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Voice of Isengard: Quests Review

by on March 11, 2014

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When Saruman the White, leader of the White Council, head of the order of wizards of Middle-earth, and master of mysterious powers, asks for your assistance, what do you do? How can you refuse the entreaties of such a mighty figure, especially when his arguments are so persuasive? This is the predicament that our heroes find themselves in as the story of the Voice of Isengard expansion develops. We, as readers and film viewers, may mock the heroes’ naivete for not seeing through Saruman’s deceptions, but of course hindsight makes sages of us all. More importantly, as emphasized by the name of the expansion itself, perhaps the defining trait of Saruman was his ability to persuade others with the power of his voice alone, turning even the strongest skeptic into a devoted supporter.

As you might have guessed, the time has come to move past the player cards and review the scenarios of the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion themselves. In many ways, I would argue that these quests, and the story contained in them, are the true stars of the show, more so than the heroes, allies, attachments, and events that we have seen thus far. This can be largely credited to the increased emphasis on narrative that was introduced in the Against the Shadow cycle, and has been continued in the Voice of Isengard. Of course, story is not necessarily a substitute for solid mechanics and entertaining gameplay, so how well does the latest deluxe expansion hold up as an overall package? Read on to find out!

*Note: This article does contain some story spoilers and extensive spoilers about quest mechanics/cards, so those who want to remain unspoiled should skip ahead to the “Overall Thoughts” section.

Theme

 The theme is strong with this one. This is the first time that we’ve seen a deluxe expansion with such an expanded storyline. Gríma-Objective-AllyPreviously, we’ve received a paragraph or two about each quest in the rules, but this time we not only have expanded narrative introductions, but also conclusions after players have defeated each quest that link the three scenarios in this expansion together. The end result is that the quests in this expansion feel far more cohesive in terms of theme and story than those in Khazad-dum and Heirs of Numenor, and each one feels remarkably different than the others. If Voice of Isengard excels in one area, it is surely this attention to narrative and  theme. Let’s break it down by scenario for a more fine-tuned examination:

The Fords of Isen: This is meant to be a down and dirty battle with crazed Dunlendings charging, water spraying, and blood flying, and it really hits the mark in those respects. With each new quest stage adding more enemies to the party (in addition to encounter card effects), it really captures the feel of waves of enemies launching an onslaught, and when one is defeated, another arrives to take its place. The last stage in particular, when all enemies must be defeated to achieve victory, may leave you feeling as worn out by the end of it as the heroes,because sometimes the end may be in sight only for more enemies to appear. The only slightly strange thematic aspect of this scenario is the way in which the power of Dunland enemies is tied to hand size, if only because exactly what cards in your hand are supposed to represent in gameplay terms is so abstract in the first place.

To Catch an Orc: For my money, the second quest of Voice of Isengard is pretty much a thematic masterpiece. For so long, players have sliced and diced orcs without a second thought, but To Catch an Orc now puts players in the tricky, from both a practical and moral standpoint, position of having to capture one. It makes matters even more intriguing that players know, even if the heroes don’t, that Saruman wants this orc for evil purposes. For the first time, we have been put in an ambiguous situation where, as players, we desperately want to win and succeed, even if we know that our actions are actually running counter to the greater good of the free peoples of Middle-earth. In terms of the quest itself, the search for Mugash does indeed feel like a search, and the unpredictability of when exactly you will find your target neatly replicates the actual feeling of hunting for someone like Mugash, and never knowing when he might be around the next corner. In addition, because of the time mechanic used in this particular quest, Mugash escaping always feels like a real danger, and because he is so tough to fight and capture, this lends a nice tension and real sense of struggle to the quest. In one memorable game, Mugash escaped four times before I was able to tie him up for good! To top it all off, To Catch an Orc opens up the possibility that the heroes may have inadvertently, through the capture of Mugash, provided Saruman with the material he needs to create his own brand of Uruk-hai.

Into Fangorn: I can’t help but love the theme of this scenario, as long-time readers of this blog will know that I have a deep, abiding affection for all things related to Ents, Huorns, and the forests of Middle-earth (you can check out my own custom scenario, also called Into Fangorn, in a printable version here or on OCTGN — it’s already pre-loaded). As with the previous quest, this one puts players in a moral gray area, as we are forced to actually take the side of an orc, protecting Mugash against a forest that is essentially defending itself. While I do have some gameplay quibbles with Into Fangorn, which will be addressed later, I do think it hits the mark thematically, and the conception of Huorns as non-traditional enemies that harm players by removing progress (as well as raising threat, dealing damage, etc.), but not directly attacking is perfect. My only wish is that this scenario would have been a bit longer (perhaps another quest stage), as whenever I play this one, I always feel like I get the briefest taste of the world of Fangorn before I’m done.

