Jul 15, 2019

Let's Play Terraforming Mars

The Hunter's Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars. But low in the South one star shone red. Every night, as the Moon waned again, it shone brighter and brighter. Frodo could see it from his window, deep in the heavens, burning like a watchful eye that glared above the trees on the brink of the valley.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book II, chapter 3


We had been hearing a lot of hype about Terraforming Mars, a board game by a Swedish guy where you, well, terraform Mars. Seeing as how I enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and I live in a household of avid Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri players, this was a no-brainer purchase for us. Luckily - spoilers - it's also really, really good.

**

To start with the best bit: it fits on our kitchen table! We own several lovely board games like Star Wars: Rebellion and Star Trek: Frontiers, not to mention War of the Ring, which we almost never get to play as they simply will not fit in our apartment. The Game of Thrones board game has an expansion that comes with an additional board, and I'd love to get it, but I have literally no idea where we could possibly play it. So I'm delighted that we managed to fit a four-player game of Terraforming Mars on our table!


The centerpiece is obviously the board, which is a pretty map of Mars that gives off strong SMAC vibes. Each player has their own player board and player-colored plastic cubes, and there are very nice copper, silver and gold-colored cubes to denote resources. The only real criticism I have for the physical game is that the cubes are very light, so if you so much as nudge your player board (or, heaven forbid, the table), you'd better remember how much steel you were producing, because that little cube is gone. I can't help but think of the Fallout board game's robust player boards and contemplate something similar here.

The objective of the game is to terraform Mars: in practical terms, make the surface of Mars habitable for humans. This is tracked through three global parameters: temperature, oxygen and ocean. Everybody co-operates to raise these to their maximum levels, earning Terraforming Rating points for their contributions, and when all three parameters max out, the player with the highest TR wins.

I already mentioned the player board: it keeps track of how much money and other resources each player is producing per turn. These resources are used to either directly terraform, especially in the case of heat and plants, or pay for projects that contribute to either your production or terraforming. Each player plays as a corporation involved in colonizing Mars; for first games, the recommendation is to take a beginner corporation, which we did, but later you get to pick from different corporations that affect how your game unfolds.

Each player also gets a starting hand of project cards, and each turn ("generation") there's an opportunity to buy more. Project cards cost money to buy and play, but some (or all!) of the playing cost can be offset with resources. Even with the beginning corporations, the project cards you draw at the beginning of the game will tend to give you a starting direction, so to speak. For instance, one of us got Soletta into play on their first turn, which massively boosted their heat production, making it clear that they were going to be contributing significantly to raising the temperature. On the other hand, I started with Regolith Eaters, which drove me toward a science specialization and meant that I was active in raising oxygen levels. This specialization is further driven by the milestones, which you can unlock when you reach a prerequisite, and awards that you can fund which will award victory points to whoever fulfills their conditions - not necessarily the person who funded them!

When you play project cards, they either go into a personal discard pile or stay on the table. Below you can see my player board and cards several generations in: I'm growing oxygen-producing microbes, recharging Mars's magnetic field with the Equatorial Magnetizer, and a bunch of other stuff as well. On the map, you can see several ocean, greenery and city tiles already deployed.


Several of the project cards have upper or lower thresholds for when they can be played, which meant that we progressed from a cold, dry planet with microbes and small sheltered colonies to one with several oceans, fish and livestock and lots of greenery. I ended up playing a lot of science projects and just projects in general:


Many of these projects also came with victory points, and I was a bit disappointed to not be able to afford to fund the Scientist award, as I easily had the most science tags. Here's what the board looked like after final scoring:


And here's the final score! I won, which doesn't happen all that often, but most importantly, final scoring was a nail-biter, with all four of us finishing within just a couple of points of each other. I can freely admit that when the last generation ended, I had no idea who was going to win.


**

We also got to try a couple of three-player games, where me and my brother-in-law played proper corporations, with a third player helming a beginner corporation. In our first game, I was the Tharsis Republic, facing Ecoline.


I was lucky with the cards, drawing Capitol and Noctis City to go with the Tharsis city-based strategy, and ended up winning with 88 VP and a comfortable margin.


The non-beginner corporations only make the game better: you pick from two options at the beginning, so there's some choice, and although they give you a boost in a certain direction, they don't really tie you down to a particular path. Also, having to pick which starting project cards you buy adds an excellent new layer of decision-making. Having beginner players get to keep all their starting cards is a stroke of genius, because it means they can work out what they all do while the non-beginners are puzzling out which cards to buy.

