Nov 28, 2016

LotR LCG: The Ring-maker cycle

But Celebrimbor was aware of him, and hid the Three which he had made; and there was war, and the land was laid waste, and the gate of Moria was shut.
- The Lord of the Rings, book II, chapter II

I really have no idea why Tolkien hyphenated ringmaker. He seems to use hyphens inconsistently in double noun formations; e.g. Bilbo riddling with Smaug:

I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. (...) I am Ringwinner and Luckweaver; and I am Barrel-rider.
- The Hobbit: Inside Information, p. 204-205

So Bilbo was Ringwinner, but in the passage where the name of the adventure pack cycle is taken from, Saruman titles himself Ring-maker:

For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!
- The Lord of the Rings: The Council of Elrond, p. 252.

I can't think of any variance of meaning introduced by adding or omitting the hyphen; it might just as well be Ring-winner or Ringmaker. Any way you spell it, though, it's the name of the cycle of adventure packs associated with the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion, and that's what we'll be looking at today. We first played these through earlier this year with my Silvan deck, but we've returned to them a couple of times since, so while waiting for the Sands of Harad to show up, this seems as good a time as any to sum up our thoughts.

John Howe: Dunlending, no date given.


The Dunland Trap - DL 7

In the very first adventure of the Ring-maker cycle, we get to fight a massive horde of Dunlendings. If this sounds exactly like the first quest of the Voice of Isengard expansion, that's because it is. Oddly, though, this is a more interesting quest than Fords of the Isen was. There's less card-counting, and a couple of slightly more interesting new enemies than the endless swarm of Dunlending This and Dunlending That.

At the end of the day, though, what you get is a huge bunch of enemies, a nasty twist toward the end of the quest, but nothing really gripping or memorable. Not a great quest, but a decent one, so things are looking up already after Voice. Players interested in silvan elves will want this pack for Celeborn, but I can't really recommend buying this for any other reason than the player cards unless you for some strange reason thought Fords of Isen was really awesome and want more Dunlending.

Card spotlight: Naith Guide

Or, as I like to think of it, "Talk to the Naith, 'cos the guide ain't listening". I'm going to build a Silvan deck with Celeborn, just so I can include both Naith Guide and the second-sassiest ally in the game, Envoy of Pelargir.


The Three Trials - DL 5

The previous adventure pack ended with our heroes being captured by the Dunlendings. Their chief sends the heroes off to the Urshilaku Burial Caverns some barrows to recover an ancient tribal artifact, the Bonebiter Bow of Sul-Senipul Antlered Crown. Jokes aside, this is a whole new kind of quest. You have to get your hands on three keys, each of which is guarded by a guardian spirit and hidden behind a randomly chosen barrow and quest stage, so there's more replayability potential here than usual. Once you've secured all three keys, there's still the final stage to quest through to recover the Crown.

We really enjoyed ourselves! This isn't like any other quest we've played before, and was a lot of fun. The encounter deck is a bit light on enemies, but the guardians and barrows can combine for some slightly unpleasant effects, and we did get a little lucky with those. Still, though, our threat was pretty high by the time we reached the last quest stage, where the bulk of the fighting happens. By this point, we had Boromir kitted out with Elf-friend, Cloak of Lórien, Elven Mail and Spear of the Citadel, and over the last two turns, he defended something like seven attacks to set up the massive questing push that got us through. Boromir really is kinda awesome.

Two peculiarities make this a considerably easier quest for us than its difficulty level might suggest: there's no attachment or resource hate, which lets you build up your heroes and allies pretty effectively, and because there are three trials and three guardians, the quest gets considerably easier with more players. On our two-handed attempt, we had some difficulty getting our initial questing going, and when we got to the barrow that raises your threat, I genuinely thought we might be done. Three-handed with the Leadership/Lore deck, though, we were never in any serious difficulty, and once we got the pieces into place, we did steamroll through. For the last stage, the resource-flush Leadership deck threw out Gandalf and Grim Resolve, which let us straight up destroy two of the guardians and damage the third one with my Ithilien Archer, sending it back into the staging area. Next turn, Legolas one-shotted it with Great Yew Bow, Black Arrow and Support of the Eagles. In the subsequent quest phase, we cleared Hallowed Circle and put something like 50 progress on the quest after some remarkably silly Faramir antics. Like I said, buildup.

