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The Steward’s Fear: Scenario Review

by on May 28, 2013

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When you’re the Steward of Gondor and your beloved city is threatened by a dark conspiracy, what do you do? Summon a trusty band of heroes, and let them hit the streets like Middle-Earth gumshoes, that’s what. After all, what could wrong when adventurers come to Minas Tirith, it’s not like they’re going to depose you and install the rightful King of Gondor in your place. Err…moving along, last time around I reviewed the powerful player cards to be found in the brand new Adventure Pack, The Steward’s Fear. In this article, I’ll be reviewing the scenario itself. How does it hold up as an adventure and as a challenge for your band of intrepid heroes? Read on to find out!

Theme

The story behind The Steward’s Fear is certainly intriguing. Denethor has summoned our heroes to his chambers after hearing of their exploits at the Siege of Cair Andros. He is concerned that there is a conspiracy afoot in the White City to sell out Gondor to the Enemy. The task set forth for our heroes is to investigate the seedy underbelly of Minas Tirith in order to unravel this web of deceit.

So how well does the scenario actually represent this story? Certainly, some elements of the scenario design are positively dripping with theme. The most noteworthy is the inclusion of three different villains and three different plots (i.e. the conspiracy you must unmask). Not only does this provide variability and replay value to the quest, but it also gives you the sense that you are truly uncovering a hidden nemesis rather than simply going through the motions of investigating what you already know. This was cleverly done. Part of me wonders, however, what it would have been like if you were forced to physically “uncover” the villain by searching for him at different locations, which would have introduced an element of surprise to his or her arrival on the scene (of course this would have to take place in the final stage, to prevent an early reveal and anti-climactic ending). In the end, the designers probably made the right choice though, as such a mechanic might have prolonged a quest that can already houses of the deadfeel lengthy.

Another thematic hit was the use of underworld locations like sewers, the roots of a mountain, and yet another shady tavern. The designers decided to include several unique locations, two of which you are forced to travel to either during set-up or at a certain point of the game. While such linear design can feel unwelcome in a video game, and in many cases in board and card games as well, in this case the introduction of a bit more story-driven linearity is actually helpful in giving a greater sense of narrative to LOTR LCG. Although I love this game to death, there are times when you forget that you are playing through a story and it is easy to simply get wrapped up in mechanics and strategy. The use of unique locations, having those locations pop up at certain scripted moments, and even placing cards from a separate underworld deck at locations, all enhance the theme of the scenario.

Are there any thematic misses? For the most part, theme is one of the strong elements of this scenario, but I did feel that the mechanic for moving between quest stages felt a bit arbitrary. For those who haven’t played the quest yet, during the first two quest stages, you do not place progress tokens during questing as normal. Instead, every time you explore the active location, you place one resource token on the quest stage. After there are four resource tokens on the quest, you can progress to the next one. The clues that you are able to find by exploring underworld locations enable you to either directly put resource tokens on the quest (to represent gaining information about the villain and his/her plot) or progress tokens on the active location. While this worked  fine in practice, it felt a bit strange to me, in terms of the story, that I could uncover the plot without unearthing a single clue. Instead, I could just explore a series of essentially meaningless locations, say a bunch of City Streets, and still get all the information I need. I can fill in the thematic picture myself by imagining that those city streets contain a bunch of talkative citizens who can be pumped for information, but there still seemed to be a level of disconnect. Perhaps requiring players to obtain a certain amount of clues could have been an alternative method of progressing through the quest stages. However, this might have put the player at the mercy of Lady Luck to a greater degree, as players have experienced in other quests that require you to find objectives to progress, although this would have been mitigated by the much smaller size of the underworld deck (it only contains 12 cards).

Overall, though, I would have to say that this is truly one of the most thematic quests that has been released for the game thus far. Its focus on narrative does require you to do a bit more set-up and keeping track of mechanics, but it doesn’t reach overwhelming levels.

