Oct 9, 2017

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review

Since the official release date of Middle-earth: Shadow of War is tomorrow, this feels like a good moment to say a few words about its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, or, to those of us who play the Lord of the Rings living card game, The Morgul Vale: the video game.


John Howe: In Mordor, 1989.

**

I've been playing the Xbox One version, so strictly speaking this is a review of that. Set between the events of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, you play a Gondorian ranger on a quest to avenge the death of his family at the hands of one of Sauron's captains. You're accompanied by an elven wraith, who provides conversation, superpowers and a special wraith sight mode. In practice, the easiest way to describe the game is Arkham Mordor; it's basically Arkham City, but in Middle-earth.


For anyone unfamiliar with the Arkham series, a concise definition of Shadow of Mordor would be a third-person open-world fighting/stealth game. You explore a game world where you find various collectables and complete missions to advance the plot. You can sneak and parkour around and stab orcs in the back, shoot them with a bow or just straight up fight them with your sword. Mêlée combat is handled with a "rhythm-based" system where you build up strike combos while countering your enemies' attacks. It looks great and is good fun; I found the system a little bit more forgiving than Arkham's.

What makes Shadow of Mordor special is what's called the Nemesis system. The game world is mostly populated by randomly generated orcs doing orc stuff, like bossing slaves around and so on. Some of these orcs are captains, and each of them has a name and a distinct personality, created through a random selection of strengths and weaknesses.

This actually manages to create some fairly memorable characters. For instance, I can assure you that I do not have fond memories of Mogg the Massive. Through a fortuitous combination of traits, he was impossible to kill quickly, and when his health got dangerously low he'd hightail it out of there far more quickly than anyone called "the Massive" has any right to.

In the early game, the orc-captains are challenging opponents whom you'll meet more often than you'd care to. When one of them manages to kill you (they will), they'll be marked as your nemesis, and gain power and possibly new abilities. The captains are part of a hierarchy where they're constantly trying to advance their position by boosting their power or straight up killing each other, and you get occasional opportunities to interfere in this, and eventually start turning the captains on each other to your advantage.

The Nemesis system is, in a word, brilliant. Not only does it give you personalized opponents, but it's dynamic enough to make the game world so much more alive. At best, it creates a level of creative chaos I haven't seen in an open-world game since GTA San Andreas, and that's really something.

The only real complaint I have about the orcs is that they're green, wear kind of patchwork armor and have fairly prominent underbites. When you add the fact that their dialogue was written (well) by Dan Abnett, there are times when the game veers surprisingly far into Warhammer territory.

**

So it's a fun game to play. But how is it as a Tolkien product? I'll discuss this in two parts: setting and story.

Unfortunately, the setting takes egregrious liberties with the timeline. To start at the beginning, Talion serves on the garrison of the Black Gate. Quoting from Appendix B of the Lord of the Rings, the watch on Mordor was abandoned in the year 1630 of the Third Age - that is, 1630 years after Sauron was overthrown. For context, Gondor still had a king then. He refers to Minas Ithil, which apparently also appears in the sequel; Minas Ithil fell in TA 2002. The Black Gate, as depicted in the game, was built by Sauron after his return to Mordor, so it never had a Gondorian garrison.

Because Talion encounters Gollum in Mordor, the game can be dated very specifically: it has to be set between Gollum losing the Ring and Aragorn capturing him in the Dead Marshes. Gollum was captured in TA 3017. In Appendix B, "Gollum reaches the confines of Mordor" in TA 2980. So when Gollum came to Mordor, the Gondorians had abandoned its fortifications over a thousand years ago. It's not entirely clear from the description in Chapter 2 of the Lord of the Rings how old Gollum was when he found the Ring in TA 2463, but assuming he originally had a similar lifespan to hobbits from the Shire, if he was a young adult at the time he might have been in his fourties or fifties; it wouldn't be unreasonable to suppose he was born around TA 2400. So even Gollum never knew Minas Ithil.

To make a long story short, the game takes two entirely separate times in the history of Middle-earth and mashes them together. In the timeline of the books, Gollum was as far from the Gondorian garrisons of Mordor as we are from Charlemagne. There's just no way the two can be shoehorned together. In a sense, there's also a third time: in the game, Sauron is still in the process of retaking Mordor. This happened long after the watch on Mordor was abandoned, but was long complete by the time Gollum got there. By analogy, this is like making a game set in North America where a Spanish conquistador looking for El Dorado meets Jesse James in a fallout shelter.

This is kind of a shame, but unlike some other nominally Tolkien-based products, at least they've taken things that exist in his works - just not at the same time - and created their own adaptation based on them. And it's a good adaptation at that, because I think they've created a phenomenally good take on Mordor.

In the first part of the game, you adventure around Udûn, which is fairly desolate but not completely waste; there are bushes and even some trees, and ruins of Gondorian forts. I was reminded of the description of the Morgai given in the Lord of the Rings:

Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2: The Land of Shadow

The Udûn you visit in Shadow of Mordor seems to me to be exactly that: dying, but not yet dead. If you take the setting as representing Mordor before Sauron had fully repossessed it, I think it works excellently.


