This is a post that I’ve been ruminating on for quite a while now. I’m not the sort of gamer who normally goes in for house rules, they always struck me as a bit dirty, somehow! I mean, I like to play games within the confines of the rules that come in the box (or book), and stick to the “official” way to play stuff. I find that this is the way that the game had been designed and balanced, so deviating from this can cause chaos. In terms of 40k, this becomes a fairly difficult undertaking, given just how much there is to track between the FAQs and errata, but with more regular board and card games, such things can be much easier to deal with. I recently printed off the FAQ for Runebound, and the entire game line (five big boxes, twenty-four card packs) is just four pages. Kinda tells you something about game design in the early 2000s, doesn’t it?
FAQs are one thing, but I have forever drawn the line at trying to alter a game myself. Or so I thought. For a very long time, I was playing The Lord of the Rings LCG incorrectly, but some of my accidental alterations to the game, it turns out, are variants adopted by many folks. Indeed, the game is widely agreed to be quite difficult to play, especially considering the game’s theme attracts many narrative or thematic players like myself. So I have begun to do a bit of research into this phenomenon, and I’ve actually been trying out some suggestions from the global community!
One of the official suggestions for learning the game is to leave out shadow cards, something that I was doing for years, but which I would not think to do anymore. Aside from the fact that they’re quite an important part of combat, with a lot of player cards that interact with them, shadow cards are also quite a useful way to thin out the encounter deck – I know it’s all random chance, but I would much prefer to see a hill troll as a shadow card than have to deal with it normally!!
The game also has an easy mode, which removes some of the encounter cards, and also allows heroes to start with two resources instead of one. Now, I recently tried this, and had Steward of Gondor in my opening hand, meaning Boromir was just a powerhouse. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, because while the game is designed and balanced around its actual rule book, the variant is official, and it was just dumb luck. It’s equally possible to play the game as-is, yet draw Light of Valinor in your opening hand, allowing for Glorfindel to become a beast straightaway.
I think I’m a fan of starting with two resources, then!
Taking myself as the only player, even when playing two-handed, and so only revealing one encounter card per turn is, I feel, too easy. On reflection, I avoided a lot of location-lock while questing for around 12 points per turn, meaning it became really quite easy after a while. I did wonder if this was perhaps due to the fact I was playing The Hunt for Gollum, a scenario that I am very familiar with, but in all honesty, I don’t really think so. A lot of the difficulty around this game comes, I think, from how the encounters can snowball right from the off, and it takes the heroes time to build up. Encounter cards on an individual basis are not normally so terrifying, so playing in this way definitely felt a bit like the heroes ganging-up on the encounter set! Not a fan of this.
The next variation is something I’ve seen referred to around the web as “enjoyable mode”, which allows you to pick one card per hero to be in your opening hand. The cards you select must share a sphere with that hero. It sounds good, and in some of the discussions that I’ve seen around the internet, it does make sense: for example, a hero goes on the road prepared for what might come up, so of course they would come with a sword or an axe. Some variants take this further by limiting the cost of that attachment to cards costing 0, 1, or 2 resources. This makes some sense, and I do like the narrative idea behind it. However, in the game that I tried it, I decided that the attachment had to be a physical thing, not a title or whatever, which meant that it seemed to swing quite wildly as to what was useful and what wasn’t. Having Eowyn’s special horse and Celebrian’s Stone meant that I had two heroes questing for 8 between them, which seemed to be too powerful. Not entirely sure on this one yet.
In a similar vein, something I’ve thought about for a while is getting to start the game with a single ally in play, expanding the party and giving you more flexibility in the opening rounds. The reason for this is mainly due to the fact that I have played so many games where I have had a bad start and just couldn’t claw my way back from it. Even when playing Passage Through Mirkwood, the tutorial scenario! I understand that having three heroes allows you to quest, defend, then attack, so in theory you should be able to do everything required in the game from the get-go, but in practice it so rarely works out that way! There is the possibility of getting to start with a powerful ally which has been balanced to not be able to come out until turn 4+ normally, but I think without trying to abuse this, it could give the game just enough of an uplift that it isn’t a kerb-stomp straight off the bat. When I tried it, I specifically picked allies that wouldn’t be a massive benefit, but they had to be unique, named allies. It turned out to be pretty good, I thought, though it does feel a bit dirty to have 4-cost Elfhelm out right at the start, so I’m still debating this one with myself.