Rating: ♦♦♦♦

Encounter Cards

The encounter cards from The Steward’s Fear are not necessarily the most challenging you’ll find, however they do introduce some new considerations and thematic flavor. I won’t cover every single card, but did want to pick out 3 of the most notable to cover:

A Knife in the Back is a treachery that forces you randomly select 1 ally controlled by the first player. That ally inflicts damage a knife in the backon a hero equal to its attack value, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the ally is then discarded. I absolutely hate and love this card at the same time. In terms of theme, this card is magnificent. What investigation of a shady conspiracy would be complete without betrayal by someone within your ranks? It can throw up some odd narrative moments though. Once, my trusty horse, The Riddermark’s Finest, decided to turn his coat and bite the hell out of my back, or at least leave a solid hoof-print there. I guess Sauron promised better feed. Another time, Gandalf himself went all Saruman on my heroes, and it just didn’t feel quite right. Overall, though, this treachery creates a sense of unpredictability and danger that forces you to consider what allies you have on the table, and what damage each might do if they were seduced by the Enemy. This definitely puts you in the mindset that The Steward’s Fear is aiming for, as it provides a sense of paranoia and danger to the quest. As a card effect, I often choose to cancel it using A Test of Will or Eleanor, more so in order to avoid losing a valuable ally. I also avoid putting high attack allies on the board if I don’t have cancellation available and my heroes can’t handle that level of damage (be aware that it is possible to draw a couple of these during the same staging in multi-player games or with the Unholy Alliance Plot, and the first player is always the target).

False Lead is a treachery that ends the quest phase without resolving the quest. There has been some debate as to whether this means that the quest phase (including staging) should immediately end or just that there is no quest resolution step at the end of the phase. I tend to believe that it is the latter, and this is how I have been playing it so far. I’m fairly lukewarm on this card. I can understand the narrative of pursuing a false lead and thus losing a turn’s worth of investigation, but in game terms, False Lead often just feels like it is prolonging the quest in a way that isn’t very enjoyable. However, there are times when you’ll actually be glad to see this treachery, as it can save your bacon if you were about to fail the quest. In fact, a little scrying may allow you to see this coming and hold back your characters from questing. 

Unwelcome Discovery is yet another treachery. This one forces you to reveal 1 card from the underworld deck. It also has the dreaded “surge” keyword. Given the composition of the encounter and underworld decks, Unwelcome Discovery usually equates to adding an enemy (from the underworld deck) to the staging area and revealing a location or treachery. This card can be extremely frustrating, mostly because it can throw off your questing calculations and suddenly introduce a great deal more threat to the staging area than you had anticipated. It is also fairly common, if you’re revealing multiple cards during staging, to get a few of these in a row, creating a chain of cards that can give you a headache faster than a troll club to the skull (as a side note, the artwork on this card always makes me laugh; I think it’s supposed to depict a troll being discovered by accident and looking fierce, but it looks more like it is embarrassed and slightly frightened at being found). At times, however, this card will be a dud, as you’ll simply reveal a clue card, which gets discarded.

It’s no surprise that treacheries are the most notable elements of the encounter set for The Steward’s Fear. The enemies, including those from the Brigands and Streets of Gondor sets that also make up the encounter deck, are fairly weak and easily dispatched for the most part. There are several locations included, but they are defined by the underworld mechanic, and aren’t particularly interesting in and of themselves.

Rating: ♦♦◊◊

Replay Value

The replay value of this quest is extensive. With three different villains to face, along with three different plots to uncover, The up in flamesSteward’s Fear rewards multiple playthroughs in order to experience the various combinations. For example, in one game I faced  Telemnar’s Bane, who forces you to discard 3 cards from your deck when he attacks. Normally, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, as losing cards from your deck is often the least of all possible evils, but I also happened to have drawn Up in Flames as the plot, which requires you to discard cards from your deck at the end of each round, a number that increases each turn. As the final kicker, if you ever have no cards in your deck, you lose the game. Suddenly, my oh-so-clever draw engine that tore through half of my deck in the first half of the game didn’t seem so clever, and actually ended up costing me the game. However, in another situation, I faced Telemnar’s Bane again, but this time he was paired with the Unholy Alliance plot, which reveals an additional card during staging. In this pairing, the deck discarding effect of Telemnar’s Bane barely rated as an annoyance and I easily dispatched him. I should say, however, that this does mean that your experience of The Steward’s Fear and the difficulty of the quest can vary greatly depending on the villain/plot combination you draw.

