One more cycle down. So how have things developed through this one, and indeed the three Saga expansions which have also fitted in since the previous cycle end? I guess I’m going to have a lot to talk about here.
So general player card thoughts. Although it actually makes perfect sense in terms of the story, it always feels slightly weird that the Hobbit boxes do nothing for the Hobbit trait in the game, they’re both just massive Dwarf-fests. I talked recently about the Dwarf trait in general, and the problem it had with not having a real defining mechanic to start with. The Hobbit boxes put that right to a certain extent, but obviously couldn’t put right the less focused trait design which preceded them, and in fact adding a bunch more power cards for Dwarves led to them becoming something of a ridiculous super-trait, which still sits at or near the top of the power tables even after they had almost no new stuff for the ensuing three cycles. Black Riders gave us viable Hobbit trait synergy and allowed us to build Hobbit decks pretty much all from just the one box, essentially because the Hobbit trait is focused much more around its heroes than anything else, so releasing some good heroes plus a few decent attachments and events for them was all we really needed.
And then Against the Shadow. We were expecting Gondor synergy, and we… kind of got it? Gondor had, and to some extent still has, the issue that Dwarves have, where they don’t have a real defining mechanic that almost everything plays into, like the more recent Silvan, Dunedain or Noldor. More recently it seems that Gondor may be somewhat associated with the Valour keyword, which is nice, but that’s more a subtheme if anything, not even up to the level of Dwarven mining yet. And Gondor have a lot of stuff to do with resources. That’s the one most consistent thing, but even that isn’t so consistent. Leadermir, Beregond saves you resources as technically does Caldara, Errand-riders, Visionary Leadership, etc, there’s a fair amount of good resource-related stuff; but then there’s also totally unrelated stuff like Defender of Rammas is just a generically good ally, Pelargir Shipwright is a mono-sphere card rather than a Gondor card really, and mostly the strategy for a Gondor deck is just to spam allies, so while you certainly can argue that resources are a common theme, in practice it’s not something you really have to do beyond holding onto 1 resource for Visionary. Of course, the ‘spam allies’ approach worked well enough for Dwarves, but the difference is they have amazing in-trait card draw and arguably better allies, plus their willpower boost can be on the table at the start of the game. The one other point to Gondor which I haven’t mentioned is the Ranger/Trap deck. Now that I think worked out alright, with the caveat that it’s better suited to being a third or fourth deck in a game if you want to really focus specifically on that strategy. On the other hand if you just want to splash in some traps in your solo or 2-player decks that can work just fine.
And finally the mono-sphere stuff. I basically already said what I wanted to about this in my recent post on the distinction between ‘printed [sphere] icon’ and just ‘[sphere] icon’. While I’m obviously biased, I think it’s an interesting point to consider and so suggest you read the whole post, but if you want a brief summary of my conclusions at the end, essentially there were two big factors in how the mono-sphere stuff played out: on the one hand there is a certain amount of sphere bleed in the game, so going mono-sphere doesn’t represent as much of a sacrifice as it might if the spheres were more clearly delineated because you can still do the things represented in other spheres even if not as well; and on the other the effects offered by the mono-sphere cards were mostly not that powerful to really push the idea as hard as intended. If we had less sphere bleed then giving up access to other spheres would be more of a sacrifice you’d have to make, and then the mono-sphere effects could have been more powerful to compensate, but in fact we do have sphere bleed and the effects were mostly more moderate, so going mono-sphere is just another small wrinkle in deckbuilding decisions rather than being a serious trade-off of versatility for power.
Overall, I would say the cards in the Saga expansions were mostly very good for what they did (with some misses in the Hobbit boxes), while the Against the Shadow cards were somewhat hit and miss – some good, some bad, many overly convoluted and difficult to make good use of. I’ve decided moving forward to start picking favourites and the like from player cards the same way I do for quests in these wrap-up posts, so here goes:
My favourite heroes: Beorn, Balin, Sam Gamgee, Caldara.
My favourite other player cards: Gandalf (OHaUH), Ranger Spikes, A Good Harvest, Strength of Arms, Gondorian Discipline, Hidden Cache.
