May 9, 2016

LotR LCG: Ere we go again

Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse.
- The Hobbit, chapter II



Now that my Hobbit-reading project is complete, it's high time we return to the saga expansions of the Lord of the Rings LCG and finish the story of the Hobbit there as well. Last time, I tried all the quests in the first Hobbit expansion solo, and we managed to beat We Must Away four-handed - but missed out on the treasure. So first, we have to face the trolls again. In my previous post on Over Hill and Under Hill, I mostly talked about the quests in terms of solo play, and while I liked the first one, the second quest was a bit disappointing and the last one I didn't enjoy at all. This time, we'll be making our way through them in multiplayer, and then forming an overall impression of the first Hobbit saga expansion.


John Howe: The Great Goblin, 1988

**

We Must Away, Ere Break of Day

This is a quest that really needs two difficulty ratings: one for passing it, another for getting the treasure cards. We beat the quest itself on our first attempt, and once you know what's coming, it's not that hard. Getting the treasures, though, requires having Troll Cave in your victory display, and that isn't always quite as easy to arrange!


When I beat the quest solo, the key thing was a slow, methodic buildup, so I had enough questing and combat power to survive the trolls. We tried the same strategy with four players, and it failed entirely. In the end, it was No Campfire that sunk us: with four players, that card is brutal.


By the time we engaged the trolls, we had Troll Key, Troll Purse and Troll Camp in play, but an absolute deluge of treacheries and locations raised our Leadership/Lore deck's threat to 50, and we gave up shortly thereafter. Clearly the slow play wasn't going to work; however, taking a faster route to fighting the trolls ended in everybody being knocked out by threat in the very last quest phase before we'd have exhausted the encounter deck.

This is still a really good quest, but the threat gain when playing four-handed is merciless. It's perfectly doable if you're content to pass the quest, but during the time it takes to get ready for the trolls, unsack whoever needs to be unsacked, grab Troll Key and travel to Troll Cave, your threat will just explode. Eventually, we decided to move on; the trolls' treasures were going to stay in that cave.

**

Over the Misty Mountains Grim

For the next quest, I switched over to my Silvan deck, and we headed on up into the mountains.


I wasn't too impressed by this quest when I played through the expansion solo, but taking it on three-handed was a whole different story. For my lowish-threat, strongly questing Spirit/Lore deck, the mountains were just a little interval to build allies up; the three of us actually had to fight giants!


Questing through the mountains actually turned out to be kinda fun, with treacheries like Galloping Boulders and the always lovely Wind-whipped Rain stopping things from getting too easy, and, of course, the giants. As soon as we'd cleared the storm, though, we were dumped smack in the middle of goblins. Lots and lots of goblins.


With three players, what you get is honestly a pretty massive swarm of goblins, leading to a suitably epic fight. Thalin is simply superb here, especially in co-operation with his best dwarven buddy ever:


Sadly, by this time our Tactics deck was on the verge of elimination, so a final Boromir bomb wiped out a bunch of goblins, while a Longbeard Orc Slayer saw to the rest, leaving our surviving heroes to sprint for the exit.

As a side note, because these posts don't always strictly reproduce the chronological order we played these quests in, this was actually the first time I got to use Wingfoot on Haldir, letting him both quest and fight, and it was excellent.


I'll stick to my guns to the extent that this isn't a great quest solo, but with three players we had a heck of a time. The questing in the mountains is thematically well done, the giants are properly intimidating, and the climactic battle with The Great Goblin and his horde is excellent. Despite the fact that we'd just finished slogging through the endless goblin masses of Moria and the Dwarrowdelf cycle, this was a lot of fun.

**

Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim


In the last quest in the box, our heroes try to escape from the goblins' caves while Bilbo swaps riddles with Gollum. One part of the first quest stage is an ordinary quest, where you battle a horde of goblins, made appropriately hordey by revealing double the normal number of encounter cards per turn. The twist is that some of these card have riddles on them, which you can answer instead of adding the cards to the staging area. Answering them correctly gets progress on the second quest; wrong answers mean Gollum attacks Bilbo, and if you're wrong three times, Bilbo bites the dust.


While I like that the designers went for something different here, I'm not a fan on the riddle mechanics at all. They involve discarding a whole bunch of cards from your deck and guessing some combination of cost, type and sphere. A mono-spirit deck with Will of the West would no doubt find this easy; with my old Spirit/Lore Amazon deck, this was horrible. To do well here, you should figure out the odds of any particular card showing up from your deck and guess that, and I'm not particularly inclined to put together an Excel spreadsheet of my deck to get through this one quest.


Other than the riddles, you pretty much get a direct continuation of the previous quest, which honestly feels a bit repetitive. All in all, this is a really weak, even annoying quest that I don't see any of us wanting to revisit.

**

So the first two quests are pretty darn good, and the player cards aren't too shabby either. There's a bunch of dwarves if you're into that kind of thing, but also several utility cards that have become real standbys. A Very Good Tale is a staple of the Leadership ally horde, and this expansion's version of Gandalf can effectively serve threat-managing decks as an additional hero. He's saved my skin more than once! Tactics decks will still struggle to beat Foe-hammer for card draw, and they also get a bear.


So for a relatively modest investment, the Over Hill and Under Hill box gives you several excellent player cards, and more importantly, two really good quests, the first of which I think is one of the experiences in the whole game that you absolutely will not want to miss. If you're just getting into the game, and especially if you're at all interested in looking into a dwarf deck, I would put this fairly high on the shopping list; if you can get several people together to play the first two quests, I might even go so far as to suggest the very top. Even if you share my entirely negative opinion of the third quest, this is still a first-class expansion and tremendous value for money.

**

Over several games, I've found my Silvan deck has some third copies of cards that I rarely use that many times: there aren't always as many opportunities to play The Long Defeat as I'd like, and Out of the Wild is actually a bit expensive. Given that I now almost exclusively play with at least one other player, I guess I should take that seriously, so I'm going to try including two copies of Elf-friend instead.


The main goal is to spread some of that Silvan Tracker auto-healing around, a prime target being Boromir. While I'm at it, Elf-friend would also (appropriately enough!) let me give him a Cloak of Lórien. We'll see how it goes!

53 cards; 44 Lore, 9 neutral; 3 heroes, 16 allies, 13 attachments, 20 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 16 (12/4)
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 13 (11/3)
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2
Elf-friend (TToR) x2

Events: 20 (17/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x2
The Evening Star (TGH) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

**

And here's my brother's Leadership-Lore deck:

53 cards; 32 Leadership, 19 Lore, 2 neutral; 3 heroes, 23 allies, 13 attachments, 14 events; starting threat 28.

Aragorn (Core)
Théodred
Denethor

Allies: 23 (14/7/2)
Faramir x2
Longbeard Orc Slayer x2
Son of Arnor x2
Silverlode Archer x2
Guard of the Citadel x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Gléowine x2
Miner of the Iron Hills x2
Gandalf x2 (Core)

Attachments: 13 (7/6)
Celebrian's Stone
Steward of Gondor x2
Dúnedain Quest x2 (AJtR)
Dúnedain Warning x2 (CatC)
Forest Snare x2
Self Preservation x2
A Burning Brand x2 (CatC)

Events: 14 (9/5)
Grim Resolve
For Gondor! x2
Ever Vigilant x2
Sneak Attack x2
Valiant Sacrifice x2
Lórien's Wealth x2
Lore of Imladris
Infighting x2 (AJtR)

May 2, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 20: A Long-Expected Party

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

This is a post I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Like I said in my first post on the Hobbit almost three years ago, I have a long and intensely personal relationship with Tolkien's major works, especially the Lord of the Rings. But it's not as if this is a project without some wider relevance; we're talking about the second-highest-selling novel in the world, after all. It's the tremendous reach of the Lord of the Rings, and its massive influence in effectively giving birth to fantasy literature as we know it today, that prompted Professor Tom Shippey, an academic successor of Tolkien's, to argue that Tolkien was the author of the century. It's fitting that the best-selling novel of all time is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; as Shippey says, "in my youth Charles Dickens was not regarded as a suitable author for those reading English Studies at university" (Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, xix). In my youth, Dickens was part of our English philology syllabus, but Tolkien most emphatically was not. We'll see how long it takes!

To say that the Lord of the Rings is a problematic work is an understatement. The novel and its author have been accused of racism, fascism and misogyny, childishness, escapism, not being Serious Literature, and lots more. I already talked quite a bit about the "critics' Tolkien" in my Hobbit posts, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the literary snobbism directed at Tolkien has already been handled by Shippey and others. My interest is in the politics of the Lord of the Rings, especially gender and race. The Hobbit, I found, is undoubtedbly misogynist in its near-total erasure of the very existence of women. It wasn't as racist as I thought it might have been, although the late author's unfortunate comments on the dwarves made it worse than it needed to be. To be honest, I'm not exactly expecting the Lord of the Rings to pass the Bechdel test, either.

However, what I do expect to find is the same as I found with the Hobbit: that the reality of Tolkien's actual text is a lot more nuanced and interesting than its critics make it out to be. Again, my goal isn't to make excuses for him or try to explain away the troubling aspects of his work. There's an entire movement of people online making the senseless argument that things they like need to be taken seriously as art, but simultaneously made entirely immune to criticism. I have no time for this kind of stupidity. I've experienced the profound disdain "genre" literature is still held in among the self-appointed literati of previous generations. If we don't want to repeat their mistakes, we need to take fantasy literature seriously, and that means facing its problems head-on. To me, properly appreciating a text as a work of art has always meant trying to read it intelligently. I'll do my best.