Rating: ♦♦♦♦

Mechanics

The Steward’s Fear is defined heavily by the underworld mechanic. A small deck of 12 cards, consisting of the enemies from the Brigands and Streets of Gondor sets, along with 3 clue cards, forms the underworld deck. Whenever a location with the “underworld” keyword enters play, a certain amount of underworld cards is placed underneath it, to be revealed when that location is explored. How much you enjoy The Steward’s Fear will likely be heavily linked to how well you think the underworld mechanic works.

A positive aspect of the underworld mechanic is that it adds an extra layer of strategy to the exploration of locations. Usually, travelling to and exploring locations is a fairly mundane part of the game that is decided on quickly so that players can move on to combat. However, in The Steward’s Fear, you often have to be strategic about not only which locations to explore, but when to explore them, as getting rid of an underworld location also means adding new cards to the staging area, which will likely be enemies. This mechanic also introduces an interesting separation between enemies and locations/treacheries, as since there is only one enemy type in the actual encounter deck, usually you are only going to be revealing locations and treacheries during staging (however, the previously mentioned Unwelcome Discovery treachery can change this dynamic). If you know that no underworld locations will be explored on a given turn, you also know that enemies will likely be in short supply. This means you can strategically manage your level of questing and how many characters you commit with a fair degree of certainty to how much combat you’ll face, especially when compared to most other quests. However, such predictability does take a bit of the edge and danger off of staging. One negative of the underworld mechanic is that while it does convey the idea of exploring the dark places of the city, there isn’t much that is exciting to discover there. Either you’ll encounter some enemies that you might be sick of seeing from Peril in Pelargir or you’ll discover clues that let you place tokens on the quest. Admittedly, neither is that exciting. It would have been nice to see some more flavor and more surprises thrown into the underworld deck to really make exploration feel engaging.

Rating: ♦♦◊◊

Difficulty

It is hard to accurately pin down the difficult of this quest, as it does vary depending on the plot/villain combination you happen to draw. For example, for some odd reason of fate or chance I tend to draw the Unholy Alliance plot 9 times out of 10, which reveals an additional card during staging. In my opinion, this is the most difficult of the plots, although the increased threat of daughter of beruthielPoisoned Counsels can also be ruinous without proper threat-reduction (especially when paired with the Daughter of Beruthiel). One of the weaknesses of the quest, actually, when thinking about the plots and villains, is that the former are so much more formidable than the latter. The villains really hit the right notes in terms of theme, but as antagonists they leave something to be desired. I have yet to feel a real pang of fear when any of the villains hit the table, and have dispatched all of them in one or two turns at most. (SPOILER ALERT!) Perhaps this fits the overall narrative, as these villains are not the big bads of the cycle, simply lieutenants (SPOILER ALERT ENDED). Overall, when viewed as the first pack in a larger cycle, I’m ok with the villains in The Steward’s Fear not being absolute monsters, as there needs to be somewhere for the story to go in terms of increased peril.

Beyond the villains and plots, the enemies in the quest are on the weaker side, especially after facing the foes of Into Ithilien and The Siege of Cair Andros. A deck that is suitably prepared for combat can handle almost anything that this quest throws at it in terms of fighting, especially since the shadow effects will not boost attack values all that much. The main source of difficulty instead will be in mustering enough willpower to clear out locations and the staging area, and avoiding threat increases. The couple of times I was defeated by this quest came down to threating out, and the one instance of the Telemnar’s Bane/Up in Flames decking out debacle. In general, however, once you nail down the right strategy, this quest comes down as easy-to-moderate difficulty.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