On our next three-player attempt, I played as Interplanetary Cinematics; we were going to colonize Mars and make reality television out of it, and for some reason, we start with all the steel ever.


This time I was less lucky with the cards - all that steel's no good if you can't draw any building tags - but I'll freely admit I also made some poor card-buying decisions, and in the end, I lost to Credicor.


Even in a losing effort, this is just a tremendously enjoyable game to play. You get to plan ahead and contribute to a joint effort, so even if you're not winning, you're still engaged in doing something meaningful and fun. I don't know if it's all the Alpha Centauri, but I find Terraforming Mars incredibly immersive, and just great fun throughout.

**

After beginner corporations and the standard game, the proper way to play is Corporate Era. This adds the rest of the project and corporation cards in the base game, and everyone starts with zero production in all the various resources. This makes for a slightly longer game - our first attempt clocked in at just a bit under four hours - but it was a very well-spent four hours!


Starting with no production makes the impact of your starting corporation that much greater, and the early going is a bit rough. However, Corporate Era only underlines the genius of Terraforming Mars: its pacing is damn near perfect. Whereas a lot of board games have a final phase where it's become somewhat obvious who's going to win, we've never had that happen in Terraforming Mars. Even in Corporate Era, at first terraforming is a bit sluggish, until it starts picking up the pace and all of a sudden you find it's the last turn, and you're scrambling to play what cards you can.

In our first Corporate Era game, Teractor's superior financial resources won out by a fair margin. We liked the Corporate Era cards; they add some more opportunities to sabotage your rivals, but never to the extent that any real "PVP" feel would develop. Even though Corporate Era games are a little bit longer, the extra time is fully warranted and the experience remains excellent fun, without the physical and mental exhaustion of larger and more complex board games.

**

The game has several expansions, of which we've bought Prelude; I'm slightly concerned that Colonies and Venus Next won't fit on our table! Prelude adds a couple of new corporation and project cards, which I think are worthwhile, and a special "pre-round"; each player is dealt four Prelude cards with their starting corporation and project cards, and two of these are played before the first proper turn starts. They do various things to speed up the early game, like give you a pile of money or let you play a card.

We tried it, and it was excellent. The prelude cards led to a lot of careful thinking at the start of the game, but they seem to be excellently balanced, because the game lasted pretty much exactly as long as it did without them! My prelude cards were Research Network, which let me draw three cards and increased my money production, and Orbital Construction Yard, which had me producing titanium from the beginning. Despite my best efforts, Teractor won in a game where none of us really knew who was ahead until final scoring.


Also look how green our Mars was! I don't think we'd ever placed that many greenery tiles before.

Maybe the best way to sum up the Terraforming Mars experience I've chronicled here is that over four fairly competitive and very fun games with the same four players, each of us won once. That's balance for you!

**

To sum up, this is a truly excellent board game. When we first tried it, only one of us had ever played before, but we had no trouble diving in, got through it in something like 3-4 hours, and definitely enjoyed ourselves. With proper corporations, the game barely took any longer at all, but was even more fun. I think Terraforming Mars is one of the best board games I've ever played, and I highly recommend it.

Jul 8, 2019

LotR LCG: Over the Edge of the Wild

"There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go."
- The Hobbit, chapter VII


In a slightly bizarre episode, someone got their hands on the Crossings of Poros AP as long ago as July 2017, and spoiled the accompanying flavor text, which strongly indicated that the next deluxe would be set in Dale. Finally, in December, the Wilds of Rhovanion deluxe expansion was announced, and promised for the first quarter of 2018. We got it at the very end of June.


John Howe: An Unexpected Party, 2000.

**

Journey up the Anduin - DL 5

I wonder why they still bother with the difficulty levels? Journey Up the Anduin is obviously a sort of revisiting of the second core set quest, Journey Down the Anduin. What with the Hill Troll and everything, the original quest is, in my mind, one of the true classics of the game. I still remember the first time I beat it solo. The reverse journey here uses most of the same encounter cards as the original did, and this return to the core set had a lot of us thinking that this would definitely be the last deluxe expansion! Luckily we were wrong.


The quest itself is okay. I liked using the old encounter cards mixed in with the new stuff; I disliked the "evil creatures" deck, because it feels fiddly. But the difficulty level felt manageable, and while this quest doesn't hold a candle to the brilliance of the original, it was perfectly decent.