**

I'll start with one of the lighter problems: the prologue really stinks. Seriously, "Concerning Hobbits?" I fell asleep halfway through the title. I understand that Tolkien did receive a pile of correspondance asking for more information on hobbits, so I hope the people who made those requests are happy, because the rest of us aren't. If, for some reason, you're interested in the particulars of the administration of the Shire, or the technicalities of hobbit smoking, you can find that in the prologue whenever you feel like it. If not, for pity's sake, don't make the mistake of trying to read it. As an appendix, this would be fine; as a prologue, it's an atrocity.

The story itself starts with a chapter dedicated to Bilbo's birthday party. It's actually startling that after the horror of the prologue, the exposition in this chapter is done quite decently. First we're told how Bilbo's doing: he's "very rich and very peculiar", with rumours saying Bag End is full of buried treasure, and also remarkably well-preserved for a hobbit of 110 years of age. He has no close friends, though, until he adopts one of his considerably younger cousins as his heir. Cousin Frodo moves into Bag End, destroying the hopes of the Sackville-Bagginses, who had been looking forward to inheriting Bag End.

The coming party will be Bilbo's 111th, "eleventy-one" being a special number for hobbits, and Frodo's 33rd, or his coming of age. Seeing as how I'm 33 now, I obviously think this is quite a reasonable idea. With the huge party approaching, everyone starts talking about Bilbo again. We're treated to one pub conversation about him, presided over by Bilbo's gardener, Ham "Gaffer" Gamgee, whose son Sam is briefly mentioned. It's the stereotype of village gossip at its best: Bilbo's character, Frodo's family history, especially the death of his parents, and the prospect of jools hidden in Bag End are gone over, to resounding conclusions: Bilbo is queer (as in strange), and Frodo is not a real Baggins because he grew up among the strange, almost foreign Brandybucks, which makes him queer as well. The Gaffer defends his employer; interestingly, the crux of the disageement seems to be whether Bilbo is vulgarly rich. Ham Gamgee has no qualms conceding that Bilbo has plenty of money and it shows no sign of running out, but stresses that he's generous with it and there are no huge, buried treasures, while the more skeptical are fixated on gold and jools. There's a slight discontinuity from the Hobbit, where at the end of the story Bilbo had entirely lost his respectability. Now it seems that his adventures have effectively liberated him from all the bad parts of middle-class life like limited financial resources and the opinion of his peers, but he's actually still remained respectable enough and certainly is not vulgar.

I'd be tremendously interested in a proper analysis of how someone like Bilbo fits into how the English class system was perceived in Tolkien's day. It's a completely foreign country to me. He's apparently inexhaustibly wealthy without ever doing any work, keeps a considerable house and a gardener, but no servants. Hobbit existence seems to be a thoroughly idealized middle-class life with the luxuries of nobility but none of the oppobrium or political responsibilities; a notion of complete, respectable self-sufficiency through tons of money, again without the social burden of being rich. Clearly Bilbo is very respected in the community, highlighted by how everyone who doubts his credentials is either disliked by the folksy Gaffer or a suspicious outsider, but apparently he isn't expected to take any kind of responsibility for that community in any positive sense. He's a universally beloved, benevolent, massively rich man who's eccentric in various completely unthreatening ways, and who gets left completely to his own devices. One suspects a bit of wish-fulfillment here.

**

The party preparations proceed, including the arrival of Gandalf, bearing fireworks and compliments for Bilbo's garden. Bilbo confesses that he needs a holiday (from what, one wonders!), and intends to go through with "his plan". Invitations are sent out, tents and kitchens are set up in the field outside Bag End, and finally, the party can start. It's a garden party on a massive scale, with entertainments and huge amounts of food, and elaborate presents from Dale and the Lonely Mountain given to all comers. The festivities culminate in a meticulously described fireworks display orchestrated by Gandalf, ending in a depiction of Smaug at Erebor, whose demise signals dinner. It's hard to not think that the theme of the party is "look how super-rich and awesome Bilbo Baggins is", but apparently hobbits don't consider this vulgar.

At the heart of the party, in a pavilion erected around a tree, is the "special family dinner-party" for twelve dozen of Bilbo's closest relatives. He gives them a speech of decidedly mixed quality; the very end is repetitive and poorly thought out, but the middle part comes with one of my favorite lines:

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

The audience, understandably, is trying to work out if this is a compliment or not. Bilbo then goes on to offend almost everyone present by explaining that the number of guests in the pavilion had been chosen to match Bilbo's and Frodo's combined age, and refers to them as "one gross", a hobbit term for a dozen dozens that isn't considered appropriate to use of people. Having created mass indignation, Bilbo ends his speech by announcing that he is leaving, and vanishes in a flash of light.

The flash, of course, was Gandalf's pyrotechnic addition to hide Bilbo putting on his ring; invisible, he makes his way back to Bag End, where he changes into his traveling clothes. As he's preparing to leave, Bilbo takes off the ring, puts it in an envelope and makes an effort to leave it on his mantlepiece, but fails. Just then, Gandalf arrives, to quiz Bilbo on his plans. The hobbit confesses that he doesn't feel "well-preserved" at all, but rather weary, stretched too thin and in need of a vacation. Gandalf presses him on his plan to leave the ring to Frodo, and Bilbo becomes belligerent over it, insisting that he owns it and actually calling it his "precious". Eventually, though, Bilbo makes up his mind and leaves the ring behind, disappearing out through the garden into the night with three dwarf companions.

**

With Bilbo gone, Frodo is left to sort out the mess. He's been left the Ring, which Gandalf warns him to not use, and a mass of curious visitors on his door the next day. In the hobbit tradition, Bilbo has left several friends and relatives presents, which they show up to collect, starting a rumour that the whole household was being given away. So whereas when Bilbo returned in the Hobbit to find Bag End in uproar, he now leaves it like he found it. The Sackville-Bagginses, Otho and Lobelia, also show up, demanding to see Bilbo's will and being generally obnoxious. Otho Sackville-Baggins was Bilbo's heir until Frodo's adoption, and is none too pleased by Bag End going to Frodo. It's worthy of note, by the way, that in one respect the Lord of the Rings surpasses the Hobbit immediately: Lobelia is a lady hobbit, and she gets to talk!

Eventually, the ruckus dies down and Frodo receives an evening visit from Gandalf, who warns him once more to not use the ring and announces he's cutting short his stay and leaving immediately on some urgent errand he won't disclose. The chapter closes on the wizard striding off into the gloom, leaving behind the new master of Bag End.

**

This is an effective chapter: we've been brought up to date in what happened since the Hobbit, the baton has been pased to our new protagonist, and we're now firmly established in the Shire. What kind of a place is it, then?

The Sackville-Bagginses, who briefly appeared in the Hobbit, are a good example of hobbit society at its most unpleasantly petty. Their name is a double joke. At some point, the phrase "cul-de-sac" entered British usage to mean a dead end street. Supposedly a borrowing from French, where the actual word for a dead end is impasse and cul is these days quite rude. The British usage was rightly condemned by George Orwell as unnecessary "pretentious diction", and Tolkien named Bilbo's home Bag End, an almost-literal translation of cul-de-sac, to poke fun at it. The Sackville-Bagginses' pomposity is illustrated by the fact that they haven't been content with the robustly English name Baggins, but have added Sackville, which could easily be a vulgarly frenchified version of Baggins.

The Shire, then, isn't a completely unrealistic utopia, but a utopia nonetheless. If you believe Michael Moorcock, it's a fascist one:

“I think he’s a crypto-fascist,” says Moorcock, laughing. “In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-­ordered world.”

The interviewer agrees, saying "it’s not hard to see Tolkien as a complacent, hierarchical force of Law in opposition to Moorcock’s free-ranging, morally complex Chaos". I'll be returning to these notions later, but for now, I take issue with the idea expressed here and also peddled elsewhere that Tolkien was a fascist. I make no apology for quoting at length from one of Tolkien's letters (52):

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to "unconstitutional" Monarchy. I would arrest anyone who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to "King George's council, Winston and his gang", it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing this frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

This was written while Tolkien was working on the Lord of the Rings, and it's this thinking that we find in it. Certainly, the Shire is complacent, even oppressively so; that's the one aspect in which it's explicitly an imperfect utopia. Is it hierarchical, dedicated to Law and everyone in their place, or crypto-fascist? Not one bit. As the horrible prologue makes clear, the actual government of the Shire is minimal. This is made possible by eliding from the narrative anyone and anything that might constitute a social problem, so we don't, for instance, know how the Shire deals with social conflicts, poverty or indeed anything more serious than organizing a garden party. I don't mean to say that the only possible way to solve social problems is with a capital-G government, especially as I personally believe the exact opposite, but to make the point that the Shire is a utopia where problems don't happen. But if anything, it's a liberal, minarchist one. It's complacent, in the sense that everyone except the vulgar seems content with their place, but it's completely devoid of control, hierarchy and devotion to abstract ideals over the individual that would keep them in their place. To call it fascist requires either sheer stupidity, or the kind of Soviet blinkers where anyone who disagrees with the party line is a fascist. I've studied actual, present-day fascism, and I can't possibly condone the kind of thinking where fascism comes to mean anything that isn't the currently fashionable brand of pseudo-Marxism. Fascism is a very frighteningly concrete system of political beliefs, not a generic insult. Of that system, not a trace is to be found in Tolkien's Shire.

