Jan 30, 2017

Let's Play A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, 2nd ed.

Some years ago, I tried reading George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. It was a horrible experience that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. The books are depressing, badly written and overflowing with utterly repulsive misogyny and racism. The TV show based on the books was slightly better, perhaps because it could hardly be worse and still air, but faithfully carried on the books' emphasis on racism and horrific misogyny. What it to some extent succeeded in was rescuing some of Martin's more personable characters from the leering rape porn of the books, and it's they who are the only interesting thing about the whole shitshow.

So, when we come across a card game based on them, from a company whose products we thoroughly enjoy, do we buy it? On the one hand, we'd be contributing to the ongoing relevance of Martin's disgusting chauvinism. On the other hand, it's massively popular already anyway, and since literally three (3) people read this blog, what we do or don't do has fuck all bearing on anything.

Should we consume problematic entertainment? Damned if I know. I wouldn't play an explicitly white supremacist board game, for instance, let alone pay money for one. But I don't have a well-thought-out principled stand on where to draw the line. I don't approve of the amply documented racism of H.P. Lovecraft, but I enjoy his stories and bought a copy of Arkham Horror. Orson Scott Card's genocidal fantasies, on the other hand, were too much for me. Some books into a Song of Ice and Fire, I started to feel physically nauseated and quit reading. I don't ever want to try again. A card game based on them, though, I can stomach. I think.

At the end of the day, the Game of Thrones card game has some interesting game mechanics I want to try, and I'm pretty sure I can wrangle some people into giving it a shot. So in a moment of weakness, I bought a copy of the core set. We're no closer to a definitive answer on whether to consume problematic entertainment or not, but we can now find out if this card game is any good.


We first tried the tutorial game in December, which is why you can see gingerbread Harrenhal in the background.

The tutorial game was fun! I'll admit I got some kicks out of murdering Joffrey with wildfire, and my dog ate Tyrion. I lost, but to be honest I'm counting any game in which Joffrey dies as at least a tie. I managed to win my next Stark attempt, with stealth Arya brilliantly murdering people all over the place.

As a sort of quick introduction, I thought the tutorial decks worked pretty well. I read through the rulebook a couple of times and kept it handy when we played, and I honestly don't think we made very many mistakes. Probably the most common one was forgetting a keyword like Renown. I thought the challenges were easy to understand but a little tricky to figure out optimally, which to me is a sign of a good system. We just need to kick some Lord of the Rings habits! The idea of the attacker winning ties is still completely counterintuitive to me... The plot phase was a particularly enjoyable mechanic; at the beginning of each turn, both players select a plot card from their plot deck, which are then revealed simultaneously and can interact in unexpected ways. I like the idea of trying to predict what your opponent intends to do and how best to compensate for it. I saw the wildfire coming both times!

A word about the physical game, too. As with Arkham Horror, the cards aren't nearly as stylish as those of the Lord of the Rings LCG, but by no stretch could you call them ugly. In pleasant contrast to Arkham, though, the box says 2-4 players and means it: you can create four functioning starter decks and get playing. There aren't that many counters, but damn if I don't just like those big old gold coins a lot more than the resource tokens of either other LCG. As with Fantasy Flight products in general, production quality is quite high, and you won't feel ripped off.


The one-on-one Joust tutorial has players using the Lannister and Stark decks, which makes sense for thematic reasons and works pretty well. However, because the 3-6 player Mêlée game is what we're interested in, we'll need to expand our repertoire. I'll admit that a big reason for buying this game for me was to have a new deck-building exercise to obsess over. Right now, I'm pretty happy with my LotR Amazons, and we're still kinda on the fence with Arkham, so Game of Thrones fills a crucial obsessing gap. Without it, I might have to start drawing up Warhammer army lists again!