Overall, if Voice of Isengard is an indication of what we have to look forward to in terms of theme for the coming cycle, then we have a rich, engaging narrative ahead of us that will far surpass what has come before. Most intriguing of all will be the continuing tension between Saruman’s desires and the good of Middle-earth, and just how far down the rabbit hole of corruption the heroes will be led by journey’s end.

Theme Rating: ♦♦♦♦♦

Encounter Cards

The encounter cards from the Voice of Isengard include some innovative mechanics, and I will pick out a few that really convey the tone of this expansion in terms of theme and gameplay:

Mugash (To Catch An Orc) is a real star of this expansion. This enemy not only is the “boss” of the second scenario, but also Mugash-Enemycontinues to be a menace after he is captured. By forcing players to attach him to a hero as a “captive” attachment that permanently exhausts that character, the designers have built a meaningful decision into the quest. During one playthrough of To Catch an Orc, I had to make the tough choice of selecting Eowyn, Beregond, or Eomer to guard Mugash. Each candidate carried a hefty cost, as I would either lose my designated quester, attacker, or defender (I chose Beregond, by the way, as I felt confident in having enough chump blockers available to cover defense). This makes the experience of capturing and escorting a prisoner feel more hefty than previous variations on this idea (such as shepherding Gollum in Return to Mirkwood), as it makes sense that a hero would have to devote all of their energy to guarding this huge orc. If Mugash does manage to escape, then it is a tall order to recapture him, as 12 points are needed to overcome his defense and hit points, and his swing of seven is substantial. Overall, based on the story and mechanics, he is one of my favorite LOTR LCG villains, and you really don’t want to mess with anyone who reclines in his seat that way.

* Orc Cave (To Catch an Orc) is a challenging location in Voice of Isengard. I tend to enjoy those locations that force players to make a hard decision between traveling and keeping a given location in the staging area, as this makes the normally mundane travel phase into something a bit more interesting. The Black Riders seemed to really emphasize this aspect, and I’m pleased to see it continue into Voice of Isengard. The Orc Cave has the Searches 5 benefit when it is explored, allowing you to more quickly find Mugash (more on this mechanic later, for now, know that this allows you to search through five cards), which is usually a good thing, although it carries its own risks. However, traveling to this location has the potential of unleashing more orc enemies. This makes perfect thematic sense as poking your head into an orc cave should carry the danger of attracting attention, but also just might be the place to find Mugash. I like that the travel effect is randomized so that you might get lucky and not discard any orc enemies but also might pay the full penalty as well.

Ill Tidings (The Fords of Isen) is a unique treachery like none we’ve Ill-Tidingsseen before. This card actually leaps into a player’s hand and stays there for the rest of the game. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, as there is no hand size limit in LOTR LCG, and thus no penalty for having an extra card that is hanging around doing nothing. However, the The Fords of Isen quest punishes hand size severely, and thus Ill Tidings works perfectly to help clog up your hand and make it more difficult to quickly reduce your hand size. I’m not sure exactly what this card is supposed to represent in thematic terms, other than general misfortune, but it works well as a gameplay mechanic.

Altogether the encounter cards in each quest bring something new to the game. The Fords of Isen focuses on hand hate, To Catch an Orc deals with the Searches mechanic, while Into Fangorn features the unique Huorn enemies. There are few encounter cards that really jump out as having a “cool” factor all by themselves, but their strength is more in working together to encourage certain strategies and cohesively define the tone of a quest.

Rating: ♦♦♦◊◊

Replay Value/Difficulty

Purchasing a deluxe expansion requires a higher investment than the Adventure Packs and so the replay value of these bigger boxes becomes an important consideration for prospective buyers. One aspect of Voice of Isengard that likely heightens its replay value is the balanced difficulty of the scenarios. While I personally love Heirs of Numenor and found the challenge invigorating, many players felt that the scenarios included in that deluxe expansion were simply frustrating. Even for myself, I finally beat Into Ithilien after ten or so tries, but didn’t play it again for months, simply because I didn’t relish the thought of getting beat down again. By contrast, Voice of Isengard has a good difficulty balance for the great majority of players, and I imagine that most will feel encouraged to try out the quests with different types of decks and different strategies. Unfortunately, the more difficult scenarios in the game often restrict you to using only the most powerful builds if you want to be successful, which can limit replay value a bit. On the other hand, the flipside, when quests are too easy, can also destroy replay value, as it’s not that fun to simply steamroll quests over and over again.

