Sep 28, 2015

Lord of the Rings LCG: Over the hills and far away

One of the reasons I was so excited to play the Lord of the Rings living card game was how nicely it dovetailed with my Tolkien-reading project. Since I'm currently working my way through the Hobbit, the most natural choice for our first big purchase was obviously the first Hobbit saga expansion. For those of you not familiar with the structure of the game, the Lord of the Rings LCG is made up of cycles of individual adventure packs: the first six can be played with the Core Set, and the subsequent cycles all start with a larger deluxe expansion. In addition to these, there are the saga expansions, which run through the stories of Tolkien's books: there are two saga expansions for the Hobbit, and four Lord of the Rings expansions are out as of this writing. Each comes with several heroes, a pile of player cards, and three quests.

The first Hobbit expansion is called Over Hill and Under Hill, and the appropriate title of its starting quest is We Must Away, Ere Break of Day. You get Bilbo as a fourth hero, and off you go. It's quite an experience the first time around. The initial quest stage is easy: a little bit of light pottering about in the Wilderlands, at worst being harassed by a crow. Unsuspecting, we moved on to the second phase, and boom: Roast Mutton. Suddenly there are three trolls, and they will just straight up murder you. As I insist in not spoiling quests before I play them, we literally had no idea that we would have to take on the trolls the instant we hit the second quest phase. I was playing two-handed with my brother and his Beorn-inspired Leadership/Lore deck (Aragorn, Theodred, Denethor), and the trolls destroyed us completely.

There are two ways to deal with the trolls: either killing them or questing enough to get past them. Seeing as how my deck really isn't built for combat, I figured I should be going for the questing, but it just wasn't working out: I would be overwhelmed by the second stage every time. Either several trolls would come at me, or so much threat built up in the staging area that I couldn't get any questing progress - meaning the trolls came at me and I got murdered. To add to the misery, every time a troll engages you, you have to draw a card from the frankly awful Sack deck, which basically disables one of your heroes every time. I think I tried half a dozen times before deciding to give up and sleep on it.


The next day, I had it figured out. It was pretty obvious that in order to survive the second stage, I was going to need two things: a low enough threat to keep two of the trolls in the staging area, and enough questing allies to make progress while they were there. It could be done - barely. My strategy would be to take the first quest phase as slow as possible while getting my allies into play, and making use of Eleanor's treachery-canceling ability to avoid Roast 'Em or Boil 'Em?, which would just destroy everything. I would hope to use Galadhrim's Greeting to keep my threat low while I built up my forces; since I'm only playing with a single core set, I only have two copies, but with Dwarven Tomb and Will of the West, I can potentially play it six times, theoretically reducing my threat by 36! Not to mention Gandalf. (side note: every damn time I see Will of the West this starts playing in my head)

I got off to a strong start with Mirkwood Runner, Protector of Lórien and West Road Traveller in my opening hand; the first two would deal with the troll, while the last would start up my horde of questing allies. I also lucked out by drawing the irreplacable Henamarth Riversong early, letting me know exactly what the encounter deck was going to throw at me. So I hung out at the first quest stage, using Henamarth to get pretty much exactly the right amount of questing in to keep the staging area manageable but not progress to the second stage yet, and using Eleanor's ability to avoid the horrible ally-destroying treachery. I built up an army of allies that would provide me with enough questing to get through the second phase, and got a copy of Troll Camp in the staging area, which lets Bilbo deal with the Sacks. I managed to draw both copies of Galadhrim's Greeting; at one point I reduced my threat to 18 - low enough to qualify for Secrecy!

So on we go to stage 2 of the quest, i.e. bring on the trolls! My threat was low enough that only Bert engaged us, and I'd managed to hang around long enough to attach both Troll Key and Purse to him. The trick to this quest is that it isn't enough to just beat it: you also want to get your hands on the treasure cards, whuch you can then carry over into the next quests with you! For that, you need to explore Troll Cave, and you can only do that with Troll Key. Seeing how well I was doing, I obviously wanted to get this done as well.

Everything started decently: I quested enough to get some progress in, Bilbo took care of the Sack, and Eleanor held off Bert with Protector of Lórien, while my Mirkwood Runner started whittling away his hit points. Next turn, we managed to grab the Troll Key off him. Then, disaster: Wind-Whipped Rain wiped out my attachments. I couldn't counter it with Eleanor's ability, because if it was replaced with Roast 'Em or Boil 'Em, I'd be toast. Next, More Like a Grocer wiped out Bilbo's resources, meaning I not only had to deal with Bert's 5 attack without the benefit of Protector of Lórien, I had to kill him and wait around for a bit before I could travel to Troll Cave.

In the end, we did it! Several of my allies tragically gave their lives chump blocking Bert, but I managed to defeat him, travel to Troll Cave and finish the quest, treasures in hand. I'm very happy about this, because it's really the first time I've taken on a quest solo with a plan, and seen that plan more or less work out. And this isn't an easy quest, especially if you want the treasure cards.