Much like the attachment thing, I think it could be a case of limiting this to starting the game with one card per player, rather than one per hero. Or even one card per party? Hm.
There are some very peculiar ideas out there as well. I saw something that suggested discarding multiple copies of the same location, which does kinda make sense for some places, it has always been thematically the case that you have multiple areas of the same place to explore, as some places are vast. It’s an unfortunate aspect of the rules that you can be location-locked with two or three copies of the same card up there taunting you! But I suppose the game isn’t meant to be easy, really.
So far, all of these things have been fairly straightforward things, which don’t really break the main rules of the game. Now, something that I’ve never really liked about the rules is the way enemies attack. Normally in the sequence of things, you need to defend against enemy attacks before you can attack, and this holds true whether you optionally engage that enemy, or if the enemy engaged you because of your threat level. It breaks the theme for me, to a point, where you have an enemy up there in the staging area, you shout a challenge and rush up to engage him, axes or swords swinging, but he can then strike first. As the game grew, there are cards that allow you to bypass the engagement, meaning you can straight up wallop an enemy still in the staging area, and there’s at least one card that allows you to fight before the enemy, but these still annoy me to some extent, because you’re relying on a card spot within your deck to do something that should be a rule.
I’ve read ideas to get around this where defenders, if they survive, can then attack back against the enemy, which isn’t bad really. The possibility to attack first does seem pretty strong, especially if you’re attacking en masse, but the only mitigation that I can think of for this basically makes everyone into Dúnhere – I do like the idea of a single hero being able to attack the enemy first when an optional engagement happens, then the fight is resolved as normal, but it does seem like you’re basically giving every hero Dúnhere’s specific ability. Even tacking-on a resource cost to it doesn’t help, in my mind.
One idea that I had come up with years ago, although I never tried it out, was to have almost a simultaneous fight, where you engage an enemy, declare “fighters”, and then everybody gets to go at it; the enemy damage is spread out as evenly as possible (but prioritises the highest-cost hero), and everyone can then have at the enemy card. It sounds like it would be way overpowered, but in reality, you might only have a couple of combat characters, alongside your couple of questing characters, so some enemies are still going to be difficult to shift, yet will still quite easily see off some allies, and even some heroes!
I never tried it, but now that I’ve come to write it up here, it’s got me thinking…
There are a number of other ideas out there that allow sentinel characters to not exhaust to defend, for instance, or ranged characters able to shoot into the staging area, which is another intriguing twist to things. I think these are principally variants for playing true solo (one deck to rule them all), but it’s an interesting idea that you could perhaps nominate one hero among your fellowship who doesn’t exhaust to do one thing, a bit like Light of Valinor but you could also apply it to defending or attacking in a single combat.
For the time being, though, I’ve settled on trying to have characters who survive an enemy attack as a defender can then deal their damage to an enemy, then the party can attack back as they see fit.
In short, I’d like the game to be not necessarily easier, but I’d just like to stand a chance against it, you know? Far too often, I’ve pulled early cards that have made it impossible to win, and even late game I’ve been sent back to the Stone Age with board wipes and similar. I’ve considered trying to maybe stack the top of the encounter deck so that I’m not starting from even further behind, or having at least one free pass where I just don’t reveal cards for the first quest phase. But all of that feels like it might interfere too much. The game is meant to feel like you’re playing against an actual player, and the purpose of Nightmare Decks was at first to simulate that player tuning their deck in the same way that us players do. However, with the encounter deck “able to play” powerful cards like hill troll on turn one, while us poor souls need to save up at least 3-4 rounds for our powerful cards does mean that we’re starting from behind, all the time.
I do love this game, I really do, but I’d like to be able to play it and enjoy it, not go through all the set-up just to then put my balls in a vice for a couple of minutes, then realise that I’ve lost regardless!
I think I’m going to adopt the 2 starting resources option in all my games going forward, and maybe I’ll sprinkle some other stuff into the game from time to time, as well…