Oct 24, 2016

CKII: What to buy

To unwind amidst all the PhD stuff and the dystopianly horrible teacher studies, I started playing Crusader Kings II again this fall. I do genuinely consider it to be one of the best video games I've ever played in my life. In the spirit of my previous buying guides, and with the Black Friday Steam sale approaching, here are my thoughts on what expansions to buy if you do get the game.

There are two DLCs that I think are definitely worth buying fairly soon. Sons of Abraham is one of the cheaper expansions, but it provides some really handy mechanics for novice players, especially when playing Christian rulers. You can get rid of annoying courtiers or even unwanted heirs by making them take holy orders: this will disqualify them from succession, and quite often they'll leave to join a militant order like the Templars. Perhaps more importantly for starting players, you also get to borrow money from either Jewish merchants in your realm or a holy order. When you've overreached yourself in a war, your army's been trashed and the enemy is bearing down on your capital, that loan will be the difference between watching yourself lose a siege and hiring a mercenary troop to save your ass. I can personally testify that this will get you out of a number of pickles you'll manage to get yourself into. So I'd definitely buy Sons of Abraham.

Incidentally, Sons of Abraham also allows heresies to supplant their parent religions if they become more widespread. In my previous game, after the Almoravids converted to Catholicism and the Mongols invaded, the two branches of Islam were the Shi'ites and the Yazidis, and Sunni Islam became a heresy!

The other expansion I'd get fairly soon is Way of Life. It lets you pick a focus for your character, like, say, War, Business or even Theology. This replaces the attribute-based ambitions of the base game and lets you react more intelligently to your situation. For example, if you're married but have no heir, the Family and Seduction foci will increase your fertility. The War focus increases your Martial skill and lets you learn leadership traits, the Hunting focus boosts health, and so on. Not only id this strategically useful, but the foci and the event chains that go with them make your characters feel much more fleshed out. As an additional bonus, the Scholarship focus can trigger an event chain that lets you build an observatory and, among other possibilities, get your hands on the Necronomicon and risk going mad... I highly recommend Way of Life, and couldn't imagine going back to playing without it. If you're only going to get one expansion and don't have your heart set on any of the others, I'd make it this one.


Three other older expansions add significant features to gameplay across the board. Legacy of Rome adds depth to playing as the Byzantines, and unlocks retinues for all rulers.

The Old Gods slightly changes revolts to make them a bit more dangerous, and introduces adventurers, who may try to raise troops and attack you. This can lead to some interesting developments, since if you defeat and imprison them, the adventurers will at least sometimes actually become your vassals, and if they don't have any dangerous claims, you can employ them. In my last game starting from Dublin, a Norse adventurer attacked me as I was fighting the King of Norway for control of Glamorgan. I defeated them both, but since the Norse fellow had a better martial score than most of my commanders, I gave him a job. After succesfully commanding a flank of my army against the infidel, he became the count of Alcácer do Sal in Irish Portugal.

More significantly, the Old Gods unlocks an earlier start date in 867 AD, and lets you play as a pagan ruler. I'm mildly annoyed that Finnish paganism is called Suomenusko, which is a modern-day pseudo-nationalist neopagan "revival" whose very name would have been completely nonsensical to the vast majority of medieval Finno-Ugric people, but in general, I do very much approve of the new pagan religions. I'm currently playing as the Hämäläinen dynasty from the 867 bookmark, and it's been tremendously good fun.

Charlemagne gives you an even earlier starting date in 769 AD, some more narrative events, especially involving historically important characters, and several new administrative options. Perhaps most notably, you now get to create your own titular kingdoms and even empires! This last bit will come in very handy indeed to larger realms, since emperors can have kings as vassals, drastically cutting down on the number of direct vassals you need to have. Conversely, I think beginning players will do just fine without it.


The latest two expansions are also really interesting, but I haven't gotten my hands on them yet. The Reaper's Due only just came out, and I like the idea of advanced disease mechanics! Very medieval. Conclave also looks fun, but I'm waiting for a sale.

In addition to these, there are the expansions that unlock a certain kind of playable character. Sword of Islam lets you play as a Muslim, The Republic allows merchant republics, Rajas of India gives you Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rulers, and Horse Lords unlocks nomads. In addition, Rajas of India gives all characters the ability to convert to their capital province's religion or culture, which can allow some unusual combinations. Horse Lords adds new rules for nomads and the Silk Road, but all of the other major features of these expansions were patched into the base game for free, so the only reason to buy any of these is if you want to play as the kind of ruler they unlock. Of these, I only own Rajas of India, and have yet to try a game in India.

