For anyone who has not yet seen it, Ian has a great contest running over at Tales from the Cards. The idea is to create a new sphere for the game. This is an exciting challenge, and I definitely encourage everyone to go and check it out. Designing something as fundamental as a new sphere is no easy task. As a bear, and fearless slayer of Orcs, I’m not want to shy away from a good challenge. What follows is my attempt to design a fifth sphere, which I hope fit comfortably along side all of the existing official cards in our beloved game.
Before we look at individual cards, the most important aspect of designing a new sphere is to come up with the overall theme and concept. This includes the overall strengths and weaknesses of the sphere, along with important details like the name, color, the icon. The existing spheres do a great job of embodying the themes of Tolkien’s writings, but I feel there is at least one area that could be covered more thoroughly. Friendship is a central concept in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo’s friendship with the Dwarves is what motivates him to save them from their prisons in Elven-King’s Halls. Likewise, Sam’s deep devotion to his master Frodo is what allows the two Hobbits to complete their quest of destroying the One Ring.
So the name of our new sphere will be the Friendship sphere. Friendship is warm like the sun on your back in a beautiful summer day, so we will use Yellow as our color for this new sphere. There are many icons that we could use to represent friendship, but we also want this to fit into Tolkien’s legendarium, so we will use his Sindarin language. The Sindarin word for friendship is “gwend” so we will use the first character in that word (“ungwe”) as our icon. With these high-level decisions out of the way, we can move on to the more important question of what the cards in this sphere will do.
Designing a new sphere is a tricky business. One the one hand, we want to create something new that doesn’t simply copy the strengths and weaknesses of the existing spheres. On the other hand, we want the cards that we create to be able to easily interact with the existing spheres. If they only have synergy with each other, the new sphere will exist “on an island” and these new cards will have limited usefulness. Bearing that in mind, we are going to focus on a couple of abstract concepts that should make our sphere unique, but also afford it many interactions with official cards.
One example of friendship in the Lord of the Rings, which I have feel has not received sufficient attention in the existing card pool, is the Three Hunters. After the breaking of the Fellowship of the Ring and Boromir’s tragic death, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas go hunting the Uruk-Hai that have kidnapped Merry and Pippin. Their epic journey across Rohan to the forest of Fangorn is one of the greatest examples of the power of friendship in all of Tolkien’s legendarium.
To represent this friendship, our sphere will include new hero cards for each of these great characters. This group was more than the sum of its parts, so each of these hero’s will start at one less threat than the existing versions, with lessened stats and abilities. As long as each member of the Three Hunters is in play, they will receive bonus stats and abilities. Faced with a seemingly hopeless quest, these heroes banded together and fought for each other.
One of the important decisions about these boosting effects, is that they name the other hero’s by title, not by sphere. This means that you can mix and match the existing version of these three characters with the Friendship versions, as you see fit. Not limiting the interaction of our Friendship heroes with existing cards will offer more opportunities for deck-building and interesting new combinations.
Simply having these new heroes provide bonuses to each other would leave them rather plain. So we will introduce another concept, one that fits the overall theme of our new sphere. These cards will feature a new keyword called “friendly”. The idea is simple: for a given character, all other character cards in play that share at least one trait with that card are considered friendly.
For example, each of these new heroes has the “Hunter” trait, which means that they are all considered “friendly” with each other. Any trait can be used for this determination, so Gimli would also be considered friendly with an Erebor Hammersmith and Aragorn would be friendly with both Son of Arnor and Ithilien Tracker.
Using common traits not only encourages thematic deck-building, but it affords maximal interaction with the existing card pool. If you don’t want to make a Three Hunters-style deck, you could still use Legolas in a deck with many other Silvan characters like Silvan Tracker and Haldir. Gimli could not only work well in a Dwarf deck, but could also be used to protect your Gondorian Spearman and Defenders of Rammas, just as he did at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
By basing the value of this keyword on shared traits, it ensures that these cards remain relevant as the card pool grows and new mechanics are introduced. It also allows for surprising combinations of characters to keep the sphere from getting stale. Because these hero’s have appropriate stats for their starting threat, they can be useful even when you do not include them with each other.
Also, because one player does not have to control all of the heroes in order for their abilities to function. The number of players is another aspect of this sphere that is important to point out. Because characters that share a trait are considered friendly, regardless of who controls them, this sphere can function equally well in multi-player games as it does in solo play.
Rounding out the custom cards, we will create an attachment, an event and an ally. We don’t want to duplicate the abilities of other spheres, but we can certainly borrow ideas from them and make changes to better suite our sphere’s theme. I have always liked Master of the Forge, but when you think about it thematically, it can be a bit abstract. Pack animals are something that aided Tolkien’s heroes at various times during their epic journeys through Middle-Earth. They also prove to be loyal companions, as can be seen with Samwise Gamgee and Bill the Pony. Pack Horse is an attempt to embody this support, and provide a mechanic for accessing the most important attachments that would allow a Three Hunters-style deck to function. The fact that the pack horse is lost after the hero is attacked makes thematic sense as well as providing some balance for what is a very powerful ability.
Another aspect of the existing card pool that I have always liked is the Song cards. Not only are many of them quite useful, but they fit so well thematically because of their importance in Tolkien’s writing. In particular, I have always appreciated the style of Love of Tales, and been a bit disappointed that it takes so much work to gain real benefit from that card. As a bear who loves to bury things, I also have a real fondness for recursion effects, as well as effects that let you scry the top of your deck to sniff out the future.
This subtle event may not seem like much on first glance, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Not only does it let you reuse powerful cards, it replaces itself, and it provides you with valuable knowledge of what is on the top of your deck. In addition, it can be fetched using cards like Rivendell Minstrel and it actually provides an immediate resource advantage when coupled with Love of Tales.
A very important event in the story of the Three Hunters is the return of Mithrandir, as Gandalf the White. In need of haste, Gandalf summons Shadowfax, lord of horses, to aid him on his journey. I wanted Shadowfax to be powerful, but like his master, fickle. Indeed, without Gandalf, the mighty steed will not stay with the party for very long. The ability to completely remove a location from play can be critical, especially at those times when the staging area is filling up with too much threat.
The action advantage that comes from not exhausting to quest means that Shadowfax can be used for multiple tasks, for which his stats make him well-suited. Even if he will run away at the end of the round, Shadowfax can be a great help to get you out of a bind. With the more persistent version of Gandalf in play, Shadowfax will stay around for longer and provides a great companion for the wizard. Even with the core set version of Gandalf you can have the horse for two rounds, because you can check the forced effect on Shadowfax before the wizard leaves play at the end of the round.
Designing cards is not easy task, all the more so designing a new sphere. I’m sure there are plenty of oversights, even in these handful of cards, but it was a fun exercise. I encourage everyone to go participate in Ian’s contest; designing is a perfect way to gain new appreciation for the game, and the designers’ great work on it. If you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions of how you would design these cards differently, feel free to leave them below.