as an explicit antithesis, an adventure not to win treasure but to destroy it, driven not by any real hope in success but rather a necessity to flee from the Enemy. If the second chapter effectively set up the story, the next two have involved confronting peril, in the form of the Black Riders, and running away from it. Here, Frodo and company go from the safety of the elven feast to a harrowing cross-country escape from Ringwraiths. They end up at Farmer Maggot's place, a temporary haven in some sense, but even if we haven't yet been told what the Black Riders are, exactly, it's hard to think that Maggot and his dogs could possibly defend Frodo and the Ring from them. So as formidable as Maggot may have appeared to a young mushroom-stealing Frodo, even this haven of safety is an illusion. This journey really is "a flight from danger into danger", as Frodo puts it in the second chapter.

I continue to enjoy Tolkien's travel prose, and the Black Riders are presented very effectively. We don't really know anything about them yet, but I remember reading this stuff when I was younger and finding them very believably frightening. In the previous chapter, they were more sedate figures, sitting on trotting horses and sniffing around; now they're on the hunt, communicating with unearthly screams. The tension of a desperate escape is built very well, especially in contrast to the rustic environment it happens in. Even the tense encounter at the ferry that turns out to be Merry is played out quite well, and doesn't feel cheap the second time around.

Next time, baths and singing.

Jul 18, 2016

Let's Play War of the Ring

Now that I'm on this Tolkien kick, I decided to buy myself a thematically appropriate birthday present: a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame. I've heard quite a bit about it, and heck, just reading the description got me hooked.

So I went and got a copy of the second edition game from Ares Games; the game materials are dated both 2011 and 2015. Before we get to all the good stuff, I want to get my major complaints with the physical game out of the way. The box is huge and comes with a massive pile of figures; 205 of them, to be exact. They're made out of a soft plastic that bends rather than breaks, which is a good thing. However, Ares Games has made the deeply unfortunate decision to ship the figures in two massive piles, each in a flimsy plastic bag. This pretty much guarantees that at least some of your figures will literally be bent out of shape by the time you get them. Spears and banners are the worst affected, although a couple of figures in my set are almost bent over double. Here's a few examples:


It's a real shame, too, because the figures are actually quite nice. John Howe is responsible for most of the art in the game and also participated in designing the figures, so they show his signature combination of very high quality and an occasionally relaxed relationship to the source material: the mounted Elven elite figures look great - but the horses have saddles. One thing the figures have been criticized for is that excepting the unique characters, they only come in three colors: grey for leaders, blue for Free Peoples and red for the Shadow. The trouble with this is that in the game, even though one player does control the Free Peoples and the other the Shadow, each side is made up of various nations, and for several gameplay purposes, it matters which nation which units are from. At a distance, it can be really hard to tell one blue plastic horseman from another. To fix this, before we got started I decided to paint the Free Peoples figures' bases and color-code them according to nation. Also, my paintbrush slipped and I painted the bases of all the characters and non-Sauron Shadow units as well.

The other major problem is that while the box itself is large and sturdy, the interior is completely inadequate. If you want to protect your figures from further damage, you can't store them in the game box. Similarly, if you sleeve the cards, they'll no longer fit in the space provided. So you end up having to remove the plastic inside frame of the box and create your own storage solutions. So not only is the game massive, but you also end up having to put in a lot of work yourself. This is more like buying a Warhammer army than a board game.

**

With all this done, it was time to start approaching the idea of actually playing the game. A word of warning first. Officially, a game takes what, three hours to play? In reality, the first time we tried setting up the game, that alone took us over an hour. In addition to the two hundred figures, there are also four decks of cards, the character cards for the members of the Fellowship and the minions of the Shadow, and literally one million cardboard counters (actually 76). Also, have I mentioned that the board is massive? It comes in two pieces, each of which is the size of a regular large game board. It's also quite lovely to look at.

Each cardboard counter is also a piece of John Howe art, and they're absolutely beautiful. There are also, like I said, several of them. Here's what the game looks like fully set up:


There's quite a bit to take in here, so maybe a general introduction first. There are two players, one controlling the Free Peoples (blue) and the other the Shadow (red). Both have action dice, units and cards with which to do stuff. Basically, there are two games here. One is a strategy battle game, in which the Free Peoples try to fight off the Shadow onslaught. Capturing cities and strongholds nets you victory points; if the Shadow gets ten, it wins, and if the Free Peoples manage to fight back and grab four victory points, they win. An additional wrinkle is provided by what's called the political track:

The Free Peoples are made up of five nations: the elves, dwarves, Gondor, Rohan and the North. In order to join the war, each nation needs to be activated and moved up the political track by the players until they reach the At War state. For the Free Peoples, only the elves start out active, and everyone starts toward the low end of the scale. On the other hand, all three Shadow nations (Sauron, Isengard and the Southrons & Easterlings) start out active and high on the scale, compounding their advantage.

