Oct 24, 2016

CKII: What to buy

To unwind amidst all the PhD stuff and the dystopianly horrible teacher studies, I started playing Crusader Kings II again this fall. I do genuinely consider it to be one of the best video games I've ever played in my life. In the spirit of my previous buying guides, and with the Black Friday Steam sale approaching, here are my thoughts on what expansions to buy if you do get the game.

There are two DLCs that I think are definitely worth buying fairly soon. Sons of Abraham is one of the cheaper expansions, but it provides some really handy mechanics for novice players, especially when playing Christian rulers. You can get rid of annoying courtiers or even unwanted heirs by making them take holy orders: this will disqualify them from succession, and quite often they'll leave to join a militant order like the Templars. Perhaps more importantly for starting players, you also get to borrow money from either Jewish merchants in your realm or a holy order. When you've overreached yourself in a war, your army's been trashed and the enemy is bearing down on your capital, that loan will be the difference between watching yourself lose a siege and hiring a mercenary troop to save your ass. I can personally testify that this will get you out of a number of pickles you'll manage to get yourself into. So I'd definitely buy Sons of Abraham.

Incidentally, Sons of Abraham also allows heresies to supplant their parent religions if they become more widespread. In my previous game, after the Almoravids converted to Catholicism and the Mongols invaded, the two branches of Islam were the Shi'ites and the Yazidis, and Sunni Islam became a heresy!

The other expansion I'd get fairly soon is Way of Life. It lets you pick a focus for your character, like, say, War, Business or even Theology. This replaces the attribute-based ambitions of the base game and lets you react more intelligently to your situation. For example, if you're married but have no heir, the Family and Seduction foci will increase your fertility. The War focus increases your Martial skill and lets you learn leadership traits, the Hunting focus boosts health, and so on. Not only id this strategically useful, but the foci and the event chains that go with them make your characters feel much more fleshed out. As an additional bonus, the Scholarship focus can trigger an event chain that lets you build an observatory and, among other possibilities, get your hands on the Necronomicon and risk going mad... I highly recommend Way of Life, and couldn't imagine going back to playing without it. If you're only going to get one expansion and don't have your heart set on any of the others, I'd make it this one.


Three other older expansions add significant features to gameplay across the board. Legacy of Rome adds depth to playing as the Byzantines, and unlocks retinues for all rulers.

The Old Gods slightly changes revolts to make them a bit more dangerous, and introduces adventurers, who may try to raise troops and attack you. This can lead to some interesting developments, since if you defeat and imprison them, the adventurers will at least sometimes actually become your vassals, and if they don't have any dangerous claims, you can employ them. In my last game starting from Dublin, a Norse adventurer attacked me as I was fighting the King of Norway for control of Glamorgan. I defeated them both, but since the Norse fellow had a better martial score than most of my commanders, I gave him a job. After succesfully commanding a flank of my army against the infidel, he became the count of Alcácer do Sal in Irish Portugal.

More significantly, the Old Gods unlocks an earlier start date in 867 AD, and lets you play as a pagan ruler. I'm mildly annoyed that Finnish paganism is called Suomenusko, which is a modern-day pseudo-nationalist neopagan "revival" whose very name would have been completely nonsensical to the vast majority of medieval Finno-Ugric people, but in general, I do very much approve of the new pagan religions. I'm currently playing as the Hämäläinen dynasty from the 867 bookmark, and it's been tremendously good fun.

Charlemagne gives you an even earlier starting date in 769 AD, some more narrative events, especially involving historically important characters, and several new administrative options. Perhaps most notably, you now get to create your own titular kingdoms and even empires! This last bit will come in very handy indeed to larger realms, since emperors can have kings as vassals, drastically cutting down on the number of direct vassals you need to have. Conversely, I think beginning players will do just fine without it.


The latest two expansions are also really interesting, but I haven't gotten my hands on them yet. The Reaper's Due only just came out, and I like the idea of advanced disease mechanics! Very medieval. Conclave also looks fun, but I'm waiting for a sale.

