Feb 27, 2017

Sipilänomics V: Competitiveness boogaloo

I first posted about Sipilänomics, or Finland's fake austerity in September 2015, followed by further posts on unit labor costs, the healthcare reform and the wrecking of the universities. That's almost two years ago. So how's it going?

**

This January, the Economic Policy Council released a report on just that. With regard to the deficit, under the headline "Fiscal policy targets will not be reached" in the summary, the report states the following:

The prolonged recession has had serious consequences for public sector finances. Despite the spending cuts by the current and the previous governments, general government gross debt has increased from 32.7% of GDP in 2008 to 64.3% of GDP in 2016. Debt will continue to grow, the general government deficit is projected to be 2.4% of GDP at the end of 2016. According to current forecasts the deficit will still be 1.5% of GDP in 2019. In fact, the deficit is projected to increase during 2017 due to tax concessions adopted in connection with the competitiveness pact.

So, while the recovery of the Finnish economy, no longer technically in recession, is expected to eventually start eating into the budget deficit, for the moment, debt will continue to go up. This is still nothing even remotely like austerity. In fact, as the report notes, the 2017 budget is being submitted at a value of 55.2 billion euros, which is 800 million more than the 2016 budget, and two billion more than the 2015 budget submitted by the previous cabinet. So just as before, central government expenses continue to rise, and the deficit is getting worse, not better. The key message of the Economic Policy Council report is that the Sipilä government is highly unlikely to meet the goals it set for itself. They've made massively destructive cuts to public spending, yet that spending has continued to increase. By their own standards, they have thoroughly failed.

**

A large part of this failure is the ludicrously idiotic "competitiveness pact" mentioned in the quote above. The pact, negotiated between the government, the labor unions and the employers' organizations after massive public dramatics, shifts some pension payments from employers to employees, and lenghtens working hours by six minutes every day. Yes, really. Both of these measures mean that employers are paying less for labor, and workers get less pay. To offset this pay cut, the government introduced sweeping tax cuts that, we were promised, would mean that employees ended up with as much money in hand as before.

According to the Economic Policy Council, the pact is expected to generate no new jobs, but the tax cuts add 900 million to the deficit (p. 105). The best-case estimate is that in the long term, the competitiveness pact will be cost-neutral; in other words, at best the new jobs or additional value generated will compensate for the tax cuts. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the pact represents yet another transfer of wealth to employers, at the expense of workers and the state. Its impact on the deficit looks set to be at best minimal, if it doesn't actually make things worse.

As I explained before, the whole notion of competing through lower unit labor costs isn't supported by any data. This doesn't seem to deter our right-wingers, whose vision of the future for our country is basically a massive sweatshop. One sure way to get closer to that is to de-educate the population, and that's actually happening: according to the statistics, my age group will be the first in Finnish history to end up less educated than our predecessors. The Sipilä government, of course, has made massive cuts to education, accelerating brain drain even further with entire research teams quitting the country. Not only is this policy well in line with the prime minister's Trumpian contempt for education and expertise, it also serves the right's objective of de-education.

Once again, if you believe in national competitiveness, then declining education levels and overall human capital are a much bigger issue than six minutes more work per day. Joseph Stiglitz called this "robbing from your children".

In the face of the broad criticism the government's education and research cuts evoked, they commissioned a report from the OECD on Finnish research and development. Judging from the Helsingin Sanomat article on the report, the way it's being spun is that the government should give more money to corporations. Surprise!

**

The competitiveness pact is almost certainly going to be a catastrophic failure. Massive amounts of time, effort and political capital were expended to create a deal that cements the baroque corporatist collective bargaining system in place, transfers money to corporations and at best does nothing to reduce the deficit. Or I don't know, maybe people working an extra six minutes per day will cause an explosion of innovation and productivity. I wouldn't bet on it. The people running our country are.

The Sipilä cabinet took power on a mandate of decisive masculine leadership that would fix our economy. It has done no such thing. On the contrary, so far the administration has made massively destructive cuts that are wreaking havoc on our future and dismantling what little remains of the welfare state, only to squander most of the money saved on wealth transfers to corporations, and boondoggles like the "key projects" and the fiasco that is the Talvivaara mine, a combined financial and economic disaster with few, if any parallels in our history. But don't worry, many corporate shareholders, including the Prime Minister's family, are doing quite nicely out of it. You might think that sounds like corruption, but we don't have corruption in Finland so it can't be. I'm really not qualified to correct a Nobel laureate, but when Stiglitz said this administration is robbing from its children, I disagree: to be specific, they're robbing other people's children and distributing the spoils to their own.

The Economic Policy Council estimates that in order to reach the fiscal goals they set for themselves, the Sipilä cabinet needs to come up with at least a billion euros' worth of cuts on top of everything they've already done. Reaching their long-term goals would require another billion. So in theory, their choices are to either start making even more massive cuts at huge political cost, up to and including the cabinet breaking up and a new election being called, or jettison their goals and admit to the nation that they failed. As Sipilä famously promised that he would either get results or get out, either alternative should mean that we'll finally be rid of him.

This is all well and good in theory. In practice, however, you have to remember that we're dealing with what is almost certainly the most incompetent cabinet in Finnish history, led by a complete moron who is as belligerently ignorant of politics or the economy as he is unable to tolerate the slightest criticism or dissent. We may think there are two choices before them. Somehow, they'll find a third way that's even worse. It's what they've done so far. Sipilä already appeared before Parliament in February, where he lied about the deficit and lied about long-term unemployment, which may give us some pointers on what's to come.

The lesson in all this? Don't elect an ignorant jackass to run your country just because he acts butch and claims to be rich. My heartfelt condolences to the Americans. We can't seem to get rid of ours either.

Feb 20, 2017

War of the Ring: Three Is Company

Last summer, I got myself a copy of the War of the Ring boardgame, and was lucky enough to get to play it as both the Shadow and the Free Peoples. However, these were both two-player games, and they left us wondering: if a two-player game was such a massive, exhausting and epic experience, what would a three-player game be like? Obviously we had to find out.


**

The three-player version of War of the Ring has one player controlling the Free Peoples and two splitting Shadow duties: one controls Sauron's forces, while the other plays as Saruman, commanding Isengard, the Haradrim and the Easterlings. I took the latter role while my brother picked Sauron. We did a little bit of role-playing and agreed to not co-ordinate our actions; it's not as if Sauron and Saruman saw eye to eye on anything! We figured it'd be more fun this way.

The rules for a three-player game involve the Shadow players splitting event cards between them and taking turns to use their shared action dice. To compensate for each Shadow player's relative action disadvantage, the lone Free Peoples player can't use an action on units of the same nation twice in a row. Other than those things, though, it plays pretty much exactly the same as a one-on-one game. So here goes!

Right off the bat, the Free Peoples got into serious trouble. After several unsuccesful Hunt rolls, they ended up stuck at the Fords of Bruinen for ages, racking up considerable corruption and losing both Legolas and Gandalf. We reckon that the crebain found them, guided some wargs in, and eventually our troops:


With the Fellowship struggling to make their way to Lórien, we decided to press the issue, and went on the attack. Saruman's forces stormed out of Isengard, the Haradrim massed outside Pelargir, and the Witch-king led the forces of Mordor to Minas Tirith.


