- The Lord of the Rings, book IV, chapter IV
The July announcement of a new deluxe expansion took us completely by surprise. Although undeniably logical as a sequel to City of Corsairs and somewhat foreshadowed by Boing, in terms of theme the Sands of Harad is quite a step into the unknown: Tolkien wrote very little about Harad or its people. Though they served Sauron in the War of the Ring, the Haradrim were in no way intrinsically evil. In his comments on W.H. Auden's review of the Return of the King (Letters, 183), Tolkien describes them as "humane", but under tyranny. This is followed by a fascinating commentary on Denethor:
Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without the use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful.
So basically all we know of the Haradrim and their lands is that the latter are to the south of Gondor, including the former Númenoran haven of Umbar and its corsairs, they're ruled by a tyrant or tyrants in the service of Sauron, and pretty much seem to end up with the short end of the stick in most scenarios. So off we go into the desert!
John Howe: The Mûmak of Harad, 1995
Escape from Umbar - DL 5
The first quest in the expansion picks up exactly where the last adventure pack of the Dream-chaser cycle left off, with our heroes stranded in Umbar and trying to, well, escape. If I wanted to be rude, I'd say it's Trouble in Tharbad with archery, but that'd be unfair; while this is a fast-paced urban adventure like Trouble in Tharbad and Peril in Pelargir (and should, therefore, have been called Umbrage in Umbar or something like that), it most definitely has a very distinctive flavor of its own. The archery alone makes this a tougher proposition than, say, Tharbad, but the locations are not only very thematic, but also quite well thought out in terms of combining advantages and disadvantages. Narrow Alleyway is a particular favorite of mine.
We first tried this three-handed with my Amazons, the hobbits and the Dúnhere deck; not an ideal bunch to be facing lots of archery with, and some of the enemies are actually a bit tough. We were eventually swarmed by too many of them and eliminated, but we had a decent time and the difficulty didn't feel way too high. Later, we beat the quest with my Amazons, my partner's Team Boromir and a dwarf deck using the new Gimli hero. Having the dwarves along to soak up archery damage really helped, and we were a little bit lucky with Enemy Pursuit only ever showing up on the first round of a quest stage. Then again, I lost count of how many times our plans were scuppered by Enfeebled! Eventually, though, we made our getaway.
We liked this quest! It's thematically succesful and well-designed in general, and to the extent that difficulty levels mean anything, DL 5 actually felt about right. So a strong start to this expansion.
Desert Crossing - DL 6
Our heroes have escaped Umbar and find themselves in the middle of the desert. As far as I'm concerned, this is the money quest of this expansion, and the one I'd been looking forward to the most. When the Grey Havens came out, it was sold as, obviously, the sailing expansion: therefore, since Voyage Across Belegaer was the sailing quest in the expansion, it had to be good. And it was! Since the theme of this expansion has very much been the desert - the Sands are right there in the title - Desert Crossing kinda needs to be at least decent or the whole thing's just going to feel pointless. Luckily, it's a whole lot more than decent.
I complained about Escape from Umbar, but only because it breaks naming convention: if not for that, it'd just be a great name, because you expect Snake Plissken to show up as an objective ally. Desert Crossing, though? This is the most boring name for a quest in history. It makes me think of some kind of hybrid of Animal Crossing and Desert Bus. As my brother-in-law points out, even the Crossing of the Desert would have been so much better.
Don't be fooled by the rubbish name, though: this is a really, really good quest. The objective is simple: make it across the desert. So that this wouldn't be too easy, the quest introduces a new way to die. Recorded on a spare threat dial, at the start of the quest the temperature is ten, and if it reaches sixty you lose. Various effects will raise it, and other effects are tied to it. I think it works great, and really creates a feeling of struggling to survive in a hostile environment without being in any way fiddly or artificial. The quest itself is similarly straightforward, but very intelligently designed: seemingly simple and almost innocuous effects will combine to create unexpectedly sticky situations while the temperature keeps sneaking higher... Some of the encounter cards are surprisingly clever, like Mirage, and they're all excellently thematic.
On our first attempt, my Amazons set off across the desert with the Rohan and Beorn decks. Since we make a point of playing new quests blind, none of us had any idea what to expect, but we made reasonable headway. None of the enemies are really all that tough, or most of the locations either, so at first this quest felt deceptively easy. What it does really well, though, is slowly wear away at you. A little bit of direct damage won't hurt, and a tiny temperature hike isn't going to make much difference, but before you know it everything starts adding up and interacting in surprising ways until all of a sudden you find yourself in serious trouble. We initially thought we were in for some smooth sailing, to the extent that a bear lumbering across a desert can be described as smooth sailing. We even found a Desert Oasis, where amazingly enough, we could heal Beorn!
