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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The Watcher in the Water - what will be the final password - "Take it" or "Leave it"?

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 session reports comments on the scenario. They where only slightly edited to fit this format better.

[Session Reports]

Date: 16 Dec 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, (Dunhere)Frodo, (Denethor)Lore Aragon (spirit/lore)
Played 6 times, won 3 lost 3

- I've started with my Road to Rivendel battle tested deck and I was massacred. I even din't have a chace to see the Watcher himself as I was slaughtered by a striking tentacle that forced an undefended attack.
After that I realized that my heroes were not prepared for this challenge at all - Dunhere's abilty is farily usless as tentacles have a very low engagement cost, Denethor ability is weak as the amount of tentacles is so high that it does not help to put one on the bottom of the deck. I was not ready to go all tactics all dwarves on this scenario so I went with Frodo as my second spirit hero. He could take care of undefended attacks but I was afraid that huge threat rise will kill me easily so Denethor was swapped out for Aragorn from this expansion. It seemed to be perfect combo - Frodo could convert attacks to threat and Aragorn would reset threat if necessary and could also pack a decent punch. Here are brief notes on plays with this deck:
- Everything went as planned, Eowyn was questing (soon supported by Arwen - sweet addition to spirit) and Frodo with Aragorn were fighting. I was lucky with Rumors from the earth that easily allowed me to "guess" the password for the Durin's door.
- Next play was much worse and I lost. I didn't get Arwen (I've just put one in my deck to test her out) so once I had two trashing tentacles (those are so hard to kill without direct damage) I was unable to cancel damage from both attacks and I was soon killed.
At this point I also realized that my deck was also optimized toward additional resources that were provided by Arwen in previous scenarios. I had too many expensive Lore cards and those had to go (Mirkwood runner's ability of disregarding defense is much weaker here, Wealth of Lorien is too expensive). I've added more copies of Arwen (additional defense for Frodo is very useful here), 3xFast Hitch for cheap Frodo reading and some more minor changes.
- With those changes I had easier time - although Frodo had to convert ton of threat due to undefended attacks from strinking tentacles. Here the trick with reseting threat worked like charm and guessing password was very easy (this time thanks to the Riversong).
- This time I was surprised by the third type of tentacle (it had zeroed Northern tracker attack and defense) after that I was afraid to attack it and it slowly chipped away at me while other tentacles took its toll.
- Final win was a hard one, I discovered fairly easy way to make grasping tentacle not so dangerous (attacking it with questing character, next to a battle characters). I went to the second stage fairly early on and had Riversong on the table, Rumors of the Earth in hand and ton of lore resources. But this time guessing the password was though. I needed 6 or so rounds before finally I had match between my hand and encounter deck. All this time Watcher was raising my threat (damaging Frodo) and despite its reset I was over 40 again. I started sacrificing allies at this point and somehow managed to avoid location lock (Tracker).

Date: 25 Dec 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Frodo, Lore Aragon (spirit/lore)
Played 2 times, won twice

I was tempted to change my deck entirely and to try to go for one that would be capable of killing the watcher, unfortunately it was quite late so I decided that it would be easier to play my already tested deck.
- First attempt was quite standard. I've managed to sneak past most of tentacles (they did not show up) so I went for a second stage early on. It took me few tries before I got a match between encounter deck (rumors of the earth being the key as before) and my hand so I got more or less a standard result as far as points go.
- Second try was a very hard one. I was attacked by 3 or 4 tentacles early on and I barely managed to beat them back (my heroes life hanged on a card flip two or three, times). Finally I was able to clear the table and was faced with strange option. Encounter deck was almost depleted so if I would go to the second stage ... I would be facing almost only tentacle cards (as those get shuffled back in stage two). I decided that I do not want to risk another onslaught of those "creatures" so I've I stalled my progress a bit and let the deck run out and went to stage two only after reshuffle. After that Gandalf solved the riddle by being discarded on a match.

Date: 10 Jan 2012
Heroes (spheres): Eowyn, Aragorn (tWitW), Frodo (spirit/lore)
Played 2 times, won both

After two week break from playing the game (I might write more on this later) I was able to squeeze two attempts in. Since my time was very tight I decided against changing anything and went with previously used one.
- First attempt started fairly well. I was a bit low on allies in play and in hand but heavy usage of Rumors of the Earth to pick at encounter deck allowed me to dispatch several tentacles despite quite an intake of threat (Frodo). Once I hit stage two I was fairly certain of an easy win but it turned out different. Guessing the password was easy but putting 5 progress tokens on the quest stage turned out much harder than usual. Watcher was a huge drag on questing (I could not afford to quest with more than two characters) and recently reshuffled tentacles were slashing left and right. Threat was again around 40s (despite previous reset). I was down to my heroes at this point and had to engage Watcher just two avoid his auto damage - Aragorn was sacrificed to absorb his attack wile Frodo defended another tentacle. Next turn was all or nothing I had to make 6 with Frodo Eowyn. I did it, discarding a card to boost Eowyn gave me just the right amount. I got the worst score so far of 180 but it was a tense and fun game with great tactical plays.
- Second attempt was just an opposite I got my record score of 77. Starting hand contained two Ancient Mammoths that quickly allowed me to draw 6 cards and I was fairly confident that I am ready to deal with second stage. It was all over in 5 turns. Still I enjoyed this run through the scenario very much.

[General Thoughts]

Initial This scenario surprised my quite a lot - this is a very good point. Each tentacle type needs a special approach and little tricks to deal with its nasty forced effects that almost always go off. Threat is normally not a huge issue here but in my play style (Frodo) it was.

I am of two minds abut the guessing mechanics. On one hand it marries the theme (guessing) with mechanics quite well - if you your characters are wise (i.e. you play lore and have see the encounter deck cards) deciphering runes can be quite easy and if not you could always try shouting anything (by discarding your whole hand and hoping for the best as last ditch effort). On the other hand building your deck according to alphabet seems a bit silly and artificial (especially since I play Polish version so translation can have different probabilities of same first letter).

The watcher is mighty strong and unless you play strong tactics (which might be an option here) you can forget about trying to get through his enormous defense.

I love the fact that you are given the two options to deal with this scenario - get through the doors or kill the thing in the water. Despite all this positive things for some reason I do not love this scenario but I can't point to a thing that bothers me ...

After few plays I am still on the fence about this scenario. Despite tremendous experience in my plays (great tactical fight with tentacles) and all the positive points I gave before I am still not sure why I am not singing praises about this scenario. What is missing here? Yeah, there is no evident climactic struggle delivered by the scenario but I am clearly not sure why I do not like this scenario as much as I should.

Final I couldn't make up my mind about this scenario but after my last two plays I think I know why. I was playing this game too much at the end of last year and I just needed a break. Yesterday I've had so much fun playing it - relaxed, not feeling that I had to play just to catch-up with current release, to be able to discuss new deluxe expansion, open the next adventure pack etc. This (slightly due to Christmas and all) slowdown allowed me to just have fun with the game. I might play less in coming months (new hobby project that might take quite a lot of time till March) but I know that the game will be there for me to enjoy once I sit down to play!

So the final verdict on Watcher is very much positive. Two alternative ways to deal with it (combat or "guessing"), interesting tactical combat with tentacles and huge pacing change between stage one and two are all contributing toward my enjoyment. Do try it out if you get the chance - it will challenge you, the feel of fight against huge monster or last minute slip into the doors with tentacles smashing just behind you will be present. This will more than make up for some shortcomings.

What are your opinions on this scenario? Do you find the password guessing mechanic fun? Interesting? Strange?
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