It has been a little while since I last walked my Path Less Traveled, but this week I felt a stirring in my feet and I knew that it was time for me to pick up my walking staff and continue my journey. This time, I will be wandering through The Road Darkens, the second Saga expansion in the narrative of the Lord of the Rings. This box faithfully recreates the most iconic scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring, wherein the quest for the ring becomes ever more desperate.
What new evils await us in the darkness? We’re about to find out!
A note on Campaign mode
Just like any other Deluxe expansion, the only other product you need to buy to play The Road Darkens is the Core Set. Each quest is perfectly capable of being played as its own separate experience.
But the Saga expansions also introduce a second option: playing each quest as a connected experience in “Campaign mode”. This allows you to continue the narrative that started in the previous box, The Black Riders, carrying special Campaign-only cards forward from that box into this one. You can continue this Campaign all the way through the rest of the plot of The Lord of the Rings, with things happening in these early expansions that affect the way later quests play out.
I gave a pretty detailed overview of the Campaign mode mechanics in my article on The Black Riders, so rather than rehashing it all here I’ll just point you back there for the nitty gritty details.
So which mode will I be playing?
That’s the question I keep asking myself.
When I think about the purpose of this series, I can see an argument for ether mode. On one hand, FFG doesn’t seem to reprint the Saga expansions all at once, so it’s pretty likely that new players will have to buy the Saga expansions out of order. If I were in that situation, I would want to know how the expansion plays in a vacuum, and whether it’s a worthwhile investment or if I should instead look elsewhere.
On the other hand, it’s a commonly held belief in the community that the Campaign is balanced so that someone who bought nothing but the Saga expansions could have a good time. If true, that would make “Sagas only” a nice subset of expansions that someone on a budget could use to get a little more value out of their game without breaking the bank. The only problem is that—for as often as this belief is repeated—I have never actually heard of someone testing it all the way through. This series would be a great opportunity for me to do so. Plus, Campaign mode is a lot of fun.
With compelling reasons on either side, which mode would be a better fit for the series? How will I ever decide?
¿Por qué no los dos?
As is so often the case, I want to have my cake and eat it too. So I’m not going to choose. I’m just going to play each Quest both in Campaign mode and as a standalone. I’m not yet sure if each playthrough is going to get its own article or if I’ll separate them into different articles. I’ll figure that out as I go, I guess.
When I play a Quest in Campaign mode, I’ll allow myself to use player cards from any of the previous LotR Saga expansions. When I play a Quest as a standalone adventure, however, I’ll limit myself to just the player cards found in the Core Set and the current box.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about…
New cards for a new journey
Just like in The Black Riders, when playing Quests from this expansion you’re required to use a Fellowship Sphere version of Hero Frodo. The Frodo included in The Road Darkens has a defensive ability, allowing you to spend a single Fellowship resource and raise everyone’s threat by 2 to cancel damage that would be dealt to Frodo during a single defense. In addition to paying for his ability, you can use Frodo’s Fellowship resources to pay for cards like Fellowship of the Ring—my favorite Fellowship card in the whole Saga. Fellowship of the ring provides a flat +1 willpower bonus to all Heroes in play, but if a character is destroyed, the Fellowship’s spirit is broken and the card is lost.
Honestly, though, the Fellowship cards are probably the least interesting player cards in the box; after all, you’re not allowed to use them outside of the Saga quests. Much more interesting are the general-purpose player cards.
Well, I call them “general purpose” since they can be used against any quest in the game. But if I’m honest, the cards in The Road Darkens are anything but general purpose. In reality, the majority of them are built around one thing.
One Hero to rule them all
In stark contrast with the previous box, which contained 4 new Heroes to play with, The Road Darkens contains only one: Gandalf.
This is one doozy of a Hero. He has the highest threat cost in the game, clocking in at a massive 14—and he has the stats to match. He’s also the only Hero in the game without a printed sphere. Instead, he gains access to the four standard spheres once per phase to pay for the top card of your deck—which, conveniently, he lets you see at any time. A deck with Gandalf in it plays very differently from any other deck in the game!
