Good Morning All! I hope you are all doing well and have had a chance to play a game or two coming off of the Holidays. As some of you may or may not have noticed the Hero of the Month for January is Beorn! So far there’s only been two articles posted, one going a little in depth into Beorn and his pros and cons, and another covering a deck list I came up with a few days ago. This article however, is a bit special, as we get to get some insight into everyone’s favorite skin-changer from the big bear himself. Beorn, over at the appropriately named Hall of Beorn, was very generous and took some time out of his day taking care of animals and tending to his garden to answer a few questions. Enjoy!
“First of all, how did you get into LOTR: LCG?
I have played card games off on since the early days of Magic: The Gathering. The Middle-earth CCG was one of my favorite games from that time period, but I haven’t played card games for many years until more recently. My wife and I were introduced to A Game of Thrones LCG a couple of years and that was my first exposure to LCGs. My experience from playing in the tournament scene in Magic means that I tend to make very aggressive and ruthless decks. While this is a great strategy in a competitive environment, it is not ideal for playing friendly games with my wife. I have always been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien – some of my first memories are of my father reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to me. I had heard about the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game and saw a few people playing it at our local game store. That fact that it was a cooperative game based in one of my favorite settings made me decide to check it out. Many games based on licenses are shallow and lack replay value, so I was pleasantly surprised to find such a deeply strategic game that stays true to the spirit of the books.
What about the game drew you in and kept you hooked?
After buying the Core Set and playing a few games with my wife, it wasn’t long before I went out and bought everything that my FLGS had in stock. This was at the end of the Dwarrowdelf cycle so that was a considerable investment, but this is one of the best games I’ve ever played so it turned out to be a great decision. There are so many things that I like about the game, but I think that one of the aspects that really hooked me was the level of detail. There are some great characters in the books that unfortunately do not receive as much attention. In some cases, their stories are further elaborated in appendices or in the Silmarillion (which I have since come to love along with the Children of Hurin). In other cases, however, Tolkien has left it to the reader’s imagination how these characters fit into the the larger narrative. This is good writing – a level of mystery encourages the reader to tell the rest of the story in their own mind. One of the things that I really enjoy about the game is being able to take these more minor figures – characters like Haldir, Erkenbrand and Beregond – and create new stories with them in Middle-earth. It captures one of the best things about pencil and paper RPGs, but in a format the can be played in a as little as an hour. As a busy husband with many responsibilities, the ability to play the game relatively quickly and even solo, is a big plus.
Now that I have been involved with the game for a couple of years, the biggest thing that keeps me hooked is the community. I met Matthew, Derek and Ian through The Cardboard of the Rings podcast. They have become close friends of mine and we just last year were able to meet up at GenCon – it was the first time that the Grey Company was assembled in one place! If I did not love the game as much as I do, I never would have started a blog, or joined a podcast, but honestly what keeps me involved more than anything is have the opportunity to collaborate with people that I respect and enjoy working with. We have a lot of fun contributing in our own small way to the community, and some of the conversations that we have about the game and its community are almost as entertaining to me as the game itself.
Why did you decide to start the blog? Did the idea for the card search come first or did the blog?
I was inspired to start the Hall of Beorn blog after reading Ian’s Tales from the Cards blog. I have always appreciated passionate people who write about what interests them, and reading Tales from the Cards I was stuck by not only Ian’s love of the source material, but his understanding of the game. His fine work inspired me to add my voice to the discussion and I am proud to say that the blog has been going strong for more than 2 years now.
I launched the card search engine in November of 2013, so it definitely came after the blog. Like many creations, it was not actually something that I had planned to do, but it ultimately solved a couple of problems that were plaguing me. There were a couple of other search engines for the Lord of the Rings LCG, but they were often out of date or inaccurate. With a blog where I wanted to post deck lists and strategies articles that linked to the latest cards, this was a problem. Still, in itself this was not enough to motivate me to undertake such an endeavor. However, the search engine that I had been using for almost all of my deck lists and strategy articles decided to change its URL scheme without warning. This meant that overnight my blog had hundreds of dead URLs. I almost immediately started receiving emails from readers about these broken links. I could have used a script to rewrite all of these URLs to use the new format, but this would not solve the underlying problem. I did not want another site to be able to break so much of the content of my blog.
