Building for a Race Against the Shadow Tournament

July 15, 2014

A few months ago ago Divinity of Number and Caleb Grace announced there would be a Race Against the Shadow tournament at the Fantasy Flight Games Center in Roseville, MN. I immediately contacted some of my buddies who play the Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game, and Mark and I began planning…to win, that is! We learned early on that the scenario would be Journey Down the Anduin, and two weeks before the tournament, my partner and I met up at a local game store. We each had built paired decks to test out against the scenario. After a few hours of testing, we identified several problems with both pairs of decks and settled on a slightly modified version of a Hobbit deck I had brought along. For the other deck, we gutted a Rohirrim deck I had put together, and each of us took it home, rebuilt, and playtested it without consulting the other. We then shared our results online and made a few minor changes before bringing the decks along to the tournament on Sunday, January 26 (more on the tournament here).

I had never so extensively played against a scenario, and I learned a lot. In addition, the Race Against the Shadow format required that we not only beat Journey Down the Anduin, but that we do it in the fewest number of turns. Injured or dead heroes don’t count against you if you can simply beat the quest before the opposing team does. I thought I would share a few insights gained during our playtesting period:

First, Journey Down the Anduin is a lot more complicated than you’d think. Plenty of decks can beat it, but doing it quickly is another matter entirely. Stages one and three require strong defenders and attackers, whereas stage two requires a hefty amount of questing. Furthermore, there are several nasty treachery cards that penalize you for having a threat higher than 35. The worst thing we discovered, however, is that the Goblin Snipers and the Wargs are impossible to deal with unless you have some way of attacking into the staging area. Since the last stage of the quest requires you to defeat all enemies in play, this can present a problem.

In this tournament format, combos are out and cheap, consistent cards are in. To put it another way, there is no time to set up any wacky moving parts. Imladris Stargazer + Zigil Miner is right out. Even Elf-Stone proved to be nearly useless in practice. In some early versions of our decks, we would win in seven or eight turns. By tournament time, we were consistently beating the quest in four or five turns because we jettisoned the more complicated gimmicks of which I am so fond.

Redundancy is key. We learned early on that having really specialized decks was problematic. If Player A is in charge of some aspect of the game and he or she doesn’t draw the necessary cards early, you may lose before you really begin. We mitigated this somewhat by including all sorts of redundancy. While my partner was playing heavy Spirit and could play Northern Tracker, I had Asfaloth and Secret Paths ready to achieve similar results. Also, We both ran with three copies of Dagger of Westernesse and Unseen Strike.

Our final lineup was a three-sphere Hobbit deck of Sam, Pippin, and Merry on one side of the table, and a two-sphere deck using Beregond, Dunhere, and Glorfindel on the other side. I’ve included the deck lists below. Feel free to ask any questions about our experience!

(Note: This tourney took place before the Voice of Isengard came out. If there is another tourney in our area, I’ll be curious to see how Doomed cards will help or harm us.)

Hobbit (Tourney) Deck: Total Cards: (55)

Hero: (3)
1x Pippin (The Black Riders)
1x Merry (The Black Riders)
1x Sam Gamgee (The Black Riders)

Ally: (19)
1x Erestor (The Long Dark)
1x Gildor Inglorion (The Hills of Emyn Muil)
3x Erebor Hammersmith (Core Set)
3x Errand-rider (Heirs of Numenor)
3x Bill the Pony (The Black Riders)
3x Gandalf (Core Set)
3x Warden of Healing (The Long Dark)
1x Haldir of Lorien (A Journey to Rhosgobel)
1x Beorn (Core Set)

Attachment: (21)
3x Ring Mail (The Long Dark)
3x Fast Hitch (The Dead Marshes)
3x Hobbit Cloak (The Black Riders)
3x Steward of Gondor (Core Set)
3x Dagger of Westernesse (The Black Riders)
3x Asfaloth (Foundations of Stone)
3x Elf-stone (The Black Riders)

Event: (15)
3x Sneak Attack (Core Set)
3x Daeron’s Runes (Foundations of Stone)
3x Unseen Strike (The Redhorn Gate)
3x Halfling Determination (The Black Riders)
3x Take No Notice (The Black Riders)

Rohan + Elves (Tourney) Deck: Total Cards: (50)

Hero: (3)
1x Beregond (Heirs of Numenor)
1x Glorfindel (Foundations of Stone)
1x Dunhere (Core Set)

Ally: (20)
1x Arwen Undomiel (The Watcher in the Water)
3x Escort from Edoras (A Journey to Rhosgobel)
3x Ethir Swordsman (The Steward’s Fear)
3x Imladris Stargazer (Foundations of Stone)
3x Silvan Refugee (The Drúadan Forest)
3x West Road Traveller (Return to Mirkwood)
2x Bofur (Over Hill and Under Hill)
2x Northern Tracker (Core Set)

Attachment: (15)
3x Dagger of Westernesse (The Black Riders)
3x Spear of the Mark (The Morgul Vale)
3x Light of Valinor (Foundations of Stone)
3x Unexpected Courage (Core Set)
3x Ancient Mathom (A Journey to Rhosgobel)

Event: (15)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
2x Feint (Core Set)
3x Foe-hammer (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Elrond’s Counsel (The Watcher in the Water)
1x Straight Shot (On the Doorstep)
1x Goblin-cleaver (Over Hill and Under Hill)
2x Dwarven Tomb (Core Set)

That Caribbean Island Euro-Game

April 30, 2014

I recently picked up a copy of Puerto Rico and (finally!) had a chance to give it a try. One of my favorite games is Cuba so I wanted to see how it stacked up and if one was really better than the other. Let’s take a closer look at each game.

