Mar 20, 2017

LotR LCG: Between the Mountains and the Sea

Gondor! Gondor, between the Mountains and the Sea!
West Wind blew there; the light upon the Silver-tree
Fell like bright rain in gardens of the Kings of old.
O proud walls! White towers! O wingéd crown and throne of gold!
O Gondor, Gondor! Shall Men behold the Silver Tree,
Or West Wind blow again between the Mountains and the Sea?
- Aragorn, the Lord of the Rings, book III, chapter II


Back while we were waiting for the Sands of Harad to show up, the logical thing to do seemed to be to move on to the last untouched deluxe expansion: Heirs of Númenor. Set in Gondor and centered on the battle against Sauron's armies, the second expansion to the game is renowned for its extreme difficulty. As I notoriously prefer thematically interesting decks to, well, efficient ones, we haven't done all that well against the more difficult scenarios thus far. So my confident expectation is that this is going to be an absolutely horrible experience. We're doing it anyway, because hell, the box is right there. And anyway, how hard can it be?


John Howe: Minas Tirith, 1989

**

Peril in Pelargir - DL 5


Our trip to Gondor begins with a bar brawl, and I approve entirely: I've GM'd enough fantasy role-playing games to know that this is a venerable, time-honored way to start an adventure. We've arrived in Pelargir, and a Gondorian nobleman called Alcaron wants us to deliver a scroll to Faramir.


Our first attempt at this scenario was way before Flame of the West, even, so I still had my old new Amazons. I'll admit that I had my doubts as to their usefulness, since Heirs notoriously includes a whole bunch of battle and siege questing, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. Thank the Valar for Idraen, without whom I'd barely have been able to muster any battle questing at all; I ended up deputizing Galadriel's Handmaiden to defend with Arwen's bonus and Cloak of Lórien, because it wasn't like she was doing anything else! Luckily we cleared the initial location pretty quick and survived a massive rush of Harbor Thugs; since most of the other enemies had only a couple of hit points, Thalin and a spear-wielding Boromir dealt with them pretty briskly. Finally, the last stage was regular old-fashioned questing, and finally my Handmaidens and West Road Travellers could do their thing, and we blasted right through, making our getaway from Pelargir.


This was a fun quest! It's like Trouble in Tharbad, only better: an urban adventure with a bit of a different feel to it than most other quests. I kinda wonder about how tough the street thugs in Pelargir are, if getting past them is a Battle quest, but fighting through Moria isn't... Still, though, we liked this!

**

Into Ithilien - DL 4


This quest is stupid. You start out with an active location that drops the engagement cost of all enemies to zero, and with one Southron Company per player in the staging area. You also get an objective ranger, who will die if you quest unsuccesfully or any characters leave play. Oh, and it's a Battle quest, meaning you use your characters' attack values to quest. So basically you need enough attack to clear the threat in the staging area and the active location, or a trick to get rid of it, or two Southron companies and any enemies you draw in staging attack immediately.


It's a bit disheartening to encounter a quest where I basically immediately know looking at the first turn that my deck is completely useless here. My Amazons are a mostly questing Spirit/Lore deck. There's almost nothing we can do in the first quest phase, and on their own, Team Boromir can't both battle quest and defend itself from enemies. On our next try, I switched decks, but we drew a Mûmak in our first staging, and since neither of us could actually defend it without a hero dying, that was the end of it; by the time we'd have done enough damage to it to kill it, my deck would've been destroyed.


I'll be honest: as a concept, battle questing sucks. One of the key challenges of nearly all quests in the game is getting the balance of fighting and questing right. Our current decks have a fairly strong division of labor, but both can also do a little bit of the other. This works great in ordinary quests. Battle questing, though, destroys this completely since all of a sudden one of the key variables doesn't matter at all any more. This quest is just straight up impossible for quite a few different decks. Admittedly this is a pretty key question of gameplay philosophy: are you interested in designing a new deck for every quest? If so, I'll bet this is a good challenge. If not, then I don't think it's worth bothering. To me, this is one of those quests that just kicks you in the head.

Oh, and did I remember to mention that this quest is DL 4? Because of course it is.

