By Adam Waters
Ahh Fourth Age MEPBM, the promised land where players are free to create the nation of their dreams. Many of us love the game as the most creative, surprising, and free wheeling of all the MEPBM scenarios. In Fourth Age if you can dream it, you can make it. Dwarven cavalry? You bet! Orcish navies? Why not! Assassins of Rohan? Absolutely!
But beneath the fantasy lies the iron reality that Fourth Age, like all the MEPBM scenarios, is a war game. Solid nation design will make you or break you. To help and encourage first timers, what follows are some handy tips gleaned over many games on how best to design a tough nation with the best chance for long-term survival.
Most simply put however, the cardinal rule of nation design can be summed up as:
No Dessert First!
We all love the fantasy of Middle Earth, but solid nations are designed bottoms-up, from the cold, hard realities of military conflict. Fourth Age games start furiously with a blitz of military assaults launched to knock out vulnerable nations as fast as possible. When imagining the kind of nation you want to play, first close your eyes for a moment and smell the enemies’ watchfires outside your capital walls – there, now you’re in the right frame of mind to begin!
If at this point you’ve yet to read the excellent Fourth Age Nation Creation guide in the MEPBM Rulebook, stop and go give it a read. Hell, read it twice. What follows will only make sense once those mechanics are clear.
1) Start with the Holy Trinity: Teammates, Allegiance, Region
Long before you name your first character or imagine your ponyriders blazing across Mordor, settle first things first – Teammates, Allegiance and Region. For new players I recommend joining with a friend if you can (you can find us on the forums if nowhere else). There is nothing better than a reliable ally close by. If you want a safer start, choose Neutral as your allegiance, though I recommend waiting to play North or South Kingdom until you have a game or two under your belt. Lastly choose your regions.
The trick to region selection is that they’re not all created equal when it comes to survival. Some are more dangerous than others depending on terrain and proximity to unfriendly neighbors. Even though more vulnerable, or poorer regions do receive popcenter bonuses, in my experience it doesn’t translate to longevity. The safer regions are:
- The Mordors, Umbar, Enedwaith, Rohan, Khand, The Lindons
The riskier, more challenging regions are:
- Near Harad, Rhovanion, South Mirkwood, Eriador
For example, a capital located in Rhovanion at 3612 is reachable by cavalry from TEN different Regions within a 2 turn march. Caveat emptor indeed.
- Mountains and corners are your friends. High fences make good neighbors.
- Lots of neighboring regions and easy terrain are your enemies. Low fences make for dead bodies.
- Pick regions close to your ally so you can support each other militarily.
- The greater your desire to play a character nation as opposed to a military nation, the greater the need to pick a safe region. There is a reason the Cloud Lord and Blind Sorcerer are tucked away in South and East Mordor!
2) First the Worst – Imagine the Blitz!
Once you’ve submitted your Teammates, Allegiance choices, and top three Region picks to Middle Earth Games, the next step is Region and Allegiance assignment. Once the game has filled, you will receive an email from your game moderator informing you of your Region and Allegiance assignments, along with which Regions across the map are assigned to Evil, Good, or Neutral. Now the real fun starts.
Layout all the Region Allegiance assignments on the map and take a close look. Who are your immediate neighbors? Are you surrounded by friendlies, enemies, or some looming Neutrals? Are you all alone or in a clutch of nearby allies? Consider the region assignments and ask yourself this basic question – which Free People or Dark Servant Regions are vulnerable to having two or three enemies gang up on them? These are the Regions most likely to receive furious assaults in the early turns. Are you in one of them or a safer location?
A good question to ask yourself is if the nearby enemies recruit to the max and march on you, how vulnerable are you? If the answer is, not very due to terrain, distance or friendly neighbors, then you have a lot of options for nation design. But if the reality is that you’re on the front line and out numbered, then you need to design a nation strong enough to go toe-to-toe militarily with whatever your enemies throw at you. Anything less risks becoming roadkill regardless of what type of nation you imagined playing. So much for that mage nation with the soft underbelly eh. Remember, this is a war game. No Dessert First!
To imagine a Fourth Age worst case scenario, picture a foe configured thusly arriving on your doorstep Turn 1:
- A 60 commander, packing a +750 starting combat artifact and 20 war machines, leading an army of 800 HC in bronze armor.
