May 14, 2018

Let's Play Twilight Struggle

I was reading something on fivethirtyeight.com last year, and came across a link to their article on designing the best board game in the world, which turned out to be Twilight Struggle. Since we were making a trip to Stockholm in January, I took the opportunity to visit the Science Fiction Bokhandeln, where board games are consistently cheaper than in Finland, and pick up a copy.


Twilight Struggle is a card-driven board game that covers the global Cold War. The board is a map of the world, divided into countries where you place influence, mount coups and generally vie for control and thereby victory points with the opposing superpower. Whoever reaches 20 victory points first wins - unless DEFCON drops to one, in which case the game ends in global nuclear war.


Everything is done by playing cards. Here's an example:


The red star in the upper left corner tells you that this is a Soviet event. If the Soviet player plays it, they can either have the event happen, or play it for Ops, which are used to spread influence, mount coups and that sort of thing. The number inside the star is 2, meaning Liberation Theology is good for 2 Ops. If the US player finds this card in their hand, they can only play it for Ops - but if they do, the event occurs as well. Therefore, one of the key skills in the game isn't just figuring out when to play your events, but how to time your opponent's events optimally for yourself.

The other kind of cards are scoring cards, which, when played, score their region in victory points. Below, an early victory in the Mid War from a judiciously played Africa Scoring.


Much as in other card-driven games, like War of the Ring, for instance, the cards direct gameplay. One way is structural: some scoring cards, for instance, only show up in the mid-war, and while the Soviet side is considered to have an early advantage, the late war cards tilt toward the US. In a recent game, I found myself with a hand of powerful enough Europe-focused cards, like Suez Crisis, Socialist Governments, and Europe Scoring, that a blitz on Europe seemed like a worthwhile shot. This is as far as I got:


One key thing new players should know is that in the Early War period, the only scoring cards in play are Europe, Asia and the Middle East. This tends to focus play; while I was mounting my assault on Europe, this is what Southeast Asia ended up looking like:


You can believe I did poorly when my opponent drew Southeast Asia scoring! However, Africa and the Middle East went my way, somewhat evening the odds. Finally, late in the Mid War, while my opponent's attention was focused on Latin America, I used Willy Brandt to break his control of West Germany, and snuck in enough influence to grab it, leading to a victory through controlling Europe.


**

All in all, Twilight Struggle is a tremendous game. Not only is it great fun, but it also does a brilliant job of evoking the Cold War mentality of a superpower game of geopolitical brinksmanship, where all other countries and actors in the world are just pawns and battlegrounds for you to utilize to get the upper hand in a zero-sum battle against your opponent - all while staring down an imminent nuclear holocaust. That all the events are actual Cold War people or episodes gives the game great thematic strength, but it's not tied to the historical constraints of the Cold War, but can unfold very differently indeed. As a history teacher, I very much appreciate the little historical vignettes about each card provided in the rulebook; they add a very real educational dimension to the game.

If you want a better handle on how the game works, head over to Twilight Strategy; I especially recommend one of the annotated games.

So, simply put, Twilight Struggle is great fun, and does a wonderful job of capturing the Cold War mentality. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best board game in the world - that's a much bigger conversation - I will say that if you're at all into board games, it's definitely worth experiencing.

May 7, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 44: The Uruk-hai

Pippin lay in a dark and troubled dream: it seemed that he could hear his own small voice echoing in black tunnels, calling Frodo! Frodo!

Peregrin Took awakes from his dream to find that he and Merry are prisoners of an orc-band. He recalls running off to look for Frodo like a fool, and blundering right into a group of orcs. The orcs were very eager to take them prisoner, but Boromir appeared and drove them off. A larger group of orcs - at least a hundred by Pippin's count - then attacked, and he remembered no more. Pippin feels pretty miserable about himself, likening himself to a piece of luggage (shades of Bilbo).