The other main game area is Nurn, briefly described in the Lord of the Rings:

Neither he or Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Núrnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 6,
Chapter 2

I'll admit I was always fascinated by Mordor, and especially Nurn: to see something of how Sauron's realm operated outside the volcanic hell of Gorgoroth that Frodo and Sam trudge through. Again, if you go with the confused chronology where the game is set during Sauron's retaking of Mordor, this is an excellent take on Nurn: the orcs are still in the process of subjugating the land, the slave plantations have yet to be built, and nature hasn't been thoroughly devastated yet. Visiting Nurn in Shadow of Mordor is a memorable experience, made poignant by the fact that the locals' resistance to Sauron is ultimately in vain.


The only real mistake in geography that I spotted on my playthrough was in the dialogue after finding the Ornate Cameo in Nurn, where Talion remarks that not all the rivers in this land flow into the Sea of Núrnen, which means that the people living there could escape west. This is not true; on the maps in the Lord of the Rings, all the rivers in the south of Mordor are unambiguously depicted as flowing into the Sea of Núrnen. It would be difficult for them to flow up a mountain range anyway! I think the developers must have become confused in their geography, which also explains why there's a river called Poros in Nurn. Tolkien's Poros is the old southern border of Gondor, and flows west from the Ephel Dúath, meeting the Anduin below Pelargir. Talion's statement, together with the Poros on the game map, would suģgest that the developers thought the Poros flows from the Núrnen to the Anduin. This wouldn't make sense, as the Sea of Núrnen wouldn't be salty if it had an outlet to the ocean - and anyway the Poros in the game flows into the Sea!

The only other thing that flat out makes no sense whatsoever is how a former corsair and her daughter have high-elven names.

**

As for the story, I don't really want to go into too much detail, because I honestly recommend this game and I don't really want to spoil it. In general terms, though, if I thought that the setting was thematically very good, I can report - to my great surprise - that the story is not only excellent, but very Tolkien indeed.

As I mentioned already, the character you play is a Gondorian ranger who's been more or less possessed by an elven wraith. Obviously there's no direct precedent for this in Tolkien - or at least in his published works. However, in the early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, elf-wraiths make several appearances. Here's an early rendering of what was probably meant to be a conversation between the then-protagonist, Bingo Baggins, and Gildor:

In the very ancient days the Ring-lord made many of these Rings: and sent them out through the world to snare people. He sent them to all sorts of folk - the Elves had many, and there are now many elfwraiths in the world, but the Ring-lord cannot rule them; the goblins got many, and the invisible goblins are very evil and wholly under the Lord; dwarves I don't believe had any; some say the rings don't work on them: they are too solid.
- in Christopher Tolkien, The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part 1: The Return of the Shadow, HarperCollins 2002, p. 75

So the idea of elf-wraiths was by no means completely foreign to Tolkien; the Three only acquired their separate status much later. In the first version of the verse of the Rings, the Nine are the elven-rings:

Nine for the Elven-kings under moon and star,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Three for Mortal Men that wander far,
  One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
  In the Land of Mor-dor where the shadows are
- The Return of the Shadow, p. 269

Speaking of rings, when I discussed the Council of Elrond, I tried to underline what I think is one of the most important philosophical themes of the Lord of the Rings: power corrupts. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the Enemy's tools will never dismantle the Enemy's house. This being the case, when Talion's wraith buddy starts talking about how you need to use the Enemy's tools against him in order to defeat him, this should be a huge red flag to everyone that there's something going on here. As there indeed is.

The plot of the game centers around revenge. Several characters in Tolkien's works are motivated by revenge, and it never goes particularly well. One of the most prominent examples has to be Túrin Turambar, who set out to avenge the crimes of Morgoth against his family. If you don't know how that ended up working out, enjoy the Silmarillion, but mild spoiler: he could have done better. So in Tolkien's world, revenge doesn't work out, ends don't justify means and power corrupts. In Shadow of Mordor, you play an undead ranger hell-bent on using any powers he can lay his hands on to wreak his vengeance on Sauron's lieutenants.

I get that the beginning of the game is so generic fantasy / Dragon Age-y that it's possible to accept the protagonist at face value as some kind of "dark fantasy" hero, and his quest for revenge as a good thing. But if you stop for even a moment to think about what's going on, anyone with so much as a nodding familiarity with Tolkien's works should fairly quickly figure out that Talion is no hero. I'm not even sure he qualifies as an antihero, because by the end of the story he's pretty much straight up a villain. His pursuit of vengeance and Command is far more demented than Boromir's worst hallucinations, and even Túrin never led a mind-controlled orc-army. As for his wraith pal, it's worth remembering that in the Lord of the Rings, the mightiest of the elves - most prominently Galadriel - resist the temptation of the Ring and of power. Shadow of Mordor, and especially the Bright Lord DLC are what happens when they don't.

From a Tolkienian perspective, then, Shadow of Mordor isn't one of those American action movies where a crime happens, and then massive male violence is deployed in retribution and everything becomes okay again. On the contrary, the story of the gane is a horrible crime, followed by the fall of the protagonist into evil. The Shadow of Mordor in the title is the one Talion falls into, cheerfully helped along by several parties very much interested in Rings of Power.