Still, though, the damage kept piling up and the temperature was rising. It was getting harder and harder to make progress, and when a fairly horrible encounter side quest showed up, it slowed us down enough that by the time we were set for our very last questing push, the temperature had reached an absolutely scorching 58. Still, if we could just get through one last quest phase...
Below is the detritus of our loss, and a little record of Lord of the Rings Friday, which we started last November. Everyone was committed to the massive questing push that would've gotten us through the last quest stage - if only the temperature hadn't gotten us first. Arien is a cruel mistress.
An attempt with Team Boromir, and later a three-handed foray with the dwarf deck, both ended in the excruciating second quest stage. Again, it's not like the difficulty level numbers make much sense, but to us, this was a difficult quest that at no point felt unfair or impossible. You'll need some way to deal with direct damage, location control will help, and plenty of questing and fighting, especially as the temperature rises. Above all, though, this is one of the most succesfully thematic quests in the entire game. Because I think geography and travel are so important in Tolkien's works, I really enjoy wilderness travel quests, and this may be the best of them. I highly recommend it.
The Long Arm of Mordor - DL 7
In the last quest, our heroes have made it across the desert, and are recovering from their ordeal in a friendly Haradrim village. What this means in practice is that each player's heroes go in the staging area, and you have to quest succesfully to get them back. Instead of your own heroes, each player starts with one of the objective heroes in the scenario.
This is a pretty cool idea, but in practice, it's kind of a re-run of the Ring-maker quest format: quest like hell as fast as possible, or advancing becomes impossible. In this case, what you specifically need is lots of cheap questing allies that you can get into play quickly with the meager resources of your objective heroes. Unfortunately, what this does in practice is severely handicap any deck without them. My partner runs an attachment-heavy mono-Tactics deck, which is pretty much useless here. When I also failed to draw several cheap questing allies, we simply had no chance to advance. This is, I think, one of those quests that you're pretty much going to have to build a bespoke deck for, and we don't enjoy that.
So unfortunately, while we wanted to like this quest for its theme, and while it also has several clever ideas, we ended up quite discouraged by our first attempts.
The heroes were already spoiled way back in August, although with the theme of the expansion being heroes with different traits, we'd all pretty much guessed who was going to be in it. I still feel kind of ambivalent about them, though. Leadership Gimli is a heck of a hero to slot into a Dwarf deck, especially with Dáin, and is really pretty darn useful with anyone else as well. My only problem with him is the art! Spirit Legolas I'm really not sold on, though. To activate his ability, he needs to quest, which is a complete waste of an action with his stats, even if he gets the +1 willpower bonus, and means that someone else has to ready him in the combat phase, too. So Legolas ties up either Gimli's ability or an Unexpected Courage or something. That's just not a great action advantage investment. So at least my initial feeling is that while Gimli potentially works with almost anyone, Legolas is only really going to be useful with Gimli. Given how long everyone's been waiting for a new Legolas, that's a bit of a shame. We're pinning our hopes on Loregolas!
Each hero also gets their own attachment: Mirkwood Long-knife and Dwarven Shield. The shield's pretty solid and ties in to Gimli's ability. It also further reinforces the Gimli-Dáin combo: with shields on both, Dáin can defend with 4, and then Gimli with 3 and he can use his ability to ready Dáin so everyone gets his attack bonus. The main problem with the Long-knife is the art: I'm not at all convinced that knife can actually go into the sheath next to it. Also, I absolutely hate the ornate, ceremonial look they've gone for; it's far too 21st century movie fantasy for my tastes. In gameplay terms, obviously putting it on Legolas will make his ability make more sense, which is maybe a slightly backwards way to go about it. It would also complement a Haldir-Wingfoot combo quite nicely. To me, a problem is that Tactics Legolas has access to much better Tactics weapons, so for him to use this and Gimli's ability would be suboptimal.
There's also some ally symmetry going on: we got Spirit Legolas and Leadership Gimli, so we also get a Leadership wood elf and a Spirit dwarf. Oddly, though, while Greenwood Archer can probably find a welcome anywhere but matches this expansion's sub-theme by providing a readying effect, the Erebor Guard has a discard effect that's more at home with the "dwarf churn" deck type or even a Caldara deck, rather than with Legolas and Gimli. The focus on traits is rounded off by the excellently thematic Unlikely Friendship, and a pleasant surprise in Well Warned, which plays off the Scout and Noble traits.
