Last week, I talked in length about the purpose of errata, and I argued that errata is a design tool rather than a construct of competitive play, and therefore a valid mechanism in the construction of an in-development cooperative game. I’m going to be building on that concept in today’s article, so if you haven’t read my previous post yet, it may be worth a skim. But if you don’t have the time for that lengthy discussion, this was my conclusion:
The purpose of errata is to protect the integrity of the game itself, ensuring that game developers have a stable base of mechanics upon which they can design.
So, then, the next question becomes: if one finds oneself in the position of designing an LCG, what sorts of cards warrant errata? And once those cards have been chosen, what sorts of errata should they be given? These two questions are what I’d like to take a little time to analyze today.
Let’s try to figure out some of the driving principles behind errata design.
“Why no positive errata?”
This question comes up a lot whenever a new FAQ has come out with a host of player card errata in it. It’s a valid question—after all, a little boost in power to less-popular Heroes like Spirit Pippin or Dori would be a great boon to the game. And who wouldn’t prefer the opportunity to dust off dud player cards like Gandalf’s Search to letting them rot in a binder somewhere? If done well, positive errata could open up whole new deck archetypes; but at the very least it would be hard to make any changes that would make these sorts of cards less useful than they are today.
To get an answer for our question of “Why no positive errata?” we just have to test it against the primary purpose for errata in the first place—to protect the integrity of the game itself. Weak cards don’t actually get in the way of game design. They’re disappointing, and they’re a missed opportunity; but they aren’t causing problems for the game as a whole. Each one is its own little self-contained tragedy, consigned to the back of a binder, but never given the chance to affect the metagame as a whole.
That’s only a partial answer, though. After all, just because we don’t need positive errata doesn’t mean it couldn’t still be done. It totally could, and the game would probably be better for it. But there’s another reason we don’t really see positive errata.
Errata is costly
Unfortunately, errata isn’t free. First of all, there’s the mental overhead that it creates for the players. Every card in the card pool whose “true text” is different from its printed text creates one more thing that the players have to remember when playing the game. Unprinted text is a burden on the players, and it’s definitely possible for this to reach a critical mass after which it becomes too difficult to remember how to actually play the game. Players already get frustrated from time to time with the number of effects to keep track of on the various encounter cards sitting right in front of them—this problem is exacerbated when you have to cross-reference your cards with an FAQ document all the time.
But it doesn’t just have a cost on the players—errata costs game companies like FFG real money, too. Game designers are paid to do what they do, and each individual errata takes time to design, playtest, iterate upon, write down in official documentation, and then update for future print runs. That time could be spent on designing new cards instead. And, let’s face it: issuing errata isn’t likely to boost a game company’s sales. Designing new cards definitely will.
This means that for each card for which a game designer is considering issuing errata, they have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Will this errata be worth the time, money, and mental overhead it creates? The answer to this question is as much art as it is science, so it’s going to vary from game designer to game designer—but it seems that at least so far, when it comes to positive errata, Caleb’s answer is consistently, “no”.
Okay, so what is worth an errata?
The short answer is that anything that makes it hard to design future expansions or whose cost to errata is essentially free deserves an errata. These sorts of cards typically fall into one of a few different categories.
Sometimes cards are printed, and then the designers realize that they don’t even work as intended. Often times, these sorts of cards are missed during the playtesting process because the original intent was pretty clear, but due to a weird wording technicality they actually do something completely different from what the designers meant.
Much of the encounter card errata falls into this category. Little word tweaks like adding the word “either” to Impenetrable Fog, or substituting “the current quest” for “the main quest” in Devilry of Saruman don’t do much to change the way the card in question is played by the average player so much as to clarify technicalities. Other times, the goal is to fix weird edge cases that were never intended to happen, such as with Blocking Wargs, which, when played as written, creates an infinite loop if it is the last card in the encounter deck.
One player card that clearly fell under this category was Ravens of the Mountain, which originally used the word “reveal” instead of “look at”, meaning that it would have triggered the When Revealed effects on cards in the encounter deck. Clearly this wasn’t the intent.
Cards like these are inexpensive to errata, since pretty much everyone was already playing them correctly. Correcting their wording doesn’t add much to the mental overhead of playing the cards, and no additional playtesting is needed since the original playtesting already played the card as intended.