This makes for a very dark game, but a strongly Tolkien one and a compelling story. Combined with the very well-executed setting, I was led to completely break with my usual habits and finish the game very quickly. I can't name a single other comparable open-world game where I wanted to advance the main quest like this. So whereas I strongly recommend Shadow of Mordor as a video game, it's also an absolutely excellent Tolkien adaptation. I'm more than willing to overlook playing fast and loose with the chronology and being confused about the Poros when the thematic content of the game is so spot on.

**

To sum up, I was very positively surprised by Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Like I said earlier, a sequel is imminent. Based on what we've seen of it so far, I'm cautiously optimistic. On the positive side, it looks like they've taken the Nemesis system and scaled it up so that instead of fighting individual orc-captains in Udûn, you're now recruiting your own orc army and conquering strongholds in Mordor. Because again, nothing says "we're the good guys" like leading armies of orcs while wearing a Ring of Power.

I kind of like this, actually, because it seems remarkably similar to what Boromir wanted to do with the Ring.

"The Ring would give me power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner!"

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.
- The Lord of the Rings, Book 2, Chapter 10

The potential problem I see with it is that judging from the gameplay footage, while the game looks fun, it also looks much more like Mount and Blade: Warhammer than a Tolkien product. The warhammerisms in Shadow of Mordor I can live with, because the setting and story are so strong around them. Shadow of War, on the other hand, looks like it's going off on such a distant tangent from the source material that I wonder if it'll have much to do with Middle-earth any more. Still, though, if it ends up being a Warhammer game, the odds are it'll be much better than anything Games Workshop ever licensed.

Oct 2, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 37: Lothlórien

'Alas! I fear we cannot stay here longer,' said Aragorn.

The Fellowship is in Dimrill Dale, mourning Gandalf. They head east, hoping to escape the orcs, and do a little desultory sight-seeing as they pass the Mirrormere. When they strike the Silverlode river, Aragorn explains his intention to head along it to the elven-woods of Lothlórien.

As they trek along, the wounded Frodo and Sam fall behind. Luckily Legolas notices, and Aragorn calls a halt so their injuries can be tended to. Frodo protests, but Aragorn takes off his jacket, revealing Bilbo's mithril-coat. Gimli is especially astonished; he recalls Gandalf's passing remark that the coat was worth more than everything else in the Shire, and reckons that Gandalf undervalued it.

With the hobbits bandaged up, the Company continues on their way. As night falls, they near the outskirts of Lórien. Frodo thinks they're being followed, but Gimli hears nothing and believes the orcs aren't chasing them. Boromir protests entering Lórien, saying that they've heard of the Golden Wood in Gondor, and its perils. Aragorn assures him that there is peril in Lórien only for the evil.

The Company crosses the Nimrodel, and Legolas sings a song about a lady who missed a boat. As they're looking for a place to camp, they run into some elves: Haldir of Lórien and his brothers. Having heard from Elrond, they knew to expect the Fellowship, but they're troubled to find a Dwarf among them. Eventually it's agreed that if Gimli is blindfolded, he can enter Lothlórien.

The Fellowship spends the night sleeping on platforms in the trees, where the elves are keeping watch. There's a commotion at night as a company of orcs passes by on the ground, and a pale-eyed shadowy figure tries to climb Frodo's tree, but is scared off by Haldir.

The next morning, the Company heads south and the elves set up a rope-bridge across the Silverlode river. Sam has the hardest time, but everyone makes it across to the other side, where they have an argument. Gimli not unreasonably points out that he never agreed to be blindfolded and resents the whole thing. The elves won't budge, so Aragorn resolves the issue by having them blindfold everyone. This obviously ticks off Legolas, but eventually they all set forth with their eyes covered. It's a smooth walk, though, and the next day, word reaches them from the Lord and Lady of Lórien that the blindfolds can come off. They then do some sightseeing in Lórien before heading off to meet the Lord and Lady.

**

Somehow this chapter feels as if the whole book was still a little dazed after losing Gandalf, with the Fellowship almost passengers on their own quest. The narration feels a little like the Hobbit in this respect.

Boromir's protests at entering Lórien feel strangely out of place here. I mean it makes sense that a warrior of Gondor would be uneasy about the magical elf forest - but he's just left Rivendell and is traveling with Legolas. It seems bizarre that the elves of Imladris and Thranduil's son are just fine, but this Lórien place is right out.

I mentioned ages ago that Tolkien has a thing for dramatic river crossings, and there's two of them here: the Nimrodel, which washes "the stain of travel" from Frodo, and then the Silverlode, which is maybe the most epic crossing of them all, with Haldir's rope-bridge and Sam's uncle Andy.

As soon as he [Frodo] set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more.

In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world.