With this in mind, the replay value of The Fords of Isen and To Catch an Orc is high, achieving a fine balance between too hard and too easy. The second quest in particular adds even more replayability because of the uncertainty of when Mugash will show his face (read more about the mechanics of this quest in the “Mechanics” section below), which definitely impacts how any particular game plays out. It is the third quest, Into Fangorn, which lowers the replay value a bit because it can tend to be a bit easy for certain playstyles and numbers of players. However, some have reported enjoying the quest and being sufficiently challenged by it, specifically in one-handed solo play, so this verdict is not absolute. All in all, Voice of Isengard provides strong replay value due to creative gameplay and a relatively balanced difficutly. Brand new players might find it a bit tough, certainly more difficult than Khazad-dum, but definitely not as demanding as Heirs of Numenor.

Replay Value Rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

Difficulty: ♦♦♦◊◊

Mechanics

Searching-for-Mugash-2B

I’ve mentioned quite a bit about the creative and unique mechanics used in Voice of Isengard, so now it’s time to take a closer look. To begin with, the new mechanic of Time has been introduced by this expansion and is used in every single scenario. By using resource tokens to track the passage of rounds on quest cards, and inflicting penalties on players when those tokens run out, the Time mechanic lends an added layer of tension to proceedings. Whereas it was both possible and tempting in the past to take your time and build up allies and attachments, the Time mechanic forces you to quest quickly and with purpose. Thankfully, Voice of Isengard manages to make most of these Time penalties feel meaningful so that the mechanic does not fall flat. The best example of this is the second quest, To Catch an Orc (is it obvious by now that I’m a fan?). The second quest stage, Searching for Mugash, reveals a brutal two additional encounter cards per players when time runs out, while allowing you to add Time counters to the stage through questing, while the third quest stage, The Wizard’s Prize, frees Mugash from captivity when the last Time counter is removed, which can completely ruin your chances of success. By contrast, one of the reasons why Into Fangorn seemed a bit easier is that it was fairly simple to race through the stages before Time ran out (which shuffles Mugash into the encounter deck), especially since you can largely just focus on questing. Hopefully, future implementation of Time will be closer to the former than the latter, but overall I do like the added tension that it provides.

Beyond Time, each scenario focuses on a particular mechanic, and each is one we haven’t seen before.

* The Fords of Isen: “Hand Hate”

The Fords of Isen punishes players for holding too many cards in their hand, usually at the threshold of either five cards or three Dunland-Prowlercards. A prime example is the Dunland Prowler, which gains an additional point of threat when any player has five or more cards in their hand, and also gains surge if any player has three or more cards in their hand. Some effects also deal damage or attempt to reveal enemies based on the number of card in a player’s hand. The upside of this mechanic is that players are given an incentive to get cards out of their hand as quickly as possible and avoid most forms of card draw, which is pretty much a complete reversal of normal styles of play. Overall, this mechanic works exactly as intended and finds a sweet spot between challenging and frustrating. Rather than be annoyed at this hand hate, I actually felt it was a refreshing change of pace to have to play cards and build decks as efficiently as possible, while making do with less. This mechanic is an interesting way to build in difficulty without simply making bigger and badder enemies, locations, and treacheries.

To Catch an Orc: “Searches”

To Catch an Orc introduces for the first time encounter cards with player card backs. This is so new and different that some players feared that their cards had been misprinted! Instead, these special cards, which consist of Mugash and Mugash’s Guards, are shuffled into the top 20 cards of each player’s deck, and the end goal of the scenario is to be able to search through this “mini-deck” to find Mugash and capture him. This is accomplished through the Searches keyword, which is present on locations. When players explore a location with this keyword, they are able to search through the top X cards of their set aside deck (X being equal to whatever number is next to the keyword), revealing any enemies and taking one of their player cards into hand. In this way, the Searches keyword both provides a reward through allowing access to player cards and a source of potential danger, in that revealing the strong Mugash or even his Guards too soon can be disastrous. Previous searching mechanics have tended to place objectives inside the encounter deck itself, such as the Athelas in A Journey to Rhosgobel. While this can work well, using a set aside player deck allows players to search through a broader swathe of cards without swamping them with too much nastiness, and the fact that the target card (Mugash) is a dangerous enemy rather than an objective adds to the tension and flavor. Mixing up Mugash along with Guards also is a way to spice up proceedings. As with the first quest, players are motivated to create tight, efficient decks with three copies of all or most cards in order to avoid having key elements of your deck end up trapped in the set aside portion.