**

The Siege of Cair Andros - DL 7


In the last quest of the box, our heroes are participating in a siege. The are some clever mechanics here: certain locations take damage, but if you manage to clear them, you get to skip entire quest stages. Some of the encounter cards, like The Power of Mordor, are interesting; some, like Orc Vanguard, are awful.


Although this is a much more interesting quest than Into Ithilien, it's also even more restrictive in terms of what kinds of decks will be succesful with it. With Orc Vanguard stopping players from using any non-Tactics resources, and The Master's Malice punishing all non-monosphere decks, clearly mono-Tactics decks will have a considerable advantage. The weakness of Tactics has traditionally been questing, but since all we do here is battle quest or siege quest, which is the same except with defense, that doesn't matter. So again, this is one for those of you who want to create an optimized deck to beat it.

**

The player cards in Heirs of Númenor are a strongly thematic collection of Gondor cards. To start off, you get the Tactics incarnation of the best defensive hero in the game, Beregond, and the Leadership version of Boromir, who boosts all Gondor allies.


There are some outstanding cards here, like the best defending ally you can get, some invaluable resource smoothing for Leadership decks, and the Spear of the Citadel, not to mention the sassiest ally in the game. Spirit players might be a bit underwhelmed, although Blood of Númenor certainly has its place in the right deck. In general, a powerful collection of Gondor cards, essential for anyone interested in that archetype.

**

So, while I thought Peril in Pelargir was a pretty good quest, the next two aren't really ones I think we'll be playing again. This isn't to say that they're bad quests. On the contrary, I kind of liked Siege of Cair Andros. Rather it's that the combination of a very high difficulty level and battle/siege questing means that you'll almost certainly have to custom-build very specific decks to beat the last two quests. If you think you'd enjoy that kind of deckbuilding challenge, then this is the box for you. If, like us, you're not into that kind of thing, then we can't recommend buying this box for the quests.

**

With the arrival of the Mûmakil, we get our hands on the player card versions of the Harad objective heroes we met in the Long Arm of Mordor quest in the Sands of Harad box. Not only do I absolutely love the idea of Harad allies in general, but Jubayr is also a brilliant defender, especially with his sentinel and shadow-discarding abilities, and I have to at least try including him in my deck. Also, just because this is an Amazons deck, I need a copy of Firyal. I don't know where I'll ever be able to find the resources to pay for her, but what the hell.


To make way for them, I'll be leaving out the allies that I tend to be least pleased to see in an opening hand: my Wandering Ents. Yes, ents are a great bargain at two resources each, but those are Lore resources, which I tend to have other uses for. This is especially the case now that I mostly find myself playing three- to four-player games, where there tend to be less turns. Like I said, I have no idea where I'll find the resources to pay for Firyal if Wandering Ents feel prohibitively expensive! But I also used ents extensively in my Lore Silvan deck, and I feel that it's time to move on to new things, so I'm trying out the new Harad allies.

56 cards; 34 Spirit, 18 Lore, 4 neutral; 21 allies, 15 attachments, 18 events, 2 side quests. Starting threat 28.

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

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

Attachments: 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

Mar 13, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 30: A Knife in the Dark

As they prepared for sleep in the inn at Bree, darkness lay on Buckland; a mist strayed in the dells and along the river-bank.

Remember Fatty Bolger? The hobbit who was fat, stayed behind in Crickhollow to pretend to be Frodo and was fat? In Tolkien's stories, fat people are comical, constantly shamed for their weight, but occasionally in very real danger, and this is one of the latter cases. In the middle of the night, three Black Riders surround Frodo's house in Crickhollow, and in the darkest hour before dawn, they smash the door open and break in. Fredegar is nowhere to be found: as soon as he saw the shadows coming, he hightailed it out the back door amd ran a straight mile to the nearest house, without a fat joke in sight. The neighbors make out that he's been attacked somehow, and sound the alarm. Amidst the blowing of the hobbits' horns, the Black Riders charge out through the North-gate and vanish into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, in Bree, Frodo sleeps uneasily, dreaming of galloping horses and horn-calls. In the morning, the hobbits find their rooms ransacked and their beds torn apart. Barliman Butterbur is terrified, and when he hurries off to make preparations for Frodo and company's departure, the news only gets worse: the attackers - we presume the Black Riders - also opened the stable doors and drove out all the horses and ponies. After hours of searching, the only mount the hobbits can secure is a pony owned by Bill Ferny, available for a shocking price. Butterbur pays for it, and even compensates Merry for the loss of the hobbits' ponies. The narrative breaks continuity for a moment here to tell us that the ponies made their way to Tom Bombadil, who sent them back to Butterbur once he heard what happened, so Barliman ended up all right.