In short, Lórien is Faërie: the magical land beyond time. Tolkien professed a distate for Celtic mythology, but Faërie - the diaeresis is Tolkien's - made it into his portrayal of the elves, most directly in Lórien. When the Irish hero Oisín visited Tir na nÓg, where he thinks he spends three years, but in the reality he left behind, 300 years have passed. Thus Aragorn:

"Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth," he said, "and here my heart dwells ever, unless there is a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!" And taking Frodo's hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as a living man.

**

Next time: more elves.

Sep 18, 2017

Rogue Trader: Star-Lord alternate career rank

Obviously this is a parody, we have no rights to anything, you know.


Required Career: Any.
Alternate Rank: Rank 2 or Higher (10,000 xp)
Other Requirements: Charm, Fel 30+
Traits: Characters selecting this Alternate Rank receive the Ravager Implants trait.

Star-Lord Advances Prerequisites in italics

Awareness +10 200xp Awareness
Barter 200xp
Blather 200xp
Carouse 100xp
Charm +10 200xp
Charm +20 300xp Charm +10
Deceive +10 200xp Deceive
Evaluate 200xp
Forbidden Lore (Archeotech) 200xp
Performer (Dancer) 100xp
Pilot (Personal) 200xp
Pilot (Personal) +10 200xp Pilot (Personal)
Pilot (Personal) +20 200xp Pilot (Personal) +10
Search 200xp
Security 200xp
Silent Move 200xp
Sleight of Hand 200xp
Tech-use 200xp
Trade: Archeologist 200xp

Gunslinger 500xp Two-Weapon Wielder (Ballistic)
Hard Target 300xp Performer (Dancer)
Hotshot Pilot 500xp Pilot (Personal)
Peer (Underworld) 200xp
Pistol Weapon Training (Universal) 300xp
Two-Weapon Wielder (Ballistic) 300xp BS 35, Agility 35

Void Accustomed 200xp Pilot (Personal)
"I'm Distracting You" 500xp Charm +20, Performer (Dancer)

**

Ravager Implants

The character is equipped with arcane archeotech implants that allow them to function in the yawning void. When the implants are deployed (counts as a Free Action), the character is immune to the effects of vacuum, cold and radiation as if they had the Machine trait, and can freely move in zero-g and vacuum environments using the Pilot (Personal) skill.

Void Accustomed

As the Void Born starting trait (core rulebook, p. 19): immune to space travel sickness, zero- or low-gravity environments not considered difficult terrain.

"I'm distracting you"

Once per combat or similar conflict situation (GM'd discretion), at the beginning of a round, the character may make an opposed Challenging +0 Charm or Performer (Dancer) test versus the highest enemy Willpower score as a Reaction. If the character succeeds, they win Initiative that round and all enemies act last. In addition, all enemies suffer a -10 to their actions that round, increased by -10 for each degree of success. If the character fails the test, count their Initiative as zero for that round. At the GM's discretion, enemies with the Machine trait may be immune to this Talent.

Sep 11, 2017

War of the Ring: Warriors of Middle-earth review

While War of the Ring is a fantastically good game, its expansions can also be fantastically hard to get hold of. Their rarity means that when I was lucky enough to see a copy of Warriors of Middle-earth at our friendly local game store, I pretty much bought it immediately. Warriors adds six factions to the game, effectively taking event cards from the base game, like ents, and expanding them into full factions with figures on the board, which the players can activate and mobilize for the war. It also adds a couple of new event cards to replace the ones that got removed; most notably, the Free Peoples get The Western Way, which opens up a whole new route for the Fellowship.

If the expansion works, it should add some very welcome depth to the game; if not, it'll make an attractively simple game overly fiddly and complicated. The only way to find out is to try it!


John Howe: Corsairs, no year given

**

Last time, we tried a three-player game where I played as Saruman, but the hobbit terrorists managed to destroy the Ring. This time, I represented the Free Peoples against two players sharing Shadow duties. The game itself was another narrowly run thing; the Shadow reached 11 victory points when Lórien fell, with the Fellowship two steps away from the Cracks of Doom. So at least the expansion hasn't seemed to change the balance of the game dramatically!


Crucially, we did get to deploy several factions: the Eagles helped out the Free Peoples by chasing the Nazgûl and contributing to the defense of the Woodland Realm, while the Dunlendings stormed Helm's Deep, the Corsairs landed at Dol Amroth and a spider ate Faramir at Pelargir.


Above, background: Eagles chase the Nazgûl away from the Fellowship; foreground: the Uruk-hai and their Dunlending allies take Helm's Deep.

The way factions work is that each of them has an activation condition: the Eagles and spiders, for example, can be brought into play with a Muster die as soon as the Fellowship is no longer in Rivendell. As soon as at least one faction is in play, that side rolls a Faction die with its Action dice, which lets you play or draw Faction cards, or recruit more figures or new factions. Faction cards are a new kind of Event card that you draw and hold in hand separately from the other Event cards. These offer some ways to get factions into battle, but the most important way is Call to Battle cards, which you can add to your hand and play as combat cards to involve factions.