As the evening darkens, Pippin listens to the orcs having an argument. To his surprise, they're using the Common Speech, apparently because there are at least three different groups of orcs there and they don't understand each other's orcish. There are some orcs from Moria, a group from Mordor led by Grishnákh, and Uglúk and his fighting Uruk-hai, who are in the service of Saruman. Everyone agrees that they have orders to capture hobbits and bring them back alive, but the great debate is whether to take them to Mordor or Isengard. Grishnákh heaps scorn on Saruman ("Who does he think he is, setting up on his own with his filthy white badges?"), but eventually the argument is settled when Uglúk and his Uruk-hai kill several of the other orcs, and they set off for Isengard. In the confusion, Pippin grabs a knife from one of the dead orcs and manages to cut his bonds.

The orcs run through the night, with a stop toward the end where the hobbits are forced to drink some orc-liquor and are made to run along with the orcs. The northern orcs protest at running in sunlight, but Uglúk forces them to. During the run, Pippin takes an opportunity to escape the ranks and drop the brooch of his cloak, but he is swiftly recaptured.

They run and run, until the hobbits can't go on any more, even with orc-whips at their back. They're then picked up again and the orcs carry on, until they stop for another argument. They've spotted the "horse-boys", and Uglúk curses his scout, Snaga, who let his Rohan counterpart get away. They run all day and into the night, trying to reach Fangorn Forest before the riders can bring them to battle. They fail; the riders surround them on a small hillock outside the forest.

The hobbits have their legs tied and are placed under the guard of several of Uglúk's uruks. However, when the riders mount a raid late at night, their guards dash to the fight, and Grishnákh sneaks in and grabs the hobbits. As the orc searches them, Pippin realizes that Grishnákh knows about the Ring. Pippin does his best Gollum impression and gets a definite response, and when Merry reminds Grishnákh that at this rate, it will be Saruman who wins out, the orc is driven into a rage: he grabs the hobbits and makes a dash for the woods. He makes it a considerable distance until one of the riders shoots him, and he is ridden down, the hobbits discarded like baggage.

The hobbits lie down in the grass, concealed by their elven-cloaks, until a commotion breaks out in the camp and the riders tighten their cordon, leaving the unseen Merry and Pippin comfortably outside it. Pippin frees them from their bonds with Grishnákh's knife, and they salvage some lembas from their pockets. Eventually they manage to crawl and then walk into the woods, and at dawn they witness Éomer's riders charging the orc-camp. Fearing that Uglúk's uruks might make it to the woods, the hobbits flee, and miss Éomer slaying Uglúk in single combat.

**

So, we've caught up with the other side of the great chase through Rohan, and the story is now well entangled with Saruman and the Riders.

Since this chapter is named after a kind of orc, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about orcs in the Lord of the Rings in general. The name "orc" is an Anglo-Saxon word for some kind of nasty thing, found in Beowulf in interesting company:

eotenas ond ylfe / ond orcneas

The modern conception of the orc is based squarely on Tolkien's work, with additional embellishments from Dungeons and Dragons, and Warhammer, to the point where the orcs in later-day Tolkien-derived products like Shadow of Mordor look more like Warhammer orcs than Tolkien's creatures.

In far too many fantasy works, orcs are simply the stock enemy, who can be slaughtered in any numbers with no moral compunctions. This was most definitely not Tolkien's intention! In a couple of letters to his son Christopher (Letters, 71 and 78), he discusses orcs in the context of the Second World War, in which the younger Tolkien was serving at the time.

Yes, I think orcs as real a creation as anything in "realistic" fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For "romance" has grown out of "allegory", and its wars are still derived from the "inner war" of allegory in which good is on one side and various models of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!
(Letters, 71)

To understand Tolkien's intentions with his orcs, we have to understand two crucial points of his theology. The first is the Boëthian refutation of Manicheanism that I discussed ages ago in my post on the Shadow of the Past: good and evil are not two equal, diametrically opposed powers. Evil is weaker, because the universe, created by a benevolent god, is intrinsically good. From this follows, among other things, that evil can't truly create new things, but only twist, mock and corrupt. Therefore, Tolkien's orcs aren't creations of Sauron or Morgoth, but corruptions of already existing life (Letters, 144 and 153).