Finally, there are the graphical DLCs, like unit packs, portrait packs and so on. Of these, I haven't really found the unit packs to be worth bothering with, but the portrait packs do make for a more interesting experience since if you play a game through within the same cultural group, I can tell you that you'll get tired of seeing the same faces over and over again! There are also Music DLCs, which I haven't invested in yet, but you can listen to them on Youtube.


So, to sum up, if you're just getting started, I think I'd buy Way of Life, and a portrait pack for the culture I intend to play as. If you still feel like spending some money, Sons of Abraham is also a good choice. In my opinion, that's plenty to get started with. Finally, though, I want to reiterate that this is a very dangerous game. If you like it, you may obsess over it. A lot. Over this past fall, the only thing that's occupied my mind as much as my PhD has been House Hämäläinen. So enjoy yourself, but don't say I didn't warn you!

Oct 17, 2016

LotR LCG: Deckbuilding thoughts and probabilities, and the New Amazons

Alone Éowyn stood before the doors of the house at the stair's head; the sword was set upright before her, and her hands were laid upon the hilt. She was clad now in mail and shone like silver in the sun.
- The Lord of the Rings, book III, chapter VI

John Howe: Eowyn, no date given


I want to make a new deck. How many cards should it have in it?

First, the most basic probability: the odds of drawing a single card from a deck of 50 are 1/50: 2%. The bigger the deck, the lower the probability of any single card showing up. In a 51-card deck, the odds of drawing a single card are 1.96%; 52 cards, 1.92%, and so on. Here's a graph (click to zoom):

By the time the deck reaches 67 cards, the probability of drawing any single card has dropped from 2% to below 1.5%. Most Lord of the Rings decks will tend to have very few singletons, though; two or three copies of a card are more usual. Here are the probabilities for drawing a single card, one of two copies or one of three copies:

These sharply declining curves are why most people, myself included, have tended to prefer decks as close to 50 cards in size as possible. However, the optics are a little bit misleading here. At 50 cards, the probability of drawing a singleton is 2%, one of two copies 4%, and one of three 6%. At 60 cards, those probabilities have dropped to 1.67%, 3.33% and 5% respectively. That's actually not a very large difference in absolute terms!

Another set of probabilities to look at is the opening hand. At the start of the game, we draw six cards, and have the option of a mulligan, where the cards we drew are reshuffled into the deck, and a new hand is drawn. If you have three copies of a card in a deck of 50, and are willing to mulligan your hand if you don't get at least one on the first go, the odds of finding that card are actually pretty good: 54.34%, to be exact. For example, with my Silvan deck, I liked seeing a copy of None Return in my opening hand to get Rossiel her defense bonus. If I was willing to mulligan if I didn't see one, I'd end up with at least one None Return in my opening hand more than every second game. Here's how those odds decline as the deck gets bigger:

The probability only drops below 50% when the deck exceeds 56 cards; in that exact case, the probability of starting with at least one None Return is 50.01%. What about cards that you only have two copies of? We own two core sets, meaning we've got exactly two copies of Unexpected Courage. Here are the odds of getting Unexpected Courage in your starting hand, mulligan included:

In a 50-card deck, you have a 40.36% chance of getting at least one Unexpected Courage in your hand, provided you're willing to mulligan for it; if not, it's a 22% shot. At 60 cards, these percentages are 34.64% and 19.15% respectively. Again, not a massive difference in absolute terms.

To sum up, here's some key statistics for a 50-card and a 56-card deck.

Deck size:50 cards56 cards
Single card probability2%1.79%
At least one of three copies, opening hand32.43%29.29%
At least one of three copies, mulligan inc.54.34%50.01%
At least one of two copies, opening hand22.78%20.45%
At least one of two copies, mulligan inc.40.36%34.64%

To some extent, this is a prize example of creeping normalcy: 51 cards isn't that different from 50 cards, 52 isn't that different from 51, and so on until 56, 66 or 666. But my point is that in terms of actual numbers, whether your deck has 50 or 56 cards in it doesn't actually make that much of a difference: certainly not enough that decks dogmatically must be 50 or maybe at most 52 cards. Instead, I'd suggest there are two main determinants for how large a deck should be. First, are there specific cards that are absolutely necessary for the deck to function? If so, the deck needs to be leaner to make sure you can find those crucial cards. Second, how much card draw is there? If you can confidently draw through most of your deck during an average game, finding specific cards is a whole lot easier. I'd venture to suggest that these two should combine to form some kind of "deck index" that tells you whether the deck should be on the large or small side. For decks with average or less card draw that don't depend on some particular card or combination of cards to work, I'm inclined to say that the "tournament minimum" of 50 can safely be exceeded.