This all feels a bit fiddly at first, but once you work it out, it begins to proceed quite smoothly. The Faction card deck is probably, for our money, the least succesful part of the expansion: especially as the lone Free Peoples player, you keep drawing cards that affect factions that aren't in play at all yet, and even when they do, the effects aren't usually that powerful, so they start getting overlooked in favor of the much more impactful Character and Strategy cards. Some abilities are also contingent on managing to draw the right Faction card: if you want your army in Umbar to make an amphibious descent somewhere, you're basically stuck until you manage to find a copy of Ships of Great Draught in the Faction deck. So this isn't a great mechanic. Sadly, this tends to make factions a bit of an afterthought in actual play, with the Faction die almost invariably the last one to be used in a turn.

Having said that, though, even if factions very much play second fiddle to each player's main forces, it certainly doesn't mean they don't add anything to the game. Of the Shadow factions, the Dunlendings were particularly succesful: they can be recruited to join Saruman's armies and used as cannon fodder in the assault on Rohan, which is pretty much spot on thematically and worked well in the game. The Corsairs were held back by the lack of an appropriate Faction card, but as soon as it showed up, they made a dramatic descent on Dol Amroth and captured it. The spiders mostly served as auxiliaries to the armies of Sauron, but their ability to specifically attack leaders and Companions is actually surprisingly nasty!

On the Free Peoples side, the only faction that saw play this time were the Eagles, but they were excellent. They helped whittle down the army besieging the Woodland Realm, chased away some Nazgûl and bought a little more time for Lórien by negating the Witch-king's leadership in a crucial battle. Their home base at Eagles' Eyrie lets them help out from Erebor to Lórien. It'd be a strange set of circumstances if the Free Peoples player didn't find it worth their time to use a Muster result to get the Eagles in play.

**

If I have one complaint to make about the base game, it comes down to the action dice. One aspect of War of the Ring that we quite enjoy is that at the beginning of the game, the event cards you draw serve to direct the game in a way that you can never fully anticipate. As an extreme example, if as the Free Peoples player you were to draw The Western Way and Fear, Fire, Foes as your first cards, you'd be highly tempted to have the Fellowship head west! Even though the starting setup is always the same, the event cards, and to a lesser extent the action dice, create a random element that strongly enhances gameplay.

At the end of the game, though, the inherent randomness of the action dice can really hamstring the Free Peoples. In our first game with the Warriors expansion, for instance, I arguably lost the game due to a string of Hunt tiles with the Reveal icon on the Mordor track, combined with dismal rolls of nearly all Muster and Event. I was using an Elven-ring per turn just to be able to move the Fellowship even once, while the Muster and Event results were damn near useless at that point in the game. I've similarly had an attempt at a Free Peoples military victory founder on a lack of Army or Character results, leaving my armies sitting on their hands outside crucial Shadow strongholds. To add insult to irony, there's a late-game character who can change Muster dice into Army dice: the Mouth of Sauron. The Free Peoples could really use some kind of parallel ability.

**

To sum up, though: we liked Warriors of Middle-earth, and we'll be using it in our future games of War of the Ring. While the factions can sometimes feel like a bit of an afterthought, on the whole they're a positive addition to the game and they don't overencumber it.

Now if I could just find a copy of Lords of Middle-earth somewhere...

Sep 4, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 36: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

The Company of the Ring stood silent beside the tomb of Balin.

After a moment of silence for Balin, the Fellowship start trying to figure out what happened to him. By both doors of his burial chamber are a pile of bones, weapons and other detritus of battle, and next to a plundered chest lies the remains of a book. Gandalf, together with Frodo and Gimli, starts figuring out the book, which turns out to be an account of Balin's Khazad-dûm reclamation project. Balin set up his throne in the Chamber of Records, which is where Gimli reckons the Fellowship is now. In the fifth year of the colony, Ori begins keeping record, and relates Balin's death, shot by an orc. From then on, the chronicle is a tale of defeats at the hands of the orcs and drums in the deep, ending in a dramatic scrawl: "they are coming".

Right on cue as they finish reading, a massive drumbeat booms through the room and horns sound in the hall: the orcs are coming. The Fellowship makes a stand in the Chamber of Records: Frodo stabs a troll in the foot with Sting, Sam gets a cut in his forehead but kills the orc, and the rest of the company accounts for a dozen more. As the survivors of the first wave retreat, the Fellowship make a break for the other door. As they do so, an orc-chief bursts in and stabs Frodo with a spear. Aragorn kills the orc and grabs Frodo, and the Fellowship runs for it.

Boromir shuts the door, but it can't be locked or jammed. As Gandalf stays behind to seal the door, Frodo shocks everyone by protesting that he's all right and can walk. Led by Aragorn, the Company makes their way down a long staircase. Soon, a flash of light and a sound of collapsing stone heralds the return of Gandalf, who resumes the lead.

They keep going for an hour, with no sound of pursuit except distant, muffled drum-beats. As they pause for rest, Gandalf explains that he had tried to put a shutting-spell on the door, but something came into the chamber and cast a counterspell that nearly killed him. Gandalf then spoke "a word of Command", and the strain blew up the door and collapsed the chamber. Frodo's health is queried and he again insists he's fine.