**

Lost in Mirkwood - DL 5

Once we've made it up the Anduin, the next quest is a retread of Passage Through Mirkwood, only with more spiders and way more locations.


This really is location lock: the quest. The first time I tried it, we were completely swamped by locations, and with cards like Dark Black Woods and Twilight Hall in play, even Northern Tracker couldn't save us. On a second attempt with my partner's Tactics deck, we got the location control engine up and running, and actually managed to beat the quest!

I'm kind of on the fence about Lost in Mirkwood; if you can manage to not get buried under the avalanche of locations the encounter deck provides, it's quite doable; even kinda fun. But if the locations hit just right, or you don't have the right cards to deal with them, this is a frustratingly impossible quest.

**

The King's Quest - DL 5

Having made their way to Dale, for some inexplicable reason our heroes have volunteered to raid the Iron Hills version of Moria. Luckily there isn't a Balrog, but there is a dragon. This quest uses a "Deep" mechanic, where locations with the Deep keyword are replaced by locations from a Caves deck when you travel to them. This is actually a pretty clever mechanic, as it introduces some uncertainty into traveling.


As a quest, King's Quest is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl, with frankly slightly boring enemies (except the Werewolf and Hobgoblin!), that turns into a pretty decent bossfight against the dragon guarding its treasure. We damn near beat this quest on our first try; we were doing all right until the damn dragon murdered all of my questers! But it was fun.

**

The player cards in this expansion are all Dale-themed. Of these, Bow of Yew should find a home in quite a few Tactics decks as a 0-cost weapon that can trigger events like Foe-hammer, and Leadership decks should like Hauberk of Mail. Another card of general interest is Necklace of Girion, which introduces the Guarded trait for player cards: the Necklace gets attached to a location or enemy card from the encounter deck, which you have to beat to get the attachment. This sounds like it might be fun!


Other than these cards, everything revolves around the Dale trait and attachments, so in terms of player cards, get this if you're into that kind of thing?

**

Because all three quests heavily feature locations and are most easily lost through location lock, this really is location lock: the deluxe expansion. If you're looking for quests, I can't recommend this expansion unless you have a deck that's not just decent, but good at location control. If Heirs of Númenor was the combat deluxe, this is the location control one. If you've got what it takes for locations, then this was a decently fun box; I didn't think any of the three quests were great, but they were perfectly competent. I kind of liked that they used the core set encounter cards, but then I also didn't think they did anything particularly clever with them. I can't remember when I've last seen an East Bight Patrol, though!

I mentioned fiddliness in the context of the enemy creatures deck in Lost in Mirkwood, and I think it's been a recurring problem from since the first adventure pack cycle ever; there was something you needed to do when questing that we never could reliably remember to do in Hunt for Gollum. In my mind, the problem is that the core gameplay in this game is so solid, that what we at least want from a quest is to just sit down and play the damn game! Everything that breaks up the flow of the game - special tests or discards or whatever that are out of the normal turn sequence - is not only difficult to remember, but takes away from the core gameplay experience that we like so much. I find I much prefer straightforward quests, even if they're a little bit boring, to ones that try to have too many moving parts - where the end result tends to be that we forget to move said parts! Anyway I didn't think the quests in this deluxe were too fiddly, but these are some general thoughts brought on by thinking about the subject.

**

It's been ages since I really played, but I did make a change to my deck! While I was initially kinda excited about Dúnedain Pathfinder, I've rarely found myself in a situation where I can play him - or when I can, we don't need him. This is kind of a "win more" card in my opinion: if we're clearing locations efficiently enough, then we don't really need two more willpower.

Lately, with quests like Desert Crossing and Lost in Mirkwood and the like, the opposite has been the problem: even though we can put down a decent amount of questing and I have a bunch of location control tools, we still end up in location lock more often than not. I feel like the designers felt a need to compensate for the new location control tools we got since Grey Havens by burying us in horrible locations. Nonetheless, I think we need more help with location control, and with a Noldor and Dúnadan hero, I think the answer is Heirs of Eärendil.


Finally, I figured I'd give the new Guarded mechanic a shot with Necklace of Girion.