Now to get to building my actual deck. Back when I put together my very first deck, the theme I chose was Amazons: I used all three female heroes from the core set to create a questing-focused Spirit/Lore deck. Even though I designed the deck to work together with my partner's Tactics deck,I did also manage some solo success, perhaps in my mind most memorably against some trolls.

When I wanted to try something different, I built my Lore Silvan deck with Haldir, Mirlonde and Rossiel. I never really played this solo, but together with Team Boromir and my hobbit deck, we were pretty succesful, and Rossiel won a place in my heart as one of my favorite heroes.

Now it's time to move on again. Our experiences with the Ring-maker cycle highlighted the one major drawback of our Silvans-Boromir combo: early questing. As much as I'd enjoyed my Silvan deck, this and the then-upcoming Dream-chaser adventure packs encouraged me to return to a Spirit-Lore setup and focus on questing. In terms of deck abilities, what we need is questing and location control, with a side of healing and treachery cancellation. Luckily, there was one hero who was perfect for providing early questing power and returning me to my Amazon theme: Éowyn. With her long-awaited Tactics incarnation on the horizon, if I wanted to try her in a Spirit questing deck, the time was now.

Like I said, I love Rossiel, and the added value her victory display shenanigans provide to Keen as Lances, especially with several players using it, is huge. She fits perfectly into a Spirit deck as she can make up for Spirit's weakness on defence, and since none of us are crass enough to use Snorefindel, she's a perfect target for Light of Valinor to get the most out of her ability.

The choice of a third hero was a little bit more complicated. I considered Arwen, but with Spirit's weak defense, I tend to prefer her ally version. I'm a big fan of Eleanor, but she can't help us with questing. We could also do with some attack strength, which leads my thoughts to Idraen. I tried Idraen out in a Spirit deck I built, but still haven't been able to make my mind up about her: she has great stats and a potentially useful readying ability, but that comes with a very high starting threat. I suppose now would be a good time to find out if it's worth it.


For the deck proper, I was looking for something of a halfway house between my original Amazon deck and my Silvans: knowing that I'd mostly be playing with my partner's Tactics deck, I could pretty much leave combat to them and focus on questing. With the cardpool as large as it is these days, even with such a narrowly defined specialization, picking a deck isn't all that easy. To take an example: Rossiel is a very handy defender, especially with A Burning Brand attached, but with only three hit points, she's a bit fragile. During our Silvan-Boromir co-op days, it was expedient to play Elf-friend on Boromir so my Silvan Trackers could heal him. Because sentinel was also wonderfully handy on him, my partner would include Elven Mail for him as well. If a second copy showed up, or Elf-friend had failed to make an appearance, Rossiel really benefited from the +2 hit points, and being able to provide a risk-free defense is nothing to sneer at.

If I can confidently expect that my partner will be playing an attachment on one of my heroes and I'm playing Spirit, surely this is a perfect opportunity for Renewed Friendship? A zero-cost card, after all!

In a situation like this, Renewed Friendship looks great: any Tactics deck can use card draw and threat reduction. The problem isn't that it's a bad card; the problem is that I can easily name ten or more events that are more useful. Renewed Friendship may not cost any resources, but it takes up space in my deck, making it that much less likely that I'll see those more useful cards when I need them. Unfortunately, the card pool is already big enough that this is getting to be the paramount consideration. It's also why I still haven't been able to work out if including Curious Brandybuck in a deck is worth it!


In this case, the events chose themselves: Rossiel's victory display cards and Keen as Lances, and A Test of Will for treachery cancellation. The Lore attachments are also basically carried over from my Silvan deck, and Snowmane and Herugrim seem positively necessary in a deck that otherwise has no attacking power whatsoever, and hell, I wanna try them. For a little more card draw, I stole the Ancient Mathoms from the Rohan deck.

The allies are where the location control comes in, because no way am I not including the ayatollah of location controllah and Greyflood Wanderer. The Warden of Healing is still the best at what he does, to the extent that I might have to consider another copy of The Long Dark so my Amazons can work together with the hobbit deck. Finally, Galadriel's Handmaidens and West Road Travellers provide questing, and some Wandering Ents round out the deck.