In addition to these, there are the expansions that unlock a certain kind of playable character. Sword of Islam lets you play as a Muslim, The Republic allows merchant republics, Rajas of India gives you Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rulers, and Horse Lords unlocks nomads. In addition, Rajas of India gives all characters the ability to convert to their capital province's religion or culture, which can allow some unusual combinations. Horse Lords adds new rules for nomads and the Silk Road, but all of the other major features of these expansions were patched into the base game for free, so the only reason to buy any of these is if you want to play as the kind of ruler they unlock. Of these, I only own Rajas of India, and have yet to try a game in India.

Finally, there are the graphical DLCs, like unit packs, portrait packs and so on. Of these, I haven't really found the unit packs to be worth bothering with, but the portrait packs do make for a more interesting experience since if you play a game through within the same cultural group, I can tell you that you'll get tired of seeing the same faces over and over again! There are also Music DLCs, which I haven't invested in yet, but you can listen to them on Youtube.


So, to sum up, if you're just getting started, I think I'd buy Way of Life, and a portrait pack for the culture I intend to play as. If you still feel like spending some money, Sons of Abraham is also a good choice. In my opinion, that's plenty to get started with. Finally, though, I want to reiterate that this is a very dangerous game. If you like it, you may obsess over it. A lot. Over this past fall, the only thing that's occupied my mind as much as my PhD has been House Hämäläinen. So enjoy yourself, but don't say I didn't warn you!

Oct 17, 2016

LotR LCG: Deckbuilding thoughts and probabilities, and the New Amazons

Alone Éowyn stood before the doors of the house at the stair's head; the sword was set upright before her, and her hands were laid upon the hilt. She was clad now in mail and shone like silver in the sun.
- The Lord of the Rings, book III, chapter VI

John Howe: Eowyn, no date given


I want to make a new deck. How many cards should it have in it?

First, the most basic probability: the odds of drawing a single card from a deck of 50 are 1/50: 2%. The bigger the deck, the lower the probability of any single card showing up. In a 51-card deck, the odds of drawing a single card are 1.96%; 52 cards, 1.92%, and so on. Here's a graph (click to zoom):

By the time the deck reaches 67 cards, the probability of drawing any single card has dropped from 2% to below 1.5%. Most Lord of the Rings decks will tend to have very few singletons, though; two or three copies of a card are more usual. Here are the probabilities for drawing a single card, one of two copies or one of three copies:

These sharply declining curves are why most people, myself included, have tended to prefer decks as close to 50 cards in size as possible. However, the optics are a little bit misleading here. At 50 cards, the probability of drawing a singleton is 2%, one of two copies 4%, and one of three 6%. At 60 cards, those probabilities have dropped to 1.67%, 3.33% and 5% respectively. That's actually not a very large difference in absolute terms!

Another set of probabilities to look at is the opening hand. At the start of the game, we draw six cards, and have the option of a mulligan, where the cards we drew are reshuffled into the deck, and a new hand is drawn. If you have three copies of a card in a deck of 50, and are willing to mulligan your hand if you don't get at least one on the first go, the odds of finding that card are actually pretty good: 54.34%, to be exact. For example, with my Silvan deck, I liked seeing a copy of None Return in my opening hand to get Rossiel her defense bonus. If I was willing to mulligan if I didn't see one, I'd end up with at least one None Return in my opening hand more than every second game. Here's how those odds decline as the deck gets bigger:

The probability only drops below 50% when the deck exceeds 56 cards; in that exact case, the probability of starting with at least one None Return is 50.01%. What about cards that you only have two copies of? We own two core sets, meaning we've got exactly two copies of Unexpected Courage. Here are the odds of getting Unexpected Courage in your starting hand, mulligan included:

In a 50-card deck, you have a 40.36% chance of getting at least one Unexpected Courage in your hand, provided you're willing to mulligan for it; if not, it's a 22% shot. At 60 cards, these percentages are 34.64% and 19.15% respectively. Again, not a massive difference in absolute terms.