The other point follows from this: because the orcs were not originally evil, and because they are allowed to exist in an ultimately benevolent world, they are not by nature intrinsically evil or irredeemable. In Tolkien's words:

I nearly wrote "irredeemably bad"; but that would be going too far.
Because by accepting or tolerating their making - necessary to their actual existence - even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God's and ultimately good. (Letters, 153)

The theology was always clear: as, ultimately, the creations of a benevolent god, the orcs cannot be beyond salvation. So they're not just purely evil foot soldiers to be slaughtered at will.

Or at least they're not meant to be, because you can well question whether Tolkien actually manages to convey this. Tolkien's battle scenes rarely glorify war, but he doesn't really give orcs many opportunities to be anything other than villains. In this chapter, Uglúk and his Uruk-hai do get a distinct personality opposed to Grishnákh, and it's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Moria goblins, but they are very much the barbaric villains of the story. Tolkien may not have intended the orcs to be one-dimensional bad guys, but it's hard to blame anyone coming away from this thinking that they are.

**

Next time: eotenas.

Apr 9, 2018

CKII: Mercia-on-the-Nile

Last time, I took Mercia from a petty kingdom to an empire spanning the British Isles and including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The year is only 971, so there's still a lot of time left. The one continuing objectice I have is improving the status of women; it'd be pretty cool to get absolute cognatic succession. Other than that, though, my only major goal is to survive to the end, so I'm going to see what life throws at us.

We begin in the reign of Emperor Gedalbert the Cruel (971-978), first Emperor of Mercia, King of Mercia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Jerusalem. Of these, I was very happy to immediately give away the crown of England to one of my vassals and just not have to care about the dukes of Wessex and Hwicce and what have you. They're now someone else's problem. Instead, my immediate plan is to broaden our holdings in the Middle East. Islamic Egypt is currently squeezed between Abyssinia, Italian North Africa, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. I'm going to try to make it worse for them.


We succeeded in securing a foothold in the Nile delta. However, life did have something to throw at us.


Before the plague struck, I had the opportunity to vassalize the Knights Hospitallers, because I'm King of Jerusalem. I absolutely recommend doing this! A vassal holy order won't fight for anyone else, and requires no maintenance; it's simply fantastic, and exactly what I need in order to expand my realm at the expense of the infidels.


Meanwhile...


The Pope wasn't exactly helpful.


Eventually, even the Emperor himself caught the plague.


At the age of 57, freed from his demons, Emperor Gedalbert the Cruel, founder of the Mercian Empire, died of the Black Death.


**

Of Emperor Gedalbert's twelve children, only two survived to adulthood: his daughter Viviane and his successor, Emperor Gléowine the Fat (978-1002). Not that even that was immediately obvious, because Gléowine also caught the plague during an inconclusive campaign in the Sinai.


Unlike his father, however, Gléowine got better.


Now that I have the Reaper's Due, pandemics are really something. They don't just kill characters; they ravage provinces, decimating your levies and wrecking the economy, and even dropping the province's supply limit, meaning armies will just melt away. So the Black Death shut down our conquest of the Middle East completely.

Once the plague passed and everyone began to recover, we selected a slightly softer target for expansion: Portugal.


It was a success!


As you can see, we barely got in on the carving up of Muslim Iberia, with Acquitaine already making inroads on North Africa. I just like the idea of Portugal as a stopping-off point to the Holy Land. Soon after, we also completed the conquest of the Nile delta.


While this was happening, England somehow became a republic.


As near as I can figure it out, this is what happened. The King of England also ended up with a duchy in the Holy Land, because I only had so many Iceling men to hand all the titles to at the time. He launched a series of more or less ill-advised holy wars on his Muslim neighbors, and managed to deplete his treasury and forces so badly that the merchant republic of Man pressed a claim on England and won. Hence, the Most Serene Republic of England.


Meanwhile, Gléowine arranged a diplomatic marriage for his son, and went mad.


Even as a lunatic, he was able to consolidate our hold on Egypt.


The imperial demesne is now the duchies of Mercia (actually only the county of Leicester) and Damietta. Shortly after crowning himself King of Egypt, Emperor Gléowine passed away. He died King of Mercia, Ireland, Portugal, Asturias, Egypt and Jerusalem.


