The Black Riders: Heroes Review
The official release of The Black Riders is coming ever closer, and I know those of you out there who are waiting to get your hands on a copy are dying of anticipation. Fear not, as your patience will soon be well rewarded. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I will be devoting a lot of space in this blog to The Black Riders, including a multi-part review of the player cards and an in-depth exploration of Campaign Mode. This may be showing my hand a bit early, but I have to say that The Black Riders is, without a doubt, my favorite expansion that has yet been released for this game. It also happens to be a challenging experience, without being so frustrating that you want to build a pyre out of your collection. In this article, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the four new Hobbit heroes that are included in the box, while in subsequent parts, we’ll review the allies, attachments, and events.
Before beginning our hero review in earnest, I do want to mention that there is a fifth Hobbit hero included in The Black Riders: a second version of Frodo hailing from the brand new Fellowship sphere. However, I’m not going to be giving him the review treatment that the other heroes are receiving because if you are playing the scenarios in this set, then you have to use Frodo, and if you’re not, then you can’t use him. This means that any rating or review of Frodo is a bit pointless. However, I will say that his ability, which allows him to completely cancel all effects on an encounter card, including “surged” and “doomed” keywords, is quite useful, especially given the challenges you will face in these three scenarios. Of course, you do have to draw a new card to replace the one you cancelled, but it will oftentimes be worth it. In fact, when Frodo’s ability was first spoiled, I felt certain that I wouldn’t use it that often, as it does require exhausting The One Ring, which is penalized by certain encounter card effects. However, the temptation to use it is quite strong, and I have certainly not been shy about slipping on the ring whenever it suited me!
With that said, let’s meet this band of conspirators!
* Merry (Tactics Hero, 6 threat, 2 willpower, 0 attack, 1 defense, 2 hit points):
It’s difficult for me to remain objective about this card, because there’s so much I love about it. The artwork is amazing, the abilities are powerful, and the possibilities are intriguing. I really didn’t think I would see the day where a Tactics Hobbit would be in the game, not to mention one that can wreck enemies with the flick of a wrist, but I’m glad to be wrong. Let’s take a closer look at what Mr. Brandybuck offers:
Merry gets +1 attack for each Hobbit hero you control.
Response: After Merry participates in an attack that destroys an enemy, ready another character that participated in that attack.
The first ability obviously encourages you to use Merry in an all-Hobbit deck. With two other Hobbit heroes in tow, Merry has an impressive attack strength of 3, which is equal to such powerhouses as Legolas, Glorfindel, and Aragorn. Also, keep in mind that during turns where you control Frodo, if you are playing the Black Riders quests, or Bilbo, if you are running through the Hobbit scenarios, then he actually has 4 attack. When you add in the new weapon, Dagger of Westernesse, which is a match made in heaven for Merry, then he can attack for 5 or 6 when facing an enemy with a higher engagement cost that his controller’s current threat. To be honest, I would be happy with just this ability, and Merry would be worthy of inclusion even without his second effect.
However, Merry’s ability to ready another character that helps him destroy an enemy is the tasty cherry on top. It combines particularly well with ranged characters, such as Legolas, who can participate in an attack with Merry, then be readied to attack some other foe on the board. Obviously, ranged is not a requirement though, any character with a high attack strength can benefit from Merry’s readying effect (to cite just one example, imagine a powered-up Gimli being able to swing on multiple enemies). I feel obligated to mention that there is a potentially broken combination existing between Brand Son of Bain and Merry. Since both heroes can ready another character when destroying an enemy, they can ready each other, thus potentially enabling you to mow down everyone in your path. I expect at least one of these abilities will receive an errata in the near future, though I can’t say for sure.
Altogether, Merry’s two abilities, combined with a low, low threat, make Merry an indisputably strong hero. His biggest weakness is his vulnerability, as, like most Hobbits, he only has 2 hit points. This can be boosted through the use of such cards as Bill the Pony, Ring Mail, and Boots from Erebor, but it is an issue that requires some forethought. Most of the time, you probably won’t be defending with Merry, but quests with tons of archery and direct damage can make short work of Merry (and other Hobbits as well). Beyond his low number of hit points, Merry’s other limitation is that he loses value outside of an all-Hobbit hero deck. However, while having a Merry with an attack value of one vs. an attack value of three certainly makes a huge difference, I actually would be open to including him in a non-Hobbit deck. The reason why is because Merry is a low-threat Tactics hero, which is an extremely rare thing. Being able to have access to the Tactics sphere without boosting your threat, or adding him into a mono-Tactics deck to lower the overall starting threat, are both perfectly reasonable options. With all this in mind, I have nothing but the highest praise for this new hero.
