When the Going Gets Tough

Or “101 ways to stop you from killing an enemy”

In the beginning there were enemies. They had defence, and they had hit-points: as far as killing them went, that was basically all you needed to know.

DSC00753In the days of the Core Set, there was only a limited amount of attack available. No character had more than 3 printed attack, and the attachments that could boost your attack were limited in number, had the Restricted keyword, and weren’t all that effective unless you were a dwarf. The only really exception was Gimli who, if you loaded him up with enough citadel plate, could be hitting for about 14 (although prone to die at any moment).

It’s bizarre now to think that no core-set enemy was immune to player-card effects. The Nazgul of Dol Guldur has “No attachments” but even that was an errata. He was also the largest enemy, needing 12 attack to one-shot.

SturrockWith time, the card-pool grew, it got easier to muster large parties of allies, and easier to boost the attack of the characters you had. The designers decided that enemies needed to be tougher. They tried a few ways of doing this: more trolls in Conflict at the Carrock, with the ability to boost each other’s stats – 10 hit points, 2 defence, and a potential for 2 more if you are engaged with Stuart and the Carrock is active. The dead marshes brought us the Giant Marsh Worm, only 2 defence, 6 hit-points, but if you don’t kill it first time, it’ll heal 2 damage. For Return to Mirkwood, they stuck with the standard formula, and just made the Attercop big, 4 defence, 6 hit-points.

Khazad-Dum and the Dwarrowdelf cycle focused most on smaller swarms (apart from the odd troll), so there wasn’t much development of enemy resilience, aside from The Watcher in the Water, and Durin’s Bane, which saw the “do some healing each round” mechanic formalised in the “Regenerate” keyword.

Come down here where I can fight you

One mechanic which did start to be developed in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, was the idea of enemies you can’t simply engage as and when you want. The Goblin Sniper from the core set was the original version of this, but down in the darks of Moria, we saw this become more and more the case, with Goblin Archer, and most irritatingly for me, the Goblin Scout, a pesky little blighter with 3 threat (that was quite a lot for an enemy in those days), who couldn’t be engaged if your threat was between 26 and 36 (which was where my threat seemed to be most of the time, at least in the early rounds).

Khazad-Dum was also where these engagement prohibitions started to spread to locations, such as Turbulent Waters, and the lock-out that was the East-Gate, frequently the cause of complete stage one failure on Into the Pit. As with all these mechanics, it was an interesting twist for them to try, but an irritating thing to play against.

Immune to Fun?

What's the collective noun for a group of Smaugs? a Desolation?

What’s the collective noun for a group of Smaugs? a Desolation?

Starting towards the end of the Dwarrowdelf cycle, there have been a growing number of enemies in the game with the text “immune to player card effects” By my latest count, this includes 5 versions of Smaug, 2 of the Balrog, The Witch King (Black Riders only), The Watcher in the Water (Road Darkens only), Saruman, Old Man Willow, and Bolg. Aside from Bolg and Old Man Willow, these are all clearly top-tier enemies, who deserve a level of protection above and beyond your everyday orc. That said, “Immune to Player Card Effects” is boring. It means that your only option is massed numbers, it means that all of the thought goes out of deck-tweaking, and you just need a Middle Earth version of Hulk Smash.

There are, of course various options available. I’m a big fan of the “Relentless” keyword which Ian created for the First Age expansion – this allows players to do things with their deck, interact with the encounter cards in interesting ways, but it also means that if the enemy isn’t dead, it will attack you each round.

It was inevitable that with time, the designers would need to come up with ways to make things harder to kill, and obviously we want them to keep it interesting and innovative, but as far as I’m concerned, Immune to Player card effects and Indestructible should be used sparingly. Anything which reduces interaction between player cards and encounter cards eventually reduces the interest of the game.