The result? Stalemate. The Uruk-hai were defeated outside Helm's Deep and had to retreat. The brave defenders of Pelargir fought off the Southron horde. Finally, in a massive field battle outside Minas Tirith, the armies of Mordor inflicted grievous casualties on the Gondor defenders, but the line held.

Meanwhile, the Fellowship was once again in trouble in the Parth Celebrant: Gimli had set off on a personal errand across Mirkwood - where he spent the rest of the game - and Pippin had become separated from the fellowship, finding himself in Fangorn. He eventually made his way to Edoras, where he raised a Rohan army and led it east, where they nearly routed the Witch-king's retreating forces!


This stalemate cost the Free Peoples troops they could hardly afford to lose, but it cost the Shadow time we couldn't afford. After the massive losses on both sides, there was a lull as both sides built up their forces, and the fellowship made use of this to sneak all the way down to Minas Tirith. Here, Aragorn and the other remaining companions stayed behind to lead the battle, while Frodo and Sam, soon joined by Gollum, made their perilous way toward Mordor. By this point, as the Shadow players, since our initial gambit at a military victory had failed, we had to divide our efforts between trying to stack the Hunt pool against the fellowship and wearing down the remaining Free Peoples armies. Soon enough, we were making progress: an Easterling horde took Dale and the Woodland Realm, the dwarves sitting out in aloof neutrality and Gimli still lost somewhere in Mirkwood, and penetrated as far west as the Carrock. Boromir fell heroically in the defense of Pelargir, but eventually the Haradrim took the city, and the Corsairs of Umbar landed in Dol Amroth. A combined Mordor-Isengard force stormed Helm's Deep, routing Rohan for good.

Unfortunately, it was all in vain, because the fellowship, teetering on the edge of corruption, made it to the Cracks of Doom.


Almost unbelievably, the game ended in as close a shave as my first attempt: the Shadow had nine victory points and was closing on a tenth when the Fellowship made its last move on the Mordor track. This time, the Hunt pool was so depleted that it came down to pretty much a coin toss: about half of the tiles would have either stopped the Fellowship or inflicted enough corruption to end the game. The coin landed on the other face, so to speak, but once again, it's hard to see how the game could have been much closer.

**

Once again, a thoroughly exhausting but awesome time was had. Finally, some observations. Based on our very limited sample of three games, my feeling at this point is that playing as the Shadow is harder. At this point, this is just a hypothesis, but having tried both, I think the Free Peoples have the easier job because you have a clearer focus: get the Fellowship to Mordor and try to survive until they reach the volcano. A Free Peoples military victory is, in my mind at least, either something you go for from the beginning, or a response to mistakes by the Shadow side. In any case, I think the Free Peoples side is in this sense at least easier to play. The Shadow player(s), on the other hand, need to divide action dice and units between hunting the Fellowship and pursuing a military victory. This is complicated by the fact that paradoxically, the closer the fellowship gets to Mordor, the less opportunities the Shadow has to hinder it. At least in this game, once the Fellowship made it to Minas Tirith, there wasn't a whole lot we could do except draw character cards, try to get new Hunt tiles into play and generally hope for cards we could use to harass the Fellowship. Based on our few games, co-ordinating all this seems a lot harder than focusing on getting the hobbits to Mordor.

Our experience of the three-player format, however, was overwhelmingly positive. In so far as there's a point to this blog post, it's to encourage anyone with the opportunity to play War of the Ring to try it with three players, because it really is that much more fun. Not only is it a more social experience, but especially if the two Shadow players refrain from directly co-ordinating, it creates lots of interesting dynamics. I wish there was a way for the Saruman player to hunt the Ring himself! Even without that, though, splitting the Shadow side really makes for a much better game.

All in all, War of the Ring remains one of the greatest board games I've ever played. Next time, we're trying an expansion!

Feb 13, 2017

LotR LCG: Doom

Doom, doom rolled the drum-beats, growing louder and louder, doom, doom.
- the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter V



John Howe: Grima Wormtongue, no year given.

**

I have some unusual friends. One of them has never read the Lord of the Rings, but having seen some movies named after it, they were quite taken with, of all characters, Gríma. As it happens, I'd been toying around with the idea of building a Gríma deck for some time, so obviously I took advantage of the opportunity.


Grìma is one of the few heroes in the game to have a deck type named entirely after himself. His ability to lower the cost of cards at the cost of threat for everyone makes him a powerhouse in solo play, and a somewhat unwelcome visitor in multiplayer. Combined with Keys of Orthanc, he can effectively play a two-cost ally per turn for free.

Having Gríma and a whole bunch of Doomed cards around is going to mean lots and lots of threat. What we need, then, is a hero who can do something to counteract that: Lore Aragorn.


An additional bonus is that in multiplayer games, Celebrian's Stone will give Aragorn a Spirit icon, letting us play Desperate Alliance, which may make other players a little less upset by their skyrocketing threat. Aragorn also lets us make use of the Sword that was Broken, which is not only excellent in general, but also very handily gives him a Leadership icon for extra resource smoothing.

Our third hero needs to be from the Leadership sphere, because some of the crucial Doomed cards I want to try out here are in Leadership. We could really use a defender, and luckily enough, there's an arguably perfect thematic choice available: Erkenbrand.


We'll be hoping to get Self Preservation on him so he can take a hit and keep on using his shadow-cancelling ability. The combined threat of 31 is a bit high, but we'll see how it goes.

With the heroes chosen, it's time for the deck itself. The point of this exercise for me is to try out the various Doomed cards, so we'll start with those. From the Voice of Isengard, we have Deep Knowledge for cards, Legacy of Númenor for resources and The Seeing-Stone to find other Doomed cards. For allies, we get Orthanc Guard, Isengard Messenger and, of course, Saruman.

To keep the Doomed theme going, I also included Herald of Anórien and Mirkwood Pioneer, and used the latter as a dubious thematic justification for throwing in a card I'd wanted to try out, i.e. Mirkwood Explorer. A final event was Waters of Nimrodel. The allies were rounded out by the geographically appropriate Gléowine, Warden of Helm's Deep and some good old Snowbourn Scouts.

**

52 cards; 16 Leadership, 26 Lore, 10 Neutral; 26 allies, 13 attachments, 12 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat 31.

Erkenbrand (TAC)
Gríma (VoI)
Aragorn (TWitW)

Allies: 26 (12/11/3)
Warden of Helm's Deep (TAC) x3
Herald of Anórien (TTT) x3
Orthanc Guard (VoI) x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Mirkwood Explorer (TTitD) x3
Gléowine x2
Isengard Messenger (VoI) x3
Mirkwood Pioneer (TNiE) x3
Saruman (VoI) x3

Attachments: 13 (7/2/2/2)
The Sword that was Broken (TWitW) x2
Celebrian's Stone x2
Roheryn (FotW)
Steward of Gondor x2
Self Preservation x2
Keys of Orthanc (VoI) x2
Ring of Barahir x2 (TSF)

Events: 12 (3/6/3)
Legacy of Númenor (VoI) x3
Waters of Nimrodel (TAC) x3
Deep Knowledge (VoI) x3
The Seeing-stone (VoI) x3

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Desperate Alliance (OtD) x3

**

Our first trial run was Passage through Mirkwood, with the Doom deck and my Amazons, both to test the deck and introduce the game to a new player. We had no real trouble at any point, and after some straightforward questing, Saruman dropped by to see to Ungoliant's Spawn. We next joined Team Boromir for a three-handed swing at Hunt for Gollum, which also went pretty smoothly. Incidentally, this was the first time I got to use Súlien, and she was excellent at dealing with a staging area full of locations. Both Erkenbrand and the Wardens of Helm's Deep were excellent. As sometimes happens in this quest, we found a grand total of one single copy of Signs of Gollum, which ended up going on Loragorn, because by then Gríma's questing army, bolstered by the Sword that was Broken, was steamrolling through the quest.