Into Fangorn: Hinder

The designers were faced with an intriguing dilemma when it came to creating Huorn enemies for this quest. It doesn’t make sense for Deadly-Huornangry trees (or treeish entities) to act like normal foes, rushing to engage with players in a hasty fashion. Thus, the Hinder keyword was created, which means that enemies with this keyword do not attack normally, but instead remove one progress from the quest while they are engaged with a player. This represents their ability to stand in the way of the heroes and guide them in the wrong direction, much as the Hobbits’ journey through the Old Forest was shifted onto exactly the wrong path by the malevolent power of Old Man Willow and the trees and Huorns under his sway. While this keyword makes perfect thematic sense and accurately conveys how Huorns operate, the problem is that the danger posed by combat is in no way replaced sufficiently by losing a single progress token, which can be easily recouped. Keep in mind that each Huorn does have a harmful effect on the player it is engaged with beyond Hinder (raising threat, dealing damage, actually attacking during the resource phase, etc.), and all have high defense and hit points, but the absence of normal combat attacks, beyond those compelled by treacheries and a forced effect on one Huorn type, makes it all too easy to focus full power on questing. I’m not sure what a better solution would have been, but I would love to see this keyword (and the Huorns) return in a more potent form in the future.

Rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

OVERALL THOUGHTS

The Voice of Isengard has been highly anticipated and it largely delivers on its promises of a more thematic and balanced experience. New players might be wondering exactly where this should fall on their shopping list. This is always a tough question to answer, as each player is different in terms of their experience, tolerance for frustration, and playstyle. Overall, I would have to say that Khazad-dum is probably the best deluxe expansion buy for new players, as it is the most accessible in terms of difficulty and gives access to player cards that will be more immediately useful. However, those players who want to jump in and experience new releases along with everyone else should be able to jump in here without being blasted to pieces (a la Heirs of Numenor). They may have to try “easy mode” first and experiment with different decks, but ultimate success should be achievable even with a limited card pool. Experienced players will probably pick this one up regardless, but those who are on the fence due to the thematic eccentricities of the Dwarrowdelf cycle or the frustration of Heirs will find a nice blend of story and approachable challenge here.

Overall Rating: ♦♦♦♦◊

Voice of Isengard is available in stores and online retailers! Readers, share your thoughts on the expansion below to help prospective buyers, or simply sound off about your own opinions.

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From → Reviews

14 Comments
  1. Bootagot permalink

    Great review, I couldn’t agree more. I loved HoN I thought those quests were great. So far I have only played the first two quests and have really enjoyed them both (only bought them today… Australia). I though the search mechanic was brilliant, really innovative and it actually feels like you are searching for an Orc. Previously haven’t really read more than the quest card flavour text but I decided to read the booklet story and it was well worth it, it just adds that little bit more to your play experience.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Yeah, usually they don’t really re-use quest mechanics, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the search mechanic implemented in another quest.

  2. Glaurung permalink

    I think is worse to try last quest with a rule : all Huorns lose Hinder keyword. And see what happen?

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Usually, I don’t like using house rules, but I just might try this one to make the last quest more interesting.

  3. The ‘hand hate’ mechanic fels a bolted on to me……… It feels umthematic and artificial. I can’t see the thematic justification for this, which is shame, as the games design and theme mesh so well.

    • matthew permalink

      Caleb (the game’s lead designer) already explained the theme in a preview article:

      “This is where the Dunlendings fight back: They get stronger for every card in your hand and punish you when you draw cards. I was excited to pair this mechanic with the Dunland trait because it made so much sense thematically. In the War of the Ring, the people of Dunland were all too eager to ally themselves with Saruman in his war against Rohan because of their old hatred towards the horse-lords. They saw the Rohirrim as thieves and usurpers because they displaced the Dunledings when they settled in the country of Rohan long ago. The Dunlendings were forced to relocate to the rough highlands of Dunland while their enemies lived in the rich land that was once theirs. To represent that bitter grudge in the game, I designed enemies with the Dunland trait to get more aggressive as the players flaunt their riches by drawing more cards.”

      http://fantasyflightgames.com/edge_news.asp?eidn=4512

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      As I mentioned in the review, what probably leads to the feeling of disconnect is that what player’s hands are supposed to represent is a bit abstract. We know resources represent influence, money, connections, etc., and cards on the table represent what’s on them, but what are they while they are in our hand?