[/rant]

Mûmak Ways to make enemies harder to kill returned with a vengeance in Heirs of Numenor. At the most basic level, this included a fair amount of just making them big. Even the standard little orcs and brigands regularly had 3 defence, with 3 hit-points being at the low end of things. We also got the Mumak, a big enough beast to begin with, at 3 defence, and a mighty 12 hit-points, the Mumak cannot have attachments, and had a new text “Mumak cannot take more than 3 damage each round.” Unless you can find a way to discard it, that’s a minimum of 4 rounds the Mumak is sticking around for, either contributing 4 threat in the staging area, or hitting you for a bruising seven attack. (The Nightmare version, Mumak elite, ups the defence to 5 and adds archery!!)

Nazgûl-of-Minas-MorgulThe rest of the Against the Shadow cycle featured plenty more large enemies, all dwarfing the things we’d seen in Mirkwood, but it wasn’t until the Morgul Vale that we saw a new anti-damage mechanic, this time on the Nazgul of Minas Morgul. Any time you would deal damage to the Nazgul of Minas Morgul, that damage is reduced to 1, meaning you need to damage it on 5 separate occasions to kill it.

I think this is one of my favourite options in terms of the routes the designers could have taken. This gives you options: Gondorian Spearman, Spear of the Citadel, Dwarrowdelf Axe, any of these are possibilities for speeding up the 5-round process of killing the Nazgul, meaning that players actually have interesting decisions to make. The Nazgul is a still a pain (between the shadows which returned him to the staging area, and the bodyguards, I think it took me 9 rounds to kill him last time I played this quest), but the game remains interesting and interactive.

Running Away

It’s worth noting, of course that another major weapon in the designers arsenal is an enemy that simply doesn’t hang around long enough for you to kill it. The Wargs of the Core Set were the original example of this, where an attack with no shadow led him to run away, back to the staging area, where you couldn’t attack him, and he could continue contributing his threat. Since then, there have been many variations on this theme. Enemies which return to the staging area after they destroy a character are a popular way to punish chump-blocking, (Uruk-Hai fighter, Angmar Marauder) but there are also cards which make you pay threat to stay engaged with an enemy (such as the original iteration of the Witch King), or shadow cards that make every enemy a sudden flight risk – such as Lurking in Shadows.

Ultimately, these enemies, unless they are the big boss, tend not to be too bad once you can actually get them to stand still long enough for an attack, but the number of times I’ve seen Journey Down the Anduin drag on for another round or two, just because I can’t keep a Warg engaged with me long enough to kill it…

Moving forward to Voice of Isengard, there was little real change in the approach to enemies. The Dunlendings are big (much too big for theme, if you ask me), the Huorns are massive, as befitting something that’s basically a tree. The Ringmaker cycle continued to give us lots of big enemies, and even bigger boss-fights, but at least on the how-to-kill-this-thing front, there were no major developments.

Toughness

Uruk-hai-Captain The biggest change in recent times has come in the Saga boxes, where we’re seen the rise of “Toughness” on the Uruk-Hai. Toughness X is a new keyword which means that EVERY time an enemy is dealt damage, you reduce that damage by X – in combat, this simply operates like an extra point of defence, but crucially it also locks out direct damage effects. Thalin, Spearman, Spear, Dwarrowdelf Axe – none of them do anything to an enemy with Toughness. If you’re dealing with Ugluk, the boss enemy from the first quest in Treason of Saruman, then even Gandalf’s “enters play” ability will only do a single point of damage!

Toughness is an interesting change- on the one hand, it does shut down a LOT of options, as there are a remarkable number of ways to deal 1 point of damage to enemies, but at least it still leaves room for players to experiment. Part of me thinks that the developers have backed themselves into a corner slightly, by making the Dunlendings so improbably powerful that to have the Uruk-Hai seem appropriate in relation, needs them to be “tough” in this way. That said, there are a lot of ways this could have been handled worse, and whilst the Treason of Saruman is certainly at a fairly high difficulty level, I don’t think that it has gone too far to still be fun

How Many Of?

When building decks for the Lord of the Rings living card-game, a major question you need to consider, is how many copies of each card to include.