The wargame part, then, consists of players working to activate their various nations, muster their armies and defeat their enemies. This is quite heavily biased in favor of the Shadow. In parallel with the military confrontation is a second game, where the Fellowship of the Ring is trying to make its way to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the One Ring, while Sauron tries to hunt them down and corrupt them. If he succeeds, the Shadow wins; if the Ringbearers make it to Mount Doom, the Free Peoples win. Both players get a certain number of actions each turn from their action dice, and have to split these between moving or hunting for the Fellowship, and fighting the war. The two "games" interact in various ways; Sauron's armies can make it harder for the Fellowship to move, but friendly strongholds offer a chance to heal corruption - if they can be defended from the Shadow. The Fellowship can also activate friendly nations, and companions can leave it to mobilize and lead armies.

I think that's pretty much it! To be honest, at first this is a bewilderingly complex game. I don't know what anyone who isn't familiar with the Lord of the Rings would make of it, as it's hard enough even when you have a pretty solid idea of what's supposed to be going on. Now, though, it's finally time to start playing. For our first game, I decided to control the Shadow, and my brother led the Free Peoples.

**

Because the board is so large and complicated, it can look really tough to figure out what to do. Luckily, both the Free Peoples and the Shadow get event cards. These can be used for a whole bunch of things: boost your side in combat, recruit troops, activate nations and whatnot. Since you draw two event cards at the start of every turn and any Event results on the action dice can be used for more, quite often these will give you some direction for the early game. Because this was our first game, we didn't really know what we were doing. I decided that I wanted to go for a military victory and see if I could use my superior forces to steamroll the Free Peoples before they made it to the volcano. When I happened to get some useful muster cards, I was set: the armies of Mordor were coming.

To start with, I decided to strike north: the Black Gate was thrown open and a Nazgûl led the army of Mordor forth into the Dagorlad. Since Mordor wasn't at war yet, I assured the Free Peoples that these were simply ordinary, pre-scheduled summer maneuvers - exercise север-19 - and therefore nothing to worry about. Unsportingly, the imperialist Gondorians used our peaceful solidarity exercises as an excuse to raise their readiness level, and the Fellowship set off from Rivendell. In response, our comrades in Harad reorganized their defensive forces into a more secure posture, and we strengthened the defences of the legitimate people's administration of Minas Morgul against any possible revanchist provocations of the Denethorist clique. Tolkien did say that the idea of putting Mordor in the east was simply an accident of his fictional geography, and I realize that what I'm writing now might be interpreted as a commentary on that statement by uncultured readers, but let me assure you that any such analogies are phantasms of a bourgeois false consciousness; due to their class nature, analogies in general are only found in decadent imperialist literature.

Unseasonally bad weather forced the fellowship to divert to the Trollshaws, and a peaceful scientific Nazgûl was immediately dispatched to make meteorological observations in the region. Meanwhile, Sever-19 was proceeding according to plan. As part of our joint defensive readiness exercises, our brothers in Orthanc conducted a test of their civil defense infrastructure by raising their alert level, allowing comrade Saruman to join the exercise and continue his videotronic experiments with palantír technology. Despite these clear demonstrations of our peaceful intentions, the so-called "wisdom" of Elrond incited the misguided people of Gondor to mobilize against us, and the perfidious elves also began preparations for a war of aggression.

Unfortunately, the fellowship escap the meteorological observations in the Trollshaws were unsuccesful, but exercise Sever-19 went on regardless. Its second phase involved a rendezvous with a contingent from Dol Guldur and joint exercises in the Dimrill Dale, which were entirely unconnected to the rumoured presence of a band of imperialist spies known as the "fellowship" in the area. On the contrary, the peaceful actions of the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces were a powerful contrast to the provocation engineered in Erebor by the revanchist Gimli, whose slanders deluded both the people of the North as well as the dwarves into taking up arms against the peaceful regime of the Lord of Gifts.

Even the peace-loving people of Mordor won't stand idly by as elven-imperialist forces create an aggressive combination against them, but were forced by recent developments to consider themselves at war. By great good fortune, the peaceful solidarity maneuver Sever-19 had purely by chance happened to position a strong defensive army in the Anduin valley. Reluctantly but decisively, the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces set aside their works of peace and turned to war, launching a devastating pre-emptive attack on the perfidious realm of Lórien. The elves withdrew into their accursed forest, but fortified by the righteousness of their defensive cause, the heroic soldiers of Mordor followed them inside to root the elven provocateurs out of their counter-revolutionary dens.

The peaceful realm of Mordor had acted just in time, as the imperialist plot was completed by the crowning of a northern vagrant as "king" in the usurper realm of Gondor. To counter this revanchist threat, the armies of Mordor extended their defensive perimeter to the elven offensive fortifications of Osgiliath and deployed one of their most competent leaders, the People's Commissar for Angmar, to personally direct the pre-emptive attack on Lórien. Inspired by his decisive leadership, the defensive forces of Mordor rooted out the last of the imperialist holdouts in the Golden Wood.

While the counter-revolution massed its forces in Gondor, the working people of the north rose in solidarity against the oppressors, and the People's Commissar of Angmar immediately moved north to direct the army of northern liberation in a glorious counterstroke against the elven masterminds of imperialism. The terrorist provocateurs known as the Dúnedain were dispersed, and the righteous vengeance of the proletariat descended on the decadent bourgeoisie of the Shire.

