Just got through my first complete game, playing as that oh-so-nasty Maia Sauron, up against my 2 brothers representing the Free Peoples with an unlikely company of Elf and Dwarf. Unfortunately those pitiful creatures managed to thwart the Ringwraiths in the finale and ****** victory away from me, but I had a blast nonetheless. I did have some concerns with the gameplay, though, so I thought I might share my thoughts here so that I can get some feedback on them.
1) Limit on Plot Cards
I lost even though the heroes managed to discard NOT ONE of my plots. Now granted, I was one stinking spot away from the finale with my red marker while the heroes were 2 away with theirs, and my mission was "Red marker in stage 3", so I was awfully close to winning outright. Nevertheless, the rules regarding plots and the advancement of the story markers seem they're a little off. Every post that I have read suggesting strategies for the heroes indicates that they should get favor and kill plots. This doesnt seem necessarily like the best way to win, in certain cases. The initial plot that Sauron has only provides 1 "Story" per turn. If this stays in play, the Sauron player has little chance of reaching his goal quickly enough. By getting rid of it, the heroes could be doing Sauron a favour, since he would have to waste a turn getting rid of it anyways. This seems contrary to the feel and story of the game. The fact that Sauron is limited to 3 plots, and that he actually has to waste a turn to get of one, can lead to situations like this. To compound this issue, there are more plots in the deck that only give 1 point per turn, and this just seems like a waste of a plot turn for Sauron; you're going to have to discard it at some point, which means you'll have to waste a turn discarding it. Unless the heroes do something stupid like get rid of it....
2) Accruing of "Story points" (spaces along the Story Track, one space= 1 Story Point)
This is somewhat of a subpoint of the above. With the FP marker going up two spaces a turn, and Sauron having most likely up to 2 SP/turn for each marker eventually, it just seems like Sauron is always behind. It's unlikely that you'll be able to get 2 plots into play on your first 2 full turns that give 2 SP/turn; a more likely scenario is 1 on the first turn, 1 on the 3rd turn. With this scenario, barring the playment of Shadow cards, the earliest that Sauron could advance all the markers to the Darkness Falls space is turn 8. Now keep in mind that's without the heroes getting rid of a single plot. Granted, this assumes only 3 rests (I think) on the part of the heroes, but the fact that almost the best case scenario for Sauron leads to a victory a mere one turn before the hero marker hits the Finale seems to imply that a lot of things have to go right in order for the Sauron player to achieve an outright victory. This seems also somewhat contrary to the theme; it's the SAURON player who is behind the 8 ball, who has to struggle to make things happen on time, and even then is hard-pressed to advance to the finale before the heroes. It could be just my opinion, but it seems that it should be the heroes that are under this kind of pressure.
3) The Finale
This honestly was the biggest disappoinment for me. One hero against 8 of the Nine? If anything can bring out my evil laugh, this is it. But as soon as I read the rules (right before we actually fought), I realised that I really had very little chance. The fact that the Ringwraiths have 9 health and the hero has a minimum of 25 makes this fight pretty one-sided. Now granted, he has to beat me to win, but all it takes is one unblocked Attack of Opportunity and I really don't have a prayer. That's 7 of my 9 health in one shot, with little to no drawback for the hero, since he really can completely disregard how much damage he takes. I heavily outdamaged my brother in the finale, but it didnt matter; with only one card in my hand with a shield icon, there really was very little chance for me to survive. I will admit that this won't always happen; I should have pulled more defensive cards, if everything was equal. But it points out a very blatant flaw in this final battle.... I cant win by killing him, so defensive cards are really the only option. It takes away a lot of the best parts of combat and makes only a single strategy viable. This should never be the case, as far as I'm concerned.
Don't get me wrong, I loved playing, but as a guy who loves the intricacies of game mechanics, these points are going to nag at me, as they seem to bring out some deficiencies in the rules. If there are any points that can be made contrary to what I've said, or some ways to alleviate these problems, then I would genuinely love to hear them.