At last, “The Voice of Isengard” has arrived and my heroes have taken up arms against the wild men of Dunland to aid the valiant Rohirrim and escort the sniveling Gríma to Saruman in Isengard! The first scenario is called “The Fords of Isen” and it’s a beautiful introduction to the geography and peoples of the province of Calenardhon, or as it became known in the Third Age after the Oath of Eorl, the country of Rohan.
In fact, our fierce Fight at the Fords presages Saruman’s opening salvo in the War of the Ring. It is at the Fords of Isen, a mere five days before Gandalf the White and the Three Hunters arrive at Théoden’s halls in The Two Towers, that Saruman first sends his army of uruks and wild men into open battle against the men of Rohan. And it is to the defense of the Fords that Théoden’s company is riding forth to war under their rejuvenated king when the news of Rohan’s retreat reaches them and they go instead to fortify Helm’s Deep.
It is the unique geography of the Gap of Rohan that makes the Fords of Isen such a strategic military point for the defense of the kingdom. A green plain between the southernmost vales of the Misty Mountains and the wide range of the White Mountains, the Gap of Rohan is cut through by the River Isen, which flows south out of Isengard before turning west to the Sea. This river marks the border of Rohan and is the dividing line between the descendents of Eorl living to the east of the Isen and the Dunlending tribes living to the west.
Therefore, if any invasion of Rohan is to be attempted from Dunland, the chief geographic obstacle to the wild men (and bulwark for the horse-lords) is the River Isen. It is a most readily defensible boundary, as Tolkien amusedly writes: “there was no way into their land from the west except for bold swimmers”. No way, that is, with one exception — the Fords of Isen.
Just above [its] westward bend… the river was broad and shallow, passing in two arms about a large eyot, over a stony shelf covered with stones and pebbles brought down from the north. Only here, south of Isengard, was it possible for large forces to cross the river.
This description is taken from the Unfinished Tales account of “The Battles of the Fords of Isen” which details the valorous yet ultimately unsuccessful exploits of Théodred, Elfhelm, Grimbold, and Erkenbrand in their Fight at the Fords before retreating to Helm’s Deep. After reading this tale to get into the lore of battling at the Fords for this scenario, I am steeped in anticipation for a Grimbold or Erkenbrand hero card during the Ring-maker cycle. Don’t let me down FFG!
The whole story is only eleven pages long, so rather than spoil all the epic moments, I’ll recommend that you check it out yourself. However, as we’ve been fighting Dunlendings and wolves from Isengard in our quests (and both are present alongside the Orcs in these battles as well), there are a couple intriguing passages that I’d like to point out.
First, in describing the forces of Saruman attacking the “great shieldwell” of Grimbold, Tolkien writes that:
Since Orcs were less avail in such fighting because of their stature, fierce companies of the Dunlendish hillmen were thrown against it. But for all their hatred the Dunlendings were still afraid of the Rohirrim if they met face to face, and they were also less skilled in warfare and less well armed. The shieldwall still held.
After a scenario fighting Dunlendings with higher base stats than Éomer, sister-son of the King and Third Marshal of the Mark, I’d like to gently remind the game designers of this passage! Because of the inevitable power creep, I preserve thematic consistency by imagining that these beefy enemies represent a swarm of attackers rather than a single “less skilled” and “less well armed” hillman who is “still afraid” of meeting me face to face. I’d also like to see a card or mechanic wherein Rohan characters get added strength against Dunlendings (similar to how Dwarves got additional willpower underground in Untroubled by Darkness).
After begging for some relief from the encounter deck on the basis on that first text, however, the second passage I want to highlight could provide the inspiration for a much nastier enemy. Among the forces of Saruman are “a great pack of dreadful Orcish wolfriders, feared by horses” to which the Professor’s footnote reads:
They were very swift and skilled in avoiding ordered men in close array, being used mostly to destroy isolated groups or to hunt down fugitives; but at need they would pass with reckless ferocity through any gaps in companies of horsemen, slashing at the bellies of the horses.