* Pippin (Lore Hero, 6 threat, 2 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defense, 2 hit points):
We have our second Pippin in the space of a few months, and I have to say that I much prefer this edition. The stats are exactly the same between the two versions, so what we’re really looking for is a difference in abilities. While the Spirit version focuses on pushing enemies back to the staging area, Lore Pippin seeks to elude them, before bringing them down at the right moment to reap some cards out of the bargain:
Each enemy in play gets +1 engagement cost for each Hobbit hero you control.
Response: After you engage an enemy with a engagement cost higher than your threat, draw a card.
Pippin’s first ability is more useful than it perhaps appears at first glance, especially when you take into account how it interacts with other Hobbit cards. If you play this hero with two other Hobbit heroes, then each enemy in play adds 3 to their engagement cost, which may not seem crucial, but in real terms can buy you 3 extra turns before you have to face a particular foe (again, when playing Saga Expansions, when you control Bilbo/Frodo, this bonus becomes +4). However, the key is that this effect not only delays enemy engagements, which is crucial for overall Hobbit strategy (avoiding enemies and only taking them on when the moment is right), but it also enables other Hobbit abilities. For example, Samwise Gamgee, who we’ll discuss in a moment, readies and gains a stat boost when you pull down an enemy with a higher engagement cost than your threat. Lore Pippin allows this ability to trigger in situations when it wouldn’t normally because your threat has risen too high (or enemy engagement costs are too low). Other Hobbit cards, such as Hobbit Cloak and Dagger of Westernesse, are quite powerful but dependent on enemies’ engagement costs being higher than your threat, so Pippin serves as a quiet, but essential, part of Hobbit strategy and synergy.
Of course, our favorite fool of a Took also helps out himself, as his second ability is also tied to enemy engagement cost. Since, in a true Hobbit deck, you are going to be looking to optionally engage enemies one by one, usually at least one per turn, you can usually look to draw an extra card every turn or every other turn. It is not quite as reliable a source of card draw as the other Lore Hobbit hero, Bilbo, but Pippin’s starting threat is considerably lower, and this is a key reason why I prefer Pippin over Bilbo in a Hobbit deck. Also, keep in mind that when an encounter or quest card forces you to engage with enemies, and you end up engaging with several foes in one turn, you can end up drawing multiple cards in one turn.
As with Merry, Pippin can be used in non-Hobbit decks to contribute to a lower starting threat, although the benefit is not quite as marked, as there are a few other low threat Lore options, unlike with Tactics. You won’t get the full benefit of his boost to enemy engagement cost, but you can still reap the card draw if you engage enemies that are higher than your threat. This means that Pippin should be used in decks with a low starting threat, if you want to get the most out of him. Otherwise, he could simply be included as a body that can contribute to a low starting threat (similar to Mirlonde, but with weaker stats).
* Sam Gamgee (Leadership Hero, 8 threat, 3 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
I think it’s safe to say that Sam has been one of the most anticipated heroes since the game was first released. Fortunately, he has finally arrived and the result is certainly not a disappointment. Sam Gamgee plays on the theme of Hobbits gaining benefits when they strategically take on a foe:
Response: After you engage an enemy with a higher engagement cost than your threat, ready Sam Gamgee. He gets +1 willpower, +1 attack, and +1 defense until the end of the round.
This is an extraordinarily powerful effect, or rather, set of effects, even Just looking at the first part of the text. Sam is able to ready after questing when engaging with an enemy with a greater engagement cost. Like Prince Imrahil, Boromir, and Aragorn. Sam has a built-in readying effect that requires some sort of trigger or cost to activate. Imrahil’s readying comes at the cost of a character leaving the table, although this may happen as a matter of course and is something that can be designed around. Still, it could be argued that engaging an enemy with a higher engagement cost is easier to pull off consistently than losing a character, and usually more beneficial. The Leadership version of Aragorn, like Sam, can ready after questing for the cost of just 1 resource, but his starting threat cost of 12 is substantially higher than Sam’s 8. Boromir can quickly boost your threat to uncomfortable levels if you over-use his ability, but then again, he has an advantage over Sam and Imrahil, in that he can use his at will, since it is not dependent on satisfying a condition that may be out of your control. Still, especially with Pippin’s boost to enemy engagement costs in play, Sam can consistently quest and engage in combat during many turns without needing any attachments to do so, and this is extremely useful, especially since he has the best willpower in the sphere (along with Thorin Oakenshield).
