Let me just say up front that I’m a big fan of this cycle. For my money, this is where the game really came into its own. The Mirkwood cycle has some bright spots, but on the whole it’s pretty rough, and one gets the feeling playing it that the designers are still finding their feet to some extent. Dwarrowdelf has a few mechanical duds here and there (locate tests, anyone?) but on the whole this is a very solid set of quests, and a significant improvement. The biggest mark against it, to be honest, is that the quests are just a little bit too solid, and lack some of the innovative flair of later cycles.
Unfortunately, for all the mechanical improvements, the narrative arc of the cycle is a nonsensical mess. It wasn’t until Against the Shadow that they really made an effort to tell a linked story, and that presents something of a challenge for me. The story of the deluxe box fits together fairly well, and the story of the cycle makes sense, but the two together are a complete jumble, and both of them raise some major questions about how any of this could fit into the larger Lord of the Rings cannon. The biggest challenge here is to weave together some kind of tenuous narrative that will thread these two halves together in a way that repairs their relationship to the larger story. No small task.
So, what’s going on here? The way I see it, there are two primary through-lines in this cycle in terms of both narrative and mechanics: exploration of the mines, and the stirring of the foul denizens of Moria. To reflect this, the two themes which recur in the boons and burdens of the cycle are the Secrets of Moria cards, and a variety of threat increases and restrictions. How does this all fit together? Well, let’s take a look.
Into the Mines is a good solid quest, which is a description you’re probably going to be hearing a lot in one form or another. The only wrinkle here are the trio of sequential locations which act almost like miniature quest stages.
The Seventh Level is, essentially, the second half of Into the Mines, and hasn’t got a whole lot more going on to discuss. The resolution stage is a bit clunky, and is implemented to fix the big jump in victory points resulting from the Nightmare version adding in two mandatory 5 victory items, Overseer Muel and the Tomb. Standard mode gives 0-4 victory, so adding in 10 extra is just too much, and throws off the power-curve of the campaign. Stuff like this, and the Trolls from Conflict At Carrock, present a bit of a challenge. While I’d imagine the percentage of players using the Nightmare decks is somewhat low, there is likely a large overlap between the players who own them and the players who would be interested in a custom-made campaign expansion, so the adjustments have to be built in.
My first step when I start working on one of these is to go through the encounter deck for each quest on Easy, Normal and Nightmare mode and figure out how many victory points are likely to be in the mix. Once I’ve got that info, I’m able to make an informed decision about which quests need their totals either increased or reduced, about whether players should have to pay for boons, etc. The goal is that the average player will be able to afford 1-2 upgrades per deck, with the first coming around scenario 1-4 and the second somewhere between 4-8. Players interested in points, of course, will be able to reserve their victory totals to get a better campaign score. My goal is to create a smooth points curve which will result in similar totals at similar points in the campaign, across each campaign I design. The tricky part, of course, is the fact this was obviously not taken into account during the original design of the quests.
So, let’s get back on track and talk about the big twist of the campaign: the Secrets of Moria cards. These went through a couple variations before I settled on what you see here. The general idea here is that the deeper you delve and the further into the campaign you get, the nastier the enemies get, with buffs coming out for goblins, trolls and creatures eventually. To counter-balance that, there’s a chance that you’ll find treasure. While the cards can be avoided with a threat increase, there is the chance of reward, encouraging the heroes to go digging into the Secrets deck, which has a rather thematic feeling of risk-reward delving and ties in with the objective artifacts of Long Dark and Foundations of Stone. Since so much of this cycle revolves around fighting hoards of enemies, it seemed like a good chance to reintroduce the Battle and Siege keywords, much the same way Time and side-quests were used in the Mirkwood campaign.
