Thursday, 18 October 2007

Lord of the Rings Battlefields expansion

On 15 Oct 2007, I played Lord of the Rings with the Battlefields expansion with Han. Lord of the Rings has always been one of my favourite games. I have bought all 3 expansions to it, Friends & Foes, Sauron and Battlefields, and I have played Friends & Foes and Battlefields. This was my 2nd time playing Battlefields, and 1st time for Han. My first time was with Michelle, and we lost that game.

Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game, where the players, taking the roles of hobbits, try to go through various challenges in order to reach Mount Doom to destroy the evil One Ring. Sometimes this game can be thought of as bad things keep happening to you, and you are just trying to survive to the end. Sounds like self-torture, doesn't it? The Battlefields expansion adds a battlefield (roll eyes) element. The "battlefield" is basically a flowchart. Enemies will appear on it, and move following the arrows on it, and cause bad things to happen to you. You can prevent / mitigate these bad things by sending your fellowship members (Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir) to the battlefield to fight / stop these enemies. In a way, now we finally have the full fellowship appearing as individual pieces - the four hobbits, and the five other fellowship members.

The battlefields introduce a whole new aspect to the game. Now you need to worry about what's happening on the battlefields too. It will cost you valuable turns and cards. There are some good things that come along with the bad things. In this expansion you get some additional cards at Rivendell and Lothlorien, there are 3 more Gandalf cards that you can use, and if you kill an enemy on the battlefield, you will get some rewards. These additions mean more possibilities and more options for the hobbits.

Han played Sam in our game.

Han and I played at the easiest difficulty level - Sauron started on 15. We had one very exciting game. The battlefield drained us of a lot of resources, but we still managed to stay relatively uncorrupted throughout the first three scenarios. Han maintained a very healthy hand of cards. Han has always been a big fan of special power cards. In many games that we have played together, he tends to like collecting cards, and he enjoys planning and trying out different powerful combos of special power cards. I think this is all about the excitement and anticipation of drawing a card and seeing what you get. His habit showed in our game too. In contrast, I spent my cards pretty quickly. Maybe it was the special ability of Frodo (I was Frodo and Han was Sam) of treating white hobbit cards as jokers, which made me conveniently use up those white hobbit cards in my hand. At the end of the second scenario, Helm's Deep, (or was it the first scenario Moria?) I was surprised to find that I was still at space zero of the corruption track, despite the not few bad events we had encountered thus far and struggles that we had handling the enemies on the battlefield. I thought we were doing pretty good.

On the third scenario board, Shelob's Lair, we were already accumulating traveling cards, in anticipation of the last scenario board, Mordor, where the main activity track was a traveling track. I thought we still did alright in Shelob's Lair, although our cards were starting to dwindle. Sam ate his lembas bread (draw hobbit cards to fill hand to 6 cards). Sauron was getting closer and closer to us, mostly due to enemies on the battlefields. We survived Shelob's Lair, so Mordor here we come! Things got nasty here. The battlefield was a nightmare, probably because we didn't analyse it properly when we started the scenario, and were caught off guard by how nasty it was. The battlefield was designed in such a way that we could not choose to block enemies from advancing. If we blocked an enemy, it would take an alternative path, and on this battlefield, most alternative paths lead to the big red eye of Sauron, i.e. instant defeat. So our dear companions of the Fellowship of the Ring watched helplessly as the enemies trudged slowly along the downward spiral, giving us grief each step of the way. That was painful.

Eventually we did make it to Mount Doom, but just barely. Sam, who was ringbearer at the time, was only one step away from Sauron. So, now it came down to whether Sam would survive this last die roll. It was a 2 out of 6 chance. Han must roll a blank or a "discard 2 cards". Any other result, be it Sam or Sauron advancing, would kill Sam. Then I played the Belt card - one player: do not roll a die. I never found a good opportunity to use it (or maybe I just kept forgetting to use it), and now I was thankful I saved it until this moment. Game over. The One Ring was destroyed. We did no upset J. R. R. Tolkien by changing his ending.

That was such a close victory. Very enjoyable game.

This is the full body shot of the game.

Then later in the day I thought about it (good games make you think back about it, and that's a good thing) and realised it wasn't that close afterall. If Sam had died, Frodo could still try to destroy the Ring, and would have done so successfully because Frodo was still far enough from Sauron, and still had enough cards to discard if necessary. So by the time we reached Mount Doom, it was already a sure win. It was just a matter of whether Sam would live or not (or a matter of whether we would upset J. R. R. Tolkien by having Sam killed). The other thing I realised was we may not have played correctly. When deploying friends to the battlefields, they must go to non-grey spaces. I forgot about this rule, and I think we did violate this rule during the game. Oops. Flawed victory, we have.

The main board at the top, and scenario board in the centre. We are in Mordor now. Additions from the Battlefields expansion are those black rectangular tiles with a red eye. Those tiles trigger enemy appearance / movement on the battlefields.

The battlefield board that goes with the Mordor scenario board. Fellowship members are on the left. Notice that we have "used" Gandalf (top tile) so he has been turned over. There are already four enemies on the battlefield - the round tokens.

So what's my verdict on the Battlefields expansion? I like it a lot! There is a whole new dimension to consider, and a whole lot of new considerations and options. I like it more compared to the Friends & Foes expansion, which is the most highly regarded among the three expansions of Lord of the Rings. The thing I like about Friends & Foes is the additional scenario boards and new characters / story elements. However one thing that makes me feel very restricted is how the foes appear. If you draw a bad tile, no foe appears. If you draw a good tile, a foe appears. This makes me feel I always have bad luck. It's either one bad thing that hits you or another. It's like rolling a die and knowing you will never get a good result that you can celebrate about. It will only be different types of bad result. This is the feeling that makes me like Friends & Foes less. I am probably not being very rational, but that's the feeling I have. In Battlefields at least sometimes I can say "Yay! I drew a Fight tile! Just what I need to move along the main activity line. I'm lucky lucky lucky!" Celebrating being lucky is fun.

Some people complain about the flowcharts (battlefields), about how boring and unthematic they are. I don't mind them. They are fun and are a challenge. Reiner Knizia has put much thought into designing them. Despite the difficulty to link these flowcharts theme-wise to the Lord of the Rings story, I find they are good gameplay-wise and don't really mind. They are an abstracted version of battlefields, and simply represent how the good guys of Middle Earth need to balance their resources between helping the hobbits secretly destroy the Ring and trying to hinder Sauron's forces on the battlefields (in order to buy more time for the hobbits).

The Battlefields expansion indirectly encourages players to use the non-main activity tracks. Enemy trigger tiles (which trigger enemies to appear on or move on the battlefields) are activated when events happen and when you use the main activity track. So sometimes it makes sense to linger a bit more on a scenario board to collect the good stuff on the non-main activity tracks. But of course you'd need to balance that against the risk of being unable to complete the main activity track before you are overcome by events. Nice dilemma.

The rewards of killing enemies is tempting. Killing some enemies can even allow you to push Sauron back. In the base game Sauron never retreats. So sometimes you actually plan out how to use Gandalf on the battlefield to kill enemies, or how to maneuver the enemy to a kill space (the squares) so that you can spend two jokers (star cards) to kill it. There are many more intricacies about the battlefields, like how to position your friends to control how the enemies will move, or how to minimise damage caused by the enemies, how to use the different abilities of your five friends. I don't think I have discovered all of them.

I would like to play many more games of Lord of the Rings with the Battlefields expansion. Hopefully no more mistakes next time, and victory would be even sweeter. And I'm hoping to be able to play the Sauron expansion one day, hopefully sooner than later.

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