My least favourite player cards: Late Adventurer, Pippin (Sp), all the Outlands cards.
Best designs for developing archetypes: A Very Good Tale for swarming, Bombur for 5 Dwarves, Sam/Pippin (Lo) for Hobbits, the Record attachments for mono-sphere.
Worst designs for developing archetypes: Pippin (Sp) for Hobbits, Trained for War/Against the Shadow for mono-sphere, Theoden for mono-Tactics.
Most difficult cards to use well: Great Yew Bow, Smoke Rings, Mutual Accord, Harbour Master, Small Target, Palantir, Well-Equipped, Caldara.
Most under-rated cards: Beorn, Thror’s Map, Bombur, Hobbit Pipe, Boromir (Ld), Palantir, Faramir.
An interesting selection. I feel I may have missed some for the last two categories still. One particularly interesting point I feel is that there was no Gondor card I felt was good enough to pick as a ‘best design for…’, but equally there wasn’t one I felt was bad enough to pick as a worst design either. The whole development of the Gondor trait all just kind of sat in an odd middle ground. Of my favourite heroes, Sam is actually a step below the others, but in most other company he’d definitely be up there and I figured I should pick someone from Black Riders. The other three are very much among my favourites to this very day in the modern card pool.
Now onto the quests. While in terms of the player card pool I’m just wrapping up whatever has been added at the end of each regular cycle, for the quests I am keeping the wrap-up segregated between cycles and saga – of course the Hobbit quests I covered in their own wrap-up, and the Black Riders quests I’ll cover in a Fellowship of the Ring Wrap-up post once I’ve done The Road Darkens. Point is, here I’m only considering Heirs of Numenor and Against the Shadow (and Stone of Erech). Now while some might feel otherwise, my general assessment of this cycle would be that the player cards were rather mixed as I said above, but the quests were generally very good, though potentially spoiled by certain cards of (in my opinion) questionable design.
Peril in Pelargir was kind of the introduction to Battle questing and the new breed of encounter deck. “Hello, this is what quests are like now, and yes, it’s pretty brutal.” More specifically, actually I would say that Pelargir, and some other quests around this point, show some unfortunate tendencies due to being in something of a transitional period in encounter deck design – some of the randomly horrible individual encounter cards still exist (e.g. Collateral Damage has potential to be utterly ridiculous), but the encounter decks are smaller and tighter and more consistent so you stand much better chances of actually seeing those horrible cards turn up. With that being said, I’ve never found this quest to be so punishing, it’s definitely the softest blow we got from Heirs of Numenor. Off the top of my head I don’t think I’ve ever lost this quest.
Into Ithilien is where the brutality really starts. With so many deck setups this quest can be over in the first round if you don’t clear the Ithilien Road immediately. Beyond that, brutal enemies are par for the course, but then you also have to worry about an assortment of ridiculous treacheries, potential staging area lock on stage 3, followed by a flood of enemies if you manage to overcome it and land on stage 4. In some ways going to stage 2 may be the easier option, but it’s all kind of relative. On the other hand, once you’ve learned how to play this quest and especially with a bit of an expanded card pool, it can become quite an invigorating challenge – especially because so long as you’re using a setup which can handle some Battle questing, it’s mostly a very well rounded quest, that challenges you in all areas. The Nightmare version of the quest is also pretty cool.
Siege of Cair Andros is, despite my initial more positive experiences with it, definitely a continuation of the highly challenging breed of quests which began with Into Ithilien. However where Into Ithilien is well-rounded and actually relatively generic in terms of quest mechanics, Cair Andros inclines towards a more focused experience, in which willpower may well be completely irrelevant, and has a central quest mechanic which can greatly alter the way the quest plays between different attempts. I’ve always enjoyed the whole Battleground mechanic. This quest does of course still have some of those excessively swingy treacheries, same as the other two quests in this deluxe – Orc Assault would be ridiculous in any quest, but having it where you’re most likely questing with your attack and defence as well as using them for combat makes it doubly so; Power of Mordor is just a stupid card, and I’m going to go into that in more detail in another post; and The Master’s Malice of course is just a really ham-fisted way of pushing the mono-sphere agenda. Nevertheless, this quest remains a definite favourite of mine.