2. Cards that are too strong
Sometimes cards are just too efficient for their own good, especially when compared to other cards. A strong card in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem if you can design around it—but when you find yourself comparing every other card you’re designing to some existing card (and finding that the new cards tend to come up short) then you probably have a problem card on your hands.
Problem cards from this category included the original wording of the Zigil Miner, who could easily produce 6+ resources per turn in the right deck, and the Erebor Battle Master, who started at 4 attack for 3 resources in an all-Dwarf deck and just went up from there. Both of these cards grossly out-performed their peers at the time, and quickly outpaced decks that weren’t using them.
It’s worth noting that errata isn’t the only option for dealing with cards like this. If it doesn’t push the power curve too far, another option for dealing with a powerful card is simply to embrace the new power level. For a long time, many people felt that Spirit Glorfindel was overpowered because he solved too many problems all at once. He was low threat, had good willpower output, a strong attack score, and gave access to powerful cards like Elrond’s Counsel and A Test of Will. He single-handedly solved a lot of problems that no other Hero could at the time.
Instead of issuing an errata, however, the designers simply embraced this new level of power. Is it a low threat you’re after? Well Spirit Merry now does that even better. Or if you need access to the Noldor trait, you can use Galadriel or Arwen to similar effect. In today’s card pool, the only thing Spirit Glorfindel has going for him is his high attack power—which is still something—but it gives him a niche to fill rather than having him be the only game in town.
Sometimes, power creep is a preferable solution to a powerful card over issuing errata. It doesn’t carry with it any of the cost of errata, so if the resultant game is still something you can design against then it may be a good way to go.
3. Broken combos
For the purposes of this discussion, a “broken combo” is any combination of cards which, when taken in aggregate, trivialize some significant portion of the game. This might be as complex as one of the many multi-card masterpieces wrought by Seastan, or as simple as using Háma + Thicket of Spears to ignore combat for a whole game.
The difficulty with this category is in deciding what the right fix is. Most of the time, each of the individual cards in the combo is fine on its own; it’s only when all of the cards are taken together that they produce the game breaking effect. Because of the cost of errata, it’s usually best if you make a targeted fix to just one card, if possible—but how do you know which card to target?
In general, what you want to do is find the engine: the card that allows the whole thing to get out of hand. Typically these are cards that can be triggered an unlimited number of times given the right circumstances—and very often they are also cards that recur other cards from the discard pile as well. If you miss the engine and instead target one of the other cards in the combo, you risk having the combo crop back up in a new form later down the road.
Love of Tales, Wandering Took, and Will of the West are all cards that have received errata because they were identified as the engine behind a broken combo. Each card’s individual errata uses a different tactic to impose a limitation on the number of times that card could be used—exhaustion, a per-round limit, and removal from the game, respectively. It’s worth noting that none of these cards were targeted because they were considered “too strong”—it’s just that they had an unlimited ability that made them useful as engines for broken combos.
Errata isn’t the only solution out there to fix broken combos, however. Many other games use ban lists instead of issuing erratas, sometimes banning particular combinations of cards from decks rather than changing the text on the cards themselves. This technique hasn’t been used by the designers of LotR LCG yet, however—possibly because it doesn’t solve the root of the problem, since the engines still exist. It’s a temporary patch rather than a true solution.
4. Cards that limit your design space
The final category of cards that may be worth an errata are any cards that you find yourself working around every time you design a new card. I’d argue that Dáin Ironfoot falls into this category, even though the designers, so far, haven’t given him an errata. I strongly suspect that every time Caleb goes to design another Dwarf character, he has to think about what that character would look like both with and without Dáin on the field. That’s probably why most Dwarf Allies have such low willpower scores.
I also suspect that this is why Caldara received an errata in the latest FAQ. The power of Caldara was only going to grow and grow with each new expensive Spirit Ally that was released. Every new Spirit Ally had to be designed with an eye towards what Caldara decks could do with them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this was the primary motivation behind giving her a limitation. It was only a matter of time before Caldara ended up in one of the other two categories (either too strong, or as part of a broken combo) as a result of some new Spirit Ally—and so Caleb decided to issue an errata to give himself a little more room to stretch his design legs.
As illustrated by the example of Caldara, cards in this category tend to be things that might later fall into one of these two categories if you weren’t so careful with your design. Errata’ing them early gives you the space to design new cards without fear of accidentally creating a monster.
