Apr 24, 2017

Let's Play Star Trek: Frontiers

We've tremendously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings living card game because of its co-operative nature. Therefore, whenever we set out to expand our game repertoire, co-operative games are very much a priority. One game that jumped out at us by combining co-op with a theme we enjoy was Mage Knight in space, aka Star Trek: Frontiers. It seemed a bit on the expensive side, but luckily, I popped into Science Fiction Bokhandeln in Stockholm and found it was a lot cheaper on that side of the pond. Even better, by the time we got there to pick up a copy, not only was it on sale, but the sale was on sale and we grabbed one for an absolute pittance.

**

First, a serious complaint: how can WizKids not manage to get card backs printed properly? The basic crew deck cards have no less than four clearly distinguishable hues.


The advanced crew deck comes in two:


Worst of all, the ship deck cards come in two radically different shades of blue.


Yes, those cards are meant to be shuffled together. Honestly, this is unacceptable. So if you're going to get this game, make sure to budget for card sleeves as well. You'll need some transparent ones for the two-sided cards, but most importantly, something for the ship deck cards to hide the glaring differences in color.

Other than the card backs, the game components are of decent quality. I'm not too thrilled about the card art; using screenshots from the various Trek series is fine, but the choices are often rather uninspiring. The ship decks are largely made up of exterior shots of the ship in question, which isn't really very evocative of, well, anything. There's a million different counters, which I kind of like, but sadly they're so small that it can take some squinting to figure out which symbols and numbers are on them. The map pieces are made of a pleasantly sturdy cardboard, but the color scheme is very drab, which also occasionally makes it difficult to tell the map symbols from each other. Especially the recruitment symbols on the crew cards can be really hard to decipher. So play this in a well-lit space!

**

The other bad news is that at first glance, the game is simply overwhelming. There are approximately three billion counters and several piles of cards, and the setup instructions alone are enough to cause acute despair in someone who plays War of the Ring for fun. It also doesn't help that the rulebooks are quite poorly thought out. What all this adds up to is to make the game somewhat difficult to approach, not least because until you actually sit down and play it, it's extraordinarily difficult to get any grasp of how anything works.

Also, be warned: the game takes up a lot of space. Especially with multiple players, think War of the Ring. Below is a four-player game set up on a dinner table that seats six, where we've previously played two simultaneous games of Blood Bowl.


However, it's all worth the trouble, because the game is very good. Set in Next Generation times, the premise is that a stable wormhole into a new sector of space has been found, and the Federation and the Klingons are scrambling to get a foothold in the region. Each player picks a starship and sets off to explore a randomly generated map. The victory conditions vary by scenario, with both co-operative and competitive options, but in the tutorial, the goal is simply to gain the most experience.

We actually tried to play this on the boat back from Stockholm, but there was such a heavy sea that we got too seasick! A second attempt on land was more succesful: my partner picked the Enterprise, while I was delighted to find that I could play as the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor.

Each player has their own starship and their ship deck, a deck of cards that are used to move around, fight and interact with planets, outposts and whatnot. As the game progresses, you get to add various new cards to your deck, and also acquire additional abilities by recruiting crew members. Gathering experience levels up your captain, which lets you get more cards and recruit more crew.

Below, the last turn of our first game: while the Enterprise was busy blowing up yet another Romulan warbird, Lursa and B'Etor and their unlikely crew (foreground) found the Borg cube we were looking for.


As my partner points out, the card only says "Riker", so we don't actually know which Riker it is! Given that Lursa and B'Etor recruited him from a Dominion starbase they assaulted, I like to think it was Thomas Riker on some particularly unfortunate escapade.

Here's a shot from our second game:


The map tile closest to the camera is the starting tile, with the wormhole where everybody starts, and the map stretching out from there. This was a full four-player game, so if you look closely, you can see General Martok's battle cruiser on the left, and the USS Defiant between the Enterprise and the Duras sisters' warbird. This time, General Martok, scourge of the Romulans, was victorious.

**

Once you get the hang of it, the gameplay is simply great fun. We're looking forward to getting more games in over the summer, and there's even an expansion coming out next fall! For the moment, though, based on our initial experiences, we highly recommend Star Trek: Frontiers.

Apr 17, 2017

Team Yankee: Where on earth is the Soviet artillery?