  4. Milton permalink

    I recently purchased V of I. My only other two products are the core set and over hill/under hill, which means my card set and play experience is somewhat limited. Taking a cursory look at the enemies I’m thinking oh, oh. My first few playthroughs confirmed that. The card hand and draw penalties sure made me rethink play strategy. After about seven or eight tries I finally had the Fords of Isen quest literally in the bag, all I needed was to draw the last staging card. A treachery kicked my 45 threat to 50. (Insert appropriate curse word). After about my 12th to 13th attempt I finally got the win with a eight round walk in the park! To catch an orc I have only begun to explore but I bet it will be a very tough one also.

    My read in the Fords of Isen quest is that with my card set, I am forced to use a Beorn, Gimli, Eowyn as heros. No others have a chance. Tried Eomer for a while but he just didn’t get the job done. I needed Beorns ability to suck up damage, and Gimli to get some damage for a decent attack. Without Eowyn’s questing ability I figured I had no chance at this quest.

    My first read on To Catch and Orc is that Eowyn is still mandatory, but I am trying some leadership heros instead of tactics and see if I can be successful. The two wizards will have to pop up at the right time for to have a chance with this strategy. I have a feeling I will have to go back to tactics to be able to deal with the quest enemies.

    Love your site and keep it up. I hope to find a quest playthrough rewiew from this set soon!

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience as a player with just the core set and one other expansion. I’m sure that it will be helpful for newer players who are in the same boat to get a read on just what the difficulty will be like, as I can kind of estimate it, but it’s hard for me to get an exact idea. I’m glad you enjoy the site and thanks for reading! Any particular quest you’d like to see a playthrough for the most?

      • Milton permalink

        With all the trouble I had, Fords of Isen would be nice to see a session report. These reports also help me in verifying that I’m not screwing up rules interpretations….

  5. Tonskillitis permalink

    I also want to like Into Fangorn quest and was enchanted by the thought of a perilous journey into an ancient forest is something that has been attempted since the very first quest. In fact, I think that many of my favourite quests (Into Ithilien, Passage through Mirkwood (Nightmare) and Druadan Forest). I just feel the hinder mechanic doesn’t quite work. I lost my first attempt after an untimely treachery wiped out all my heroes when the huorns attacked, however the next time I played through, the trees had very little impact upon the quest as I just committed every character to the quest, and, like you said, it is a relatively short adventure. Doubtless certain deck types would find the quest very difficult. However, perhaps this quest would benefit from a few smaller enemies to stop players from sprinting to the finish.

    In regards to the other 2 quests, I really like them- possibly the Fords of Isen is my favourite inspite of the Dunlendings and their mysterious effects. Learning that the Dunlendings were essentially cowardly and overawed by the might of the Rohan, I prefer to view that the effects relating to hand size in terms of a wider battle. I picture the events of the card game as a relatively isolated affray, with the majority of the battle taking place just over yonder. Therefore the Dunlendings attack with greater ferocity and in greater numbers when they see the heroes isolated, forlorn and without hope of reinforcements (with less cards in hand). How do you visualise your card game? 🙂

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I really hope the designers will revisit Fangorn in the future. As for your conception of hand size and the events of the game being part of a larger battle, this makes perfect sense and this is how I imagine things as well. For example, during the Siege of Cair Andros, the heroes are perhaps fighting at key pivot points of the battle, but obviously aren’t fighting the whole opposing army by themselves! Sometimes I forget this and have to remind myself when critiquing a scenario.

  6. Glaurung permalink

    I like the idea of the quiets but…….Dunlands was to easy, Fangorn also. Cach the orc is still ok….

    Burt after HON, BR an Nightmare decks this is really step back……..Need to get NM for VOI then i believe it will be cool! But now wi must wait 2 years until we get NM for VOI……….

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I can sympathize, Glaurung. While I enjoy the first and second quests of VoI quite a bit for the theme, story, and interesting mechanics, I was a bit disappointed to fly through all of the quests so quickly. It would be nice if we could get some basic NIghtmare elements with the actual quests, just as Easy mode is included (though obviously they can’t include a bunch more). Still, I’m having fun with the quests now by trying out a bunch of different deck types.

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