A legal deck for this game needs a minimum of 50 cards. As far as I’m aware there’s no upper limit, which is good if you are as undisciplined in deck-building as I am, and regularly get card-counts into the high 60s. By default, you can have 1-3 copies of a card by a particular title in your deck, although there are some cards which have tighter restrictions.

At the one extreme, that means you could build a legal deck with only 17 different cards if you ran three of each (or two of one of them). On the other hand, you could run 50 or 60 different cards if you wanted single copies only – when I used to play the Game of Thrones LCG, I occasionally encountered people playing this “Highlander” version of the game.

1 of Each

Black-ArrowSo far, there are 4 cards which have a “limit 1 per deck” although this looks set to grow in the Angmar Awakened with the rise of player side-quests. The current cards are Black Arrow, Path of Need, Fall of Gil-Galad, and Gather Information.

Black Arrow is a very powerful card. It costs zero and isn’t restricted. As far as I can tell, if you have a Tactics Hero, and there’s going to be a Ranged Hero in play, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t play this. It enables your hero to knock out that one big bad, and even has victory points.

Path-of-NeedPath of Need is a little more situational – it’s undoubtedly a powerful effect: heroes don’t need to exhaust to quest, attack, or defend whilst it’s attached to the active location, but the limit 1 per-deck makes it hard to draw consistently, and when you do, it still costs 4 resources to play. Add to that the fact that you’ll probably blaze through in a single round, and it becomes marginal as to whether the pay-off justifies the cost.

Of course, you can do a certain amount of shenanigans to get repeat use: particularly with cards that swap out the active location (Strider’s Path, West Road Traveller), although the most obvious one – Thror’s Map was errata-ed (for those that care about that sort of thing) to stop you from generating an infinite loop. These days, you can probably get exhaustion-free combat round after round, but not questing.

The-Fall-of-Gil-GaladThe third 1 per-deck card, was the Fall of Gil-Galad. This is a spirit attachment, a song which lets you lower your threat when a hero dies. Now, obviously, threat-reduction is always good, and a sizeable chunk of threat reduction (whatever that hero’s treat-cost was) is particularly handy at the moment of crisis where a Hero has just died – it might give you the breathing-space you need to avoid engaging enemies for a round or so, or to allow you to fail the quest whilst you repel boarders without threating-out.

That said, the card still doesn’t feel that much fun. Unless you have Fortune or Fate, you’re still down a hero. Unless you’re REALLY near the end, you’re probably quite likely to die (as you wouldn’t have lost that hero if you were otherwise in complete control). The fact that it’s an attachment, not an event, means that you have to plan for the hero to die, but the card is explicit that they need to be destroyed, you can’t combo this with Boromir’s discard ability, or Caldara’s or the Great Bridge of Khazad-Dum – although you can use Landroval instead of Fortune or Fate. Ultimately, there are probably better ways of lowering your threat which don’t involve dicing with death so much. If you’re going into the quest planning to have a hero killed, chances are you’re doing something wrong.

Gather-InformationThe fourth, and most recent 1 per-deck card was “Gather Information” the first of a new card-type, the Player Side-Quest. When you draw this card, you can add it to the staging area as an additional quest card, meaning that on a chosen round you can place progress on that quest instead of the main quest, and when you have fully explored the stage, you can trigger the relevant response – essentially, it slows you down by a round or so, but gives you a reward- in this case, each player being able to search their deck for a card and add it to your hand.

Obviously, there are some quests, where this is going to be a terrible card to play (go on, I dare you to use it in Battle of Five Armies) and you’ll certainly need to think twice about wheeling it out in quests with punishing time-effects, but used right, this feels really powerful –the ability to fetch a missing combo piece, or even the card that’s most frustratingly absent right now. This card has only been out a few weeks, but it’s already seen a fair bit of action. I’ll be interested to see whether I’m still using it in 6 months’ time. (This may depend on how good the other side-quests we get are).

How many?

