May 22, 2017

CKII: We got the empire

He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.
- Job 26:7


Last time, we followed the kingdom of Suomi through the transition from tribal to feudal rule and primogeniture, and the terrifyingly long reign of mad king Susi. When his oldest son Tommo finally succeeded to the throne in 1166, this is what the world around him looked like:


To the south, our old enemies, the Ruthenians, have fallen to the Islamic conquests and been replaced by the Justanid shahdom. France, by the way, is also currently part of the Islamic empire of Hispania. To the west, our conquest of Sweden continues. With our annexation of Gotland, it's high time we took some steps to secure a better income by founding a merchant republic of our own.

Gotland is an ideal place for a vassal republic because it's a one-county titular duchy, meaning that its holder will have no claims on others and vice versa.


Granting that titular duchy to the mayor of Visby creates a merchant republic under our rule. They'll start founding trading posts and making money, providing us with tax revenue and improving the economy of our coastal provinces.

Meanwhile, our increasing prestige and the fact that we hold the kingdom of Sápmi has finally persuaded the chiefs of Kola to submit to our rule.


Finally, our long conquest of Sweden was succesful; the kingdom title was extinct, and we held enough of its de jure lands to recreate it.


The war for Sweden was the toughest campaign we fought, thanks in no small part to the Christian military orders and their heavy cavalry. Combat in Crusader Kings II is slightly esoteric, and to be honest, I've never been bothered to really figure out how it works exactly. Basically all you can do as a player without getting into the nitty-gritty of it is to try to find generals with high Martial attributes and put them in charge, and build improvements in your demesne provinces that provide better troops. One of the disadvantages of being a tribal ruler was that your armies were mostly light infantry; as a feudal ruler, you can start building improvements that provide heavy infantry, who will pretty much make mincemeat of light infantry unless they're massively outnumbered. Even tougher and harder to get than heavy infantry is heavy cavalry, and while I barely had any at all, the Christian military orders had huge heavy cavalry contingents. Because the Christian Swedes could hire them for free while defending against pagans (i.e. us), conquering Scandinavia was tough.

By comparison, expanding eastward against the pagans and their light infantry was much easier, and soon we added a fifth kingdom title.


The reason holding these kingdom titles is significant is because we're using the Charlemagne expansion and creating our own custom empire. Because it has no de jure lands that go with it, all the kingdom titles I hold will be transferred away from their respective de jure empires into the new Empire of Suomi. So, here goes:


Et voilá: King Tommo has crowned himself Emperor Tommo I of Suomi. Our imperial domain now stretches from the North Sea to the Urals.


In the meantime, the high priest of Suomenusko came up with another holy war.


Eh, I thought, why not, we'll get a bunch of our guys the holy warrior trait.


Wait, what?


So, it's 1286 and the Empire of Suomi is secure. I've now pretty much fulfilled all the objectives I set out to achieve, and in fact exceeded my territorial ambitions with the surprise conquest of Volga Bulgaria. All that remains is to survive until 1453. With both the massive Mongol Empire as well as Byzantium right on my doorstep, this is by no means a done deal. The scattered Catholic kingdoms in the west are also a threat because of those damn military orders. I almost wish I had Sunset Invasion! Boringly, the safe thing to do would seem to be to rest on my laurels and mind my own business until time runs out. We'll see if I can't think of something more interesting.

May 15, 2017

LotR LCG: The Dream-chaser cycle

For as Núneth had said to Erendis long before: "Ships he may love, my daughter, for those are made by men's minds and hands; but I think that it is not the winds or the great waters that so burn his heart, nor yet the sight of strange lands, but some heat in his mind, or some dream that pursues him."
- Aldarion and Erendis, Unfinished Tales


The nautical deluxe expansion to the Lord of the Rings card game, The Grey Havens, is the best deluxe expansion ever released for the whole game. The adventure packs of the Dream-chaser cycle accompanying it were also the first ones we bought and played pretty much as soon as they were released. Unfortunately, FFG's merger with Asmodée also happened during this cycle, and on our end, this meant that prices went up, and where we'd previously been getting everything on pretty much the US release date, we now got stuff with an extra delay of over a month. So whatever else that merger did, it definitely screwed over Fantasy Flight's European vendors.

It was tremendously entertaining watching people trying to set up as some kind of Tolkien purists and claim that sailing somehow isn't "proper Tolkien". The very first piece of Tolkien's entire literary creation is the name Eärendil, taken from a line in Cynewulf's Crist: "Eala earendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middangeard monnum sended". It was around this brightest of the angels that the legendarium began to coalesce, so in that sense, the foundational character of all of Tolkien's works is Eärendil - the Mariner.


John Howe: The Fleet of Al-Pharazaon [sic], 2003

**

Flight of the Stormcaller - DL 6


The first adventure pack picks up right where the deluxe expansion left off, with the corsairs who attacked the Grey Havens fleeing in the Stormcaller and our heroes in pursuit. The quest uses the same sailing mechanics as Voyage Across Belegaer, except this time, you're racing the Stormcaller, which has its own staging area and quest deck. Each turn, the Stormcaller makes progress on its own quest, and you have to either catch it or sink it to win. Since you need to sail, quest and fight off enemy ships and boarders, allies are at a premium; and, of course, the encounter deck comes with quite a number of ways of getting rid of them.


With both the sailing test and the Stormcaller's "questing" every turn, you end up discarding quite a few encounter cards. In practice, this gives the quest a similar logic to Into the Pit: if you're lucky, you'll end up discarding the worst cards when they do no harm. Vast Coastland, for instance, can be a pretty terrible card; despite running through the entire encounter deck three times, we never saw it except as an ineffective shadow card. Conversely if you're unlucky, you'll be throwing away your Hidden Coves and Calm Waters.


Our first attempt featured Team Boromir and the first version of my New Amazons, and we got off to a pretty lousy start. We managed to deal with our own staging area all right - turns out Éowyn's one hell of a sailor - but several of Sahír's Escorts turned up in the Stormcaller's area, and she just vanished over the horizon.

We persevered, though, and started clawing back the Stormcaller's lead. We finally caught up with her in the last quest stage, where we had at most a couple of turns left to make up the difference. First we engaged some of the escorts and sunk one, slowing down the Stormcaller's progress. Then a Gandalf-assisted questing push got us ahead of the Stormcaller, and we won. I like to imagine Gandalf just suddenly showing up in the middle of the ocean like Sparrowhawk on Lookfar and guiding us through.

It got really tense, we had a heck of a time, and I would go so far as to say that this is among the best quests in the entire game. The setup can feel overly complicated with the Corsair deck, the two staging areas and whatnot, but it's actually fairly simple to work with, and really conveys the feel of a dramatic chase across the high seas. Tremendous, tremendous quest. Since the Grey Havens is the best deluxe, you pretty much have to get it, and while you're at it, add Flight of the Stormcaller to your collection as well.