Writing good errata
Deciding that a card needs errata is only half the battle. Once you’ve determined that a card needs an errata, you’ve got to decide exactly how you want to go about doing it.
Once again, this is at least as much art as it is science. But when I look over the various errata issued by FFG for the LotR LCG, one principle seems to stick out to me: change as few words as possible.
Ultimately, this serves a practical purpose. Most people are going to have the un-errata’ed text written on their physical cards, and they’re going to have to hold the errata text in their heads. It’s much easier to remember an errata that just changes a few words (or adds a small parenthetical limitation) than one that rewords the entire card from scratch.
One card which I think demonstrates this principle well is the errata’ed form of Háma, which adds a limitation of three times per game to his ability. There has been a lot of criticism of this particular errata; it’s a pretty significant reduction in power for a Hero who isn’t exactly ubiquitous as it is. But when asked what might make a better errata, most people tend to come up with elaborate complete rewordings of the card. The problem with a full rewording, though, is that nobody would be able to remember it—increasing the mental overhead of playing the game significantly.
That said, the errata we got for Háma is still pretty inelegant. It requires either an excellent memory or separate tokens to track the number of times you’ve used his ability so far. No other card text has a per-game limit of anything other than one. I think Caleb was aware of how awkward this errata was always going to be based on what he said in the FAQ announcement article—that “this was a tough one because there wasn’t an easy fix”. In the end, I’m convinced that he chose this particular errata because it was easy to remember.
Another commonly derided errata is the one given to Horn of Gondor, which changes it to trigger when characters “are destroyed” rather than “leave play”. Unlike with Háma, for whom a less invasive errata was not forthcoming, there are dozens of other pithy ways this card could have been errata’ed. It could have exhausted to trigger its ability, or have a per-turn limitation. But Caleb didn’t choose any of those solutions. I think this particular errata was selected for another reason—and it happens to be a reason very near and dear to my heart: theme.
To be clear, Horn of Gondor wasn’t selected for an errata simply because its theme was a little off—there are plenty of other cards in this game which could use a theme tune-up—Horn of Gondor was chosen because it was part of at least two different broken combos which provided infinite resources. But once it was singled out as a card that needed to be errata’ed, the decision had to be made about what exact wording should be used.
Before the errata, Horn of Gondor was most popular as a form of resource acceleration in Eagle, Rohan, and Silvan decks—all traits that derive some form of benefit from having Allies leave play. But importantly, it didn’t show up very often in Gondor decks. People just didn’t think of it as a Gondor sort of card. But the errata changed that.
Now it’s pretty much only useful as a form of recompense for chump blocking. And you know who has good chump blockers? Gondor. From Squire of the Citadel to Gondorian Spearman (and even Errand-rider, in a pinch) Gondor has chump blockers, and to spare. Caleb could have chosen any of a number of different options for the Horn of Gondor errata—but he intentionally chose the one that made it more thematic.
It was the Horn of Gondor that got me thinking about errata in a completely different light. It wasn’t just a way to fix broken cards that went off the rails—it could also be an opportunity to revisit old, stale cards. New decks would need to be dreamed up for the new Horn, and old, solidified strategies would need to be revisited. The Horn of Gondor was suddenly relevant for me in ways that it hadn’t been in the past. And at the same time, it increased the importance of cards like O Lórien! and Santa Théoden for their respective archetypes.
But errata kills good cards!
Errata certainly changes good cards—and it does mean that existing decks that we thought were fun may no longer tickle our fancies. But there’s good news in all of this: most of the time, even when they receive a significant errata, cards do not simply die. More often, they are reborn in new and interesting ways.
I have already had some fun with the post-errata Horn of Gondor. It was a key component of the deck I used to defeat The Massing at Osgiliath for my Thematic Nightmare series, and I would rank that among the most fun decks I have built.
But I wanted to test out the newly-errata’ed Caldara and Háma as well, to see how they handled in their new forms. So my partner and I played a game against The Battle of the Pelennor Fields using these Heroes.