When you have friends with strange proclivities, they'll insist on playing Lannister in the tutorial game, so I did get to try House Stark. While I have tremendous sympathy for Arya and especially Sansa Stark, and all their dogs are good dogs, the Starks are just too darn serious for my taste. Lannister, on the other hand, didn't really appeal that much to me, either, and from what I've understood, they're currently considered one of the most powerful Houses, which also makes me less than interested.

And anyway they're all rebel scum. There's a rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

How can I not love Daenerys? Yes, her plot in the books is repulsive white savior garbage, but the beauty of this card game is that I don't need to care about that: all I have here is a beautiful queen, her dragons (dragons!) and her nomad pals, here to restore order and rightful rule to these revolting peasants. Hell, she's practically from Melniboné. There's even a white-haired Eternal Champion candidate.

House Targaryen is also notable for including the Game of Thrones character I identify with most: Ser Jorah Mormont.

An older man vainly pursuing a younger woman and fucking it up, whose in-game ability is failing challenges? It me. I think I've picked a house.


So next it was time to try melee. For whatever reason, the Targaryen melee starter deck has them teaming up with House Martell, so that was what I got. My partner picked the Stark-Greyjoy starter, and my brother joined us with the Night's Watch-Baratheon deck. I should stress that we had very little idea what we were doing, two of us having played the tutorial decks before and one of us not even having done that.

I thought I got a pretty good setup hand, with several characters and a selection of icons, including Areo Hotah, Viserys and a Roseroad. My partner, however, set up Balon Greyjoy. A surprise Fortified Position from my brother blanked him for the moment, but my partner then proceeded to play a Seal of the Hand on him as well.

From then on, the theme of the game became the many deaths of Balon Greyjoy. He was killed, and immediately resurrected with Risen from the Sea. Then, after a miscalculation, Ghaston Grey got rid of him. When he returned, he got a Milk of the Poppy played on him, and ended up being Marched to the Wall. It wasn't easy being Balon.

For whatever reason, the plot cards tend to have some of the best art! While the battle for Balon was going on, I had played Summons and, to my delight, found Daenerys. She's expensive, though, and I'd already used A Noble Cause to play the Red Viper. However, if I picked Master of Coin for my title, I could just afford her, and I managed all this - just to see who my partner played before my turn.

Yes, Varys was here, and the Stark-Greyjoy board was in such a pitiable state that there was no doubt in my mind that come the dominance phase of this turn, everyone was going to die. So, no Dany. Predictably enough, by the time the dominance phase rolled around, Varys did his thing and all our characters were gone. (I actually had Put to the Sword in my hand, and in retrospect I should've been able to get rid of Varys, but I couldn't execute). So what's called a board reset was accomplished, and we were kinda back where we started.


The objective of the game, which I think I've neglected to mention, is to gather 15 power tokens on cards you control: the first person to accomplish this wins. In the early stages of our game, our power totals swung back and forth, with nobody gaining a clear advantage for long. One of the particularly clever things about melee is titles: in a melee game, after plots are revealed and the order of play for the turn is determined, each player secretly selects one of six titles. Each comes with an ability that either buffs a certain type of challenge or gives some other advantage, and each - except Crown Regent - supports and rivals some other titles. When you win a challenge against a rival, you gain extra power; however, you can't initiate challenges against a title that you support. The titles serve to direct play in an unpredictable way. For instance, you might be in an advantageous military position, and select Master of Ships to press your advantage, only to find that your weakest opponent picked Master of Whispers and you can't attack them. Meanwhile, the Master of Laws and Hand of the King are now your rivals, so they have a strong incentive to attack you.

After the reset, we each managed to play a single character: my brother had someone I don't remember, I got a Greenblood Trader, and my partner played Balon. Unsurprisingly, this was when he got marched to the wall. By this time, we'd all managed to gather at least some power, and with two copies of a Illyrio's Estate and a Kingsroad, I was able to get Dany and Drogon into play. The others were recovering as well: Euron Crow's Eye showed up (and stole Ghaston Grey!) as did Stannis fucking Baratheon. Unwisely, Stannis was the only character my brother had, and my partner declared a military challenge against him with just a lone Tumblestone Knight. Stannis defended - only to meet the Kraken's Grasp. Bye bye, Stannis.