**

Emperor Mordred the Confessor (1002-1056) took the throne at the age of 7, with the Queen of Scotland as his regent. I don't know why the Mordreds get the cool nicknames, but I'm okay with it. This is what Mercian Egypt looked like on his accession:


In addition to expanding our holdings in Egypt, we were also able to raise the status of women to Notable, meaning I can now have a female marshal if I want to. This is actually the biggest thing holding me back from moving my capital to Egypt: as technology is county-based, I need one more level of Tolerance in Leicester to unlock full gender equality and cognatic succession in the empire. If I moved to Damietta, we'd be stuck with their tech levels. I'm actually not entirely sure how this works. If I achieve full equality, the realm law will stay in force even if I lose the underlying technology. However, if I do that and usurp an existing kingdom, I don't think I'd be able to change the succession to cognatic there. So that might be a problem. Luckily, technology does spread between demesne provinces, so we don't need to abandon all the tech points we invested in Leicester.

To speed our technological progress, I decided it would be a good idea for Emperor Mordred to join the Hermetic Society. This had some very tangible benefits:


I've complained before that warfare in Crusader Kings 2 isn't really all that interesting, and I stand by that. However, Mordred did manage to have an interesting war. While most of the great Muslim powers were waging an unsuccesful jihad against Abyssinia for Yemen, I figured this was a good time to make a grab for the duchy of Nefoud, i.e. the counties between the Syrian desert and the Empty Quarter, right in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. As it turned out, Abyssinia defeated the jihad sooner than expected, and everyone turned on us instead. My army, including the Hospitallers, was soundly defeated by a gigantic Muslim force from as far as Nepal.

While they retreated back to the Holy Land, I rounded up all the available holy orders - the Knights of Santiago and Calatrava - and started shipping them to the Middle East. The Muslim forces started besieging my holdings in Arabia, and to be honest, I'd have taken a white peace, but my defeat put the warscore too far underwater. However, the Muslim army split up, and when the holy orders arrived, I figured I'd see if I could beat at least some of the isolated armies, maybe that would raise my warscore enough for a white peace.

Shockingly, we did rather better than that. The Muslim armies came at us piecemeal, and with our heavy cavalry, we were able to beat all of them one by one. After the last force was routed and a Nepalese nobleman captured, the warscore was so firmly on our side that I started besieging the target counties again, and ended up winning the whole thing.


Here's Mercian Arabia:


Also, while I was busy in Arabia, the Queen of Scotland launched a holy war on Prussia, and won.


And somehow, the Kingdom of Italy was taken over by the Byzantines, with the former Iceling kings of Italy now ruling the Kingdom of Africa.


Holding Nefoud let us create the Kingdom of Arabia.


Unfortunately, our expansion in Egypt and Arabia was so succesful that we accumulated a horrible threat score, which meant defensive pacts against us everywhere. So I figured Mordred could have a quiet semi-retirement, maybe writing a book:


Or splurging the entire treasury on some imperial regalia.


Meanwhile, an Iceling somehow secured the throne of Acquitaine.


So here I was, actually kinda enjoying the breather. Until the Pope had other ideas.


So off we went.


Eventually, after half a century on the throne, Emperor Mordred passed away during the crusade. Here he is after a disastrous and unsuccesful surgical intervention. Mordred leaves behind some pretty impressive regalia, a secure demesne in Egypt and the kingdom of Arabia.


**

So, in about a century, three Mercian emperors conquered Egypt and Arabia. The Muslim dynasties that used to control the Middle East are now pretty much gone, with the Arabian peninsula split between Mercia and the Abyssinians, with some Muslim provinces still clinging on to the coasts of the Persian Gulf. They're not the problem, though: the problem is that I now have a land border with the Seljuk empire. A massive Turkish realm stretching out into the steppes, the Seljuks can mobilize over 40 000 warriors. I won't be succesful against them on my own. If they get engaged elsewhere, however, I might have a chance at grabbing the last few provinces of Arabia.

