Lord of the Rings:LCG - reviews and general thoughts

It all started with accepting 100 plays challenge and pledging to comment each play. Soon my thoughts outgrew the BGG comment format and also FFG's forum. I decided to post them in a form of a blog here. In time I got rid of session reports and replaced them with expansions reviews. Enjoy.
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Massing at Osgiliath - Surrender on Witchking demand?

Wojtek Wojcik
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Board Game Designer
I very much like designing games but I think I prefer to play them.
Metallum ... game I most proud of.
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Here is a compilation of my comments on the scenario, note that they were made some time ago and I have not edited them much so they tell a story of how my view point changed (but my current opinion may differ). They are presented chronologically in each section.

[Session Reports]

Date: 1 Oct 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Frodo, Theodred (spirit/leadership)
Played 3 times - lost twice and won once

So after my exciting attempts against the Return to Mirkwood scenario I was ready to face my next challenge - POD scenario: Massing at Osgiliath. I've heard that this was very difficult scenario but after great success with previous one I was pretty confident. First game started quite well first stage was quickly conquered, in the second one I was moving at much slower speed. Finally I was able to go to the third - discard a hero (I have not been lucky enough to encounter the ranger) to be able to quest!? I was not sure what is waiting in stage three but I was certain that the Witchking will show up but decided to discard Theodred (as he is not as crucial later in the quest). I was kind of hoping for a short last stage but when 15 quest progress requirement was raveled I knew I was doomed. Threat counter reached 50 next turn. I've decided to play with this deck again just to see if it was its inefficiencies that got me killed or is this scenario is just this hard. This time I've progressed throgh the first stage even faster. I felt that I am in a good shape - quite a few resources (steward of Gondor), had an unexpected courage. The next stage halted me though - I was cut off (discard allays from hand - bye bye Gandalf ready to be summoned twice with quick strike) so all my resources were growing but I've had no cards to spend them on. I was able to go a bit further but staging area quickly was growing dangerous (I've had many enemies sitting there and no way to deal with them). Things snowballed from there and again threat killed me as I've entered stage 3. This was a sign that I need to redesign my deck. Few more stronger allies, few more dunedain attachments, few less events. That all helped I think ... but what really allowed me to win was to finally see that I do not need to go quickly through this scenario. This strategy was necessary before but this time ... I've taken my sweet time in the first stage of the quest, fielding my allies. I was very much ready when I've went to the second stage. This time also payed off because Ranger of Ithilien showed up and I knew that I was ready for stage three. With so many allies in play and relatively low threat I optionally engaged Witchking and was able to pay "his threat due" to keep him engaged. Three allies had to die to defend his attacks but in the end ... I've escaped and won the scenario. In some sense like this scenario very much and in some sense I am disappointed. The strategy for it is the same as for Conflict at the Carrock.Build up in the first stage and just than proceed to the following stages - this feature I do not like especially because it feels a bit anti-thematic. Your heroes spotted a large force of enemies but they are staying behind taking their time, preparing equipment, finding allies etc and just then the mad pursuit begins only after they are ready. So that is bad ... but luckily there is good as well. This mad pursuit is great and very very thematic. You are laving men behind just to buy time, you need to leave someone to buy you time to get through the river and then with dwindling force you are running towards the safety of the white city.

Date: 11 Oct 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Frodo, Theodred (spirit/leadership)
Played 2 times - lost once and won once

After my first successful attempt last time against the Massing at Osgiliath I wanted to check if the new modification of my standard deck and discovered strategy will be able to beat the scenario on a regular basis. First try was showing exactly that: I had quite a few allies, tons of resources (Eowyn had Steward of Gondor and Song of Kings) and I was even able to draw quite lot of cards. The only worry I had was threat I could not draw Galdaiers greeting for the life of me and some unlucky shadow cards (removing defender from combat) meant that Fordo had to convert tons of damage into threat. I was in the last stage of the quest and had 4 threat left before defeat. I could not afford to keep Whichking engaged but with all those allies and Faramir in play I was quite sure that I will manage to win. I made decent progress, Witchking engaged me, Snowburnt Scout was the designated defender ... shadow card ... remove defender from combat. I was devastated 6 damage to threat through Frodo meant I lost. EXCEPT later when going to sleep I realized that I could have sacrificed Frodo or Theodred and would be able to win next turn. This scenario does not leave much room for mistakes. Next time despite quite a bad draw at the begging I was able to win it was a struggle at least as the game length goes (17 turns, I've managed to go through all of the encounter cards) - although I was not able to field large army of allies I was quite luck as far as threat reduction goes. I also would have killed the Witchking (he had 8 damage on him) same turn as I completed the quest. Fun times.