Aside from the exceptions above, for every other card, you’re able to choose how many you run, between one and three. It’s determined by card name, so where there are multiple versions of a character, the limit spans all of them (so you can run Spirit Bofur AND Tactics Bofur in the same deck, but a maximum of three copies between them).

Bofurs

Reasons to be Three-ful

Running 3 of a card gives you a better chance of drawing it than if you only have 1 or 2. If you take your opening hand of 6 cards, there’s a 6 in 50 chance of drawing any given card. If there’s only 1 card there, that’s about a 0.12 chance (roughly ten per cent). With three copies, it goes up to about a third. If you mulligan, there’s now about a 60% chance of having that key card by turn-1 set-up

So, “3 of” looks like a good strategy for making sure you get that key card early on. If your Spirit Glorfindel secrecy deck needs Light of Valinor, just run 3 of, desperate for Asfaloth to go on top and deal with those pesky locations? –  3 of.

Simple, right?

This Hand Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us

Well, not quite. There are some cards where having three copies is great. If I have 3 copies of test of will in my hand, I can cancel that definitely-annoying-but-possibly-not-fatal treachery when it comes off the encounter deck. If I have three wardens of healing, then I can heal three times as much damage. In some of the newer quests, particularly archery-heavy ones, that’s a definite boon.

Sword-that-was-BrokenThe trouble is, most decks rely on more than one or two cards. However much your Aragorn hyper-quest deck needs Sword that Was Broken, Visionary Leadership and Faramir out, it’s not going to do a lot if you can’t find those cheap allies to flood the table with. You might think you have a brilliant starting hand when you draw the three key cards in set-up, but if from turns 1-9, all you draw are duplicates of those unique cards, you’re going to be pretty sick. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but you get the idea: the first copy of a unique card is great, the second or third, with a few exceptions are a pain.

Making use of it

There are cards in the game which at least allow you to do something useful with those unwanted duplicates of unique cards. The first of these is everyone’s favourite Shieldmaiden, Eowyn: with her 4 willpower, Eowyn has always been a questing powerhouse, and you have the option to boost that total even higher by discarding cards. In our games, the biggest difficulty is finding a card that someone’s prepared to ditch, but when it’s a dead-card because it’s already in play, that suddenly becomes a better proposition. Add to that the fact that Eowyn can now borrow her uncle’s sword to put that mighty will into attacking as well, and that dead card suddenly doesn’t look so bad.

Whilst it relies on finding and drawing the card, Eowyn’s ability is writ large in Protector of Lorien. This lore attachment, again dating from the days of the core set, allows you to ditch multiple cards to boost willpower or defence. These days, it’s technically limit 3 per phase, although my copies are old enough to let you ditch your whole hand if you like. Being in Lore, Protector is best paired with some powerful card-draw effects which, of course, just make it more likely that you’ll have those duplicates cropping up.

There are some other, slightly less common options for cycling through those duplicate cards:

Erestor Erestor. He’s a unique Noldor ally in Leadership who allows you to discard a card from your hand to draw a card. Erestor’s ability is nice, in that it doesn’t require him to exhaust, so he can be questing for 2 per round whilst you’re triggering his ability, or he can defend in an emergency (only 1 defence, but 3 hit-points)

(Hero Erestor was spoiled between when I wrote this article and when I uploaded it. Whilst his function is similar, I’m not going to discuss him here, as I’ve not really had chance to figure him our properly).

Daeron’s Runes functions along similar lines: draw 2 cards, then discard 1 (1 from your hand, doesn’t have to be one of the two you just picked up).

Trollshaw-ScoutWatcher of the Bruinen and the Trollshaw Scout are relatively cheap non-unique allies in Tactics, who do a moderate amount of attacking or defending, with the drawback that, after an attack resolves, you have to discard a card or discard the ally from play.

Overall then, there are plenty of ways to make lemonade from the duplicate lemons that get stuck in your hand (although only Eowyn’s ability is hero-based and therefore guaranteed to start in play), but this only goes some way to overcome the irritation of drawing a duplicate of a unique card already in play – sure, you can turn it in to +1 Willpower, but you could have done that with a non-unique ally, AND you would have had the option to play that ally as another quester/fighter etc.