The Steward’s Fear remains a favourite of mine and of a lot of the community to this day. The nine different possible combinations of Plot/Villain add an extra level of variation to multiple play-throughs which definitely increases the replay value, the Underworld mechanic puts a different spin on the usual pacing of the game, this quest just has a bit of everything.
The Druadan Forest is a quest which I like, but my experience with it has seemed somewhat schizophrenic. One game I’ll be flooded with locations so I have plenty of time to build up a powerful board state in peace though I risk getting staging area lock; then the next I’ll draw what feels like the most archery in any game ever and max out my board on damage before I get anything resembling a foothold. I don’t think this quest is actually quite that random in general, I’ve just had some odd luck with it. Besides that though, Druadan is always an interesting one. It can be frustrating to play because Prowl is an inherently frustrating mechanic to have to deal with, and the randomly ludicrous treachery rears its head again, this time Leaves on Tree; and of course the randomness of whether you draw innocuous locations or about 20 points of archery is an oddity, but in general I enjoy it.
Encounter at Amon Din is of course one of the easiest quests in the game. And then it’s Nightmare version is incredibly difficult. It’s rather a shame there isn’t a middle ground, because the theme of the quest is really nice. For that reason this can be a good quest to play when you just want to win something, because it’s easy so you should win no trouble, and when you do win you feel nice and heroic having saved all those villagers.
Assault on Osgiliath was a great concept which unfortunately has the potential to be undone/exploited in a few different ways. If those things don’t come up (or perhaps in the Nightmare version of the quest where they can’t be done) this can be a definite favourite of mine. The interplay of not being able to do certain things for fear of losing locations, having to hold onto locations lest the staging area get too full, and the fact that (especially with more players) over the course of the game the encounter deck will become more weighted towards enemies and treacheries, because most of the locations are under the players’ control and not in the deck all make for a very interesting challenge. Much like Shadow and Flame, it’s great so long as it doesn’t get broken. Also much more suited to multiplayer rather than solo play.
Blood of Gondor as I said in the post on it, is perhaps the epitome of the tendency some Against the Shadow quests have to be seriously random as to the level of challenge you get. I mentioned it for Druadan, I brought up the randomly horrible treacheries in the Heirs of Numenor quests, and Assault on Osgiliath can be undone by the whims of the encounter deck as well as by exploit-y tactics from the players; but Blood of Gondor still kind of takes the cake in that regard as far as I’m concerned. This is my least favourite quest in the cycle for that reason.
The Morgul Vale I said in my post on that quest that I might consider it the best cycle ender yet, and I could add to that best boss fight, since one of the big competitors would be Shadow and Flame, which I already dismissed for breakability (though as it turned out Dunhere/Advance Warning and direct damage did something of a number on Morgul Vale, so obviously it’s not perfect), and the other would be Lake-Town, which I’ve mentioned before I don’t find that interesting. Although the mechanic of placing progress on To The Tower to put the players under time pressure didn’t really work in practice as it was supposed to as it was too inconsistent, the actual boss fights work great. Oh, of course there is another big random swing thing in the fact that if you can’t Feint him or similar, Lord Alcaron can just instantly lose you the game by himself. Odds are against it going quite that badly though. A solid and very challenging quest.
Stone of Erech was definitely the easiest of the GenCon quests on release relative to the card pool at the time, possibly even just in general easier than Massing (it’s definitely easier than Lake-Town). It has a bit in common with Lake-Town in that it invalidates a fair number of standard decks since you don’t really need attack (I suppose that could also be considered the inverse of Battle-heavy quests). The thing is, once you realise that all you need to do is spam willpower to win, that’s not particularly complicated to do. Quest-rushing was already a viable strategy for some quests to just finish before things get too bad. In this case you adopt a similar deckbuilding approach, but in fact you’re using some of the willpower for combat for a more balanced attitude to the quest. And once you realise that’s all you need, it’s not too hard to build that way.