It’s worth mentioning that there are a lot of shenanigans you can pull off using Gandalf’s ability to see the top card of your deck. The best of them require player cards from outside of the Lord of the Rings Saga. Rest assured, though, these sorts of combos aren’t required to get good use out of Gandalf; in fact, many of them may even push him into “overpowered” territory. But if you’re looking to get good use out of Gandalf’s abilities, there are still plenty of interesting combos built right into the box.
Just like any other Hero, Gandalf can pay for neutral cards, but if you want to use his ability to pay for cards from any of the four cardinal spheres, you’re going to need a way to get useful cards on top of your deck. Fortunately, The Road Darkens comes with a few additional tools to help you out with that.
Most important is Wizard Pipe, which attaches to an Istari character and allows you to swap a card from your hand with the top card of your deck once per round. It’s the key to being able to use Gandalf’s resources efficiently, so the sooner you can find it, the better. Fortunately, the box also comes with a new Spirit Ally in the form of Bilbo Baggins, who fetches any Pipe Attachment from your deck for you when he enters play. He’s a great source of relatively cheap willpower, too.
The box also includes a few other neutral cards aimed at helping you to get maximum use out of the Grey Wizard. Gandalf’s Staff is an Attachment that gives Gandalf a whole new set of abilities, allowing you to use him for Shadow Card cancellation, resource generation, or card draw once per round. And if you need to use Gandalf’s beefy stats more than once, you can play the 1-cost Event Flame of Anor to ready him, discard the top card of your deck, and give him an attack boost equal to the discarded card’s cost. Bonus points if you use the Wizard Pipe to stack the deck ahead of time.
The box does contain a few cards that aren’t purely Gandalf-focused. Two of these are “discard at the end of the round” Allies in a similar vein to Core Set Gandalf. And just like Core Gandalf, they trigger some pretty splashy abilities when they enter play: Galadriel gives you a free Attachment from the top 5 cards of your deck (and even lets you reorganize those cards before you put them back on top) while Elrond gives you the choice between healing, Condition removal, or card draw. Both cards are a little on the expensive side for a temporary Ally, but can be quite useful in the right deck.
The final card in the box, Ally Boromir, feels like a bit of an outlier. He costs 4 whole Tactics resources, making him kind of expensive for your average deck. His 1 defense jumps up to 3 while defending an Enemy with an engagement cost higher than your threat, which seems more at home in a Hobbit deck than one featuring 14-threat Gandalf. If he takes damage, you can ready him up to make use of his 3 attack power, which is a nice bonus.
And… that’s it
That’s all the player cards in the box. It feels light when compared to The Black Riders, which included 3 more Heroes and 3 more distinct player cards.
I’m not sure how I feel about The Road Darkens’ laser-focus on a single Hero. On one hand, it’s freaking Gandalf. He’s an awesome character from the books, and he’s an incredibly powerful and interesting Hero to play. If anyone deserved a box all to themselves, it would be Gandalf.
On the other hand, Hero Gandalf plays differently from any other Hero in the game. If he doesn’t match your playstyle, then most of the cards in the box are going to be duds. Plus, any time you use Hero Gandalf in your deck, you won’t be able to benefit from his excellent Core Set Ally—and it’s especially tough to lose out on that deckbuilding staple when working with a small card pool.
Ultimately, whether you like the player cards from The Road Darkens is going to come down to whether or not you enjoy Hero Gandalf. Some people thrive on the power he brings to a well-tuned deck; others find him unnecessarily complex. The box puts all its eggs in one big subjective basket, so it’s hard for me to either recommend or disrecommend it to new players on the grounds of player cards alone.
Fortunately, the player cards make up less than half of what you get in a new Deluxe expansion. Next, I’ll be playing through the first Quest of the box, The Ring Goes South! Is that the howling of wolves that I hear in the distance?
“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread.”
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