Amidst all this fun, we were all doing our best to pile up power tokens. With Daenerys on board, I managed to win dominance and get to 12 power. By this point, we'd all worked through our plot decks, so I managed to pick a high-initiative plot that let me bring Arianne Martell. I was really hoping to get Hand of the King for my title, both for the boost to power challenges, but it wasn't available, and to add impediment to insult, my brother marshalled Robert Baratheon. Still, I managed to go first, and Arianne and Daenerys managed to put together enough of a power challenge to beat Robert. The one power token that let me steal, plus one bonus power for winning a challenge against a player whose title I rival was enough for 14 - and Drogon being in play gave Daenerys Renown, which made 15.

Here, on the left, is what the table looked like just before Varys killed everyone. On the right, the true ruler of Westeros, her dragon, and the fifteen power counters that signify victory. I couldn't have asked for a more storybook ending than Daenerys personally defeating the hated usurper to seal the win.

I thought our first melee experience was excellent fun. None of us really knew what we were doing, but I don't think we made any egregious mistakes with the rules, and we managed to pretty much pick it up as we went along. The interactions between the plots and titles are potentially fascinating, and we hope to take a shot at a four-player melee soon!


While the one-on-one Joust format is fun enough, I feel it has the same problem as Magic: the Gathering, or indeed chess: play becomes predictable, especially against the same people. There's a short but interesting thread on the cardgamedb.com forums where somebody asked why Joust is getting all the attention online and Melee seems neglected. The answers are fascinating. Obviously the main reason is mentioned: Fantasy Flight Games has decided that Joust is the primary tournament format, so they highlight it. But beyond that, the argument was made that because of the social dynamics around the table, melee is inherently unpredictable and difficult to plan for, unlike Joust where players can fully control the situation. Also, a particular problem with melee is "kingmaking", where players who are unlikely or unable to win themselves can still affect the end result.

As a poker player, I find this hilarious. The idea that playing a full table is somehow unfair is ludicrously comical. Now, there are people who'll argue that heads-up play is the true test of poker skill. That's where you really have to read your opponent and get inside their head and whatnot. I disagree, and there's actually a case to be made that they're empirically wrong, because heads-up (limit) hold'em is effectively weakly solved. In other words, getting inside your opponent's head and so on doesn't actually matter, because if you play the game correctly, you'll win. This seems to me to be pretty much what people mean when they say that Joust is somehow a truer test of skill. I strongly disagree with this definition of skill.

Yes, arguably, memorizing a set of guidelines and applying them to a situation is a skill. However, it isn't a particularly interesting one, and it can be completely duplicated by a fairly simple computer program. In chess, the openings have for themost part become so ritualized that each player could arguably tell a bot to run their opening of choice and notify them as soon as the bot no longer knows what to do, because that's when the game really begins. The ability to carry out a preconceived set of moves isn't really a shining example of skill. For my money, the interesting skills in chess come into play in the midgame, when the situation is more fluid. I feel the same way about poker: it's much more interesting and challenging to play at a full table and try to figure out what kind of players the others are, and observe the social dynamics at work. Certainly if you're playing a tournament, there will be situations in which players on the brink of elimination will try their best to survive, and sometimes an ill-judged play will hand over the rest of their chips to an opponent in a way that others might feel is unfair, but as long as collusion isn't suspected, players accept this as part of the game rather than whining about "kingmaking". Certainly if we accept that understanding and even exploiting these social dynamics isn't a skill, then of all games Diplomacy isn't a game of skill!

Deckbuilding introduces another element to this equation; there are people who maintain that in a "fair" game, the best-built deck will win if it's played correctly. If this is the objective, though, then we should dispense with actually sitting down to play the game, and input our decklists into a program that then runs a suitably massive number of simulated games with them, and the player whose deck achieves the highest winning percentage is best. Because of the vagaries of opening hands, card draw and player mistakes, even a Joust tournament is a decidedly suboptimal way of determining who is best at deckbuilding.