**

According to the author himself, the Lord of the Rings has three main themes (Letters, 131):

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.

To make any real sense of what Tolkien is about requires taking this theological mission statement seriously. He was a devout Catholic and maintained that the Lord of the Rings was fundamentally a Christian story, and while we don't have to agree with this, if we want to talk about the intentions and ideologies of the author, we do have to at least try to understand it. Christian theology is very silly, but people have a massive capacity for believing very silly things when they put their minds to it, and Tolkien certainly did. As I want to follow these themes throughout my reading, I'll briefly introduce them here.

By Fall he means the fall of mankind from grace, these days widely known as that story with Adam, Eve and the serpent. The divine tree with its forbidden fruit is an ancient Mesopotamian motif that the exiled Hebrews plagiarized into their holy books to answer the crucial question of absolute monotheism: if an omnipotent divine being exists, how can there be evil? The Hebrew solution was misogynistic victim-blaming; evil exists because a woman was goaded by a snake into eating a fruit. It seems barely credible that anyone can ever have considered this a reasonable answer, but there it is. In more abstract theological terms, the fall reconciles the imperfect world with its perfect creator. God, you see, made everything perfect, but then the thing with the snake happened and now the world is tainted by the original sin, eating fruit humanity's rebellion against god.

To apply this to the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings, the Shire simply can't be an eternally unchanging utopia, because in a fallen world, such a thing cannot exist. No matter how idylic the rural paradise, it'll always contain a sneering miller lusting after jools and an avaricious Sackville-Baggins stealing your silver spoons. No-one is perfect and nothing ever works quite the way it's supposed to, because fruit.

One great consequence of the Fall is Mortality, to continue Tolkien's capitalizations. The wages of sin is death, as the ever-cheerful apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans: because of the fruit incident, people die. We don't have to take Tolkien's word for this being a major theme of the text, since in literally the second paragraph of the first chapter we're told that one particularly curious thing about Bilbo is that he isn't dead yet. In his conversation with Gandalf, Bilbo says he feels "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread". So when I wondered what Bilbo could possibly need a holiday from, this is the answer: he's cheating death, which he can't actually do, because, as you recall, fruit. This is why I found it so utterly bizarre to read that Tolkien "ignores death".

The third theme is the Machine, or magic, which to Tolkien was the same thing. Theologically, the Machine represents humanity's desire to order the world as it likes, as opposed to the way Tolkien and, presumably, god, likes.

Both of these [the Fall and Mortality] (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.
(Letters, 131)

This is where the argument for Tolkien's fascism decisively fails: in an exact antithesis of fascism and all other kinds of totalitarianism, he firmly identifies Power as a sin, a corrupt desire. It's also key to understanding his fundamental incoherence: while he did raise some chickens of his own, it was plans and devices that put food on the professor's table and paid him the salary that made it possible for him to develop his inner talents. Though he joked about dynamiting factories and power-stations, Tolkien was never a dogmatic luddite who dreamed of a return to nature. Instead, one can't escape the unfortunate feeling that the sin of Power was committed whenever the society Tolkien was comfortable in was changed - for instance, to allow others the opportunity of developing their inner abilities.

The Enemy in successive forms is always "naturally" concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.
(Letters, 131)

So if using power to benefit others is a sin, what are we supposed to do about, say, poverty? Here the equation of Machine, Magic and Power is illuminating. The difference between prayer and magic is, theologically, that magic is an attempt to manipulate the world, while prayer is asking a divine agency to do it for you. The first is not allowed in Christianity, while the second is encouraged. My interpretation of Tolkien's ideology is that attempting to make the world a better place by our own actions, outside the somewhat nebulously defined sphere of exercising our inner talents, is a corrupt desire that leads to sin. The only theologically acceptable solution to social problems, then, is either individual charity or prayer. So in short, social change is wrong because a woman ate a fruit once.

This, to me, is the heart of Tolkien's political ideology. It most certainly isn't fascism, which is a revolutionary modernist ideology that's the very apotheosis of Tolkien's Machine. It isn't even the hierarchical society that Moorcock described in Epic Pooh as men in grey knowing what's best for you. The point is that they don't. Because of the fruit thing, the world is a flawed, evil place inexorably spiraling toward the end of time, and trying to make it better only makes it worse. His ideology is an immensely privileged Christian conservativism, where Oxford dons can enjoy the fruits of other people's labors, but building a housing estate for those other people is a terrible sin. This isn't an ideology specifically directed at post-World War II Labour, or even an anti-socialist or anti-totalitarian one; it's anti-politics. The world is the way it is and it's going to be worse tomorrow, and there's nothing you can do about it because of an antediluvian fruit-eating episode.

To return to the first chapter, the Machine is present as magic, namely Bilbo's ring. As a creature of this world, Bilbo has a finite lifespan, which has been unnaturally extended. Other than that, this motif is still waiting in the wings. We will, I'm afraid, have ample opportunity to return to it. In general, I hope I've been able to explain that Tolkien's theology is key to understanding not only his text but especially his politics.

**

Like I said earlier, this chapter does a good job of opening the story. We catch up with Bilbo, and see him exit the stage, leaving his cousin and adopted heir as our new protagonist. The ring, which you have to remember was just a convenient invisibility device in the Hobbit, has taken on a more sinister air, especially with Bilbo's Gollum-like behavior. There are lots of little details I like, such as Bilbo's at times artless speech, which - intentionally or not - gives the strong impression of an orator who isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is. In general, I enjoy Tolkien's depiction of the Shire, maybe because I never could see it as a utopia myself.

Next time: exposition. Lots of exposition.

Apr 11, 2016

LotR LCG: Second star to the right

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Yavanna eek with her sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram her halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open yë
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes



John Howe: The Grey Havens (1999)

**

It's downright silly how much I'd been looking forward to the Grey Havens deluxe expansion ever since it was announced last August. It combines my love of Tolkien, this absolutely excellent card game, and nautical fiction, so it's really no wonder I was regularly checking the Fantasy Flight website to see when I can expect to get my hands on it.

Even the horrendous gaffe publicized in the preview wasn't enough to put me off:



Now, to be fair, this isn't a sailing game, it's a fantasy card game that's introducing some nautical elements. It would be unreasonable to expect the designers to tell their futtock-shrouds from their cross-catharpings, or precisely define the difference between a brig, a snow and a snow-brig. Still, though, a dictionary is enough to tell you that "windward" and "against the wind" are exactly the same thing. Unless ships on Middle-earth have exceedingly peculiar sailing qualities that are in no way suggested by their hulls or sailplans, it seems pretty near impossible for their best point of sail to be in irons. The mechanic itself is obviously unaffected by the flavor text, but it's a little dismaying that a blunder like this made it into the final product. Unfortunately, the fluff in the box isn't much better. "Full sail ahead", indeed.

Luckily, we're not here to read the fluff, we're here to play the game. And it's excellent.

**

Voyage Across Belegaer - DL 5


The first quest has us setting sail from the Grey Havens, trying to outrun a fleet of corsairs from Umbar. This quest has the Sailing keyword, which means that each player controls a ship card. Attacks from enemy ships can only be defended by your ships, and if your ship sinks, you're eliminated from the game!


The other novelty intoduced by the Sailing keyword is the sailing test, which require the first player to exhaust characters before questing to try to stay on course. In addition to both questing and sailing, you also have to be able to fight off the corsairs unleashed by the enemy ships' Boarding keywords.


So I wouldn't say this is a particularly easy quest. However, I am glad to say that it hasn't carried any of the terrible features from the previous cycle, like "all enemies in the staging area attack you and you die" treacheries and damage/player card immunities. This is a properly challenging quest that nevertheless lets you use pretty much your whole bag of tricks to beat it, which to me is what a really good quest is all about.


We set off on a three-handed attempt, with my Silvans, my partner's Team Boromir and our Hobbit deck taking to the high seas. This is a quest that builds up slowly, giving us some time to get acquainted with the sailing mechanics and fight off a Scouting Ship and its boarders. After the first quest stage, you have to make your way through a series of small stages; you can skip some of them if you're off course, but with ships and corsairs bearing down on us, we always seemed to be off course at the wrong moments and had to slog through all of them. Eventually the already worn down Tactics deck took on one enemy ship too many and was eliminated.

With the Silver Wing sunk, things looked pretty grim, but I managed to use Concorde and new addition The Evening Star to clear out a pile of locations, so we barely made it to the last quest stage. There, you have to either defeat all the enemy ships or get enough progress on the quest to escape. As I was barely managing to hold off my enemies with a boosted Rossiel and a Burning Brand-wielding Silvan Tracker, and the hobbit deck was running out of chump blockers fast, the combat solution was out of the question. Unfortunately, to place progress on the quest you have to be on course, so we had to do some careful thinking on how to both pass a sailing test to get on course, and then manage to complete the last quest stage. Incredibly, our last desperate quest push did it, with the sailing test succeeding and our questing getting exactly enough progress to finish the scenario. It was a pretty awesome ride.


