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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Summary of my opinions on Against the Shadow cycle

Wojtek Wojcik
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I very much like designing games but I think I prefer to play them.
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Here is a review of the whole cycle composed of quick looks at each adventure pack and some general thoughts. I decided only to mention player cards that particularly resonate with me (in a good or bad way). The ones I do not mention should be considered so-so/ok or very specific

The Steward's Fear -

Scenario - 6/10 - It revolves around initially unknowns: special condition and boss enemy. This makes the scenario very replayable. I also very much enjoy the way that enemies are introduced to the game (they come hidden under locations and come into play only when you explore those locations) - this forces you into some tough decisions: explore and face consequences or let location sit and slow you down (potentially causing your threat to explode).

Overall though the scenario is too long for my taste. It has so many cards that stop you in your tracks, delaying your progress and so on. This when combined with some of the special conditions can cause you the game of course but more often it will be just frustratingly long.

Hero - 9/10 - Hirluin the Fair - One of those heroes that got me fooled thinking that he is weak. Just looking at his stats (1, 1 , 1, 4HP) he seemed to be beyond useless. But then I realized that his threat is higher than the sum of his stats and knew that the trick is in the ability. Only when I looked at the ally cards in this box I knew his true value. This guy is awesome! He is (almost) playable as a single hero which is great and terrifying at the same time.

Player Cards - 9/10 - This pack can be (almost) considered as a "deck in one expansion". It is Outlands haven (4 allies boosting each other to fantastic levels). The Outlands deck is still fragile at the beginning but once its get going ... wow! From the rest of the cards I would like to point to Mithrandir's Advice, card that rewards playing heavy Lore decks (draw X cards where X is number of lore heroes) and Gondorian Shield that can make Gondor heroes (i.e. Beregond) unbelievable defenders (by giving them +2D, non-Gondor heroes get +1D)

The Drúadan Forest -

Scenario - 4/10 - An easy scenario? Nice change for us solo players as we often get hammered by poorly (solo) tested scenarios. This time the developers made a mistake in the other direction. All the resource theft and archery boosting effects are much weaker when they come one at the time. The final battle when you use willpower instead of attack to "convince" enemies is a excellent twist that I hope to see again. Overall I enjoyed this scenario as a nice change of pace but I am not use how often I will return to it.

Hero - 3/10 - Milronde - Reduces threat cost of your lore heroes by 1. I guess she is supposed to be secrecy friendly/enabler for pure lore decks. But to tell the truth her rounded stats (2, 2, 1, 3HP) make her weak in almost all departments. I think that outside very special decks she will be useless (although you at this point you could create 3 hero lore deck with starting threat 18). She might also make a comeback once silvan synergy gets going.

Player Cards - 8/10 - We see one main trend: cards that work only in mono sphere decks. Some of them fix their respective sphere weaknesses. In general I find it great as mono decs before this pack were very weak in solo.
- Strength of Army (leadership, ready all allies)
- Trained for war (use attack instead of willpower)
- Against the shadow in spirit (you can use willpower instead of defence)
- White Tower Watchman - 3Hp neutral ally can take undefended attacks, provided you are going mono. With a defence of 2 and Gondor trait, he usually should be able to defend 1 attack and then take one undefended before going down.
- Forlong - next Outlands ally is always nice to see
- Silvan Refugee - very fragile (leaves play whenever a character leaves play) two willpower spirit ally for a nice cost of 1.

Encounter at Amon Dîn -

Scenario - 6/10 - I love the idea of trying to save villagers, while fighting/questing at the same time and it alone is worth the price of admission. Nevertheless the difficulty of this one seems off as the scenario is very easy. Many of the powerful encounter effects depend on the amount of dead villagers and so does the win condition. So the whole scenario changes into "do not any villager die" and most of the time it is not so difficult. I would like to see a similar concept used in the future but turned on its head i.e. a lot of choices: let villagers die and the encounter cards get easier. This temptation should lead to interesting climax near the end when you need to have more saved than dead.