A Brief Description
Puerto Rico involves producing goods – like sugar and tobacco – and then trading them in for money or shipping them for victory points. The game consists of individual player boards that represent plantations that produce the goods and hold buildings. Erecting buildings will bend the rules for the owner to give them a strategic advantage over their opponents. For example, if a player has a Warehouse, their goods won’t rot allowing them hang on to them to use in future rounds. However, to get goods or have the building effects occur, there must be a worker in the right spot to activate those spaces. Building also are worth points at the end of the game. Players carry out the various actions – like building, producing, trading and shipping – by selecting roles. Knowing when to choose each role is crucial to your overall strategy. If timed properly you can score big and prevent your opponents from doing the same.

Cuba involves producing goods – like sugar and tobacco – and then trading them in for money or shipping them for victory points. The game consists of individual player boards that represent plantations that produce the goods and hold buildings. Erecting buildings will bend the rules for the owner to give them a strategic advantage over their opponents. For example, if a player has a Warehouse, their goods won’t rot allowing them hang on to them to use in future rounds. However, to get goods or have the building effects occur, there must be a worker in the right spot to activate those spaces. Building also are worth points at the end of the game. Players carry out the various actions – like building, producing, trading and shipping – by selecting roles. Knowing when to choose each role is crucial to your overall strategy. If timed properly you can score big and prevent your opponents from doing the same.

Gaming in the Caribbean

Gaming in the Caribbean

“Wait a second…” you say. “I just read the same thing twice!”

Yes. Yes you did. The similarities between the two games are striking.

“So which one should I buy? I clearly don’t need a copy of both games on my game shelf, right?”

Well, let’s take a look at the differences.

Role Selection
In Puerto Rico, the main strategic decision to make each turn is – which role do I pick? There are 7 roles for all of the players to choose from each turn. Each player at the table will only choose one of those roles. The person that chooses the role will get to carry out that action first and get a bonus for choosing that role. The other players will also get to take the action, but without the bonus. This means a couple of things.

First, not every role will be used each turn. You need to know which will help you the most and your opponents the least. Secondly, you need to try to figure out which roles they may choose and make sure you are able to capitalize on the actions they chose as well as your own.

Cuba is quite different. Each player has a personal hand of 5 role cards to choose from. Each player will play 4 of those roles in any order they want. Timing which role to choose is still important, but you are no longer forced to take an action that you didn’t want to take this turn.

In Cuba, role selection is part of the overall strategy, but it isn’t the main mechanism that is driving the hard decisions in the game like in Puerto Rico.

In Cuba there is a deck of ship cards with 3 available to load for VP each turn. Every ship has 5 spaces to hold 3 different types of goods (2 of one type, 2 of a second and 1 of a third). The ship in the 3rd dock gives you 3VP per good placed on it. The ship in the 2nd dock gives you 2VP per good and the final ship is 1VP per good. The shipping strategy is basically to fill up the most valuable ship before your opponents so that you score more points. The ship in the 3rd port leaves each turn offering players plenty of options for shipping. Although certain buildings will allow players to turn goods into point directly so shipping isn’t even necessary for some players.

The 3 ships available in Puerto Rico just show a number of spaces on them. When a player ships goods they must place as many goods of the type they’ve chosen to a ship gaining 1VP per good. Once a ship has a good type on it, it can no longer carry any other good type. This means it is possible (and wise!) to load a ship with a good type your opponents don’t have. Preventing them from utilizing that action and from scoring points. This really is a big key to victory – if you aren’t able to ship your goods you likely won’t generate enough VP to win.

Player Boards
The plantations and building you gain in Puerto Rice go on your player board, but it makes no difference where you place them. You do need colonists on the buildings and plantations to have them activated, but it’s not too difficult to put them where they are needed.

The plantation in Cuba is a 3×4 square grid already populated with your production capabilities. To gain any resources and goods you must have a worker in the right spot. The worker only activates the squares in his row and column. So placement of the worker each round is critical. On top of that, when you add a building to your board you cover up a resource or good square with the building. And to activate those you again need your worker in the right row or column. This means placing your buildings is a tough decision during the game. Placing that worker each round will also make for interesting choices – gain more resources and goods or put him in the right spot to capitalize on the buildings. I find that this spatial puzzle mechanism that gets played during the game is what really makes Cuba interesting for me.