While the Three Trials may be a little on the easy side, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. A refreshingly different experience that I wouldn't hesitate to call one of my favorite quests so far. There are also some pretty solid player cards like Elven Mail and Greyflood Wanderer, and Feigned Voices continues the silvan theme. I'd say this adventure pack belongs on any Lord of the Rings LCG shopping list.

Card spotlight: Idraen

A lady Spirit hero with decent stats and built-in readying; what's not to like? I tried Idraen out in our experimental location control Spirit deck, which was a slightly paradoxical experience. On the one hand, in location-heavy quests, she was excellent, especially once you get the ayatollah of location controllah on board. Then again, in quests with less locations, some of her high stats would be going to waste for lack of readying. In multiplayer, the combat stats are almost a little redundant, since Spirit is so weak defensively that you don't usually want the Spirit deck to be engaging enemies at all. So at times, I've found her to be a bit out of place, but in the right situation, she's a great hero, and a fighty lady hero is always very welcome.


Trouble in Tharbad - DL 4

After all these Dunlending shenanigans, our heroes have made it to Tharbad, where we're trying to buy a map off a dwarf, and end up trying to escape from a bunch of orcs. I have to admit it's not quite clear to me why we'd first stand and fight against hordes of Dunlendings and then run away from like a dude and some orcs. Are there more orcs in Tharbad than in, I don't know, Moria?

Dodgy fluff premise aside, the theme of the quest is clear: escape from your pursuers in the mostly abandoned city of Tharbad. The key quest mechanic is that a whole bunch of things raise your threat, but succesful questing lowers it. It's a personable quest with great art, and we found it quite challenging. I have the same quibble here as I had with Fords of Isen, though: there's a Time mechanic that's quite harshly punitive, and I'm not at all sure that it adds anything positive to the quest. Every four Time counters lowers your threat threshold by ten, and with a whole bunch of enemies and treacheries knocking counters off, you'll find your elimination threshold plummeting to 30 much sooner than you'd like. As your threat is being constantly increased anyway, this only serves to add another sense of urgency on top of several others and a whole hella bunch of orcs too.

When we first tried this, that falling threat limit caught us out every time, with help from a bunch of Orc Skirmishers and Bellach's Marauders. Later, we took a shot at it three-handed, and after a little difficulty in the beginning, we pretty much rolled on through. I've heard this described as an easy quest; personally, I don't get why this is rated easier than Three Trials, but then I remind myself that nothing about the official difficulty levels makes any sense. In my experience, this is one of those quests where if you can muster up enough willpower in the early going, it's easy, and if you can't, it's quite hard. The threat-reducing is a fun mechanic, and Tharbad is a different and interesting environment, so I kind of wanted to like this quest, but to be honest, it's not great. I should point out, though, that this quest is great fun with a Gríma deck!

Card spotlight: Haldir of Lórien

One of my original Silvan heroes, Haldir was first included as a Legolas substitute, but it turns out he's worth every point of his threat cost on his own merits. If you have access to Tactics, he's a great recipient for a Bow of the Galadhrim, but the one must-have attachment I've used on him has been Wingfoot. Even without scrying, nominating enemy lets you add his willpower to questing and be ready to snipe the shit out of anyone who shows up in the staging area. The sheer joy of knocking out Goblin Snipers and Scouts has yet to get old.


The Nîn-in-Eilph - DL 4

After making their escape from Tharbad, our heroes and stupid threat dwarf try to elude pursuit by taking a short cut through the swamps of the Swanfleet, known as the Nîn-in-Eilph in elvish. So yes, we're going to go get lost in a swamp. The quest models this by throwing several quest stages at you, each of which has a Time keyword: if you don't clear the quest before the time counters run out, the quest deck gets reshuffled and you start over.

I'll be honest: this isn't the best quest. The encounter deck's a bit thin, with only a couple of locations and two enemies, plus the stack of treacheries from the Weary Travelers set, so that goes by pretty quick. While the rotating quest stages and Time counters are a good mechanic, fighting the same damn Ancient Marsh-dweller every time gets a little boring. I'd say this was almost a really good quest, but it never quite comes together and ends up being far too repetitive for its own good. It's also maybe slightly weird that you have to have stupid threat dwarf with you, even though he basically does nothing and doesn't really feature in the quest at all.

