Well, I'm referring to the variant characters in the deluxe edition.
I'm seriously not sure how this one passed muster as far as balance. There are so many ways for the fellowship player to screw the Shadow.
First off, the Shire got a net increase in power of 2, while the Shadow dropped by 12. Now, this is not a good indicator, as there are a lot of factors involved. But it does show the general trend.
Now, getting to abilities.
First off, Sam + Gandalf is ridiculous. Sam equals the opponents power, he plays Elven Cloak, and then Gandalf pops up for a +1 and auto kill. The retreat sideways card for the shadow is rarely an option, especially in the mountains. So this is pretty much an auto kill (twice if you use the magic card!),
Then, there is Smeagol. Who in the world is going to take Pippin over Smeagol? I've set up a brutal 3 way triangle with Smeagol, Sam, and Gandalf. The Shadow can't get to Gandalf, and whichever it attacks between Smeagol and Sam will result in a kill for the Shire. It is practically impossible to break without sacrificing a couple of characters (or using Wormtongue judiciously).
The only good counter to all this is the Wargs. But putting them in the front right off the bat is risky. Also, the Shire player can send a wrench into the works by an early strike with Treebeard. At strength 6 in Fangorn, he is another that can use the Elven Cloak for insta kills. Once he deposits himself in Fangorn, he will be extremely hard to dislodge. The Watcher is a logical choice, but even so, it is an even battle. An early strike by him will cut off the wargs from moving up and breaking the advancing triangle.
Finally, Elrond is an absolute power house in the late game. It is by far the best move to save your magic card as long as possible. But with Elrond ignoring it, he can wait till the Shadow has played his 4, 5, and 6, and then cut a bloody swath through the enemy, resulting in several kills before the cards are recycled.
Finally, allowing the powerful Sam to be the ringbearer after Frodo is far more powerful than the previous pair of abilities. It is true that Frodo doesn't have the instant retreat, but that was unusable in the mountains anyway, and often could be cut off by a canny Shadow Player.
Ignoring the text ability of the opponents card is almost as good, as you can retreat backwards easily enough.
One other minor thing, Aragorn spells doom for an attacking variant Witch King, Mouth of Sauron, and Saruman, or classic Black Rider, Flying Nazgul, and Warg; which is one third of the Shadow's forces.
Against this, the Shadow really doesn't have very much new stuff. The Witch King's ability is nigh useless. It turns him into a dark Frodo. However, unlike Frodo, the Witch King does not have any useful retreating abilities, nor a very useful retreat card. Also, he can be instantly killed by Merry, making a Shire sneak extremely difficult at best.
The variant Saruman is nice, but loses much of his potency because the variant Gandalf is usually in the back.
While FFG did talk quite a bit about the new "Shire-run" option, I have yet to see it successfully pulled off. For optimum speed, it requires sacrificing 4 strength points, plus the loss of your best hobbit killer (wargs). In fact, taking Gollum over the Wargs is going to spell doom for you. If the Wargs kill Frodo, the game ends. They are about the only thing that can successfully fight the Gandalf-Sam combo (and it is a close battle anyway).
Without Gollum, the Shire rush becomes much harder.
Thoughts? I personally see that the new Shire characters are far too powerful. The original game was a game of stealth vs strength. You had to kill just enough Shadow characters to make an opening for Frodo to get through, and it was going to be a close thing even if you did. Every game put the Shire player on his toes as he had to desperatly try to sneak through an opening against the Shadow's vastly superior forces.
With the variant, I feel like taking Mordor by storm.
I posted something much like this on the old boards, but it wasn't quite as extensive. I'm posting it again because I've played a number of games since then and am more convinced than ever that the Shire has received a much unneeded boost.