I picked up the rulebook for Team Yankee on a lark over the winter break. Based on the novel of the same name, it's a miniature game that depicts combat between Soviet and American forces in a World War III being fought in Germany. Given the choice of those two sides, I'd definitely be inclined to pick the Soviets - if not for one major problem: artillery.

In Team Yankee, each Soviet battalion gets one battery of 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzers, and you can also select one battery of divisional artillery, also 2S1s. Were you to select a division's worth of troops, you'd end up with 17 batteries, 102 guns in total, and the single divisional BM-21 rocket launcher battery.

As FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment (pdf) tells us, a Soviet tank division mustered four battalions of 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzers, one per regiment, and an artillery regiment with two 2S3 (152mm) battalions and a rocket launcher battalion. That's a total of 72 2S1s, 36 2S3s and 18 BM-21 rocket launchers (FM 100-2-3, 4-13). In terms of raw numbers, then, Team Yankee is close to the organic tube artillery held by a Soviet tank division, but the 152mm guns of the divisional artillery have been replaced by 122mm ones. With only a single battery present, two thirds of the division's rocket launchers are missing.

There are two problems with this. First, this is a highly counterintuitive way to handle Soviet artillery. As Chris Bellamy (Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces. Brassey's Defence Publishers, London, 1986) reminds us, the basic Soviet fire unit was the battalion, not the battery (185-190). Divisional artillery in tank and motor rifle divisions was grouped into battalions at regiment level, not penny-packeted to the battalions, which would have been a decidedly un-Soviet thing to do. Motor rifle battalions did have an organic mortar battery, which is missing from Team Yankee. Individual artillery batteries charging around with battalions was not Soviet practice.

Also, what we've looked at so far is just the organic artillery, i.e. the artillery units permanently attached to the division. Team Yankee is set in West Germany, which would have been the crucible of any NATO-Soviet shooting war. There's just no way that a first-line Soviet division would be participating in an offensive in the key theater of operations with just its organic artillery. Bellamy estimates (194-197) that a division advancing along a main axis would be supported by or even allocated artillery from both the Army and Front level; in his hypothetical example, two battalions of 152mm SP or towed guns from the Army, and three battalions of SP guns, self-propelled mortars, 203mm guns and heavy rocket launchers from the Front, for a total of over 300 equipments. In other words, support from higher echelons would more than triple the artillery strength of a front-line division along a major axis of advance, purely in terms of numbers of equipment; because some of the higher-level artillery is heavier, the increase in firepower is actually even larger. To take a World War I comparison, Bellamy estimates that the artillery fire in support of a Soviet breakthrough would have been six times more intense than the initial German bombardment at Verdun.

The heavy breakthrough battle is a special case, though. The scenarios of Team Yankee are set in a more fluid post-breakthrough environment where NATO forces are conducting a mobile defence, and are apparently able to engage the Soviets in smaller engagements. In a sense, then, the whole premise of the game is that NATO strategy has been succesful, and the Soviets have failed to overcome their defences through mass and tempo. However, how would Soviet artillery have been deployed in mobile operations? According to Bellamy (199-200), while artillery control would have been heavily centralized during the breakthrough battle, during the exploitation phase afterward, artillery battalions would be allocated to forward maneuver battalions. In this special case, it might have been possible for individual artillery batteries to be allocated to companies, but at battalion level, a forward tank or motor-rifle battalion would certainly have been supported by an artillery battalion. Existing tactical protocols for meeting engagements, a form of battle the Soviets would have actively sought, deal with an artillery battery attached to the company forming the march security element, with the rest of the maneuver and artillery battalions close behind.

In both the heavy breakthrough battle and subsequent engagements, then, we would expect to see a Soviet maneuver battalion supported by at least a battalion of artillery, if not more. Using the Team Yankee formation charts, the first battalion-level formation would be supported by at most two batteries of SP guns. Adding a second battalion only raises this number to three, meaning that a two-battalion force would only have half the minimum number of artillery support we'd expect to find. Admittedly, the rules make it possible to select "companies" which are actually barely platoons, but at this point the nomenclature and organization become thoroughly confused. An easy solution would be to increase both the battalion- and division-level artillery, and include equipment like the 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortar, or even the 203mm 2S7 Pion.