The hardest quests: Into Ithilien, Siege of Cair Andros, The Morgul Vale.
My favourite quests: Siege of Cair Andros, The Steward’s Fear, Assault on Osgiliath.
My least favourite quests: Blood of Gondor, Stone of Erech (But to be honest I like all of these quests)
Quests which have aged least well: I’m struggling to pick something for this. Stone of Erech maybe? Like Lake-Town, once you get how to beat it it becomes less of a challenge, and there are more options now for willpower spamming than there used to be. I would like to give a mention here to the opposite of this, a quest which aged very well, in Into Ithilien, which went from table-flippingly brutal on release to, as I said above, quite an invigorating challenge if you bring the right decks to it.
And now back to the player cards. I commented in the Hobbit Wrap-up post that I’d reached the point of having used absolutely all the cards from a few packs, and I’ve added another to that list now, so I’m obviously doing pretty well at using a large proportion of the card pool. So firstly, cards which I hadn’t used by the end of Dwarrowdelf, but which I have used since. There are quite a lot:
Son of Arnor had one job and he did it perfectly, allowing me to engage Bill Ferny right away in round 1. Ever Vigilant never got a chance to do its job, but given the simple nature of that particular quest it was still the right call to just load up on a bunch of different willpower-boosting options, and double Faramir is one very potent such option. For Gondor! of course works out great with a decent ally swarm, and in particular with Gondor and with Battle or Siege questing.
Horseback Archer was of course a thematic choice rather than a really optimal one, but he was OK. Rain of Arrows I didn’t use, but with the Nazgul of Minas Morgul every little direct damage helps, so it could’ve been good at least. Thicket of Spears is great and it only took me this long to use it because I hadn’t gone mono-Tactics before.
Fortune or Fate was great with Caldara as I knew it would be. Power in the Earth was OK and I still think that’s the best place for it, but Power of Mordor kind of threw a wrench in the works there.
Song of Kings served its purpose of protecting Denethor from The Master’s Malice and allowing me to splash Warden of Healing, Ranger Spikes and Burning Brand into what was otherwise essentially a mono-Leadership deck.
Second Breakfast is good if you have decent attachments to recycle though I don’t think I used it.
Dunedain Quest worked out fine in a context where stacking willpower on one character was preferable to spamming good willpower allies.
Silvan Tracker is an amazing amazing archery sink.
Dawn Take You All works out nicely when there’s benefit to indiscriminate shadow discarding. Could’ve been useful against Morgul Vale as well for Alcaron, but of course I had other plans in mind for that.
Lure of Moria DWARVES.
Rider of the Mark again is good when you need to discard shadows.
Fresh Tracks I like mainly for the damage, but preventing engagement with the brigands in Pelargir is also handy. Don’t remember if I actually used it.
Path of Need did come in handy, setting up some big plays.
Hardy Leadership wasn’t actually that relevant as I recall since there wasn’t that much damage flying around. It’d come up more if I played Dwarves against a quest with archery.
We Are Not Idle was great for resources with Dwarves, and for making non-Dwarf decks smaller.
Hands Upon the Bow is great with Legolas of course, particularly being able to kill Zealous Traitors before they engage.
Peace and Thought worked just fine in the Outlands deck since all that mattered there was the allies. I may pull it out again at some point because that draw 5 is very potent.
And now onto newer cards which have yet to make the cut:
Over Hill and Under Hill
Late Adventurer is probably another one for the list of cards I will actually never use.
Heirs of Numenor
Blood of Numenor is a phenomenally powerful card, so I’m sure I’ll find a place for it in time. When I’ve been looking through cards I hadn’t used for things to try and fit in I’ve been focusing more on the less good and more difficult to fit in options, like the mono-sphere stuff, rather than the actually incredibly good cards.
On the Doorstep
Great Yew Bow Well if I was allowed to use Faramir in Morgul Vale I probably would’ve given him a Great Yew Bow for more staging area attack. As it is, I’ll try and find some other occasion for more staging area attacking with Faramir or Bard.
Expert Treasure-hunter will turn up with hero Gandalf, guaranteed.