What Else?
The other component that sets Cuba apart is the Parliament phase. At the end of each round the role card that wasn’t used to carry out actions is used for votes here. The players are also allowed to buy votes in simultaneous secret bidding. The player with the most votes will then choose 2 of the 4 possible bills and enact them into law. These bills may change the rules slightly for each round but more importantly will change how bonus points are awarded each turn. Preparing for the possible changes is helpful, but sometimes it is important to win the vote and enact the bills that will really help you while hurting your opponents.

Cuba has multiple paths to victory points through shipping, the use of certain buildings and making sure the laws that are enacted help you. Cuba is a bit more forgiving if you don’t make the perfect play because of these options. The spatial element also adds an interesting twist that I enjoy.

Puerto Rico is less forgiving. A couple of bad plays can really take you out of the game. But it’s great when you can pull off a turn where you score big and your opponents are left with nothing to do.

Although the overall themes of the game are identical, the differences in strategy and gameplay really set them apart. And so my game shelf will contain both Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Inside the Box: Compounded

February 19, 2014

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

With a background in Chemical Engineering, I just couldn’t pass up a game about creating chemical compounds in a lab. Compounded was successfully funded through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter just over a year ago by Dice Hate Me Games. I wasn’t a backer, but I am thankful all of the stretch goals were achieved so that there is quite a bit of stuff in the box.

The box itself is rather plain looking: wood grain finish (that is supposed to be a lab bench) with the name of the game with just a little thematic flair.

A lot of components in this small box.

A lot of components in this small box.

Just looking at all of the components you really get a sense that you are about to do some chemistry! It’s not a rulebook; it’s a “Chemistry Textbook”. The 5 player boards are each players lab bench with 4 testtubes where they keep track of their experiments. There are lab goggle, Bunsen burner, graduated cylinder and dropper chits. I think my favorite component is the scoreboard:
The Periodic Table is also the score track.

The Periodic Table is also the score track.

And as great as it is, it isn’t the ideal score track. The first dozen points scored in the game get a little tricky to score just due to the way the periodic table is set up. And the end game is also a bit of a challenge. The game end can be triggered when someone scores 50+ points – with the final scores ending up higher than that, often into the Transition elements (57-71). The designers chose theme over function, but I’m OK with that.

Each player has wooden pieces with stickers to keep track of various in-game information. These tokens along with the chits are on the small side but are quite functional and are easy enough to use. My biggest complaint with the tokens would be the Flame Tokens. They are tiny! They are easily the smallest component that I have in any game. They measure 9mm (0.375 inches) in diameter. I grabbed a couple of relatively small tokens for a comparison.

The tiny red Flame Token

The tiny red Flame Token

The middle bottom component is a relatively large(!?) coin token from Small World. In the middle top is the rather ‘small’ single gold token from Jambo and even that looks big. It’s roughly the same size as “big” components in Compounded. The small components were not due to lack of space on the cardboard sheet. Those bits on the left side of the image – the ones much larger than the flame tokens – are advertisements for the company’s other games. So this was a choice and a bad one. Supposedly a future expansion may fix this issue, but I just don’t understand how this was overlooked. Fortunately it doesn’t hurt gameplay.

The elements to make your compounds are different colored plastic ‘gems’. While these gems are found in many board games as ‘gems’ for some reason they just work as atoms of a compound. You draw these elements out of a high quality black draw string bag and you’ll be placing them on the compound cards.

Watch out! Some of these are flammable.

Watch out! Some of these are flammable.

These are all real compounds with their chemical structure. They also show the ionic charges of the different atoms and you can learn how these bond together. As far as gameplay goes, the cards have a few symbols on them and a score value once they are complete. The symbols are a bit ambiguous at first but after a game or two they are easy enough to remember.

Overall, I’m really impressed with what’s inside the Compounded box. All of the components are of a very good quality. Sure, the score board is a minor inconvenience and the flame tokens are just too small, but the theme of the game really comes to life with the components. I look forward to using this game as a fun teaching tool for when my kids are old enough to learn about chemistry.

Lord of the Rings LCG: Card Draw, Deck Thinning

November 26, 2013

Having not played a CCG or LCG in a while, when I first started playing the Lord of the Rings LCG, I was stumped about deck composition. Eventually I found a few good blogs that offer strategy tips, and my rule of thumb was simple: build decks that are roughly 50% allies, 25% events, and 25% attachments. Now I stray widely from that general rule, but when I’m building a brand new deck, I usually start with those ratios.

But early on, I still found I was running into problems. For instance, I would include three copies (the maximum legal number) of a card that was really important to my strategy. However, if I didn’t draw it in my opening hand or my mulligan hand, I would be despondent, my strategy wouldn’t get off the ground, and I’d lose. How can one overcome such a problem and the accompanying (incorrect) judgement that this game is mostly luck-based? Really, two techniques come to mind:

  • Card Drawing: Utilizing abilities that let you draw more than the required one card per turn, thus allowing you to increase your hand size and increase your options.
  • Deck Thinning: Utilizing abilities that let you hunt for certain cards, draw, or discard in order to decrease the size of your deck and thus increase the chances that you will pull the cards you need later.