Perhaps the most pointed example of the neglect, if not even disdain, the designers have for Soviet doctrine, is the scenario on pages 108-109, called "the Battle for Hill 214". The scenario depicts a Soviet motor-rifle battalion, reinforced by a handful of tanks but with no indirect fire support whatsoever, assaulting a US mechanized battlegroup in prepared positions over open ground. From the Soviet point of view, such an operation would be inconceivable, and the circumstances in which it would come about are exceedingly difficult to envision.

**

Unfortunately, this neglect of artillery has more or less put me off trying the game, along with the price of the miniatures; at our friendly local gaming store, the 2S1 SP guns set you back 10€ each. One look at the prices for the Team Yankee models, which I didn't by any means think are all that unreasonable, forcefully reminded me of how cheap living card games are! But at the end of the day, while I was hoping for a combined arms battle on the Inner German Frontier, my impression is that this is a system more geared toward charging about in tanks. I'll probably take a look at the West Germany supplement, because if we're going to do Girls und Panzer, then why not go for a proper Panzer; however if they ever put out a rules supplement for the 1985 French army, I will definitely reconsider my decision to not get involved.

Apr 10, 2017

LotR LCG: The might of Gondor

"There is a great fleet drawing near to the mouths of Anduin, manned by the corsairs of Umbar in the South. They have long ceased to fear the might of Gondor, and they have allied them with the Enemy, and now make a heavy stroke in his cause."
- Beregond, in the Lord of the Rings, book V, chapter I




John Howe: Watchful Peace, 1990

**

As part of my project to put together a series of thematic decks that can work together, I created a Leadership/Tactics/Outlands Gondor deck. Here it is in its original form:

50 cards; 29 Leadership, 11 Tactics, 3 Spirit, 3 Lore, 3 Neutral; 32 allies, 8 attachments, 9 events. Starting threat 29.

Hirluin the Fair
Prince Imrahil
Beregond

Allies: 32 (17/6/3/3/3)
Forlong (TDF) x2
Veteran of Osgiliath (EfMG) x3
Guard of the Citadel x3
Errand-rider (HoN) x3
Squire of the Citadel (TBoG) x3
Warrior of Lossarnach (TSF) x3
Gondorian Spearman x3
Knights of the Swan (TSF) x3
Envoy of Pelargir (HoN) x3
Anfalas Herdsman (TSF) x3
Ethir Swordsman (TSF) x3

Attachments: 9 (4/5)
Visionary Leadership (TMV) x2
Sword of Morthond (AoO) x2
Citadel Plate x2
Captain of Gondor (TAC) x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF)

Events: 9
For Gondor! x3
Valiant Sacrifice x3
Wealth of Gondor (HoN) x3

**

I tried this out solo, and it turned out to be fun enough that I decided to take this seriously, and actually try to build a somewhat functional Gondor deck. This involved trying some new attachments, and stealing the Sneak Attacks and Gandalfs from my brother-in-law's Dwarf deck. The occasionally strange numbers of cards are because the other copies are in use elsewhere in our decks.

53 cards; 32 Leadership, 13 Tactics, 3 Spirit, 3 Lore, 2 Neutral; 30 allies, 17 attachments, 5 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat 29.

Hirluin the Fair (TSF)
Prince Imrahil (AJtR)
Beregond (HoN)

Allies: 30 (13/9/2/3/3)
Faramir x2
Forlong (TDF) x2
Veteran of Osgiliath (EfMG) x3
Warrior of Lossarnach (TSF) x3
Errand-rider (HoN) x3
Soldier of Dol Amroth (TCoC) x3
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x3
Knights of the Swan (TSF) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Anfalas Herdsman (TSF) x3
Ethir Swordsman (TSF) x3

Attachments: 17 (10/5/2)
Armored Destrier (TotD) x2
Steward of Gondor x2
Visionary Leadership (TMV) x2
In Service of the Steward (FotS)
Sword of Morthond (AoO)
Rod of the Steward (FotS) x2
Citadel Plate x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF)
Gondorian Fire (AoO) x2
Prince of Dol Amroth (TCoC) x2

Events: 5
For Gondor! x3
Sneak Attack x2

Side quests: 1
Send for Aid (TToR)

My brother's Leadership/Lore deck is around sideboard:
remove Faramir x2 and Steward of Gondor x2, add Envoy of Pelargir (HoN) x3