As the Fellowship gets going again, they soon spot red light in the distance. They come to another broad hall: to the left is the Bridge and beyond it the East-gate, to the right a deep crack in the floor with fire and smoke coming out of it. The fire is between the Fellowship and their pursuers, so they run for it. Soon they're at the Bridge: it's a desperately narrow stone bridge over a massively deep chasm, without rails or anything to stop an unwary walker from falling to their death. It's explained in the text as "an ancient defence of the Dwarves". The Company hasten to cross in single file.

As they're beginning to make their way across, the orcs catch up with the Fellowship. Two trolls throw down stone slabs across the fiery crack, but what terrifies Gimli and Legolas is the dark, man-shaped creature shrouded in shadow that leaps the fissure and bursts into flame: a Balrog, Durin's Bane; the evil the dwarves awakened and that nearly destroyed Gandalf with a spell. The Fellowship flees across the Bridge, where Gandalf confronts the Balrog. They exchange blows with their swords, and Gandalf strikes the bridge with his staff. The staff breaks, the bridge collapses, and the falling Balrog yanks the wizars down with it. To the sound of mournful drum-beats, Aragorn leads a weeping Company of the Ring charging out of Moria - without Gandalf.

**

This is a fairly short, action-packed chapter, with a very dramatic finish. The tragedy of Balin is revealed, along with the broader tragedy of Moria, the Fellowship meets a memorable monster, and Gandalf is lost.

I can hardly write about this chapter without tackling the great debate: does the Balrog have wings or not? The answer is easy: yes. Here are the pertinent bits of text:

His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings.

The most natural reading here is that the "wings" aren't really wings, but some kind of semicorporeal shadow, which the Balrog is described as being surrounded by. However, two paragraphs later:

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

Here the case is reversed: reading this whopper of a sentence, it takes extraordinary effort to not come away with the impression that the Balrog has wings - whatever it is that they actually are! The argument has been made that the first instance of "wings" is a simile - it describes a shadow like wings - and the second instance takes up that simile as a metaphor. In this reading, we are to assume that it is the shadow of the Balrog that stretches from wall to wall.

To me, this is a strange reading. Tolkien doesn't use similes directly as metaphors like this anywhere else, and it's a strange linguistic device anyway, especially in a text that, archaisms apart, doesn't really use very complicated metaphor structures. Consider the following invented passage:

Miss Donahue entered the study, carrying a golf club on her shoulder as if it were a rifle. She sat down, and looked over the papers on the desk. She then carefully laid the rifle down on top of them.

Are you really willing to accept that the object Miss Donahue laid down on the desk is the golf club she walked in with? Or would you not rather suspect that either the author has become terribly confused, or that what was initially described as a golf club was, in fact, a rifle all along? I find the idea that the kind of simile-metaphor transition where what she laid down was, in fact, a golf club, is a perfectly normal and straightforward thing to be preposterous.

The way I understand the passage is that the Balrog's appearance is malleable. There are several examples in the Lord of the Rings of characters who seem to change appearance, to the extent that it almost qualifies as a Tolkien trope. The first instance is in the opening chapter, where Bilbo threatens Gandalf:

Gandalf's eyes flashed. "It will be my turn to get angry soon," he said. "If you do that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked." He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.

At the Prancing Pony, Aragorn "stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller". The Nazgûl and their horses are terrified by Glorfindel "revealed in his wrath". In the previous chapter, as Gandalf defended the Company from wolves:

In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill.

During the encounter at the bridge, the Balrog's appearance similarly changes several times. At first, it is a shadowy form, which then bursts into flames. Its shadow grows, then its fire "seemed to die, but the darkness grew". It then draws itself up, and its wings are spread. The way I read this is that the Balrog is surrounded by some kind of shadow which it can to some extent control, or which changes shape by some other logic. This shadow includes two distinct appendages which stretch out behind it, and which Tolkien calls wings. Therefore, the Balrog has wings. What they are is never specified.

Whether the Balrog can fly or not never really comes up, because it doesn't seem to have occasion to. When Gandalf destroys the bridge, the Balrog's main interest seems to be to fight Gandalf, so it falls and drags Gandalf down with it. For that matter, we also don't know if it can speak, or indeed a whole lot else at all. We know that it's a shadowy and fiery big bad guy left over from Morgoth's ancient wars, and it really wants to fight Gandalf. Especially since it's presented in a dwarven context, the Balrog strongly recalls the fire-giants of Norse myth.

It's tough to figure out just how big the Balrog actually is. It's first described as "of man-shape maybe, yet greater", and after all, it managed to fit into the Chamber of Mazarbul. However, when it draws itself "up to a great height" and spreads its wings, it seems to dwarf Gandalf. I'm not sure if, say, Gandalf actually ever grew or shrunk in size, or if it was an illusion. Similarly, maybe the Balrog is the same size all along, and the apparent changes are more to do with how scary it is. But in my opinion, the text clearly describes the Balrog as having some kind of shadow-wings.