There are a few things I’d like to say about how to achieve success when it comes to both of the techniques. First, I  almost always include three copies of a card in my deck. If I included it in a deck in the first place, I think it’s important to have, so why decrease my chances of drawing it by including less than three copies? Second, I play with as small a deck as possible. The “tournament legal” deck in LOTR:LCG is 50 cards. If I play with 51, I can get in three copies of 17 different cards. If I play with 60 cards, I can get in 20 different cards at three copies apiece, but my chances of drawing the card  I need at the right time are drastically reduced. Third, find a way to make multiple copies of unique cards relevant. This is why I love the ally Erestor, because I can essentially use his ability to get rid of extra copies of unique cards and fuel card draw at the same time. This gives value to previously “dead” cards.

One problem I’ve seen in co-op play is players who are afraid to discard in order to cycle through their deck. They pass over King Under the Mountain or A Very Good Tale because it forces discards. I think that’s a mistake. First off, if you have no card draw, you’ll never dig through your whole deck in one game anyway. Second, even if you drew your entire deck into your hand, you’d never have enough resources or time to put everything into play. So don’t sweat the small stuff: cycle through the deck and discard a bunch in order to gain an advantage on the encounter deck.

With all this in mind, here’s a mono-Leadership Outlands deck I built recently that utilizes every bit of card draw available to that sphere:

Hirluin the Fair
(Threat = 25)

Allies (27)
Gandalf x 3 (draw three cards upon entering play)
Erestor x 3 (once per round, may discard one card from hand to draw one card)
Forlong x 3
Anfalas Herdsman x 3
Hunter of Lamedon x 3 (upon entering play, discard top card of deck. If it is Outlands, put it in hand.)
Ethir Swordsman x 3
Knights of the Swan x 3
Warrior of Lossarnach x 3
Snowbourn Scout x 3
Envoy of Pelargir x 3 (if solo) OR Errand Rider x 3 (if multiplayer)

Attachments (9)
King Under the Mountain x 3 (Exhaust attachment to draw two cards. Put one in hand, discard the other.)
Lord of Morthond x 3 (Draw a card every time a Spirit, Lore, or Tactics ally is played.)
Steward of Gondor x 3

Events (15)
A Very Good Tale x 3 (Exhaust two characters. Add up their cost, then discard the top five cards of the deck. Place two allies in play whose cost does not exceed the cost of the two exhausted allies.)
Sneak Attack x 3
Strength of Arms x 3
Valiant Sacrifice x3 (When an ally leaves play, draw two cards.)

It’s very easy to draw through this deck in 5-6 turns. I never hesitate to sneak attack Gandalf into play in order to exhaust him to fuel A Very Good Tale. (Essentially you’re paying 1 resource to gain 5 threat reduction, 4 damage on an enemy, or 3 cards + two free Outlands allies.) The first time I trotted out this deck, I played this combo in the mid-game: Sneak Attack + Gandalf (3 cards) + A Very Good Tale + 2xValiant Sacrifice once Gandalf left play. That’s seven cards drawn into hand, 3 discarded from the top of the deck, and two brand new allies in play…all for the cost of three resources and two exhausted characters. (Interestingly, that’s drawing/discarding your way through 24% of your deck!)

Erestor is also critical in the mid-game, because he lets you sluff those extra unique attachments in exchange for more card draw.

Mid-game it’s not unusual to see this deck draw 1 card in the planning phase, draw/discard with King Under the Mountain, then play an Outlands character, which triggers Lord of Morthond, which allows 1 more card draw, and then get rid of/draw a card with Erestor. (That’s digging through 10% of the deck in one round.)

So, my final note to new players: draw cards, draw cards, draw cards! You can’t do nuthin’ if you ain’t got nuthin’ in your hand.

Behind the Scenes of Creating a Game

November 11, 2013

A while back I was invited to a game day at a coworker’s house. I played a few good games and had a great time. After that my coworker and I started talking gaming at work. Next thing I knew we were setting up Twilight Struggle in my cube. We got in a few games over the course of many lunch breaks playing a turn or two at a time. I was finally able to make another game day with him and he told me, “We’re going to play Jay’s game this Saturday.” Turns out we weren’t the only gamers around the office. That’s when I first found out about Jay Meyer‘s gaming history and Noble Treachery.

Noble Treachery
This game is a bit of a twist on your traditional trick-taking card game that adds some chaos and enough strategy that it fits in well with today’s board and card game market. The game uses a custom deck of 55 cards with 5 suits (colors), 5 dice and 25 alliance tokens. There are 45 common cards in the deck – 9 each of the 5 colors and 10 cards that are unique. The strength of each card is determine by the value of that card plus the value of the corresponding die color which are rolled at the start of each round. The round is either a War round (highest total strength) or Diplomacy round (lowest total strength) determined by the highest bettor. The player that wins the round gains an alliance token. Each card also has text that can change the game state by re-rolling dice or earning alliance tokens through other means. The game play 4-6 players and finishes in under in hour.