Flight From Moria is probably the most mechanical inventive quest of the cycle, and it’s got enough going on that I don’t want to mess with it too much. The trouble, of course, is that this is one of those quests which makes extensive use of the victory point total, which tends to mess with my campaign rules if unchecked. It actually works out alright in this case, as the difficulty of the quest directly correlates to the number of points gained. As an added balance, the players get a slight boost if they forgo victory points in order to make a quick escape, and can avoid getting stuck with the Awakening Fear burden. This is a quest that offers a lot of interesting gameplay decisions for the players in campaign mode. Rush fast and dodge a burden, stick around as long as possible to maximize victory points, or strike a balance somewhere in the middle. It works really nicely. The constantly changing quest stages obviously make a mess of the Secrets deck, so that’s set aside here, which works for me thematically as the heroes are racing for the exit and not doing much exploring.
The Redhorn Gate is a great quest, and still remains one of my favorite location focused quests in the game. Like Flight From Moria it builds in a victory point scaling mechanism. Also, we get our next major burden, and it’s a bit of a monster. Might of the Mountains is one of those fun treachery cards that offers a horrible choice between two awful options. Now, Redhorn Gate is a fairly tough quest from the get-go, especially if you don’t build your deck especially for it, which is harder to do in campaign mode where your choice of heroes is restricted. Fortunately, Arwen is here to help out, and she brought a new boon with her! The Arwen boon is obviously an excellent counter for this new burden, or any of the nasty snowstorm effects which you’ll come up against in this quest. Experienced players, however, will know that they may be better off saving this one-shot ability for the following quest…
Road to Rivendell is a fine quest with an interesting mechanical twist. It’s also a quest with a huge blemish. I don’t imagine I have to remind anybody about the presence of the dreaded Sleeping Sentry treachery card lurking in the encounter deck. Simply put, it’s a bad design, as it’s essentially a cancel or lose card. It’s not alone either, Dwarrowdelf has a good handful of outrageously punishing treacheries like Sudden Pitfall. This is a crappy way to lose a quest. Favor of the Evenstar, hopefully, redresses the balance to some extent.
Watcher in the Water is… alright. I know there are a lot of players that quite like this quest, but it’s never really grabbed me. I’m definitely not a big fan of the “first letter of the card name” gimmick. My ambivalence is probably a factor in there not being a cool boon/burden for this quest, but it doesn’t really suffer for the lack, given the number of cards likely to be in play at this point in the campaign. If not for the limited number of card slots available (though the limitation is, granted, self-imposed) I’d probably try and get something in here.
The Long Dark is a quest that looks great on paper but usually doesn’t amount to much in play. An added Lost action, though certainly less deadly than the one added by the nightmare version of the quest, spruces things up a bit. I went back and forth on letting the players carry over the artifacts from this scenario and the next, but ultimately decided for it, as it’s just too cool not to. And, honestly, these come up rarely enough that it’s a bit of a non-issue.
Foundations of Stone is, of course, an excellent and innovative quest. I didn’t want to mess with it too much. The only wrinkle is making sure that the Secrets cards play nice with the encounter decks swapping in and out, which is one of the reasons why there had to be five of them, just in case.
Finally, the big bad showdown with the Balrog. No big changes on this quest, but this is where the narrative comes to a head. It’s a bit sloppy, of course, but I think I managed to smooth over the cracks well enough.
So, there you have it, the Dwarrowdelf campaign in its entirety. I was quite pleased with how this one came out, though it ended up going through quite a few changes as I worked on it. The original Secrets of Moria cards functioned quite differently, acting more traditionally with the players earning them one at a time and adding them to the campaign pool. This turned out to be… awkward. It involved off-loaded a lot of the rules onto the campaign and Secrets cards, with a lot of wasted space repeating them for every quest. I even made it so far as to get this version of the cards printed out before realizing that it just didn’t work. I’m a lot happier with the current version, as it works a lot more cleanly while preserving the feeling of mystery and danger. My only regret is losing the special shadow effects on the original cards, but it’s a small price to pay.
Next up, Gondor!
There are a couple of obvious difficulties when it comes to tying the core set and first cycle together into a campaign. It made for an interesting challenge to say the least.
First, the story and themes are all over the place during this cycle. First you’re running errands in Mirkwood then you recreate Aragorn’s hunt for Gollum, with detours that are more interested in recreating random moments from the books (Conflict at the Carrock, Emyn Moil, Dead Marshes) than in fitting into an overarching narrative. It’s not an insurmountable barrier, however, and I think I was able to fit the disparate pieces somewhat neatly together.