56 cards; 30 Spirit, 20 Lore, 6 neutral; 22 allies, 12 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 22 (15/6/1)
Jubayr (TM)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC)
Elrohir (TMoF)
Lindir (TBoCD)
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x2
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Elladan (TMoF)
Gléowine
Mablung (TLoS)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 13 (5/6/2)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR)
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2
Magic Ring (TCoP)
Necklace of Girion (TWoR)

Events: 19 (8/8/3)
Flight to the Sea (TCoP)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x2
Heirs of Eärendil (TDoCG) x2
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x2
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

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

Jul 1, 2019

Let's Read Tolkien 58: The Forbidden Pool

Frodo woke to find Faramir bending over him.

Faramir's men have spotted Gollum fishing in the pool below the waterfall. Faramir asks Frodo what he would have them do with the creature, and Frodo asks them to not kill him. Instead, he helps Faramir's men capture Gollum, who is then brought before Faramir for questioning. The interrogation is fruitless, but Faramir extracts an oath from Gollum to never return to their refuge or speak of it to anyone. He then releases Gollum into Frodo's care, and grants Frodo the liberty of Gondor.

Faramir demands Gollum reveal where he's taking Frodo and Sam, and names the place as Cirith Ungol. Gollum doesn't deny this, and is sent away. Faramir tries to persuade Frodo to leave Gollum, and especially to avoid Cirith Ungol, but Frodo argues he has no choice, and Faramir can't offer any better ideas. With a final warning about Gollum's duplicity, Faramir bids Frodo farewell.

**

When the fellowship was in Lórien, it was already obvious that they didn't really know where they were going. If Gandalf had a plan for getting into Mordor, he never told anyone. Aragorn, by his own account, had been to the Morgul Vale and possibly beyond, but he never seemed to have a clear idea either. So it's hardly surprising that Frodo has very little idea how to go about getting into Mordor, and although Faramir tries to dissuade him from Cirith Ungol, he doesn't have a better alternative.

So maybe Aragorn's indecisiveness was in part because nobody actually had any freaking idea how to get into Mordor at all? Perhaps not even Gandalf. There might be old maps or drawings of the fortifications built to guard Mordor in the archives of Minas Tirith, but if Gandalf ever found them, apparently he didn't tell anyone. I've been critical of Aragorn's leadership, but the really unforgivable lapse seems to be Gandalf's, either in not figuring out a fairly key part of the whole project beforehand, or not telling anyone what his plan was.

Had Gollum not shown up and been succesfully pressed into service by Frodo, is there any way the quest of the Ring ends in anything except disaster? The most likely scenario would see the hobbits captured; the best possible case would probably have involved the Ring falling into some obscure crevasse of the Mountains of Shadow. If someone at some point had a better plan, we know nothing of it.

**

Next time: rambling.

Jun 10, 2019

Warhammer 40,000: Let's paint special teams

This is the last of my old Warhammer 40,000 model roundup; this time, the theme is smaller Imperial contingents like Assassins and Sisters of Battle.

Officio Assassinorum

To my surprise, I found an old Callidus Assassin model with my old 40k models, and painted her up. I embraced the gimp-suit look of the Assassins, and I think this is the best 28mm (ish) figure I've painted yet. I'm particularly pleased with the phase sword, but I'm afraid I can't remember which greens I used! The edges are Fluorescent Green, as is the glowy bit on the gun. I've been using red as a unifying color on my Imperial characters, so I went with that for the various straps and things. The pink hair was at the request of my partner, and a coat of gloss varnish on the bodysuit completed the BDSM look.


We were going to do an entire detachment of assassins, but then the new rules came out in White Dwarf that let you hold back reinforcement points for a single assassin and pick the one you want, which makes a heck of a lot more sense! Still, I'd already got an Eversor Assassin, so why not paint them up as well?


For a Vindicare Assassin, we went to Raging Heroes.


I was surprised by how petite the Raging Heroes figures were! Somehow I thought they looked more stocky, I mean heroic, in the photos. Anyway here's our Execution Force:


**

Adepta Sororitas

I also found some old metal Sisters of Battle I'd bought ages ago, and picked up a couple more to round them out into a five-model squad. Their robes are Emerald, and the bolters are Gunmetal Grey and Black Glaze.


I wanted my Canoness to have a storm bolter, so I converted my old Sister Superior to carry one. The power sword blade is Vallejo Andrea Blue, with the edge highlighted in Deep Sky Blue and washed with Fluorescent Blue.


Since I'm something of a fan of John Blanche, the natural choice for a new Sister Superior was Canoness Veridyan.


Now that the beta codex is out and the codex proper is on its way, I'll be giving some serious thought to building a bigger Sisters detachment.