To sum up, here's some key statistics for a 50-card and a 56-card deck.

Deck size:50 cards56 cards
Single card probability2%1.79%
At least one of three copies, opening hand32.43%29.29%
At least one of three copies, mulligan inc.54.34%50.01%
At least one of two copies, opening hand22.78%20.45%
At least one of two copies, mulligan inc.40.36%34.64%

To some extent, this is a prize example of creeping normalcy: 51 cards isn't that different from 50 cards, 52 isn't that different from 51, and so on until 56, 66 or 666. But my point is that in terms of actual numbers, whether your deck has 50 or 56 cards in it doesn't actually make that much of a difference: certainly not enough that decks dogmatically must be 50 or maybe at most 52 cards. Instead, I'd suggest there are two main determinants for how large a deck should be. First, are there specific cards that are absolutely necessary for the deck to function? If so, the deck needs to be leaner to make sure you can find those crucial cards. Second, how much card draw is there? If you can confidently draw through most of your deck during an average game, finding specific cards is a whole lot easier. I'd venture to suggest that these two should combine to form some kind of "deck index" that tells you whether the deck should be on the large or small side. For decks with average or less card draw that don't depend on some particular card or combination of cards to work, I'm inclined to say that the "tournament minimum" of 50 can safely be exceeded.


Now to get to building my actual deck. Back when I put together my very first deck, the theme I chose was Amazons: I used all three female heroes from the core set to create a questing-focused Spirit/Lore deck. Even though I designed the deck to work together with my partner's Tactics deck,I did also manage some solo success, perhaps in my mind most memorably against some trolls.

When I wanted to try something different, I built my Lore Silvan deck with Haldir, Mirlonde and Rossiel. I never really played this solo, but together with Team Boromir and my hobbit deck, we were pretty succesful, and Rossiel won a place in my heart as one of my favorite heroes.

Now it's time to move on again. Our experiences with the Ring-maker cycle highlighted the one major drawback of our Silvans-Boromir combo: early questing. As much as I'd enjoyed my Silvan deck, this and the then-upcoming Dream-chaser adventure packs encouraged me to return to a Spirit-Lore setup and focus on questing. In terms of deck abilities, what we need is questing and location control, with a side of healing and treachery cancellation. Luckily, there was one hero who was perfect for providing early questing power and returning me to my Amazon theme: Éowyn. With her long-awaited Tactics incarnation on the horizon, if I wanted to try her in a Spirit questing deck, the time was now.

Like I said, I love Rossiel, and the added value her victory display shenanigans provide to Keen as Lances, especially with several players using it, is huge. She fits perfectly into a Spirit deck as she can make up for Spirit's weakness on defence, and since none of us are crass enough to use Snorefindel, she's a perfect target for Light of Valinor to get the most out of her ability.

The choice of a third hero was a little bit more complicated. I considered Arwen, but with Spirit's weak defense, I tend to prefer her ally version. I'm a big fan of Eleanor, but she can't help us with questing. We could also do with some attack strength, which leads my thoughts to Idraen. I tried Idraen out in a Spirit deck I built, but still haven't been able to make my mind up about her: she has great stats and a potentially useful readying ability, but that comes with a very high starting threat. I suppose now would be a good time to find out if it's worth it.


For the deck proper, I was looking for something of a halfway house between my original Amazon deck and my Silvans: knowing that I'd mostly be playing with my partner's Tactics deck, I could pretty much leave combat to them and focus on questing. With the cardpool as large as it is these days, even with such a narrowly defined specialization, picking a deck isn't all that easy. To take an example: Rossiel is a very handy defender, especially with A Burning Brand attached, but with only three hit points, she's a bit fragile. During our Silvan-Boromir co-op days, it was expedient to play Elf-friend on Boromir so my Silvan Trackers could heal him. Because sentinel was also wonderfully handy on him, my partner would include Elven Mail for him as well. If a second copy showed up, or Elf-friend had failed to make an appearance, Rossiel really benefited from the +2 hit points, and being able to provide a risk-free defense is nothing to sneer at.