Card spotlight: Rod of the Steward


A straightforward swap of two resources for one card isn't a very good deal - unless it's in the sphere that most often finds itself swimming in surplus resources. The name and trait requirement are practically telling you to attach it to the same guy you gave Steward of Gondor to, and they do work perfectly together. Amusingly for a card in the sixth adventure pack cycle, it would work best on an early-game Leadership deck, because if anybody ended up with a literal mountain of resources, it was them.

**

The Thing in the Depths - DL 5


Now that they've caught the Stormcaller, the next adventure pack starts with our fearless heroes boarding her and taking the fight to the corsairs. Obviously the name of the adventure pack and the massive tentacle monster on the cover will give you some notion that that's not really what this quest is about, but for starters, you're facing an encounter deck of corsair enemies and shipboard locations, and soon enough, our old friends Captain Sahír and Na'asiyah.


Then, once you clear the first quest stage, the Watcher in the Water Thing in the Depths shows up, and suddenly you, Sahír and Na'asiyah have to fight off its tentacles tentacles. As the tentacles appear from the encounter deck, they grab onto locations in the staging area, representing the monster trying to tear the ship apart. If any one location accumulates too many tentacles, you lose; if you can destroy enough tentacles to defeat the Thing, you win.


This is a decent enough quest. I liked how the turnabout with the corsairs was done, and the whole idea of enemies becoming friends is well in line with the background material: in the end, even the corsairs of Umbar are victims of Sauron, rather than intrinsically evil. As for the Thing, I generally approve of sea monsters, and thematically, the idea of the heroes and their new-found corsair allies racing about the Stormcaller, trying to fight off a mass of tentacles, is quite powerful. For whatever reason, though, to me it was missing that special something that makes a quest really compelling and memorable. And then there is the fact that this is so much like The Watcher in the Water, except that that was just better. So I don't know; there's nothing wrong with the Thing in the Depths, but if I want a quest where you fight a massive tentacle monster in a body of water, I'll pick the Watcher every time.

Card spotlight: Mirkwood Explorer


This was an exciting card for two big reasons. First, it was a joy to see the Mirkwood trait again! This, along with Dale hero Lanwyn, seemed to us optimists to suggest that maybe, just maybe, a return to Wilderland might be on the cards in the future. Second, Mirkwood Explorer really highlights one of the particular areas of emphasis in both the Grey Havens and the Dream-chaser cycle: location control. A hitherto somewhat ignored part of the game, all of a sudden we had a lot more in our toolbox than just Northern Tracker and Concorde.

**

Temple of the Deceived - DL 4


After fighting off the Watcher in the Water Thing in the Depths, our heroes return to Númenor to search for the chest that Sahír's mysterious key opens. The Temple of the Deceived works like the second quest in the Grey Havens expansion, the Fate of Númenor, in that there are several Uncharted locations with identical obverse sides, which you have to travel to in order to flip them over and find what you're looking for. Here, the twist is that the uncharted locations are arranged into a map; when you explore a location, instead of discarding it you move on the map to a new one.


I've been delighted with the way the Grey Havens gave us whole new takes on locations and dealing with them, and I'd been looking forward to this quest ever since the preview last January. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I'm afraid that the actual quest ended up falling a bit flat. The map and travel mechanic works excellently, but there's only one quest stage, and once you've found the right location, it somewhat anticlimactically tells you that when you've placed eight progress on it, you win. There's a Temple Guardian to fight, but he's not a very interesting opponent, and neither are any of the other enemies in the encounter deck, being mostly the same generic undead as you had in Fate of Númenor. With all the locations on the map, the encounter deck ends up being a bit thin; there's one fairly nasty treachery, but nothing else really stands out.


We tackled this two-handed with our usual decks, and got a little bit lucky with our explorations, getting our hands on the Gate Key early. That let us find the right temple location and use Winding Caverns to travel straight there, after which a bit of questing got us through. The various treacheries did raise our threat by quite a bit, but that also meant the enemies kept engaging us, and we mostly had an empty staging area bar the locations on the map. In a very straightforward two-player game, we nearly ran through the whole encounter deck twice, so especially with more players there'll be quite a degree of repetition.

We enjoyed ourselves, but in the end were left a bit disappointed. I think we kept waiting for something interesting to happen, like some analogue of Ruins of Ages Past to shuffle the map or something, only to suddenly find we'd finished the quest. A second attempt with the hobbit and bear decks didn't go quite as smoothly, but the clockwork-regular threat in the staging area made everything manageable, and we made it to the grotto. Throngs of the Unfaithful works pretty well with Lanwyn! Even a protracted slog through the map three-handed with our normal decks and the Beorn deck eventually ended succesfully; like Fate of Númenor, the quest doesn't really punish you for hanging around.


To sum up, the map mechanic is great, and I love that we're doing new things with locations. I also admire the designers' ability to come up with names for black metal bands, albums and songs, all in one AP. However, the encounter deck really lets this quest down, and the single quest stage is quite unimaginative. I have to be honest and say that after the excellent Flight of the Stormcaller, the quality of the quests has dropped dramatically; first we had Watcher in the Water 2: The Watchering, and then the much-anticipated treasure map quest turned out to be a retread of Fate of Númenor, with a pinch of Three Trials thrown in. We still liked it, though, and optimistically, as with Fate of Númenor, I have high hopes for a Nightmare deck!

Card spotlight: Déorwine


If one theme of this cycle's player cards has been location control, another is definitely quality allies; not just all-around strong ones (hello Glorfindel), but specifically, powerful defensive allies in Eldahir, Guardian of Rivendell and Déorwine. In the early run of the game, allies mostly contributed to defense by chump blocking, an activity encouraged by cards like Horn of Gondor and Leadership Imrahil. Around the Angmar cycle, the encounter decks started filling up with various anti-chump blocking effects where, say, if the defending character was destroyed the attacking enemy would attack again or something along those lines. In the Dream-chaser cycle, the pendulum swings the other way again with strong defensive allies, and in the case of Déorwine and Eldahir, with shadow-cancelling or -mitigating effects to boot. Déorwine will be especially welcome in Rohan decks, which don't necessarily have all that many thematic defensive options.

**

The Drowned Ruins - DL 6


Now that we've found the sunken temple, our heroes and their Corsair allies head right on in. This sounds like a catastrophically bad idea, but then I remember that once upon a time we were sent to "scout the mines of Moria", so you know what, why the hell not. Let's go into the partially underwater sunken temple of Morgoth with the pirates. What could possibly go wrong?


The quest mechanics again feature the two-sided location card gimmick, but this time with a twist: there's a Grotto deck with all the double-sided Grotto locations, of which there's a given number in play at all times, but when you travel to them, you can elect to flip them over to their Underwater side or not. The tricky bit is that in order to clear the first quest stage, you have to get at least three Underwater locations into the victory display, but when the active location is underwater, you can't play allies or attachments. So it's kind of like an underwater Emyn Muil.