First Play
When I showed up for the game day ready to try this new game I wasn’t expecting much. I figured it would be some cards printed and put in card sleeves, instead what I got blew me away. Jay had already commissioned artists and a local art and design school to produce prototypes for him. This game looked as good as anything on the market. And the game was fun to play. The chaos of the dice changing mid-round kept you rethinking your next play. And the ability to earn alliance tokens without winning the round gave everyone a shot. It was a good game and we played it twice.

Jay Meyer
After hearing about my enjoyment of the game, Jay gave me one of his prototype copies to play with friends and family. I got in a few more plays and reported back to Jay on my playing experiences. In addition to talking about the game I got to know Jay. He’s been playing games for years with his weekly gaming group. But not just any games: his games. He’s been creating his own board games and his weekly game group play tests and refines a game into something good or even great. They’ll play that until he’s got his next game ready to play. So far I’ve gotten to try out 3 of his games: 1) Noble Treachery 2) Labyrinth, a dungeon crawling, take-that deck builder and 3) a questing card game that went from a discussion at my white board to a playable game in a matter of days. After many years creating games (he’s made over 30!) he finally decided to fulfill a dream of publishing one. He, with the help of his game group, chose Noble Treachery as his first game. It’s fairly small (55 cards, 5 dice and some tokens) and seemed like a good manageable project for a first shot.

Game Development
Jay says the game was first created in under a week. He needed a portable game that he could bring along for a camping trip. The first version just used dice and cards and you kept score with pencil and paper and played with 2 teams of 4. It was originally called Ambush. After playing it for a while he thought he had something interesting. A few years back he brought it to GAMA and showed it off. He got a lot of feedback and knew he had to make some changes. First, he couldn’t limit it to just 4 players so he got rid of the partners and allowed up to 6 players. Because of this, each card had to be able to help you individually and couldn’t just help your partner during a round. That’s where the War/Diplomacy option came in. Second, the scoring mechanic was too old school. That’s when he added tokens, but two types: alliances for scoring and money for the betting. It seemed to work, but realized that betting a money token that didn’t change your score wasn’t meaningful. That’s where the switch to betting your alliance tokens came in. You had to risk your scoring tokens to take control of a round. A few refinements later and he had something.

At that point he had a game that was good enough to start working to make real. He contacted the design school and got artists to make this game his own. He finally had 10 copies of his game. He passed this game on to friends to playtest and the results were very positive. The game played well for casual gamers as it was easy to learn and the random cards and dice helped level the playing field with advanced gamers. The strategy gamer could devise plans on when to play certain cards and when to take the bet. But, always wanting feedback he continued to ask how could this game be better. He also started to look at how to launch this game and make it a reality. Those two things forced him to take a deeper look at the game and what really makes you wanting to come back for more. A few minor tweaks to existing cards and the addition of more of the unique cards really spiced up the game. He was ready for primetime.

Jay launched his Kickstarter campaign last week. Sitting in his office today we talked about how it’s been going. There was an initial rush of people pledging their support which was a great feeling. Then, last weekend the backers slowed down: only 1 on Saturday. Thoughts of failure crept in. Fortunately they were quickly dissapated after a play session with a group of Magic players who didn’t know anything about the game. After a wild game that came down to the last round he was confident in his product. This is a game worth playing and more importantly a game that has you coming back for more.

The End?
My post ends here, but this game’s story will continue. The Kickstarter has almost 5 weeks to go yet. If it funds there will be finalizing the added artwork for the new cards and working to get it printed. Then it’s shipping all those games off to the backers. If it doesn’t fund…? We’ll see what the future holds. All I know is, either way I’ve learned a lot from Jay and his experiences with this game. It makes me want to work on that game idea that’s been floating around in my head for while. Until then I’ll continue playing good games, like Noble Treachery, and look forward to Jay’s next creation.

Draft Poker Variant

August 17, 2013

When you spend all summer house hunting, buying and selling homes and moving it goes much too quickly. And when writing about game playing usually only occurs after playing games, well, not much has happened. All that said, I have had a chance to enjoy a couple of new games this summer. And the one I’m most excited about happens to be a poker variant.

I play a cash poker game on a monthly basis with a group of friends. It’s just for fun, but the few (literally) dollars ahead or behind at the end of the night keeps things interesting. We play dealer’s choice for each hand so the games are varied. To keep things fresh we actively look for new games to try out or modifications to existing games. Some work and some fail miserably. Here’s one that has quickly become one of my favorites:

This is a 7 card stud variant. Each player starts with 2 cards face-down and 1 card face-up. After a round of betting, the dealer places N cards face-up on the table (where N is equal to the number of players). The players then select their next card from the middle with the player with the lowest current hand showing going first and the player with the best current hand going last. (We break ties with first person to the left of the dealer going first.) This is repeated 2 more times with betting between each round. At the end one more card is dealt face-down and another bet. Best 5 card hand wins.