I have been a software engineer for about 16 years now, so I had all of the skills necessary to design and implement a card search engine. In a way, my experience in my day job prepared me to solve this exact kind of problem. So I wrote a script to pull all of the card information and images from OCTGN and I used that as a starting point for the Hall of Beorn card search. Not only did I want it to be faster and have more search features than the existing search engines, but I made a promise to never break existing URLs, so that any other sites which link to it would never have to deal with the problem that I had faced. Like the blog, the search engine has grown into much more than I originally conceived. It is hosted on Amazon with a load balancer to handle the rush of users that tends to come immediately after a new expansion is released. It has been a great opportunity to learn more about creating, deploying and managing software that scales. The community has helped me with feedback and bug reports, but I want to specifically thank Tom Howard (aka GeckoTH). His help has been instrumental in keeping the search engine up to date with the latest images.
How did the Beorn persona come to be? Is he your favorite character?
In a weird way, Facebook is responsible for the creation of the Beorn persona. Like most people in the mid 2000’s, I had a Facebook profile. Once it became clear that they had no regard for privacy and security, I closed my Facebook profile. Unfortunately, friends and family would use Facebook to communicate parties and events, as well as sending individual messages. Without a profile, I was out of the loop so I begrudgingly decided to sign up again. There was no way that I would sign up with my real information, so I decided to create a persona for the profile. Since Facebook requires “believable” names, I decided to choose the name and an absurdist persona based on one of my favorite characters. Later, when I decided to start a blog, I kept this character to use as a writerly abstraction. Writing about a game, particularly one as strategically deep as this one, can risk becoming dry. I figured that writing from the perspective of a giant bear would allow me to inject some humor into the writing that might otherwise seem out of place.
Ever since my dad first read the Hobbit to me, I have always been intrigued by the character of Beorn. A man who transforms into a bear and unexpectedly comes to the rescue of some hapless Dwarves makes quite an impression on a young boy. Like Tolkien’s best writing, there is an aura of mystery around the character. Where did he come from? What gives him the power to transform into a bear? Are there others like him? How powerful is he compared to characters like Gandalf and Elrond? Some of this mystery doubtless stems from the fact that the Hobbit was written long before The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien never truly had a chance to integrate the two stories to his satisfaction. Some Tolkien enthusiasts choose to see the Hobbit less as a historical account and more as Bilbo’s fanciful retelling of the tale – much like he would tell it to scare the young Hobbits seated around his hearth. Suffice it to say, Beorn remains a fascinating character and one of my absolute favorites in all of Tolkien’s legendarium.
Do you still use Beorn the Hero in any of your games? Do you use the ally at all?
Yes, absolutely! Caleb did a superb job in designing this hero. It is so unique. Many players are critical of his obvious downsides, particularly being immune to player card effects. But his stats and giant hit point pool (double of even the most hearty heroes!) make him a fantastic choice for scenarios where it is critical to gain an early game edge against the encounter deck. The most recent deck that I used with hero Beorn was designed specifically for the new Nightmare version of Into Ithilien. While it frustrated me tremendously when it was first released, Into Ithilien has since become one of my favorite scenarios. I knew that I would need a heavily combat-oriented deck in order to survive the nightmare version of the quest. Ultimately, I went with Beorn, Tactics Boromir and Spirit Glorfindel. Beorn was an MVP in my successful play-through of the quest as his 5 attack meant that I could reliably defeat enemies the turn that I engaged them – or make a major contribution to the quest. In addition, his 10 hit points allowed me to soak up all of the archery without having my other characters succumb to death by a thousand cuts.
I actually use ally Beorn more now than I have in the past. The reason for this is all of the powerful ally mustering effects that are now available. My Hobbit Secrecy deck includes ally Beorn even though it lacks a Tactics hero. Between Elf-stone, Timely Aid, A Very Good Tale and even Stand and Fight, I have numerous way to get him into play. At 6 resources, even if I had a sphere match it would take a long time to pay his cost. Getting him into play earlier is essential as his 3 defense and 6 hit points make him one of the best defenders in the deck. I don’t even mind if he takes some damage because I am usually just saving him to take down a “boss” enemy. Being able to add 8 attack to whatever other character I have available really helps to overcome the high defense of the tougher enemies. I don’t much mind that he shuffles into my deck after triggering this effect, as the game is usually over by that point anyway.
It’s safe to say that I really like both versions of Beorn and I use any opportunity that I can to include them in my decks.
If you still use Beorn, or when you did, what other Hero or key player cards often accompanied him?