Having said that, we liked the Hills of Emyn Muil, and we also liked the Drowned Ruins! Since we have a habit of playing quests blind and I try to avoid spoilers, we went into this not knowing what to expect. In this case, for instance, it really adds to the entertainment value since we knew we had to flip over at least some of the Grotto locations in order to advance, but we had no idea which ones. The first one we ended in was Sunken Temple, which took ten progress to clear and wiped out all our resources. So how bad can the next one possibly be?


That bad, then. Remember that we couldn't play any allies while the location was active, either. On the first turn after traveling there, I had to discard my only ally, a Northern Tracker. When we still failed to clear it next turn, I had no choice but to discard Idraen. So by then everything was going... swimmingly.


I'm sorry. However, we rallied, and eventually managed to get a third location into the victory display so we could advance. A plot twist happened, and as in the previous quest, all we had to do now was clear one last location to advance. This, it turns out, isn't quite as easy as it may sound. Team Boromir eventually threated out despite a Favor of the Valar, but luckily not before getting some Legolas progress on the final location and playing a Favor of the Valar for me as well. That turned out to be the difference, because on my last possible turn, I managed to just barely squeak by and finish the quest.

That was a pretty memorable playthrough, but it's also a memorable quest! In fact, of the three quests with double-sided locations, I think this is the best. It's certainly different than the others, and in a way that makes thematic sense. I also think the difficulty is very much spot on for our tastes. So all in all we really liked this! A definite step up from the previous two quests.

Card spotlight: Strider


If I remember correctly, all of the player cards in the Drowned Ruins were spoiled before it came out, and to be honest, they're a bit humdrum. Okay, Dúnedain Remedy gives Leadership decks repeatable healing, which is kind of a big deal. Then there's Interrogation, which is great for trap decks, and the sympathetic Robin Smallburrow. But the card that really makes a difference is Strider. Before, the way to play a Secrecy was either hobbits or Snorefindel; now, the two-hero approach just might be feasible. Just for opening up that possibility, Strider deserves your attention.

**

A Storm on Cobas Haven - DL 7


For our next outing, our heroes find themselves fighting a huge sea battle to defend Dol Amroth from the attacking corsairs. The sailing rules are back, so we pick ships again and have to fight the corsairs and their fleet, with support from some objective locations and allies. We tried this, and were promptly overwhelmed by corsairs and their ships.


For our next attempt, we decided we're going big or going home. On the second turn, we used Éowyn's special attack to sink a Corsair Warship, and actually started making some headway! In the last stage, everyone and their dog engages you; Idraen died and Boromir went out with a bang, leaving us with a massive pile of enemies, the Dream-chaser Taking on Water and about to sink, and everything riding on one last quest phase before our enemies destroyed us. An appropriate Justice Shall Be Done let my partner bring in Nautical Gandalf again, this time to sink a Scouting Ship and make our task a little bit easier. With everyone questing, we still needed one final Test of Will to ward off an attack that would have sunk the Dream-chaser, but we made it through!


So yeah, this isn't an easy quest! The sailing tests are tough, and the Corsair deck has an abundance of strong enemies that the encounter deck will constantly find new ways to throw at you. The questing itself, though, isn't massively difficult, so the quest hinges on being able to survive the waves of pirates coming at you. It's hard, but doesn't feel unfair or contrived. While this is definitely the most difficult quest in the cycle so far, we enjoyed it.

Card spotlight: Na'asiyah


Let's talk about apostrophes. There's a rule that suggests pronouncing all apostrophes in fantasy names as "boing". Taken at face value, this is stupid: apostrophes have several legitimate uses in ortography, and treating them all with disdain seems to be another example of English-speakers' inexhaustible boorishness toward linguistics. Apostrophes can mark the elision of letters, syllabization or glottal stops, or be used to transliterate letters with no Latin equivalents. I would, however, agree that fantasy apostrophes that serve no purpose except superfluous ornamentation should, indeed, be pronounced "boing".

In a seemingly pseudo-Semitic name like Na'asiyah, the apostrophe could very well represent a glottal stop, leading to the pronounciation Na-asiyah. This would represent a perfectly legitimate use of an apostrophe in a fantasy name. However, the writer responsible for the character has chosen to tweet that Na'asiyah is pronounced "nah-see-yah", meaning that the apostrophe is, despite appearances, completely superfluous. Therefore, my considered opinion is that the proper pronounciation of Na'asiyah is, unfortunately, Naboingasiyah.

When Na'asiyah was first spoiled, we were only shown her stats, which didn't quite add up, leaving us guessing as to what her text box would say. After all the speculation, it's almost disappointing that her ability mirrors the one she had as an enemy/objective ally. What's more interesting is the restriction on paying for allies, which I think is hugely successful thematically: as a renegade corsair, who would her allies be? I'd have said Harad characters, but I do like what they've done. She's definitely a unique and interesting hero, and I can't wait to come up with a deck for her. I'm considering something with Strider!

**

The City of Corsairs - DL 8


For the last adventure pack in the cycle, we're right back where we started: chasing the Stormcaller on the high seas. This time, though, the Stormcaller will fight you, and the rest of the Umbar fleet is there as well. In a twist, if you make it through the first stage, the rest of the quest takes place on land. So basically, having fought a massive sea battle outside Dol Amroth, next we're chasing Sahír right into Umbar.


You can't place any progress on the initial quest stage unless you're on course, and we found the sailing tests and naval combat tough enough that our first two attempts ended very quickly. Next time, we again decided to go for broke, and my partner's deck used the Silver Wing and Éowyn's mega-attack to sink the Stormcaller in a single attack. That got us to stage two, where we hit the beach and have to fight our way to Sahír and eventually defeat him to win the game. Which we did! After quite a slog, though, but nonetheless!


This was a good boss fight quest! Quests that switch between two encounter decks always felt a bit off to me (arguably, with the Corsair deck, this one had three!), but it works here. Again, we were aided by a good combo of combat and location control, and I felt genuinely lucky to draw not only one but all three Wardens of Healing. Still, though, I think A Storm on Cobas Haven might be harder... Be that as it may, this was a succesful quest: an appropriately epic ending to a great adventure pack cycle, and a very good launching point for the next deluxe expansion. We definitely had fun!

Card spotlight: Súlien


How could I not love Súlien? I'm all for unique female characters, and even though I'm normally a little leery of introducing too many original characters into the game, when it comes to women, Tolkien unfortunately left us few enough options. Having said that, though, she's also an excellent ally. Two defense and two hit points are nothing to sneer at in Spirit, and three willpower is excellent. She might be worth playing just for her stats, but it's her ability that really stands out. Again, it's worth remembering that before this deluxe expansion and cycle, we had precious few location control options in general, and the only way to get out of massive location lock in multiplayer was to hope Northern Tracker showed up. Now, though, we have Súlien. For one paltry Lore resource, she can reduce the threat of every location in the staging area, which is potentially huge in, say, a four-player game - especially since you can trigger her ability after staging. When it's not necessary, she can quest for three instead. She's a great character who combines the two themes of this cycle, powerful allies and location control, in a way that provides a long looked-for alternative to a card that's been a Spirit staple since the core set.