It’s a simple variant but I love the strategy the game adds. For example: I have a 5 face-up and my choice of cards on the table include another 5. Do I take the 5 and get a pair? If I do, the odds of me now showing the best hand are pretty high. That means for the next rounds I will likely be selecting last. This means no choice in my next two cards – I’ll get whatever is left. But a pair can lead to a winning hand of 2 pair, 3-of-a-kind or better.

It’s also important to keep your eye on the other player’s cards. Do you select a card that won’t help you just to prevent the next player who will benefit from getting it? Or do you pick the card that keeps your possibilities open?

Ideally you get to pick a card that pairs one of your down cards. This keeps your opponents guessing while still getting a good draft position for the next round. Either way you play it, This variant adds an element of a Euro board game to an otherwise normal game of poker. I think it scratches that board game strategy itch in the midst of a fun evening of poker where randomness and bluffing dominate.

Anyone else play this poker variant? Or have any other poker/betting games that mix-in just the right amount of strategic choices? I’d love to try to them out.

Lord of the Rings Living Card Game: Thorongil Deck

August 13, 2013
Recently I won a contest over at Tales from the Cards with this Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game deck. If anything, playing with this deck over the last few weeks has shown me the powerful combination that LotR: LCG offers to a player; excellent mechanics married to a deep sense of theme. Kudos to the designers for making such a great game that a deck like the one below can hold its own in play while remaining entirely faithful to Tolkien’s legendarium.
Thorongil Deck
Aragorn II went by many names. In Rivendell he was Estel because he was the hope of his people. In Bree he was Strider due to his long gait, and at the close of the Third Age he was Elessar, the Elfstone. But from T.A. 2957-2980, he was known throughout Gondor as Thorongil, the Eagle of the Star. He rode with Thengel, Theoden’s father, in Rohan for a time, and served under Steward Ecthelion II of Gondor with a star embroidered on his cloak. During this time, he was beloved of the people of Minas Tirith, which caused resentment on the part of Denethor II, the steward’s son.
This deck is intended to represent Aragorn’s time serving in Gondor. From his childhood in Rivendell, he brings with him the Ring of Barahir and the broken sword Narsil, both of which he keeps in secret in his belongings. He also has brought his skills as a Ranger (Dunedain Mark) and two minstrels, who record his deeds for posterity. From his time in Rohan he brings a small contingent of Snowbourn Scouts. Most importantly, he carries in his mind Elrond’s Counsel, and in his heart he carries the thoughts of Arwen, his one true love. Rallying around the future king is a vast array of Gondorian soldiers and nobles to aid in the fight against evil.
For an added thematic challenge, Denethor may not exhaust to take the same type of action as Aragorn or Gandalf. Thus, if Aragorn is questing, Denethor must do something else that round, etc. This represents young Denethor’s growing resentment of Thorongil and the wizard Mithrandir. Give yourself a pat on the back if Denethor ends up with the Horn of Gondor because he is the steward’s son and Aragorn gets Steward of Gondor to represent the trust Ecthelion has placed in him.
This is a solo deck created for thematic purposes, though it plays quite well. Certain artifacts, such as Celebrian’s Stone, are not included because they were not in Aragorn’s possession at this point in his life, and certain characters do not make an appearance because they were not born yet (e.g. Faramir). Eleanor is included because we frankly have no idea when she was born! Many theme-appropriate changes may be made based on the quest. For instance, young Gleowine for extra card draw, Northern Trackers from the Dunedain for location management, the Lore of Imladris for healing, or any non-unique Gondorian or Outlands cards for various purposes.
For more information about this time in Aragorn’s life, please see the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, “Gondor and the Heris of Anarion,” “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen,” and “The Tale of Years”.
Heroes (3)
Aragorn (Core) x1
Denethor (Core) x1
Eleanor (Core) x1
Ally (24)
Arwen Undomiel (TWitW) x2
Defender of Rammas (HON) x2
Envoy of Pelargir (HON) x3
Errand-rider (HON) x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gondorian Spearman (Core) x2
Guard of the Citadel (Core) x3
Rivendell Minstrel (THFG) x2
Snowbourn Scout (Core) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Attachment (12)
Dunedain Mark (THfG) x3
Horn of Gondor (Core) x2
Ring of Barahir (TSF) x2
Song of Battle (TDM) x1
Steward of Gondor (Core) x2
Sword that was Broken (TWitW) x2
Event (16)
Daeron’s Runes (FoS) x3
Elrond’s Counsel (TWitW) x3
For Gondor! (Core) x2
Hasty Stroke (Core) x3
Gondorian Discipline (EaAD) x2
Sneak Attack (Core) x3
Starting threat = 27
Cards in deck: 52
Leadership cards: 20 (avg. cost = 1.6 resources)
Lore cards: 8 (avg. cost = 1.5 resources)
Neutral cards: 6 (avg. cost = (avg. cost = 2.8 resources)
Spirit cards: 10 (avg. cost = (avg. cost = 0.9 resources)
Tactics cards: 8 (avg. cost = (avg. cost = 1.3 resources)

Lord of the Rings Living Card Game: Three Types of Advantages

July 19, 2013

Since January I’ve been playing a lot of the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games. It’s my first foray into a CCG/LCG format since about seventh grade (long ago, I assure you!), and I’ve been enjoying the co-op nature of the game with my wife, Rick, Russ, and others both in real life and online through OCTGN.

