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A Travel Guide to LOTR LCG

by on May 14, 2013

john_howe_middle-earth_gandalf the grey

One of the accepted truisms among players of LOTR LCG, including myself, is that locations are at the bottom of the encounter deck nastiness totem pole. Enemies are problematic for obvious reasons, while treacheries often contain some of the worst effects in a given scenario. Locations, by contrast, are often far more benign. Still, this does not mean that a player should totally ignore locations altogether. Failing to deal with locations can lead to “location lock”, where the threat in the staging area becomes so high that it becomes impossible to clear out the active location, thus leading to threat spiraling out of control and eventual defeat. Locations can also set you on a path away from victory in a more subtle way: by preventing quick quest progress and stretching out games so that you end up being swamped with enemies and treacheries that ultimately kill you.

With this in mind, a valuable skill for players to develop is sharp decision-making regarding locations. More specifically, a player should hone a strong sense of when it is appropriate to travel to a location and when it is better to leave it in the staging area. This also includes being able to decide between several locations and determine the best travel candidate on a given round. Because locations are often viewed as the least worrisome of encounter cards, the travel phase can sometimes become an afterthought, eclipsed by the quest and combat phases. This is appropriate, but it’s important to remember that even the smallest edge can increase your success rate. Therefore, this shortish(?) article will seek to provide a few tips and suggestions for determining the best travel strategy when dealing with various locations. Before I begin, I will give a short caveat and say that there is no iron-clad rule or set of rules that you can follow and always make the right choice when it comes to travelling and locations. There are too many variables for this sort of thing, and I’m thankful for that, as such predictability can render a game boring. That being said, hopefully these general pointers can guide you in a positive direction. Here we go then, a travel guide in five parts:

Disclaimer: I will be completely ignoring card effects and card text for the first four points in order to just focus on the numbers and keep the variables simple. I will then bring up the issue of card effects and address the whole picture in point #5.

1) The threat-to-progress ratio is the baseline for making travel decisions.

This is a concept that I have referenced in previous articles without delving into it in much depth. Just like it sounds, the east bightthreat-to-progress ratio is the difference between the threat contributed by a location and the quest points required to fully explore it. This ratio is important because it provides your best pure guideline as to which location you should travel to, or whether you should travel to a location at all. The East Bight from the Core Set provides a classic example of a lopsided threat-to-progress option, in this case heavily weighted towards progress, as it contributes only 1 threat but requires a whopping 6 quest points to explore (of course, in this case you are forced to travel to it, but the raw numbers provide a good example of the concept).What you should understand is that whether a location is in the staging area or sitting as the active location, it detracts from quest progress either way. For example, the Great Forest Web provides 2 threat and requires 2 quest points to clear. If it is in the staging area, then its threat will cancel out 2 willpower and thus result in 2 less progress tokens towards the quest than if it was not present. On the other hand, if the Great Forest Web is the active location, then it will soak up 2 progress tokens that would’ve been put on the quest stage. This is essentially the same outcome. However, there a couple of important differences: 1) any progress put on the active location on a given turn will reduce its strength as a buffer on subsequent turns while a location will continue to contribute the same threat every turn if it remains in the staging area (barring any player intervention through card effects) and 2) clearing out an active location removes it permanently from the game, while leaving it in the staging area means it will continue to act as a net drag on progress as long as it is in the staging area (i.e. If the Great Forest Web stays in the staging area for five rounds, then it has led to 10 fewer progress tokens over the course of a game).

2) Generally, if the threat-to-progress ratio is weighted more towards threat, then you should travel to that location.

This is based on simple math and an understanding of the threat-to-progress ratio from #1. If a location reduces quest progress both when it is in the staging area and when it is the active location, then it makes sense to keep it in the spot where it will have a smaller impact. If a location has a high threat, and only requires a few quest points to clear, then traveling to it will mean that it will be less of a drag on questing then if it remained in the staging area. The East Wall of Rohan, with 4 threat and 2 quest points required, is a good example. Since traveling can lead to permanently clearing out a location, there is no strong incentive to avoiding travelling in such an instance, barring an especially harmful travel effect. Thus, if you have a choice between locations, then, all other things being equal, you should travel to the location with the threat-to-progress ratio that tilts most towards threat. For example, imagine that you are faced with the following locations from The Watcher in The Water quest:

* Stair Falls (2 threat, 4 quest points)

* Perilous Swamp (4 threat, 2 quest points)

* Stagnant Creek (3 threat, 3 quest points)

In this case, Perilous Swamp has the threat-to-progress ratio that is most tilted towards threat, and thus is probably the best travel candidate (Stagnant Creek would be second and Stair Falls last). In case of ties, the higher threat locations take priority. You generally want to steer clear of traveling to locations that require a great deal of progress to explore (unless you  are purposely trying to slow down the pace of a quest).

