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)

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