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Horn of Gondor Woes

Of the iconic objects in Lord of the Rings, there are only a few that come to everyone’s mind: The One Ring; Anduril, the Sword that was Broken; the Mirror of Galadriel; Sting; the Horn of Gondor. When a player sits down to play a game in which they are the heroes of Middle-earth, these are the kinds of equipment they want to be putting on their heroes. Who doesn’t want to be equipping their Boromir and Aragorn with blades as storied as Anduril, Flame of the West, or risking to scry into their deck with the Mirror of Galadriel? It lets you feel like you are the epic heroes depicted in Tolkien’s work, wielding artifacts from ancient history and imbued with power beyond that of normal items. The art of ring-craft is gone, and all that remains are the likes of Narya, Nenya, and Vilya.

It would be a shame if one of those epic pieces of equipment were really bad.

The Errata Dilemma

horn-of-gondorThe appeal of a card game is that you can sit down, shuffle, pick up the top few cards of your deck, and be able to read what your options are based on what cards you have in hand. Thus, the absolute worst thing for an analog game is to have game pieces that function (or are supposed to function) differently than what is printed on the card. However, sometimes things break and need to be fixed. This is most important for competitive games, where every player needs to operate on an equal footing. In cooperative games, it becomes less important because players can always choose to not play the broken, overpowered combos; while it might be fun the first time to draw your entire deck on the first turn, or to remove the encounter deck from the game before it starts revealing cards, it quickly makes for a stale game. That said, the communities surrounding a cooperative game are as important as the game itself, so if a strategy becomes too trivial, or cards cease to operate as intended, errata can be used to improve morale.

In the case of one iconic card from the core set, the second instance occurred: it ceased to operate as intended and was errata’ed. I am, of course, referring to the Horn of Gondor. As originally designed, the Horn triggered when a character left play, providing a comeback mechanic that gave you additional resources as you lost ground. This was also loosely tied to the theme of the Horn from the books: “We’re losing men! Heed the horn and come to our aid!” However, as the player card pool grew and matured, it eventually became too easy to abuse, and both the thematic and mechanical intent was lost.

Many player cards these days actually reward you for characters leaving play: in particular I refer to the Silvan and Rohan mechanics, one of which rewards you for returning your allies to hand to re-trigger their “enters play” abilities, the other of which rewards you for discarding your allies after gaining their temporary benefits (and either returning them to hand with Gamling or powering up Eomer and Prince Imrahil). In both those cases, the player agency in the loss of their characters—and the ability to turn that loss into a gain—made the Horn of Gondor no longer a comeback mechanic, it was now simply a powerful resource generator.

Therefore, in FAQ 1.8, the Horn of Gondor was errata’ed to trigger only when a character was destroyed. Now it would truly be a comeback mechanic, and the theme of “Come to our aid! We’re losing people!” would be reinforced. All was well and good… except for fans of the Horn of Gondor. Now, I believe that except for a specific subset of decks going against a certain kind of quest, the card has become unplayable. Requiring that your character be destroyed definitely retains the comeback mechanic feature of the card, but it takes away all player agency from the resource generation.

While it was too easily abused before, at least the players had some sense of control over when they could get the resources they need, to be able to include it in their deck with the expectation that it could be part of their overall plan. As it is now, it can help a little but the resource generation provided by Horn of Gondor is so inconsistent that it’s not a card I can justify putting into my decks. Not only can I not be sure that characters are going to be destroyed to even trigger it, the quests that are produced these days are ones that actively punish you for “chump-blocking” (letting an enemy attack destroy some small ally you’ve deployed) meaning that planning on losing characters is a bad idea. And with the added difficulty of modern quests, I don’t want a card that only helps me when I’m losing; one resource is never enough to compensate for the loss of the ally and the resources spent on that ally.

I could probably justify including it as just an “extra” source of resources, to be honest, even if it was inconsistent and unreliable, because resources really are that good. But then we run into the other problem: the Horn of Gondor is Restricted, and it’s in the sphere with the most restricted cards, meaning its inconsistent nature makes it never worth including over something that’ll always work for me, like a Dagger of Westerness or a Rohan Warhorse. If it weren’t restricted, then I’d probably put it in my decks more often. So why does it need to be restricted?

horn-of-gondor-mid

A Restricted Theme

Horn of Gondor is restricted, but not without reason. At first, the assumption was always that it was simply restricted for power concerns: it was solid resource acceleration outside of leadership. However, nothing exists within the game that isn’t somehow thematic, and the restricted keyword is no different. If it was just a way to limit a hero’s ability to stock up on the most powerful items, then so be it, but I don’t think that’s true. You’re only allowed two restricted slots after all… why two?

Could it be because each restricted slot is supposed to represent the use of one of your two hands?

It would make sense, after all: most of the restricted cards in the game are weapons, meaning you can’t wield, say, three swords at the same time, and this is why “Restricted” is a keyword that, until recently, appeared mostly on tactics cards. But it’s also appeared on other cards that would take up a “hand slot,” such as Silver Harp, Horn of Gondor, and Dwarven Shield. Even encounter cards such as Book of Mazarbul and Cave Torch have had it, which seems somewhat arbitrary until you consider the fact that the keyword is there for theme more than for function (considering they can go on any hero).

But what about the mounts? And the armor? Well, the mounts are easy: you need a hand on the reins to stay on target (and if you have two horses, you need both hands!). As for the armor… while I’ll admit that theming Restricted around hand slots doesn’t work flawlessly (otherwise why isn’t A Burning Brand restricted? Even for power reasons it really should be), it’s not hard to understand that wearing big heavy armor like a Citadel Plate or Ring Mail is thick and bulky enough to encumber you enough that a normally-one-handed sword now requires both hands. You have some outliers like A Burning Brand and Rivendell Bow which probably should be restricted (flavor-wise) and cards like Celebrian’s Stone which probably shouldn’t be (flavor-wise), but it basically works.