**

So, there are some really good quests here, and some pretty darn handy player cards as well. Because the Grey Havens is still the best deluxe expansion in the game, we strongly recommend buying it, and if you're going to do that, be sure to pick up some of these adventure packs as well. We most definitely recommend Flight of the Stormcaller and Temple of the Deceived, and while we thought the Thing in the Depths was the least interesting of the lot, these are all good quests. Overall this is a very strong adventure pack cycle; almost certainly the best in the game.

**

While we were getting around to finishing this cycle, the Haradrim adventure packs were being released; and when Race Across Harad showed up, how was I supposed to not give Dúnedain Pathfinder a shot?


A Dúnedain Hunter for locations, he fits in excellently with my deck's location control abilities.

55 cards; 33 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 24 allies, 11 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 24 (19/4/1)
Jubayr (TM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Dúnedain Pathfinder (RAH) x3
Firyal (TM)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 11 (7/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) 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)

May 8, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 32: Many Meetings

Frodo woke and found himself lying in bed.

Frodo, last seen fainting on top of a horse, wakes up in the House of Elrond (yes, it's a capitalized House). Gandalf is by his bedside, and they have an expository chat about the hobbits' trip to Rivendell. To his credit, Frodo reflects on some of their shall we say less inspired choices, like short cuts through the Old Forest, songs at Bree and so on. Gandalf quite forthrightly calls them "absurd", but walks it back, seeing as how they did eventually make it. Frodo credits Strider, but wonders where Gandalf was, to which the wizard replies that everything will be explained in due time, but that he was held captive. He also explains what the Black Riders are: Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of Sauron. The flood that defeated them was called up by Elrond, who also healed Frodo of his wound. However, as Gandalf quietly observes to himself, Frodo will never be completely healed. The Morgul-knife that Frodo was stabbed with was intended to turn him into a wraith, and to Gandalf's eyes, he appears slightly transparent.

Frodo falls asleep again, but when he wakes up in the evening, he feels well enough to get up. Soon enough, he's reunited with Sam, and then Merry and Pippin. A feast is arranged to celebrate Frodo's recovery, presided over by Elrond himself. Glorfindel and Gandalf are seated at his side, and I think this is our first proper glimpse of Gandalf as something other than an itinerant fireworks specialist. Frodo, however, mostly gawks at Elrond's daughter, Arwen Undómiel or Evenstar, reputedly a second Lúthien by looks. He gets seated with slightly more prosaic company, namely the dwarf Glóin, one of Thorin's original company. After very polite greetings are exchanged, Glóin provides news of the Lonely Mountain and Dale at length. Also, hey, important announcement to readers: it has been three (3) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Glóin tells Frodo about the remaining dwarves of Thorin's traveling circus, including Bombur, who was comically fat but is now apparently comically obese. Attention readers, it has now been zero (0) chapters since someone was last fat-shamed. Of Balin, Ori and Óin, however, Glóin will not speak, stoking more anticipation of the great exposition to come.

After the meal, everyone moves over to the Hall of Fire, where Frodo is delighted to find Bilbo ruminating over some verse. They exchange news, and Bilbo comes off a little bit disconnected. He casually mentions the Ring, but doesn't really seem to understand its significance ("Fancy that ring of mine causing such a disturbance!", as if magic rings of invisibility were a dime a dozen), and even asks Frodo if he can see it. When Frodo takes out the Ring, he's horrified to see Bilbo as "a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands" - in other words, Gollum. Bilbo realizes his mistake and apologizes, and when Frodo puts the Ring away, everything returns to normal, and soon enough they're cheerfully talking about the Shire.

Strider shows up, only to immediately take off with Bilbo to work on a poem. Frodo stays behind in the Hall and zones out on poetry and singing, until at some point he realizes he's actually listening to Bilbo versifying on Eärendil the Mariner. In other words, there's a four-page poem on a dude with a boat. When Bilbo's finished and has bantered for a bit with the elves, he and Frodo leave for a long talk in Bilbo's room, eventually broken up by Sam strongly implying Frodo needs some sleep.

**

So Frodo finally gets some rest and recovery, and that's more or less what this chapter offers us as well. There are happy reunions, parties and poetry - but with the shadow of the Ring hanging over them. There's a repeating structure to the books of the Lord of the Rings: the first chapter sets up the book by orienting us to a new environment, while the second chapter is usually heavy on dialogue and serves to both foreshadow what's to come, and place it in the context of the larger story. I at least think this is true of all the books; certainly the first and second do exactly this. In this case, we get some background to the events of the previous book, including finally learning who or what the Black Riders are. We also get somewhat grounded in Frodo's new frame of reference: instead of nosy hobbits and Sackville-Bagginses, there are elf-lords amd dwarves with news from afar and songs about the Blessed Realm.

Speaking of songs, by the way, that is one really long poem. And if I'm honest, it's not even a particularly good one. I'm only an ex-philologist, so I'm sure there are all kinds of wonderfully clever things in it that I'm missing, but at my level of reading, , most of it just leaves me cold. Using words like habergeon and carcanet really invokes - anachronistically! - some of the worst mock-medieval excesses of fantasy literature, and even though it tells the story of Eärendil and the Silmaril, it's just dry. What a contrast to Sam's song in the previous chapter!

In a way, this chapter also completes the passing of the baton, so to speak, from Bilbo to Frodo. The Ring is now Frodo's burden, and while Bilbo can hang out at the Last Homely House, getting zonked up on elven poetry, Frodo gets stabbed by a ghost. But for a while, at least, they get to hang out again, and it's just nice. The heavy references to the Hobbit reinforce the idea that Bilbo is growing old and being left behind, and his momentary apparition as Gollum is a pretty heavy reminder of the fate he avoided.

Next time, Exposition II: lots and lots of exposition.

May 1, 2017

Sipilänomics VI: Unwrecking the universities?

Two years ago, I wrote about our current cabinet's plan to wreck Finland's universities. Just last week, though, we were told that that very same cabinet was making massive investments in science and education (Yle). Really?

Well, hardly. Let's look at some numbers.

To start with, in 2016 student benefits were cut by 122 million euros (IS). Now, our glorious leader is introducing a "family subsidy", which totals 75 million euros. So students are left 48 million euros poorer.

I concentrated on the universities before, but massive cuts were made to vocational training, where 190 million € was cut last year (IL). Now the government is investing 80 million euros into revamping vocational training. So they're still 110m€ behind.

