Jul 11, 2016

LotR LCG: To Isengard!

"But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman; and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber."
- Gandalf, the Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II

Having cheerfully abandoned publication order for good with the Grey Havens, I think we can now move on to the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion. I already tried The Lost Realm and didn't like it, and Heirs of Númenor has been called frustratingly difficult so often that it doesn't sound like particularly good fun either. On the other hand, I've heard a lot of good things about Voice of Isengard, especially in terms of theme and narrative, so this was an easy choice to make while waiting to complete our collection of the Dream-chaser cycle.

John Howe: Orthanc Destroyed, 2000.


The Fords of Isen - DL 5

The first quest in this expansion sees us riding to Gríma Wormtongue's rescue. I love that the game is set before the Lord of the Rings takes place, in a time when Saruman is still considered one of the chief good guys, and rescuing Gríma makes perfect sense. We took a shot at this four-handed and boy oh boy that is a lot of Dunlendings.

The clever thing about the Dunlendings is that their mechanics are based on the cards in the players' hands. The Dunland Raider, for instance, does damage equal to the number of cards you hold when engaging you, and the Dunlending Bandit's attack value is based on your hand size. Some people don't like this mechanic as they feel it's too abstract and it's difficult to understand what it actually represents (e.g. this post and comments). I have to say that while I do feel that it's good for rules mechanics to be thematic if possible, I may well be inconsistent in that I also don't really actively visualize game events taking place as "real-world" equivalents. I don't, for instance, know what Thalin's ability is supposed to symbolize; because of the art, I kinda imagine him lurking next to the encounter deck and knocking all the enemies on the head with his axe. I similarly have no idea why we get progress when Legolas kills someone, let alone what Eleanor's ability to cancel a treachery and replace it with another card represents. This isn't to say the complaint about the Dunlendings is somehow wrong, but rather that it made me think about how I visualize the game as I'm playing it.

Another mechanic introduced in this expansion was Time, in this case meaning that we only had a certain number of turns to get to Gríma. Suffice to say that on our first attempt, we were completely overwhelmed by the Dunlendings and failed. Playing two-handed, we eventually succeeded in making it to the second quest stage, which then quite comprehensively defeated us: after a first stage spent fighting huge amounts of Dunlendings, you then move on to fight huge amounts of Dunlendings.

Overall, we weren't terribly impressed with this quest. The Time mechanic is interesting, but in this case it doesn't really add much to the experience, since you're either going to be overrun by the Dunlendings or not. In order to not be, you have to be able to fight off repeated attacks at about one million strength, as well as absorb at times obscene amounts of direct damage. What ends up being decisive, I guess, is the fact that the Dunlendings just aren't particularly interesting enemies. Having run through this scenario a couple of times, I also think there may be more merit to the idea of the "cards in hand" mechanics being somehow alienating than I had originally thought. It's a bit similar to the riddle mechanic in Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim, which I also wasn't at all fond of. Whatever the reason, this is definitely one of the weakest quests we've played so far.


To Catch an Orc - DL 4

After all the Dunlending, Saruman sends our heroes after an orc. This is represented by a strangely fiddly mechanic where we have to take a whole pile of cards from our decks, set them apart and shuffle one enemy card into each player's set-aside deck. One of us has Mugash in their set-aside deck, and at various times we discard cards from them, looking for Mugash.

We took this quest on three-handed with the hobbit deck, and it didn't go too well. To get started, we had to put three locations in the staging area, and managed to draw a whole bunch of either surging cards or treacheries that added more stuff.

With the staging area conveniently full of locations, we were destroyed by a combination of massive threat, nasty shadow cards and a stupid dog.

While the idea of this quest is quite clever, I'm really not a fan of mechanics that take a whole pile of your cards away for no thematic reason whatsoever, so I didn't like the central concept here one bit. There also seems to be a pretty major problem with it: in a multiplayer game, what happens if the player who has Mugash in their set-aside deck is eliminated? As near as we can tell, that means the game becomes unwinnable. That seems a bit harsh to me. Apart from the set-aside deck, the rest of the quest was quite bland. So to be honest, this one isn't a winner either.