If I can confidently expect that my partner will be playing an attachment on one of my heroes and I'm playing Spirit, surely this is a perfect opportunity for Renewed Friendship? A zero-cost card, after all!

In a situation like this, Renewed Friendship looks great: any Tactics deck can use card draw and threat reduction. The problem isn't that it's a bad card; the problem is that I can easily name ten or more events that are more useful. Renewed Friendship may not cost any resources, but it takes up space in my deck, making it that much less likely that I'll see those more useful cards when I need them. Unfortunately, the card pool is already big enough that this is getting to be the paramount consideration. It's also why I still haven't been able to work out if including Curious Brandybuck in a deck is worth it!


In this case, the events chose themselves: Rossiel's victory display cards and Keen as Lances, and A Test of Will for treachery cancellation. The Lore attachments are also basically carried over from my Silvan deck, and Snowmane and Herugrim seem positively necessary in a deck that otherwise has no attacking power whatsoever, and hell, I wanna try them. For a little more card draw, I stole the Ancient Mathoms from the Rohan deck.

The allies are where the location control comes in, because no way am I not including the ayatollah of location controllah and Greyflood Wanderer. The Warden of Healing is still the best at what he does, to the extent that I might have to consider another copy of The Long Dark so my Amazons can work together with the hobbit deck. Finally, Galadriel's Handmaidens and West Road Travellers provide questing, and some Wandering Ents round out the deck.

Do I want to include Gandalf? For my Silvan deck, I dropped the seemingly mandatory core Gandalfs, because I never had enough resources to get him in play. This deck also has no resource acceleration at all, so I'll be looking at the same problem. With Rossiel around, Keen as Lances pretty much becomes a lower-cost Gandalf substitute. For now, I think I'll do without.

53 cards; 28 Spirit, 22 Lore, 3 neutral; 19 allies, 17 attachments, 15 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

Éowyn (Core)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 19 (13/6)
Northern Tracker x2
Greyflood Wanderer (TTT) x3
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3

Attachments: 17 (11/6)
Herugrim (TToS) x2
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
Snowmane (TLoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 15 (3/9/3)
A Test of Will 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)


Like I said, this deck has no attacking power whatsoever, so I'm not really expecting it to be able to handle itself solo. This was confirmed by an attempt at Passage through Mirkwood, where we just couldn't for the life of us destroy Ungoliant's Spawn. The proper use of this deck is in co-operation with my partner's Team Boromir: they fight, I quest. Together, we breezed through Passage, and then tackled the high seas. In Voyage Across Belegaer, we did pretty well until we strayed off course and were wrecked, but when we took on the then-brand-new Flight of the Stormcaller, we beat it on our first try! The Tactics deck routed the corsair boarders and sank their ships, while my Amazons sailed and quested. Despite losing several allies to Man Overboard!, we were finally able to catch the Stormcaller on the very last quest stage.

To demonstrate that my focus on questing was succesful, a three-handed run at Trouble in Tharbad with the Leadership/Lore deck was a breeze, Faramir boosting my willpower to unreasonable levels. Especially three-handed, when the encounter deck isn't overflowing with enemies, I've been able to focus on questing; when there have been more enemies, Idraen's action advantage has been useful. Éowyn and her willpower-boosting ability is a gift, and outfitting Rossiel with a Cloak of Lórien, Burning Brand and Arwen's bonus makes for a tremendous defender, and I've often ended up playing Unexpected Courage on her to defend multiple enemies. In Temple of the Deceived, with a little help from Arwen and my partner's Honour Guard, she defended both an Island Watcher and its pile of shadow cards as well as the Temple Guardian without so much as a scratch.