The second problem is that the quest mechanics are as jumbled as the narrative. The designers seem to be finding their feet on a couple quests in this cycle, and there are a few duds as a result. A lot of these quests were “patched” by the nightmare releases, but I’d imagine that many people don’t have those, and it would be nice to bring the fixes over for those who aren’t interested in the difficulty increase that comes with them.
My objectives, then, are clear: Find a narrative through-line that makes sense, and patch up the quests that don’t work as well as they should.
I decided to tighten the focus on the hunt for Gollum, as that seems the most logical path, since that narrative is pretty clearly referenced in the entirety of the six quest cycle. The second and third quests don’t really tie in at all, so I’ll have to do something about that, but it should work. Making the core set quests fit into the cycle is a bit tougher. The first two quests form a nice arc, but Dol Guldur is pretty much off on its own, and none of the three fit very well with the hunt arc. The prisoner aspect of Dol Guldur, bane of solo players everywhere, ended up being the missing piece. If Sauron’s busy searching for Gollum, it would make sense that the prisoner would be questioned about it. That works well enough for me to justify the continuity of the nine quests. It’s a bit awkward perhaps, but there’s only so much that one can do.
The first quest didn’t need a lot of fixing, but I decided to toss a few victory points on Ungulant’s spawn anyway, for two primary reasons. It never made sense to me that you could fight the “boss” enemy, only to have them shuffled back into the deck and emerge again, especially if you take the path which requires you to find and destroy it. The second reason is that it gives the heroes a reason to pick a fight, and injects the potential for a few victory points into a scenario that doesn’t have many. We also introduce the first boon of the cycle with Message from Thrandual. I like this card for a couple reasons, mainly because I think quest items are just cool but also because it solidifies the link between this quest and the next. I took inspiration from Alcaran’s Scroll and Book of Marzebol for this card, and resisted the temptation to do anything too fancy with it.
Next up is Journey Down the Anduin, a quest very fondly remembered by most players of the game and known as being one of the really solid quests which players return to again and again. It doesn’t need anything in the way of fixes, but, as I said, the carrying of the message here helps keep it narratively connected.
Dol Guldur was an obvious choice for our first burden of the campaign. Being interrogated by orcs and potentially nazgul in the depths of Sauron’s fortress is obviously going to have an effect. It certainly took on a toll on Thráin, as reported by Gandalf. Haunted by Shadow is probably a little too tame, and given the infamous difficulty of this quest I could have got away with something more harsh, but I didn’t want the player’s stuck with anything too tough, given that this is still just the first cycle of the game, and the overall difficulty curve is on the lower side. I think this card strikes a nice balance. The real trick was finding a way to squeeze all the necessary story text on the front of the card. Trying to get a hero ambushed in the forest, captured and tracked back to Dol Guldur all in the same of a couple lines is no mean feat!
Now the story begins in earnest. The Hunt for Gollum was one of my favorite parts of the campaign to design, as it all fit together quite easily. I love the twist introduced in the nightmare pack in which the orc hunters will try and snatch back the clue objectives, and knew that I wanted it in this version as well. It’s not as necessary a fix as some of the others, but it makes the quest feel a lot more dynamic and engaging to me, even if it takes effect only rarely. The trick here is that each clue acquired here is going to be carried over for the next four quests, which makes it feel a bit more important to get them all as opposed to picking up the minimum necessary. Anytime the players have a choice which will have future consequences is a fun moment to play, and even more fun to design.
Carrock is the quest at which the campaign really starts to make its effects felt on the individual quests. It’s also the point at which I get to start playing around a little with the mechanics of the game. The Time keyword and Side Quests are two big innovations which came out much later in the game’s lifespan, cycles 4 and 5 respectively. Bringing these concepts back to these early quests is a lot of fun, but it also neatly solves some of the problems of these saggy middle scenarios. Carrock and Rhosghobel both suffer from being disconnected from the overall narrative. They feel like distractions. The Hunt side quest and Timed Orc Trackers keep the narrative more present for the players, and give a sense of continuity to the experience. They also shake up a couple quests which have started to feel pretty rote for me and, I imagine, most experienced players. Our second boon is the recruitable Beorning, based of course on Grimbeorn himself.