**

I took this version out for a couple of solo attempts at Journey Down the Anduin, but had some difficulty getting set up with such a high opening threat. We had a new player try it out, and it made a positive contribution. Still, though, even with Outlands, I'm not entirely happy with the way the deck works. Although Gondor decks have arguably been around since the core set, compared to other factions like dwarves, silvan elves or Dúnedain, say, there's just not a lot that makes them very unique. There really aren't many worthwhile cards that key off the Gondor trait, nor is there really a distinctive Gondor play style. Dúnedain decks like engaged enemies, hobbits have secrecy potential and voluntary engagement, silvan decks bounce allies in and out of play, and so on; while a Gondor deck has, well, a bunch of allies? A Gondor deck probably works best as a Leadership ally swarm - I tried one of those as well - but in that case there isn't really a very good argument for making it a specifically Gondor deck at all, because the Gondor synergies are so limited.

It's a little weird that a faction that's been around since the core set, had a deluxe box dedicated to it and has kept getting new cards still kind of doesn't really have an identity of its own in the game. I like Gondor, so I hope the designers can get around to creating a Gondor playstyle. Right now, Gondor decks still feel too generic for me to really be inspired to play them.

**

Meanwhile, my New Amazons deck has stayed the same, except for one change: I've ditched Éowyn's toys. While getting both Herugrim and Snowmane on her can be cool, with no way to search for them, it happens too rarely and, in fact, ends up having too little impact to justify taking up four card slots in a Spirit/Lore deck packed to the brim and over. I'd been using Elrond's Counsel as a replacement when Éowyn wasn't around, so I'll go with that for now. Even that isn't such an amazing card any more, though, with threat not being such a huge issue in many of the newer quests and making use of Keen as Lances. So when and if something more interesting shows up later in the Haradrim cycle, I can definitely try it.

55 cards; 33 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 11 attachments, 21 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

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

Attachments: 11 (7/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 21 (9/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x3
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

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

Apr 3, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 31: Flight to the Ford

When Frodo came to himself he was still clutching the Ring desperately.

Frodo wakes up next to the fire at Weathertop. He's been stabbed in the shoulder by a Black Rider, and Strider is gone. The ranger soon returns, reporting that the hobbit-stabbers are nowhere to be found. He thinks they believe that Frodo will soon succumb to his wound and fall under their control. To stop this from happening, Strider goes off in search of herbs. He returns after dawn, when he and the hobbits find the detritus of battle around them: a slashed black cloak, and a notched knife whose blade evaporates in the sunlight. The sartorial damage is all Frodo inflicted; Strider finds further support for this in the fact that Frodo's dagger survived. This is actually interesting if you know what happens later, but for now, suffice to say that I'll be getting back to this in about 2020 or so.

Unaware of the future, Strider does what he can for Frodo. He sings a song over the hilt of the knife - a possible nod to Finnish healing magic there - and crushes a herb (athelas) in water and bathes Frodo's wound with it. It helps, but Frodo is still too weak to stand, let alone travel. However, that's exactly what they need to do.

They quickly decided to leave Weathertop as soon as possible. "I think now," said Strider, "that the enemy has been watching this place for some days. If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return. In any case we are in great peril here after dark, since the attack of last night, and we can hardly meet greater danger wherever we go."

Now that he's accepted that he won't find Gandalf, Strider finally realizes the massive danger in hanging out in pretty much the only place where anyone could possibly think to look for them. And so Frodo is loaded onto the pony, everyone else takes their share of the dwindling supplies, and off they go. They quickly cross the Road and lose themselves from the Black Riders in the thickets and the pathless country beyond - which is where they should have been in the first place. They trudge through the wilderness for days, keeping nervous watch at night, but there's no sign of the Black Riders.

Eventually, with Frodo's condition getting worse, Strider leads the hobbits up a ridge where they can see the Road, and two rivers ahead. The nearest, the Hoarwell, is crossed by the Last Bridge, and beyond it, the Loudwater, which the Road crosses by the Ford of Bruinen. With no other ways across the rivers, Strider expects they must find the bridge held against them. He's wrong, though: the bridge is deserted. All they find is an elven jewel, seemingly dropped in the middle of the bridge. Strider interprets this as a token that they can safely pass the bridge, and they hurry across.