Of course, that’s not the whole story for Sam. He also gains a boost to attack, defense, and willpower on top of readying, meaning that he can contribute at least 2 attack or defense to combat. This means that Sam can give you more value in terms of stats than his starting threat might indicate. The willpower boost is nice but usually won’t matter much, since having extra points in this stat usually doesn’t count outside the questing phase (of course, certain quests will be an exception). It’s important to note that these attribute boosts do stack if you happen to engage with multiple enemies per turn (hello Hammer-stroke), which can lead to Sam hulking out. To give one example, when playing The Black Riders at Gen Con, I was controlling Sam, who engaged with four enemies at once thanks to an encounter card effect, meaning that he had 5 attack and 5 defense! Obviously, Fast Hitch is great to throw onto Sam (as well as all the Hobbit heroes), as he can quest, attack, and defend, all in the same round with strong stats.
Sam has the highest starting threat of the Hobbit heroes in this box, but he makes up for it with 3 willpower and a decent pool of hit points (3 against the usual 2 for Hobbits). This heartiness allows him to defend with a bit more confidence, and provide a bulwark against damage to protect your more fragile Hobbits. Since Sam doesn’t have any abilities that are tied to controlling other Hobbits, although obviously he synergizes well with the low threat approach of a Hobbit deck, he can fit into a wide variety of other decks quite easily. Like Merry and Pippin, he provides a relatively low threat option for his sphere, allowing you to bring in Leadership into a deck without messing up your starting threat, or keeping the threat of a mono-Leadership deck lower than it would be otherwise. The great thing is that the benefit Sam provides wouldn’t just be limited to his moderate threat, however, but also extends to his strong abilities. Obviously, though, you will want to include him in decks with a fairly low starting threat, although simply having a hero with 3 willpower around is worth the inclusion in a variety of contexts. I don’t want to overstate the case for Sam, as there will be times when you get caught with your metaphorical pants down (without stat boosts) and might be hard-pressed, but fortunately there are a few attachments available that make this hero even better.
* Fatty Bolger (Spirit Hero, 7 threat, 1 willpower, 1 attack, 2 defense, 3 hit points):
There was much speculation as to who the fifth Hobbit hero in this expansion would be after the others were spoiled. The hot pick was Fatty Bolger, and such speculation has proved accurate. I have to be honest, when I first saw his ability, I was rather underwhelmed, and felt certain that he wouldn’t find much use in any of my decks. However, I have slowly warmed up to his unorthodox effect:
Action: Exhaust Fatty Bolger to choose an enemy in the staging area and raise your threat by that enemy’s threat strength. Until the end of the phase, that enemy does not contribute its threat strength. (Limit once per round.)
The first reaction to this ability may be to ask, “Why on Middle-earth would you raise your threat to cancel threat? Isn’t that just re-arranging deck chairs on Numenor?” Still, this subtle effect actually allows Hobbit decks, who will normally be running with low threat levels, to enable faster quest progress. This can be useful both in solo and multi-player games. For example, in the former, you can raise your threat when you fall a bit short during an important quest push, say a few progress tokens shy of clearing out a crucial location or quest stage, thus moving you closer to victory. In the latter, a Hobbit deck with a low starting threat can take one for the team, preventing all players from failing questing or pushing everyone closer to where they need to be. It’s helpful to re-state this ability in different terms to really think about whether it’s useful or not. If Fatty Bolger instead said, “Action: Raise your threat by X to put X progress tokens on the quest,” would you view this as valuable? I’d have to say the answer is a clear yes, although Fatty’s ability doesn’t quite work this simply, as it is dependent on the threat strength of available enemies in the staging area, and this serves as an important limiting factor. Still, the point stands.