We later took another shot at this with my brother's Leadership/Lore deck, and everything went great until we were destroyed by a sailing test. It put us off course, which meant that we took a willpower penalty from the quest stage, and then Winds of Wrath wiped out our allies, and next turn's questing knocked out one deck and left the rest of us facing a horde of enemies we couldn't defend. Even when everything seems to be going great, the quest still has a bunch of surprises it can throw at you.

For my money, this is straight up one of the best quests in the entire game. Voyage Across Belegaer alone is enough to fulfill my expectations for this expansion. For us at least, the difficulty here is damn near perfect, and I've loved playing this.

**

The Fate of Númenor - DL 5


Having succesfully outsailed the corsairs, our heroes arrive on a mysterious island in the middle of the ocean. Since we're on a crazy Gondorian noble's nautical vision quest, it's off into the jungle for us to find the temple of his dreams. There are two new mechanics introduced here. First of all, quite a few of the enemies and shadows riff off the bottom card of the player deck, and objective ally Calphon's ability lets you switch the bottom card for a card from your deck. Second, to portray searching a previously unknown island, there's a series of Uncharted locations that all enter the staging area with their identical Lost Island side up. To find out what the actual location is, you have to either get progress on them in the staging area or travel to them. The only way to get progress on the quest proper is to clear Uncharted locations, which get shuffled back into the Uncharted deck as they're explored.


Once you hit the second quest stage, the Uncharted card with the objective is added to play, and you start removing explored Uncharted locations from play. At this point, our offensive power was provided by Merry with Dúnedain Cache and two Fast Hitches, co-operating with Legolas and his Rivendell Blade, Rohan Warhorse and Support of the Eagles. Some undead would occasionally pop out of the encounter deck, Rossiel, Sam or Boromir would defend them, and then Merry and Legolas would just wipe them out, placing progress on the active location all the while.


Even though it took us ages to actually find the right Uncharted location, if I'm being honest, it was almost a little easy. The uncharted locations only have a threat of 2, so even in the early going, there's actually not that much threat in the staging area. The enemies aren't particularly nasty, and even though there are quite a few treacheries, they mostly tend to hit questing; in both this quest and Voyage Across Belegaer, there's a distinct lack of doomed and surge effects. Even the shadows are mostly quite run-of-the-mill. We did threat out on a second attempt, so it's not like this is a complete walkover.


Easy or not, though, this is a tremendously enjoyable quest. I know some people were griping about this expansion and the following adventure pack cycle being more Pirates of the Caribbean than Lord of the Rings, and I suppose this quest will be the focal point of those complaints, but in my honest opinion, when the quests are this much fun, I don't care. I got more of a Monkey Island than Pirates of the Caribbean vibe anyway, and that's a good thing in my books. I really like the Uncharted mechanic; we know it's going to get an even more interesting outing in Temple of the Deceived, and I'm already looking forward to it!

**

Raid on the Grey Havens - DL 6


In the last quest in the expansion, the corsairs have attacked the Grey Havens and are trying to burn the elven fleet. Your job is to race against the clock to stop them. Most of the locations in play have the Aflame keyword, meaning they're burning up, and if too many are destroyed, you lose the game. At the same time, there's a whole bunch of corsair enemies attacking you, doing direct damage to you and more damage to the burning locations.


After the first two quests, the third one is kind of startling because it more or less returns to the kind of difficulty level we've become used to. Most of the enemies have plenty of defense, the shadow effects are nasty, doomed and surge are in play, the locations have plenty of threat, various player card immunities are in play, and so on. We even got the Angmar classic "all the enemies ever attack you immediately" effect. I gave this a shot solo, and was pretty much immediately destroyed; a two-handed attempt with the Tactics deck didn't go much better. You have to both quest a lot and be able to take on several fairly dangerous enemies from the word go, and you can either get destroyed in combat, lose too many locations or threat out. And this is all before Captain What's-his-face and Claw Lady show up.


So the overall impression ends up being something like our Rogue Trader campaign: you're not quite sure what's going on, but everything is definitely on fire. This is a properly challenging, much more strongly combat-oriented quest than the previous two, but unlike several other quests in this mould, it doesn't feel frustratingly impossible, just plain difficult. That's not a bad thing.

**

As excited as I was for this expansion, I do have to admit that I wasn't exactly blown away by the player cards. Okay, you get a formidable Spirit hero, Círdan the Shipwright, and his ring, which promises to be quite brilliant.


The other hero in the set is Galdor, whose ability lets you start discarding cards as early as the setup phase, which is handy as every ally card in the box bar one has a special ability that's contingent on what the top card in your discard pile is.


All the allies and both heroes are Noldor, so this expansion is pretty heavily keyed to that archetype. This is probably why it felt a bit underwhelming, to be honest; we'd already got a whole bunch of Noldor cards in the Angmar cycle, so The Grey Havens doesn't really bring anything new as such. The only properly new mechanic is card effects becoming more powerful as multiple copies end up in the discard pile, as for instance with Skyward Volley:


At least the art is splendidly nautical! One very positive sign is that several location control cards are included. There's even one for Leadership. For my money, locations have been a pretty neglected aspect of player cards, with far too many scenarios almost hinging on either the luck of the draw or someone bringing along Northern Tracker. If this cycle gives us more variety in dealing with locations, that will be absolutely fantastic.


One more card needs to be mentioned: the wonderful Grappling Hook.


Not only does it give you visions of Tactics characters swinging around the place like Tarzan, but on-demand battle questing is just excellent, especially for the willpower-starved Tactics sphere. With Grappling Hook, you can leave a high-attack character ready for any enemies appearing from the encounter deck, and if they fail to show up, commit the character to the quest using their attack value. Simply brilliant.

So if your buying decision is based on player cards, this is very much a Noldor expansion, with some location control cards and a great Tactics attachment thrown in. However, I don't think that should be the case. Simply put, I believe this is the best single expansion of any kind to the Lord of the Rings living card game. If you play it, you should get a copy of The Grey Havens. The first two quests are nigh on perfect, and the third one is properly difficult, but not frustratingly so. Ever since the first heady days of figuring out the game, I think this is some of the most fun we've ever had with it.

I was actually genuinely scared to start playing The Grey Havens, because I'd been looking forward to it so much and I was sure I'd be disappointed. I wasn't. It's brilliant.

**

I've really been very happy with my Silvan deck! While I like broadly thematic decks, and the healing abilities of my Silvan Trackers positively encourage it, I'm not completely dedicated to only ever including Silvan characters. One card I've had hanging around the deck but actually almost never use is Mirkwood Runner. A brilliant card in the early game, especially when playing solo, but one I quite rarely use for anything other than discarding to Daeron's Runes. Because I almost exclusively play two- or three-player games these days, it occured to me that a potentially much more useful 3-cost Lore ally in these circumstances would be Ithilien Archer.


I almost always play together with my partner's Tactics deck, which means we're usually quite dedicated to setting up some kind of ranged attack combo, and even more so when co-operating with our Hobbit deck featuring Merry and Dúnedain Cache. In these circumstances, I think an Ithilien Archer or two might be much more useful than a Mirkwood Runner I rarely ever play. It's a bit of a stretch in terms of theme, I know, but they're also woodsy guys with bows, so I can deal with it. In practice, their lack of the Silvan trait will make them more vulnerable to the Necromancer's Reaches of the world, but hopefully they'll be able to make a contribution anyway. My deck's also not particularly heavy on the attack anyway, so at times the Archer's response ability may come in handy as well to put opponents back in the staging area where others can get at them, or maybe get a nastier enemy off the Hobbit deck's back.

The Grey Havens didn't really come with many cards that fit my deck, but I wanted to give The Evening Star a shot. Because the Tactics deck is pretty useless for questing, and my questing contribution takes a little time to set up, we have in the past found ourselves overwhelmed by locations. Concorde alone is already a huge help, so an event that straight up adds progress to a location is very welcome indeed.


This turned out to be a great choice, as The Evening Star pretty much saved us in our first Voyage Across Belegaer. Two progress isn't much, but since the discard pile mechanic basically means that the card gets more powerful the further you get in the quest, it can be an excellent antidote to location lock.

Here, then, is the current incarnation of my Silvans:

53 cards; 46 Lore, 7 neutral; 3 heroes, 19 allies, 12 attachments, 18 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 16 (12/4)
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 12
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x3
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2

Events: 21 (18/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x3
The Evening Star (TGH) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

And here's Team Boromir:

56 cards; 47 Tactics, 9 neutral; 3 heroes, 18 allies, 11 events, 25 attachments; 29 starting threat.

Boromir (TDM)
Legolas
Thalin

Allies: 18 (15/3)
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM) x2
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x2
Bofur (OHaUH) x2
Honour Guard (TWoE) x3
Winged Guardian (THfG) x3
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Radagast (AJtR)

Events: 11 (8/3)
Feint x3
Foe-Hammer (OHaUH) x2
The Eagles are Coming! (THfG) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Attachments: 25 (22/3)
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Spear of the Citadel (HoN) x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF) x2
Grappling Hook (TGH) x3
Horn of Gondor x2
Mighty Prowess x2 (TDF)
Rivendell Blade (RtR) x2
Rohan Warhorse x2 (TVoI)
Black Arrow (OtD)
Favor of the Valar x3 (TBoCD)

Apr 4, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 19: The Last Stage

It was on May the First that the two came back at last to the brink of the valley of Rivendell, where stood the Last (or First) Homely House.