As part of Sipilä's cuts, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (Tekes) lost 138m€ (source). Now, though, the three bandits cabinet is giving them 70 million euros of additional funding, which leaves them at -68m€. Similarly, the Academy of Finland is getting 50 million more - which doesn't redress more than half of the 100m€ cuts to university funding (Acatiimi).

So you see how this goes. First the government makes gigantic cuts to education. Then they turn around and make headlines with their "investments in education and research" - which in reality don't compensate at all for the previous cuts.

It's also worth noting that in one respect, this additional funding continues a longer trend: money is being taken away from the universities and given either to funders like the Finnish Academy or to political boondoggles like the government's "flagship ventures". This means that universities and researchers have less freedom, and need to spend even more time negotiating a massive public bureaucracy to get funding for their work. Finnish research is being methodically reshaped into a planned economy, where the government centrally directs what research areas get funded. We have no reason to think that this is going to work any better than any other planned economies.

There are two observations to be made about this. Firstly, the Finnish media is so thoroughly in thrall to the government that they're swallowing this hook, line and sinker. So the government can pull this back-and-forth act and actually use it in the next elections to claim that they're not wrecking education.

Secondly, as I explained earlier, the Sipilä government is failing to meet its fiscal goals. This farce should give you some notion of why. The Sipilä notion of public economy is to make cuts, and then undo many of the cuts, so that things are getting objectively worse but no real savings are made. I don't understand how anyone can possibly approve of running an economy like this.

**

The Sipilä gang, of course, claim that they're reaching their goals. As I predicted, they're largely accomplishing this by lying. Key to their claimed billions of savings is a ridiculous notion that the healthcare disaster is going to cost three billion euros less than some imaginary alternative.

Meanwhile, the racist "Finns party" was destroyed in the municipal elections, and is currently debating whether to elect a fascist or a fascist as its chairman. One of the fascists is more rude than the other, so the other two parties in government are pretending that if the rude one is elected, there will be a crisis. This is probably also a lie.

But on the whole, then, Sipilänomics rolls on much like the Trump administration: the country is being run by idiots who want to destroy it, but they're constantly tripping over their own incompetence. Despite this, both their actions and their inactions continue to do very real damage.

Apr 24, 2017

Let's Play Star Trek: Frontiers

We've tremendously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings living card game because of its co-operative nature. Therefore, whenever we set out to expand our game repertoire, co-operative games are very much a priority. One game that jumped out at us by combining co-op with a theme we enjoy was Mage Knight in space, aka Star Trek: Frontiers. It seemed a bit on the expensive side, but luckily, I popped into Science Fiction Bokhandeln in Stockholm and found it was a lot cheaper on that side of the pond. Even better, by the time we got there to pick up a copy, not only was it on sale, but the sale was on sale and we grabbed one for an absolute pittance.

**

First, a serious complaint: how can WizKids not manage to get card backs printed properly? The basic crew deck cards have no less than four clearly distinguishable hues.


The advanced crew deck comes in two:


Worst of all, the ship deck cards come in two radically different shades of blue.


Yes, those cards are meant to be shuffled together. Honestly, this is unacceptable. So if you're going to get this game, make sure to budget for card sleeves as well. You'll need some transparent ones for the two-sided cards, but most importantly, something for the ship deck cards to hide the glaring differences in color.

Other than the card backs, the game components are of decent quality. I'm not too thrilled about the card art; using screenshots from the various Trek series is fine, but the choices are often rather uninspiring. The ship decks are largely made up of exterior shots of the ship in question, which isn't really very evocative of, well, anything. There's a million different counters, which I kind of like, but sadly they're so small that it can take some squinting to figure out which symbols and numbers are on them. The map pieces are made of a pleasantly sturdy cardboard, but the color scheme is very drab, which also occasionally makes it difficult to tell the map symbols from each other. Especially the recruitment symbols on the crew cards can be really hard to decipher. So play this in a well-lit space!

**

The other bad news is that at first glance, the game is simply overwhelming. There are approximately three billion counters and several piles of cards, and the setup instructions alone are enough to cause acute despair in someone who plays War of the Ring for fun. It also doesn't help that the rulebooks are quite poorly thought out. What all this adds up to is to make the game somewhat difficult to approach, not least because until you actually sit down and play it, it's extraordinarily difficult to get any grasp of how anything works.

Also, be warned: the game takes up a lot of space. Especially with multiple players, think War of the Ring. Below is a four-player game set up on a dinner table that seats six, where we've previously played two simultaneous games of Blood Bowl.


However, it's all worth the trouble, because the game is very good. Set in Next Generation times, the premise is that a stable wormhole into a new sector of space has been found, and the Federation and the Klingons are scrambling to get a foothold in the region. Each player picks a starship and sets off to explore a randomly generated map. The victory conditions vary by scenario, with both co-operative and competitive options, but in the tutorial, the goal is simply to gain the most experience.

We actually tried to play this on the boat back from Stockholm, but there was such a heavy sea that we got too seasick! A second attempt on land was more succesful: my partner picked the Enterprise, while I was delighted to find that I could play as the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor.

Each player has their own starship and their ship deck, a deck of cards that are used to move around, fight and interact with planets, outposts and whatnot. As the game progresses, you get to add various new cards to your deck, and also acquire additional abilities by recruiting crew members. Gathering experience levels up your captain, which lets you get more cards and recruit more crew.

Below, the last turn of our first game: while the Enterprise was busy blowing up yet another Romulan warbird, Lursa and B'Etor and their unlikely crew (foreground) found the Borg cube we were looking for.


As my partner points out, the card only says "Riker", so we don't actually know which Riker it is! Given that Lursa and B'Etor recruited him from a Dominion starbase they assaulted, I like to think it was Thomas Riker on some particularly unfortunate escapade.

Here's a shot from our second game:


The map tile closest to the camera is the starting tile, with the wormhole where everybody starts, and the map stretching out from there. This was a full four-player game, so if you look closely, you can see General Martok's battle cruiser on the left, and the USS Defiant between the Enterprise and the Duras sisters' warbird. This time, General Martok, scourge of the Romulans, was victorious.

**

Once you get the hang of it, the gameplay is simply great fun. We're looking forward to getting more games in over the summer, and there's even an expansion coming out next fall! For the moment, though, based on our initial experiences, we highly recommend Star Trek: Frontiers.

Apr 17, 2017

Team Yankee: Where on earth is the Soviet artillery?

I picked up the rulebook for Team Yankee on a lark over the winter break. Based on the novel of the same name, it's a miniature game that depicts combat between Soviet and American forces in a World War III being fought in Germany. Given the choice of those two sides, I'd definitely be inclined to pick the Soviets - if not for one major problem: artillery.