Beyond the Hoarwell, Strider leads the hobbits into the hills north of the Road. They have a very weary time of it, with provisions running low and rain pouring down, but there's still no sign of pursuit. They spend five days making their way through the rough hill country, and are ten days out from Weathertop. When there's a break in the weather, Strider climbs one of the hills to orient himself, and finds they've come too far north; they have to head south in order to make it to the Ford. As they start picking their way southward, they discover a path, which they follow. It leads to a cave fronted by a crude door, which is unanimously identified as an abandoned troll lair. They continue down the path, with Merry and Pippin ranging ahead - which sounds like a terrible idea, by the way - and Strider, Sam and Frodo following. Soon enough, the intrepid hobbit scouts come running back, having seen trolls in a clearing below. Strider picks up a stick and goes to take a look.

Sure enough, there are three trolls in a clearing in broad daylight. Strider walks up to one and breaks his stick over it. The hobbits are shocked into silence, but when nothing at all happens, Frodo bursts out laughing as he recognizes the scene. These are the very three trolls that Gandalf had fooled into arguing for so long over how to eat Thorin and company that the sun turned them to stone. The hobbits enjoy a cheerful lunch in the shadow of the petrified trolls, and Sam even busts out some freestyle rhyme about Tom Bombadil meeting a troll.

In the afternoon, they reach the Road, but as night is falling, they hear a horse coming up behind. Frodo and company scramble to hide in a bush, but when they hear a faint tinkling of bells, they conclude it's very unlikely to be a Black Rider. In fact, it's an Elf-lord, Glorfindel, from the house of Elrond. Gildor, who the hobbits met in chapter 3, had sent word to Rivendell that some hobbits were being chased by the Nine and Gandalf was missing, and Glorfindel and others had been sent out to find them. Anxious to get to Rivendell, Glorfindel has Frodo mount his horse and leads the company on a forced march east. He's confident that his horse Asfaloth can bear Frodo away from even the Black riders; Frodo protests, but Glorfindel reminds him that his friends will be in no danger if he isn't with them.

After two days of exhausting forced marching, the company reaches the Ford, but the Black Riders catch up to them there. Glorfindel sends his horse forward, and although Frodo is reluctant, the horse knows better and makes for the Ford. The Riders thunder past Strider and the others, and race to cut Frodo off from the Ford, but Asfaloth is too fast for them, and Frodo makes it across. The nine Black Riders seem reluctant to enter the water, and Frodo feels them commanding him to stop. He refuses, and with his sword drawn, orders them back to Mordor. The leader of the Riders raises his hand, and Frodo's sword snaps in two. The Black Riders ride into the ford, and as they do, a sudden flood rises, sweeping them away except for a few remaining ones, who are driven into the roaring waters by Glorfindel and the rest of the company with torches. As the Riders fall, Frodo loses consciousness and the chapter ends.

**

And with that, Book One of the Lord of the Rings comes to an end. It's been almost a year since I got started, so we'll be doing this for a while yet! In terms of form, this chapter is very similar to the previous one: Frodo and company have to set off into the wilderness, hampered by an unexpected burden; they have a miserable time of it, until they reach a landmark, where they're attacked by Black Riders and Frodo is knocked out.

Speaking of hobbit-stabbing ghosts, if I have opinions about Strider's choices along the road to Rivendell, the Black Riders come off worse. After they find Frodo at Bree, they let him vanish into the wilderness with Strider. When they get an unexpected opportunity at Weathertop, they're content to stab Frodo and then apparently completely lose his tail again. Strider may well be right in thinking that they believe Frodo must succumb to the wound, but still, it seems negligent to just leave him to his own devices and take some time off to wait. When Frodo resists, they're stuck with mounting an ambush at the Ford of Bruinen, where they're foiled by Glorfindel and the river. So while Strider may not have made the best choices, his opposite number, so to speak, clearly did worse.

In both cases, though, the failures are understandable in the context of the story. Strider seems to have been motivated by his desire to find Gandalf, while the Black Riders, if anything, were simply arrogant. This, at least, is the explanation we're given; at Bree, the Riders know exactly where the Ring is, but fail to take advantage of their position, with "all the long leagues of Eriador" to come. Of course, that doesn't work out because of Strider, and when they get their opportunity at Weathertop, they're so sure that their ingenious hobbit-stabbing ploy will work that they pull a disappearing act. I wonder where they went?

