Where now are the Dunedain, Elessar, Elessar?
Where do thy kinsfolk wander afar?
Near is the hour when the lost should come forth,
And the Grey Company ride from the North.
But dark is the path appointed to thee:
The Dead watch the road that leads to the Sea.
– Galadriel’s message to Aragorn (The Two Towers, Chapter 5)
In our first game variant, The Song of Tom Bombadil, we covered one option for making the game a bit easier. By adding a fun story-based element that can be used to temporarily aid our heroes, players had a means for dealing with emergencies, especially in the critical early game. This variant will take a different direction, while still trying to remain grounded in a sense of thematic realism. For those with access to the entire card pool, many of the older scenarios become much easier, particularly when building a deck specifically for a given quest. One thing that can be lost, however, when doing this kind of deck tuning, is a sense of thematic cohesion.
This variant is a way to guide and constrain deck building decisions in way that creates more thematic decks. It should be mentioned that this does not necessarily mean the decks will be weaker, just more realistic within the setting of Middle-Earth. It is a testament to the games designers that many of the more powerful decks like Thorin & Company stay true to the themes and story of Tolkien’s writings.
Middle-Earth is filled with diverse peoples, with different languages, cultures and leaders. While at times they may have quarrels with other peoples, or even bicker amongst themselves, they are all united in resisting the evil that surrounds them, and daily encroaches upon their lives and livelihoods. This variant is an attempt to put the games heroes and allies in cultural and geographical context. The goal is to aid players in making decks that are realistic in terms of where the characters would be found, and why the characters would be in fellowship together.
Each section will cover a famous adventuring party from Tolkien’s writings about the third age. Sadly, not all of the characters mentioned here have been made into player cards yet, but hopefully this will change with time. From Thorin & Company, to the Five Istari, to the White Council, these heroic groups will be described along with their more famous adventures. A brief summary will be provided of where in Middle-Earth these parties have traveled, and the various peoples they’ve met during their adventures. This will aid players in building decks firmly grounded in Middle-Earth history and geography, with thematically appropriate hero and allies choices.
As a cooperative game, the concept of a “restricted list” just doesn’t make sense. What we will use instead is a two categories for each region, prefer and avoid. So the region of Erebor, for example will have many dwarf allies under the prefer category while including elf allies, particularly Silvan elves, under the avoid category. This represents the racial mistrust between the dwarves of Erebor, particularly those in Thorin’s Company, and the elves of Mirkwood Forest. It bears repeating, these are not hard and fast rules, only suggestions.
Tolkien himself went on to defy these conventions in the Lord of the Rings with Gimli son of Glóin and Legolas son of Thranduil both taking part in the fellowship. This contrast gave the story even more dramatic tension and, along with the Ring’s temptation of Boromir, added an interesting element of conflict within the group. It also reinforced one of Tolkien’s recurring themes, of people overcoming their differences and working together for a common goal. Though Gimli and Legolas mistrusted each other at first, their friendship grew to be as strong as any two members of that group, so much so that Legolas takes Gimli West with him at the end of their time in Middle Earth.
Breaking conventions is good, particularly when done artfully. It also happens to be a lot of fun. At times this game almost demands that kind of deviation from the stylistic norm. When the Heirs of Númenor was first released, many players used well-tuned Dwarf decks to defeat the more difficult scenarios, as the Gondor trait was still under-developed. I myself have been known to show up for some Peril in Pelargir, though a bear in a bar fight makes no sense at all!
Even so, as the Against the Shadow cycle has progressed and the various themes are better supported, it becomes possible to use Gondor and Outlands decks to defeat these new scenarios. For many reasons, this is something that many players find more satisfying. So, by all means, take these suggestions with a Fatty Bolger-sized grain of salt, but understanding them will aid in thematic deck design and a deeper appreciation for the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth.
Thorin & Company
Dispossessed of their ancestral home by the Dragon Smaug, Thorin and his dwarven companions seek to reclaim Erebor. With help, and a map, provided by Gandalf, and the unique skills of Bilbo “The Burglar” Baggins, their intrepid party makes an epic journey to the Dragon’s lair in the Lonely Mountain. Starting from Bilbo’s front door in The Shire, through the Trollshaws and Imladris, they pass the Misty Mountains by an unlikely route. In the Anduin valley beyond they meet Beorn and make a perilous journey through the dark forest of Mirkwood. After escaping the halls of the Elven-King Thrandruil, they come to Lake-Town where they meet Bard the Bowman. Finally, they arrive at last at the Lonely Mountain and the lair of Smaug the Terrible.