In general, the division of labor between our decks has worked excellently, and for whatever reason I really like a questing-oriented deck. Card draw is still a bit of an issue, and I've very rarely managed to get both Snowmane and Herugrim on Éowyn. There also aren't anything like as many resources to go around as I'd like, but I'm not playing Leadership so I guess I just have to live with it.


So far, then, I think my return to Spirit and a focus on questing has been succesful. Later, we're hoping we get to pay a visit to the desert...

Oct 10, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 25: The Old Forest

Frodo woke suddenly.

At dawn, the hobbits leave Frodo's house in Crickhollow, saddle up their ponies and head for the Old Forest. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger accompanies them as far as the Hedge dividing Buckland from the Forest, simultaneously reprising two roles from the Hobbit: Bombur's walking fat joke schtick and Bilbo's anguished hand-wringing. I can't remember if there are fat jokes in the Silmarillion, but the evidence so far suggests there must be. Fredegar is left behind as Frodo and company pass through a cutting and gate under the hedge, and enter the Old Forest. The closing of the gate behind them marks Frodo's and the story's final transition out of the Shire.

"There!" said Merry. "You have left the Shire, and are now outside, and on the edge of the Old Forest."

We're then given a little bit of background by Merry, who dismisses "the old bogey-stories Fatty's nurses used to tell him", but does have some spooky forest experiences of his own to share. Someone, he points out, makes paths through the woods. He even tells the story of how the trees attacked the Hedge. "They came and planted themselves right by it"; the first shade of Macbeth's Great Birnam Wood on the march. The present-day reader is entertained by Merry's repeated insistence that the forest is queer, to the extent that I wonder what a certain Hugo nominee would make of this. However, the point is made: this is a forest unlike any the other hobbits have been in previously.

As Frodo and company enter the woods proper, the ground gradually rises and the forest thickens. There's no sound or movement, and the oppressive presence of the trees becomes stronger and stronger until Pippin actually cries out to the forest to let them pass. Instead, the menace only intensifies until Merry succeeds in finding their way to the Bonfire Glade, where the trees that attacked the hedge were burned. It's a gloomy, deserted place, but it makes a gap in the canopy where the hobbits can see the sky, and it cheers them up. What's more, a clear path leads on from the glade, and heartened, Frodo and company follow it. Soon, though, the oppressive gloom of the forest begins to press down on them again, to the extent that Frodo is considering turning back.

Eventually, though, the path takes them to a hilltop above the trees, where the hobbits pause for a midday meal and to get their bearings. Below them, the forest stretches out in all directions. To the north, where they're hoping to go in order to strike the East Road out of the Shire, they see nothing but haze. Far to the east, the haunted Barrow-downs loom on the horizon. Looking back west, the hedge is already lost somewhere in the haze, and to the south, fog still rises from the valley of the Withywindle. That, according to Merry, is the last place they want to go; "the queerest part of the whole wood - the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were".

Hoping to avoid the queerness, the hobbits find a path heading north. This seemingly straight road disappoints them, though, veering off to the right and heading straight for the Withywindle. They leave the path and try to make their way north, but their way is blocked by what's described as "deep folds in the ground", "like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles". I'm a little disappointed that Karen Wynn Fonstad didn't discuss these in her excellent Atlas of Middle-earth, leaving me unsure if they're natural features or completely overgrown ruins of the kingdom of Cardolan. Whatever they are, though, they do stop the hobbits from heading north. As the afternoon passes, Frodo and company do their best to make progress, but the forest inexorably drives them to the southeast.

Eventually the hobbits and their ponies end up in a rut they can't climb out of, and are forced to follow it down - straight into the valley of the Withywindle. The horror of queerness takes the form of a slowly flowing river overhung with willows. It's a drowsy, warm afternoon, with the sun shining down, and a gentle breeze rustles the reeds. What's more, Merry finds a footpath on their side of the river leading east, which he hopes will take them out of the forest. Pippin is more dubious, finding the path very suspicious, but he has no better ideas to offer, and Frodo and company set off down the path.

