Well, I’ve made it through to the end of the fourth cycle now and it is once again time to look back and take stock of how the game changed I the course of this cycle. As I commented at the start of the cycle, this is a definite point at which the challenge of using a restricted card pool for playing progression-style is considerably less, and it’s also around the time that I got seriously into the game, which has made this an interesting time for me. To touch briefly on the other point I made back then, that a series like this benefits from a certain amount of distance, experience and hindsight, I have been considering that a decent metric for when it’s long enough to have suitable hindsight might be when the relevant Nightmare pack is released – as such, since we don’t yet have Nightmare up to the end of Angmar Awakened, I may not continue The Line Unbroken on regular quests for a little while until we do – instead filling in the gap by starting on Nightmare decks. On the other hand I can probably be pretty confident that the full Nightmare Angmar Awakened will exist by the time I reach Treachery of Rhudaur, so I might just keep going. I guess you’ll know by whether the next TLU post but one (next is another First Age) is Lost Realm or NM Passage Through Mirkwood.
Anyway, back to talking about the Ring-maker cycle. Once again the cycle sort of played a bait-and-switch on us, giving us the impression we were going to get a bunch of development of the Rohan trait, and then giving us Silvans all cycle instead. On the other hand, the Silvans got developed really well. In fact I would say that certainly up to this point in the card pool they were the best developed trait in the game (note: ‘best developed’ is not the same as ‘most powerful’).
We were also expecting a bunch of Doomed player cards, possibly tying into the Isengard trait. The Isengard trait was forgotten after the deluxe, and most of the Doomed cards were optional Doomed on allies, not really tying into the magical theme which characterised those in the deluxe. They turned out to be of varying levels of quality. I’m not sure it’s exactly feasible to build a dedicated Doomed deck, but splashing a few Doomed cards into other decks is certainly reasonable. I won’t go into too much detail because I’m intending to write a Design Debates article on Doomed player cards so I’ll save it for that. My brief assessment would be that some of the optional Doomed cards in the cycle suffered from a similar problems to Secrecy, where the relation of the actual cost to the keyword related cost was out of whack.
Speaking of Secrecy, we got a bit more of that this cycle! And while some of the Doomed cards shared problems with Dwarrowdelf cycle Secrecy, the actual Secrecy cards in this cycle were pitched much better – a bit sub-par at printed cost, but very good value at the discount. We didn’t get many, but in principle Secrecy shouldn’t need that many extra goodies to be at least decent, because having a low threat is an advantage in and of itself.
The Road Darkens of course gave us most of the toys for Gandalf decks, in addition to some generally strong unique allies. Gandalf decks are an odd beast, because while it’s possible to focus on powering up Gandalf (he does after all have the biggest statline of any hero in the game), his ability is more of a supportive thing, effectively accelerating your card draw and smoothing your resources, such that you can consider him a weirdly powerful 14 threat enabling glue hero with a few useful toys. Regardless of that oddity, the decks work.
And a few other smatterings. We got the beginnings of Ent decks appearing at the end of the cycle, and I love me some Ents. We got the four attachments related to the ‘job’ traits (Noble, Warrior, Ranger, Scout), and some additional synergy with those traits has continued to be gradually added in since, with a definite Scout sub-focus in the Dream-chaser cycle and bits and pieces suggesting that there’s more to come for Nobles and Warriors (Rangers were better represented than the others to start with in terms of trait-specific cards, but they may well get some more as well). We did actually get a tiny bit more Rohan at the end of the cycle, though not a lot, so that trait continued to be a very slow advancement as the card pool expanded.
All in all, the cards from this cycle were very good. Some weird niche things, but you’ll note that my lists of least favourites and worst designs are rather short. So here are the lists (and I now have an incredibly long list of things to review since I’ve been starting on my retroactive lists from the first two cycles):
My favourite heroes: Gandalf, Mablung, Galadriel.
My favourite other player cards: Westfold Outrider, Deep Knowledge, Herald of Anorien, Galadriel, Gandalf’s Staff, Tighten Our Belts, Mirror of Galadriel, Treebeard.
My least favourite player cards: The Wizard’s Voice, Greyflood Wanderer, Follow Me!
Best designs for developing archetypes: Ithilien Lookout for Secrecy, The Tree People for Silvans, Haldir of Lorien for the dedicated long-range combat deck, Wizard Pipe for Gandalf, Booming Ent and Treebeard for Ents.
Worst designs for developing archetypes: Orthanc Guard and Greyflood Wanderer for Doomed.
Most difficult to use well: The Wizard’s Voice, The Fall of Gil-Galad, The White Council, Rumil, Message from Elrond, Leaf Brooch, Free to Choose, Defender of the West, Henneth Annun Guard, Charge of the Rohirrim, Shadows Give Way.