As the northern army marched on the Grey Havens, the people's supreme command set the rest of their defensive plans in motion. While our agents of influence convinced the dwarves to remain outside the conflict, our Easterling comrades liberated the Iron Hills and smashed the illegitimate Brandist regime in Dale. The liberation army of Lórien marched north to pacify Mirkwood, while the free men of Harad freed Pelargir from Gondorite oppression and the hosts of Minas Morgul marched forth to lay siege to Minas Tirith. Finally, the scientific forces of Isengard drove the Rohanite bandits threatening their borders into their mountain hideouts.

During this glorious march to freedom, the people's committee for security in Minas Morgul intercepted a group of terrorist infiltrators. Several managed to escape, but the infamous spymaster and provocateur Gandalf was apprehended and killed while resisting arrest. This unexpected threat to the homeland served as a reminder to redouble military efforts against the elven conspiracy, and soon enough, the northern army of liberation completed the reduction of the Grey Havens. The campaign against the Rohanite bandits suffered a setback when the provocateur Gandalf made an inexplicable reappearance in Fangorn, inciting the demons of the forest to treacherously murder comrade Saruman. Deprived of his scientific leadership, the siege of the Rohanite hideouts continued indecisively.

With the puppet king of the Denethorite-elvish clique besieged in Minas Tirith and the counter-revolution in retreat everywhere, the final liberation of Middle-earth loomed on the horizon as the oppressive dictatorship of Thranduil fell. Tragically, even though the people's security forces of Mordor had succesfully neutralized several members of their so-called "fellowship", the hobbit terrorists Frodo, Samwise and Peregrin were able to carry out an unthinkable act of sabotage and plunge Middle-earth into an oppressive monarchist darkness. At the eleventh hour, the counter-revolution prevailed through the basest treachery.


**

That was our first game, and it was a damn near-run thing. I had nine victory points on my last turn, and had a decent chance of grabbing the tenth, if only those fucking hobbits didn't make it to the Cracks of Doom first. In the end, it hinged on whether the last hunt tile we drew had a stop symbol on it or not. It didn't, and the game was over. It really couldn't have been a much closer shave.

My military strategy was largely succesful: by the end of the game, I held Lórien, Dale, the Woodland Realm, the Grey Havens, the Shire and Pelargir, and it wasn't quite enough. One thing I really liked was how the game generated its own dynamic. In retrospect, one key moment for me was when the Free Peoples played the There and Back Again event card, which activated the dwarves and the north. At that point, I could easily bring the Witch-king into play; his arrival activates all free nations, but now this only meant Rohan, which I was going to attack anyway. Since I had several cards that I could use to mobilize in Eriador, the northern offensive worked out nicely, especially since my opponent was concentrating on building up his forces in Gondor. I had no intention of attacking Gondor, especially since Aragorn was there, and only sent the Morgul army out to contain him in Minas Tirith. I also delayed my attack on Rohan to maintain Saruman's army as a potential threat. This turned into another decisive moment, as I had the Fighting Uruk-hai card in my hand the very turn the ents destroyed Isengard; had I been able to play it, we'd have had a decent chance of taking Helm's Deep, but I couldn't play it after losing Saruman. So Gandalf not only got the fellowship into Mordor, but also made his way to Fangorn at exactly the right moment to save Rohan.

I only used a couple of character cards to harass the Fellowship, and they still sustained quite a tally of casualties: Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas and Merry all fell in Mordor. The game feels quite nicely balanced, though, because if I'd made more of an effort to stop the Fellowship, I wouldn't have been as succesful militarily. Again, which cards you draw will make a difference, and I like that strategy in the War of the Ring is a combination of a pre-conceived plan and succesfully making use of opportunities that arise.

**

In more general terms, I thought the mechanics worked very well. I especially liked the siege mechanics, which let a siege drag on considerably unless the attacker was willing to sacrifice their elite units to prolong the assault. All in all, this was a great experience. Since writing the above, I also got to try playing as the Free Peoples, and it was just as interesting and just as close. My opponent overcommitted himself, and I decided to leave Boromir and the hobbits to drink away their corruption in Thranduil's halls and go for a military victory. After an epic siege, a joint army of dwarves, elves, Beornings and men from Dale took Dol Guldur, and we very nearly succeeded in storming Isengard. In the end, though, the military superiority of the Shadow won out: Isengard held, and King Elessar fell in a massive battle over Pelargir. Again, it was a game that could have gone either way; a massively exhausting but thoroughly awesome experience. I like to think that when the Easterlings overran the Woodland Realm, Boromir and the hobbits escaped in floating barrels and eventually, somehow, made their way to Mount Doom...

Simply put, if you're at all into some combination of Tolkien and strategy gaming, you have got to try this game. I'm currently looking forward to not only rematches with both my opponents, but also an attempt at both the three- and four-player variants of the game; in the latter, there are two players on each side, while in the most interesting three-player setup, one player controls the Free Peoples, while the other two are effectively Sauron and Saruman. If any of these experiences are half as awesome as the two games we've managed to play so far, this game will have been worth every second of trouble and cent of money I've invested in it.