Anticipation for The Steward’s Fear was extremely high after so many months without an Adventure Pack. While such expectations can often lead to disappointment, and I have seen signs of such negative reactions to this pack throughout the various forums covering the game, I myself have found it enjoyable and something that I will likely return to in the future. It certainly won’t join the ranks of The Hills of Emyn Muil and The Long Dark as scenarios that I only bring out when I start feeling sorry for them. On the other hand, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of my favorite scenarios, like Foundations of Stone, Conflict at the Carrock and The Watcher in the Water. However, time is the true test, and we’ll see how The Steward’s Fear rates in several months. For now, I can heartily recommend The Steward’s Fear as a safe buy for any LOTR LCG player. The player cards give new players a fighting chance against the game, while the scenario itself provides a healthy replay value that justifies the purchase.

Overall Rating: ♦♦♦◊

Look out TftC readers and LOTR LCG players, Druadan Forest should be hitting retailers this week!

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10 Comments
  1. Thaddeus permalink

    I finally got to play this quest last night. We also got Up in Flame and Telemnar’s Bane, but none of us had a really powerful card-draw engine going so it wasn’t a big deal, but I could certainly see the potential for trouble there.
    Over-all I find myself echoing your sentiments, the *Under*world Deck was a little *under*whelming (ha ha), but in the end it’s a really cool quest with a fairly reasonable attempt at making “investigation” an element of the game with a solid theme and a nice level of replayability.

    In a four person game we beat it pretty handily, but with fewer players I could see how someone could get overwhelmed with enemies and/or locations.

  2. Thaddeus permalink

    “In fact, a little scrying may allow you to see this coming and hold back your characters from questing.”

    I think this is actually kinda cool, in that encounter deck scrying is purely the providence of the Lore sphere and it is “lore” that would let someone know if they were on the right trail or not. (Although, I think it should also add the active location back to the staging area.)

  3. Glaurung permalink

    Hmmm try to play Long Dark with 3 or 4 players. You will see this quest is really cool! For solo and 2 players game LD encounter deck just cannot sue the idea. Yes is the bad design sure but in 3-4 players game LD is very cool.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I’ll have to try that out. I’ve only played it solo or 2 player, and it’s been over in a flash.

  4. Landroval permalink

    Thanks for your in-depth review.

    I too wondered about the False Lead treachery card but couldn’t find much online when i was wondering (about a week ago)

    The way i play is that you ‘end the quest phase immediately’, i.e. the next action you take, will be part of the travel phase. The card serves for you to needlessly exhaust characters, but on the plus size, if you were to quest unsuccessfully, you would not get the threat increase. Is this right?

    re: the quest, i think it’s great, i do think with Darrowdelf they put the strongest scenario first (Redhorn Gate) and i imagine they have done the same this time around (?).

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      It definitely is up for interpretation. Either way, you definitely don’t raise your threat if you quest unsuccessfully, as that is part of the resolution step. The big question is whether or not you end staging immediately. Hopefully, we’ll get official word on this fairly soon.

      • Landroval permalink

        Never had it come up as the first of two quest cards, but i suppose it would make sense to stop drawing. A bit of a weird card in that a doesn’t really overly hurt the player, and seems like its actually helping (but i don’t think it is)

  5. Chris permalink

    @Landroval, Redhorn Gate the best? I would think Watcher or Foundations. With Redhorn I think the theme is great, but requirement to need victory points makes it sometimes broken if those points get discarded as Shadow Cards. You can see an example of this happen in the COTR Podcast playthrough.

    • Landroval permalink

      True, but in that respect, I think it captures the feeling of being lost in a blinding snowstorm up a mountain pretty well!

  6. Landroval permalink

    I am just getting back in to LOTR LCG and wondered if anyone found a solo deck to beat all the plots and enemies consistently. I have tried a Leadermir, hirluin, Samwise outlands deck which has never done the trick and a Legolas, Spirfindel and Eowyn deck which has won about 1 in 4.

    Anybody got any surefire winning decks?

    thanks

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