There can be only one

So, at the other end of the spectrum, why not run a Highlander deck: single copies of every card?

Well, for one thing, such a deck is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it might give you exactly what you need, but at other times, it’s going to throw out something completely different. Most decks will have some kind of theme, whether that’s as blatant and explicit as the Outlands Deck (get lots of outlands allies, play them) or the dwarf-swarm (get 5 or more dwarves in play) or something more subtle – if you’re only playing single copies of each card, chances are you’ll struggle to find enough different cards which all fit that theme. There are only a limited number of allies with the required traits or spheres, only a limited number of events which will produce the type of effect you’re aiming for.

Northern-TrackerAlso, it’s worth noting that with NON-unique cards, the argument against playing 3 is a lot less convincing. A lot of the time, having multiple copies of the same non-unique ally is good, as they do the same thing, but more of it. That said, you do still need to pay for them: 3 Northern Trackers in a deck with only 1 Spirit Hero isn’t necessarily a terrible idea (it is still a REALLY good ally for a lot of quests) but you need to bear in mind that without resource acceleration, it’d take you 12 rounds just to play those three cards.

Meet Halfway

Between the extremes of 1 and 3, obviously, comes 2. If you’re keen enough to see a card that you want more than copy of it floating around, but you don’t want three (maybe it’s unique, maybe it’s just situational, or quite expensive) then 2 seems like the happy medium.

Interestingly, although I’ve not done any statistical analysis, I strongly suspect that “2 of” is the distribution I use least of. If I’m running a card, I generally want 3. After a while, if I find I’m not really using it, chances are I’ll purge it all the way down to 1.

I’ll freely admit, I’m not one of the best deck-builders this game has seen. Large parts of my decks build themselves (leadership = 3x Sneak Attack, 3x Gandalf, 3x Steward of Gondor. Spirit = 3x Test of Will, probably 3x Unexpected Courage. Any deck with Glorfindel in: 3x Light of Valinor, 3x Asfaloth, 3x Elrond’s counsel etc) and perhaps this is a good moment to re-assess how many copies of a given card truly belong in a deck. Assuming you have a decent chunk of the published card-pool, we are well past the point where we need to throw in three copies of everything, just because there aren’t enough cards to make up the numbers.

I’d be interested to know how others approach the question of how many copies of a given card to include in a deck.

Taking the Difficulty project to Isengard

(…gard, gard, gard)

To Isengard Last week, I finally got the pages up for the difficulty project, to actually display the ratings on. A combination of my own lack of computing skills, and the sheer awkwardness of the WordPress software that kept turning pages into posts had defeated me for rather longer than seems probable.

Stepping back, it’s clear that there’s still a very long way to go. There are many, many gaps in the ratings. I’d always hoped that I’d get some community feedback, rather than trying to rate every quest by myself, but even so, it’s clear that I need to up the frequency with which I post updates here.

This weekend, I’ve once again had the house to myself, so I decided to go and throw dwarves at the Voice of Isengard.

I have a dwarf deck that I’ve been running for a while, with remarkably little change. Dain and Thorin are the linchpins, with a Lore hero of some kind making up the numbers. Traditionally Ori for his card draw, but occasionally Bombur (first subbed in after Ori sacrificed himself to deal with a Balrog) and most recently Bifur. It works nicely for true solo, but also pairs with a Spirit/Tactics deck in 2-player.

It’s a fairly strong all-round deck, which relies on getting lots of allies out, then overwhelming the quest. All the allies are dwarves aside from Gandalf and the Warden of Healing. I tend to rely on Lore for my Card-draw, with Leadership focusing more on resource acceleration, action advantage and the like. The only cards I’ve added to this in months are Ally Gimli and Gather Information

The Fords of Isen

The Fords of Isen was the first quest I faced. Almost instantly, it demolished my “one deck to rule them all” premise, as masses of card-draw was clearly going to get me nowhere. In the end, I temporarily subbed out 5 cards – 3x Daeron’s runes, and 2x Legacy of Durin. The deck is sufficiently oversized that it’s still legal with those cards removed.