In Team Yankee, each Soviet battalion gets one battery of 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzers, and you can also select one battery of divisional artillery, also 2S1s. Were you to select a division's worth of troops, you'd end up with 17 batteries, 102 guns in total, and the single divisional BM-21 rocket launcher battery.

As FM 100-2-3 The Soviet Army: Troops, Organization and Equipment (pdf) tells us, a Soviet tank division mustered four battalions of 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzers, one per regiment, and an artillery regiment with two 2S3 (152mm) battalions and a rocket launcher battalion. That's a total of 72 2S1s, 36 2S3s and 18 BM-21 rocket launchers (FM 100-2-3, 4-13). In terms of raw numbers, then, Team Yankee is close to the organic tube artillery held by a Soviet tank division, but the 152mm guns of the divisional artillery have been replaced by 122mm ones. With only a single battery present, two thirds of the division's rocket launchers are missing.

There are two problems with this. First, this is a highly counterintuitive way to handle Soviet artillery. As Chris Bellamy (Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces. Brassey's Defence Publishers, London, 1986) reminds us, the basic Soviet fire unit was the battalion, not the battery (185-190). Divisional artillery in tank and motor rifle divisions was grouped into battalions at regiment level, not penny-packeted to the battalions, which would have been a decidedly un-Soviet thing to do. Motor rifle battalions did have an organic mortar battery, which is missing from Team Yankee. Individual artillery batteries charging around with battalions was not Soviet practice.

Also, what we've looked at so far is just the organic artillery, i.e. the artillery units permanently attached to the division. Team Yankee is set in West Germany, which would have been the crucible of any NATO-Soviet shooting war. There's just no way that a first-line Soviet division would be participating in an offensive in the key theater of operations with just its organic artillery. Bellamy estimates (194-197) that a division advancing along a main axis would be supported by or even allocated artillery from both the Army and Front level; in his hypothetical example, two battalions of 152mm SP or towed guns from the Army, and three battalions of SP guns, self-propelled mortars, 203mm guns and heavy rocket launchers from the Front, for a total of over 300 equipments. In other words, support from higher echelons would more than triple the artillery strength of a front-line division along a major axis of advance, purely in terms of numbers of equipment; because some of the higher-level artillery is heavier, the increase in firepower is actually even larger. To take a World War I comparison, Bellamy estimates that the artillery fire in support of a Soviet breakthrough would have been six times more intense than the initial German bombardment at Verdun.

The heavy breakthrough battle is a special case, though. The scenarios of Team Yankee are set in a more fluid post-breakthrough environment where NATO forces are conducting a mobile defence, and are apparently able to engage the Soviets in smaller engagements. In a sense, then, the whole premise of the game is that NATO strategy has been succesful, and the Soviets have failed to overcome their defences through mass and tempo. However, how would Soviet artillery have been deployed in mobile operations? According to Bellamy (199-200), while artillery control would have been heavily centralized during the breakthrough battle, during the exploitation phase afterward, artillery battalions would be allocated to forward maneuver battalions. In this special case, it might have been possible for individual artillery batteries to be allocated to companies, but at battalion level, a forward tank or motor-rifle battalion would certainly have been supported by an artillery battalion. Existing tactical protocols for meeting engagements, a form of battle the Soviets would have actively sought, deal with an artillery battery attached to the company forming the march security element, with the rest of the maneuver and artillery battalions close behind.

In both the heavy breakthrough battle and subsequent engagements, then, we would expect to see a Soviet maneuver battalion supported by at least a battalion of artillery, if not more. Using the Team Yankee formation charts, the first battalion-level formation would be supported by at most two batteries of SP guns. Adding a second battalion only raises this number to three, meaning that a two-battalion force would only have half the minimum number of artillery support we'd expect to find. Admittedly, the rules make it possible to select "companies" which are actually barely platoons, but at this point the nomenclature and organization become thoroughly confused. An easy solution would be to increase both the battalion- and division-level artillery, and include equipment like the 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortar, or even the 203mm 2S7 Pion.

Perhaps the most pointed example of the neglect, if not even disdain, the designers have for Soviet doctrine, is the scenario on pages 108-109, called "the Battle for Hill 214". The scenario depicts a Soviet motor-rifle battalion, reinforced by a handful of tanks but with no indirect fire support whatsoever, assaulting a US mechanized battlegroup in prepared positions over open ground. From the Soviet point of view, such an operation would be inconceivable, and the circumstances in which it would come about are exceedingly difficult to envision.

**

Unfortunately, this neglect of artillery has more or less put me off trying the game, along with the price of the miniatures; at our friendly local gaming store, the 2S1 SP guns set you back 10€ each. One look at the prices for the Team Yankee models, which I didn't by any means think are all that unreasonable, forcefully reminded me of how cheap living card games are! But at the end of the day, while I was hoping for a combined arms battle on the Inner German Frontier, my impression is that this is a system more geared toward charging about in tanks. I'll probably take a look at the West Germany supplement, because if we're going to do Girls und Panzer, then why not go for a proper Panzer; however if they ever put out a rules supplement for the 1985 French army, I will definitely reconsider my decision to not get involved.

Apr 10, 2017

LotR LCG: The might of Gondor

"There is a great fleet drawing near to the mouths of Anduin, manned by the corsairs of Umbar in the South. They have long ceased to fear the might of Gondor, and they have allied them with the Enemy, and now make a heavy stroke in his cause."
- Beregond, in the Lord of the Rings, book V, chapter I




John Howe: Watchful Peace, 1990

**

As part of my project to put together a series of thematic decks that can work together, I created a Leadership/Tactics/Outlands Gondor deck. Here it is in its original form:

50 cards; 29 Leadership, 11 Tactics, 3 Spirit, 3 Lore, 3 Neutral; 32 allies, 8 attachments, 9 events. Starting threat 29.

Hirluin the Fair
Prince Imrahil
Beregond

Allies: 32 (17/6/3/3/3)
Forlong (TDF) x2
Veteran of Osgiliath (EfMG) x3
Guard of the Citadel x3
Errand-rider (HoN) x3
Squire of the Citadel (TBoG) x3
Warrior of Lossarnach (TSF) x3
Gondorian Spearman x3
Knights of the Swan (TSF) x3
Envoy of Pelargir (HoN) x3
Anfalas Herdsman (TSF) x3
Ethir Swordsman (TSF) x3

Attachments: 9 (4/5)
Visionary Leadership (TMV) x2
Sword of Morthond (AoO) x2
Citadel Plate x2
Captain of Gondor (TAC) x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF)

Events: 9
For Gondor! x3
Valiant Sacrifice x3
Wealth of Gondor (HoN) x3

**

I tried this out solo, and it turned out to be fun enough that I decided to take this seriously, and actually try to build a somewhat functional Gondor deck. This involved trying some new attachments, and stealing the Sneak Attacks and Gandalfs from my brother-in-law's Dwarf deck. The occasionally strange numbers of cards are because the other copies are in use elsewhere in our decks.