**

Finally, ever since I bought the Doom board game to use the demons in my Chaos army, I'd been wondering what to do with the four Doom Guys who also came with the game. I was originally thinking Inquisitorial Acolytes, but that seemed a bit too pedestrian for them. Finally it occurred to me to ask what Doom Guys are good at. Fighting demons, obviously. Therefore:

Grey Knights

With only four Doom Guys, I went to Brother Vinni for an appropriate Master Chief sergeant model to make up a Strike Team.


The armor plates are Natural Steel, with the lower layer in Gunmetal Grey; the visor is Orange Red. The Doom guys got the same color scheme.


Strike Team Cydonia also needed an HQ choice, and since Grey Knights wear steel-colored armor, I decided the time was right to try bringing Captain Phasma to 28mm scale.


The model is a Blood Angels Terminator Captain, available for a bargain in the Start Collecting Blood Angels box, with a head from Statuesque Miniatures and some Grey Knights Terminators bits. The armor joints are Gunmetal Grey, the armor is Natural Steel with some Silver highlights, and the whole thing's been given a wash of watered-down Black Glaze.

**

Last and unexpected: the Inquisition. Since the Inquisitors are what you really want from this mini-list, the most reasonable option seems to be a supreme command detachment, so that's where we'll start. I'll add some acolytes later!

First, from Zealot Miniatures: Inquisitor Nadezhda Stalina.


Second, from Warlord Games: Herr Flick of the Ordo Hereticus.


I was painting Herr Flick at the same time as my Blood Bowl spectators, and was strongly tempted to use the Mouse Nun as Inquisitorial Acolyte Sister von Smallhausen instead.


And finally, Inquisitor Keziah of the Ordo Malleus, built from a Grey Knights Terminator with a Statuesque head and a Kromlech Legionary Mace.


**

So those are my old loyalist models; next time, something entirely different.

Jun 3, 2019

Let's Read Tolkien 57: The Window on the West

It seemed to Sam that he had only dozed for a few minutes when he awoke to find that it was late afternoon and Faramir had come back.

Faramir returns from leading the ambush to interrogate Frodo. Since Frodo has to explain himself somehow, he already admitted to being the halfling spoken of in the prophetic words that Boromir brought to Rivendell, but he tries to not reveal what Isildur's Bane is, or what his specific errand is. He learns from Faramir that Boromir is dead, because Faramir saw his body floating down the river in a grey elf-boat. Frodo can explain the provenance of the boat and Boromir's elven-cloak, and recalls Boromir's horn, which was found shattered in the river.

Faramir takes the hobbits to his company's hideout, and chats with Frodo on the way there, making many shrewd guesses. From Gandalf's inquiries in Minas Tirith, he had already concluded that Isildur had taken from Sauron "some heirloom of power and peril", which he would refuse as a weapon of the Dark Lord.

They arrive at the rangers' hideout, a cave behind a waterfall. There they eat, and as the hobbits chat with Faramir, Sam blurts out that Frodo is carrying "the Enemy's Ring". Like Galadriel before him, Faramir passes the test and doesn't succumb to the temptation. Frodo admits that he's trying to get to Mordor, to destroy the Ring. He almost collapses on the spot from sheer exhaustion, and the hobbits are taken to bed.

**

There's a hint in Faramir's conversation with Frodo of Tolkien's earlier idea of a rivalry between Aragorn and Boromir:

"If he were satisfied of Aragorn's claim, as you say, he would greatly reverence him. But the pinch had not yet come. They had not yet reached Minas Tirith or become rivals in her wars.

Faramir and Boromir are, of course, a study in deliberate contrasts. Where Boromir dreamed of war, victories and mastery, Faramir dreams of peace. This is why he can reject the temptation of the Ring, while Boromir was destroyed by it. In a more interesting contrast, while Boromir defended his people's vitality against Elrond's racism, Faramir is a fervent believer in the Decline. "We are a failing people, a springless autumn." He even expounds a racial classification of humans, from the High Men of the West, through Middle Men, Men of the Twilight, to the Wild Men of the Darkness, and bemoans how the Men of Gondor (of course it's always Capitalized Men) are becoming Middle Men.

This declinism is a key theme of Tolkien's, and I already discussed it when I talked about the Council of Elrond. Faramir is its most vocal proponent in the book, but he also highlights some of its complications.