This army has enough punch to burn a Major Town/Fort or decimate weaker starting armies. Seem crazy? It’s not. It’s a common tactic in Fourth Age to launch a Turn 1 blitz on nearby foes. In fact you could be facing multiple of such armies if nearby enemies can reach you and aren’t threatened on other flanks. Remember those risky Region picks? They’re dangerous precisely because they’re easily reachable by multiple neighbors who may pick starting armies and Special Nation Abilities to power a quick blitz…
But don’t lose heart! Remember, you’re a warrior! To avoid becoming roadkill, simply work backwards from this scenario and design around it. Once you’ve imagined the worst, you can reasonably design your nation to handle it, or take calculated chances on some less than worst case scenario. Most players who fall to an early blitz simply fail to take the worst case scenario into account, instead designing their nation around their pre-conceived fantasy preferences when they should design around the military realities of the particular map layout.
3) Work Backwards Starting with Popcens – Protect ya Neck
Once you’ve laid out the regions and imagined the worst case scenario, you’re ready to place your popcens on the map. This is when you really start to ask yourself what kind of nation makes sense to play given the circumstances. Or where the rubber of fantasy meets the road of reality.
Stated most simply – you need to place your capital and popcens where you have the highest chance of protecting them from attack or supporting your nearby allies.
This can mean tucking them in a mountain hex, a map-edge hex or other corner, against a river or mountain range, pushing them to one edge of your region nearer an ally – anything that cuts down the avenues of potential attack but allows you to mutually support allies. Some Regions provide the option of picking which side of a major terrain feature you want to reside on – the mountain ranges in Mordor, the River Running in Rhovanion, the Sea of Rhun, the White Mountains in Rohan and Enedwaith – which side you’re on is important, so choose wisely. For regions with Major Rivers, ask yourself if you’re better off with the bridges up or down – 3333 in Near Harad, 1715 in Dunland, 3612 in Rhovanion.
Some regions even have hexes that are impossible or extremely difficult to march on: the islands in Rhun and Harondor, certain Mountain hexes in South and East Mordor, the tip of the peninsula in Enedwaith and Umbar.
Once you’ve sized up the options, place your capital in the best protected location and your key Major Towns or Towns in the next best locations. Place Camps with Towers to block key choke points on roads, bridges and mountain passes that impede any potential attack routes.
As for Fortifications, please, for the love of Ilúvatar, take them. Take at least the free Fort on your capital. I recommend taking a second Fort on your backup Major Town. If you are really hard pressed, take the Castle on your capital. Thank me later. You can always remove them with a single order, but raising them under assault will prove extremely costly.
A note on hidden popcenters. These can be great, albeit expensive. I recommend not hiding your capital, as your starting army will give its exact location away. A better choice is a popcen you don’t plan to recruit out of, such as a starting town which you can improve to a Major Town.
4) Armies – Just Do It
For starting armies the rule is simple – take em. Unless you’re in a very safe location, just take the max and take cavalry. There is some finesse between Heavy and Light Cavalry, but 300 HC 200 LC is a solid starting army.
In Fourth Age starting troop morale, training, weapon, and armor will all be set equivalent to the command rank of your highest starting Commander. If that’s a 60, they’ll all be set to 60. In a battle of 400 starting cavalry under a 60 Commander vs 400 starting cavalry under a 40 Commander, the former will win quite handily with over 40% survivors. As there is often a lot riding on the early battles, this difference could be decisive.
5) Special Nation Abilities – A Dash of Secret Sauce
Everyone loves SNA’s. It’s where most players start when thinking about the kind of Fourth Age nation they want to play. But if you’ve made it this far in your design with discipline, you’ll be ahead of the pack.
If you’re in a high danger zone and expect to be under rapid fire military threat, then the following SNA’s and extras are great picks:
- Hire Armies for Free, Commanders at 40, Conjure Mounts, Challenge Bonus, Starting Artifacts, War Machines
Nothing churns armies out faster than Hire for Free, and pairing it with New Armies at 40 Morale makes for a nice pick-me-up. Conjure Mounts travels nicely with Summon Storms. A good selection of military focused SNA’s can also be successfully blended with economic or agent abilities such as Emmys or Agents at 40, or +20% Buy/Sell bonus.
If your nation is not in immediate threat of overrun, you really have a lot of flexibility in how to play the game between military, economic, and character action.
If in doubt, lay in some agent abilities. A team can never have enough nations with Agents at 40, or my personal favorite, Double Scout. A well run Conjure Mounts program can provide huge impact even if your nation is not front-line by either shipping mounts or cavalry into the action.
