Apologies for the long delay in posting. Life has been a bit of a roller-coaster lately. Some advice from an old bear, don’t ever think “things can’t possibly get worse”, because life can and will prove you wrong. In any case, it is good to be back writing on the blog, and I hope that you all enjoy the release of this project which has been long in development.
If the title of the blog wasn’t proof enough, I have always been specifically fascinated by the character of Beorn, and his people the Beornings in a more general sense. There is something mysterious and mythologically significant about a man with the ability to change into an animal. While some readers may find the lack of detail frustrating, the fact that Tolkien leaves his story vague only adds to his appeal. If only George Lucas could have learned from this – sometimes less information makes a character better.
So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have always wanted a deluxe expansion focused on the Beornings. While I even went so far as to (jokingly) try to bribe Caleb at GenCon, this wish will probably never be fulfilled. There are so many other parts of Middle-earth to explore, and my particular obsession with Beorn and his people is not necessarily reflective of the desires of players of the game. Fortunately, I have access to Strange Eons and a blog where I get to write about whatever crazy idea I want.
This custom expansion is called Defenders of the Carrock and consists solely of player cards. Good design is very challenging – which is what makes the job that Caleb and Matt have been doing lately all the more impressive. It was more than enough of a task to come up with a set of player cards that were balanced, interesting and thematically cohesive, so that is what I have done. I will leave the custom scenarios to those with more talent for such things.
As I alluded at the top, this expansion has been in the works for quite some time. That’s not to say the results are anything impressive, just that this has been a labor of love that I have developed off an on over the last year. It is not easy to make a faction that is unique and interesting, while also maintaining a balance between powerful and game-breaking. Some players may find the designs here rather conservative, which is to some extent intentional as I designed the kind of cards that I like to play. I am far more motivated to use cards with fun and interesting interactions than just the most obviously powerful cards. In short, the game doesn’t need another Spirit Glorfindel or Dain Ironfoot and it seems silly to design custom cards to compete with them.
With that in mind, I wanted to design this expansion around a couple of sub-themes and I wanted it to fit in with the existing card pool. One of the most impressive things that Caleb and Matt have done in their recent designs is to skillfully integrate new archetypes with existing cards. This is no trivial task as there were multiple designers who held stewardship over the game before either of them came along. To give an example of new archetypes that blend seamlessly with existing cards, look at the nascent Noldor decks built around hero Erestor. I take particular joy when I notice how fluidly cards like Protector of Lórien and Trollshaw Scout interact with this new archetype.
This is certainly a deck-building win as it provides a whole host of Noldor and discard-related cards that are ready to slot into decks of this archetype. As importantly to players like me though, it makes the Noldor faction feel real – as opposed to a bunch of arbitrary abstractions that are manifested as some game mechanics. Honoring past designs, while forging ahead into new and interesting territory is exactly what I wanted to do with this expansion.
With very few existing Beorning cards to work with, this proved quite the challenge. Outside of Gandalf and Faramir, Beorn is the most powerful ally in the Core Set. His transformational stat boost is still one of the most effective – not to mention fun – ways to finish off a boss enemy. He also has the interesting cost of shuffling into your deck, which is not a cost seen in other factions up to this point.
I wanted to avoid an archetype that assumes the presence of Hero Beorn – noting that he is a very difficult card to build around in general. So, the Core Set version of Beorn acted as the first prominent design inspiration. This immediately put me in the mindset of allies with high hit points and abilities that require them to be shuffled into their owner’s deck. One of the pleasant side effects of this particular sub-theme is that is removed the need to design healing as-such into any cards, as allies leaving play is a somewhat indirect, though granted inefficient, replacement for healing effects. In any case, I didn’t want to take the lazy way out and just give Beorning a “Warden of the Carrock” ally as that would be both obvious and boring.
At a cost of 4, with an ability that requires him to be discarded, the Beorning Beekeeper is much maligned by most players. While his direct damage can be devastating in the right scenarios (hello Khazad-dûm), his ability is conditional and Tactics has limited forms of resource acceleration. Even for players running Horn of Gondor or Mablung, there are so many better choices for a four-cost ally. Also, with the more aggressive style of recent play, it isn’t often that you find yourself leaving that many enemies in the staging area to take full benefit of this effect.
The direct damage did catch my eye, and it made me think about what is was thematically that I wanted the Beorning faction to embody. If Gondor is a defensive-minded faction (Gondorian Shield, Behind Strong Walls, For Gondor!, etc.), I wanted Beorning to be an inherently aggressive faction. Taking one look at hero Beorn should paint a much more vivid picture than I ever could with words. Put simply, Beornings are good at killing things, particularly when those things are Orcs and Trolls. This idea of aggression coupled with damage gave me the second major sub-theme of the Beorning faction. Beornings will get bonuses when they are dealing with damaged enemies.
It is easy to forget just how humorous Tolkien’s writing can be. The entire Queer Lodgings chapter is chock-a-block with jokes and silly details – it is clear that the professor had a great deal of fun writing it. With the mechanical concerns of designing cards, this most important kind of fun can sometimes be lost. Which leads to the last major sub-theme for the Beorning faction. Beornings, like all of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, hold good food and drink as high ideals. This respect for the simple pleasures may seem quaint or anachronistic to some modern readers, but as I get to be an older bear, I realize the deeper wisdom in this idea. Being able to appreciate good food and drinks with your friends and loved ones is one of the most magical things a person can do. Even with the would-be acolytes of Sauron seemingly running amok these days, an old bear can’t become too cynical to appreciate the joy of a delicious meal in welcome company.
The food and drink did push me to add a new keyword, which warrants an explanation:
Portion X: Attachments with the Portion X keyword enter play with X resource tokens on them. They cannot ever have more than X resource tokens on them (sadly, you can’t overfill a stein or eat a honey cake that doesn’t exist). These attachments have effects which can only be triggered by exhausting them and removing one or more resource tokens. If they have no remaining resource tokens the attachment is not discarded, its triggered effect simply cannot be used until it is refilled by another card effect. Many cards with the Portion X keyword can optionally be attached to another valid target after their ability is triggered (sharing is caring).
I suppose it’s silly how much I have thought about these unofficial cards, but this project is dear to my ursine idiosyncrasies. As such, I could ramble on and on about the particular designs of individual cards, but I am more curious to hear feedback from other players of the game. What do you guys think of the cards? Would you play with them – or would they be relegated to the dust-bin along with poor old Brok Ironfist? Are there any obviously broken combos (and yes, I know that Anduin Lookout is awesome with A Very Good Tale – that was intentional). Are any of the cards too weak? If so, how would you improve them without making them too powerful? Please do leave comments below as I am interested to hear your thoughts. Hopefully wizards stop sending evil storms to impede my progress and I can return to a more regular blog-posting schedule. For printable versions of each of these cards, please contact us. In the mean time, be well everyone!