Hero - 2/10 - Pippin (Spirit) - The third hobbit hero we get. His ability works only in pure hobbit deck and it is not impressive especially in solo - you can push the enemy to the staging area for 3 threat. I know that theoretically it can (for one round) save your heroes from being swarmed but ... ultimately his weak stats (2, 1, 1, 2HP) mean that he becomes close to useless. I do not foresee him gaining much playtime even with huge support for hobbits in Black Riders.

Player Cards - 7/10 - We have an interesting mix here.
- Lord of Morthond - Gondor/Outlands (i.e. Hilurin) get an attachment giving card draw when playing allies from non-leadership sphere (all heroes must be leadership) - this boost is very strong for outlands deck as it gains much needed speed.

Traps - we get a new trap that in solo allows you to attack enemies in the staging area. Also new lore ally Ithilien Archer allows you to send enemies back to staging area provided that he damages them. This seems a bit weak ability but actually it can push an enemy into a trap that is waiting in staging so it has some potential.

Hobbits get two cards (next to Pippin). Small target can be surprisingly good (especially if used on Frodo) as it can redirect an enemy's attack to another enemy (provided that: hobbit was used as defender and no shadow effect triggers). Neutral event Hobbit sense that essentially allows you to skip one combat phase if you are running only hobbit heroes seems close to useless.

Gondor gets 2 more allies (next to Ithilien Archer). Denethor makes a comeback as one that costs 4 and boast very nice stats (3, 1 , 2, 3HP) his ability is very thematic card (loses 1 willpower for each damaged hero) but I am still wondering whether he is useful. Second Gondor ally is Minas Tirith Lampwrigh - first card that gives us a random chance to prevent surge - might work on some surge heavy adventures.

Assault on Osgiliath -
Scenario - 7/10 - Another thematic stroke of genius. You really get a feeling that you are fighting for and in the ruins of the old city. Each location you manage to take brings you closer to victory but also makes it harder to move further (as you would "need to leave the defenders" and thus reducing the size of your strike force).

The only trick is that this scenario again seems quite easy solo (once I was able to win on round two) and only when you get a lot of locations it shows its real potential and turns into bloody struggle for Osgiliath.

Hero - 6/10 - Faramir - lore hero that gets stronger the more enemies are in staging. He is clearly designed with trap deck in mind and works well with many of trap/ithilien cards. Personally I didn't try any trap deck yet so jury is still out on how powerful he can be (I am slightly worried about balanced stats) but I definitely like the idea.

Player Cards - 6/10
- Men of the West (return Outland allies from discard to hand, paying 1 resource for each). This (partially) negates the issue with outland deck i.e. slow start.
- Lore gets Trap/ranger deck cards that are able to deal direct damage under specific conditions. Both of them look great on paper though their limitations lie in other cards appearing in your hand. Still very interesting.
- Gondor fire - The second one seems to be the more interesting one as it can boost Gondor/Dunedain hero's attack significantly (since it depends on the amount of resources it can work great in leadership/tactic deck).
- Palantir - scrying effect that can show you up to 3 cards which is huge for solo (it can usually help you to plan two turns). The risk involved is quite high (threat gain) but benefit is good. I tested it with lore Aragorn deck and it worked quite well although additional cost of exhausting hero turned out to be quite steep (but this could be nullified by a readying effect)

The Blood of Gondor -
Scenario - 8/10 - Interesting one again. This time new idea seems to be hidden cards that is:
- All sorts of effects force you to take hidden cards.
- When you turn (see below) hidden cards all turned enemies stay in play engaged with you, other cards are discarded.
- In stage 1 you have a choice at the beginning of combat to turn your hidden cards. In stage two you lose this option but the cards get turned when you have 5 or more of them.
This creates fantastic ambush feel and gives you very interesting choices. I like it very much. Only downside is that random nature of the card draws tends to be more painful in this case. Again this scenario seems to be more difficult multiplayer.
Hero - 2/10 - Caldara - if you are going to have a hero that has an ability "discard this hero to get X" then better make X super great. For Caldara X is put two (and 2 is if you are running mono spirit) spirit allies from your discard in play is far from that. Unless you are able to put her back in play right away (which requires ton of resources and specific card) ... let us just say that I am not a fan
Player Cards - 3/10 - Most of the cards in this set are underwhelming (especially for solo) in my opinion. Notable exceptions include:
- Lore got two more "trap" cards - actual trap and an ally that can take traps from your discard. Very nice combo.
- Leadership got an ally (chump blocker) that could be considered free/resource transfer in Gondor deck (returns resource to a Gondor hero when leaves play).