Rhosgobel is probably my least favorite scenario of the cycle. It’s also the hardest one to fix. I’m not a fan of quests which involve digging around in the encounter deck for specific cards, and I can’t stand enemies like the bats as they restrict your deck building options far too severely for my taste. It’s not a terrible quest, but I’m not a fan. There’s another ally available here for the enterprising, which gives the players quite a little gang of buddies if they get them both. Rhadogast’s healing prowess also give a nice excuse to provide the players with the opportunity to ditch their Dol Guldur burden at last.
Emyn Moil is, to say the least, not the most popular scenario. It suffers from just not being interesting enough, with too few enemies in the encounter deck and not a lot of interesting locations. Adding another hunting orc spices things up a bit. It’s not the most interesting choice, being something of a repeat of a burden we’ve already seen, but it makes sense that the hunters from Mordor would meet up with those who have been tailing your party.
The Dead Marshes is another clunker. The nightmare patch gets moved over, and we slip another treachery related to Gollum into the deck. This is, or should be, the culmination of the players hunt, and they’ll doubtless be happy to see the last of that side quest after having it hang over their heads for three scenarios.
Return to Mirkwood isn’t a scenario which I did a lot with. Frankly, it’s got enough going on as is. At this point, the players should have a pretty substantial collection of gadgets, and with Gollum to deal with and orcs still hunting them, it’s enough to just let it play out. I didn’t attempt to do anything to fix the commonly cited problem with solo play. The reason for that, to be totally honest, is that I just don’t play one-handed solo. Frankly, the game doesn’t seem particularly optimized for it. A great deal of the challenge comes from the encounter deck cards combining in interesting ways, and player keywords like Ranged and Sentinel lose their usefulness.
Alright then, there you have it. On the whole, I’m quite pleased with how this turned out. I’m hoping to get some final feedback before having it printed. If you have a chance to take a look, please do let me know what you think!
Sure, BattleCON’s great, but you know what it really needs? More expansions and variants, of course! I mean, there are a thousands and one ways to play BattleCON, but there’s still room for more. The one thing that BattleCON doesn’t have is a multiplayer mode that I actually want to play. I mean, there are the boss fights and the ex/almighty fights, and the 2v2 team battles, but none of them really satisfy. The boss fights are more of a novelty, and the team battles feel cramped and honestly why not just play two games side by side? What I was trying to do with Melee was create a free-for-all BattleCON experience with 3-4 players that preserved the feeling and appeal of the standard game. The best way to do that, it seemed to me, was to open up the board, and take us into the third dimension.
But how could such a thing ever work? The back-and-forth movement system is pretty deeply baked into the game, how to translate that to a board with multiple planes of movement? The answer I came up with was pretty simple, but with works pretty smoothly and feels quite “BattleCON” to me. Essentially, each player secretly targets another player for their attack, everybody simultaneously reveals who they’re after at the beginning of the ante step, then resolves their turn as normal. Movement is done relative to the position of the target, which preserves the Advance/Retreat, Push/Pull system on the cards rather simply. The game has piles of unused tokens with different factions symbols on them, and the life spinners from Devastation share those same printed symbols, which worked out perfectly. When you set up the game, every other player takes one of the tokens with your marker on it, and there you go!
The only tricky bits are working out how to resolve priority clashes and movement across irregular lines. I cycled through a handful of different approaches to both these problems, but after a couple false starts and a lot of play-testing, the system I settled on seemed to work best. First, clashes only occurs if one of the tied players is targeting the other, in which case they clash as normal, with the other player switching targets if necessary to target the clashing player. This keeps things pretty dynamic, as a clash can result in a shift of target as well as forcing you to choose a new base. It also closes the loop on some weird exploits that were cropping before the target switching rule.