Do I want to include Gandalf? For my Silvan deck, I dropped the seemingly mandatory core Gandalfs, because I never had enough resources to get him in play. This deck also has no resource acceleration at all, so I'll be looking at the same problem. With Rossiel around, Keen as Lances pretty much becomes a lower-cost Gandalf substitute. For now, I think I'll do without.

53 cards; 28 Spirit, 22 Lore, 3 neutral; 19 allies, 17 attachments, 15 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

Éowyn (Core)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 19 (13/6)
Northern Tracker x2
Greyflood Wanderer (TTT) x3
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3

Attachments: 17 (11/6)
Herugrim (TToS) x2
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
Snowmane (TLoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 15 (3/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

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


Like I said, this deck has no attacking power whatsoever, so I'm not really expecting it to be able to handle itself solo. This was confirmed by an attempt at Passage through Mirkwood, where we just couldn't for the life of us destroy Ungoliant's Spawn. The proper use of this deck is in co-operation with my partner's Team Boromir: they fight, I quest. Together, we breezed through Passage, and then tackled the high seas. In Voyage Across Belegaer, we did pretty well until we strayed off course and were wrecked, but when we took on the then-brand-new Flight of the Stormcaller, we beat it on our first try! The Tactics deck routed the corsair boarders and sank their ships, while my Amazons sailed and quested. Despite losing several allies to Man Overboard!, we were finally able to catch the Stormcaller on the very last quest stage.

To demonstrate that my focus on questing was succesful, a three-handed run at Trouble in Tharbad with the Leadership/Lore deck was a breeze, Faramir boosting my willpower to unreasonable levels. Especially three-handed, when the encounter deck isn't overflowing with enemies, I've been able to focus on questing; when there have been more enemies, Idraen's action advantage has been useful. Éowyn and her willpower-boosting ability is a gift, and outfitting Rossiel with a Cloak of Lórien, Burning Brand and Arwen's bonus makes for a tremendous defender, and I've often ended up playing Unexpected Courage on her to defend multiple enemies. In Temple of the Deceived, with a little help from Arwen and my partner's Honour Guard, she defended both an Island Watcher and its pile of shadow cards as well as the Temple Guardian without so much as a scratch.

In general, the division of labor between our decks has worked excellently, and for whatever reason I really like a questing-oriented deck. Card draw is still a bit of an issue, and I've very rarely managed to get both Snowmane and Herugrim on Éowyn. There also aren't anything like as many resources to go around as I'd like, but I'm not playing Leadership so I guess I just have to live with it.


So far, then, I think my return to Spirit and a focus on questing has been succesful. Later, we're hoping we get to pay a visit to the desert...

Oct 10, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 25: The Old Forest

Frodo woke suddenly.

At dawn, the hobbits leave Frodo's house in Crickhollow, saddle up their ponies and head for the Old Forest. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger accompanies them as far as the Hedge dividing Buckland from the Forest, simultaneously reprising two roles from the Hobbit: Bombur's walking fat joke schtick and Bilbo's anguished hand-wringing. I can't remember if there are fat jokes in the Silmarillion, but the evidence so far suggests there must be. Fredegar is left behind as Frodo and company pass through a cutting and gate under the hedge, and enter the Old Forest. The closing of the gate behind them marks Frodo's and the story's final transition out of the Shire.

"There!" said Merry. "You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest."

We're then given a little bit of background by Merry, who dismisses "the old bogey-stories Fatty's nurses used to tell him", but does have some spooky forest experiences of his own to share. Someone, he points out, makes paths through the woods. He even tells the story of how the trees attacked the Hedge. "They came and planted themselves right by it"; the first shade of Macbeth's Great Birnam Wood on the march. The present-day reader is entertained by Merry's repeated insistence that the forest is queer, to the extent that I wonder what a certain Hugo nominee would make of this. However, the point is made: this is a forest unlike any the other hobbits have been in previously.

As Frodo and company enter the woods proper, the ground gradually rises and the forest thickens. There's no sound or movement, and the oppressive presence of the trees becomes stronger and stronger until Pippin actually cries out to the forest to let them pass. Instead, the menace only intensifies until Merry succeeds in finding their way to the Bonfire Glade, where the trees that attacked the hedge were burned. It's a gloomy, deserted place, but it makes a gap in the canopy where the hobbits can see the sky, and it cheers them up. What's more, a clear path leads on from the glade, and heartened, Frodo and company follow it. Soon, though, the oppressive gloom of the forest begins to press down on them again, to the extent that Frodo is considering turning back.