The last chapter of the Hobbit starts with Bilbo and Gandalf arriving in Rivendell. They hang out with the elves for a bit, and there's a couple of songs. We're told in passing that Gandalf and some of his pals kicked the Necromancer out of Mirkwood, but other than that, Rivendell again serves as a brief pit stop. The hobbit and wizard make their way back toward the Shire, stopping to collect the trolls' gold on the way, and when they spot the Hill of Hobitton in the distance, Bilbo suddenly breaks out in poetry.

His actual homecoming turns out to be anything but poetic, as it turns out he's been declared dead, and arrives in the middle of an auction where his effects are being sold. After some confusion, Bilbo manages to recover most of his things, and settles back in at Bag-End. However, the impeccably respectable middle-class gentlehobbit he left as is long gone; not only has he been away on an adventure and had the gall to return, but now also entertains bizarre visitors like elves and wizards, and writes poetry. As a result, he's shunned by his peers and neighbors as mad - and is quite happy. In the end, the adventure has succeeded in rescuing Bilbo from the bourgeois respectability lampooned in the first chapter, although he conveniently retains its material trappings. In the very last scene, Bilbo is happily entertaining Balin and Gandalf for tea, bringing the whole story to a full circle from its beginning.

**

So, that was the Hobbit! Let's sum up.

Apart from the memorable dragon, the chief enemies of the story are orcs. When we first meet them, they're quite categorically characterized as evil and wicked, and hardly exist in the narrative at all except to be killed. After the brief dialogue with the Great Goblin, the only interaction anyone has with a goblin is violent. Mostly because of that dialogue, they're not utterly dehumanized into mindless automatons. More importantly, their killing isn't exalted and glorified as a moral good, except by Beorn, who clearly represents a more atavistic morality. So they're slightly more nuanced and interesting villains than zombies. Maybe.

Moving from the goblins to their enemies, Tolkien himself apparently made it clear several times that his dwarves are some kind of extended fantasy allegory of the Jews. I find this fascinating, because it's never once occurred to me. In my mind, the avarice of the dwarves did always have an uncomfortable similarity with antisemitic stereotypes, but other than that, I've always seen Tolkien's dwarves as thoroughly Norse.

I maintain this is because the Jewish allegory Tolkien attempted completely fails. Sure, the dwarves in The Hobbit are wanderers seeking to reclaim their lost homeland. But it's not the divinely ordained eretz khazad of all dwarves; some others seek to reclaim Moria, while most are apparently quite content to live wherever it is they live. Damningly, the theology of the dwarves makes them the complete opposite of the children of Israel: far from being the chosen people of the covenant, the dwarves are descended from a separate creation by one of the lesser divine powers. Worst of all, the professor's philology seems to have completely deserted him when inventing dwarvish, because the few place-names and phrases we get do not, pace Tolkien, succeed in conveying anything remotely Semitic. It's hardly a coincidence that his massive linguistic acumen didn't, as far as I know, extend to any of the Afroasiatic languages. The kh's and z's that one deduces from his interview comments were intended to suggest Semitic all just come off as pseudo-Germanic. With only basic studies in philology behind me, it's impertinent of me to second-guess a professor, but surely if a Semitic air was desired, maybe even a desultory attempt at a definite article might have been made? Or at least one decidedly non-Indo-European vowel sound?

So in my opinion at least, Tolkien's conception of the dwarves as Jewish entirely fails on any level except the vulgar stereotype of greed. This failure is kin to the way in which Tolkien's Christianity and Biblical allusions in general mostly fail to make their way into the text for a modern reader: the allusions are contradicted by the internal logic of Tolkien's Arda, the theology mostly doesn't work, but above all the Scandinavian influence is so overwhelming. With every dwarf name straight out of the Edda, and Norse dwarves being famous above all as miners and craftsmen, there is simply no need to look for a Semitic allegory. Even the avarice of the dwarves can just as easily, and far more charitably, be traced to Fafnir and the Volsunga saga, rather than antisemitic prejudice. I would certainly rather consider Thorin's appalling behavior as King under the Mountain a Fafnir-analogy than a meditation on the Jewish character. Unfortunately, denounciations of Nazi Germany notwithstanding (most prominently Letters, 29), Tolkien's publicly stated preference for the latter suggests that if you want to call him a racist on the basis of his novels, you'd best add antisemite as well.

Tolkien was reportedly annoyed that his work was characterized as "Nordic"; in this case, as in many others, it might have helped if he hadn't made it so thoroughly Scandinavian. It's quite possible that the root of the problem is that Tolkien the Christian wanted his stories to fit into a neat Christian framework, but Tolkien the philologist couldn't bring himself to do such brutal violence to the essentially pagan world of the Norse. The euhemeristic Christianizing prologue of the prose Edda must have rung even more profoundly false to the philologist Tolkien than it does to a more average reader. Personally, I strongly believe that the Nordic dimensions of Tolkien's work are essential to its success; the heroism and worldliness of the Norse sagas is absolutely crucial, and fundamentally incompatible with Christian pathos. Even though Tolkien the Christian might not have liked to admit this, we're lucky that the philologist realized it in writing the stories. One wonders if some inkling of this is behind Tolkien's angry rejection of analogy. It's certainly fascinating that he can effortlessly shift between the modern world and the Norse sagas, and this combination remains immensely popular, but struggles to convey his Christianity - food for thought for those who insist that our culture is somehow especially Christian.

**

The other glaring question of representation is the complete lack of women in the Hobbit. The entire novel doesn't include one single female character. There's an online list of women in Tolkien's Middle-earth, according to which there's only one named female person in the book: Belladonna Took, Bilbo's mother, in Chapter 1. Like all the other women mentioned in the text, she's defined solely by her relationship to a man - with one exception.

"Dear me!" he went on. "Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures? Anything from climbing trees to visiting elves - or sailing in ships, sailing to other shores!"
- The Hobbit, Chapter 1, p. 7; emphasis mine

Given the rest of the book, this is an extraordinary passage. So adventures are something women can go on as well, but when Tolkien sets out to write one, it ends up not including so much as a single female character. This is one reason why I think Tolkien's attitudes to gender are a bit more complex than they're usually treated as. Despite the complete lack of women in the Hobbit, you won't find anything as blindly, categorically misogynist as, say, Ursula Le Guin's insistence in the early Earthsea books that only men can have real power - and yet Le Guin is the exemplary feminist, and Tolkien is a horrible woman-hater. (do read Jo Walton's comments on Le Guin)

By our standards, Tolkien almost certainly was a misogynist, and his inability to actually include a single female presence in the Hobbit is testimony to it. But it is interesting that even though he's a devout Christian, he doesn't actually ever feel the need to preach gender roles at us. Given the passage quoted above, it isn't quite so surprising any more that the man who couldn't conceive of women having any part to play in the Hobbit would go on to create the character of Éowyn. Still, though, the thoroughly masculine exclusivity of the Hobbit is very striking. I'm tempted to suggest that this is another victory of the philologist: Tolkien knows that there are valkyries and shield-maidens in the Norse tradition, and it's they who stop him from making the kind of blanket essentialist declarations of gender that the vast majority of later fantasy seems to find compulsory, but his faith and background still demarcate adventure as an entirely male arena.

**

So yes, the Hobbit is a somewhat racist, definitely misogynistic Boys' Own adventure, where dwarves and elves and dragons can all be very marvelous and thrilling, but in the end, real life is the serene middle-class peace of the imaginary English countryside. Epic Pooh, as Michael Moorcock had it.

Yet at the same time, it's more than that. Moorcock, for instance, is completely wrong when he claims that unlike epic, Tolkien and his imitators "ignore" death. It's deeply puzzling to read this right after Thorin's death-bed scene, let alone the Lord of the Rings. I also can't help being somewhat jarred by Moorcock interrupting his criticism of Tolkien's reactionary longing for the pseudo-feudal countryside to bestow plaudits on, of all people, J.K. Rowling! Similarly, while David Brin had the right idea in seeing Tolkien's works as a battle of Romanticism against modernity, his caricature of world history is unforgiveably stupid and massively racist in its Eurocentrism: everything was terrible until heroic white men invented liberty. Crucially, his description of Tolkien's stories as "lacking...a role for individual champions" and as a clash of a side that's "100% good" with one that's "100% evil" simply cannot be reconciled with the actual texts. So having said that I fundamentally agree with the view of Tolkien's works as racist, misogynistic and deeply reactionary, the fact remains that the critics' Tolkien isn't quite to be found in the pages of his books, either.

Just last year, Moorcock took on Tolkien again in the New Statesman, and had this to say:

“In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-­ordered world.”

As anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Tolkien's works knows, this is pure nonsense. Neither the end of the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings can possibly be considered a return to an unchanged beginning, and the idea that Tolkien's Middle-earth is permanent and unchanging is shockingly tone-deaf and completely unsupportable. So sadly, while Tolkien's most vocal critics do make some good points, they also seem to have decided that they're enlightened enough to be exempt from actually bothering to read him.