The declinism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was basically rooted in anti-modernism and racism. While Tolkien was definitely an anti-modernist, he doesn't phrase his declinism in that context. Faramir has no Howardian complaints of city life softening the Gondorians in contrast to the vital and masculine barbarians at the gates; to the contrary, he bemoans how bellicose his people have become. Also, in Middle-earth all advanced technology is old, like the palantír, not a new threat to an established order.

In racism, Tolkien is closer to the fascist ideas of decline; Elrond directly attributes the Untergang of Gondor to racial mixing, and Faramir also talks about how the men of Gondor (of course it's always men) have become more like "lower" men. But again, this is never something that should be fought. Faramir is, by his attitude to the Ring in particular, one of the most virtuous characters in the Lord of the Rings - and (spoilers) he goes on to marry a lady of Rohan. In doing so, he joins all the other Tolkien protagonists or figures of virtue who are either themselves of conspicuously mixed descent (Bilbo, Frodo), marry into completely different "bloodlines" (Beren and Lúthien), or both (Aragorn). Nor is it ever suggested that the "blood of Númenor" should be deliberately kept pure. The "blood of Númenor" isn't even a purely hereditary thing; Faramir, we're told, has it, but clearly his father and brother don't, at least not in equal measure.

It's also worth noting that if Tolkien really was the full-on fascist some people claim he is, surely the dwarves, who Tolkien himself insisted were an allegory of the Jews, would play some sinister part in the corruption of Gondor. Yet neither dwarven plots nor dwarven gold undermine Minas Tirith.

While Faramir's description of the decline of Gondor harks back to these ideas, there's something more important at work here - certainly something more crucial to Tolkien's theology.

"Yet even so it was Gondor that brought about its own decay, falling by degrees into dotage, and thinking that the Enemy was asleep, who was only banished not destroyed.

Death was ever present, because the Númenorans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.

For Tolkien, the fundamental sin of Gondor wasn't racial mixing or modernity, but the desire to cheat death: to devise, because of the Fall, Machines with which to escape Mortality. Like he said, these are the crucial points of the whole work, and Gondor embodies them. This is why Tolkien said they were "best pictured in Egyptian terms" (Letters, 211). So the decline of Gondor is a product of sin.

Again, whether Tolkien is succesful in conveying this is another question. And even if his notion of decline is fundamentally a Christian one, it's still at best uncomfortably close to the fascist one. Here in Finland, our fascist movements always drew the majority of their followers from devout, "awakened" Christians, which is hardly a coincidence. The Nazis' antipathies toward Christianity have been massively and deliberately exaggerated. So while Tolkien wasn't a fascist, there are times when his Christianity comes very close to fascism, and his notions of blood and decline are the closest.

**

Next time: fishing.

May 20, 2019

Rogue Trader: Welcome to the Acheron sector

Our Rogue Trader campaign, which started back in 2014, is still going on; we've spun it off into Warhammer 40,000 and are looking to recruit some new people, so I thought it would be high time to expand on the fairly meager bit of fluff I gave to our players so long ago. First, I'd like to introduce our setting: the Acheron sector.

**

The Acheron sector lies far to the galactic north, in Segmentum Obscurus. In the 37th millenium, what is now the Acheron sector was the northernmost fringe of the Charon sector, one of the most remote reaches of Segmentum Obscurus. During the Age of Apostasy, the Charon fringe was barely under Imperial control. Its rulers were an immensely rich and corrupt noble family, who nominally accepted the authority of Holy Terra. Xenos pirates raided the Charon sector, while the lords of the fringes claimed to be powerless to stop them.

After the death of the tyrant Vandire brought the Age of Apostasy to a close in M37, Saint Isabella the Just turned her attention to the Charon fringe. One of the leaders of the newly founded Adepta Sororitas, Saint Isabella had been a junior leader in some of the first wars of the Age of Redemption, and now set out on a crusade of her own to rid the Charon sector of the alien menace.

When Saint Isabella arrived in the Charon fringe, it quickly became obvious that the local nobility was in league with the xenos and had in fact repudiated the authority of the Emperor. Saint Isabella's crusade exterminated both the xenos and the corrupt nobles utterly. The name of the ruling family of the Charon fringe was expunged from Imperial records, and a new sector was founded: the Acheron sector. Saint Isabella appointed one of her most loyal generals, Lady Devanshi Indriani, the first proconsul of the new sector. House Indriani has ruled the sector ever since.