As they make their way along the path, the hobbits start becoming terribly sleepy. They stagger on for a while, until they reach a massive old willow-tree, where the sleepiness becomes irresistible. Merry and Pippin nod off, leaning on the tree, while Frodo wanders to the riverbank to bathe his feet. The ever-sensible Sam sits down to get his bearings, finding the tree and the sudden sleepiness highly suspicious. He thinks to look after the ponies, and just as he's leading them back to where he left the others, he hears Frodo fall in the river. Sam drags Frodo out from under a root hanging over the river, looking for all the world like it was trying to drown him. Merry and Pippin are trapped inside the tree; Frodo and Sam try starting a fire to threaten the tree, but Merry shouts that the willow-tree will kill them if they try to burn it. In the spirit of his illustrious adventuring cousin Bilbo, Frodo panics and takes off running along the path, screaming for help.

This doesn't seem like it would be the most productive thing to do, but on the path, Frodo soon encounters a strange man in a blue coat and yellow boots, singing rhyming nonsense about himself and carrying some water-lilies. On seeing Frodo and Sam, he introduces himself as Tom Bombadil. As the hobbits babble at him about their predicament, Bombadil immediately realizes that Old Man Willow is the culprit, and hurries along to the tree. Tom sings to the willow-tree and commands it to release the hobbits, which it does. Old Man Willow subdued, Tom reasonably decides that the hobbits can't be left to their own devices, and invites them to follow him to his house. Tom hurries ahead and the hobbits follow the path, out of the valley and up to Tom's house on a hillside.


The Old Forest is the first capital-f Forest in the Lord of the Rings. As it happens, I have something of a professional interest in forests, so this is going to be something I'll be looking at throughout this series of blog posts. Back in the Hobbit, Mirkwood was an awful, gloomy, miserable and deadly place, nothing like the woods Bilbo and the dwarves had passed through earlier. Similarly, Frodo and company already spent quite a while trekking through Woody End, but that forest, too, was described and traversed quite matter-of-factly.

While a lowercase-f forest is a scenic backdrop for the story, the Old Forest is almost a character in its own right, and dominates its chapter. At first, the forest threatens and resists the hobbits; once they venture too deep, it takes on an active role, directing them away from their path, and finally, in the person of Old Man Willow, trying to end Frodo's journey right on his own doorstep. If, previously, Tolkien has taken care to describe the landscape intimately, he now elevates it to an actor in its own right. In one of his letters (to the Daily Telegraph!), Tolkien says: "The Old Forest was hostile to two[-]legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries" (Letters, 339). What these injuries might have been, we don't know; maybe the hobbit-story Merry tells of the forest's attack isn't quite true, or the trees harbor older resentments, of the clearance of Buckland or even further back. This is a very effective, atmospheric chapter; the cutesy hobbit-ways of the Shire are behind us, and Frodo and company are making their way through a hostile, dangerous landscape.

It's interesting to think what might have happened if the hobbits' journey had ended on the banks of the Withywindle. What would Old Man Willow have made of the One Ring? Would a dark Huorn-forest have sprung up beside Buckland, or would the Ring have been discarded as a bauble, maybe ending up in some magpie's nest? Who would ever come across it in the Old Forest, or fish it out of the stream? Or could the Ring somehow roll down the river into the Brandywine, as Saruman claimed it had made its way down the Anduin and into the sea? Some traveler might spot it glinting in the waters of Sarn Ford, or maybe it would end up in the hand of a woodman of Eryn Vorn. There's a whole world of fan fiction in this!

We never get to find out, because just as Merry and Pippin are about to be devoured by Old Man Willow, someone happens to be heading down the path toward them. In the fabled words of the unknown author of My Immortal: it was Tom Bombadil. After he rescues the hapless hobbits from the willow-tree, Frodo and company spend all of the next chapter hanging out at his digs, so I'll save my comments on him for the next post. For now, all we need to know is that the hobbits have been saved by a singing hippie wizard, and next time, he tells them stories about badgers.