Like any theme within the card game, parsing out exactly what the cards and mechanics represent is purely optional. But even understanding minor things like “why two restricted slots?” can bring a surprising amount of additional enjoyment to the game. If anything, it only makes my original dilemma more difficult: Horn of Gondor has very good reason to be restricted (you can’t be blowing on the horn if you’re not holding it)… but the effect is still too weak to make up for the handicap of being restricted.

Poor Tactics

Because cooperative games exist outside any form of organized play or tournament structure, they exist in a strange space where an individual’s play preferences have a lot more weight than in a normal game. While there are as many Spikes in this game as there are in other games (players whose enjoyment comes from overcoming challenge and proving their skill), not everyone cares about strictly following the rules so long as they’re having fun. Some people play for the theme, whether that theme involves recreating stories from the books or creating new stories with Tolkien’s or FFG’s characters. Some play for the creative opportunities in deckbuilding, taking an idea like “make a deck that keeps everyone’s characters alive” or “kill every enemy before it can attack” and figuring out how to make it work. Some even play for the social experience, and care less about playing the game and more about having fun with their friends. For all these people, different aspects of the game are more important, and I believe a certain amount of flexibility is appropriate for most players to figure out what about the game is the most fun for them.

I fit into the “theme player” and “creative deckbuilder” categories, and a card like Horn of Gondor is a strict failure for both categories. For the creative deckbuilder, I want to be able to play tactics decks that can keep up in a high-powered, four-player game setting where cards like Zigil Miner and Steward of Gondor are enabling huge amounts of resource acceleration. Spirit and Leadership both have plentiful means of acquiring additional resources, both on cards in your deck and on a variety of heroes (Theoden, Arwen, Caldara, Theodred, Gloin, Denethor). Lore resource acceleration is mostly limited to Grima, Elrond, and Bifur, but it makes up for it by sharing the spotlight with Spirit in its ability to have tons of card draw. Considering that resource acceleration and card draw are the two pillars of any card game (this one included), poor tactics has but one option when it wants to keep up with the other spheres: Mablung and Foe-hammer. I want to be able to build fun, inventive, and thematic tactics decks that aren’t forced into running Mablung every time.

This is where Horn of Gondor fits into the picture. Ideally, it would be the card I included in my deck to help generate some resources for my non-Mablung tactics deck, either because Mablung was already taken by another player or because I wanted a particular, thematic collection of heroes. But in order to do that, it would need to be more consistent and effective. It would need to remain Restricted for thematic reasons, but that would also keep it from overshadowing its slightly-overpowered cousin in leadership. So I decided to make my own Horn of Gondor.

horn-of-gondor

When I came upon this ability, I knew it was correct. Not only because it was a unique, restricted, tactics-specific derivative of Resourceful which got better in multiplayer (where having another resource accelerant was more desired), but because I felt I had stumbled on a mechanic that was more thematic than even the original Horn of Gondor effect. After all, recall the original context in which the Horn of Gondor was used:

“The dark figure streaming with fire raced towards them. The orcs yelled and poured over the stone gangways. Then Boromir raised his horn and blew. Loud the challenge rang and bellowed, like the shout of many throats under the cavernous roof.” – The Bridge of Khazad-Dum

“There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls. ‘The horn of Boromir!’ he cried. ‘He is in need!'” – The Departure of Boromir

“‘Yes, I stood beside him, as he blew the horn. But no help came. Only more orcs.’ / ‘So,’ said Denethor, looking keenly at Pippin’s face. ‘You were there? Tell me more! Why did no help come? And how did you escape?'” – Minas Tirith

The Horn of Gondor was not blown because Boromir was falling in battle, though he did do so. The Horn of Gondor was used in the face of danger, when the enemies seemed too numerous and powerful to be defeated alone. First at the arrival of the Balrog, then when an endless tide of Uruk-hai assailed him, Boromir blew his horn to call for aid, and though Aragorn heard and heeded it, he was too late. It was the failing of the Horn of Gondor that brought about the loss of Boromir and the hobbits, not vice-versa, which means it would make more sense to be blowing the Horn of Gondor upon the arrival of enemies rather than the destruction of friends. This also produces an interesting game effect where the Horn simulates a unique Resourceful in a tactics deck, but only if an enemy is actually revealed during staging—something that’s more likely to occur in multiplayer, where the need for additional power and resources is generally greater.

horn-of-gondor-end

Play the Way You Want

Houserules are often frowned upon because of the legacy created by competitive games, where a strict set of rules are necessary to make the game function when one player wins and another loses. However, I believe they should be embraced more readily by cooperative gamers, even in small doses. Have a cool custom hero? Why not bring him to the table. Want to start the game with 2 resources on each hero? If it’s fun! Need something a big more challenging? Don’t allow yourself any healing or threat reduction. Heck, even the designers are willing to admit that the rules are looser in this game than in most, since there’s a general understanding that “if you aren’t sure how to interpret the rules on a card, go with whichever interpretation is most difficult.” The rules don’t come down on stone tablets from on-high, they’re agreed upon by the players. So embrace the theme you want in the game and include the cards you enjoy.

Whether you’re including a new version of Horn of Gondor, or whether you’re running Sting in your Sam Gamgee deck outside of campaign mode because you want to channel his defiance of Shelob (it’s still only 1 card in your deck!), I encourage you to expand your experience by embracing tweaks and house rules.

~Dav Flamerock

1 Comment to Horn of Gondor Woes

  1. Kakita Shiro's Gravatar Kakita Shiro
    April 8, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Technically, Narsil is the Sword That Was Broken. Anduril is Narsil reforged.

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