The Druadan Forest
Forlong will turn up if and when I do Outlands again. I have to weigh my stated intent to use as much of the card pool as possible against my dislike of playing Outlands.
Encounter at Amon Din
Minas Tirith Lampwright I’ve never thought was quite as bad as most people seem to think he is, but I’ll admit it’s difficult to find an obvious place to fit him in, unless you really want cheap chump blockers in Spirit.
Small Target can be a very fun card with Hobbits, though not necessarily the most effective. It’ll become a consideration once I have access to the Silver Lamp from Voice of Isengard anyway.
The Black Riders
Take No Notice is theoretically good with Hobbits but in practice so many things just won’t engage you anyway, especially in Black Riders where so many of the enemies are Nazgul. This may be more relevant if I use Hobbits a bit more outside of the saga.
Smoke Rings isn’t worth it unless you can get out a reasonable number of Pipes. It really needs ally Bilbo from Road Darkens to make it consistently practical.
Assault on Osgiliath
Sword of Morthond See Forlong.
Men of the West See Forlong.
Knight of Minas Tirith is a pretty good ally at this point, I just haven’t done so much Tactics lately to be able to afford him.
Gondorian Fire gets basically the same explanation as Blood of Numenor.
Forest Patrol is a card I’ve never gotten that much use out of as I’ve tended to find it redundant. I have recently included it in a deck I’ve been working on separate to The Line Unbroken, so maybe its use there will inspire me to find its use here.
Palantir I picked as one of the most under-rated cards of the cycle, because it falls very much into the category of a card which can be very useful but really requires you to put a fair amount of effort into building around it. I really want to use it so I’m sure I’ll find a time, I’m just not sure exactly where.
Blood of Gondor
Guthlaf I’ll probably bring in for some Rohan synergy in Voice of Isengard.
The Hammer-stroke is another tricky one, but there are definite uses, like the big mono-Tactics play of Hammer-stroke + Thicket of Spears, or using Hammer-stroke with Hobbits to make Sam a hugely statted monster Hobbit.
Children of the Sea could maybe fit in with Silvans, though I’ve never used it with them before. May be one of those things that I’ll use because I don’t have the better alternatives yet and then drop afterwards.
Anborn is only really good if I make more of a focus of the more disposable traps. Which I can potentially do, though dedicated trap decks are better suited to being a third deck rather than a second.
The Morgul Vale
Pelargir Ship Captain is good for Leadership Gondor so I’m confident he’ll be turning up somewhere.
Visionary Leadership is essential for Leadership Gondor so I’m absolutely certain it’ll be turning up, probably soon.
Forth Eorlingas! This is really best with a dedicated Advance Warning deck like I had for Morgul Vale, or high engagement costs. For Morgul Vale I didn’t have enough Rohan heroes available, but I’m just about to get Eomer so this will become more of a feasible option, and even if it may not be optimal, it’s so fun I’ll definitely be trying for it.
Steed of the Mark is harder to justify since I’m playing on the assumption of as many Unexpected Courages as I want (with less copies of UC, other readying effects suddenly look more appealing), but it may work once I have Charge of the Rohirrim if I want to pull off some janky plays with that.
Lay of Nimrodel is similar again to Blood and Fire so I should find a time and place for it.
Hidden Cache is great with Zigil Miner, King Under the Mountain, A Very Good Tale and so on, I’m certain I’ll find a place to make use of it.
Overall, as I said, Against the Shadow was rather mixed on the player cards and good on the quests with a few off cards. The mono-sphere idea was interesting but ultimately flawed, Gondor didn’t develop quite as expected, but we got some interesting things along the way and those players who appreciate a challenge definitely got some enjoyment. With that being said, I’m looking forward to moving forward onto Voice of Isengard and the Ring-maker cycle. Not only have I now passed the end of the Progression Series, but we’ve also almost reached the point in the card pool where I really started getting into the game, so my analysis of how the pool has developed will have some more genuine experience backing it up and a lesser amount of re-evaluation in hindsight and with knowledge of the future. Now onward to Rohan!