To take full advantage of these opportunities, I've effectively moved the imperial demesne to Egypt. I'm still planning to move my capital there, as soon as we've finished researching Tolerance in Leicester. Right now, though, there's a crusade in Finland, and that will be the subject of my next post.

Apr 2, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 43: The Riders of Rohan

Dusk deepened.

Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli trail the orcs deep into the night, leaving the river behind and entering the highlands of the Emyn Muil. There they rest for a while before dawn, and rediscover the trail when they come across five dead Mordor orcs, who they judge were killed by the larger orcs of Isengard.

As dawn breaks, the three hunters descend from the Emyn Muil to the grasslands of Rohan. Aragorn sees the White Mountains of Gondor to the south, and gives them a bit of poetry, but the orc-trail leads away northwest, and they follow it. Suddenly Aragorn spots tracks leading away from the trail: a hobbit's bare feet, and a brooch from Lórien, and orc-boots returning to the trail. So they judge that at least one hobbit was still alive.

As night falls, the Three Hunters have a choice to make: do they pursue the orcs in the dark, or rest? By night, they might lost the trail or miss something like the brooch, and they need rest; but the orcs are unlikely to stop, so they may lose any chance of catching them.

"You give the choice to an ill chooser," said Aragorn. "Since we passed through the Argonath my choices have gone amiss."

No argument here. They rest, which is to say Aragorn and Gimli sleep, and Legolas kind of hangs around. At dawn, they resume the pursuit for another day, but they feel the malice of Saruman slowing them down.

The orc-trail leads into a line of downs, which rise toward the uplands of Rohan and beyond it, the forest of Fangorn. On the fourth morning of their chase, the Three Hunters spot a body of riders heading back along the trail. Behind them, smoke rises into the sky. Aragorn decides they might as well wait for the riders, and gives a worried Gimli a short briefing on Rohan and the Rohirrim.

They are proud and wilful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years.

We also learn that the Rohirrim are kin to the men of Dale and the Beornings, and Eorl the Young led them out of the North long ago. The rumor Boromir had mentioned, that they send tribute to Mordor, is brought up, but Aragorn firmly disbelieves it.

Soon enough, the mail-clad riders approach, and ride right by the three hunters in their elven-cloaks. As the last of them are passing by, Aragorn calls out to them, and they quickly surround the trio. The leader of the riders interrogates him, and Aragorn identifies himself simply as Strider, who hunts orcs. When he's asked why the riders didn't see them, with a suspicion that they're elves, Aragorn reveals they passed through the Golden Wood and have the favor of its Lady. This makes Éomer, who now introduces himself, suspect them of being sorcerers, and Gimli and Legolas nearly commit suicide by Rohirrim by trying to pick a fight with him over Galadriel's honor. Aragorn saves them from their idiocy by intervening and apologizing to Éomer.

Éomer demands to know Aragorn's real name, and assures him that the people of Rohan do not serve Sauron. Aragorn then introduces himself as the Heir of Isildur, and shows him the Sword that was Broken reforged. Éomer is impressed, but when Aragorn asks after the hobbits, his lieutenant laughs and scorns the Three Hunters as "wild folk" with fairy-tales. Éomer dismisses his troops and continues the conversation alone.

He assures Aragorn and company that there were no halflings among the orcs they killed. Aragorn tells him they set out from Rivendell on a secret errand with Boromir and Gandalf. Éomer warns him that Gandalf isn't popular in Rohan, but is distraught to hear that both Gandalf and Boromir are dead. They speak of the coming war against Sauron, and Éomer confides that there is division in Rohan. Saruman they are already at war with, as he has claimed lordship over Rohan. The trouble is that the law of Rohan forbids strangers to wander the land without leave from the king. Eventually, they strike a deal: Éomer lends them horses (Legolas and Gimli share), in exchange for Aragorn's promise to return them to the king's seat in Edoras when their hunt is complete.

Riding down the orc-trail, the hunters find a burial-mound for the fallen riders, and a smoking pile of ashes where the bodies of the orcs were burned. They search, but night falls without any of them finding any trace of Merry or Pippin. They make camp by the edge of the forest. Early in the night, a cloaked old man appears at the edge of the firelight; Aragorn rises to greet him, but he vanishes, and the companions find their horses gone. Gimli is convinced it was Saruman, stealing their horses; whoever it was, he does not return.