This game took me a while to wrap my head around, but after many, many plays, I’ve got some basic strategy thoughts I’d like to share. It’s very simple. There are five things you are trying to accomplish in Lord of the Rings:

  • Willpower: Generating sufficient willpower to quest easily.
  • Defense: Being able to block enemies efficiently.
  • Healing: Regularly getting rid of damage to keep your own characters alive.
  • Attack: Dispatching enemies effectively.
  • Encounter Manipulation: Pulling tricks to deal with locations, treacheries, threat increases, and shadow cards via interrupting events.

When I first started playing, I would focus on these five things in every deck I built…and I would lose badly. After I took a step back and thought about it a bit, I realized that those five things stated above are actually goals, not methods, for winning the game.

What, then, are the methods for success? It gets even more simple:

  • Action Advantage: The ability to have a character act twice or more in a round.
  • Resource Advantage: The ability to generate more resource tokens than usual.
  • Card Advantage: The ability to draw more cards with the added bonus of thinning your deck.

That’s it. Once you’ve got those three working, you’re good to go. However, I would caution players against trying to get all three types of advantages going in one deck. Often that takes up so many card slots that the deck cannot do much else. Instead, consider splitting up the advantage cards between two decks so that you and a partner can play off of each other.

There are obvious cards for each type of advantage. Some examples would be Unexpected Courage for actions, Steward of Gondor for resources, and Beravor for cards. But I would argue that there are more subtle combos that can be played that are actually more powerful. For example, let’s take We Are Not Idle and the Lure of Moria in a dwarf deck. The first card is great because it can gain you both resource and card advantage. However, if you exhaust all your Dwarf characters to get a bunch of resources, you may not be able to gain much because you have no one to quest, attack, or defend. So consider playing We Are Not Idle, exhausting every Dwarf you have, and then playing Lure of Moria. If you have 4 or more dwarf characters out, you still get a net bonus of +1 resource and +1 card.

Another one of my favorite combos is to play the hero Hama in a deck that is focused on the Eagle trait. If you begin play with a copy of The Eagles Are Coming! in hand, you can use Hama’s ability every turn to keep cycling that card back into play. This gives you card advantage because you’re pulling Eagles out of your deck every turn, with the added bonus of thinning your deck so that you’re guaranteed to be pulling good cards out during the resource phase. Throw Horn of Gondor into the mix, and with all those Eagles constantly entering and leaving play, you’ve got resource advantage as well. Or, if your partner is playing Horn of Gondor, you’re giving him resource advantage.

Another great combo is to used the oft-maligned 0-cost card, Cram, in conjunction with Erebor Hammersmith. Play Cram on your partner’s best attacking hero and you’ve granted him action advantage. After he’s discarded it to ready that character, play Erebor Hammersmith to pick up from the discard pile and play it again. The net result? For a cost of two resources, you have gained action advantage twice, and put into play a 3 hit point character.

As the card pool expands, it’s exciting to see more avenues open up to gain these three types of advantages. I’m playing a mono-Leadership sphere Outlands deck right now. In the early iterations of the deck, I was having trouble getting those Outlands allies on the table early. However, by utilizing everyone’s favorite combo, Sneak Attack + Gandalf, in a really weird place in the turn sequence, the refresh phase, I’ve been able to overcome this problem.

Whenever Gandalf enters play, you get to choose one of the following: draw three cards, deal four damage to an enemy in play, or lower your threat by five. In addition, you obviously get to use Gandalf’s 4 willpower, 4 attack, or 4 defense in one phase. But what if you pay one resource to sneak attack him in during the refresh phase? Do you really feel cheated if by spending one resource, you only get one of the first three bonuses? Not if you can also exhaust Gandalf, play A Very Good Tale, and discard the top five cards of your deck for two more Outlands characters to put in play.

I’ve also started looking at action advantage differently. It’s actually not just about having one character act twice or more in a round. It’s also about being able to ignore a particular challenge so that you can save allies for the actions you really want to take. So by using Gandalf to lower threat, say from 30 to 25, I might be able to ignore certain enemies and fly under the radar, so to speak. In doing that, I’m not allowing any character to act a second time, but I am freeing those characters up for questing instead of attacking/defending.

These insights probably seem obvious to any experienced players of CCGs/LCGs, but to me, it’s really been a revelation. The depth offered by this format has been really engaging for me in the past several months.

