The writing was on the wall as soon as Calphon said the words “sea”, “ship”, “never learned to swim” and “what can go wrong?” at the start of the Grey Havens cycle. It was clearly going to end in tears. So I wasn’t that surprised when the fight against the Corsairs in the Grey Havens cycle planted us in the middle of a ship-wreck and a long swim to the shore.
I was more surprised when that shoreline was the port of Umbar, far down in the south and an immediate launch into a narratively-linked Sands of Harad deluxe. This is a first for Lord of the Rings, and is further proof of the drive towards a more narrative gaming experience.
This article is mildly spoilerific, but the main question that we’ll be answering is whether the Sands of Harad is worth the entrance price from an encounter card perspective. This is particularly prevalent with the release of the Arkham Horror LCG which also caters for a co-operative experience and might be competing for the wallets of players out there.
We’ll be avoiding specific details of individual cards and only mentioning in general terms the story that unfolds (and nothing that you couldn’t glean from FFG’s website anyway!).
As is usual for a LotR deluxe, there are three quests that kick off this story arc. And whilst it is true this is narratively linked to the Grey Havens cycle, there is no dependency upon having either player or owning any of that cycle.
The first quest sees you being chased through the city, before you spew out into the baking heat of the Harad desert eventually making it out the other side and encountering the Long Arm of Mordor.
The mechanics of the quests do a great job of reinforcing the part of the chain that you’re in and they feel very different to each other. They ramp in difficulty, but we didn’t find that we needed to particularly tune our decks up or down for any of the quests.
I would say that travel costs are a theme, so a manner of dealing with locations in the staging area is helpful. My Northern Trackers did a bit of work throughout.
The first two quests are pretty traditional, not introducing any particularly new mechanics. In the video we talk about them being “solid LotR quests” and decks that focus on questing and combat will do well. Threat isn’t really an issue, and there’s no real need to pause and build boardstate.
In the second and third quest, the power of the enemies is linked to how far through the quest you are (in two different, thematically interesting ways) but that also fits the more natural approach to building board state.
The final quest sees you encounter the Long Arm of Mordor, and starts off as a variant of a “capture quest” explored before in Escape from Dol Goldur (*shudder*) or its much more fun equivalent Escape from Mount Gram. It took us a short while to puzzle out what was happening here on the setup, but once you’ve got your head around it then it becomes quite cool.
I can see some niche decks, or combo heavy decks, struggling here particularly if there’s a key piece that relies on a single sphere hero to make the deck work, so some customisation might be required. There’s also something of a boss fight with a quirky text interaction – basically the quest card grants him protection from non-combat damage and that’s easy to overlook as you think about Gandalfing him from orbit.
Mechanics in play
It’s only in the final quest that anything slightly tricksy turns up. There’s some Archery flying around (not unexpected given the Haradhrim are archers!) but no separate encounter decks, or punishing mechanic based on playing the game (I’m looking at you Voice of Isengard!).
Player and encounter side quests are a thing, but they aren’t as devastating in power as those found in the Angmar Awakens cycle. In the final quest we left one of the side quests out on the table for pretty much the whole of the adventure without massive problems.
Shadow cards have some power, immediate attacks, discarding attachments and the like as well as attack increases or ignore defense. There weren’t any treacheries that we cancelled on sight, but there were some that needed cancellation because of the board state at that time, so I would recommend the ability to manipulate the encounter deck in some way.
I was a little nervous about the deluxe, mostly because it’s gone off the beaten path and the Grey Havens cycle introduced a load of new mechanics and I was concerned this might be the same.
However we had a blast! We played all of the quests in a single four hour sitting and they felt different from each other, stressed different parts of our decks and the final quest was a challenging capstone to the box.
Overall, I think that this is a great deluxe from the point of view of the quests and could be handled by a player with a smaller card pool pretty well. You don’t need masses of experience of the subtleties of the game to progress and the difficulty keeps drawing you on from one quest to the next.
I am a little lukewarm about the Grey Havens, but I’m really looking forward to this cycle.