The Acheron sector is officially defined as extending from the border of the Charon sector all the way into the halo stars and to the northern edge of the galaxy. In the first millenium of its settlement, expansion northward was practically restricted to the area south of the Acheron Typhoon: present-day Prima and Secunda Pars of the sector. The Typhoon is a permanent warp storm, and navigating around it is very hazardous. On both its eastern and western sides lie large gulfs of what navigators call null-space: areas of space where warp travel is almost impossible. The phenomenon that causes this is unknown, but in null-space astropathic communication is cripplingly difficult and the Astronomican is imperceptible. These two gulfs, Lacuna Phlegethon to the west and Lacuna Cocytus to the east, cut off the outer parts of the sector almost completely.

This changed in M38, when the revered Saint Anastasia came to the Acheron sector. Driven by a vision from the Emperor, Saint Anastasia and navigator house Radha forged a path around the Acheron Typhoon and mounted a crusade against the xenos empire beyond. Saint Anastasia led her troops through battles so terrible that most chronicles simply refuse to speak of them, merely stating that Saint Anastasia vanquished the xenos. She led the crusade as far as the Anastasian Depths, named in her honor. Her consort, Saint Valeria, crossed the Depths to the west to eliminate a last xenos stronghold on the dead world Silentium. In a horrible battle beneath the planet's surface, the missionary Saint Electra was martyred, and the xenos were eradicated.

Saint Anastasia's conquests were consolidated as Tertia Pars of the Acheron sector. Vestigium Hanini is officially the southernmost system of Tertia Pars, and the start of the twin routes past the Acheron Typhoon known as the Holy Gates. The Holy Gates converge at Babylonia Typhonis, seat of the procurator of Tertia Pars and gateway to the northernmost reaches of the sector.


North of Babylonia Typhonis, a stable warp route leads to the Quattor Proci Benitahi, a group of four solar systems close to each other that includes the hive world Augereau and the forge world Oecus Centrifugo. In M41, Rogue Trader Laurenz Frunze blazed a new route to the east, where the House Frunze colony Sacrificatio Imperatori now stands. North of the Quattor Proci is an area of dense null-space known as the Desolatio Thanos, which is considered completely unnavigable.


From Quattor Proci Benitahi, ships bound west for the Phlegethon sector travel to the garden world of Lilium, famed for its brandy. From Lilium they must attempt the Valerian Gates via Sermones Saryoni, Nekromanteion and dread Silentium. The northern route passes by the mining world of Lapis Nova to Ignis and Fides, where the Weyland Transit leads to Clavis Coronae and beyond. It's possible to take either of these routes and make a circuit around the Anastasian Depths to Sancrist, a colony of Rogue Trader house Karanja and chief Imperial world of the Ultra Pars. There is also a direct route over the Depths, the Pons Separatoris from the shrine world Termina Anastasiae to Dos Umbrae, but only House Radha hold the secret to navigating it safely. Occasionally, a bold Navigator makes the attempt; it invariably ends badly for them.


Beyond the Anastasian Depths lies the uncharted expanse of Ultra Pars. West of Sancrist are the Acheron Badlands, a seemingly limitless area punctuated by patches of null-space. To the north is a human civilization that calls itself the Confederation; they maintain a lively trade as middle-men between Imperial merchants at Sancrist and unknown operators on the other side of the Cortina Noctis. To the east of the Confederation lie the Morbid Reaches, where few Imperial ships dare pass. Somewhere to the northwest are the homeworlds of the Ishi xenos, a fierce, predatory race whose raids sometimes extend into Tertia Pars.


It's rumored that there are stable routes across the Cortina Noctis in the Morbid Reaches, and somehow the Confederation traffic across it. What lies beyond the Cortina Noctis? Who knows! All the ancient stellar catalogues can reveal is names for regions and occasional individual stars; nothing else. Most star systems in Ultra Pars are known only by their stellar catalogue numbers: for example, O.Ac.U.2887; the O designates Segmentum Obscurus, Ac is short for the Acheron sector and U for Ultra Pars. The brightest stars are generally numbered first; Babylonia Typhonis, a blue giant, is O.Ac.U.1. Beyond that, to the Imperial explorer most systems in Ultra Pars are a meaningless number on a chart. The only way to find out what secrets they hold is to go and look...

**

It's out here, in the unexplored depths of Ultra Pars, that Rogue Traders go to seek their fortunes, and it's here that our campaign is set. Later, I'll write a bit about some recent events, and introduce our Rogue Trader house.