Still, though, I've ragged on the Time mechanic so often that I have to point out that it's used very succesfully here, and in general, I got kind of a Scorpion Swamp vibe out of the whole thing, so I guess if that's a recommendation for you, then this turned into one. In general, though, a bit of a missed opportunity. Again, how this is an easier quest than Three Trials is beyond me, but, you know, difficulty levels.

Card spotlight: Mirkwood Pioneer

I love the fact that the developers have teased us with a couple of barely represented character traits. Way back in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, we were given a couple of Dale cards, and until Mirkwood Explorer showed up in The Thing in the Depths, we had a grand total of one single card with the Woodman trait, and it was Mirkwood Pioneer. His ability is actually decent, as there are certainly times when Doomed 1 would be a small price to pay to get to ignore a horrible card in the staging area, and at a cost of two, he could play a part in a ally Faramir-led questing horde, but on the whole, I doubt this is a card that sees much use. I wanted to highlight it because I'm a huge fan of dropping in these hints of the wider Middle-earth around the existing card pool. Here's looking forward to a bunch more Woodman cards!


Celebrimbor's Secret - DL 6

Stupid threat dwarf has led us to the ruins of Ost-in-Edhil, where Mordor spy dude and his orcs are trying to dig up the premise of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and you have to get to it before they do.

I have a confession to make: at this point, all of the Ring-maker quests except the Three Trials are starting to blend into each other. They all have the Time keyword on the quest card, something terrible happens when the time counters run out, and there's a crapload of threat in the staging area and it only keeps getting worse and you're constantly in a terrible hurry. Either you quest like crazy right from the start, or everything goes to hell. Okay, so there's a slightly different gimmick every time; in this one, locations take damage and there are Scour keywords, which trigger every time you run out of time counters. But seriously, even though I kinda liked a couple of them, when you play them through in a row these quests all feel the same. This one is harder and less interesting than the previous ones.

Card spotlight: Wandering Ent

This is the adventure pack that started the ent revolution. Purely on its own merits, Wandering Ent is brilliant: two willpower for two resources is a solid deal in Lore, and two defense and three hit points make a useful auxiliary defender. So you get a low-cost, all-around useful ally, with the minute drawback of taking an extra turn to set up. This can give you a little trouble if you're struggling with early questing or combat, but on the whole, it's such a tiny problem that this is just a great bargain.


The Antlered Crown - DL 7

Fittingly, the adventure pack cycle that started with a quest where you have to fight massive amounts of Dunlendings ends in a quest where you have to fight massive amounts of Dunlendings. The main enemy from the Dunland Trap, Chief Turch, is now your ally, and he's actually a decently useful one, unlike the stupid threat dwarf we'd been saddled with earlier. With him at your side, you have to fight the same damn Dunlendings all over again for a third time.

We made an attempt at this, and drew Fierce Folk in our first staging, making both of us draw three cards. Next turn, we get Raising the Cry, which knocks the last Time counter off Dunland Battlefield, leaving us to deal nine points of damage to our characters. That cost me my allies and two of my heroes. So basically this quest is exactly the same as the Ford of Isen and the Dunland Trap. I didn't think "fight all the Dunlendings" was a particularly interesting quest the first time, and I have no idea how anyone would think that repeating it for a third time would be a good idea.

Card spotlight: Treebeard

The ent revolution continues with Treebeard, who may just be the best damn ally there is. There's a decent discussion over on Tales from the Cards on whether he's overpowered or not, but he's definitely a powerful ally. Almost like a Gandalf who sticks around and generates resources to either get more ents in play or ready them, Treebeard is effectively a fourth hero for your deck, and four neutral resources is, frankly, a ludicrously low price to pay. In general, I'm inclined to think that the designers may have slightly overestimated the disadvantage of entering play exhausted. If you're using any ent cards, there's just no good reason to not include Treebeard if you can. Given that he can also ready himself, you could also make a pretty decent case for including him on his own as well.


So, that was the Ring-maker cycle. I'd heard lots of good things about both this and the Voice of Isengard, and I've come away from both feeling a little disappointed. There are three kinds of quests in this cycle. In one, masses of Dunlendings come at you and you have to count how many card you have in your hand, and if there are any, you die. If you don't die, then you run out of Time counters and then die. That's both the first and last quests of the cycle, which are basically exactly the same as the Fords of Isen. The Dunland Trap is the best of these, although that's not saying much. Another alternative is that you have to quest like hell or run out of Time counters and die, while fighting enemies that take away Time counters, and then a treachery wipes out your Time counters and you die anyway. That's all the other ones except Three Trials, which is completely out of place in the Ring-maker cycle because it's actually a really good quest, without gimmicky mechanics or an artificial sense of urgency. Trouble in Tharbad is the best of these, although again, that's not saying much.