I like to pair hero Beorn with more well-rounded heroes. He is very good at some areas of the game, and completely useless at others – so I find it is important to choose heroes and a deck that can cover his weaknesses. In the example that I cited above for Nightmare Into Ithilien, that deck did not use weapons, because the attack strength of the heroes was enough to overcome most enemies (Mûmakil are difficult for any deck to overcome). However, it was important that the other heroes could perform multiple tasks to support Beorn. Tactics Boromir has arguably the best readying effect in the game, particularly when I want to be engaging most enemies the round they come into play anyway. Likewise, Glorfindel’s ability to use Light of Valinor to quest and still participate in combat was essential to the deck’s strategy. Beorn can help with blocking in the early game, but his hit points are not unlimited, so it is good to have another hero who can take over as a defender, once Beorn has taken a few attacks. At this point in the game, Beorn will switch to being a dedicated quester or attacker. For that deck, Boromir was my late-game defender, with help from Gondorian Shield and Support of the Eagles.
Being able to have 11 points worth of attack on the table with only your starting heroes is really a powerful thing – it allows other aspects of the deck to focus on other things and results in a deck that is very focused on the task at hand. As much as it is fun to load up a hero with weapons, a hero that can kill enemies without the aid of weapons can be a decided advantage, particularly in the early game or with bad draws. I find that my decks that I build with Beorn tend to be more consistent – his lack of synergy with player cards actually forces you to play more good solid cards, and less “combo”-style cards. Other than Landroval, Dori and Fortune or Fate, there really aren’t many combos with Beorn. One exception to this that is worth noting is Hails of Stones. I have always enjoyed this card, not only because it is fun thematically to think of your characters throwing rocks at the enemy, but because it can be very effective in Tactics decks that feature a good number of allies. One of the interesting things about this card is that exhausting a character is part of the cost, and immunity from effects does not prevent a card from being used to pay a cost. This means that Beorn can be exhausted to pay for Hail of Stones, which is a nice trick to know.
Some people think Beorn is losing value as the game progresses as the enemies get tougher combined with his inability to interact with player cards… do you agree?
With more and more enemies have 3 or 4 attack strength, I can see why players would think that Beorn is no longer useful. It is important to remember that just as the scenarios evolve, so too the player card pool is in a near-constant state of flux. Other than Boromir, the Tactics sphere doesn’t have much in the way of action advantage, which make’s Beorn ability to defend without exhausting a significant one. Even if you are only going to use him to defend in the first couple of rounds, not having to dedicate another defender to doing so can be a huge help. I suspect that we will see cards which reduce enemy attack strength, in which case Beorn will leap right back into relevancy. There is no denying it, being immune to player card effects severely restricts the cards that Beorn can directly interact with, but I choose to see this as an opportunity for creativity – rather than just a limitation. Making unique decks remains one of the biggest appeals of this game for me, and there is no denying that Beorn is one of the most unique heroes to choose from.
Do you have any future plans for Hall of Beorn?
I really want to continue Beorn’s Path, but it is very hard to fit time in my schedule to write more of those articles. Between playing the game while taking notes, creating screenshots, then compiling everything into a hopefully entertaining narrative, the articles take a increasingly onerous amount of time and energy. With the amount of time that I dedicate to the blog and podcast, I know that at times my wife must feel like a Tolkien widow sometimes. In any case, I know that players enjoy these articles, and I would very much like to continue them, but I think that I need to find a less labor-intensive way of providing them. As far as other plans, more than anything I want to try to make time in my schedule to get back to writing the deeper strategy articles that I focused on in the first year of the blog. I enjoy thinking about and writing those articles, and I think that many of the readers enjoy them as well. With less time to dedicate to the blog than I would like I have been considering seeking contributors, so we might just see other players adding their articles and deck lists to the Hall of Beorn this year.
What are your thoughts on the future of the game? On the podcast you all seem to agree that locations are the most in need of improvement of some sort. Are there other aspects that you would like to see improved? Are there attributes of the game that you think have improved since release?