They may seem excessively incompetent villains, but their inability to finish the job and recover the Ring can also be seen as the first occurrence of a major theme of the Lord of the Rings: the failure of evil. The Black Riders fail because of their arrogance, or in other words, the mortal sin of pride. They're not the first to succumb to this - one recalls a boasting dragon inadvertently revealing his fatal weakness - and they won't be the last. Or maybe the Witch-king was a sadist and wanted to not only recover the Ring, but also transform Frodo into a wraith and subdue him to his will. I mean, I don't imagine you become Witch-king by being nice to people. Or maybe that's what Sauron told him to do. Whatever it was, it didn't work. This, if you like, is the Boëthian view of evil: ultimately, evil defeats itself. However, as Frodo's wound testifies, this by no means implies that it can't do terrible damage while failing, or that it doesn't need to be fought at all.

To move from wraiths to trolls, the encounter with the petrified remains of Bilbo's trollish escapade is a nice touch, and Sam's freestyle verse is one of my favorite pieces of Tolkien poetry. The only unfortunate thing about it is that, as the late Karen Wynn Fonstad demonstrated, there's really no way to square the travel times here: while Bilbo and the dwarves stumbled into the trolls almost immediately after crossing the Last Bridge, Strider and the hobbits spend almost six days wandering through the wilderness before they happen on the same clearing. Even with the injured Frodo, it beggars belief that Aragorn could get so thoroughly lost as to effectively lead them on a five-day loop that ends up back where they started. Frodo even recalls Bilbo's adventure when they cross the bridge.

If we really wanted to harmonize the two accounts, I suppose the likeliest explanation would be that Bilbo simply misremembered where the trolls' campsite was, and the account in the Lord of the Rings is correct. But I have yet to lose any sleep over this.

Finally, there's the matter of Glorfindel. Originally, there were two elves called Glorfindel: one a High Elf who fell in battle with a Balrog while escaping Gondolin, the other another high elf by the same name who belonged to Elrond's household. Apparently Tolkien later became dissatisfied with the idea of two elves having the same name, and came up with the idea that Glorfindel had, in fact, been killed by the Balrog, but was sent back from the Halls of Mandos for, um, reasons. Frankly, it makes no sense whatsoever, and actually cheapens the tale of Lúthien: only she could move Mandos to pity, except then there was that other time they also sent a dude back. The idea that the two Glorfindels are the same is an unpublished nonsense retcon, and it should be cheerfully ignored.

On the whole, this is quite a dramatic chapter; the desperate struggle to get to Rivendell before Frodo succumbs to his wound is conveyed well, and the moment of levity with the trolls breaks up the rising tension effectively before the dramatic finale with the Black Riders. It's a bit of a deus ex machina ending, but Frodo's brave resistance still makes it a pretty good scene.

**

That was Book One, then! We've gone from a hobbit birthday-party to a harrowing near escape from the Black Riders at a flooding ford. After the birthday-party and its aftermath, this has more or less been a travelogue through Tolkien's Middle-earth, with the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs and the wastes of Eriador, punctuated by the occasional pleasant interlude of some fairly genteel middle-class recreation. The story has constantly been moving in both space and scope: we started in a hobbit-hole and ended up with an Elf-lord and the Witch-king at the gates of Rivendell. I don't know, I must've read this a couple of dozen times by now, and I still enjoy it.

Next time, book two!

Mar 27, 2017

CKII: Go feudal or go home

In the day that thy walls are to be built, in that day shall the decree be far removed.
- Micah 7:11


My previous post chronicled the rise of the Hämäläinen dynasty from chiefs of Häme and Uusimaa to kings of Finland, all the way to the fateful decision to convert to feudalism. I should stress that since I've never tried this before, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Like I explained in my previous post, converting to feudalism has several benefits. Your income goes up a lot, you get castle holdings you can improve, and your levies are no longer a horde of light infantry but rather a more balanced force. The downside is that without access to event troops from decisions and drastically reduced levies, until you build up your strength, you're suddenly very vulnerable. If there's a unified aggressive realm next to you, a badly timed decision to feudalize can well mean game over.

What you need is basically money, more or less pacific vassals and money. Because they can make use of the county conquest casus belli to expand, pagan rulers will find it easier to install members of their dynasty throughout the realm, which makes for (slightly!) less truculent vassals. Also, raiding is a great way to produce money. If you pick the right time and prepare properly, you too can succesfully feudalize your realm!