Most under-rated cards: Grima, Saruman, Silver Lamp, Idraen, Warden of Arnor, Message from Elrond, Pursuing the Enemy, Mablung, Mirkwood Pioneer, Erkenbrand, Warden of Helm’s Deep, Waters of Nimrodel.
As I said, not that many choices for the negative categories. The best designs section is a tad cramped because this cycle helped a lot of different deck types. It’s slightly weird to bring up Secrecy as a developing archetype when it was already developed in previous cycles, but since it wasn’t developed that well it’s definitely helped by the additional support (and to some extent all archetypes continue being developed forever). Some of my choices for difficult to use other people might just think of as bad, but that tends to be the case. I like interesting niche cards though, and some of the ones on that list I’ve already made good use of in this series. The amount of time I’m going to be spending writing card reviews is rather daunting now, but nothing I can do about that.
So now let’s talk quests. Where in the Against the Shadow cycle I generally praised the quests with the one notable fly in the ointment being a certain potential for random difficulty swing moments but found the player cards much more hit and miss, for Ring-make I’d say much the opposite. The player cards as noted were excellent if a bit scattered and with some oddities in there, but the quests were much more hit and miss. There are some definite gems in here, and they all mostly avoided the random difficulty swings (though In Need of Rest is a thing and there’s too much Surge) and gave a more consistent experience, but on the other hand there are some which really just fell kind of flat.
Fords of Isen is alright, the Dunlending hand size hate is a challenge, though I have found it not unreasonable to just take a lot of the effects (depending on what decks I’m using of course) and plough through. Which is good, the first quest in a deluxe should be fairly generic and not require super-specialised deckbuilding, but there’s really nothing about this quest which stands out in my recollection and would make me particularly want to replay it.
To Catch an Orc is probably still my favourite of the three quests in the deluxe, but it’s still not one which appeals that much and I think there are actually some definite problems with it design-wise. The out of play deck and the Search mechanic is fine, it’s interesting, demands deck consistency, the only potential issue is the randomness of potentially finding Mugash far too early or taking so long to find him that it gets boring. Mostly fine though. However while the principle of adding a time counter by questing successfully so you’re continually staving off the risk of the orcs finding you is interesting in principle, and I think some people even felt it was one of the best executions of the Time mechanic by giving us an opportunity to avert the penalty, the effect itself is far too harsh, especially scaling into multiplayer, such that except in incredibly rare circumstances you always have to quest hard enough to add that extra counter or you will lose the quest. Whereas I think with the exception of Fords of Isen stage 1, every other Time effect is something you can deal with when it happens even if you’d prefer not to.
Into Fangorn is perhaps the epitome of a quest which just fell flat. The idea makes sense to be sure, the Huorns not actually attacking you most of the time but instead just hindering your progress, but unfortunately the fact you don’t need to defend most of the time makes it really easy to just focus entirely on amassing enough willpower to blast through quest stages in one go (thus making Hinder irrelevant), and since you only need to do 2 quest stages it can be over very quickly. Granted, the treachery which has the Huorns attack makes this risky, but equally you can also load up on attack power and actually kill them, which is again made easier by the fact you mostly don’t need to defend.
The Dunland Trap came as something of a shock to the system after the easier quests of the deluxe box, not to mention the vicious countering of popular deck strategies like ally swarming (on top of the Dunlending card draw hate). But for all that it’s a very well put together quest. Hits hard out the gate and makes it hard to build a decent board state, but build a decent board state you must if you want to succeed. Of course, while the discarding can be a problem, the forced draw rapidly cycling through your deck can actually work in your favour by letting you find your really important cards fast. All in all, this is a quest which doesn’t suit all decks, and certainly responds well to custom building for it, but if you have a suitable deck then it’s very fun.
The Three Trials is one of my favourite quests in general, let alone from this cycle. The random assignment of Guardians and Barrows keeps it varied between different playthroughs, like the Villains and Plots in Steward’s Fear, on top of which the players get to choose the sequence of stage 2 quest cards (even though I pretty much always go in the same order). Even leaving all that aside though, it’s just a very well constructed quest. Obviously the focus is on the sequential boss fights, but everything around it is good as well, it does lean a bit more heavily of threat than some quests and it pushes you towards an approach with a low number of unique allies rather than the usual swarm but you can still try to swarm your way through it and do well enough. Scaling can get a bit awkward with the Cave Barrow being a problem for higher player counts and the simultaneous triple boss fight at the end being an issue for solo play, but you can still manage in both cases with the right deck(s), and I have found Three Trials to sometimes have that rarest of qualities in a quest – it can still be fun even when you’re losing. This would now be my pick for best boss fight quest up to this point.