**

In the previous chapter, the Watcher in the Water grabbed Frodo, and in this one, an orc-chief stabs him. In both cases, it's at least suggested that they might have been deliberately going after the Ring-bearer. By contrast, the Balrog completely ignores Frodo, and seems fixated on fighting Gandalf. Likely it either wasn't aware of the Ring or didn't care about it. It's interesting to consider what might have happened if the Fellowship had fallen in Moria and the Ring had ended up with the Balrog. This isn't explained in the Lord of the Rings, but the Balrogs belonged to the Maiar: the same order of beings as Gandalf and Sauron. Both Sauron and Durin's Bane were ancient followers of Morgoth. Would the Balrog have returned the Ring to Sauron? Or would it have claimed it for its own, to further whatever designs it had nurtured over the millenia in the deeps of Moria? I think the latter. At least it's make for a much more interesting story.

**

Next time: elves, trees and poetry.

Aug 21, 2017

CKII: The sun sets

Last time on Crusader Kings II, I got myself well into the 13th century and secured the Empire of Suomi. Unfortunately, my prospects for further expansion weren't great, because I think that's what you call a blob right there:


Luckily for us, though, the Justanids to our south collapsed; less luckily, the Byzantines and Hungarians were quick to the spoils.


The nobility provided some entertainment.


This, however, is where we ended up. The empires of Suomi, Byzantium and the Mongols carved up what used to be the Justanid shahdom, and then it was just the three of us.


Below, the three great faiths: Christianity, Islam and "Suomenusko".


And as a curiosity, the trade republics and the Silk Road.


But every story has an end, and here's this one's.


**

So, that was a long slog, but it ended well. I hope I've made it abundantly clear how much I love this game. It's sort of stealthily worked its way up my all-time favorites list to an almost alarmingly high position, and I'd strongly recommend it to any and all fans of strategy games who are willing to figure out how it works. However, having said that, the end of a gruelingly long campaign seems like a good place to also talk a little about the game's shortcomings.

First and foremost, maybe mainly due to my academic interests but also just in terms of gameplay, we really need to talk about the combat system. I discussed it a little in my previous post, but to recap, there isn't really a whole lot that you, as the player, can do about combat. Tactics are the preserve of the computer, so all you can do is appoint capable leaders and try to have an advantageous army composition. The latter is done by building buildings in your holdings and hiring retinues, so this is long-term work. What little operational art there is basically consists of tricking the AI into attacking into rough terrain across rivers. Finally, strategy is really a matter of cold math: calculating when you have the advantage and attacking when you do.

As combat systems go, this isn't all bad: many strategy games, foremost in my mind the Civilization series where armies are still essentially chess pieces, are much worse. But frankly, war in Crusader Kings II is clinical and boring, and there's not much meaningful scope for player skill.

The fellow Paradox named their strategy engine after maintained, quite correctly in my mind, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. It's kind of a double irony, then, that if the warfare leaves a lot to be desired, the politics themselves are almost completely absent. By this I mean diplomacy, in the sense of relations with other states. There pretty much isn't any. The only real diplomacy is dynastic marriages, which result in non-aggression pacts that can be parlayed into alliances. You don't really have diplomatic relations with other realms: either you're at war or not, and while at peace, there's basically no interaction, and perhaps most importantly, no trade to give you any reason to not be at war. The Reaper's Due adds a Prosperity mechanic which rewards you for being at peace, but does nothing to redress the complete lack of diplomacy.

This spins off onto another pet peeve related to my academic background: while I like that religions are prominently featured in the game, the way inter-faith relations work is deeply unfortunate. While different religions have a rich variety of different ways to declare holy wars on each other, their opportunities for peaceful interaction are even fewer than those between rulers of the same faith, because with very rare exceptions, AI characters from a different religion won't even consider marrying "infidels". This means that interactions with rulers and realms of different religions are practically nil. This is partly why my latest game ended so boringly: there wasn't really anything I could do to come to some kind of terms with either my Muslim or Christian neighbors. Not only is this boring, but it's completely unhistorical. The time period covered by Crusader Kings II certainly had more than its fair share of religious conflict, but throughout - even in the crusades the game is named after - there was also peaceful interaction: trade, cultural exchange, interfaith marriage and much, much more. It's a really unfortunate choice by Paradox, and one not without political dimensions in this day and age, to concentrate so heavily on religious animosities, to the almost total exclusion of peaceful relations.

**

So, having said all that, I'm currently reading John Keay's India: A History, in preparation for a game on the subcontinent with Rajas of India. Later, I intend to get Conclave and Monks and Mystics, and try a new game in Western Europe, just to see how much the game has changed from my Irish days. So certainly none of these shortcomings are keeping me from playing.

Even this game has a finite life, though, and it's been suggested that Monks and Mystics will be one of the last major DLCs. If and when there's a sequel, and I'd gladly pay money for one, I do most sincerely hope that the developers would look at the areas of the game I've highlighted above. Crusader Kings II is a great game, but Crusader Kings III could be so much better.

Aug 14, 2017

Let's Play Magic: the Gathering: Mind vs. Might Duel Decks

I mentioned ages ago that before we got into this whole living card game thing, the previous time I played any kind of card game that wasn't either bridge or poker was with a Magic: the Gathering Ice Age starter set.