**

There are several things going on here, perhaps the most important of which is that Tolkien has come to stand for all modern fantasy, especially at its most racist and misogynistic. There's a strange way in which fantasy has become the imagined history of the worst aspects of our society, clearly seen when "historical accuracy" has replaced verisimilitude. "Historical accuracy" can now be used to demand ridiculous fictions of a racially pure white Middle Ages, or a disgustingly misogynistic prolonged rape fantasy rather than, say, actual history, let alone fantasy. Certainly in producing foundational works of fantasy that were racist and misogynistic, and had pretentions toward being an imaginary history of our times, Tolkien stands on the path that led us here, but especially on returning to the Hobbit after all these years, I strongly believe it's quite unfair to lay all the blame on him. Bigoted though it is, Tolkien's text is still light-years from the leering torture porn and thoroughly racist caricatures of a George R.R. Martin. Again, returning to the text itself is what makes both the heritage and the distance clear.

Another factor in the critical disdain for Tolkien is pure literary snobism, which fairly oozes from Moorcock's essay. His sheer indignation at the commercial success of the Lord of the Rings is just the latest installment in a long, long tradition of bashing Tolkien as "not real literature". I have very little to add to Tom Shippey's treatment of this in the deliberately provocatively titled Tolkien: Author of the Century, except to highly recommend John Carey's seminal The Intellectuals and the Masses. It's hardly without irony that in his deep contempt for Tolkien's popularity, Moorcock begins to edge quite close to the hatred of the "ignorant proles" he sees in Tolkien's works.

Speaking as a fan, I absolutely decry any attempt to explain away the many and deep problems of Tolkien's works. To write an entire novel supposedly set in a world to some extent analogous to our own and not manage to include a single active female character is simply monstrous. To insist on framing individual qualities in terms of race and blood, and even worse, insisting that his dwarves are a meditation on Jewish racial characteristics, is pure racism. My point in bringing up counter-examples, either of the more nuanced treatment of the "evil races" - stop for a moment to consider that in modern fantasy, this is still considered a reasonable phrase - or the lads and lasses who go on adventures, is not to make excuses for him. It's to point out that the actual text of his works is steeped in all these problems, but at the same time more complex than the critics so often make it seem. There is a constant tension in Tolkien's texts between the misogyny and the racism on the one hand, and counter-impulses on the other. Like the tension between the pagan and the Christian elements, this also allows for a subtler reading of the text, or even a subversion of it. Quite simply put, Tolkien is not ideologically dogmatic. To borrow his metaphor of the Beowulf poem as a tower, all the pieces of Tolkien's building don't quite fit together, and if you like, those are the cracks where the light gets in.

To me, this is why so many of us have managed to read, re-read and thoroughly enjoy his work and not see it as a sexist, racist paean to a quasi-Fascist past. Much of it has been our blindness; I, for instance, had never realized that the Hobbit genuinely cannot bring itself to depict a single female character. But some of it has also been that when these cracks showed up between the clear ideological structures of the text and the subversions and exceptions, we took to the latter rather than the former. I hope to continue my series of posts into the Lord of the Rings, which will hopefully give me the chance to explain why it's been a cornerstone of my personal feminism and anti-racism. The general point I want to stress is that one of the main reasons I wanted to do this close reading was to illustrate how the text is manifestly guilty of the oppressive, othering ideologies it stands accused of, but also that a close reading will display that Tolkien wasn't as consistent with these as his critics imagine. This is a point I will be particularly returning to in the Lord of the Rings posts.

**

If the Hobbit is no gleeful celebration of rape and slaughter like some of its prominent contemporary descendants, it doesn't shy awy from the darker sides of its story, either. People die so the dwarves can get their dragon-gold: not only some of Thorin's company and Thorin himself, but most notably, many of the Lake-men, who have their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed by the dragon the dwarves have roused. Again, if Middle-earth really was populated by only the 100% good and the 100% bad, it would be impossible to conceive of the squabbling over the dead dragon's hoard, where the Lake-men's reasonable requests are met with violence by the dwarves. It's not really made particularly clear in the narrative if, on the whole, the Lake-men wouldn't have been better off in the end if the dwarves had never showed up at all. In the modern jargon, high adventure and dragon-slaying does considerable collateral damage.

On a more personal level, Bilbo may seem like a happy-go-lucky accidental hero, but he also goes through quite a gamut of emotions and experiences. From the very beginning of the story, the epic romance of songs and tales is contrasted with the physical misery of actual "adventure", from the pouring rain and the trolls to the thunderstorms, orcs and wolves of the mountains, and the bleak near-starvation of the dwarves and Bilbo in Mirkwood. This contrast between the glorious, heroic world of the stories told at second hand and the miserable physical reality in which they happened at the time is present throughout, with the narrator at times remarking on how particular episodes would get re-told later. So not only is the experience of the adventure hardly all fun and games, but the text also shows an awareness and even a mild subversion of the way in which terrible experiences will become heroic epic, stripped of all reality. So to say that the prose of the Hobbit "coddles us" requires, again, very deliberately omitting a large part of the actual text.

**

A final point on which I don't quite agree with Moorcock is the quality of Tolkien's prose. I like it; I've gained distinct pleasure from reading it out loud. At times it's clunky, at times it's beautiful. On the whole, I find the Hobbit a distinctly enjoyable book, despite its glaring flaws. It deserves to be read on its own, not just as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings. The elements that later come to dominate the whole fictional world - the Ring, the Necromancer - are, respectively, a key prop and a shadow on the horizon of the story, but nothing more. I would urge everyone to read the Hobbit as a story in itself, without the massive weight of epic-to-come weighing it down. So many passages, like the riddle-contest with Gollum, the gradual arrival of the dwarves at Beorn's hall and Bilbo's repartee with Smaug are simply excellent. The dwarves' complete unpreparedness for any part of their great adventure that's at such complete odds with their bombastic songs and poetic declarations that it's irresistably funny to me. This is just a really good story. I honestly can't think of many works of fantasy I'd rank above it.

If someone's actually read through even one of these posts, you have my genuine gratitude. I've had a great time writing them; I hope I've managed to produce something that's been of some kind of value to someone else as well. Next time, I'm moving on to the only fantasy book I'd unhesitatingly say is better than the Hobbit: the Lord of the Rings.

Mar 14, 2016

LotR LCG: His foundations lie in the holy mountain

"This is the great realm and city of Dwarrowdelf. And of old it was not darksome, but full of light and splendour, as is still remembered in our songs."
- Gimli, the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter IV


After tackling the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion, the obvious next step was the adventure packs of the Dwarrowdelf cycle. In terms of player cards, the packs include some pretty important elves, but mostly we're expecting even more dwarves, in line with the deluxe expansion's focus on dwarves, dwarves and some more dwarves. So far, it's inspired two other players to experiment with dwarf decks, and admittedly I did consider a dwarf support deck with Nori, Oin and Thalin. I think I'll save it for when we all decide to play dwarf decks at the same time. I'll admit: I mostly find fantasy dwarves to be incredibly boring, unless they've got funny hats. The Dwarrowdelf adventure packs have been talked up a bit, though, and Moria is still really cool, so I was quite looking forward to the quests!


John Howe: The Company Approaches Caradhras, 1989

**

The Redhorn Gate - DL 6


The first quest sees our heroes tasked with escorting Arwen from Lórien to Rivendell, via Caradhras. Reading the relevant parts of the Lord of the Rings might make you ask exactly how smart this is, and playing this quest will leave you wondering why anyone would ever even try it. The quest starts off innocuously enough; there's some locations, a couple of enemies, but nothing too terrible. Then this treachery comes along:


Huh, a condition attachment that makes your hero useless for questing, we thought. Oh well, the Tactics guys don't really quest much anyway, so when two of these came up when my partner was first player, we attached them to Legolas and Boromir. Little did we realize that not only does reaching the third quest stage make Caradhras the active location, giving a further penalty to willpower, but also eliminates all characters whose willpower is zero or less. So advancing to the third quest stage not only wiped out most of my allies, but also the entire Tactics deck.

Ouch.

I carried on as best I could; Éowyn was tough enough to quest through the ferocious weather with a little wizardly help, and almost unbelievably, I managed to finish the trip. This is quite a harsh scenario, especially on the first playthrough, but even when you know what's coming, the willpower penalty and discarding of characters is brutal.


Having said that, we definitely enjoyed this adventure pack! The quest is tough, but thematically it does a brilliant job of conveying the feel of a punishing slog through a terrible mountain pass, freezing in a blizzard while wargs stalk you in the night. It's a different, challenging quest.

Card spotlight: Ravenhill Scout


Unless you're running a Hobbit deck, Redhorn Gate isn't great in terms of player cards. While Needful to Know is in my Silvan deck, I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce a rare bird indeed: a Dale character! As of this writing, there are precisely three of them: Brand son of Bain, Celduin Traveler (surely Fantasy Flight could decide how to spell traveller) and this card. Unfortunately, I agree with the Tales from the Cards blog that it's hard to see Ravenhill Scout as worth using, but the optimist in me believes that in the future, we'll get more cards to make up at least an interesting Dale contingent to a deck, if not a whole Dale deck in itself; it's a fascinating area of Middle-earth to explore, and I hope the designers take the opportunity. And since writing this, we've learned that we've got several Dale cards to look forward to in the Dream-chaser cycle!