Cast of Characters: Thorin, Gloin, Óin, Dwalin, Balin, Nori, Dori, Ori, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf
Locations of Interest: The Shire, The Trollshaws, Imladris, The Misty Mountains, The Eyrie, The Carrock, The Hall of Beorn, Mirkwood Forest, The Elven-Kings Halls, Esgaroth, The Lonely Mountain
Prefer: Erebor Battle Master, Erebor Record Keeper, Longbeard Elder, Longbeard Orc-Slayer, Longbeard Map-Maker; other Dwarf allies
Avoid: Silvan characters; Rohan, Gondor and Outlands characters
Balin & Company
In T.A. 2989 Balin left Erebor with a company of dwarves hoping to retake Khazad-dûm from the Orc horde inhabiting those great halls. The journey was taken against the advice of Dain Ironfoot II, King Under the Mountain at Erebor. Indeed, Dain’s advice was well-founded as things did not end well for Balin and his companions. They discovered Durin’s legendary Axe but Balin was killed by an Orc archer in the Dimrill Dale in 2994 and the dwarves were overrun soon afterward.
Cast of Characters: Balin, Flói, Óin, Ori, Frár, Lóni, Náli
Locations of Interest: Erebor, Khazad-dûm, Dimrill Dale
Prefer: Longbeard Elder, Longbeard Map-Maker, Longbeard Orc-Slayer, Zigil Miner, other Dwarf characters
Avoid: Silvan characters, Rohan, Gondor and Outlands characters
Five Friends in the Shire
Upon discovering Frodo’s plan to leave The Shire, his friends Merry, Pippin and Fatty Bolger, conspire with his loyal gardener, Sam, to join him on his journey. After passing through the fields of Farmer Maggot, they cross the Bucklebury Ferry and enter Buckland. Finally realizing their peril, four of the friends enter the Old Forest while Fatty takes up residence in Frodo’s house in Crickhollow. After getting lost in the Old Forest, the Hobbits run afoul of Old Man Willow, being saved by the enigmatic Tom Bombadil. After recovering from their ordeals in the house of Tom and Goldberry, they move narrowly escape the Barrow Downs and make it to Bree, where they hope to meet Gandalf.
Cast of Characters: Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Peregrine Took, Fredegar Bolger, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry
Locations of Interest: Hobbiton, The Marish, Bucklebury Ferry, Buckland, The Old Forest, The House of Tom Bombadil, The Barrow Downs, Bree
Prefer: Gildor Inglorion, Aragorn (Lore), Silvan allies, Hobbit allies, Dunedain allies, Dwarf allies
Avoid: Rohan, Gondor or Outlands characters
Weathertop and The Flight to the Ford
After reluctantly agreeing to join the mysterious ranger Strider, the Hobbits set out from Bree, accompanied by the indefatigable Bill the Pony, on their way to the last homely house in Rivendell. The journey is far from uneventful, however, as the Nazgul ambush the party while the camp underneath Weathertop. There Frodo receives a nearly-fatal wound from a Morgul Blade wielded by the Witch-King of Angmar. From there, it is a race to cross the Fords of Bruinen and find safety in Imladris. The brave Elf Warrior Glorfindel comes to their aid, single-handedly holding off the Black Riders as Frodo races ahead astride Glorfindel’s horse, Asfaloth.
Cast of Characters: Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, Peregrine Took, Strider, Glorfindel, Elrond, Gandalf
Locations of Interest: Bree, Weathertop, The Trollshaws, Fords of Bruinen, Imladris
Prefer: Dunedain allies; Noldor and Silvan allies
Avoid: Dwarf characters; Rohan, Gondor and Outlands characters
The Fellowship of the Ring
After much debate at the Counsel of Elrond, it is decided that eight individuals will accompany the ring bearer on his quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Distinguished Edain Boromir son of Denethor II and Aragorn, son of Arathorn are included. Gimli son of Gloin and Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil, represent the interest of Dwarves and Elves in their fight against The Dark Lord. Last, but not least, the Hobbits Sam, Merry and Pippin joined their friend Frodo on the perilous journey.