**

As with the first two books, the second chapter of Book Three also contains a lengthy conversation that sets the scene for the rest of the book; this time, it's Aragorn's briefing on the Rohirrim and his talk with Éomer.

I've always understood Rohan and the Rohirrim to be based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia; their names and language are essentially Old English (Letters, 144), and the two kingdoms share the same name: the Mark, as in march, borderland. Éomer himself takes his name from a probably mythical king of the Angles from before they came to Britain. For whatever reason, though, the Rohirrim have a more intimate bond with their horses than the Mercians ever had, seeming almost nomadic in this first encounter.

Tolkien was insistent that Middle-earth wasn't intended to be an imaginary place, but rather our world:

I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd > middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenë, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.
(Letters, 183)

So if we take Tolkien seriously, then in some real sense, the people of Rohan are some kind of equestrian pre-Mercians. Where the Shire is a comfortable and middle-class anachronism of the English countryside, Rohan is proto-England: a land of warriors, songs and horses. It's worth remembering this, because in my mind at least, it means that to the extent that Tolkien intended the Lord of the Rings to be a mythology for England (Letters, 131), the bearers of that mythology to the future - and in that sense, the central people of the story - are the Rohirrim. This is why I quoted their description at length: they're Tolkien's own, white noble savages, as it were: a simpler, idealized, Northern Englishness.

Re-reading this, I'm struck by how truculent Gimli and Legolas are toward Éomer. Legolas especially! You'd think that at his age, he'd have picked up better manners somewhere along the way. Luckily Aragorn makes a succesful diplomatic intervention, or one part of the Fellowship would have come to a catastrophically stupid end.

Finally, there's a nice quote from Éomer's conversation with Aragorn that I think speaks to one of Tolkien's great themes:

"The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

In the foreword, Tolkien mentions the oppression of the shadow of war, and while the whole conversation between Aragorn and Éomer concerns it, to me, this is one of the exchanges that really gets to the gist of it: when times get tough, so to speak, what are we to do? In a time when the particular evil that Tolkien's Britain was at war with when he wrote this is rising again, I find both Éomer's confusion and Aragorn's answer quite poignantly contemporary. In terms of the story, Aragorn and company's time in the wilderness is over, and they're now caught up in the buildup to war.

Also, Aragorn is effectively saying that the personal is political, which I find absolutely delightful.

**

Next time: orcs.

Mar 12, 2018

LotR LCG: Against the Shadow cycle

"If a man must needs walk in sight of the Black Gate, or tread the deadly flowers of Morgul Vale, then perils he will have.
- Aragorn, in the Lord of the Rings, Book II, chapter 2


It's been ages since I've done one of these posts! I've been taking a bit of a break from the Lord of the Rings LCG, but the Wilds of Rhovanion announcement got me excited to play again, and while we were waiting for the Haradrim cycle adventure packs to turn up, we finished working through the Against the Shadow cycle, where our heroes become involved in Gondor's war with Sauron.


John Howe: The Witch King, no date given.

**

The Steward's Fear - DL 5


In the first adventure pack of the series, our heroes have been sent to investigate a conspiracy in Minas Tirith. The setup is a little fiddly, with an encounter deck, an underworld deck and a secret randomly selected villain and plot. The fiddliness is worth it, though, for the extra replay value, since each combo of plot and villain will be different. The quest itself is fairly straightforward; you fight off various brigands and whatnot, and advance by exploring locations. Funny how people hate Hills of Emyn Muil because it's all about clearing locations, but The Steward's Fear is very popular and the key mechanic is... clearing locations.


We first tried this three-handed with a friend's hobbit deck, and had a blast. It's like Peril in Pelargir, only better, and because of both theme and replayability, I'd give it an edge over Escape from Umbar as the best urban quest in the game. Highly recommended!