I was going to build a new Caldara deck as part of this challenge, but Seastan beat me to it so I decided to just use the one he built. Here’s the decklist for easy reference:
Arwen Undómiel (The Dread Realm)
Caldara (The Blood of Gondor)
Círdan the Shipwright (The Grey Havens)
1x Elfhelm (The Dead Marshes)
2x Gandalf (Core Set)
3x Glorfindel (Flight of the Stormcaller)
2x Imladris Caregiver (Flight of the Stormcaller)
3x Jubayr (The Mûmakil)
3x Kahliel’s Tribesman (Race Across Harad)
3x Northern Tracker (Core Set)
3x Pelargir Shipwright (Assault on Osgiliath)
3x Prince Imrahil (The Flame of the West)
3x Ranger of Cardolan (The Wastes of Eriador)
3x Sailor of Lune (The Grey Havens)
2x Treebeard (The Antlered Crown)
3x Light of Valinor (Foundations of Stone)
3x Narya (The Grey Havens)
2x A Good Harvest (The Steward’s Fear)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
3x A Very Good Tale (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Elven-light (The Dread Realm)
2x Will of the West (Core Set)
3 Heroes, 50 Cards
I also tasked my partner with the goal of building a deck featuring Háma. After giving it some thought, this is the deck that she came up with:
The Fallen Heroes of Rohan
Dúnhere (Core Set)
Fastred (The Black Serpent)
Háma (The Long Dark)
2x Elfhelm (The Dead Marshes)
2x Éomund (Conflict at the Carrock)
3x Escort from Edoras (A Journey to Rhosgobel)
2x Gamling (The Land of Shadow)
3x The Riddermark’s Finest (The Hills of Emyn Muil)
3x West Road Traveller (Return to Mirkwood)
3x Westfold Horse-Breaker (The Hunt for Gollum)
2x Captain of Gondor (The Antlered Crown)
3x Dagger of Westernesse (The Black Riders)
3x Raiment of War (The Thing in the Depths)
3x Spear of the Mark (The Morgul Vale)
3x Unexpected Courage (Core Set)
3x Blade Mastery (Core Set)
3x Close Call (The Dunland Trap)
3x Foe-hammer (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Hasty Stroke (Core Set)
3x Quick Strike (Core Set)
3x Unseen Strike (The Redhorn Gate)
3 Heroes, 50 Cards
How’d it go?
Really great, actually.
We managed to beat the quest on only our second try (with a bit of deck tweaking after our first game). Both decks were fun to play, and neither Caldara nor Háma felt superfluous. In fact, each Hero was instrumental in helping its deck to get set up properly during the early game.
I managed to get Prince Imrahil out on round 2, allowing me to sacrifice Caldara shortly thereafter for an explosive start, which set me up for success for the rest of the game. Without Caldara’s help, I likely wouldn’t have been able to quest so successfully. Because of how long it took me to draw him, I did end up having to pay full-price for Jubayr—but because I was so well set up, I had plenty of capital to go around, and being mono-Spirit it didn’t feel like too much of a hardship.
Háma actually served a similar role for my partner’s deck. The card he ended up recurring all three times was Unseen Strike. This turned out to be perfect for a Dúnhere deck. One of the problems that Dúnhere often runs into is how long it takes for him to get set up to be able to one-shot Enemies in the Staging Area. He needs two weapons minimum before he’s really going to be effective. But with Háma around, there were more options for killing Enemies in the early game, giving plenty of time for my partner to get her engine running. Three uses felt about right, though—after that she was set up with weapons, and the extra Events weren’t really necessary anymore.
By the end of the game, my partner had done away with 2 Wraiths on Wings, The Black Serpent, and a War Mûmak all on her own, and was responsible for doing most of the damage to the Witch-King as well (although I got the honor of striking the final blow). We definitely wouldn’t have survived that long if not for the early-game assistance of Caldara and Háma.
I think we can both speak from experience at this point: the rumours of the deaths of both Caldara and Háma are greatly exaggerated.
There’s a lot that goes into the errata’ing of a single card. With so many factors at play, it’s not surprising that some of the errata over the years may have missed their mark for the community. It’s certainly not possible to please everyone.
But I have taken heart in the realization that even though it can be disorienting when good cards change out from underneath me, it usually just takes a little digging before I realize that the game hasn’t lost as much as I might initially think. Cards are more resilient that they seem at first glance—and sometimes it’s even fun to find new and interesting ways to use old cards.
That’s enough essay-writing for me for a while! It’s back to business as usual as I tackle the next quest in The Sands of Harad for my Path Less Traveled Series, Desert Crossing.