* Note: An important exception to this rule is when you have cards available that can put progress on locations in the staging area, such as Asfaloth or Northern Tracker. In those cases, it makes sense to keep locations that require 3 or fewer progress tokens in the staging area.

3) However, exceptionally high threat locations are an exception to guideline #2 in some cases.

Although the threat-to-progress is a useful guideline, locations with high threat require special consideration. To illustrate why, let’s take the Watcher in the Water scenario again and this time imagine that Stagnant Creek was actually a 5 threat location with 5 quest points. Let’s run through two possible paths and see what happens:


Round 1:

Staging Area: Stair Falls, Perilous Swamp, Stagnant Creek

Active Location: None

Progress Buffer: -11

Travel To –> Perilous Swamp

Round 2:

Staging Area: Stair Falls, Stagnant Creek

Active Location: Perilous Swamp

Progress Buffer: -9

Travel To –> Stagnant Creek

Round 3:

Staging Area: Stair Falls

Active Location: Stagnant Creek

Progress Buffer: -7



Round 1:

Staging Area: Stair Falls, Perilous Swamp, Stagnant Creek

Active Location: None

Progress Buffer: -11

Travel To –> Stagnant Creek

Round 2:

Staging Area: Stair Falls, Perilous Swamp

Active Location: Stagnant Creek

Progress Buffer: -11

Travel To –> Perilous Swamp

Round 3:

Staging Area: Stair Falls

Active Location: Perilous Swamp

Progress Buffer: -4


As you can see, while the difference is small in this particular case, traveling to the high threat Stagnant Creek location first, despite its slightly more unfavorable threat-to-progress ratio compared to Perilous Swamp, actually yields a better result. This is because, as mentioned earlier, high threat locations that remain in the staging area will act as a substantial drag over the space of several turns, while traveling gives you the opportunity to get rid of them quickly, minimizing the net effect. A good rule of thumb is that if there is a location that has a higher threat than the location suggested by the threat-to-progress ratio, then that might be a possible exception to guideline #2.

4) Locations can be an obstacle to gaining action advantage over the encounter deck.

So far I have been talking about locations as if they literally steal progress tokens from out of your pocket. However, the reality is often that locations do not actually end up costing you progress but rather action advantage. To understand this, you must realize that a 2 threat location in the staging area will cost you 2 willpower worth of characters, assuming you don’t want to lose ground against the quest. Similarly, an active location that requires 3 quest points to clear will cost you 3 extra willpower worth of characters than would otherwise be necessary. In this way, locations force you to devote more characters to questing and less to combat, subtly eroding any possible action advantage. So when deciding to travel to a location or not, or when choosing between several locations, always keep in mind the impact it will have on your subsequent turn in terms of actions. Note that this is one reason why I continually sing the praises of Secret Paths. That card is powerful not just because it cancels threat and can lead to more progress than otherwise would be possible, but because it also can be used to gain action advantage. For example, using Secret Paths to cancel the threat of a 4 threat location during questing could allow you to put that 4 willpower worth of characters towards combat, if you so desire.

5) Location effects complicate the picture, but the basic principles hold.

All of the above guidelines are all well and good, but fortunately this game is not just a math exercise or puzzle, and this is true of travelling and locations as well, because of the existence of “forced”, “when revealed”, and “travel” effects. A particularly gruesome effect may change your decision-making completely, so that you end up prioritizing a low threat location with high quest points. Conversely, you may choose to throw the threat-to-progress ratio out the window because you want to reap a positive benefit from a location in play. Both cases make perfect sense, but make sure that you really need that goodie or really can’t live with that effect in play, enough so that it is worth the cost in progress and actions. If you can wait, then do so.

How do you choose which effects to deal with first when selecting from multiple locations? This is an art in itself and can’t be boiled down to simple criteria. It all depends on the composition of your deck, the balance of forces on the table, and where you are in a particular quest. Therefore, I’ll just give a couple of concrete examples to illustrate what the thought process can look like when dealing with effects.

CASE #1: Emyn Arnen Overlook vs. Morgulduin

* Emyn Arnen Overlook (2 threat, 5 progress required): The first Scout enemy revealed from the encounter deck each round gains surge and doomed 2.

* Morgulduin (1 threat, 3 progress required): While Morgulduin is the active location, it gains: “Forced: When a character commits to a quest, deal 1 damage to that character.”