While we don’t yet meet any wolves in our Fight at the Fords, there is a Prowling Wolf in the second scenario “To Catch an Orc”. With the rising power of Mount attachments such as the Rohan Warhorse in this cycle, I’d like to see a lupine enemy that specifically targets the “bellies of the horses”. There is plenty of attachment hate in the shadow effects, but after reading this passage, I think the designers could go a step further and make some vile creatures that strip our heroes from their vaunted steeds. How about a wolf enemy that discards an attachment when it engages making the player choose a Mount, if able!
After seeing the excellent deck ideas for this scenario shared by various members of the community over the past week, I hesitate to post what I’ve built because I think it pales in comparison. I’ve made more compromises to strategy over theme than Beorn’s artful Westfold to the Rescue deck and yet it’s still not as powerful as this Rohan/Gondor deck from consummate deckbuilder extraordinaire Tracker1. I’ve not tried it out in multi-player like Dor Cuarthol’s awesome mono-Tactics Rohan deck but it has been successful about half the time in my solo adventures and I think it has an interesting twist on the lore. So without further disclaimers, here’s my thematic (almost) deck for “The Fords of Isen”.
First, a word on the lore. This is a deck that looks both backward to the long-standing loyalty between the Men of the Éothéod and the Men of Gondor and forward to the friendships of the Fourth Age following the War of the Ring. The Unfinished Tales account of “Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan” tells the history of the “mutual accord” between these two peoples, including a battle in which Adrahil I (Lord of Dol Amroth and ancestor of Imrahil) fought alongside Forthwini (a prince of the Éothéod and ancestor of Éomer) against the Wainriders near Cair Andros over a thousand years before the War of the Ring. This ancient allegiance is renewed in the War of the Ring during which Éomer befriends Imrahil and, in the last year of the Third Age, marries Imrahil’s daughter Lothíriel. Therefore, the first thematic link in this deck is “Lothíriel’s Men”, namely, her father Imrahil and her husband Éomer who lead the charge against the invading Dunlendings as their sires did against the Wainriders of yore.
Merry, of course, comes into the picture during the War of the Ring, riding with Gandalf to the Golden Hall of Meduseld and offering his fealty to Théoden King. In Appendix A, we are told that following the War, Éomer gives Merry “honour in the Mark and the name Holdwine” which means “faithful friend” in Old English. Although at the time of the quests in the deluxe expansions and AP cycles, any use of the Shire hobbits is anachronistic, I think it is fitting and heartwarming to see the heroic Halfling standing besides Éomer, filling his ear with hobbit tales and the history of pipeweed while they go off on their adventure!
As for the rest of the cards, they are meant to come entirely from the ranks of Rohan and Gondor and it has been particularly enjoyable to use the Denethor ally for the first time as he can provide some serious willpower in a deck that often struggles to quest successfully until Faramir or Visionary Leadership hit the table. The real engine in this deck though is simply the rapid deployment of allies who can chump block to ready Imrahil and buff Éomer to take out the Dunlending hordes. I particularly enjoy seeing the Knights of the Swan on the table riding under the command of Prince Imrahil from his fortress in Dol Amroth. The strategic concessions are the Trollshaw Scout and Watcher of Bruinen who provide the opportunity to discard duplicate uniques from my hand so that the oppressive hand size hate of the Dunland offensive doesn’t cripple me before I can turn the tide of battle and rescue slimy Gríma. I also replaced the Rohan Warhorse with Cram as I rarely used the Mount more than once or twice and found that I really like to see the hungry hobbit Merry eating Cram, then having a Second Breakfast to get it back!
The ideal opening hand in this deck contains Steward of Gondor, Envoy of Pelargir, and a couple one cost allies. Playing the Envoy and tossing the resource to Imrahil gets the support of the Steward on the first turn which can be handy to draft a Squire of the Citadel or Snowbourn Scout into play. Not only does this provide a nice little army to start with, but it drops the hand size below the crucial threshold of five cards. Besides this opening hand, the decisive turn that often determined my chance at victory was whether or not I was able to play Path of Need. I know that it’s dangerous to rely on a “Limit 1 per deck” card, but I found this card to be indispensable in dealing with Dunlending swarms while still making timely progress in the second and third quest stage. If you haven’t put this card into your deck in a while, it comes highly recommended.
Hopefully you’ve found something in this article that will enrich your experience playing “The Fords of Isen”. After my Fight at the Fords, it is time for Holdwine and Lothíriel’s Men to go catch an orc. Until next time, happy questing!