53 cards; 32 Leadership, 13 Tactics, 3 Spirit, 3 Lore, 2 Neutral; 30 allies, 17 attachments, 5 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat 29.

Hirluin the Fair (TSF)
Prince Imrahil (AJtR)
Beregond (HoN)

Allies: 30 (13/9/2/3/3)
Faramir x2
Forlong (TDF) x2
Veteran of Osgiliath (EfMG) x3
Warrior of Lossarnach (TSF) x3
Errand-rider (HoN) x3
Soldier of Dol Amroth (TCoC) x3
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x3
Knights of the Swan (TSF) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Anfalas Herdsman (TSF) x3
Ethir Swordsman (TSF) x3

Attachments: 17 (10/5/2)
Armored Destrier (TotD) x2
Steward of Gondor x2
Visionary Leadership (TMV) x2
In Service of the Steward (FotS)
Sword of Morthond (AoO)
Rod of the Steward (FotS) x2
Citadel Plate x2
Gondorian Shield (TSF)
Gondorian Fire (AoO) x2
Prince of Dol Amroth (TCoC) x2

Events: 5
For Gondor! x3
Sneak Attack x2

Side quests: 1
Send for Aid (TToR)

My brother's Leadership/Lore deck is around sideboard:
remove Faramir x2 and Steward of Gondor x2, add Envoy of Pelargir (HoN) x3

**

I took this version out for a couple of solo attempts at Journey Down the Anduin, but had some difficulty getting set up with such a high opening threat. We had a new player try it out, and it made a positive contribution. Still, though, even with Outlands, I'm not entirely happy with the way the deck works. Although Gondor decks have arguably been around since the core set, compared to other factions like dwarves, silvan elves or Dúnedain, say, there's just not a lot that makes them very unique. There really aren't many worthwhile cards that key off the Gondor trait, nor is there really a distinctive Gondor play style. Dúnedain decks like engaged enemies, hobbits have secrecy potential and voluntary engagement, silvan decks bounce allies in and out of play, and so on; while a Gondor deck has, well, a bunch of allies? A Gondor deck probably works best as a Leadership ally swarm - I tried one of those as well - but in that case there isn't really a very good argument for making it a specifically Gondor deck at all, because the Gondor synergies are so limited.

It's a little weird that a faction that's been around since the core set, had a deluxe box dedicated to it and has kept getting new cards still kind of doesn't really have an identity of its own in the game. I like Gondor, so I hope the designers can get around to creating a Gondor playstyle. Right now, Gondor decks still feel too generic for me to really be inspired to play them.

**

Meanwhile, my New Amazons deck has stayed the same, except for one change: I've ditched Éowyn's toys. While getting both Herugrim and Snowmane on her can be cool, with no way to search for them, it happens too rarely and, in fact, ends up having too little impact to justify taking up four card slots in a Spirit/Lore deck packed to the brim and over. I'd been using Elrond's Counsel as a replacement when Éowyn wasn't around, so I'll go with that for now. Even that isn't such an amazing card any more, though, with threat not being such a huge issue in many of the newer quests and making use of Keen as Lances. So when and if something more interesting shows up later in the Haradrim cycle, I can definitely try it.

55 cards; 33 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 11 attachments, 21 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

Allies: 21 (16/4/1)
Jubayr (TM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) x2
Rhovanion Outrider (ToTD) x3
Bilbo Baggins (TRD)
Galadriel's Handmaiden (CS) x3
West Road Traveler (RtM) x3
Firyal (TM)
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 11 (7/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x2

Events: 21 (9/9/3)
A Test of Will x3
Elven-light (TDR) x3
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) 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)

Apr 3, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 31: Flight to the Ford

When Frodo came to himself he was still clutching the Ring desperately.

Frodo wakes up next to the fire at Weathertop. He's been stabbed in the shoulder by a Black Rider, and Strider is gone. The ranger soon returns, reporting that the hobbit-stabbers are nowhere to be found. He thinks they believe that Frodo will soon succumb to his wound and fall under their control. To stop this from happening, Strider goes off in search of herbs. He returns after dawn, when he and the hobbits find the detritus of battle around them: a slashed black cloak, and a notched knife whose blade evaporates in the sunlight. The sartorial damage is all Frodo inflicted; Strider finds further support for this in the fact that Frodo's dagger survived. This is actually interesting if you know what happens later, but for now, suffice to say that I'll be getting back to this in about 2020 or so.

Unaware of the future, Strider does what he can for Frodo. He sings a song over the hilt of the knife - a possible nod to Finnish healing magic there - and crushes a herb (athelas) in water and bathes Frodo's wound with it. It helps, but Frodo is still too weak to stand, let alone travel. However, that's exactly what they need to do.

They quickly decided to leave Weathertop as soon as possible. "I think now," said Strider, "that the enemy has been watching this place for some days. If Gandalf ever came here, then he must have been forced to ride away, and he will not return. In any case we are in great peril here after dark, since the attack of last night, and we can hardly meet greater danger wherever we go."

Now that he's accepted that he won't find Gandalf, Strider finally realizes the massive danger in hanging out in pretty much the only place where anyone could possibly think to look for them. And so Frodo is loaded onto the pony, everyone else takes their share of the dwindling supplies, and off they go. They quickly cross the Road and lose themselves from the Black Riders in the thickets and the pathless country beyond - which is where they should have been in the first place. They trudge through the wilderness for days, keeping nervous watch at night, but there's no sign of the Black Riders.

Eventually, with Frodo's condition getting worse, Strider leads the hobbits up a ridge where they can see the Road, and two rivers ahead. The nearest, the Hoarwell, is crossed by the Last Bridge, and beyond it, the Loudwater, which the Road crosses by the Ford of Bruinen. With no other ways across the rivers, Strider expects they must find the bridge held against them. He's wrong, though: the bridge is deserted. All they find is an elven jewel, seemingly dropped in the middle of the bridge. Strider interprets this as a token that they can safely pass the bridge, and they hurry across.

Beyond the Hoarwell, Strider leads the hobbits into the hills north of the Road. They have a very weary time of it, with provisions running low and rain pouring down, but there's still no sign of pursuit. They spend five days making their way through the rough hill country, and are ten days out from Weathertop. When there's a break in the weather, Strider climbs one of the hills to orient himself, and finds they've come too far north; they have to head south in order to make it to the Ford. As they start picking their way southward, they discover a path, which they follow. It leads to a cave fronted by a crude door, which is unanimously identified as an abandoned troll lair. They continue down the path, with Merry and Pippin ranging ahead - which sounds like a terrible idea, by the way - and Strider, Sam and Frodo following. Soon enough, the intrepid hobbit scouts come running back, having seen trolls in a clearing below. Strider picks up a stick and goes to take a look.