Both of these are particularly nasty locations from The Massing at Osgiliath. Both locations have a threat-to-progress ratioemyn arnen that is weighted towards progress required, with Morgulduin having slightly more favorable numbers. However, the higher threat of Emyn Arnen Overlook might make it a better travel candidate. The picture isn’t complete, though, without looking at their respective effects. The Emyn Arnen Overlook has a nasty recurring effect that takes place as long as it is in play, whether it is in the staging area or is the active location, granting “surge” and “doomed” to certain enemies. On the other hand, Morgulduin’s effect only occurs when it is the active location, but causing 1 damage to questing characters is brutal. Which to travel to first? In this case, despite the 5 progress required to clear Emyn Arnen Overlook, I would make it the active location first, because its effect is continuous as long as it is in play, and the surge and doomed can dramatically change the balance of forces on the table. Once I finish with it, I can handle Morgulduin at my leisure, as its effect only activates when it becomes the active location and the low threat of 1 and threat-to-progress ratio that is weighted towards progress required makes it a good candidate to leave in the staging area permanently.

CASE #2: Harbor Storehouse vs. Pelargir Docks

Harbor Storehouse (1 threat, 4 quest points): Forced: Each time a location is discarded from the top of the encounter deck, raise each player’s threat by 1.

Pelargir Docks (4 threat, 3 quest points): While Pelargir Docks is the active location, enemies get +1 [Attack] and +1 [Defense].

These two locations from the Heirs of Numenor expansion are problematic for different reasons. The Pelargir Docks would be the location of choice to travel to because of its high threat and threat-to-progress ratio that is weighted towards threat. However, the Harbor Storehouse has an effect that applies whether it is in the staging area or is the active location, while the Pelargir Docks location only occurs when it is the active location. What should I prioritize in this case? A favorable threat-to-progress ratio or clearing out a location with an “in play” effect before one with an “active location” effect? It actually depends on the state of play, because the effects impact different areas of play. The Pelargir Docks effect gives a boost to enemies during combat, so I will avoid traveling to it first if I will be facing enemies on that turn that will gain too much of a benefit for comfort. On the other hand, if I am on the verge of threating out, I may travel to the Harbor Storehouse first to get it out of play as quickly as possible. All other things being equal, I will travel to the Pelargir Docks because of its favorable threat-to-progress ratio.

This concludes A Travel Guide to LOTR LCG. I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of travel considerations, but this should serve as a basic foundation. It is a very simple part of the game in some ways, and often you’ll find the active location choosing itself, particularly as you get more experience with the game. However, at other times, matters get more complex as you have to balance a bunch of different factors at once. While travelling does not get as much attention as the more glamorous aspects of the game, managing it smartly might just give you the leg up you need to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

From → Strategy

  1. Tiandes permalink

    Nice artcile, but you should use a different location then Perilous Swamp for your example for point 3).

    Since you can’t put more then 1 progress token each round on it, your calculation doesn’T add up. And usually it’s the last location you want to travel too if face with other choice like in your example (you can’T even get rid of it with Asfaloth and other location-dealing cards).

    I know, you were using it for example sake, but since LOTR is already a complex game, you should use cards according to all their specifics.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Fair point. My intention, which I should’ve made more clear, was to completely ignore card effects and card text for the first four points in order to just focus on the numbers and keep the variables simple, and then bring up the issue of card effects with point #5. I felt that tackling all elements of locations from the very beginning would bog down and distract from the individual points I wanted to make. I’ll edit in a disclaimer to that effect. As a side note, Perilous Swamp is an interesting case as its effect actually warps its threat-to-progress ratio.

  2. AstonsPapa permalink

    I think maybe I misunderstood a rule somewhere (FFG website I believe) I thought the locations had to be explored in the order which they were drawn?

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      You can choose the order in which you travel to locations, thankfully, as it adds another layer of strategy to the game. There are a few locations that force you to travel to them first, but this is part of their card text.

  3. sweetnesswhachacha permalink

    Good article. Travel is one of those things that helps this game feel unique. But you are right, much less of a decision than quest or combat.

    Location lock, as you describe it, is one of the weaknesses on the shadows of mirkwood cycle. I felt like you had to include northern tracker, which meant you had to have spirit heavy decks (for the 4 resources ), I felt like a lot of quests came down to if northern tracker made it into your opening draw or not. Which is a weakness in a game of deck building I think. These later APs have gotten much better about it.

    Even though it takes the decisions out of some of it, I love into the pit, the inclusion of the cave torch, dark locations and thematically entering Moria.

    But you are right, too much threat in the staging area, you can’t get past the current location which in turn spirals things out of control.

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