There is a weakness to Fatty’s ability, and this is what initially put me off him as a viable hero: he seemingly goes against the whole strategy of Hobbits. A good Hobbit deck will aim to keep its threat as low as possible at all times, in order to prevent swarms of enemies from engaging, and to allow effects, like those on Pippin and Sam, to activate as often as possible. Fatty Bolger, on the other hand, boosts the threat of a Hobbit deck, thus taking away some of its natural advantages (this was one of my main criticisms of the Spirit version of Pippin). This is certainly a real criticism of this hero, and a reason why I have mostly opted for a Sam/Lore Pippin/Merry configuration for my Hobbit deck. However, by including the threat reduction effects that are part of the Spirit sphere, you can allow Fatty to do his thing without ruining your Hobbit deck’s mojo. The Galadhrim’s Greeting can combine nicely with the Hobbit-centered cost reduction of Good Meal to provide a massive threat reduction of 6 for a cost of 1. In addition, the Smoke Rings that come in the Black Riders box itself can help to lower your threat as well. Altogether, while you certainly have to be very thoughtful in building a deck around Fatty and his ability, perhaps more so than with the other Hobbit heroes, you can reap some worthwhile rewards in the form of faster progress and less frequent questing failures.
As far as Fatty’s stats are concerned, he costs a bit more (7) than Merry and Pippin, in terms of threat. You do get the benefit of an extra hit point (similar to Sam). In addition, Fatty has 1 willpower instead of the 2 that Merry/Pippin possess, but you get an additional point of defense in return. This actually makes perfect sense, as you will probably not be questing with Fatty, because you want to keep him ready, in case you need to exhaust to use his ability. Then, if he is not needed for this purpose, he is available to defend. With a defense of 2 and 3 hit points, Fatty can be a serviceable defender, although you’ll probably want to boost his defense and/or hit points if you really want him to take on this role. As with the other Hobbits in this pack, Fatty can be inserted into non-Hobbit decks and still be useful, especially since his ability is not tied in any way to controlling other Hobbit heroes (obviously, you’ll want to still have plenty of threat reduction available, however). The problem here, though, is that the Spirit sphere has other heroes that have similarly low threat and have abilities that are equal to or more powerful than Fatty’s. Still, this is one Hobbit that you don’t necessarily want to count out without at least giving him a try or two.
Hobbit Power Rankings
Just for fun, I thought I’d rank our four new Hobbit heroes in terms of their overall power. Like all such exercises, this is obviously extremely subjective, as which hero is more powerful greatly depends on the scenario, what kind of deck you’re running, etc. That all being said, here’s my Hobbit power rankings:
1. Merry: This is perhaps a surprise choice, and I originally had Sam pencilled in for the top spot. However, I just can’t get over the value you get for an obscenely low starting threat of 6. Merry is a killing machine that also has decent questing potential for a Tactics hero.
2. Samwise Gamgee: You just can’t argue with a hero that not only has a built-in readying effect, but also the potential of hulking out as well. His stats are strong (his 3 willpower alone makes him worthy of this ranking) while still providing a fairly low starting threat.
3. Pippin: Similar to Merry, Pippin provides a low starting threat, along with card draw and an increase to enemy engagement costs. He comes in third because he doesn’t quite have the versatility of Sam and Merry, and his stats don’t have any built-in increases.
4. Fatty Bolger; I do like this hero, and his ability is deceptively useful, but he simply doesn’t fit into as many decks easily as the rest of the Hobbits do.
One thing I have to say about the heroes in this expansion, which might be clouded a bit by my power rankings: they are all worth the money! Sometimes you pick up a box like this, and maybe you get one or two heroes that leap out at you, and others that you know will be gathering dust in a box somewhere. This isn’t the case with The Black Riders. Instead, you’re getting access to four heroes that are must-haves, not only because they are Hobbits, and provide the basis for an exciting new deck type, but because they are great in their own right. I really wasn’t sure what could be done to create Hobbit heroes that stayed true to their role in The Lord of the Rings while still being fun to play. My instinct was that we would be subjected to the dubious experience of having to sneak past enemies all day and never get to do anything exciting. Instead, these Hobbits can certainly take on foes and rise to the occasion, they just have to be strategic about it. Perhaps there is something a tad jarring about Merry and his ability to hew down Nazgul, especially when he gets some weapons attached to him, but I feel the essence of these characters is largely intact. More importantly, the Hobbit deck is one that is immensely fun to play, and feels substantially different from other deck types, while giving you a shot at victory.
Next time around, TftC’s multi-part review of The Black Riders continues with a look at the allies contained in this expansion!