In my case, we made it and didn't even lose any territory! Barely. Luckily, as you feudalize, so will many of your vassals, which means factions aren't immediately murderously dangerous. But basically everybody near you who isn't in a non-aggression pact will pretty much invade at some point. Even previously marginal tribal rulers are suddenly dangerous, because they can convert prestige into stacks of 2500 troops and you can't, plus unless you have exceptionally high military organization, you're going to suffer horrible attrition in their territory! We had to fight off not just Norse and Lithuanian invaders, but also at least one rebellion and several invasions by minor tribal rulers to the southeast. With enough money to hire a proper stack of mercenaries, plus a little luck, this can be done. Once you survive the initial onslaught, you can also expect to be incessantly raided by the neighboring pagans, which is mostly a nuisance but can actually be very costly if your levies are busy elsewhere.


While all this was going on, the head of our faith decided to try this newfangled holy war thing, and declared a Great Holy War on the Orthodox kingdom of Ruthenia to our south. When we got a moment's peace, we decided to participate because why the hell not?


Unfortunately, it didn't exactly work out for us. The religious heads don't always use their best judgement when figuring out when to start a holy war; for whatever reason, mine always seems to wait until I'm fighting a war on the exact opposite end of my realm from where they've decided to strike next. So far, there's only been one succesful Suomenusko great holy war, when the kingdom of Lithuania converted to Catholicism. I think we've lost every other one. At times, they've been such hopeless projects that I didn't even take part.


Meanwhile, some men with horses showed up.


**

In my previous post, I talked about the issues with gavelkind succession, where the titles held by a ruler are distributed to their heirs. As long as the realm is expanding and you only hold a single high-level title, this isn't actually a bad system, as long as you make sure there's enough stuff for everyone to inherit without breaking up the demesne. Very early into my feudal reign, a fairly large faction of nobles demanded we switch to feudal elective succession, which I actually agreed to, because why not? The beauty of expanding at the expense of infidels is that you never vassalize them but rather kick out the old rulers completely, basically allowing you to fill up all the appropriate vacant holdings with members of your own dynasty. This means all the eligible candidates for king will tend to be from your dynasty, meaning that feudal elective succession can actually be a very strong way to avoid game over. Since electors tend to want a strong king, they won't pick children, avoiding the trouble of a long regency, and you can usually manage to get characters with strong traits elected.

This is all well and good until you want to hold multiple titles. In my case, King Soini III was king of Suomi, but I also wanted to form the kingdoms of Rus and Sápmi. Under gavelkind succession, they'd have been split among his heirs; under feudal elective succession, each kingdom would have chosen its own king. Therefore, we needed the last piece in the feudal puzzle: primogeniture. Finally, King Soini III managed to raise our crown authority high enough to enact primogeniture.


This way, I could create the kingdoms of Sápmi and Rus, knowing that they would pass to his son Susi.




Meanwhile, there was time to study the stars:


Studying astronomy gets you tech points, boosts your character's Learning (which gets you more tech points) and lets you build an observatory for an achievement. Starting as a tribal count means being quite a bit behind in technology, so this is a sound investment if there's nothing more pressing to do.

**

The only problem with primogeniture was that by the time he gained the throne, Susi was mad. Playing a lunatic character is challenging, because his madness gives a pretty stiff penalty to all interactions, but it's also brilliant because he's mad. During his unreasonably long reign, King Susi decreed that the only lawful currency of the realm shall be turnips, fought Cthulhu and appointed his horse Glitterhoof chancellor. A battle wound gave him the sobriquet Lame, which couldn't have been more wrong because that he definitely wasn't.




As if all this wasn't enough, when King Susi succeeded to the throne, I was hit with what I assume must be a bug: suddenly my demesne levies all dropped to zero. There was no reason why they should have done so, but drop they did, which led to every faction in the realm deciding that now would be a good time to demand whatever it was they wanted to demand from me. King Susi's reign was basically one civil war after another, but with enough money to hire mercenaries, we got through it.

**

So, against all odds or at the very least my expectations, the kingdom of Suomi is now a feudal realm. Next time, we aim higher.

Mar 20, 2017

LotR LCG: Between the Mountains and the Sea

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


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


John Howe: Minas Tirith, 1989

**

Peril in Pelargir - DL 5


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


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


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

**

Into Ithilien - DL 4


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


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


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

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

**

The Siege of Cair Andros - DL 7


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


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

**

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


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

**

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

**

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

(...)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: trolls, elves and a flood.