Apr 11, 2016

LotR LCG: Second star to the right

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

John Howe: The Grey Havens (1999)


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

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

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

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


Voyage Across Belegaer - DL 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Fate of Númenor - DL 5

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

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

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

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


Raid on the Grey Havens - DL 6

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

And here's Team Boromir:

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

Boromir (TDM)

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

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

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

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