In my opinion, a PvP cardgame is a test of both deckbuilding and playing skill. The reason I'm particularly interested in melee is that ideally, it combines those skills with the social-strategic skill set required in, say, poker, or Diplomacy. It's slightly bizarre to me that Fantasy Flight would choose to intentionally downplay this aspect of A Game of Thrones, but here we are.


So just forget about Joust entirely, except as a tutorial to teach the game mechanics. Instead, if you approach second-edition Game of Thrones as a 3-4 player board game, you won't be disappointed. We've certainly had enough fun getting acquainted with the Melee game that not only will we be playing more of it, but I'm seriously considering picking up a second core set. Not only would a second core let us build tournament-legal 60-card decks for ourselves, but also let us maybe create a fifth, even sixth deck for maximum melee mayhem.

So to make a perhaps surprisingly long story short: try Melee. We thought it was excellent.

Jan 23, 2017

CKII: The time of the heathen

For the day is near, even the day of the LORD is near, a cloudy day; it shall be the time of the heathen.
- Ezekiel 30:3

After my failed tribal experiment, I took a bit of a break from Crusader Kings 2. I picked it up again last fall for another game as the Ua Chennselaigh. My goals were to hold the four crowns of the British Isles and become emperor. I managed half of that, finishing the game as the Irish emperor of Mali, with territory from Scotland to Timbuktu. I've come to quite strongly feel that Ireland in 1066 may be the best place to start to get a handle on the game. There's also several promising directions for expansion: you can start working away on England, look north to Norway or southeast to Brittany, or - my favorite option - fabricate a claim on Lisbon and get in on the Reconquista. Now that I've tried that a couple of times and taken it as far as forming the empire of Mali, I figured it was high time for something different: the Old Gods.

My father's family, and with it our family name, is originally from Lammi, and my mother is from Forssa, so if there's somewhere I'm from in Crusader Kings 2 terms, it's Häme. So I was delighted to find that in the 867 bookmark, both Häme and Uusimaa are ruled by Chief Mielus of the Hämäläinen dynasty, Hämäläinen basically meaning "of Häme". I'm set! Here we are:

Mielus is a tribal chief, meaning that instead of starting out as a nobleman with a castle, we start as a tribe, which makes for quite a different playing experience. In contrast to my previous game as a tribal ruler, this time my tribe is pagan. Like I've said before, I don't like that they called Finnic paganism "Suomenusko"; the game correctly identifies the area around modern-day Turku as Suomi, with the name only coming to mean a wider area some time after the Middle Ages. Suomenusko is a modern-day neopagan faith that's basically made up, and uses a name that would've been incomprehensible to the people of the time it purports to descend from. I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Helsinki, so unfortunately I feel obliged to lodge my protest.

Having said that, though, as a life-long anti-Christian, I welcome and relish an opportunity to play as a pagan ruler.

Sorry, dude. Paganing ain't easy. Later on, prisoners will be very handy for this! They can only blame their lieges for not ransoming them. We request very reasonable ransoms!

Although pagan realms can be really powerful in the early game, they suffer from two main disadvantages. First of all, feudal realms will eventually catch up with and surpass them as the game goes on. Secondly and relatedly, pagans have a hard time staying pagan: not only will missionaries from organized religions convert them, but those same religions will also conquer them in holy wars. The way to deal with the first problem is to feudalize yourself. This, however, requires adherence to an organized religion. One option is to convert; in a couple of my Irish games, I've seen a feudal, Catholic Finland or Sápmi succesfully feudalize. But we're not interested in these weak southern fairytales. The other option is to reform your pagan faith into an organized religion, and take on the Abrahamic religions. That's more like it! So my goals for this game are to reform Suomenusko, become a feudal ruler and survive until 1453.