It's already midmorning when the hobbits and Strider eventually manage to leave, and a crowd has gathered to see them off. As they pass Bill Ferny's house, he shows up to taunt them, but Sam throws an apple at him. In one of our first encounters with Tolkienian racial profiling, they also spot the "sallow face with sly, slanting eyes" that belongs to the "southerner", who witnessed Frodo's performance at the inn, hanging out with Ferny. "He looks more than half like a goblin," thinks Frodo, who to our knowledge has never seen a goblin in his life, but is a well-bred enough gentlehobbit to immediately associate foreigners with orcishness.

Eventually, the crowd following them gives up, and soon thereafter Strider leads them off the road to the north. At first, they make as if they're heading for Archet, another village in Bree-land, and after several doublebacks and other rangerlike maneuvers, they strike out east for Weathertop. On the third day, they leave the Chetwood and enter the open country around Weathertop and find their first obstacle: the Midgewater Marshes. Finding a way through is difficult enough, and the hobbits are mercilessly assaulted by clouds of tiny midges that get all over them and bite the shit out of them. At night, the midges are joined by some "evil relatives of the cricket" that make a horrible racket. It takes the company several days to make their way through the marshes, and on the night of the fourth day, Frodo and Aragorn see mysterious white flashes of light, like lightning, on the eastern horizon.

As Frodo and company clear the marshes, the ground starts to rise, and they see a line of hills in the distance. Strider identifies the most prominent of them as Weathertop. He suggests they should head for it, hoping perhaps to meet Gandalf, although he admits the hope is slim. He leads the hobbits into the hills, where they find scattered ruins and a road leading toward Weathertop. Ruins make Merry nervous, so he asks if there's a barrow on the hill. Strider explains that the ruins are remains of the northern kingdom, and the road they're on was built to serve the great watchtower of Amon Sûl on what is now Weathertop, where Elendil awaited Gil-galad. The hobbits, who still think of Strider as something of a brigand, are astonished to hear him spouting ancient lore. No less astonishingly, when Merry asks who Gil-galad was, he gets an answer in the form of poetry - from Sam! It turns out Bilbo had taught him some of his translation of the Fall of Gil-galad. Showing his usual self-restraint, Pippin starts shouting about Mordor, only to be shushed by Strider.

Around noon, the travellers reach Weathertop. They find a sheltered hollow on the west side, where Sam and Pippin wait while the others head to the summit. There they find an impressive view of the country, traces of a fire among the ruins, and a mark possibly left by Gandalf, which they interpret as meaning that he had been there three days ago - when Frodo and Strider saw the flash of light on the horizon. Strider reasons that Gandalf must have been attacked there, and that they must make their own way forward. He reckons they have about a fortnight's journey ahead of them, avoiding the road.

Their reckonings are interrupted, however, when Frodo spots riders on the road below them. Strider and the hobbits take cover and leave the summit, but there's no doubt that the enemy is here. Back in the dell, Sam and Pippin have found water and firewood, and thoroughly trampled some tracks that Strider had neglected to examine. As they discuss their situation, Merry quite intelligently asks whether the Riders can, in fact, see. Strider explains that their horses can see, and they can sense living creatures - and the Ring. If they left the dell now, they'd almost certainly be seen before they made it far. His plan is to camp there and build a fire, using it for defence; the Riders, he says, fear fire.

This they do, and as evening draws near, they have a frugal meal and bemoan their lack of provisions. Strider tells them stories of ancient times, culminating in a song several pages long about Beren and Lúthien. He also gives them a prose version of the story: Beren's love for Lúthien, their quest for the Silmarils and their deaths, and their descendants, Elrond and the kings of Númenor.