Card Sleeves

March 17, 2013

I’m on another card sleeving kick. When I’m finished I’ll have gone through about 15 packs of sleeves. Seems like a lot, but Russ will be sleeving a couple of his recent aquisitions and it’ll make my sleeving seem like child’s play. Of course I haven’t sleeved all of my games… but who knows how long that will last.

To sleeve
This latest kick started when I was playing Rune Age. My two year old son wanted to play with – who can resist Fantasy Flight’s great artwork. Of course he’s getting his last two molars so the drool was flowing. Between the risk of water damage and the ton of shuffling occuring during the game, I decided I had better protect the cards. I ran out and picked up 10 packs of sleeves, enough for the base game and the expansion. After playing a few times with the sleeves I remembered how great card sleeves are.

– You don’t have to worry (as much) about greasy, dirty fingers (please wash your hands before playing my games though).
– They are insurance against drool.
– Sleeved cards are so much easier to shuffle. You just slide the cards together without worry of bending cards doing a riffle shuffle or dinging the edges.
– Sleeved cards hide any little card dings/dents that might give away a random card’s identity.
– You can sleeve your entire library now since there are card sleeve sizes for just about every game on the market.

Or not to sleeve
Of course there are a few drawbacks. I picked up Rune Age on the cheap and have now spent more on sleeves than I did the game. But if it saves me from having to replace a deck of cards due to damage it’ll have been worth it. The first couple of times you play the slick plastic cards will be flying all over the place.

Another reason not to sleeve is to just let the cards show their wear. The first time I played TransAmerica was with a very well played copy. The cards had several creases in several directions. It was clear this game had seen tons of plays and was well loved by its owners.

– Expense
– Slippery cards
– Every ding and dent in a card may tell a story or add character to a game.

I like the idea of sleeving all of my games, but I know it just isn’t practicle. How about you: do you sleeve your games? If so, why? If not, why not?

Inside the Box: Commands & Colors: Napoleonics: The Russian Army

February 18, 2013

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

Commands & Colors: Napoloenics: The Russian Army is the second expansion in the latest iteration of Richard Borg‘s C & C system. Published by GMT Games, it retails for $55, but can often be found between $30-35 through the usual online sellers. It was shipped out to P500 subscribers just last week, and mine arrived in the mail on about three days ago.

I don’t want to sound like an mp3 on repeat (broken record?), but the first thing that catches the eye is the box itself. It is incredibly sturdy and bright with an evocative painting of Napoleonic troops charging. The strip at the bottom of the box is a nice dark green, which matches the colors of the Russians. (I was surprised to see in the last expansion that the strip there was brown, which did not match the yellow of the Spanish troops contained within.) However, if you are collecting all expansions in this game set, you’ll quickly realize the mistake seen below:

Notice what I've highlighted in red.

Notice what I’ve highlighted in red.

Yup, that’s right folks, even though the Spanish expansion is clearly marked “Expansion Nr. 1” on the box, and this expansion says “#2” on the rulebook…the cover remains blank. The same goes for the box spine, which means if you store your games on a bookshelf like me, you’ll see “Expansion Nr. 1” next to “Expansion”. Whoops.

Flipping the box over, you get the usual information about playing time, etc. It’s a bummer that Napoleon still is wearing Le Bicorn Invisible. For those keeping score, this is the third time this has happened. Someone nudge their production coordinator; I think he’s asleep at the switch.

Nice hat, Emperor.

Nice hat, Emperor.

Thankfully, once the box is opened, these problems seem to dissipate somewhat. Again we’ve got 220 wooden blocks, some charts, cardboard bits for the Russians, a scenario booklet, and lots and lots of stickers. Again I was hoping for a fix for “Give them the Cold Steal” from the first edition, but no dice.

Get stickering!

Get stickering!

While I’ve already explored at length how the Spanish expansion was a step down in terms of production quality, I think GMT has upped their game once again. The terrain hexes are back to the original thickness, so there’s no cheap feel there, and the same goes for the other cardboard chits:

Ah, back to what we love!

Ah, back to what we love!

Speaking of cardboard bits, you get some new terrain including frozen lakes and redoubts in woods:

Almost siegeworks.

Almost siege works.

The decision was made to continue including the little heavy, light, and cavalry symbols on the unit stickers. From a distance they still look like smudges, but I’ll deal with it. The blocks themselves are gorgeous, with the Russians being a rich, vibrant green:



I also like that the decision was made to stick with the new style of unit reference chart, which is easy to read in the heat of battle. In addition, the scenario book (20 scenarios!) with the new rules about the Mother Russia roll is well-written and the images are sharp. The Russians look like a sturdy bunch who will give the French a run for their money, especially in the larger scenarios, some of which go to 10 victory banners.

One thing that others have noticed is the quality of the paper used. There’s something a bit rough about it; when I handled the scenario book and the sticker sheet, it felt like very fine sandpaper. It’s not overly unpleasant, but it is noticeable and some won’t like it.

Overall, I would consider this a step up from the first expansion, but one step down from the base game in terms of components. Maybe when the Prussians and Austrians come out, we’ll get some of these final wrinkles ironed out.