Because we managed to deploy such an impressive questing horde in such a short time, I'm actually thinking I need to add Faramir to make it even sillier. Speaking of silly, Trouble in Tharbad is excellent fun with a Gríma deck.

The first time we ran into any trouble was when we tried Voyage Across Belegaer. We set off three-handed with Gríma, my Amazons and our Beorn deck, and at first, everything went smoothly; we were thrown off course by some treacheries, but managed to clear a pile of locations, and Gríma's gang and the Beorn deck sank a Scouting Ship. It's quite entertaining to visualize how Beorn's sentinel defense works at sea. Then, however, we got into trouble. First, we hit a storm, with Winds of Wrath decimating our allies and Thrown Off Course doing, well, just that. To top it all off, a Scouting Ship also engaged us. Still, we survived - only for the next staging step to bring us two Light Cruisers and another Scouting Ship. Unfortunately, Gríma's antics, a Legacy of Númenor and some Deep Knowledges had left our threats high enough that all of them engaged us, and in the ensuing battle, all the heroes of the Beorn deck died, and Gríma's ship sank, ending our journey. That was the first time the increased threat got us into trouble we couldn't get out of.

**

So what have we learned? Certainly that having Gríma along makes for a somewhat different game. Funnily enough, we've mostly had the Gríma deck along in three- or four-player games of either the Grey Havens, the Dream-chaser cycle or the Sands of Harad, where threat hasn't actually been that big of a deal; the increase in threat has been somewhat offset by the faster buildup that cards like Deep Knowledge and especially Legacy of Númenor offer. Obviously decks relying on low threat, like hobbits or Dúnhere, will be completely hosed by the rising threat, but so far, in multiplayer games we've found Gríma makes less of a difference than we might have expected.

Anyway I would most definitely recommend trying a Gríma deck. It's excellent fun, and you really get all the key components from one deluxe expansion. Here's ours in its final form:

53 cards; 25 Leadership, 16 Lore, 10 Neutral, 2 Spirit; 25 allies, 14 attachments, 12 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 31.

Erkenbrand (TAC)
Gríma (VoI)
Aragorn (TWitW)

Allies: 25 (14/8/3)
Faramir x2
Warden of Helm's Deep (TAC) x3
Herald of Anórien (TTT) x3
Orthanc Guard (VoI) x3
Snowbourn Scout x3
Gléowine x2
Isengard Messenger (VoI) x3
Mirkwood Pioneer (TNiE) x3
Saruman (VoI) x3

Attachments: 14 (7/2/3/2)
The Sword that was Broken (TWitW) x2
Celebrian's Stone x2
Roheryn (FotW)
Steward of Gondor x2
Self Preservation x2
Keys of Orthanc (VoI) x2
Song of Kings (THfG)
Ring of Barahir x2 (TSF)

Events: 12 (3/6/3)
Legacy of Númenor (VoI) x3
Waters of Nimrodel (TAC) x3
Deep Knowledge (VoI) x3
The Seeing-stone (VoI) x3

Side quests: 2
Send for Aid (TToR)
Gather Information (TLR)

Multiplayer sideboard:
add Desperate Alliance (OtD) x3

**

As a sort of followup to this, I'm seriously considering a Gríma-Na'asiyah-Kahliel deck...

Feb 6, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 29: Strider

Frodo, Pippin, and Sam made their way back to the parlour.

After an entirely succesful minding of Ps and Qs and certainly not drawing any unwanted attention to themselves, Frodo and company withdraw to their parlour for a conversation with Strider. The latter introduces himself, and offers Frodo information, but for a price: the hobbits must take him with them. In an unexpected attack of common sense, Frodo is skeptical, and demands to know who Strider is and what he wants. Strider applauds this, and admits that he overheard the hobbits agreeing to not mention the name Baggins. This interested him, because he and his associates are looking for a hobbit named Frodo Baggins.

Frodo and Sam burst out of their seats at this, and I'm wondering what on earth they were going to do. Strider, however, calms them down with a sobering warning: black horsemen have been seen in Bree. This sobers Frodo into self-reflection; perhaps, he says to Sam and Pippin, they shouldn't have gone to the common room at all. It's testament to Strider's self-control and leadership that he doesn't sarcastically applaud this. The reflectiveness quickly fades, though, with Frodo admitting that yes, some men on horses have been chasing him, "but now at any rate they seem to have missed me and to have gone away". Somehow, Strider isn't impressed by this, and tries to convince the hobbits that not only will the riders not give up that easily, but that they also have allies in Bree - Bill Ferny is named - who will be quite eager to tell them about Frodo's performance mishap. The hobbits can't possibly follow the Road any more, because the Black Riders will surely catch them, so Strider reiterates his offer to guide them. As he's trying to persuade Frodo, he even has a bit of a flashback about the riders, and then puts the question:

"Strider can take you by paths that are seldom trodden. Will you have him?"

Sam speaks up, and says no: they know nothing about Strider, and shouldn't trust him. Frodo disagrees. He thinks Strider isn't really what he looks like, but doesn't understand why. As Strider is about to explain, Butterbur shows up with candles and hot water. Strider steps back into a corner, and while Nob hauls water to the hobbits' rooms, the innkeeper addresses Frodo. He makes a series of apologies for his forgetfulness, but eventually gets to the point: he has a letter, to Frodo from Gandalf, which he never remembered to have delivered. Gandalf had also asked him to help Frodo out if he ever came to Bree, which he's also apparently only just remembered. Apologizing profusely and more than a little scared of Gandalf, Butterbur promises to do anything he can to help. Black riders, he too reports, have been asking after a hobbit named Baggins, and "that Ranger, Strider" has been asking questions as well. At this, Strider reveals himself; Butterbur is skeptical of taking up with a Ranger, and Strider retaliates by calling him fat. It has actually been several chapters since someone was fat-shamed! Unless you count naming a pony "Fatty", in which case it hasn't.

Unfazed by the insult, Butterbur offers to lodge the hobbits at his inn until the trouble blows over, but Frodo has to decline. He and Strider explain that the Black Riders hunting him come from Mordor, which scares the crap out of poor Barliman. It's agreed that the hobbits will leave at dawn. When I say hobbits, by the way, I mean Frodo, Sam and Pippin; no-one's noticed that Merry's missing until Butterbur asks after him. Barliman now gets to be the Beorn of the piece and pass judgement on the traveling circus:

"Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!" said Butterbur.