The other big theme of the box is side quests. There's one, The Storm Comes, which is a real boon to multi-sphere decks, but the rest of the player cards also interact with the victory display. Dour-handed seems like the least useful one, especially since it costs a resource to play, but then again, maybe some folks go really nuts with their side questing. The Road Goes Ever On lets you find a side quest when you finish a quest, so ideally you'll want to play it on Gather Information... The two remaining allies, Vigilant Dúnadan and Halfling Bounder, both have abilities tied to a side quest being in the victory display, and they're useful ones, too. The Bounder especially gives Lore some proper cancellation, and also sports a Tom Bombadil-like wardrobe delightful enough to take a proper look at:
So on the whole, this is an interestingly mixed batch of cards. Nothing really jumps out at you, except Gimli and maybe the idea of a proper Three Hunters deck, but there's something here for quite a few different decks.
So, the Sands of Harad haven't quite dethroned the Grey Havens as the best deluxe expansion. However, we definitely enjoyed ourselves with the first two quests, and would definitely recommend buying the expansion to experience them. In general, what this expansion definitely did was make me feel optimistic about the future of the game. The quests are thematically excellent, intelligently designed, and bring lots of new ideas to the table without it seeming contrived or artificial. For what it's worth, Desert Crossing is up there as one of my all-time favorite quests.
At this point, I seriously never want this game to end. We're all expecting a deluxe expansion set in Dale and Erebor. Weneed to revisit Mirkwood and finally meet Thranduil. Hell, we can offset the desert with a deluxe and AP cycle with the Snowmen of Forochel. The Withered Heath is right there! Rhûn and fabled Dorwinion! Mordor, even. Some light-hearted adventures in the Shire. The Ered Luin. We're not going to run out of themes or locations any time soon, and Sands of Harad has made me so optimistic that like I said, I just want it to keep on going.
Finally, an update on the state of my deck. It's really useful to have cards like hero Arwen, spirit Éowyn and Daeron's Runes around, because if you constantly find yourself discarding the same cards to them, maybe you should reconsider having those cards in your deck in the first place. Lately, I've found myself discarding Concorde quite often.
He's certainly useful, and I think if someone was playing Elfhelm I'd definitely keep him around. However, with several other location control alternatives to choose from, especially Rhovanion Outrider, I wasn't sure two Lore resources was a good price any more. With City of Corsairs out, I know it isn't, because I can have Súlien instead. As a Spirit lady with a location control ability, she fits my deck perfectly.
Of the new cards in Sands of Harad, I'd really like to include Well Warned. With Arwen a Noble and Idraen a Scout, I could give anyone at the table free threat reduction. However, I can't really think of anything I'd be willing to leave out to accomodate it. So for now, I think I'll be content to just bring Súlien on board.
56 cards; 32 Spirit, 20 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 15 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.
Arwen Undómiel (TDR)
Allies: 21 (14/6/1)
Northern Tracker x2
Súlien (TCoC) 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
Attachments: 15 (11/4)
Herugrim (TToS) x2
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Light of Valinor (FoS) x2
Snowmane (TLoS) 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
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Éowyn isn't around sideboard:
remove Herugrim (TToS) x2 and Snowmane (TLoS) x2
add Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Also, here's a fairly basic Leadership-Lore dwarf deck I built for my brother-in-law to play and test out Leadership Gimli. We thought it was reasonably successful, and the Gimli + Dwarven Shield combo worked excellently.
53 cards; 33 Leadership, 19 Lore, 1 neutral; 22 allies, 15 attachments, 15 events, 1 side quest. Starting threat: 29
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Allies: 22 (11/11)
Longbeard Orc Slayer x3
Glóin (OtD) x2
Longbeard Elder (FoS) x3
Dwarven Sellsword (TDRu) x3
Dori (OHaUH) x2
Erebor Hammersmith x3
Miner of the Iron Hills x3
Erebor Record Keeper (Kd) x3
Attachments: 15 (9/5/1)
Dwarven Shield (TSoH) x3
Hardy Leadership (SaF)
King Under the Mountain (OtD) x2
Cram (OHaUH) x3
Self Preservation x2
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Legacy of Durin (TWitW) x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)
Events: 15 (12/3)
Lure of Moria (RtR) x3
Durin's Song (Kd) x3
To Me! O My Kinsfolk! (OtD) x3
We Are Not Idle (SaF) x3
Ancestral Knowledge (Kd) x3
Side quests: 1
Send for Aid (TToR)