When Strider is finished, night has already fallen, and the moon is rising. Soon, they find themselves surrounded by Black Riders. While the other hobbits are overcome with terror, Frodo feels an irresistible compulsion to put on the Ring. As he does, he can suddenly see the spectral figures of the Black Riders under their robes. As they advance on him, he throws himself at the nearest one, stabbing at its feet and shouting Elbereth. He feels a stabbing pain in his shoulder, and as he slips the Ring from his finger, everything goes dark.

**

This is quite a chapter: it's almost as long as the previous two combined, and while those were set in the very restricted confines of Bree and a parlor at the Prancing Pony, here we pop back to the Shire, deal with the aftermath of an attack in Bree and range over the wood and marshes of the Lone-lands, and hear the tale of Beren and Lúthien. I very nearly didn't finish this post on time! I did very much enjoy the chapter. Like I've said, I like Tolkien's travelogues, and Strider gives him a vehicle to start getting us properly acquainted with the mythical history of Middle-earth.

I hate to second-guess a ranger, but going to Weathertop seems to have been a terrible idea. Reading closely, I'm struck by how uncertain Aragorn is of what to do in the absence of Gandalf.

"We might reach it by noon tomorrow, if we go straight towards it. I suppose we had better do so."

(...)

"I think," answered Strider slowly, as if he was not quite sure, "I think the best thing is to go as straight eastward from here as we can, to make for the line of hills, not for Weathertop. (...) Then we shall see what we shall see."

Here's my objection. If you look at any map of Eriador, there is literally nothing between Bree and Rivendell except the Road and Weathertop. This is the Black Riders' logic at Bree: missing the hobbits there is fine, because there's nowhere they can possibly run or hide once they leave Bree. The Riders will ride them down on the Road. However, their plan fails because the hobbits meet Strider, who can get them to Rivendell without using the Road. Once Frodo and company go off-road, what can the Riders do? It seems like it would be almost impossible for them to track a ranger in the Lone-lands. All they can do is patrol the Road, probably keeping a close eye on the bridges, and head to Weathertop. Since it's an excellent observation post and the only actual landmark or location of any significance between Bree and Rivendell, it's a natural place to keep watch.

In other words, by heading to Weathertop, Strider chooses to go to the one location in Eriador where the Black Riders are most likely to be found. This is honestly another one of those "you had one job" -situations. So why does a massively experienced ranger like Aragorn make such a horrible mistake? He damn near gets Frodo killed and loses the Ring to the Enemy.

The only textual explanation I can give is that the hope of meeting Gandalf is so important to Strider that it outweighs the massive dangers of Weathertop. Indeed, he says as much himself:

"I was too careless on the hill-top," answered Strider. "I was very anxious to find Gandalf; but it was a mistake for three of us to go up and stand there so long."

Not only was staying on the hill-top a careless mistake, but so was coming there in the first place. It's now led to the most dramatic chapter ending so far, with Frodo collapsing to the ground after being stabbed.

Next time: trolls, elves and a flood.

Mar 6, 2017

PhD blog 3/17: How the Finnish cadre army works

There seems to be endemic confusion in English-language discussions about how the Finnish cadre army system works, and indeed about cadre systems in general. Because I'm working on a PhD dissertation on the Finnish army, I thought I'd take a moment to try to explain.

The British and US armies have for quite a while now been made up of the regular army, which is supplemented by reservists and the National Guard or Territorial Army respectively. To understand the Finnish system, Anglo-American readers need to completely exorcize these concepts from their minds. These institutions do not have Finnish equivalents. William R. Trotter's generally pedestrian A Frozen Hell commits its worst howlers precisely by imagining that the Finnish army mirrors the US in these respects.

In the Anglo-American sense of a permanent body of professional soldiers at more or less combat strength, there's never been such a thing as a Finnish regular army. Various bodies of regular troops existed along the tenure army system while present-day Finland was part of Sweden, and after Sweden lost those provinces to Russia, a single Guards battalion - the Finnish Guard - and some auxiliary units were maintained in Finland as part of the imperial military. These were disbanded at the start of the 20th century, and Finland became independent in 1917 without an established military. The civil war of 1918 was essentially fought by armed civilians, more or less organized into civil guards and Red guards respectively, and bolstered on both sides by some ex-imperial army veterans and on the White side by the Finnish Jäger battalion that had fought on the German eastern front, and eventually also direct German intervention.