No objections whatsoever. While Nob is sent out to look for the forgotten Merry, Frodo finally sits down with Gandalf's letter. Briefly, it tells Frodo to leave at once and try to find a man called Strider. The letter is dated Midyear's Day; Frodo, never having received it, only set off in late September, and by Fonstad's reckoning, arrived in Bree on the 29th of September: over three months after Gandalf left the letter there. As Frodo says, if he'd only gotten the letter sooner, they'd be safe in Rivendell already, perhaps even without seeing a hint of the Black Riders.

After the letter authenticates Strider, so to speak, the hobbits agree to follow his lead. Strider's plan is to leave the road as soon as possible to shake off pursuit, and make for Weathertop, a hill north of the Road, and from there to Rivendell. The idea is that this will also give them a chance to find Gandalf, whose absence worries both Frodo and Strider. As this is being discussed, Merry bursts in, reporting Black Riders in the village. He'd gone out for a walk, and apparently almost stumbled across Bill Ferny talking to a Black Rider. The rider's breath had stunned him, but Nob had luckily happened on the scene and woken him. Strider reckons that the Black Riders must now know everything that had transpired at the inn, and that they may well attack it in the night. It isn't their style to storm lit and populated places, especially when they know that they'll have all of Eriador to hunt the hobbits across, but Strider nonetheless strongly suggests the hobbits sleep in the parlor rather than in their rooms. This is done, and Frodo and company camp out on the parlor floor, with Strider watching over them.

**

If the previous chapter could've been a short story, this is almost a short stage play: all the action takes place in a parlour in the Prancing Pony, with characters entering and exiting and occasionally reporting on what goes on outside. Strictly speaking, the scope of the story has narrowed dramatically: this is basically a dialogue between Frodo and Strider in a single room. In terms of the evolution of the story, however, while Butterbur and Nob are still around for some rustic comedy, the Shire and its birthday-parties, and even the perils of the Old Forest, are falling steadily behind. The threat Frodo and company have to contend with is now the active malice of Mordor.

I have to admit that of all the characters in Tolkien's works, I think I'm most fond of Strider. He accords very well with my sensibilities, and given the very young age at which I first read the Lord of the Rings, has almost certainly had a hand in shaping them as well. One of my favorite bits is in this chapter:

"But I must admit," he added with a queer laugh, "that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship. But there, I believe my looks are against me."

I sympathize strongly. However, we barely get to know Strider at all here; we know he's a weather-beaten ranger who looks for all the world like a brigand, that his name is Aragorn, and that he's friends with Gandalf. The real content of this chapter is the cautious conversation between him and Frodo, which may not be up there with the Bilbo-Smaug dialogues, but that I nonetheless enjoyed. To the extent that any wider points are being made, the one that gets repeated by both Frodo and Pippin is that they didn't really suspect Strider of evil, because he "looked foul and felt fair", whereas a servant of the Enemy would have been the opposite. So certainly the hobbits seem to have a great deal of faith in their witch-smelling powers. To Tolkien, one suspects, intuition was another kind of providence.

It's also fascinating to realize that Barliman Butterbur damn near won the War of the Ring for Sauron before it even started. It was sheer luck (providence) that a Black Rider showed up at Bag End the night Frodo left, rather than, say, a few hours earlier. In fact, by all indications, if Gandalf's letter had been properly delivered, Frodo and company could have taken a leisurely stroll down the Road to Rivendell with no trouble at all. Thorin and company, traveling in no hurry, took about a month to get from Hobbiton to Rivendell, so Frodo could easily have been there in August. According to the timeline in Appendix B, the Black Riders only crossed the Isen on September 18th. So if Butterbur wasn't useless, and if Gandalf hadn't inexplicably trusted him, all the travails Frodo and company had to get through to get to the Last Homely House East of the Sea could have been avoided. Again, you'd think that if divine providence wanted to get Frodo to Rivendell, you'd think it'd have been a damn sight easier to remind Butterbur in, say, July, but like I said, it's not like the idea of providence actually makes any sense. I'm sure there's a fat joke in this somewhere.

There really ought to be a Shadow event card in War of the Ring called Mind like a Lumber-room, that prevents the Fellowship from moving that turn.

Next time, into the wild.

Jan 30, 2017

Let's Play A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, 2nd ed.

Some years ago, I tried reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It was a horrible experience that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. The books are depressing, badly written and overflowing with utterly repulsive misogyny and racism. The TV show based on the books was slightly better, perhaps because it could hardly be worse and still air, but faithfully carried on the books' emphasis on racism and horrific misogyny. What it to some extent succeeded in was rescuing some of Martin's more personable characters from the leering rape porn of the books, and it's they who are the only interesting thing about the whole shitshow.

So, when we come across a card game based on them, from a company whose products we thoroughly enjoy, do we buy it? On the one hand, we'd be contributing to the ongoing relevance of Martin's disgusting chauvinism. On the other hand, it's massively popular already anyway, and since literally three (3) people read this blog, what we do or don't do has fuck all bearing on anything.

Should we consume problematic entertainment? Damned if I know. I wouldn't play an explicitly white supremacist board game, for instance, let alone pay money for one. But I don't have a well-thought-out principled stand on where to draw the line. I don't approve of the amply documented racism of H.P. Lovecraft, but I enjoy his stories and bought a copy of Arkham Horror. Orson Scott Card's genocidal fantasies, on the other hand, were too much for me. Some books into a Song of Ice and Fire, I started to feel physically nauseated and quit reading. I don't ever want to try again. A card game based on them, though, I can stomach. I think.

At the end of the day, the Game of Thrones card game has some interesting game mechanics I want to try, and I'm pretty sure I can wrangle some people into giving it a shot. So in a moment of weakness, I bought a copy of the core set. We're no closer to a definitive answer on whether to consume problematic entertainment or not, but we can now find out if this card game is any good.

**

We first tried the tutorial game in December, which is why you can see gingerbread Harrenhal in the background.



The tutorial game was fun! I'll admit I got some kicks out of murdering Joffrey with wildfire, and my dog ate Tyrion. I lost, but to be honest I'm counting any game in which Joffrey dies as at least a tie. I managed to win my next Stark attempt, with stealth Arya brilliantly murdering people all over the place.

As a sort of quick introduction, I thought the tutorial decks worked pretty well. I read through the rulebook a couple of times and kept it handy when we played, and I honestly don't think we made very many mistakes. Probably the most common one was forgetting a keyword like Renown. I thought the challenges were easy to understand but a little tricky to figure out optimally, which to me is a sign of a good system. We just need to kick some Lord of the Rings habits! The idea of the attacker winning ties is still completely counterintuitive to me... The plot phase was a particularly enjoyable mechanic; at the beginning of each turn, both players select a plot card from their plot deck, which are then revealed simultaneously and can interact in unexpected ways. I like the idea of trying to predict what your opponent intends to do and how best to compensate for it. I saw the wildfire coming both times!

A word about the physical game, too. As with Arkham Horror, the cards aren't nearly as stylish as those of the Lord of the Rings LCG, but by no stretch could you call them ugly. In pleasant contrast to Arkham, though, the box says 2-4 players and means it: you can create four functioning starter decks and get playing. There aren't that many counters, but damn if I don't just like those big old gold coins a lot more than the resource tokens of either other LCG. As with Fantasy Flight products in general, production quality is quite high, and you won't feel ripped off.