To be honest, this is a rubbish adventure pack cycle. Compared to the Mirkwood or Dwarrowdelf cycles, the Ring-maker quests feel contrived, repetitive and really not very Tolkien at all. The Three Trials is the only properly good quest here, and even that doesn't seem worth buying the Voice of Isengard for on its own. In my opinion, if you're interested in quests, don't bother with Voice of Isengard or the Ring-maker cycle at all.

There are, however, lots of really good player card on offer here, especially Silvans and Ents, and the Voice has vital Rohan cards, so if you do end up getting the deluxe expansion, be sure to pick up the Three Trials as well. I can't really see myself returning to any of the other quests any time soon, if ever.


In deckbuilding, Temple of the Deceived brought us a Spirit ally who contributes questing, location control and attack, and on top of everything is from Dale, too: Rhovanion Outrider.

That's a bunch more attack than I had before, but we're probably going to be trying Heirs of Númenor next, and the idea of battle and siege questing makes me slightly nervous! I think that some Gandalf might be indicated; specifically, his Hobbit saga incarnation. With his ability to both quest and fight, this is a wizard who can really get you out of a pickle, and I think he'll be a great help in battle and siege quests, too.

Speaking of unique allies, I'm also throwing in a copy of Bilbo Baggins. Two willpower for two resources is a good deal! His two hit points actually make him a more durable quester than many of my other allies. I'm almost tempted to include a Hobbit Pipe for him to fetch as well! However, the deck is getting about as large as I can possibly be comfortable with.

The arrival of Flame of the West, and with it Éowyn's new incarnation, crated a problem, as my partner was keen to exchange Thalin for Éowyn's greater questing ability and spectacular special attack. I originally intended to switch to Lanwyn myself, but I built such a succesful Lanwyn deck (next month!) that I couldn't bring myself to break it up. Instead, I decided to replace Éowyn with Arwen Undómiel. The pain of giving up her eternally useful ally version is somewhat compensated for by the gorgeous Magali Villeneuve art.

Losing the defense bonus and sentinel ability hurts, but since I'm keeping Herugrim and Snowmane to play on Éowyn, I'm hoping I can pressure my partner into including a copy of Elven Mail for Rossiel. Having Arwen around also gives me reliable access to Elrond's Counsel, which is nice, but I think I'm technically obliged to include at least some copies of Elven-light.

Our first run with the new decks was a pretty straightforward core set double bill of Passage through Mirkwood and Journey down the Anduin. The first was no trouble, and the only real adversity along the Anduin was when two Necromancer's Reaches and an Evil Storm killed just about everyone, but those of us that were left cleared out the rest of the enemies. So far, my impression is that with Elven-light and Arwen around, the larger deck size is manageable.

56 cards; 30 Spirit, 22 Lore, 4 neutral; 19 allies, 17 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 19 (12/6/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

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: 18 (6/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) 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)

Éowyn isn't around sideboard:
remove Herugrim (TToS) x2, Snowmane (TLoS) x2
add Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3


And here's the state of my partner's Team Boromir after Flame of the West:

Team Boromir Mk.3 (53) (43/9/1)

Boromir (TDM)
Éowyn (TFotW)

Allies: 14 (11/3)
Eagles of the Misty Mountains (RtM) x2
Honour Guard (TWoE) x3
Winged Guardian (THfG) x3
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Radagast (AJtR)

Events: 12 (9/3)
Feint x3
Foe-Hammer (OHaUH) x2
Sterner than Steel (TFotW) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Attachments: 26 (23/3)
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Elven Mail (TTT) x2
Spear of the Citadel (HoN) x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Golden Shield (TFotW) x1
Gondorian Shield (TSF) x2
Grappling Hook (TGH) x3
Horn of Gondor x2
Mighty Prowess (TDF) x2
Rivendell Blade (RtR) x2
Rohan Warhorse (VoI) x2
Black Arrow (OtD)
Favor of the Valar (TBoCD) x3

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

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