After the war, the Jäger and ex-czarist officers set out to create the Finnish army. Initially the army was conceived of as a quasicolonial auxiliary to the Imperial German army, much as Finland was intended to become a German vassal state with a German king as head of state. The collapse of the German empire left Finland more independent than the victors of the civil war had intended, and the army retained its German-derived structure into the thirties.

There was widespread agreement in the political class of the newly-founded state that national defense would be based on assigned male conscription, but the precise form this would take was debated. The agrarian party favored a Swiss-style militia system of decentralized local defence forces, while the Right pressed for a centralized national army. The Right eventually prevailed, and a centralized army was established.

From the beginning, this army was, in peacetime, a training establishment only. All of the formations you can see on a map of Finnish army forces, then or today, are conscript training organizations, not standing forces. There's no Jäger regiment in Santahamina right now, for instance; in fact, as far as I know, Jäger regiments don't exist in the Finnish wartime army at all. When the wartime army mobilizes, the Guards Jäger Regiment in Santahamina isn't brought up to wartime strength and deployed, but on the contrary ceases to exist, and its staff and the conscripts it has trained are mobilized to form a variety of wartime units. The structure of the Finish wartime army, in other words, is not the peacetime army plus reservists, but a completely different organization trained by the peacetime training establishment. The peacetime army is not analogous to the US or UK regular army. Conscripts would serve in a formation and be assigned a wartime placement, usually in a unit that would be created on mobilization.

Prior to and during the Second World War, the Civil Guard existed as an organization nominally subordinate to the army, but actually fairly independent, especially politically. Although the Civil Guard maintained its own formations in peacetime, these were made up of army reservists, whose continued training was the chief military responsibility of the Civil Guard organization. In wartime, these reservists were mobilized into the wartime army like everyone else. In other words, the Civil Guard was never an organization parallel to the military like the US National Guard or the UK Territorial Army, but was always made up of army reservists. Trotter, bizarrely, never seems to have understood this, and imagines that the Civil Guards were some kind of auxiliary militia, contrasting them unfavorably to the so-called regular army. In fact, the members of the Civil Guard were the best-trained soldiers in the entire army!

In the Second World War, the Finnish army mobilized in stages. First, the conscripts then in service and the border guards formed the first echelon (suojajoukot, covering force), which deployed to the border to cover the mobilization of the rest of the army. Should the enemy attack before mobilization was complete, the covering forces would delay and attrit the enemy while the main body of the army deployed behind them. Finnish doctrine of the time held that they would immediately go on the offensive and rout the invading enemy. That didn't quite work out, but it was how they thought. Behind the main force, the remaining training establishments and those Civil Guards not mobilized to the front formed the Home Forces, responsible for rear-area security and the ongoing training of new conscripts.

To sum up, in pre-World War II Finland, there was no regular army or separate Civil Guard militia. Rather, there was a peacetime training establishment made up of professional officers and NCOs, who trained the reservists who would make up the wartime army. Upon mobilization, this training establishment broke up to form the higher commissioned and non-commissioned ranks of the wartime army. Meanwhile, although the Civil Guard had its own merry quasifascist existence in peacetime, its primary military task was keeping its members trained for their wartime duties, and upon mobilization the civil guardsmen joined the same wartime army as everyone else.

The Civil Guard was outlawed as a fascist organization after Finland lost the so-called Continuation War, and voluntary defence has remained in a strange limbo ever since, but other than that, the Finnish army still works essentially similarly. Upon completing their conscript service, reservists are either assigned a wartime posting or passed into the general reserve; on mobilization, assigned reservists and active members of the peacetime military would form wartime units. These days there are some full-time professional soldiers in the Finnish army, but we still don't have a regular army in the sense that the US or UK do. Finnish peacekeepers deployed abroad are volunteer reservists and professionals, not active service troops.

As far as I know, this is more or less how most other European conscript cadre armies worked as well, but you'd have to consult an expert on them. As for the Finnish army, I'd recommend avoiding Trotter's Frozen Hell, unless you're especially keen on a vulgarly nationalist storybook version of the Winter War that thoroughly misunderstands the structure and functioning of the Finnish army. In general, this is what feminist scholars mean when they say that knowledge is situated: the Finnish army works the way the Finnish army works, which may or may not be how, say, the US Army works. Don't assume, find out.