Whilst this is a deck I’ve used all over the place, it does quite well against quests with “time” – turn one is often quiet, but ideally you’ve got Fili in your opening hand, so turn 2 you have your five dwarves and you’re good to go. I also run 3x Gandalf and 3x Sneak Attack, which meant that on this occasion, I was able to avoid combat altogether for the first few rounds, just dropping Gandalf on Dunlendings instead.

Ill-TidingsI think it’s inevitable with this quest that if you beat it, it’s going to be fairly quick. The longer you go on, the more likely you are to find your hand clogged with Ill Tidings and suffer the various side-effects of things targeting your hand-size.

This quest can mess with your head- it was the first time we were punished for hand-size, but actually, there are multiple common cards which will take advantage of ditching cards (Eowyn, Protector of Lorien) or you can just have lots of resource acceleration, and run out of cards naturally.

Whilst this was a very easy win for me, that was down to an almost-perfect starting-hand, and I think the real difficulty is around the mid-range.

5/10

To Catch An Orc

Methedras-Orc The second quest from Voice of Isengard caused me some problems. There are some big enemies in this – Mugash himself is very large, and the Methedras Orc, who seemed to have an incredible knack of arriving in the same round swings for a 5 that was causing me issues, as I didn’t have enough bodies to chump, but couldn’t take an attack that big undefended, even with healing on hand.

On the other hand, if you get a manageable start, and Mugash is low in your out-of-play deck, this one can run long. I ended up with an enormous army of dwarves, and finally found Mugash on turn 13 – it took that long to get more than a couple of locations with “searches” – in a multi-player game, I don’t think this would happen nearly so easily.

On this instance, I was able to take out Mugash in 1 fell-swoop with a sneak-attack Erebor Battlemaster (these are the only out-of-sphere cards in the deck, relying on Narvi’s Belt, or Very Good Tale to make more permanent appearances), then storm through stage 3 in one round.

Despite all that, I think this one is harder than “Fords.” There are more ways for time counters to disappear, and the enemies can quickly get big and nasty. If there was a player solely focused on combat, it might be a different matter, but in solo, I’m going to go fairly high.

7/10

Into Fangorn

In a moment of utter foolishness (or at least a dismal lack of concentration) I once took a Ranger Trap deck up against Into Fangorn. The dwarves were sufficiently generic that they were not quite so stupid a proposition, but the quest still has challenges.

Deadly-HuornFor one thing, this feels like the easiest quest to get smashed by time. In “Fords” there aren’t too many ways to lose time counters, and To Catch has a built-in mechanic to replenish them. Here though, you either need to smash through everything in a round or two, or the objective has gone and you’re lost in the woods on an entirely different quest stage.

It’s also worth noting that the enemies are BIG. The hinder keyword means they don’t necessarily hit you that hard (although there are some treacheries that can see to that) but you need 9, 10 or 12 to one-shot a Huorn, significantly more if you’re doing it over several rounds.

Aside from the general Voice of Isengard hate on Turtle Decks, this also has cards like Low on Provisions which punish swarm decks. Fortunately, dwarves are quite sturdy (even more so if you can get hardy leadership on them) so I was able to survive this and heal back up.

Given just how lost you can get in Fangorn, and just how hard a Huorn will smash if it does decide to attack, I think this is the hardest of the bunch, although it’s close with To Catch an Orc.

8/10

Now- anyone really observant will notice that the ratings I’ve given above are not the same as the ratings appearing on the page. That’s because these three had already been rated by a reader (and one who clearly found them less of a challenge than I did. Whenever I’ve got multiple ratings for a quest, I’ll be using a straightforward mean average. I may well also introduce a colour-scheme (if I can figure out how to do coloured text on here) to show how many ratings a quest has.