**

The one-on-one Joust tutorial has players using the Lannister and Stark decks, which makes sense for thematic reasons and works pretty well. However, because the 3-6 player Mêlée game is what we're interested in, we'll need to expand our repertoire. I'll admit that a big reason for buying this game for me was to have a new deck-building exercise to obsess over. Right now, I'm pretty happy with my LotR Amazons, and we're still kinda on the fence with Arkham, so Game of Thrones fills a crucial obsessing gap. Without it, I might have to start drawing up Warhammer army lists again!

When you have friends with strange proclivities, they'll insist on playing Lannister in the tutorial game, so I did get to try House Stark. While I have tremendous sympathy for Arya and especially Sansa Stark, and all their dogs are good dogs, the Starks are just too darn serious for my taste. Lannister, on the other hand, didn't really appeal that much to me, either, and from what I've understood, they're currently considered one of the most powerful Houses, which also makes me less than interested.

And anyway they're all rebel scum. There's a rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.


How can I not love Daenerys? Yes, her plot in the books is repulsive white savior garbage, but the beauty of this card game is that I don't need to care about that: all I have here is a beautiful queen, her dragons (dragons!) and her nomad pals, here to restore order and rightful rule to these revolting peasants. Hell, she's practically from Melniboné. There's even a white-haired Eternal Champion candidate.


House Targaryen is also notable for including the Game of Thrones character I identify with most: Ser Jorah Mormont.


An older man vainly pursuing a younger woman and fucking it up, whose in-game ability is failing challenges? It me. I think I've picked a house.

**

So next it was time to try melee. For whatever reason, the Targaryen melee starter deck has them teaming up with House Martell, so that was what I got. My partner picked the Stark-Greyjoy starter, and my brother joined us with the Night's Watch-Baratheon deck. I should stress that we had very little idea what we were doing, two of us having played the tutorial decks before and one of us not even having done that.

I thought I got a pretty good setup hand, with several characters and a selection of icons, including Areo Hotah, Viserys and a Roseroad. My partner, however, set up Balon Greyjoy. A surprise Fortified Position from my brother blanked him for the moment, but my partner then proceeded to play a Seal of the Hand on him as well.


From then on, the theme of the game became the many deaths of Balon Greyjoy. He was killed, and immediately resurrected with Risen from the Sea. Then, after a miscalculation, Ghaston Grey got rid of him. When he returned, he got a Milk of the Poppy played on him, and ended up being Marched to the Wall. It wasn't easy being Balon.


For whatever reason, the plot cards tend to have some of the best art! While the battle for Balon was going on, I had played Summons and, to my delight, found Daenerys. She's expensive, though, and I'd already used A Noble Cause to play the Red Viper. However, if I picked Master of Coin for my title, I could just afford her, and I managed all this - just to see who my partner played before my turn.


Yes, Varys was here, and the Stark-Greyjoy board was in such a pitiable state that there was no doubt in my mind that come the dominance phase of this turn, everyone was going to die. So, no Dany. Predictably enough, by the time the dominance phase rolled around, Varys did his thing and all our characters were gone. (I actually had Put to the Sword in my hand, and in retrospect I should've been able to get rid of Varys, but I couldn't execute). So what's called a board reset was accomplished, and we were kinda back where we started.

**

The objective of the game, which I think I've neglected to mention, is to gather 15 power tokens on cards you control: the first person to accomplish this wins. In the early stages of our game, our power totals swung back and forth, with nobody gaining a clear advantage for long. One of the particularly clever things about melee is titles: in a melee game, after plots are revealed and the order of play for the turn is determined, each player secretly selects one of six titles. Each comes with an ability that either buffs a certain type of challenge or gives some other advantage, and each - except Crown Regent - supports and rivals some other titles. When you win a challenge against a rival, you gain extra power; however, you can't initiate challenges against a title that you support. The titles serve to direct play in an unpredictable way. For instance, you might be in an advantageous military position, and select Master of Ships to press your advantage, only to find that your weakest opponent picked Master of Whispers and you can't attack them. Meanwhile, the Master of Laws and Hand of the King are now your rivals, so they have a strong incentive to attack you.


After the reset, we each managed to play a single character: my brother had someone I don't remember, I got a Greenblood Trader, and my partner played Balon. Unsurprisingly, this was when he got marched to the wall. By this time, we'd all managed to gather at least some power, and with two copies of a Illyrio's Estate and a Kingsroad, I was able to get Dany and Drogon into play. The others were recovering as well: Euron Crow's Eye showed up (and stole Ghaston Grey!) as did Stannis fucking Baratheon. Unwisely, Stannis was the only character my brother had, and my partner declared a military challenge against him with just a lone Tumblestone Knight. Stannis defended - only to meet the Kraken's Grasp. Bye bye, Stannis.

Amidst all this fun, we were all doing our best to pile up power tokens. With Daenerys on board, I managed to win dominance and get to 12 power. By this point, we'd all worked through our plot decks, so I managed to pick a high-initiative plot that let me bring Arianne Martell. I was really hoping to get Hand of the King for my title, both for the boost to power challenges, but it wasn't available, and to add impediment to insult, my brother marshalled Robert Baratheon. Still, I managed to go first, and Arianne and Daenerys managed to put together enough of a power challenge to beat Robert. The one power token that let me steal, plus one bonus power for winning a challenge against a player whose title I rival was enough for 14 - and Drogon being in play gave Daenerys Renown, which made 15.

Here, on the left, is what the table looked like just before Varys killed everyone. On the right, the true ruler of Westeros, her dragon, and the fifteen power counters that signify victory. I couldn't have asked for a more storybook ending than Daenerys personally defeating the hated usurper to seal the win.



I thought our first melee experience was excellent fun. None of us really knew what we were doing, but I don't think we made any egregious mistakes with the rules, and we managed to pretty much pick it up as we went along. The interactions between the plots and titles are potentially fascinating, and we hope to take a shot at a four-player melee soon!

**

While the one-on-one Joust format is fun enough, I feel it has the same problem as Magic: the Gathering, or indeed chess: play becomes predictable, especially against the same people. There's a short but interesting thread on the cardgamedb.com forums where somebody asked why Joust is getting all the attention online and Melee seems neglected. The answers are fascinating. Obviously the main reason is mentioned: Fantasy Flight Games has decided that Joust is the primary tournament format, so they highlight it. But beyond that, the argument was made that because of the social dynamics around the table, melee is inherently unpredictable and difficult to plan for, unlike Joust where players can fully control the situation. Also, a particular problem with melee is "kingmaking", where players who are unlikely or unable to win themselves can still affect the end result.

As a poker player, I find this hilarious. The idea that playing a full table is somehow unfair is ludicrously comical. Now, there are people who'll argue that heads-up play is the true test of poker skill. That's where you really have to read your opponent and get inside their head and whatnot. I disagree, and there's actually a case to be made that they're empirically wrong, because heads-up (limit) hold'em is effectively weakly solved. In other words, getting inside your opponent's head and so on doesn't actually matter, because if you play the game correctly, you'll win. This seems to me to be pretty much what people mean when they say that Joust is somehow a truer test of skill. I strongly disagree with this definition of skill.