From Imladris the fellowship traveled to Caradhras at the end of the Misty Mountains, where they were pushed back by an evil storm. Turning aside, they were forced to pass the Watcher in the Water at the Doors of Durin and into Khazad-dûm. It was there that Gandalf fell fighting the Balrog that was Durin’s Bane. Finally escaping that fell demon, the fellowship made it through the Dimrill Dale and into the woods of Lorien. After receiving aid and parting gifts from the lord Celeborn and the lady Galadriel, they continued down the Anduin on elven-boats. At the hill of Amon Hen before the falls of Rauros, the fellowship was broken as Boromir fell defending Merry and Pippin from Uruk Hai.
Cast of Characters: Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Merry, Pippin
Locations of Interest: Imladris, The Misty Mountains, Khazad-dûm, Dimrill Dale, Lorien, The Anduin River, Amon Hen
Prefer: Haldir, Galadriel and Celeborn; Noldor and Silvan characters
Avoid: Gondor and Outlands characters
The Three Hunters
After the breaking of the fellowship, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas vow to hunt down the Orcs that have taken their friends, Merry and Pippin. Making truly heroic speed across Rohan, the hunters encounter Eomer and a contingent of the Rohirrim. After an initial misunderstanding is resolved, the hunters continue on to Fangorn forest where they make an unexpected, and welcome, discovery. Gandalf the Wizard has returned to Middle-Earth, this time as Gandalf the White. From their the four companions travel to Edoras, the hall of Theoden, king of Rohan.
Cast of Characters: Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Eomer, Theodred, Gandalf, Theoden, Hama, Eowyn, Wormtongue
Locations of Interest: Falls of Rauros, Rohan, Fangorn, Edoras
The Last March of the Ents
Having endured imprisonment at the cruel hands of the Uruk Hai, Merry and Pippin are able to escape into the ancient woods of Fangorn Forest. There they meet the great shepherd of trees, Treebeard the Ent. After a lengthy moot, the Ent, not ones to be hasty, finally decide to take action against the Wizard Saruman. Such is the anger of the Ents at the desecration of their beloved forests, they assault the tower of Orthanc directly, smashing the remnants of the wizard’s forces.
Cast of Characters: Merry, Pippin, Treebeard, Quickbeam, Ents
Prefer: Creature characters
Avoid: Rohan characters (they fear Fangorn)
The Ring Bearer’s Journey
Fleeing the temptation of Boromir at Amon Hen, Frodo leaves the fellowship accompanied only by his loyal friend Sam. The two Hobbits must make the long trek across Middle-Earth into the dark lands of Mordor. But they are not alone, for the creature Gollum is hunting them and the Ring which is his obsession. Gollum reluctantly becomes their guide through the dreary miles, have traveled them before. The Hobbits encounter Faramir, son of Denethor and brother to their defender Boromir. Faramir wisely allows Frodo to continue on his quest, after his rangers of Ithilien ambush a company of Haradrim that are mustering to swell the ranks of Sauron’s armies.
Cast of Characters: Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Faramir, Damrod, Anborn, Gollum
Locations of Interest: Dead Marches, Morannon, Ithilien, Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol, Mount Doom
Prefer: Gondor characters, Ranger characters
Avoid: All other characters
The Battle of Dale
While the forces of Gondor and Rohan were resisting Sauron’s armies in the South, the men of Dale and the dwarves of Erebor were under assault in the North. Men led by Brand son of Bain and dwarves led by and Dain Ironfoot II resisted a much larger force of Easterlings. After three days of heavy fighting, Brand and Dain were forced to retreat to the Lonely Mountain. Dain fell protecting the fallen body of his friend Brand. Word of the victory by the forces of Gondor and Rohan at the Battle of Pelennor Fields caused the northern Easterling army to waver. Seeing the morale of their foes sapped, defenders under the command of the new Kings — Bard II and Thorin III Stonehelm — managed to lift the siege and drive the Easterlings out of Dale.