As a tribal chief, many of the game mechanics revolve around Prestige: you can invest it to recruit tribal armies, and several council missions are tied to it. Here, for example, I've sent my steward to Build Legend in Uusimaa, which increases my prestige and has a chance of attracting warriors to our banner. These event troops are basically a freebie you can use for war or raiding. As it happens, we've got a use for them. In order to reform Suomenusko, we have to either control three of its holy sites and have a moral authority of 50%, or control all five holy sites. With two of them as far away as Ryazan and Perm, the latter seems unlikely, but in either case, we'll need to start somewhere. The nearest holy site just happens to be next door, in Käkisalmi province, so:

That, though, was pretty much the summit of our expansion under Mielus, because he spent the rest of his career as chief fighting off Sigurðr Snake-in-the-Eye. For whatever reason that Norse bastard had it in for us, conquering the province of Suomi and launching several invasions of my realm. We eventually managed to beat him off, but there was precious little time for anything else. Well, except a little raiding.

Raiding is great fun, though. You send your guys over to despoil someone else's province and gather loot, and if you have a large enough army, you can even besiege and sack their holdings. Obviously as time goes by, feudal holdings improve their defenses and their armies get bigger, making your job that much harder, but in the early game, especially if you get lucky by raiding a province whose owner is fighting a war somewhere else, you can do some serious damage. Our guys burnt Boulogne and its environs down properly a couple of times, netting plenty of loot and prestige for me.

With that money and prestige, and Sigurðr out of our hair, I was able to conquer both Pohjanmaa and Suomi and form the high chiefdom of Satakunta. We also added Finnish Lapland because why not. My plan is to keep Satakunta as my demesne and land members of my dynasty in the rest of Finland until I can form the kingdom. At the moment, a strong, unified Estonia that also holds Savo is a considerable obstacle to this.

Now that our realm is getting larger, we run into another tribal pagan problem: keeping it in one piece. This is because the only succession law available to tribal rulers is gavelkind. Slightly oddly named after a type of landholding right from Kent, what it means is Salic partible inheritance, where a ruler's lands are divided up among their heirs on death. This can be a huge problem: if you hold multiple duchies or kingdoms, they can get split up into independent realms and the whole thing goes the way of the Carolingians.

In our case, we got away relatively easily, only losing Kemi, which ended up becoming a part of the newly formed kingdom of Ruthenia. To the south, however, gavelkind broke up Estonia, and we capitalized on the confusion. With enough provinces in de jure Finland under our control, in the year 940 the first Hämäläinen king was crowned!

Meanwhile, the infidels invented holy wars. We'd better get cracking on that reformation.

In order to reform Suomenusko, we need to control at least three holy sites. Käkisalmi was our first conquest, and another holy site is at Saaremaa, which we annexed with the rest of Estonia. Perm and Ryazan are far away, so the easiest third site to grab is Novgorod. And, as luck or Ukko would have it, the high chiefdom of Novgorod greatly obliged us by breaking up, so we started our inroads into Russia.

With three holy sites in our hands and a bunch of succesful county conquests under our belt, it was time to achieve the first main objective of this campaign.

This gets us all kinds of neat stuff, like our own holy order!

Not to mention holy wars.

Of course, some things haven't changed.

So now I've reformed my religion, and built a stone hillfort in Uusimaa with the money I made raiding; now a momentous decision awaits...

I have absolutely no idea if I'm ready for this, or if clicking that button means the downfall of the Hämäläinen dynasty. We'll find out - next time.

Jan 16, 2017

LotR LCG: Desert by night

He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace - all in a flash of thought that was quickly driven from his mind.

- 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)
Idraen (TTT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

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
Gandalf (OHaUH)

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

Side quests:
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

Gimli (TSoH)
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Bifur (Kd)

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)

Jan 9, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 28: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Bree was the chief village of the Bree-land, a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about.