Yes, arguably, memorizing a set of guidelines and applying them to a situation is a skill. However, it isn't a particularly interesting one, and it can be completely duplicated by a fairly simple computer program. In chess, the openings have for themost part become so ritualized that each player could arguably tell a bot to run their opening of choice and notify them as soon as the bot no longer knows what to do, because that's when the game really begins. The ability to carry out a preconceived set of moves isn't really a shining example of skill. For my money, the interesting skills in chess come into play in the midgame, when the situation is more fluid. I feel the same way about poker: it's much more interesting and challenging to play at a full table and try to figure out what kind of players the others are, and observe the social dynamics at work. Certainly if you're playing a tournament, there will be situations in which players on the brink of elimination will try their best to survive, and sometimes an ill-judged play will hand over the rest of their chips to an opponent in a way that others might feel is unfair, but as long as collusion isn't suspected, players accept this as part of the game rather than whining about "kingmaking". Certainly if we accept that understanding and even exploiting these social dynamics isn't a skill, then of all games Diplomacy isn't a game of skill!

Deckbuilding introduces another element to this equation; there are people who maintain that in a "fair" game, the best-built deck will win if it's played correctly. If this is the objective, though, then we should dispense with actually sitting down to play the game, and input our decklists into a program that then runs a suitably massive number of simulated games with them, and the player whose deck achieves the highest winning percentage is best. Because of the vagaries of opening hands, card draw and player mistakes, even a Joust tournament is a decidedly suboptimal way of determining who is best at deckbuilding.

In my opinion, a PvP cardgame is a test of both deckbuilding and playing skill. The reason I'm particularly interested in melee is that ideally, it combines those skills with the social-strategic skill set required in, say, poker, or Diplomacy. It's slightly bizarre to me that Fantasy Flight would choose to intentionally downplay this aspect of A Game of Thrones, but here we are.

**

So just forget about Joust entirely, except as a tutorial to teach the game mechanics. Instead, if you approach second-edition Game of Thrones as a 3-4 player board game, you won't be disappointed. We've certainly had enough fun getting acquainted with the Melee game that not only will we be playing more of it, but I'm seriously considering picking up a second core set. Not only would a second core let us build tournament-legal 60-card decks for ourselves, but also let us maybe create a fifth, even sixth deck for maximum melee mayhem.

So to make a perhaps surprisingly long story short: try Melee. We thought it was excellent.

Jan 23, 2017

CKII: The time of the heathen

For the day is near, even the day of the LORD is near, a cloudy day; it shall be the time of the heathen.
- Ezekiel 30:3


After my failed tribal experiment, I took a bit of a break from Crusader Kings 2. I picked it up again last fall for another game as the Ua Chennselaigh. My goals were to hold the four crowns of the British Isles and become emperor. I managed half of that, finishing the game as the Irish emperor of Mali, with territory from Scotland to Timbuktu. I've come to quite strongly feel that Ireland in 1066 may be the best place to start to get a handle on the game. There's also several promising directions for expansion: you can start working away on England, look north to Norway or southeast to Brittany, or - my favorite option - fabricate a claim on Lisbon and get in on the Reconquista. Now that I've tried that a couple of times and taken it as far as forming the empire of Mali, I figured it was high time for something different: the Old Gods.


My father's family, and with it our family name, is originally from Lammi, and my mother is from Forssa, so if there's somewhere I'm from in Crusader Kings 2 terms, it's Häme. So I was delighted to find that in the 867 bookmark, both Häme and Uusimaa are ruled by Chief Mielus of the Hämäläinen dynasty, Hämäläinen basically meaning "of Häme". I'm set! Here we are:


Mielus is a tribal chief, meaning that instead of starting out as a nobleman with a castle, we start as a tribe, which makes for quite a different playing experience. In contrast to my previous game as a tribal ruler, this time my tribe is pagan. Like I've said before, I don't like that they called Finnic paganism "Suomenusko"; the game correctly identifies the area around modern-day Turku as Suomi, with the name only coming to mean a wider area some time after the Middle Ages. Suomenusko is a modern-day neopagan faith that's basically made up, and uses a name that would've been incomprehensible to the people of the time it purports to descend from. I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Helsinki, so unfortunately I feel obliged to lodge my protest.

Having said that, though, as a life-long anti-Christian, I welcome and relish an opportunity to play as a pagan ruler.


Sorry, dude. Paganing ain't easy. Later on, prisoners will be very handy for this! They can only blame their lieges for not ransoming them. We request very reasonable ransoms!

Although pagan realms can be really powerful in the early game, they suffer from two main disadvantages. First of all, feudal realms will eventually catch up with and surpass them as the game goes on. Secondly and relatedly, pagans have a hard time staying pagan: not only will missionaries from organized religions convert them, but those same religions will also conquer them in holy wars. The way to deal with the first problem is to feudalize yourself. This, however, requires adherence to an organized religion. One option is to convert; in a couple of my Irish games, I've seen a feudal, Catholic Finland or Sápmi succesfully feudalize. But we're not interested in these weak southern fairytales. The other option is to reform your pagan faith into an organized religion, and take on the Abrahamic religions. That's more like it! So my goals for this game are to reform Suomenusko, become a feudal ruler and survive until 1453.


As a tribal chief, many of the game mechanics revolve around Prestige: you can invest it to recruit tribal armies, and several council missions are tied to it. Here, for example, I've sent my steward to Build Legend in Uusimaa, which increases my prestige and has a chance of attracting warriors to our banner. These event troops are basically a freebie you can use for war or raiding. As it happens, we've got a use for them. In order to reform Suomenusko, we have to either control three of its holy sites and have a moral authority of 50%, or control all five holy sites. With two of them as far away as Ryazan and Perm, the latter seems unlikely, but in either case, we'll need to start somewhere. The nearest holy site just happens to be next door, in Käkisalmi province, so:


That, though, was pretty much the summit of our expansion under Mielus, because he spent the rest of his career as chief fighting off Sigurðr Snake-in-the-Eye. For whatever reason that Norse bastard had it in for us, conquering the province of Suomi and launching several invasions of my realm. We eventually managed to beat him off, but there was precious little time for anything else. Well, except a little raiding.


Raiding is great fun, though. You send your guys over to despoil someone else's province and gather loot, and if you have a large enough army, you can even besiege and sack their holdings. Obviously as time goes by, feudal holdings improve their defenses and their armies get bigger, making your job that much harder, but in the early game, especially if you get lucky by raiding a province whose owner is fighting a war somewhere else, you can do some serious damage. Our guys burnt Boulogne and its environs down properly a couple of times, netting plenty of loot and prestige for me.


With that money and prestige, and Sigurðr out of our hair, I was able to conquer both Pohjanmaa and Suomi and form the high chiefdom of Satakunta. We also added Finnish Lapland because why not. My plan is to keep Satakunta as my demesne and land members of my dynasty in the rest of Finland until I can form the kingdom. At the moment, a strong, unified Estonia that also holds Savo is a considerable obstacle to this.


Now that our realm is getting larger, we run into another tribal pagan problem: keeping it in one piece. This is because the only succession law available to tribal rulers is gavelkind. Slightly oddly named after a type of landholding right from Kent, what it means is Salic partible inheritance, where a ruler's lands are divided up among their heirs on death. This can be a huge problem: if you hold multiple duchies or kingdoms, they can get split up into independent realms and the whole thing goes the way of the Carolingians.

