Game Variant: The Song of Tom Bombadil

There have been a lot of discussions, including my recent metagame rant, about the relative difficulty of the game. With the newly created Beorn’s Path series, I have been trying to ensure that ample attention is paid to helping new players maximize their enjoyment of the game. One of the things that I would like to do here is provide a few simple suggestions for ways that can players can adjust the difficulty of the game without making it any less enjoyable to play.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, everyone has a different play style. Many players want to play by the rules, exactly as printed (including errata), and nothing more. This is a great way to play, especially because it ensures that each game has the balance and flow that the designers intended. That said, Lord of the Rings LCG is a cooperative game. There are no official tournaments and even scores are compared in a friendly, semi-formal manner via internet forums and video play-throughs. As players of the game, we are free to play it in whatever manner is most enjoyable to us. For those vast majority who play the game largely for its thematic and stylistic elements, there is no reason to feel chained to a set of rules. Rules exist for a reason, but for those who find that strict adherence is trumping fun, it makes little sense to spoil the game in the name of “following the rules”.

With that in mind, I would like to present a game variant for those who find the game too difficult. In later articles, I will present variants designed for the advanced players, who may find that their Elrond power-deck makes the game feel too easy. The key thing to keep in mind with any of these variants, is that the ultimate goal is to change the game subtly, without breaking what makes it good in the first place.

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The rule book mentions that beginning players can play the game without dealing shadow cards to engaged enemies. Personally, even when I played the game for the first time, I have never had any desire to play with this variant. Shadow cards are a key mechanic in the game. In many scenarios, upwards of half of the encounter cards include a shadow effect. This adds an important element of suspense, and danger, to each enemy attack. It is also why cards like Hasty Stroke, A Burning Brand, and Feint, are such good cards. Removing this aspect of the game certainly makes it easier, but I would argue that it makes the game dramatically less fun to play.

On various forums, I have also seen mentioned the idea of revealing fewer cards from the encounter deck as a way to decrease the game’s difficulty. As with the no shadow cards option, this variant bends the game to the point of breaking. While it obviously doesn’t work for solo play (reveal 0 cards per round?), it is likewise a problem in multi-player games. Not only does it make many scenarios absurdly easy, but it makes very well-designed and useful cards like Gildor’s Counsel, completely useless. On the other end of the spectrum, cards like Denethor and Henamarth Riversong, which had a built-in balance, now become over-powered. On top of everything else, this variant makes no sense thematically. The idea that bigger parties, with more heroes, attract more attention from the dark lord’s evil forces, is a fundamental part of the game’s design.

What we want is a way to make the game easier while keeping intact its essential balance, and preserving a sense of what is thematically appropriate. This variant is my attempt to do just that. Feel free to tweak the numbers to suit your needs, but the idea of this variant is to make things easier for newer players, without changing the essence of what makes the game good in the first place.

Early in the Lord of Rings, the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, set out to Bree where they hope to meet up with Gandalf. In their wandering through the Old Forest, they are nearly devoured by the hateful spirit, Old Man Willow. Ultimately, the are saved in the nick of time by a mysterious character named Tom Bombadil. Unlike every other character in the story, even the mighty Gandalf, Bombadil is unconcerned, indeed even unaffected, by the One Ring which Frodo carries. Upon their parting, Tom Bombadil teaches the Hobbits a song that they can sing, while in the borders of his domain, if ever they need his help.

The idea of this variant is that each of your heroes knows the song of Tom Bombadil, and can sing it when in dire need, to call for his aid. This is a slight thematic stretch, as none of the scenarios currently in the game take place in the Old Forest or environs, but given the power of Tom Bombadil, it is not hard to imagine him traveling further abroad to help those in need.

Now Tom Bombadil is not one to suffer fools, so a hero can’t just go singing for help every time they stub their toe or hear an owl hoot in the dark. To represent that Tom Bombadil will only come to someone’s aid once, each hero begins the game with a single progress token on them. At any time during the game, a player can have a hero they control sing the song (removing the progress token) to activate one of the following effects, of their choice:

  • Heal that hero 1 damage.
  • Ready that hero.
  • That hero gains +1 Willpower until the end of the phase.
  • That hero gains +1 Attack until the end of the phase.
  • That hero gains +1 Defense until the end of the phase.

Everything else about the game remains unchanged. There is no way to gain more song tokens, and spent song tokens are never replenished. A player can spend a token at any time, including in response to a treachery or other encounter card effect. The variety of choices that a player has for this effect, combined with the fact this it can be used as a response, makes it quite powerful. This is considered a game effect, not a player card effect, so it can be used with the Beorn hero card. But the effect is still limited, once a hero has sung the song of Bombadil, they cannot ask for help again that game.

As I see it, the best thing about this variant is that it preserves the essence of the game in a way that makes some kind of thematic sense. Because the tokens are a finite supply that is spent, players must still master the all-important skill of resource management, the heart of every deck-building card game. Being able to save your hero from an ill-timed treachery will also contribute to the fun of the game, as there is nothing worse than losing a hero to bad luck. Importantly, none of these effects make other cards obsolete, or inordinately skew their power-level. Sure, Cram might seem less tasty to a hero who knows the song, but once that hero finishes singing they will have to look elsewhere for help.

I could write more about this variant, but the beauty of it is the simplicity. The best designs, to me, are always the ones that know when to get out of their own way. And with that, I shall leave you to go about your merry way. Good luck on your travels through this vast and beautiful Middle-Earth. Check back for future articles in this series, including a discussion of ways to make the game harder for the advanced players.

Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow,
By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!
Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

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7 Responses to Game Variant: The Song of Tom Bombadil

  1. Mitchell F. says:

    I really like this. It’s simple, yet not too game-breaking. I just might have to try this! Thanks!

  2. TalesfromtheCards says:

    I like this variant. It’s not overpowered but can be a way for newer players or those who just want to experience the theme to have some extra help.

  3. drasen says:

    Just wanted to drop a few lines to tell you how much I am enjoying your blog. I also like your Tom Bombadil proposal very much. Keep on the good work!

  4. nyckk says:

    Nice idea! Should work out fine. I am really waiting for a Tom card 🙂

  5. Pingback: Game Variant: Wandering Kinsfolk | Hall of Beorn

  6. Steve says:

    I like the article and artwork but strongly disagree with the card idea. As a force of nature Mr. Bombadil could scarcely be predicted much less controlled. I consequently offer up for consideration a fairly simple Treachery card that I think better simulates his random beneficience.
    Tom Bombadil. When Revealed: Shuffle Tom Bombadil back into the encounter deck. Shadow: Shuffle Tom Bombadil back into the encounter deck.”

  7. Titus says:

    I really enjoy this idea – it does know how to get out of its own way. I certainly used to unwittingly rely on my own failure to adhere to the rules to get through some scenarios (e.g. Dol Guldur). Although I don’t consider myself a novice at this point, I find some of the quests in this game straight up punishing. This is a good way to ramp *down* the difficulty on those harder quests until I’m more familiar with the encounter deck and can tweak things accordingly.

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