The game is in great hands with Caleb and Matt. It started with a great design, but for the first couple of years of the game I feel like FFG didn’t exactly know what they had. I don’t know of any high-profile asymmetrical, strategic, cooperative card games that exist before this game (though some others have definitely come after). As much as I like to go back to the Shadows of Mirkwood for nostalgia’s sake, I definitely prefer the newer content to the old. The designers are very good at finding different ways to bring the tension and decision making to the forefront, while remaining true to the rich underlying themes of Tolkien. This potent mix of theme and strategy are what makes this game truly unique among card games, or any games really. As good as the Against the Shadow and Ring-maker cycles have been (along with the Saga expansions of course), I feel like the designers are only getting better at bringing out the full potential of this game.
This is not to say that the game is not perfect, however. I am happy to say that my local Austin group has continued to grow, but in so doing we have been confronted head on with what I consider one of the unfortunate blemishes in the game’s design. Scaling is a very difficult thing in any game, which is why many games are only designed for a specific number of players without any real flexibility. It is great that the game supports anywhere from 1 to 4 players, but we are finding that the latter is a hypothetical, rather than practical feature. Quite frankly, many of the quests do not scale evenly between 1 to 4 players. Many of the newer scenarios are fantastic with 1 or 2 players, and are among my favorites in the game. But now that we are attempting these same scenarios with 4 players, we are finding them to be punishingly difficult. It is clear in many games that we have lost by the second round. Some of this can be attributed to ad-hoc decks. There is no guarantee that 4 decks will be well-suited to a given scenario. To be sure, we are working more closely to coordinate our decks and we will continue to try to overcome these scenarios in 4-player games. However, I suspect that even with finely-tuned some of these scenarios are going to take good luck, and many many attempts to ever beat. One the one hand I enjoy the challenge, but it can be a bit demoralizing when you only have time for 2 games or 3 games and they each end half-way through with the players being completely destroyed. The good news is that the player card pool is always improving, so I have no doubt that these scenarios that seem impossible today will become more viable in the future.
The scaling problem is a difficult one to solve, and I do think that locations are a part of the reason for some quests being absurdly difficult in 4 player games. In the last couple of years, we have seen many heroes abilities and card effects around engaging enemies. With the Dúnedain, we will presumably see more of those and that faction seems to be focused on keeping enemies engaged with you. This is great strategic aspect of the game to see expanded, but I hope that we continue to see effects around locations. Idraen’s effect is a good example of a very interesting ability – I especially like that it does not a have a per-round or per-phase limit. I hope to see more effects like this, that play off of locations. I think a player card that allows the players to have an additional active location would be a very useful card. Solo players would doubtless complain that it is useless for their decks, because aggressive solo decks can usually manage the staging area very effectively. Still, I think that we are at a point in the game where it is okay for some cards to more exclusively solo or multi-player. From cards cards like Follow Me! and Message from Elrond is looks like the designer have a similar view, which is encouraging.
I enjoyed the Ring-maker cycle tremendously, but I did find that the ideal number of players for the game is now firmly set at 2. Most of the new scenarios tend to be on the easy side with played with a well-designed solo deck. On the other hand, those same scenarios can become herculean in a 3 or 4 player game. At this point, 2 players seems to be the sweet spot, which is the way I started playing the game and it certainly works for me. I do know that there are a lot of players who play solo, and a fair number who player with larger groups. If there was one thing that I would like to see for this game going forward it would to have is scale smoothly between 1 and 4 players.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to this year for the game, is there any character or point in the story that you are anxious to see?
I can’t wait to be able to make a Grey Company deck. The only named character that we are missing is Halbarad and I would be shocked if we didn’t see him in this upcoming cycle. I have always really liked the Grey Company in the story of the Lord of the Rings and in the larger history of Middle-earth. Like Beorn, Tolkien didn’t write all that much about them, but they are no less intriguing for the mystery. The fact that they would not balk at following Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead speaks volumes about their character, in any case. We choose the name for our podcast because each of us have our own affinity for the characters and their role in the story in some form or fashion, so I think it would be very appropriate for the Grey Company podcast to finally be able to make some Grey Company-themed decks. Some might argue that you could make these decks now, but I am looking forward to seeing the Dúnedain faction more fully developed, first. If the Ring-maker cycle was any indication from a narrative perspective, I think the story that we see in the Lost Realm and it’s cycle will be likewise a wonderful thing to behold. It is a great time to be a part of this game, and if my interactions on the blog are any indication the game continues to grow in popularity.
Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share a bit of my story and I wish you all the best with your blog. It is a great adventure that you are undertaking!”
Thank you so much Da-… I mean… Beorn for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a couple of questions! It was truly a pleasure!
-The Secondhand Took
-The Secondhand Took