In our case, we got away relatively easily, only losing Kemi, which ended up becoming a part of the newly formed kingdom of Ruthenia. To the south, however, gavelkind broke up Estonia, and we capitalized on the confusion. With enough provinces in de jure Finland under our control, in the year 940 the first Hämäläinen king was crowned!


Meanwhile, the infidels invented holy wars. We'd better get cracking on that reformation.


In order to reform Suomenusko, we need to control at least three holy sites. Käkisalmi was our first conquest, and another holy site is at Saaremaa, which we annexed with the rest of Estonia. Perm and Ryazan are far away, so the easiest third site to grab is Novgorod. And, as luck or Ukko would have it, the high chiefdom of Novgorod greatly obliged us by breaking up, so we started our inroads into Russia.


With three holy sites in our hands and a bunch of succesful county conquests under our belt, it was time to achieve the first main objective of this campaign.


This gets us all kinds of neat stuff, like our own holy order!


Not to mention holy wars.


Of course, some things haven't changed.


So now I've reformed my religion, and built a stone hillfort in Uusimaa with the money I made raiding; now a momentous decision awaits...


I have absolutely no idea if I'm ready for this, or if clicking that button means the downfall of the Hämäläinen dynasty. We'll find out - next time.

Jan 16, 2017

LotR LCG: Desert by night

He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace - all in a flash of thought that was quickly driven from his mind.

- The Lord of the Rings, book IV, chapter IV


The July announcement of a new deluxe expansion took us completely by surprise. Although undeniably logical as a sequel to City of Corsairs and somewhat foreshadowed by Boing, in terms of theme the Sands of Harad is quite a step into the unknown: Tolkien wrote very little about Harad or its people. Though they served Sauron in the War of the Ring, the Haradrim were in no way intrinsically evil. In his comments on W.H. Auden's review of the Return of the King (Letters, 183), Tolkien describes them as "humane", but under tyranny. This is followed by a fascinating commentary on Denethor:

Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without the use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful.

So basically all we know of the Haradrim and their lands is that the latter are to the south of Gondor, including the former Númenoran haven of Umbar and its corsairs, they're ruled by a tyrant or tyrants in the service of Sauron, and pretty much seem to end up with the short end of the stick in most scenarios. So off we go into the desert!


John Howe: The Mûmak of Harad, 1995

**

Escape from Umbar - DL 5


The first quest in the expansion picks up exactly where the last adventure pack of the Dream-chaser cycle left off, with our heroes stranded in Umbar and trying to, well, escape. If I wanted to be rude, I'd say it's Trouble in Tharbad with archery, but that'd be unfair; while this is a fast-paced urban adventure like Trouble in Tharbad and Peril in Pelargir (and should, therefore, have been called Umbrage in Umbar or something like that), it most definitely has a very distinctive flavor of its own. The archery alone makes this a tougher proposition than, say, Tharbad, but the locations are not only very thematic, but also quite well thought out in terms of combining advantages and disadvantages. Narrow Alleyway is a particular favorite of mine.


We first tried this three-handed with my Amazons, the hobbits and the Dúnhere deck; not an ideal bunch to be facing lots of archery with, and some of the enemies are actually a bit tough. We were eventually swarmed by too many of them and eliminated, but we had a decent time and the difficulty didn't feel way too high. Later, we beat the quest with my Amazons, my partner's Team Boromir and a dwarf deck using the new Gimli hero. Having the dwarves along to soak up archery damage really helped, and we were a little bit lucky with Enemy Pursuit only ever showing up on the first round of a quest stage. Then again, I lost count of how many times our plans were scuppered by Enfeebled! Eventually, though, we made our getaway.


We liked this quest! It's thematically succesful and well-designed in general, and to the extent that difficulty levels mean anything, DL 5 actually felt about right. So a strong start to this expansion.

**

Desert Crossing - DL 6


Our heroes have escaped Umbar and find themselves in the middle of the desert. As far as I'm concerned, this is the money quest of this expansion, and the one I'd been looking forward to the most. When the Grey Havens came out, it was sold as, obviously, the sailing expansion: therefore, since Voyage Across Belegaer was the sailing quest in the expansion, it had to be good. And it was! Since the theme of this expansion has very much been the desert - the Sands are right there in the title - Desert Crossing kinda needs to be at least decent or the whole thing's just going to feel pointless. Luckily, it's a whole lot more than decent.


I complained about Escape from Umbar, but only because it breaks naming convention: if not for that, it'd just be a great name, because you expect Snake Plissken to show up as an objective ally. Desert Crossing, though? This is the most boring name for a quest in history. It makes me think of some kind of hybrid of Animal Crossing and Desert Bus. As my brother-in-law points out, even the Crossing of the Desert would have been so much better.

Don't be fooled by the rubbish name, though: this is a really, really good quest. The objective is simple: make it across the desert. So that this wouldn't be too easy, the quest introduces a new way to die. Recorded on a spare threat dial, at the start of the quest the temperature is ten, and if it reaches sixty you lose. Various effects will raise it, and other effects are tied to it. I think it works great, and really creates a feeling of struggling to survive in a hostile environment without being in any way fiddly or artificial. The quest itself is similarly straightforward, but very intelligently designed: seemingly simple and almost innocuous effects will combine to create unexpectedly sticky situations while the temperature keeps sneaking higher... Some of the encounter cards are surprisingly clever, like Mirage, and they're all excellently thematic.


On our first attempt, my Amazons set off across the desert with the Rohan and Beorn decks. Since we make a point of playing new quests blind, none of us had any idea what to expect, but we made reasonable headway. None of the enemies are really all that tough, or most of the locations either, so at first this quest felt deceptively easy. What it does really well, though, is slowly wear away at you. A little bit of direct damage won't hurt, and a tiny temperature hike isn't going to make much difference, but before you know it everything starts adding up and interacting in surprising ways until all of a sudden you find yourself in serious trouble. We initially thought we were in for some smooth sailing, to the extent that a bear lumbering across a desert can be described as smooth sailing. We even found a Desert Oasis, where amazingly enough, we could heal Beorn!


Still, though, the damage kept piling up and the temperature was rising. It was getting harder and harder to make progress, and when a fairly horrible encounter side quest showed up, it slowed us down enough that by the time we were set for our very last questing push, the temperature had reached an absolutely scorching 58. Still, if we could just get through one last quest phase...


Below is the detritus of our loss, and a little record of Lord of the Rings Friday, which we started last November. Everyone was committed to the massive questing push that would've gotten us through the last quest stage - if only the temperature hadn't gotten us first. Arien is a cruel mistress.


An attempt with Team Boromir, and later a three-handed foray with the dwarf deck, both ended in the excruciating second quest stage. Again, it's not like the difficulty level numbers make much sense, but to us, this was a difficult quest that at no point felt unfair or impossible. You'll need some way to deal with direct damage, location control will help, and plenty of questing and fighting, especially as the temperature rises. Above all, though, this is one of the most succesfully thematic quests in the entire game. Because I think geography and travel are so important in Tolkien's works, I really enjoy wilderness travel quests, and this may be the best of them. I highly recommend it.