Into Fangorn - DL 6

In the last quest of the expansion, we have to catch the orc we caught in To Catch an Orc in Fangorn. I think. Anyway, after the previous two quests it's a bit of a relief that there are very few fiddly bits to this one. The major innovation here is the Hinder mechanic: enemies with Hinder don't attack in the combat phase, but remove progress from the quest instead. It's actually kinda clever, and works well with the huorn enemies to give an impression of trying to get through a thick, impassable forest.

We managed to catch Mugash and get damn near to finishing the whole thing, but we couldn't quite quest hard enough to beat out the huorns hindering us, and eventually got threated out. However, unlike the other two quests, we actually enjoyed this one, and felt like we had a decent shot at it. Once again, the official difficulty levels are baffling, since this was supposed to be the hardest quest in the box!


The player cards in the Voice of Isengard are of roughly two kinds. First, there's the cards built around the Doomed trait, most prominently the Gríma hero and ally Saruman.

The trouble with them, though, is that those two excepted, they're just not all that great. Okay, Power of Orthanc is pretty awesome, and a couple of the other cards are thematically very cool, but the Doomed trait does make them less than likely to make you many friends in a multiplayer game. Then there are card like Orthanc Guard which are just complete coasters.

The Rohan cards include the formidable Éomer, and are quite good if you're at all interested in the horse-lords. We've also had great success with the thematically appropriate combination of Legolas and a Rohan Warhorse, and I can't quite shake the feeling that I really ought to be getting more mileage out of Silver Lamp.

I've understood people have had some success with Gríma decks, and I do find the idea of inflicting horrible amounts of threat on your fellow players potentially entertaining. Also, seeing as how Éowyn and a bunch of Rohan allies were pretty instrumental in my first deck, I'll definitely be trying a Rohan deck at some point. On the whole, there's nothing spectacular here: several cards I don't really see being used much, but also some useful pieces that'll fit quite a few decks. Personally, I was almost a little disappointed. The Doomed archetype also hasn't been getting a lot of support since this cycle.


Disappointment is probably the right word to use for this expansion as a whole. I'll admit I'm affected by the fact that it's been sold pretty heavily as a must-have, but I'll be honest: after Khazad-dûm and the Grey Havens, this is the third deluxe expansion we've played through, and definitely the weakest. There's probably a considerable gap in perceptions between us and people who came to this as a new expansion after the apparently grueling Heirs of Númenor, but to us, the first two quests are frustratingly difficult and/or fiddly. In general, I like it when the designers come up with new stuff, but here the various mechanics didn't so much expand the experience as alienate us from it. The third quest is considerably better, but I wouldn't get this for the quests, and the player cards really aren't that great either. Overall, I have to say that The Voice of Isengard was a big let-down.


My Silvan deck has continued to be an absolute delight to play, but as our collection grows, I keep looking for minor tweaks to make to it. Right now, between my partner's Tactics deck and my Silvans, we don't have a whole lot of healing, or any way to get rid of condition attachments. My deck is also a little low on allies at the moment. Since the next item on our saga expansion shopping list is The Road Darkens, a solution to all these problems would seem to be Elrond.

To make space for him, I am, believe it or not, dropping Gandalf. With no resource acceleration, the cost of five is actually a bit steep, to the point where I can't actually remember when I've last played him. If I wanted this to be a viable solo deck, I'd probably need to include Gandalf, but since I don't really play solo right now, I'm going to try using Elrond instead.

The next saga expansion in line for us was The Treason of Saruman, which gives us Ent-draught.

With eight ents on the roster and all my heroes having only three hit points, this is an easy card to include. Ideally, I'll be looking to get copies on Rossiel and Boromir. To make space for it, I was able to shunt responsibility for Elf-friend over to Team Boromir. So here's what I've got:

55 cards; 50 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 17 allies, 14 attachments, 20 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

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

Allies: 17 (15/2)
Elrond (TRD) x3
Ithilien Archer (EaAD) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Treebeard (TAC) x2

Attachments: 13 (11/3)
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3
Ent-draught (TToS) x3
The Long Defeat (TBoCD) x2
Wingfoot (TNiE) x2

Events: 20 (17/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x2
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)

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