The thing about Magic is that as near as I can tell, Richard Garfield pretty much invented the modern collectible card game. All the other card games we play, whether Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or Arkham Horror, use mechanics that are functionally almost identical to those in Magic. So you might even go so far as to say that this is also a project of historical interest.

This summer, I happened to find what I think is a Revised Edition Mountain card hanging around our summer cottage. I used it as a bookmark, which is probably what made the idea of playing again start to grow on me.


So eventually the inevitable happened. If I remember my university classes correctly, Islamic theology maintains that everyone is born a Muslim, but not everyone manages to stick with it. Therefore, one does not convert to Islam but rather returns to it. Something similar seems to be true about Magic; at any rate, I, too, returned.


Our friendly local gaming store had some 7th edition starter sets hanging around, and we grabbed one. The starter set gives you one blue-white deck and one red-green one, with a booklet explaining the rules. Ours was a Finnish edition, and I have to say that the translation was very well done! The rulebook gives a reasonably good walkthrough to a sort of pre-scripted game; once it leaves you on your own, though, my blue-white deck had the edge in some surprisingly powerful creatures, and my partner ended up being overrun by bunnies.


We were also given a pair of 2016 Welcome Decks for free, so our FLGS really treats us pretty well. Admittedly this already added up to a reasonable total of cards to get started with, but I figured we could do better. Duel Decks seemed the best way to get stuck in with more contemporary Magic, and I picked the Mind vs. Might Decks to kind of go with our Lord of the Rings decks; since my partner plays mono-Tactics, the red-green Might deck seemed like the best match, while the red-blue Mind deck was close enough to my favorite sphere, Spirit.

In our first game - the first time I played Magic with real cards this millenium - I got off to a decent start before being destroyed by Rubblebelt Raiders. Knew I should've kept that Rift Bolt in reserve...


The second time around, it was my turn. First I got Young Pyromancer out, which meant a pile of Fire Elementals, and then I set up a combo of several spells next turn followed by Empty the Warrens; at the end of the turn, I controlled seven Fire Elemental tokens and eight Goblins, which promptly overran my opponent.


Next time, I lost in fairly short order, but I did get to drop a meteor on a tree, so it wasn't all bad.

So far, then, our limited testing bears out what I'd read about the Mind vs Might duel decks online: especially the Might deck is accessible to new players, and most of the time Mind will lose, unless it can pull off a spectacular combo and win by miles. Most importantly, especially if you know the above going in, it's damn good fun.

**

I also quite enjoyed Magic Duels on the Xbox, until about a month before Hour of Destruction came out, it was abruptly announced that it would no longer be supported. This is just a weird decision; they had no replacement to announce, but suddenly decided to pull the plug on the previous project anyway. Like the community, I too was surprised and disappointed, as I'd been looking forward to Hour of Destruction on Duels. Admittedly I hadn't spent any money on it, but frankly, if support for their video games is liable to just vanish into thin air with no warning, why would I? Surely the point of a free-to-play Magic video game is to advertise the physical product. Duels was doing pretty well at that.

Now, though, with no new cards coming and the AI opponent endlessly stuck playing the same Amonkhet staples, Duels feels pointless. Instead, I went and got Elder Scrolls: Legends, also a free-to-play collectible card game.


Legends is like Magic, except your mana increases each turn instead of having lands (which is like Hearthstone?), you can't play cards in the other player's turn (which is boring) and creatures are played into one of two lanes. It's not bad, actually!

**

Thanks to Magic: Duels, though, my partner fell in love with Filigree Familiar, so we now also own a Kaladesh bundle.


I have no objections to this: I used a number of Kaladesh cards in Magic: Duels, and I also quite like the art. For example, Kaladesh includes what I think is my favorite Mountain, an almost Roerichesque piece by Eytan Zana.


Because co-op games are our real passion and neither of us has any real interest in competitive play of any kind, our Magic hobby will mostly be a collecting one, which puts a premium on pretty cards.

**

So, reviews. The 7th edition starter decks were all right. My main complaints are that the card choices really aren't very inspired, especially if the aim is to use these sets to introduce people to Magic. Also, the way our decks were stacked, the Silver deck won overwhelmingly and the Gold player just had nothing they could really do about it. So not ideal. However, I do have to mention the translation again, because it's just very good compared to the kind of thing you usually find in products like these. So that, at least, was a pleasant surprise. Basically the starter set did a pretty good job of walking a new player through the basics of Magic, but with surprisingly boring cards.

Magic: Duels was actually pretty good, but then it was discontinued in such a callous way that it's kind of hard to see the point any more. The Elder Scrolls: Legends is better, and I guess we can expect it to be around for a while? Maybe? Anyway if you're into things like Magic I'd give it a shot; the story mode is an enjoyable enough experience. Also, by the way, several of the Legends cards are pretty enough that I'd be quite happy to buy actual physical copies.

Finally, the Mind vs Might duel decks were good fun, and at least for us, an entirely reasonable way for a new player and a very rusty one to get stuck in again. I'm pretty sure you could do a lot worse for a first or returning purchase to contemporary Magic.