**

The Long Arm of Mordor - DL 7


In the last quest, our heroes have made it across the desert, and are recovering from their ordeal in a friendly Haradrim village. What this means in practice is that each player's heroes go in the staging area, and you have to quest succesfully to get them back. Instead of your own heroes, each player starts with one of the objective heroes in the scenario.


This is a pretty cool idea, but in practice, it's kind of a re-run of the Ring-maker quest format: quest like hell as fast as possible, or advancing becomes impossible. In this case, what you specifically need is lots of cheap questing allies that you can get into play quickly with the meager resources of your objective heroes. Unfortunately, what this does in practice is severely handicap any deck without them. My partner runs an attachment-heavy mono-Tactics deck, which is pretty much useless here. When I also failed to draw several cheap questing allies, we simply had no chance to advance. This is, I think, one of those quests that you're pretty much going to have to build a bespoke deck for, and we don't enjoy that.


So unfortunately, while we wanted to like this quest for its theme, and while it also has several clever ideas, we ended up quite discouraged by our first attempts.

**

The heroes were already spoiled way back in August, although with the theme of the expansion being heroes with different traits, we'd all pretty much guessed who was going to be in it. I still feel kind of ambivalent about them, though. Leadership Gimli is a heck of a hero to slot into a Dwarf deck, especially with Dáin, and is really pretty darn useful with anyone else as well. My only problem with him is the art! Spirit Legolas I'm really not sold on, though. To activate his ability, he needs to quest, which is a complete waste of an action with his stats, even if he gets the +1 willpower bonus, and means that someone else has to ready him in the combat phase, too. So Legolas ties up either Gimli's ability or an Unexpected Courage or something. That's just not a great action advantage investment. So at least my initial feeling is that while Gimli potentially works with almost anyone, Legolas is only really going to be useful with Gimli. Given how long everyone's been waiting for a new Legolas, that's a bit of a shame. We're pinning our hopes on Loregolas!

Each hero also gets their own attachment: Mirkwood Long-knife and Dwarven Shield. The shield's pretty solid and ties in to Gimli's ability. It also further reinforces the Gimli-Dáin combo: with shields on both, Dáin can defend with 4, and then Gimli with 3 and he can use his ability to ready Dáin so everyone gets his attack bonus. The main problem with the Long-knife is the art: I'm not at all convinced that knife can actually go into the sheath next to it. Also, I absolutely hate the ornate, ceremonial look they've gone for; it's far too 21st century movie fantasy for my tastes. In gameplay terms, obviously putting it on Legolas will make his ability make more sense, which is maybe a slightly backwards way to go about it. It would also complement a Haldir-Wingfoot combo quite nicely. To me, a problem is that Tactics Legolas has access to much better Tactics weapons, so for him to use this and Gimli's ability would be suboptimal.

There's also some ally symmetry going on: we got Spirit Legolas and Leadership Gimli, so we also get a Leadership wood elf and a Spirit dwarf. Oddly, though, while Greenwood Archer can probably find a welcome anywhere but matches this expansion's sub-theme by providing a readying effect, the Erebor Guard has a discard effect that's more at home with the "dwarf churn" deck type or even a Caldara deck, rather than with Legolas and Gimli. The focus on traits is rounded off by the excellently thematic Unlikely Friendship, and a pleasant surprise in Well Warned, which plays off the Scout and Noble traits.

The other big theme of the box is side quests. There's one, The Storm Comes, which is a real boon to multi-sphere decks, but the rest of the player cards also interact with the victory display. Dour-handed seems like the least useful one, especially since it costs a resource to play, but then again, maybe some folks go really nuts with their side questing. The Road Goes Ever On lets you find a side quest when you finish a quest, so ideally you'll want to play it on Gather Information... The two remaining allies, Vigilant Dúnadan and Halfling Bounder, both have abilities tied to a side quest being in the victory display, and they're useful ones, too. The Bounder especially gives Lore some proper cancellation, and also sports a Tom Bombadil-like wardrobe delightful enough to take a proper look at:


So on the whole, this is an interestingly mixed batch of cards. Nothing really jumps out at you, except Gimli and maybe the idea of a proper Three Hunters deck, but there's something here for quite a few different decks.

**


So, the Sands of Harad haven't quite dethroned the Grey Havens as the best deluxe expansion. However, we definitely enjoyed ourselves with the first two quests, and would definitely recommend buying the expansion to experience them. In general, what this expansion definitely did was make me feel optimistic about the future of the game. The quests are thematically excellent, intelligently designed, and bring lots of new ideas to the table without it seeming contrived or artificial. For what it's worth, Desert Crossing is up there as one of my all-time favorite quests.

At this point, I seriously never want this game to end. We're all expecting a deluxe expansion set in Dale and Erebor. Weneed to revisit Mirkwood and finally meet Thranduil. Hell, we can offset the desert with a deluxe and AP cycle with the Snowmen of Forochel. The Withered Heath is right there! Rhûn and fabled Dorwinion! Mordor, even. Some light-hearted adventures in the Shire. The Ered Luin. We're not going to run out of themes or locations any time soon, and Sands of Harad has made me so optimistic that like I said, I just want it to keep on going.

**

Finally, an update on the state of my deck. It's really useful to have cards like hero Arwen, spirit Éowyn and Daeron's Runes around, because if you constantly find yourself discarding the same cards to them, maybe you should reconsider having those cards in your deck in the first place. Lately, I've found myself discarding Concorde quite often.


He's certainly useful, and I think if someone was playing Elfhelm I'd definitely keep him around. However, with several other location control alternatives to choose from, especially Rhovanion Outrider, I wasn't sure two Lore resources was a good price any more. With City of Corsairs out, I know it isn't, because I can have Súlien instead. As a Spirit lady with a location control ability, she fits my deck perfectly.


Of the new cards in Sands of Harad, I'd really like to include Well Warned. With Arwen a Noble and Idraen a Scout, I could give anyone at the table free threat reduction. However, I can't really think of anything I'd be willing to leave out to accomodate it. So for now, I think I'll be content to just bring Súlien on board.

56 cards; 32 Spirit, 20 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 15 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 21 (14/6/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

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

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

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

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

**

Also, here's a fairly basic Leadership-Lore dwarf deck I built for my brother-in-law to play and test out Leadership Gimli. We thought it was reasonably successful, and the Gimli + Dwarven Shield combo worked excellently.

53 cards; 33 Leadership, 19 Lore, 1 neutral; 22 allies, 15 attachments, 15 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat: 29

Gimli (TSoH)
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Bifur (Kd)

Allies: 22 (11/11)
Longbeard Orc Slayer x3
Glóin (OtD) x2
Longbeard Elder (FoS) x3
Dwarven Sellsword (TDRu) x3
Dori (OHaUH) x2
Erebor Hammersmith x3
Miner of the Iron Hills x3
Erebor Record Keeper (Kd) x3

Attachments: 15 (9/5/1)
Dwarven Shield (TSoH) x3
Hardy Leadership (SaF)
King Under the Mountain (OtD) x2
Cram (OHaUH) x3
Self Preservation x2
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Legacy of Durin (TWitW) x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 15 (12/3)
Lure of Moria (RtR) x3
Durin's Song (Kd) x3
To Me! O My Kinsfolk! (OtD) x3
We Are Not Idle (SaF) x3
Ancestral Knowledge (Kd) x3

Side quests: 1
Send for Aid (TToR)