May 13, 2019

Let's Play Star Wars: the Card Game

Back in 2017, we celebrated the fourth of May by getting a copy of Star Wars: the Card Game, but with everything that's been going on, it's taken me this long to get around to blogging about it. The game, of course, has been discontinued since, but I'm not letting that stop me.


Magali Villeneuve: Princess Leia

**



Way back when we first bought the Lord of the Rings LCG, we also immediately bought the Dead Marshes adventure pack, because my partner insisted on Boromir. This time, it was my turn, so we bought Jump to Lightspeed for Arden Lyn, the Sith antagonist of the unforgettable Masters of Teräs Käsi.

I'm not sure I can adequately explain to a native English speaker how surreal and fantastically hilarious Teräs Käsi is. Supposedly a Star Wars martial art, it was apparently named by someone taking an English-Finnish dictionary and looking up the words for steel and hand. Never mind that "steel hand" in Finnish would be a compound word and therefore spelled teräskäsi, and that would still sound kinda lame. More than that, though, the name "Masters of Teräs Käsi" is somehow so amazingly ludicrous that when I first saw it, I flatly refused to believe that such a game could possibly exist. Surely, I reasoned, this must be some bizarre joke. Reading an actual review of the game momentarily convinced me that it was real, but I promptly forgot it, no doubt because my brain dismissed it as completely absurd - meaning that I was stunned when I encountered it again after almost a decade. So once I learned that Arden Lyn was included in the Star Wars card game, how was I supposed to build a Dark Side deck without her?

One of the perennial hot-button issues of Finnish politics is whether and how much compulsory Swedish should be taught in our schools. Whatever the broader picture, for the purposes of this topic I'm delighted that we're a nation of bilingual illiterates, because it means that in addition to enjoying Teräs Käsi, we can also marvel at Hustru fönster, which is as ungrammatical and barely any less hysterical. I hope to one day see the card.

Finally, in the process of looking up those Wookiepedia links, I was reminded - I had mercifully forgotten this - that there is also a Teräs Käsi stance called "Förräderi". At this point, I feel quite comfortable in saying, on behalf of the Nordic countries, can you just fucking stop already.

**

Since it was the fourth of May, we had to try a game. I picked the Sith starter deck, and my partner used the Jedi deck.


Since it was our first game ever, we misplayed some things and had barely the slightest idea of what we were doing. We had a lot of fun, though! A particular highlight of our game was C-3PO's rampage through Coruscant. I had initially drawn the Heart of the Empire objective, and it looked like it might be a fun idea to try playing it.


Despite these extra resources, I ended up heavily outnumbered, so I used Varys There Is No Escape to wipe the board. Next turn, my partner played C3PO, and finding no units on my side, attacked Coruscant with him. Now, C3PO has no damage icons, but since there were no defenders, he did one unopposed damage to Coruscant. So imagine, if you like, C3PO wandering around Coruscant, somehow doing 10% of the damage the rebels needed to wrest it from the Empire - because I eventually lost by losing Coruscant.

**

While we were getting into the game last summer, Fantasy Flight announced the last adventure chapter Force pack cycle and its first instalment, Allies of Necessity. Since it featured Jyn Erso (a name straight out of the Knights of the Old Republic name generator) and my partner was a big fan of Rogue One, we had to get it. I was intrigued to notice there was also a dark side lady, a Doctor Aphra.


To find out who she was, I read her epynomous comic, and liked it enough to also get the Darth Vader comic it was a spinoff of. I highly recommend both! I find I very much enjoy Kieron Gillen's work: he writes an excellent Vader, and like the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, his stories move at a deliberate and purposeful pace, so far from the breathless rush that I find too many contemporary comics are consumed with.

Anyway, with both Jyn Erso and Doctor Aphra on board, we'll be getting into deckbuilding. That works very differently in Star Wars compared to the other Fantasy Flight LCGs: instead of selecting individual cards for your deck, you pick objectives, each of which comes with five preset player cards. This means there are less choices, but arguably they're far more significant ones: instead of agonizing over whether to have two or three copies of a single card in your deck, you're picking card sets and figuring how they're going to interact with each other. I think this was a good idea, and it wouldn't necessarily go amiss in other LCGs.

**

Finally, a verdict: this was a fun enough game and it seems a real shame if Fantasy Flight doesn't follow it up with another Star Wars LCG. A co-operative Star Wars card game made to anything even remotely like the Lord of the Rings LCG standard would frankly be amazing. We can always hope?