Sure enough, there are three trolls in a clearing in broad daylight. Strider walks up to one and breaks his stick over it. The hobbits are shocked into silence, but when nothing at all happens, Frodo bursts out laughing as he recognizes the scene. These are the very three trolls that Gandalf had fooled into arguing for so long over how to eat Thorin and company that the sun turned them to stone. The hobbits enjoy a cheerful lunch in the shadow of the petrified trolls, and Sam even busts out some freestyle rhyme about Tom Bombadil meeting a troll.

In the afternoon, they reach the Road, but as night is falling, they hear a horse coming up behind. Frodo and company scramble to hide in a bush, but when they hear a faint tinkling of bells, they conclude it's very unlikely to be a Black Rider. In fact, it's an Elf-lord, Glorfindel, from the house of Elrond. Gildor, who the hobbits met in chapter 3, had sent word to Rivendell that some hobbits were being chased by the Nine and Gandalf was missing, and Glorfindel and others had been sent out to find them. Anxious to get to Rivendell, Glorfindel has Frodo mount his horse and leads the company on a forced march east. He's confident that his horse Asfaloth can bear Frodo away from even the Black riders; Frodo protests, but Glorfindel reminds him that his friends will be in no danger if he isn't with them.

After two days of exhausting forced marching, the company reaches the Ford, but the Black Riders catch up to them there. Glorfindel sends his horse forward, and although Frodo is reluctant, the horse knows better and makes for the Ford. The Riders thunder past Strider and the others, and race to cut Frodo off from the Ford, but Asfaloth is too fast for them, and Frodo makes it across. The nine Black Riders seem reluctant to enter the water, and Frodo feels them commanding him to stop. He refuses, and with his sword drawn, orders them back to Mordor. The leader of the Riders raises his hand, and Frodo's sword snaps in two. The Black Riders ride into the ford, and as they do, a sudden flood rises, sweeping them away except for a few remaining ones, who are driven into the roaring waters by Glorfindel and the rest of the company with torches. As the Riders fall, Frodo loses consciousness and the chapter ends.

**

And with that, Book One of the Lord of the Rings comes to an end. It's been almost a year since I got started, so we'll be doing this for a while yet! In terms of form, this chapter is very similar to the previous one: Frodo and company have to set off into the wilderness, hampered by an unexpected burden; they have a miserable time of it, until they reach a landmark, where they're attacked by Black Riders and Frodo is knocked out.

Speaking of hobbit-stabbing ghosts, if I have opinions about Strider's choices along the road to Rivendell, the Black Riders come off worse. After they find Frodo at Bree, they let him vanish into the wilderness with Strider. When they get an unexpected opportunity at Weathertop, they're content to stab Frodo and then apparently completely lose his tail again. Strider may well be right in thinking that they believe Frodo must succumb to the wound, but still, it seems negligent to just leave him to his own devices and take some time off to wait. When Frodo resists, they're stuck with mounting an ambush at the Ford of Bruinen, where they're foiled by Glorfindel and the river. So while Strider may not have made the best choices, his opposite number, so to speak, clearly did worse.

In both cases, though, the failures are understandable in the context of the story. Strider seems to have been motivated by his desire to find Gandalf, while the Black Riders, if anything, were simply arrogant. This, at least, is the explanation we're given; at Bree, the Riders know exactly where the Ring is, but fail to take advantage of their position, with "all the long leagues of Eriador" to come. Of course, that doesn't work out because of Strider, and when they get their opportunity at Weathertop, they're so sure that their ingenious hobbit-stabbing ploy will work that they pull a disappearing act. I wonder where they went?

They may seem excessively incompetent villains, but their inability to finish the job and recover the Ring can also be seen as the first occurrence of a major theme of the Lord of the Rings: the failure of evil. The Black Riders fail because of their arrogance, or in other words, the mortal sin of pride. They're not the first to succumb to this - one recalls a boasting dragon inadvertently revealing his fatal weakness - and they won't be the last. Or maybe the Witch-king was a sadist and wanted to not only recover the Ring, but also transform Frodo into a wraith and subdue him to his will. I mean, I don't imagine you become Witch-king by being nice to people. Or maybe that's what Sauron told him to do. Whatever it was, it didn't work. This, if you like, is the Boëthian view of evil: ultimately, evil defeats itself. However, as Frodo's wound testifies, this by no means implies that it can't do terrible damage while failing, or that it doesn't need to be fought at all.

To move from wraiths to trolls, the encounter with the petrified remains of Bilbo's trollish escapade is a nice touch, and Sam's freestyle verse is one of my favorite pieces of Tolkien poetry. The only unfortunate thing about it is that, as the late Karen Wynn Fonstad demonstrated, there's really no way to square the travel times here: while Bilbo and the dwarves stumbled into the trolls almost immediately after crossing the Last Bridge, Strider and the hobbits spend almost six days wandering through the wilderness before they happen on the same clearing. Even with the injured Frodo, it beggars belief that Aragorn could get so thoroughly lost as to effectively lead them on a five-day loop that ends up back where they started. Frodo even recalls Bilbo's adventure when they cross the bridge.

If we really wanted to harmonize the two accounts, I suppose the likeliest explanation would be that Bilbo simply misremembered where the trolls' campsite was, and the account in the Lord of the Rings is correct. But I have yet to lose any sleep over this.

Finally, there's the matter of Glorfindel. Originally, there were two elves called Glorfindel: one a High Elf who fell in battle with a Balrog while escaping Gondolin, the other another high elf by the same name who belonged to Elrond's household. Apparently Tolkien later became dissatisfied with the idea of two elves having the same name, and came up with the idea that Glorfindel had, in fact, been killed by the Balrog, but was sent back from the Halls of Mandos for, um, reasons. Frankly, it makes no sense whatsoever, and actually cheapens the tale of Lúthien: only she could move Mandos to pity, except then there was that other time they also sent a dude back. The idea that the two Glorfindels are the same is an unpublished nonsense retcon, and it should be cheerfully ignored.

On the whole, this is quite a dramatic chapter; the desperate struggle to get to Rivendell before Frodo succumbs to his wound is conveyed well, and the moment of levity with the trolls breaks up the rising tension effectively before the dramatic finale with the Black Riders. It's a bit of a deus ex machina ending, but Frodo's brave resistance still makes it a pretty good scene.

**

That was Book One, then! We've gone from a hobbit birthday-party to a harrowing near escape from the Black Riders at a flooding ford. After the birthday-party and its aftermath, this has more or less been a travelogue through Tolkien's Middle-earth, with the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs and the wastes of Eriador, punctuated by the occasional pleasant interlude of some fairly genteel middle-class recreation. The story has constantly been moving in both space and scope: we started in a hobbit-hole and ended up with an Elf-lord and the Witch-king at the gates of Rivendell. I don't know, I must've read this a couple of dozen times by now, and I still enjoy it.

Next time, book two!