The one strategy I would advise against though is the Mage nation. We all dream of uber powerful Mages dominating the game, but it’s extremely difficult to implement in Fourth Age. First off, the artifact numbers and secondary powers are all randomized. This makes the artifact hunt much longer and artifacts of relatively less consequence than in 1650. In many games the iconic artifacts such as Tinculin or the Ring of Wind never make it onto the battlefield. Secondly, there are no Curses artifacts, or at least I’ve never seen them, and Weakness is no substitute. A couple mages can be very helpful with scrying, tracking enemies, finding a handful of artifacts, or conjuring mounts, but other than that you really shouldn’t try a mage nation in your first Fourth Age game. And a mage nation in the plains with no starting fortifications and surrounded by enemies will be reduced to a burning heap by turn 7.
As for +20 to Assassinate/Kidnap, it’s a great SNA, but only as powerful as its wielder is skillful. If in doubt, take Double Scout instead. You’ll make more friends. For the Stealth SNA, it only seems to appear as a bonus on about 15% of new characters created, with Murphy’s Law in full effect.
On starting Artifacts, if you decide to take any, the sweet spot is two. More than two becomes unduly expensive in my opinion. If you do take Artifacts, don’t be surprised if you receive two low value combat artifacts though, especially as Free Peoples, as that’s what the odds favor. Occasionally a real gem appears, but only occasionally.
Lastly, if you do plan on quickly assaulting your neighbors instead of vice-versa, 10 or 15 War Machines can make all the difference in the world when it comes to sacking their capital City/Fort.
6) Characters & Race – People! People! It’s Showtime!
When it comes to picking your nation’s Race there is no wrong choice, but if you’re unsure, Human is an easy default to pick.
The great advantage of being Human is the starting 60 Emmy which is prohibitively expensive to take with any other race. The advantages are twofold – first, all your non-capital popcens will start with a 60 loyalty. And second, it will be easier to raise your capital to a City on Turn 1 which gives you a 30% defensive bonus over a Major Town/Fort, and a 25% recruiting bonus over a Major Town.
Even better, as a Neutral or Dark Servant Human you can still afford that excellent 60 point starting commander which is quite helpful if under military pressure early on. The trick here is to take a 50 point starting Commander and add on top 10 points of Racial Bonus Command Skill.
As for other races, I personally love the Elven 60 Mage combined with Conjure Mounts, or the Non-Human 50 point starting Agent combined with 10 Stealth and +20 Kills or Double Scout. As for Dwarves, those 60 Commanders are always a reliable choice.
When it comes to your eight starting characters, if you are in a high-danger zone, concentrate on Commanders and Emmys with enough Commander/Mages to Conjure Mounts if you have the SNA and maybe a couple Commander/Agents to guard yourself.
As a rule of thumb you’ll want at least 2 starting Emmys of 40 or higher skill rank plus a 50 or 60 depending on Race. A 3 character Emmy squad of 60-40-40, or 50-40-40 is a reasonable starting point. In Fourth Age the “camp limit” gets hit incredibly fast – usually by turn 4, so you’ll have only 3 turns to attempt to lay down camps in the early game. This is an incredibly important point not outlined in the rules. Miss the window and your economy will suffer badly. Success rates for 40 point Emmys are usually around 50%, but can be as low as 25% – I’ve certainly had 40 Emmys who fail to lay down a single camp before the limit is hit, so every shot counts.
As for Commanders, take at least two 40 pointers. You’ll want to raise taxes to 60% or 73%, and will need at least 40’s to have a decent shot. A 50 or 60 point Commander is even better for this. You’ll also need the 40’s to downgrade relations which can make or break early combats. If you play as a Neutral remember that you’ll also have a lot of relations downgrades and upgrades to do, so 40 point commanders will be important. If you’re in a high danger zone, take at least 4 starting characters with Command skill.
When planning out your first eight characters, you should ideally think about the four additional ones you’ll name straight out the gate and how they supplement the starting set. I usually plan through the first fifteen characters, especially if I’m taking SNA’s that allow me to name 40 pointers.
Wrap it up – Let’s Rumble!
By this point if you’ve followed the above basics you should have a very durable nation design tailored to the strategic realities of your game layout. To round out its flavor pick names for your characters, popcens, and your overall nation name. Character portraits, diplomacy, and how you actually run your nation will also add to the effect breathe life into it.
Although the above guidelines may seem harsh, in fact they leave an incredible amount of leeway in successful nation design, not to mention role-playing flavor, without sacrificing basic survivability. While I’ve taken a defensive world-view here, there is no reason why you can’t turn this on its head and design your nation to take to the quick offense out the gate. And if you’re not in an immediate danger zone then all the options are on the table.
Good Luck and Good Gaming! We’ll see you on the fields of Fourth Age!