Date: 16 Oct 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Frodo, Theodred (spirit/leadership)
Played 3 times - lost once, won twice

Few observations:
- In my first attempt I decided I want to see if I can kill Witchking (and would it made scenario easier) and in fact I almost accomplished it. But while attempting this I got too many enemies engaged with me and despite killing the big bad I was was stomped by smaller guys. They were able to kill my allies and my hope to run away and finish the scenario was buried by Pelenor Field ("auto travel" location with 7 progress tokens requirements).
- Next time was a nail baiter. I had a quite bad card draw at the beginning (actually the draw was decent but I was cut off soon and lost nice allies). It took me long time to build a decent team and moving no further. Threat was a real danger through out, despite a decent progress made once I started moving. I was sure that I will be killed again but few good draws (especially Eomyr? - the guy who reduces threat increase from encounter cards while he is ready) allowed me to win with a terrible score - 209 but a great feeling of just making it - threat 49.
- In this attempt my deck showed what it can do if I am lucky with draws. First time ever I had 3 Sneak Attacks and 2 Gandalfs near the end of stage 3. I could have played my cards better (score wise) but I went and killed Witchking . Final score 133.

Date: 17 Oct 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Frodo, Theodred (spirit/leadership)
Played 2 times - lost once, won once

In my first attempt I was as unlucky as I was lucky in my previous game (the one with 3 sneak attacks on Gandalf). My ally count was very low in initial hand (despite using mulligan) and I was swamped with enemies in the staging area. I was kind of hoping to get many cards from two Ancient Mathom but I simply did not have enough questing power to put any progress on active location. I died on turn 4. In the second try it was much better. I had a decent draw and early Ranger of Ithilien allowed me to move to stages 2, 3 and 4 much earlier then usual, I was able to achieve my second best score of 143 despite the fact that I did not have a spectacular draw as before.

[General Thoughts]
I do not know if this intentional. This scenario in some sense feels like an much improved version of Conflict at the Carrock. Of course it only fells like this in an approach you have to take to beat it but still there is a strong connection here for me. This in one sense a good thing because you should improve on good concepts and create even better experiences for the players. Nevertheless like with all things improved version sometimes gives you the "been there, done that" felling - yeah it is better ... but it is not new. I try not fall into this trap of considering those improvements inferior due to not bringing anything revolutionary - because we need improvements on existing things (and games) to achieve greatness. I will try harder next time when I sit down to play Massing at Osgiliath because at the end of the day as it stands this scenario is amazing on its own.

I like how the scenario showed me that if I get careless and stop thinking it will punish me. I wonder now how many of the defeats I suffered could have been avoided if I just be more concentrated and saw a way out. This time I "paid the price" by playing according to an assumption - you can never allow your heroes to die. I am glad in fact that I realized that this is not the case - there are some very interesting (and thematic) plays available if you trow this assumption away. I still believe that if you loose a hero (I am talking about solo) at the start a game you will likely loose but ... towards the end of scenarios it is not so. I am glad that the game forces me to question my strategic assumptions after so many plays.

It is time to present my final thoughts about this scenario. In short I liked it very much - I am sure that it is in my top 3 favorite ones for now. At first I was a bit surprised why people rate it so highly but as I was playing it more and more I came to similar conclusion. I have only two knocks against it as far as its design goes:
- Idea of putting good cards into the encounter deck is great and very exciting but it makes it a bit more random then usual scenario. If you draw them early you will have much easier time if you do not see them at all. I think it might be more interesting of you had some sub quest that you would have to sacrifice something (time, resources, progress tokens) to get them under your control.
- The initial step where you almost have to stay behind to prepare for later assault does not work thematically. I know, it would be enough to change flavor text on the first card a bit to make it work ... but for some reason it bothers me.
There are many positive points so I will mention just one of them that seem to be a bit less obvious:
- 40 card encounter deck that you almost go through works much better in delivering consistent play experience then the regular larger ones (composed of cards from the core set and scenario). In the second case you often get easy plays (example drawing only core cards as encounter cards) or hard ones (only scenario ones drawn).
In short other positive points:
- Pacing, excellent stage 3 and 4, very good climax, nice thematic distinction between locations (west vs east bank), high reply value.

One thing that is great in replaying single scenario several times is that you get "some feeling" towards certain cards. For example you learn to hate Witchking, love some treacheries that are not so devastating. This enhances play experience as you are rooting for certain cards to appear, cursing others when they show up. This increases excitement and ultimately gives you better experience. Of course there is a breaking point here - you can burn out on a scenario if played too many times in a row. So far I found that 10 attempts is just right for me. I am just curious when I will get around to replaying scenarios again. With so many new waiting for me I am afraid that it will not be as soon as I would like but we shall see.

DEC 2012 comment:
I feel that this scenario might be more difficult with multiple players than it is solo. One of the few exceptions to the general trend so far.
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