Trouble in Tharbad falls into the same category as Encounter at Amon Din before it – interesting, fun and thematic mechanics, incredibly easy quest. Questing your threat down to 0 makes perfect sense when you’re trying to evade pursuit, but it means that you’re basically only going to have to deal with combat when you actually want to, and the rest of the time you’re free to just load up on willpower and blitz through everything.
The Nin-in-Eilph also hits on a somewhat consistent theme for its place in the cycle, being somewhat built around frustrating locations like the last three instances of the fourth quest in a cycle, and being generally frustrating like the first two quest 4s at least. It also hits a similar note to Hills of Emyn Muil specifically by being thematic but in arguably a bad way – trudging through a swamp and getting lost probably would be incredibly frustrating and difficult, but we don’t necessarily want that faithfully reproduced any more than we want a faithful reproduction of an incredibly boring task. That said, I have warmed a bit to Nin-in-Eilph since my first impressions of it. I can appreciate the challenge, but it’s still not a quest I’m going to revisit all that often.
Celebrimbor’s Secret was by far the biggest disappointment of the cycle for me. I did actually rather enjoy my playthrough of it for The Line Unbroken, but that was because of my player deck setup rather than because of the quest. As noted in the post for that quest, I was hoping for something tying into the magical themes relevant to Celebrimbor and magical rings, and instead I got just a fairly generic quest with too much potential to just flood the staging area with more cards than is entirely reasonable.
The Antlered Crown is disliked by many people I think for being the epitome of complicated board states, what with Time on all the locations and the quest cards and assorted Forced effects on the enemies, so it’s easy to forget things. I know I’ve certainly forgotten things while playing it – indeed I had to re-record my playthrough after multiple attempts because I realised I’d made the same mistake in all of them. Personally, I can’t decide how much I like the quest. It’s a lot to keep track of and a lot of effort required to keep things under control, but that’s not unreasonable for a large scale battle. I remember very much liking the quest the first time I played it, but on returning to it a couple of times I’ve not necessarily had quite the same experience. I suppose the biggest thing is that like many of the quests in this cycle it rewards an aggressive approach, and if you don’t get things under control rapidly then you’re much more likely to have a bad time with the quest.
As noted in the Fellowship of the Ring Wrap-up, the category of quest which has aged least well is becoming somewhat irrelevant at this point. I will note that a couple of specific more recent cards can partially break Three Trials which could count but it’s not such a big thing. To replace that category I considered putting in a ‘most exploitable quests’ category, but I’m not sure how consistently it would be used (in this case it’d be Fangorn and Tharbad, FYI). What I decided to go with (because I do like having four categories rather than three) was a ‘most thematic quests’ category. If anyone has suggestions for other categories I could judge on I’d be willing to consider them.
The hardest quests: The Dunland Trap, The Nin-in-Eilph, The Antlered Crown.
My favourite quests: The Dunland Trap, The Three Trials.
My least favourite quests: Into Fangorn, Celebrimbor’s Secret.
The most thematic quests: Trouble in Tharbad, The Nin-in-Eilph.
And now we turn back to player cards again as I take a look at how much I’ve cut down the list of cards I haven’t used. I’m doing pretty well – up to 10 packs where I’ve used everything, including three recent ones in Voice of Isengard, Dunland Trap and Road Darkens. I also managed in the course of this cycle to get out a few difficult cards. So here are the older cards which I’ve managed to cross off the list in this cycle:
Silverlode Archer obviously was a decent fit for the Dunland Trap Silvan deck, but was then replaced once I got access to better Silvans. Brok Ironfist was kind of superfluous in Three Trials, but on the other hand he was effectively a free 2 willpower ally, which is decent. Plus, unique and thus immune to Curse of the Wild Men. Blade Mastery as I said was an afterthought but made some sense in a hero-focused context though I never actually used it in the end.
Nor Am I a Stranger I wasn’t expecting to get in before Herugrim, but Forth Eorlingas is pretty potent when you can use it reliably and so letting Haldir gang up on enemies with Theoden and Hama rather than having to attack alone with his own ability was handy.
Ravenhill Scout was speculative and never hit the table. Mostly I just wanted it crossed off the list.
Blood of Numenor is of course an amazingly powerful card when you can get a few resources stacked up, that it took me so long to use is I suppose more to do with my preferences in deckbuilding rather than a slight to the power of the card.
Great Yew Bow works OK with Faramir. I could perhaps have done more with it than I did but the principle at least is sound.
Expert Treasure-hunter is amazing with hero Gandalf. No other comment required.
Forlong is off the list and I can forget about Outlands for a couple of cycles.
Minas Tirith Lampwright is actually an incredibly powerful card when you can scry the deck and know exactly what the Surge card will be to cancel it. Becomes like a 1-cost Gildor’s Counsel.