The chapter starts off with several pages of exposition about the Bree-land, made up of four villages nestled on or around the Bree-hill, the chief of which is Bree itself. Hobbits live in Bree, but most of the population is "Men", i.e. humans. We get a brief description of the Men of Bree, and also of the other humans who hang around these parts, the mysterious Rangers, followed by an account of Bree and its famous inn. Bree stands at the crossroads of the East Road and what used to be the North Road but is now the Greenway, on account of having become overgrown, and the inn is a relic of the time when there was much more traffic. Now, only Rangers and dwarves travel on the East Road, apart from the occasional hobbit making the trip between Bree and the Shire, but they all still stop at the inn.

In case you're wondering, Bree and its inn aren't mentioned in the Hobbit, Tolkien presumably not having come up with it yet, but it's hardly a stretch to imagine Bilbo and the dwarves staying there for at least a night. In her Atlas of Middle-earth, the late Karen Wynn Fonstad tried to work out the discrepancies in travel time between Thorin Oakenshield's traveling circus and Frodo & co., where the dwarves seem to have taken absolute ages to get anywhere compared to Frodo and his bunch (pp. 97-101). I'd point out that when Bilbo and the dwarves did their con little song-and-dance routine about dragon-slaying and gold at Lake-town, they got a fortnight's free feasting out of it. If you figure they pulled the same act at Bree, and maybe some version at the Green Dragon too, I'd suggest that easily accounts for most of the discrepancy. As we're about to find out, the bardic talents of Frodo and company are, well, different.

The village of Bree itself is encircled by a ditch and a hedge, the first of which the road crosses on a causeway before being blocked by a gate in the hedge. This is where Frodo and company make their appearance in the lands of men. The gate is shut, but the gatekeeper is still on duty; he comes over to let the hobbits in, and subjects them to a bit of an interrogation. Frodo identifies himself as "Mr. Underhill", but is distinctly cagey about why they're there. I can't help thinking that some kind of cover story would really have been a good idea, but then again, these are young gentlehobbits on an adventure, so what can you expect? After the hobbits move on, a dark figure slips over the gate behind them.

Entering Bree, the hobbits, Sam especially, are somewhat intimidated by the tall buildings. Having always thought of Bree as very, well, rustic, I was a little surprised to find that it's described as consisting of a hundred stone houses. No wonder Sam finds it all a bit foreign! The door to the inn is open; apparently they don't have many nocturnal insects in Bree because to me, that feels like a properly bad idea. However, there's a sign with a fat pony and the words "The Prancing Pony" written on it, and light and song inside, so clearly the hobbits have found what they were looking for (for once!).

Inside, they encounter a comical fat innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur - a very sensible name for an innkeeper - and his comical hobbit assistants Nob and Bob, amidst the hustle and bustle of their trade. He leads the hobbits into a parlour where they refresh themselves and eat, and invites them to join the company in the common-room. Frodo, Sam and Pippin decide to do just that. In what seems to be a startling anachronism that would be more at home in the Hobbit, Merry reminds them to "mind your Ps and Qs". It turns out that the phrase might not be as anachronistic as I'd thought, but it's still a little jarring; if Tolkien had some opinion on its origins, I don't think it's been preserved for posterity. However it's phrased, though, it's sound advice: the last thing Frodo and company want to do right now is cause a commotion. Unfortunately, you must know by now what that means will happen next.

Frodo and company make their way to the common-room, where they're enthusiastically welcomed by the Bree-folk. Pressed for some reason why he's there, Frodo comes up with the notion that he's writing a book about hobbits, and is especially interested in the hobbits of Bree. This leads to an avalanche of anecdotes from the Bree-hobbits, but when Frodo fails to actually start writing a book on the spot, they return to swapping news, mostly with Sam and Pippin, who are soon right at home in the crowd.