Eventually, though, the path takes them to a hilltop above the trees, where the hobbits pause for a midday meal and to get their bearings. Below them, the forest stretches out in all directions. To the north, where they're hoping to go in order to strike the East Road out of the Shire, they see nothing but haze. Far to the east, the haunted Barrow-downs loom on the horizon. Looking back west, the hedge is already lost somewhere in the haze, and to the south, fog still rises from the valley of the Withywindle. That, according to Merry, is the last place they want to go; "the queerest part of the whole wood - the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were".

Hoping to avoid the queerness, the hobbits find a path heading north. This seemingly straight road disappoints them, though, veering off to the right and heading straight for the Withywindle. They leave the path and try to make their way north, but their way is blocked by what's described as "deep folds in the ground", "like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles". I'm a little disappointed that Karen Wynn Fonstad didn't discuss these in her excellent Atlas of Middle-earth, leaving me unsure if they're natural features or completely overgrown ruins of the kingdom of Cardolan. Whatever they are, though, they do stop the hobbits from heading north. As the afternoon passes, Frodo and company do their best to make progress, but the forest inexorably drives them to the southeast.

Eventually the hobbits and their ponies end up in a rut they can't climb out of, and are forced to follow it down - straight into the valley of the Withywindle. The horror of queerness takes the form of a slowly flowing river overhung with willows. It's a drowsy, warm afternoon, with the sun shining down, and a gentle breeze rustles the reeds. What's more, Merry finds a footpath on their side of the river leading east, which he hopes will take them out of the forest. Pippin is more dubious, finding the path very suspicious, but he has no better ideas to offer, and Frodo and company set off down the path.

As they make their way along the path, the hobbits start becoming terribly sleepy. They stagger on for a while, until they reach a massive old willow-tree, where the sleepiness becomes irresistible. Merry and Pippin nod off, leaning on the tree, while Frodo wanders to the riverbank to bathe his feet. The ever-sensible Sam sits down to get his bearings, finding the tree and the sudden sleepiness highly suspicious. He thinks to look after the ponies, and just as he's leading them back to where he left the others, he hears Frodo fall in the river. Sam drags Frodo out from under a root hanging over the river, looking for all the world like it was trying to drown him. Merry and Pippin are trapped inside the tree; Frodo and Sam try starting a fire to threaten the tree, but Merry shouts that the willow-tree will kill them if they try to burn it. In the spirit of his illustrious adventuring cousin Bilbo, Frodo panics and takes off running along the path, screaming for help.

This doesn't seem like it would be the most productive thing to do, but on the path, Frodo soon encounters a strange man in a blue coat and yellow boots, singing rhyming nonsense about himself and carrying some water-lilies. On seeing Frodo and Sam, he introduces himself as Tom Bombadil. As the hobbits babble at him about their predicament, Bombadil immediately realizes that Old Man Willow is the culprit, and hurries along to the tree. Tom sings to the willow-tree and commands it to release the hobbits, which it does. Old Man Willow subdued, Tom reasonably decides that the hobbits can't be left to their own devices, and invites them to follow him to his house. Tom hurries ahead and the hobbits follow the path, out of the valley and up to Tom's house on a hillside.


The Old Forest is the first capital-f Forest in the Lord of the Rings. As it happens, I have something of a professional interest in forests, so this is going to be something I'll be looking at throughout this series of blog posts. Back in the Hobbit, Mirkwood was an awful, gloomy, miserable and deadly place, nothing like the woods Bilbo and the dwarves had passed through earlier. Similarly, Frodo and company already spent quite a while trekking through Woody End, but that forest, too, was described and traversed quite matter-of-factly.

While a lowercase-f forest is a scenic backdrop for the story, the Old Forest is almost a character in its own right, and dominates its chapter. At first, the forest threatens and resists the hobbits; once they venture too deep, it takes on an active role, directing them away from their path, and finally, in the person of Old Man Willow, trying to end Frodo's journey right on his own doorstep. If, previously, Tolkien has taken care to describe the landscape intimately, he now elevates it to an actor in its own right. In one of his letters (to the Daily Telegraph!), Tolkien says: "The Old Forest was hostile to two[-]legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries" (Letters, 339). What these injuries might have been, we don't know; maybe the hobbit-story Merry tells of the forest's attack isn't quite true, or the trees harbor older resentments, of the clearance of Buckland or even further back. This is a very effective, atmospheric chapter; the cutesy hobbit-ways of the Shire are behind us, and Frodo and company are making their way through a hostile, dangerous landscape.