Card spotlight: Gondorian Shield


Outlands are all well and good, but where would we be without Gondorian Shield? Buff Beregond up to a ridiculous defense of 6 for free, give good old Eleanor a respectable 4 defense, or best of all, turn Boromir into a monster defender. Such an excellent, straightforward little attachment that's never gone out of use since it turned up.

**

The Drúadan Forest - DL 6


After uncovering the plot in the last scenario, our heroes are pursuing the conspirators into the Drúadan Forest, the home of the Wood-Woses. The first stages are hard questing, harassed by Woses who use the Prowl mechanic to steal all your resources. Soon enough, you find the villains you were looking for: riddled with wose arrows, as you're about to become. At one point, we managed to soak up a ridiculous 12 points of archery damage! If you survive, the last quest stage is a siege quest, where you quest using Defense, and as a surprise twist, use Willpower instead of Attack.


We enjoyed ourselves! Jubayr was excellent here with his shadow-discarding ability, and a surprisingly welcome contributor to the siege questing in the last stage. If your decks can handle archery, this is a pretty good quest. Hobbits, I imagine, would pretty much be mowed down immediately. DL 6 feels a bit high, but maybe our decks were particularly well suited to the challenge. In terms of both theme and mechanics, this is actually what the Dunlending quests in the Voice of Isengard and the Ring-maker cycle should have been like.

Card spotlight: Mighty Prowess


The big theme of the player cards in this cycle was mono-sphere, so most of the cards in this adventure pack and quite a few in the others ones as well are tied to decks with heroes from one sphere only. The most noteworthy exception here happens to be the one we've made use of: Mighty Prowess. Since most quests tend to have enemies that share a trait or even two, you'll tend to find a recipient for the damage, at least in multiplayer games. Combine it with Thalin and any kind of readying to wipe out weaker enemies with ease.

**

Encounter at Amon Dîn - DL 5


On their way back to Minas Tirith, the heroes come across a nobleman, Lord Alcaron, busy trying to defend some Gondorian farmers from ravaging orcs. Obviously our heroes help out.


This is a fairly simple quest, with just two quest stages and a focus on saving villagers faster than the orcs can kill them. I know commenting on the official difficulty levels is kind of pointless, but DL 5 is a particularly egregious overstatement even for them. This quest is in the top 3 easiest quests in the game on the Quest Companion and for good reason; I'd have considered something like DL 2 myself. There's a couple of unpredictable shadow effects and it's not impossible to fail at protecting the villagers, but at least decently built decks should have an easy time of it.


This is a fairly thematic quest, though, and some of the encounter card art is quite nice. Because it's also quite easy, this really wouldn't be a bad quest for new players to try out. In the end, I think the fairly thin encounter deck and rather uninspired quest deck keep this from being a particularly good quest, but there's really nothing wrong with it either.

Card spotlight: Ithilien Archer


There's not a whole lot of ranged attack outside Tactics or Leadership, which immediately makes this a useful card to have in multiplayer games. Only 2 attack isn't much, but with several players, it's what you combine it with that counts, and it's that much more likely that you'll get to make use of the ability as well. If I ever get around to building one of those trap decks, I'm pretty sure I'll be including this guy in it.

**

Assault on Osgiliath - DL 8


After rescuing villagers, our heroes take part in the fighting around the ruins of Osgiliath. Another slightly different quest, this one revolves around trying to claim locations from the enemy and defend them.


We gave this a few shots, and it's not a bad quest; it's fairly combat-focused, with some pretty tough enemies, but DL 8 still feels a bit high. The weird thing about this quest is how random the actual difficulty can be; because the victory condition is holding every Osgiliath location in play, games can end very quickly if there are only a couple. Especially solo games can end very suddenly, while multiplayer games can degenerate into massive slogs through hordes of enemies. Unpredictability aside, this isn't a bad quest, but perhaps a little more like the huge battles of the Heirs deluxe than we'd like.

Card spotlight: Palantír


The most interesting card in the game that I've never gotten around to using. When I eventually get bored with my current deck,I'm going to come up with something focused on encounter deck manipulation, and it will definitely include a Palantír.