**

Road to Rivendell - DL 4


Having made it past Caradhras (sort of), our heroes now need to escort Arwen north to Rivendell. There's a whole bunch of enemies and locations in the encounter deck; thematically, I thought including the Plundering Goblins encounter set was a bit odd, because coming across a Plundered Armoury on your way to Rivendell just seems strange. And now that I mention encounter cards...


Quite simply, if you don't have any treachery cancellation, this card will destroy you. You don't have to hesitate a second before using Eleanor's ability to get rid of it, because there's literally no way it can possibly get worse. On a three-handed attempt, a combination of Chieftain of the Pit and Sleeping Sentry's shadow effect wiped out the dwarf deck, leaving it with one hero. This meant that when Arwen had already taken one damage from Pathless Country's shadow effect, and was under the dwarf player's control when we drew Undisturbed Bones, it was game over for us.

If you don't get annihilated by Sleeping Sentry, then this is a pretty straightforward quest: collect a heap of progress and kill a fairly large number of enemies. Good enough fun, but nothing too memorable. I got two Northern Trackers into play, but ended up using them almost exclusively for combat; a bit strange on a quest that's meant to be about travelling! On the while, this is a decent quest; it's maybe a bit disappointing on the first run, as you sort of expect it to throw some kind of nasty twist at you, but it never does; the only nastiness here are the treacheries.

This quest has a difficulty rating of 4, which, remember, is the lowest possible rating for quests that are not Passage through Mirkwood or The Seventh Level. Saying this quest is "officially" harder than Seventh Level does quite strongly suggest that the difficulty levels are based on seeing combat against unexceptional enemies as inherently easier than questing. So if you have a deck that's geared more toward questing than combat, like mine, you'll find the difficulty levels are quite badly off.

Card spotlight: Song of Eärendil


For starters, it's another beautiful card. I don't draw enough attention to how visually attractive the cards themselves are; it makes the whole gaming experience so much more satisfying when you get to handle cards that are stylish and well designed. I'll have to take extra care when reading the Silmarillion to see if it specifies how Vingilótë was rigged. In terms of gameplay, the bulk of the threat reducing cards are in Spirit, so the ability to take on some of the other players' threat is very welcome. This is especially true with two players, where using The Galadhrim's Greeting on both is wasteful, but Elrond's Counsel only works on me. Song of Eärendil combines particularly well with Elfhelm, and lets me share some of the threat burden of using Boromir. For more complicated scenarios, head on over to Tales from the Cards; we haven't done anything particularly clever or innovative with it, but the general "threat smoothing" it provides is quite useful. A card definitely worth including in multiplayer decks.

**

The Watcher in the Water - DL 5

Now that we've succesfully escorted Arwen to Rivendell, Elrond has a small task for the heroes: he's asked us to scout the Mines of Moria on our way back to Lórien. "Scout the Mines of Moria", he says, like that's a thing that people just do. The last time we were in Moria, barely half of us made it out again. What's the average life expectancy of a murder hobo hero working for the White Council? Never mind, we're off to "scout" Moria. Getting in through the East-gate was kinda tough; how hard could the western route be?


For this leg of the trip, we were, appropriately enough, joined by a Leadership/Lore dwarf deck with Dáin, Thorin and Ori. Our first three-handed attempt, though, ended in dismal failure. It wasn't even the endlessly annoying wargs and the orcs and the giant seething mass of tentacles that did us in, but the Doomed 5 treacheries and various other lovely surprises.


Our next foray went better, even though the dwarf deck was still struggling to field so much as a single ally. This time, we weren't hit with quite so many horrible locations and treacheries as we had been last time, and we actually made some progress on the quest. The tentacles and other enemies were uncomfortably numerous and nearly overwhelmed us - but we had an answer:


Armed with the Spear of the Citadel, bearing a Gondorian Shield and fortified with Arwen's bonus, Boromir defended five enemies that turn, doing damage to each of them. This bought us enough time to finally get ahead in the quest, with everyone's threat uncomfortably high and beleaguered by a never-ending swarm of tentacles.


In the second and final stage, you need to both amass enough progress and have three victory points. There are basically two ways you can do the latter: either you defeat the Watcher, or solve the Doors of Durin:


Another way would be to use side quests or other player cards worth victory points like Black Arrow, but we weren't doing so great with the questing anyway, so that didn't seem likely - we did make an attempt at Double Back, and got a grand total of one (1) progress on it. My partner was actually hatching a plan to defeat the Watcher with Rivendell Blade, the Black Arrow and what have you, until Stagnant Creek turned up in staging and eliminated the Tactics deck. It would now be up to me and the dwarves.

I'd been drawing terribly all evening; not a single Galadhrim's Greeting or Song of Eärendil, or even an Elrond's Counsel to be seen while our threat kept mounting and mounting. Now, though, my deck made up for it by producing the one ally who could help us decipher the Doors of Durin: Henamarth Riversong. After staging, I used Henamarth's ability to scry the encounter deck, and lo and behold, the dwarf player had a card that matched. The Doors were open! Now all we needed to do was get through them.


After what we hoped would be one last desperate combat phase of holding off the tentacles, orcs, wargs and whatnot, we mounted our final massive questing push. Everyone who could, quested, with Durin's Song, cards discarded to Éowyn, everything we could possibly think of thrown in to get us through. And it worked: despite all manner of monstrosities showing up in staging, we made it into Moria. Some victory! This is one heck of a quest.

Card spotlight: Arwen Undómiel


What can I say about Arwen Evenstar that I haven't said already? A two-cost ally with two willpower and an excellent special ability, and a unique Noldor character to boot, giving you access to Elrond's Counsel. She was instrumental in my first ever successful solo playthrough of A Journey down the Anduin, providing invaluable questing and threat reduction. We'd never have gotten through We Must Away without a Sentinel Gandalf with a defence of five, courtesy of Arwen, and she made our epic Boromir defence possible. She's one of the best allies in the entire game; if you're running a Spirit deck, you can't not get this adventure pack.

**

The Long Dark - DL 7

Now that we're in Moria, we're, you know, gonna quest in it. I guess it makes sense that since we barely made our way past the Watcher, we're going to have to get out the other way, but in terms of theme, I couldn't quite work out what we were actually supposed to be doing now that we were here. The quest is a fairly simple two-stage affair that introduces a Locate test mechanic, where you have to discard cards to pass. There are some unpleasant treacheries like Foul Air and Vast and Intricate, but other than that, the encounter deck is just more goblins and tunnels; not terribly inspired. Straightforward questing will get you by. We beat this two-handed with my partner's Tactics deck, and although some Lost effects gave us trouble at first and we had to face down a fair deluge of enemies in the second stage, we squeaked through on a final questing push with my partner's threat at 49.


The difficulty level of 7 on this one is utterly baffling. I agree with the difficulty rant on Tales from the Cards again: compared to the Mirkwood cycle, the difficulty for this quest is more in line with Hunt for Gollum or Dead Marshes. Giving it the same value as Return to Mirkwood is just ridiculous. All in all, it's another Moria quest that's almost exactly like the middle phase of Into the Pit, or Seventh Level, with some nastier treacheries and occasional card-discarding. Forgettable, if not downright boring.

Card spotlight: Warden of Healing


If Arwen is the best questing ally in the game, the Warden of Healing is the best healing ally you can get. Cheaper and more versatile than the Daughter of the Nimrodel, having a couple of copies of the Warden in your Lore deck will not only make your life easier, but make you more popular in multiplayer games as well. This card made its debut in my deck on my Journey down the Anduin, and I was pleasantly surprised by how he managed to reduce a Goblin Sniper that hung around from the first quest stage to the very last turn of the game from a major nuisance to a technical afterthought. A staple for any deck using Lore, in my books.

**

Foundations of Stone - DL 6

Having survived trudging through Moria in the previous quest, we could next look forward to... more of the same. I know I said I'm basically a sucker for everything Moria, but honestly, at this point I think we were getting thoroughly tired of Goblin Swordsmen, Fouled Wells and Cave Ins. The beginning of Foundations of Stone is thoroughly nondescript questing against an encounter deck that's almost completely identical to Into the Pit, which is really not the most inspired design solution you could've come up with.


The beginning of the quest, however, is just marking time until you get to the money part, which you'll really want to experience in multiplayer.


What happens is that the players get separated and have to try to make their way through the unfathomable deeps of Moria on their own. It's a really cool mechanic that gives the quest a very distinct flavor; no doubt it's a bit of a waste of time solo, but four-handed it works great.


Our first four-player attempt at this quest turned into the most massively epic adventure since our four-hour Flight from Moria. Team Boromir and my Silvans took on the challenge with our Hobbit deck and an Éowyn-Eleanor-Idraen Spirit deck I'd built for questing and location control. We got off to a pretty good start, with tye hobbits engaging troublesome Goblin Scouts, Northern Tracker helping clear out a massive pile of locations, and the rest of us dealing with the endless horde of goblins. Our questing stalled for a while at Dreadful Gap, but eventually we managed to get the required nineteen progress tokens on it.