It's interesting to think what might have happened if the hobbits' journey had ended on the banks of the Withywindle. What would Old Man Willow have made of the One Ring? Would a dark Huorn-forest have sprung up beside Buckland, or would the Ring have been discarded as a bauble, maybe ending up in some magpie's nest? Who would ever come across it in the Old Forest, or fish it out of the stream? Or could the Ring somehow roll down the river into the Brandywine, as Saruman claimed it had made its way down the Anduin and into the sea? Some traveler might spot it glinting in the waters of Sarn Ford, or maybe it would end up in the hand of a woodman of Eryn Vorn. There's a whole world of fan fiction in this!

We never get to find out, because just as Merry and Pippin are about to be devoured by Old Man Willow, someone happens to be heading down the path toward them. In the fabled words of the unknown author of My Immortal: it was Tom Bombadil. After he rescues the hapless hobbits from the willow-tree, Frodo and company spend all of the next chapter hanging out at his digs, so I'll save my comments on him for the next post. For now, all we need to know is that the hobbits have been saved by a singing hippie wizard, and next time, he tells them stories about badgers.

Oct 3, 2016

PhD blog 10/16: New student orientation and getting started

This month, I thought I'd do my best to give you an impression of what it's like to get started as a new PhD student at the University of Helsinki, and what working on a PhD in the social sciences/humanities is like in general.

First of all, orientation for new PhD students at our university: there isn't any. It's just you.

This year, it's difficult to blame anyone. After a public assault on the universities and massive budget cuts, much of the university is in chaos. There have been extensive layoffs, and student counseling has been completely restructured. The unfortunate reality is that there aren't that many courses, seminars or events, and not everyone is going to be getting the kind of supervision they should. Many doctoral programmes and subjects are active in getting their new students involved; others are not. So I very much hope that the frankly disheartening start I've had to my postgraduate studies is because of this.

Having said that, though, at least in this part of the world, a doctorate in the humanities or social sciences is a bit of a solo project anyway. We don't really do research teams or stuff like that, so most of the actual work of doing your research and writing your thesis will be on your own. This leads to three really important imperatives for postgraduate study:

Learn to manage your work. You do have to be very strongly self-directing. You'll be the one planning your research and writing, and in charge of carrying out those plans, to a far greater extent than with any but the most exceptional previous theses or projects. For example, if you want to try writing a regular blog, it'd be a good idea to remember to actually do that! Putting together a multi-year study plan is a daunting task; carrying it through can seem overwhelming. In order to succeed, you have to develop your own way of working. Like so much else in academia, this isn't really something that anyone will teach you. You more or less have to work it out on your own.

Learn to manage your stress. For most people I know who've made their way as far as postgraduate studies, the problem is rarely that they're not working enough. Their problem tends to be the exact opposite. The trouble is that we're not great at detecting stress symptoms, and even when we do, we're brought up in a culture where many of us learn to glorify stress and "working through it". This is harmful and dangerous. A bad thing about working independently is that no-one's going to tell you that you need to take some time off. You need to be able to tell yourself that. As you're developing your own way of working, you also need to make it sustainable for yourself.

Learn to manage your time. Much of what this all boils down to is the clock and the calendar. Setting goals that you can achieve without burning yourself out and that add up to a PhD is hardly easy. Because, like I said, the kind of person who ends up in postgraduate studies tends to err on the side of overwork, a key skill here is free time. A huge, multi-year project like a dissertation can become all-consuming. You simply need time off, and again, no-one will tell you to take it. You need to be able to.

There's a lot of talk in Finland about how people with postgraduate degrees aren't valued in the marketplace. I can't help but think that one of the reasons for this is that the people doing the hiring don't understand what skillsets postgraduate study requires and develops. One of the most prominent ones is definitely managing ourselves. In my case at least, this has been pretty severely tested in the early going of my PhD project.

Sep 26, 2016

Rogue Trader: What to buy?

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

Definitely recommended:

Stars of Inequity

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

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

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

Battlefleet Koronus

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

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

The Navis Primer

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

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

Cautiously recommended:

Into the Storm

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

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

The Koronus Bestiary

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

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

Hostile Acquisitions

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

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

The Soul Reaver

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

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

Not recommended:

Game Master's Kit

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

Faith and Coin

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

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


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

Sep 19, 2016

LotR LCG: What to buy?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sep 12, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 24: A Conspiracy Unmasked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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