Take No Notice found its perfect niche in my attempt to avoid engaging any enemies ever in The Ring Goes South.
Sword of Morthond See Forlong. Men of the West See Forlong again. Gondorian Fire See Blood of Numenor. Palantir is a crazily powerful card if you use it right as I think I adequately demonstrated against Celebrimbor’s Secret.
Guthlaf is nothing special, but he’s OK. Children of the Sea is a card I doubt I’ll ever revisit but in the specific context of just spamming willpower and Silvan Refugees it fitted well enough.
Pelargir Ship Captain is good with Gondor. Visionary Leadership makes Gondor work. Forth Eorlingas! is, as I said earlier, pretty potent when you can use it reliably, which I managed to do. Steed of the Mark is more OK when your resources are expected to stack up and you aren’t using card draw to find Unexpected Courages fast. Hidden Cache is a card I love and works wonders when you have a suitable means of discarding it.
And now on to the cards from this cycle which I haven’t fitted in yet:
The Three Trials
Elven Mail is a tricky one. It’s good on Elrohir, but I’m not sure I’ve ever played it on any other character (note that it can go on allies). Elrond would be alright with it as well, but Elrohir is the most likely candidate.
Leaf Brooch is a tricky one because it requires you to stay in Secrecy a while to make good use of it, and since Secrecy decks have Resourceful they tend not to need to save too many more resources.
Trouble in Tharbad
Gwaihir would require me to revisit Eagles, which I suppose I could do though it doesn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm.
Courage Awakened is a good card for a Secrecy context, so I imagine I’ll get it out eventually.
Free to Choose is a difficult one. Most encounter card threat raises don’t get that big, so one may debate how worth it this is. Of course it is free, but on the other hand so is Elrond’s Counsel, and that also gives a willpower boost, and how often will the threat raise you trigger Free to Choose on be more than 3? I’ll try to fit it in, perhaps with Hobbit Pipes or in a quest which does potentially have larger threat increases.
Follow Me! Another problematic card. Draws you a card to replace itself at least, and Leadership resources aren’t necessarily so hard to come by, but the uses of spontaneously becoming the first players are limited. I’ve never used this card and am not sure where I’d put it.
Celduin Traveller is another great card for a Secrecy deck and I’m sure Secrecy will come up again in this series at some point.
Defender of the West is another card I’ve never used, but it’s one I’ve always wanted to use. Most likely I’ll put together a pair of decks at some point intended to use it to share the threat raise from Hobbit Gandalf between them, though other options are possible.
Heir of Mardil is bound to turn up sooner or later because I love readying effects, and ways of gaining resources aren’t that rare.
Henneth Annun Guard is a niche card which I’ve always quite liked but tend to end up cutting from decks to make room for other things. The optional Doomed effect can certainly be useful, and the versatility of the statline is appealing but often edged out by more specialised characters.
Charge of the Rohirrim will most likely have to wait until hero Elfhelm gives me a real incentive to build around lots and lots of Mounts.
Wandering Ent barely didn’t make the cut for the last two quests because I had specific ideas he didn’t fit in with. I love Ents, so this guy will be turning up for sure.
Cloak of Lorien is a card I don’t think I’ve ever used because generally if I want defence boosts I look to Leadership and Tactics rather than Lore. I’m sure I’ll find myself playing a quest with a lot of forests at some point though and then maybe I’ll want this.
The Antlered Crown
The Day’s Rising gives extra resources for doing something I want to do anyway. And the good damage cancellation effects are coming in Wastes of Eriador. I’m sure I’ll have room for this sooner or later.
Booming Ent Again, I love Ents and therefore will be using them.
Ride Them Down is yet another card I’ve never really used, but it may have its place in quests where progress is either not needed or not wanted.
Shadows Give Way is more of a higher player count thing. With only two there generally aren’t enough shadow cards in play for this to really be worth it. On the other hand it could be a great card to bring out when I reach Battle of Carn Dum…
Don’t Be Hasty is another awkward card I’ve never used, but I may find a place to pull some shenanigans with it.
Waters of Nimrodel is bonkers good healing. Again better with more players, but some quests can really pile on the damage to the point where having a hard reset button is incredibly useful.
Treebeard See comments on the other two Ent allies.
In conclusion I’ll just reiterate that this cycle really hit the player cards much better than previous cycles in my opinion, gave some good boosts to older archetypes as well as creating some new ones, but the quests were unfortunately a bit more hit and miss with some ideas falling flat and many people being put off by the complicated board states caused by all the Time effects. Regardless I’ve enjoyed running through it. Next, after a quick excursion several millennia into the past I will be either moving onward to Arnor or starting to have nightmares about being back in Mirkwood. Either way, interesting times are ahead.