Movement was a little trickier. Like I said, the 2D plane in BattleCON is pretty much hard-wired in, and there are a lot of terms and variables to consider. A few too many, to be honest, as BattleCON doesn’t necessarily have the tightest rule-set in the world. My first impulse was to leave the rules up to the player’s discretion to a certain extent, as Melee is more of a chaotic party atmosphere than the very thinky and deterministic 1v1 match-ups. The system I initially used was a little too loose, however, and a revision was needed. What I settled on was this: When moving relative to another character, drop a ruler on the board which crossed the centers of both spaces. Any space bordering or crossed by that line is fair game. When given the option of two spaces, the player initiating the movement gets to pick. Passing over characters is done only if moving directly across their space, and two characters side-to-side block movement. This seemed like a pretty good balance of simplicity and precision, so I think that it will do the trick.
The final piece is the power-ups. I picked up the armory expansion because I’m a completionist dork lacking in self control. I don’t use it much, however, so anything I can do to make use of it is fine by me. The obvious inspiration for Melee was Nintendo’s Smash Bros, and bringing in the wacky items seemed like a good fit. They pop up on the board and provide a one-time boost to the person that picks them up. It also incentivises people to keep moving around the board instead of hunkering down in the corner.
So, there you have it, BattleCON: Melee. A fairly modest mod, to be sure, but a fun one, I think, for anybody interested in opening up this magnificent two-player game to a bigger group. You can grab it right here on the BGG.
I had something of an ulterior motive, however, in crafting this mini-expansion. The board, which I made by having a customer poster printed and adhering it to a spare Doomtown: Reloaded board, was something of a test. It worked magnificently, and looks great next to the boards from War and Devastation. Given how well it turned out, I’m ready now to print a board using the same method for my next fan-expansion, a far more complex and involved mod that I’ve been working on for more than a year and will be talking about here very soon…
So, you want to read some fantasy books, eh? Well, tarry not noble sir / comely wench, allow me to guide you through the dangerous mire of paperback crap with this helpful guide that I slapped together in half and hour because I thought it would be fun.
But never you mind that. Read on, if you dare!
There’s a special kind of magic which can only be found in novels of the fantastic. You open the doorway to another world and tumble heedlessly through. There’s a level of transportation found in fantasy novels that’s hard to come by in other genres. Historical fiction and Sci-Fi can scratch the itch but, for me, there’s no true replacement. In my misspent youth, I barreled through seemingly endless piles of fantasy books. Not just books, of course, but entire series. One fantasy book would never do, each must be part of a grand saga, an epic of titanic proportion. Trilogies? Ha! Eight books, twelve books, twenty books! There were no limits. The longer the series, the more I wanted it. The bigger the series, the deeper the pool, the more fully immersed you could become. Falling into other worlds.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that most fantasy novels are garbage. Just straight-up trash. In the sad light of grim adult reality, the fact becomes inescapable. You can’t go home again. Even if I had the time now to wade through nine or ten door-stopping tomes, I would likely find myself unable stomach the tedium. Probably more than any other genre, fantasy novels are beholden to a set of well-worn tropes and bland cut and paste world-building. Weak prose and dull characters are slightly more excusable in a science fiction story packed with innovative concepts and ideas, but suffering such failings for the sake of hearing yet another dialectic on elven architecture and dark magic is simply unacceptable.
So… is the genre a total write-off then?
Well, mostly yes. But not completely yes. Here are a couple bright spots, dull spots, and god-awful spots, as I remember them.
The Shining Jewels
Let’s start with the best why not? This is the good stuff.
The Lord of the Rings
Come on, you know it was gonna be here. Tolkien’s magnum opus is still a resounding triumph of form and style. Yes, it’s quite long-winded for such a relatively slim series, and yes it’s basically just an excuse for JRR to make up a bunch of fun languages, but there’s a core of truth here, a realness that transcends the failings of the text. All that walking gets to be a bit of a slog, and honestly I prefer the BBC audio-drama and the Peter Jackson films to the books themselves, but you can’t ignore this essential part of the cannon. It more than earns its exalted place.