Cast of Characters: Dain Ironfoot II, Brand son of Bain
Locations of Interest: Dale
Prefer: Erebor Record Keeper, Erebor Battle Master
Avoid: Silvan characters; Rohan, Gondor and Outlands characters
The Battle of the Hornburg
Removing to their traditional refuge in Helm’s Deep, the Rohirrim are assaulted by the main force of Saruman’s army of Uruk Hai and the men of Dunland. With the aid of Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, the force of Rohan make a last desperate stand against overwhelming odds. To the surprise of all, Huorns, ancient “half-awake” trees from Fangorn Forest moved to block the escape of their hated enemies, the Uruk Hai. This, and the last-minute arrival of Gandalf with Erkenbrand and a thousand infantry from the Fords of Isen turned the tide of the battle. The Dunlandings surrendered and thousands of Orcs fled into the newly-made forest of Huorns, where they were utterly destroyed. The “forest” disappeared the next morning.
Cast of Characters: Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Gandalf, Theoden, Eomer, Erkenbrand, Dunhere, Hama, Hurons
Locations of Interest: Edoras, Fangorn, Fords of Isen, Dunland, Hornburg
Prefer: Rohan characters
Avoid: Dwarf characters; Noldor and Silvan characters
The Fall of Saruman and Coming of the Grey Company
After the victory at Helm’s Deep, Theoden along with Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas accompany Gandalf to Orthanc. There the fellowship is almost reformed as they find Merry and Pippin waiting for them. Treebeard has ordered Saruman held guard after the destruction of Isengard. Gandalf gives the wizard one last chance at redemption but ultimately strips him of his title on the White Council and breaks Saruman’s staff. After leaving Treebeard to clean up Isengard, they travel south to the meet up with the Rohirrim in Edoras. Along the way, Pippin foolishly gazes into the Palantir forcing Gandalf to take him immediately to Gondor. Aragorn has a welcome surprise as the Lady Galadriel has sent word for his companions in the Grey Company to come to join his cause.
Cast of Characters: Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Theoden, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin, Treebeard, Saruman, Wormtongue, Elladan, Elrohir, Halbarad, Beravor (presumably)
Locations of Interest: Isengard, Edoras, Rohan
Prefer: Rohan characters, Dunedain characters, Ent characters (can’t wait)
Avoid: Dwarf characters; Noldor and Silvan characters; Gondor and Outlands characters
Retreat from Osgiliath and the Battle of Pelennor Fields
After valiantly trying to hold the ruins of Osgiliath from the overwhelming numbers of Sauron’s armies, Faramir and the rangers of Ithilien fall back to Minas Tirith. Sauron’s armies, led by Gothmog and the Witch-King of Angmar, laid siege to Minas Tirith. The battle looked bleak until the arrival of the Rohirrim lead by their King Theoden. The lord of the Nazgul attacked Theoden, trapping him under his horse. It was then that “Dernhelm” (Eowyn in disguise) and the Hobbit Merry slew the Witch-King of Angmar, fulfilling the prophecy that he would not be slain by a man. Aragorn, having traveled the Path of the Dead, brought an undead army from Pelargir to bolster the defense of the city. After valiant fighting, the defenders were able to rout the armies of Sauron. The war was far from won, as this was but a part of the dark lord’s forces.
Cast of Characters: Theoden, Eomer, Eowyn, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin, Denethor, Faramir, Beregond, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Elladan, Elrohir, Halbarad, Beravor (presumably) Prince Imrahil, Hirluin the Fair, Eleanor (presumably), Mouth of Sauron
Locations of Interest: Pelennor Fields, Osgiliath, Minas Tirith, Pelargir
Prefer: Rohan characters; Gondor and Outlands characters
Avoid: Dwarf characters; Noldor and Silvan characters
The Battle of Morannon and Destruction of the Ring
In a last ditch attempt to buy time for the ring bearer, Aragorn and the remaining forces of Rohan, Gondor and Arnor take the fight directly to the Black Gate. They are met by the Mouth of Sauron, who taunts them for the futility of their efforts. However, Gandalf’s gambit pays off as Frodo and Sam (with a little help from Gollum) are able to complete their quest and destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. With the imminent destruction of their master, Sauron’s forces are in disarray, some fleeing in terror and some fighting to the death. The timely arrival of the eagles saves Frodo and Sam and Aragorn in his last hour of need.
Cast of Characters: Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Pippin, Eomer, Gandalf, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Landroval, Gwaihir
Locations of Interest: Field of Cormallen, The Black Gate, Mount Doom
Prefer: Rohan characters; Gondor and Outlands characters; Dunedain characters, Eagle characters
Avoid: Dwarf characters; Noldor and Silvan characters