**

The Blood of Gondor - DL 7


With Osgiliath retaken, our heroes pursue the retreating enemy into Ithilien, with the help of Lord Alcaron and Objective Ally Faramir. With both battle and siege questing on offer, this is another fighty quest where you get ambushed by orcs through a hidden card mechanic. Special bonus points for very atmospheric card art.


This is a fairly straightforward quest, and either we got very lucky, or the difficulty level is a bit on the high side, because we passed this on our first go, despite losing a hero early. The hidden card mechanic isn't bad, but the enemies are oddly lackluster for this cycle, and the whole thing feels a bit short and sort of like a missed opportunity to do something more interesting.

Card spotlight: Caldara


Not every hero in this game gets a deck type named after themselves, but Caldara decks are an entire world of their own. All you need is a reliable way to get lots of expensive Spirit characters into the discard pile, Sword-thain for an extra hero and ally Imrahil to fill in while Caldara's gone, and you're in business.

**

The Morgul Vale - DL 7


In the climactic finale to the cycle, Faramir has been captured by the orcs, and our heroes pursue them into the valley of Minas Morgul itself. There, they must fight their way past three end bosses I mean captains to free Faramir.


This is a somewhat combat-heavy quest, but it's well executed and pretty atmospheric. We threated out on the last quest stage, but definitely enjoyed ourselves! A proper end to the cycle, and a fitting bookend to the Steward's Fear.

Card spotlight: Spear of the Mark


I don't know why Dúnhere decks are so much fun, but they just are. There's something deeply satisfying about charging into the staging area to beat up on an enemy that can't attack back, or trigger some horrible ability contingent on engaging you. Because Dúnhere's attack isn't actually that high, he needs some help to knock out tougher enemies, and that's why you get this spear. Simply an indispensable accessory to a fun deck.

**

So, that's an adventure pack cycle. We didn't particularly enjoy the Heirs of Númenor deluxe expansion, with its heavy emphasis on combat, but the associated cycle is much better. The Steward's Fear is an excellent quest, as is the Morgul Vale, and Encounter at Amon Dîn is a fun enough adventure for less experienced players. So there's something here for everyone. Definitely a pleasant surprise after the deluxe!

**

Finally, my deck. It's been so long I can barely remember what's in it! One thing I'm sure of, though, is that now that we've got a copy of the last saga expansion, the Mountain of Fire, there's no way I'm not including Elladan and Elrohir in my unique character -themed deck. Other than that, I'm quite happy with what I've got.

56 cards; 29 Spirit, 23 Lore, 4 neutral; 26 allies, 12 attachments, 16 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 26 (17/8/1)
Jubayr (TM)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC)
Elrohir (TMoF)
Lindir (TBoCD)
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x2
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Dúnedain Pathfinder (RAH) x2
Elladan (TMoF)
Gléowine x2
Mablung (TLoS)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Ioreth (ASoCH)
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 12 (6/6)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x2
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2

Events: 16 (5/8/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x2
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x2
None Return (AtE) x3
Daeron's Runes (FoS) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

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

**

And here's my partner's mono-Tactics deck.

Team Boromir Mk.4 (57)

Boromir (TDM)
Legolas (Core)
Éowyn (TFotW)

Allies: 15 (11/4)

Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x2
Honour Guard (TwoE) x3
Winged Guardian (ThfG) x3
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Gandalf (Core)
Radagast (AjtR)
Steward of Orthanc (RAH) x 2

Events: 16 (12/4)

Wait No Longer (TM) x3
Feint x3
Foe-Hammer (OhaUH) x3
Sterner than Steel (TFofW) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3
Justice Shall Be Done (ASoCH)

Attachments: 24 (21/3)

Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Vigilant Guard (ASoCH)
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Spear of the Citadel (HoN) x2
Captain of Gondor (TAC) x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF) x2
Grappling Hook (TGH) x3
Mighty Prowess (TDF) x2
Rivendell Blade (RtR) x2
Rohan Warhorse (TvoI) x2
Black Arrow (OtD)
Favor of the Valar x3 (TboCD)

Side quests: 2 (1/1)

Keep Watch (BtS)
Gather Information (TLR)