Apart from the merry hobbits, the common-room is populated by men and dwarves, talking about unrest to the east and south and people on the move. One particularly strange-looking man catches Frodo's eye; Barliman Butterbur identifies him as a wandering ranger known as Strider. Strider waves Frodo over, and warns him about his friends: Sam and Pippin are perhaps beginning to feel a little too much at home, and in fact, Pippin is already telling the story of Bilbo's last birthday-party and disappearance - not exactly a story Frodo is keen to have people reminded of there and then. Strider prods Frodo to do something.

On its own merits, this isn't necessarily a bad idea, but the problem is that the intervention is going to be carried out by Frodo Baggins. He jumps on a table and starts improvising a speech, which not unreasonably gives his audience the impression that he's had far too much to drink. He does succeed in ruining Pippin's story, and when the crowd starts calling for a song, Frodo sings them a silly song Bilbo had written about the Man in the Moon getting drunk at an inn. Intensely uncomfortable at first, Frodo fingers the Ring in his pocket, quite understandably wanting to disappear, but the song is well received and he starts feeling good about his bardic acumen. During the encore, he punctuates the bit where the cow jumps over the moon with a leap of his own, loses his footing - and accidentally puts the Ring on.

The merriment is cut short as the crowd is shocked by the disappearing hobbit. Sam and Pippin are shunned as the disreputable companions of some kind of travelling warlock, and while several locals loudly complain to Butterbur, some others including the gatekeeper slip outside. Frodo, feeling like an idiot, crawls back to the dark corner where Strider was sitting, and takes off the Ring. Strider chastizes him, and calling him Baggins rather than Underhill, suggests they might have a word later. Frodo agrees, and tries to dispel some of the remaining crowd's suspicions by reappearing, claiming he'd simply tumbled under a table or something. This is given the credence it deserves, and the crowd breaks up in a huff. Frodo gets a talking to from Butterbur as well, who also wants to talk to him. The chapter closes with Frodo having made one hell of a commotion and a fool of himself, dreading the private conversations to come, and suspecting that everyone in Bree is in league against him.


This is really a very straightforward chapter: it tells the mercifully short story of a hobbit covert operation, and theoretically unbeknownst to us but actually almost certainly beknownst to everyone and heavily suggested by the title of the next chapter, introduces us to a key character. What I quite like is that while doing this, Tolkien also gives us both background information about a new place, Bree, and both a snapshot of the lands around it and its past, without collapsing into exhausting exposition. This chapter would actually almost work on its own as a short story. As part of the bigger story, the hobbits have now definitely left their home turf and are venturing further out into the wide world, something they really hardly seem ready to do. With the chapter closing on Frodo beginning to suspect everyone around him of being in on a conspiracy, one definitely gets the idea that they're in over their heads. There's a sharp contrast between the insular hobbits nattering about family gossip and the dwarves and men concerned with the wider world around them. Frodo and company are now moving firmly into the latter, with shall we say mixed success.

For all of Tolkien's high-church Catholicism, there's a definite Puritan streak in him as well: unlike, say, Patrick O'Brian's works, I don't think very many people have come away from a Tolkien description of a meal feeling hungry.

Next time, parlour games.

Jan 2, 2017

PhD blog 1/17: Half-year review

So, I've now been a postgraduate student at the University of Helsinki for half a year. The experience has been so thoroughly lonely, depressing and frustrating that I'm seriously considering quitting. When I wrote that there's no orientation for new students whatsoever, I wasn't exaggerating. I'm still not sure if my doctoral program knows I exist; if my name wasn't on their list of students, I'd be pretty sure no-one's told them I've been accepted into their program. My subject has at least noticed I'm around, but not much more.

The practical form my work this semester took was reading a pile of theory and background literature, and writing the first draft of my introduction, which clocked in at some 30+ pages. In addition, I completed the fall semester of teacher training. This was a pretty rough combination, and I'll admit that at times I was completely exhausted. Some time in November I hit a stretch where writing was incredibly difficult; I'd manage a single sentence at a time, followed by what I swear felt like an hour staring at the computer. But I finished it in the end, though, as well as my teacher studies. That's not the problem.