The next quest takes us over and under the Misty Mountains, with both storm giants and goblins galore. It's actually very similar in structure to the first one, with an initial hanging-out-and-gathering-allies phase, followed by a fight with the Great Goblin and his horde - thematic, but not a great quest. I beat it on my second attempt, with Gandalf making an appropriate entrance just as the orcs rushed us. Beravor, unreasonably dual-wielding Glamdring and Orcrist like a Dúnadan Drizzt Do'Urden, dealt with the Great Goblin, and we made our getaway.

To be honest, I wasn't crazy about the second quest; it felt a bit rushed, and the two separate encounter decks really just feel like a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn two quests into one. Also, the mechanic of a sort of preliminary stage where you build up in order to face the next phase is exactly the same as in the previous quest. The third quest, Dungeons Deep and Caverns Grim, splits your party into two: Bilbo is cordoned off into a special "riddle area" with Gollum, while everyone else keeps on questing through caves and goblins. I tried it once, and to be honest, I hate it. The riddle mechanic is awful, and the more conventional side of the quest is very similar to the previous one. It's also really hard and requires extensive deck customization, neither of which I associate with fun.

Coming to this expansion straight after the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, many of the quest mechanics feel a bit fiddly and unsatisfying. Having seen Over Hill and Under Hill recommended quite strongly, I was maybe expecting more. Mind you, I'd still buy this just for the first quest and the player cards! But don't expect too much from the two other quests.


While solo play is all well and good, where the game really comes into its own is, for me, multiplayer; it was obviously high time to try the Hobbit quests four-handed. Our lineup was, again, my Amazons, Team Boromir (monosphere Tactics with Eagles), a Leadership/Lore deck and a Leadership dwarf deck. Having learned from our initial crushing defeat and my solo experiences, we figured we'd take it nice and easy, build up our forces, and take on the trolls when we were good and ready. Or at least that was the plan. What actually happened was that we drew three treacheries in our first staging phase, so boom: trolls. Some of us had threat scores high enough that two of the trolls engaged us, so out came the sacks and off we went.

It was a complete disaster, but we did our best with it. Appropriately enough, the dwarf deck started laying into Tom at once, while the Tactics guys did their best to hold off Bert, leaving the rest of us to quest. My latest addition, Arwen, was worth her weight in gold with her special defence-boosting ability, and when things started looking a bit grim, I found that Arwen makes a wonderful combo with another card I'd only just added to my deck: Gandalf!

My solo attempts at this quest had finally convinced me that I needed Mithrandir Stormcrow's help, but since we're running three separate decks from a single core set, I only have one copy. I'd been a bit dubious about the Over Hill and Under Hill version, but since he was all I had, I added two copies to my deck. As it turns out, a wizard who quests at four willpower and can then defend with a strength of 5 and sentinel from Arwen's bonus is actually quite brilliant! I kept him around, too, even with the additional threat; the way things were going, my threat was the least of our worries. With Gandalf helping out on defense, we just barely managed to keep the trolls at bay until we quested through the encounter deck and the sun came up to save us. No treasure, alas, but a hell of a ride. We'll have to try it again and see if we can't score some magical swords.


Here's the state of my deck at the conclusion of our Hobbit adventures:

The Amazons

52 cards: 27 Spirit, 21 Lore, 4 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 8 attachments, 16 events


Allies: (25, 13/9/3)
Elfhelm x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel x2
Escort from Edoras x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker x2
West Road Traveller x3
Haldir of Lórien
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 8 (1/6/1)
Unexpected Courage
Forest Snare x2
A Burning Brand x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom

Events: 16 (11/5)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Will of the West
Elrond's Counsel x3
Lore of Imladris x2
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2

Like I mentioned before, my solo attempts at the Hobbit quests finally convinced me that my deck needs more Gandalf in it, so I went for his Hobbit-era incarnation - which actually turned out brilliantly! To make space for the Grey Pilgrim, I dropped my Lórien Guides. At a cost of three each, I always seemed to have something better to spend those Spirit resources on. When I got my hands on the Watcher in the Water adventure pack, I also had no compunctions getting rid of both copies of Favor of the Lady for Arwen: not only is she an excellent questing addition, but her defense-boosting ability will make my life that much easier - and above all, since the theme of my deck is Amazons, how could I not include her? Also, since she's a unique Noldor character, hello Elrond's Counsel. Threat management is pretty vital to my deck when playing solo. I never did get to use Astonishing Speed, as it is a bit expensive, and while Ancient Mathom is nice, I'm already doing okay for card draw, so I swapped them for three copies of Elrond's Counsel.

The last additions to the deck come courtesy of Conflict at the Carrock: the ever-necessary A Burning Brand, and a copy of Song of Wisdom so I can get one on Eleanor. (side note: every damn time I see A Burning Brand this starts playing in my head) I ditched Strider's Path to make room for it, and decided to try going with 52 cards from here on. We'll see how it goes! I'm looking forward to trying A Journey Along the Anduin solo with my new additions, and next time, we're taking on the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs. Also, I can't wait for the Grey Havens expansion!

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