Like I said, the first part of the quest is so exactly a rerun of the Into the Pit encounter deck that it felt almost boring. We killed a whole pile of goblins, succesfully cave torched some locations, and even though I couldn't manage to draw almost any of Rossiel's victory display shenanigans, Out of the Wild did manage to show up at exactly the perfect time to get rid of Sudden Pitfall. In a spectacular run of bad luck, we at one point managed to draw three Goblin Followers in one staging - this, of course, when the Spirit deck was last player. We were still busy dealing with them when the floor gave way beneath us...


By this time, both the hobbit and Spirit decks had lost one hero. Next, they lost the other two, leaving the Silvan and Tactics decks to quest their way out. What happens is that each deck gets its own quest card and staging area, and has to make its way through that quest card to rejoin the others. There are four different quest cards, some better suited to some decks than to others, and in some respects we managed a pretty decisive mismatch. The two surviving decks, however, beat the quest, so in the end, we all won!

This is a properly epic quest. If Into the Pit is my favorite Moria quest, with three or four players I think this might actually be better. It can be very brutal, especially to decks that aren't very strong on their own if they end up with an unlucky quest card; how The Long Dark is harder is, again, completely beyond me. On the whole this is an awesome adventure that I think everyone who has the opportunity to enjoy this game three- or four-handed simply has to experience.

Card spotlight: Daeron's Runes


This is the best card draw effect in the game. Why have I not been using it in my decks? Because I misremembered the effect. This mistake has now been corrected.

**

Shadow and Flame - DL 8

Finally, in the last installment of the cycle, well, you can guess from the title.


This is a slightly strange quest. The theme is strong: you're doing your best to escape Moria and not be murdered by a Balrog. In practice, this means you need either chump blockers or Frodo to absorb the attack, or reliable threat reduction to stop it from happening. So there's basically a couple of ways to make this quest pitifully easy. Outside of them, if you can constantly block the Balrog's attack or feed it chump blockers, you'll be fine; if not, there's not a lot you can do. So in terms of difficulty, the question isn't so much how hard the quest is, but rather is your deck suited to it or not. As with Intruders in Chetwood, there's effectively a minimum direct combat requirement to play this quest, and I always find that a little disappointing. It's puzzling that the same cycle contains a much better bossfight: the Watcher in the Water! I'd get that instead if you're shopping for quests.

Card spotlight: Master of the Forge


There's a couple of these search cards; off the top of my head, The Eagles Are Coming searches for Eagle cards, Westfold Horse-breeder finds mounts and Bofur weapons. Westfold Horse-breeder has a wider search range, but of all these, Master of the Forge is definitely the least specialized, as you can find any kind of attachment you like. I'm thinking that when and if I return to my tri-sphere deck, I should try to make space for a couple of copies of this ally to fetch my attachments; that deck really suffered when I couldn't find my weapon attachments, and a Noldor forgemaster is less of a thematic clash than Bofur. Again, I wish there was a human equivalent of those two that you could use in Gondor and Rohan decks.

**

So, an overview. Compared to the Mirkwood cycle, I think the Dwarrowdelf quests are a lot more uneven. Part of this is probably the fact that the novelty of the game is wearing off, but while I thought all the Shadows of Mirkwood quests except the Dead Marshes were quite good, here I don't see myself returning to half of these any time soon. A large part of the problem is that the three quests in the Khazad-dûm expansion are so similar to the last three quests of the cycle, which begins to get a little wearisome. Then again, the only reason anyone remembers Road to Rivendell exists is Sleeping Sentry. If you're interested in quests, I wouldn't hesitate a second before getting The Watcher in the Water, and Redhorn Gate is excellent as well. If you play with three or four players, you have to try Foundations of Stone. The rest of them I wouldn't bother with.

As for player cards, Watcher in the Water is brilliant, making it such a no-brainer to buy. Redhorn Gate and Road to Rivendell aren't terribly impressive in this respect, although the latter does come with a real nifty weapon attachment, and anyone running a Hobbit deck may want to get Redhorn Gate. There's some secrecy and dwarf stuff throughout the cycle if you're into that kind of thing, but the big hooks of the cycle are Shadow and Flame for Elrond and his ring, or Foundations of Stone for Snorefindel and his horse Concorde. Of the two, I'd say Foundations of Stone has a much better quest, but the player cards in Shadow and Flame are more interesting. As you can see from my deck list, I haven't actually been using very many cards from this cycle.

Given that I also thought the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion was quite good, I'd say that even if you're not interested in a Dwarf deck, a combo like Khazad-dûm, Watcher in the Water and either Redhorn Gate or Foundations of Stone would make for a pretty lovely little pile of living card game goodness.

**

The only change to my main deck from the Dwarrowdelf packs was switching Infighting for Song of Eärendil. I did think about Blood of Númenor, as it would have quite a few potential recipients in our multiplayer games, but my feeling has been that my heroes very rarely have much in their resource pools! I'm still considering both of these as we play. Infighting, in the other hand, remains an intriguing card, but I haven't ended up using it; since my deck has the bulk of the threat-reducing abilities, Song of Eärendil should prove more useful.

My partner came across The Voice of Isengard at a nice discount, so given our recent harrowing experiences with Freezing Cold, I decided we needed Power of Orthanc. Ways of getting rid of bothersome condition attachments are few and far between, and now that I also have Song of Eärendil handy, I think this option would be better in multiplayer than Athelas. And again, what a lovely card to look at!


I also couldn't resist the lure of Curunír, and included two copies, removing my third Northern Tracker to make room. After all, the game is set before the events of the Lord of the Rings, and who wouldn't want to have the head of the White Council and chief of the wizards helping them out? We really could have used his help with the Watcher! The Northern Tracker, on the other hand, is a bit expensive for my deck, and I'm not actually sure the third copy was worth including. I'll see if I regret this!

Another Spirit ally I find myself not using as much as I'd thought is Escort from Edoras. In a pinch, the Escort is an excellent quester, but somehow I'm just not really fond of these disposable allies. Because I've got this whole Amazon theme going, one of the first Ring-maker adventure packs I got was The Three Trials, for Idraen, but it also included Greyflood Wanderer.


Although three resources is a bit costly, that response ability could come in real handy. I like how the Doomed keyword is a sort of unifying theme for many of the cards from Voice of Isengard and the Ring-maker cycle; it's an interesting tradeoff, and with at least some threat reduction in my deck, it's one that I'd like to explore. Also, playing the Dwarrowdelf quests suggested a strange notion: I feel that I might not need three Wardens of Healing. From what I've understood of later quests, I may well change my mind when Archery comes along, but for now, I'm willing to experiment with only two Wardens. So I'm going to try dispensing with one Warden of Healing and my Escorts from Edoras, and replacing them with Greyflood Wanderer. I got to try them for the first time when we introduced a friend to the game, and I used a Northern Tracker - Greyflood Wanderer combo to wipe out all the locations in the staging area. I think this has potential!

Continuing our foray into the Ring-maker cycle's adventure packs brings us Celebrimbor's Secret, which I'd noted down ages ago as a future purchase. It includes not only Galadriel's Handmaiden, a useful questing ally who can lower your threat to boot, but also Wandering Ent.


Technically, the Handmaiden is almost identical to West Road Traveller: a fragile ally with 2 willpower for 2 cost. Given how rarely West Road Traveller's ability gets used, Galadriel's Handmaiden is simply a better ally, but for sentimental reasons, I want to keep my ladies of Rohan. So in practice, I'm torn between the Handmaidens and my Greyflood Wanderers. For now, the Wanderers win.


As for our tree-herding friend, at a measly cost of two, the Wandering Ent is a bargain. It has the same stats as Haldir of Lórien for half the cost; although Haldir's ranged ability is useful in multiplayer, I can rarely afford him. Similarly, Mirkwood Runner's ability to bypass an enemy's defence can be invaluable, but with only one Lore hero and no resource acceleration, even a cost of 3 is a bit steep. I'm going to try replacing both Haldir and my Mirkwood Runners with Wandering Ents.


The Amazons

53 cards: 32 Spirit, 14 Lore, 7 neutral; 3 heroes, 24 allies, 9 attachments, 14 events, 3 side quests

Éowyn
Eleanor
Beravor

Allies: 24 (12/7/5)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Greyflood Wanderer (TTT) x3
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x2
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)
Saruman (VoI) x2

Attachments: 9 (4/4/1)
Unexpected Courage x2
Song of Eärendil (RtR) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 14
The Galadhrim's Greeting x3
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb x2
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Power of Orthanc (VoI) x2

Side quests: 3 (1/1/1)
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
add Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West
swap Song of Eärendil (RtR) x2 for Forest Snare x2
swap Power of Orthanc (VoI) x2 for Athelas (TLR) x2

**

As it stands right now, though, I'm having far too much fun with my Silvan deck! I started using it for Foundations of Stone in this cycle, and haven't looked back since. Here's the current state of the deck after adding The Antlered Crown to our collection, which netted us Treebeard.


Another excellent addition was The Long Defeat from The Battle of Carn Dûm, letting me dispense with my unthematic Wardens of Healing while still providing healing for others, plus the added bonus of card draw for myself. Finally, we finished collecting the Ring-maker cycle with The Nîn-in-Eilph, which gets me Wingfoot for Haldir.

51 cards; 44 Lore, 7 neutral; 3 heroes, 17 allies, 12 attachments, 18 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 17 (13/4)
Mirkwood Runner (RTM) x2
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 12
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x3
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2

Events: 18 (15/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

Next time, we go sailing!