My fundamental problem with postgraduate study is that none of the above matters. I worked my ass off to produce that introduction, and nobody cares. I've unsuccesfully applied for both funding and work; all my applications were summarily rejected based on my CV. At no point does the quality of my work even begin to enter the equation. Nobody making decisions about my future knows or cares if what I'm writing is any good or not. Doing research and writing a PhD will get me nowhere. Instead of, you know, doing science, my priority would need to be building my CV in order to be able to do science. But even that's not as easy as it sounds.

In my experience, there are basically three groups of PhD students at our university. The first, most fortunate few are the people employed by the university as paid doctoral trainees or something similar. They actually work at the university, receive a salary, and get to be part of the university community and network with people and whatnot.

Then there are the people who've applied for a grant from a foundation and gotten one, meaning that one of the foundations that funds PhD work is going to support them for whatever period of time they applied for. This is a pretty good state of affairs, because hey, they're being paid. However, when the Kone Foundation gathered feedback from researchers they'd awarded grants to, a major problem they identified was that researchers on grants were being shut out of their university communities. This had been a problem in previous years as well, but has since gotten worse. So even if you have a grant that lets you work on your thesis full-time, it doesn't necessarily mean the university is willing to offer you anything.

At least they have a grant, though, because the third group is the rest of us. We have nothing, neither work nor grant, and are left to fend for ourselves. In my case, I can look forward to one meeting per semester with my supervisor. Apart from that, I'm on my own. There's a seminar that meets more or less once a week, but almost no-one attends it. That's pretty much it. I've barely even met many other doctoral candidates from my subject or program; there's very little reason for me to have anything much to do with either. So while grant researchers may feel shut out of the university community, from the point of view of a first-year postgraduate student, I'm surprised to hear that there is a university community out there somewhere. I've certainly seen nothing of it. Nobody gives a shit who we are or what we do.

It's difficult to escape the impression that we're already being quite aggressively sorted into haves and have-nots, in ways that aren't in any way based on the quality of our work. For those of us on the outside looking in, so to speak, it's tough to come up with anything to do to change that. Obviously trying to network with people is always something, but when you barely ever get an opportunity to meet anybody, that's very hard to do. When nobody really cares what you do, how are you supposed to distinguish yourself? I don't really see a way up the ladder, and that's pretty depressing. I don't know how to integrate myself into a community that doesn't want me. It's thoroughly demoralizing.

There's also a broader political angle to this. Our current right-wing cabinet has mounted an unprecedented assault on education. Massive budget cuts have been combined with a public campaign against universities; from the prime minister on down, they've heaped scorn on us, misrepresented statistics and told brazen populist lies about professors' summer vacations. How has our university responded? With complete craven surrender. Ministers who publicly insult and slander our universities are invited to speak at them, and when students protest, the university has its staff try to block them - the very same staff these ministers have attacked as superfluous and demanded be fired. During the current fiasco, it's become painfully obvious that the people in charge of our universities are reprehensible cowards. As a potential future employee, this tells me they're not going to stand up for me or anyone else. Our union has also failed to produce anything whatsoever of substance; snarky press releases that the media ignores aren't political action. So when I say that nobody cares about us, I also mean it in a wider sense.


This first semester, I set out to start familiarizing myself with theory and background literature, and write the first draft of my introduction. I've done both, the latter largely thanks to the excellent writing seminar run by my doctoral program. However, the semester's been so depresing and alienating that my first priority for spring 2017 is to try to figure out what to do with myself if and when this so-called academic career doesn't come together. Given the way things are at our university and the long-term career prospects on offer in the academic world, I'm not sure I can justify spending four years of my life on a piece of paper and a fancy title - especially if they're going to be four years like this. Basically, the work I do isn't worth shit to anyone.

So in short: if you're thinking about postgraduate study at the University of Helsinki, don't.