The Paradise War
This one is going in here with a major caveat, that being that I’ve not read any of these books in far too long to make an accurate judgment of their quality. From what I remember, this is a truly great series that manages to pull off the whole drawn-into-another-world plot better than any other. If they’re as good as I remember, then they get my full-hearted recommendation. But they might not be.
The Witcher Series
Ah, the Witcher. My newest and greatest love. Yes, I was introduced to it by the video games. Yes, I’ve only read the translation. That said, I have quite fallen in love with this series, and it would be my first and greatest recommendation for anybody looking to explore the fantasy genre. It brilliantly rides the line between subversion and satisfaction, it’s packed with great characters, brilliant writing, and contains perhaps the best, most real romance I’ve encountered in genre fiction of any kind. I love it, and can’t say enough good things about it.
These are the series that start strong and run out of steam. They get a recommendation, but that recommendation comes with an expiration date. If you want to keep going past that, you’re more than welcome to do so, but beware.
The Wheel of Time
Ah, the big granddaddy of modern fantasy. First, let’s get some stuff out of the way: Robert Jordan is not a spectacular prose stylist. His plotting and characters are right out of the standard playbook, and he writes them with irritating tics. Cue braid tugging/skirt straightening joke. That said, there’s a lot to love here. A rich sense of place and an uncommon weight to the character’s struggles. He’s not exactly great at the whole man/woman thing, but he gets a lot of points from me for how head-on he is about tackling it and involving it in the narrative. For this one, you’re going to have to call your own stopping point, but if you get to book ten and still feel like going you have my pity. It’s been a long time since I read this one, but I’d estimate that you don’t want to go further than six or seven.
The Black Company
Hm. How to talk about The Black Company. As far as I’m concerned, this series right here is the one true standard-bearer of dark fantasy. A haunted, Gothic world of impossible misery and foulness peopled by the most mercenary bunch of cutthroat bastards you ever did see. The first book is a hallucinogenic nightmare, beaten onto the page. This is not a fantasy novel, it’s a phantasmagoria of Vietnam flashbacks carved into sheets of dirty steel. The second book is a gorgeously bleak small-scale story about small and scrabbling people crawling in the muck as the world falls down around them. The third book is a fantasy novel. So are the fourth and fifth. It is to weep. As fantasy novels, they’re not bad, but nothing here lives up to the glorious heights of the first book, which is a true masterpiece of outsider art. Everybody should read the first book. The sequels are increasingly optional.
A Song of Ice and Fire
You know, Game of Thrones. It does pain me to put this series in this category, but it cannot be helped. Martin clearly set out to upend all the convention and stultified dross of the Robert Jordan era, and he succeeded brilliantly. The first three books in this series are unimpeachably fantastic, and deserve every bit of praise which has ever been lobbed at them. They’re great books, and belong in every fine home library. Then he stumbled, he committed the gravest of Jordan sins: he fell in love. When you’re writing an epic like this, you have to be brutal with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you love your world, the story is all. As it stands now, the series is lost in a brier of meandering plots and pointless digressions. It is expanding outward, bereft of momentum, and increasingly resembles a muddy puddle of tangled plot-lines. A true and enduring shame to see the brightest new star brought blistering to earth under the weight of its own success. Oh, and the TV show sucks.
Avoid At All
No. Just no. Do not read these.
The Sword of Truth
The worst. Do not read this. Do not think about reading this. It is bad.
The Dragon King Saga
I’m shocked that I recall the existence of this series well enough to form any opinion on it. It’s amateur garbage.
I would like to say that these books are good. Sadly, a return perusal informed me that they are very much not. I still hold out a faint hope of returning to these and finding them to be not so bad, but I doubt I’ll find the time. Consider this one a tentative dismissal.
The Chronicles of Naria
Weak. So weak. Basically it’s crap invented to brainwash children. I mean, it’s not as bad as a lot of this other stuff, but I don’t like it at all so here it goes.
All the Star Wars Books That Timothy Zahn Didn’t Write and Some That He Did
Yes, I’m counting these as fantasy. No, I’m not going to talk about them anymore. They’re bad.
Basically Everything Else
Fantasy is a crap genre which attracts terrible writers. You know, like Piers Anthony. Beware.