The Morgul Vale -
Scenario - 8/10 - Grand finale of the cycle is also as usual the most difficult scenario. Very combat heavy but at times can also require quite a lot of questing power and this of course makes it very difficult for us solo players. Nevertheless I really enjoyed it for two main reasons:
- Three bosses with increasing difficulty premise is a great one and creates interesting "tempo" decisions.
- I got to play tactic decks (including mono tactics)
Hero - 6/10 - Theoden (boots willpower of all tactic heroes) - On paper he looks amazing. He has potential of nullifying main weakness of solo tactic decks i.e. low willpower. But the devil is in the details. Here is the main negative: His threat is sky high due to rounded stats. This by itself almost kills his usefulness outside mono-tactics and since most of other tactics heroes have a tendency to go near or above 10 threat it makes using Theoden a very risky proposition as you will get enemies attacking you on turn one.
Player Cards - 6/10 - We see first (in a long time) new cards for Rohan decks: this time we see their new signature offensive ability i.e. attacking in the staging area. This coupled with tremendous ability to quest, explore locations could make them ultra powerful in the future. This time we get spear of the mark (attachment +1 Atk, +2 Atk when attacking staging area) and event that allows all Rohan chars to attack in the staging area.
Outside of that we get a decent leadership boost for Gondor in the form of Visionary Leadership (Attachment: +1 Willpower for Gondor, provided that attached hero has at least 1 resource). Other cards also tend to be at least ok.

Overall Opinion So if you look at the numbers and stars above the cycle seems to be of good but far from great category. Is is really like this or is the whole stronger than the sum of its parts?

Scenarios: WOW, I mean WOW. What great ideas we have here. The developers really were able to show how much more potential there is in LOTR:LCG. Although many of the scenarios fallen a bit short (especially solo) by being too easy but I am very impressed by the designers ability to invent and create new experiences in each scenario. Also I very much liked stronger thematic connection between the scenarios. The writing on the story was not of the highest quality but it was decent enough and made the whole more enjoyable. In my opinion the potential of creating new scenarios shown in scenarios of this cycle is its greatest strength even if execution (mostly solo again) was far from perfect.

Heroes: From the highest point to the lowest one. I found that the heroes in this cycle were the worst I've seen so far. Of course Hirluin is an exception here and one or two others might be playable but ... what a disappointment in general.

As for player cards my opinion are as follows:
- Outlands - For solo this deck can be a little slow and fragile when starting but the power level that it can reach surpasses anything we have seen so far. I am not too fond of it since the deckbuilding with outlands is very limited (there are so many auto-include cards that you are left with little room for your own creativity) but I will be the last one to deny its power.
- Monosphere support - Great idea. So far solo mono sphere decks were not so strong and it usually paid off to play multi sphere. Now the possibilities are much wider.
- Gondor - I have to admit that I haven't tried pure Gondro deck yet on paper it looks like there are some very strong cards (mostly boosts related to resources) so it is possible that the deck is beyond good. Nevertheless I feel that we are not there yet. Gondor does not have the variety of cards that dwarves have at their disposal nor the uber cards like Dain Ironfoot or King Under the Mountain.

In general I think that despite the fact that heroes were subpar this was my favorite cycle so far. As I say it even despite the lack of polish on scenario difficulty as their innovation really brought this cycle up. Is this cycle better than Shadows of Mirkwood and Dwarrowdelf ? My short answer is yes but only due to scenarios and not by much.

How about you? What are your feelings on the cycle? Particular scenarios? Card combinations? Preference vs the other cycles?
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