Going Solo

I, and I’m sure many others, regularly enthuse about this game, for the fact that it’s cooperative. Aside from the fact that it fits so well into the theme of Tolkien’s world, many of us like getting to work together with other players to combat a challenge thrown at us by the game, rather than being locked in a battle against each other.

However, whilst it might not always get as much attention, this game is marketed as a Solo game. This is a major reason for many players to get into the game, as they don’t need to find a playgroup, but the solo iteration of this game is not without its critics. (I’m not going to dwell on “two-handed solo” which is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a 2-player game, except that you know exactly what cards the other player has in hand)

It's more of a Great "us" Bow now...

It’s more of a Great “us” Bow now…

First of all, there will always be cards which are of less use (if any) to solo players.

Ranged and Sentinel were criticised early on as being meaningless for the single-player environment, although there are now cards which can provide you benefits from these characteristics, outside of the multiplayer environment: Great Yew Bow, Rivendell Bow, or Rumil can up the value of your ranged character.

Trask-Industries-Front-FaceThere are also encounter cards which have similar requirements. Various iterations of birds or bats have been an obstacle for anyone not carrying ranged, making it a must, at least for consideration when building a true-solo deck.

Sentinel is a bit trickier – although The Day’s Rising can make money out of a Sentinel, regardless of who the enemy is engaged with.

Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own

(I feel like that may be a U2 lyric? – not sure, that’s around the time I gave up listening to them)

Recently I spotted a post on Board Game Geek from a frustrated player who had coming crashing to a halt against Escape From Dol Guldur with a single core set. As most players who have played this game will know, that can be a brutal experience, with any number of players, worse so when you’re trying to deal with it by yourself.

One does not simply stop at a single Core Set

One does not simply stop at a single Core Set

I guess that the problem here is actually two issues running into each other – the difficulty of playing certain scenarios solo, and the difficulty of playing this game with a single core set. I came to this game having played the Game of Thrones LCG for a year or two, so I had no illusions that my core set would be the complete play experience – I always intended to buy adventure packs, and knew that I would reluctantly get additional core sets at some point (I currently own 2).

There are points in this game where the quests have made me despair – quests which seemed so implausible solo that I didn’t even bother trying. That said, I don’t feel that it necessarily stays that way: with my wife away on holiday for a week, I’ve been catching up on some of the scenarios I’d never completed solo. A Tactics Aragorn / Halbarad / Mablung deck overcame Siege of Cair Andros (at about the tenth attempt), then a Tri-sphere Elf-Deck of Celeborn, Haldir and Glorfindel (Yes, Him. Sorry…) blasted through Encounter at Amon Din and Assault on Osgiliath. The final solo challenge of the Against the Shadow cycle was The Morgul Vale, which I eventually managed in a 17-round epic (stupid shadows returning that Nazgul to the staging area).

“can only be attacked by one character at a time?" – that’s fine with me

“can only be attacked by one character at a time?” – that’s fine with me

Of course, there are scenarios which present a massive challenge solo – We Must Away, Ere Break of Day defeated both the Elves and the Dunedain, as both were repeatedly crushed by the trolls, even with ideal starting hands.

I finally cracked this one with the reliable old “chuck many dwarves at it” strategy, turtling for a few rounds whilst the dwarf-swarm built up, finally getting a bit of luck with the sacks, then smashing them with an Erebor Battle-Master or two.

There are still scenarios which I haven’t managed solo – Voice of Isengard messes with my head at the best of times, and I’m dreading The Three Trials and The Dunland Trap. Journey in the Dark feels like it would inevitably end in death, and Breaking of the Fellowship just doesn’t make a lot of sense solo.
The World of the Lone Traveller

The-Master's-Malice Aside from difficulty, I think the game is just plain different in solo as opposed to multi-player. For one thing, I think that the degree of randomness goes up a lot in solo – several of the scenarios I’ve dealt with above contain “The Master’s Malice” the treachery card designed to bring death to anybody not running a mono-sphere deck. In solo, you have to assume that you’re going see that card at least once and be prepared to deal with it: either build mono-sphere, have chunky characters and healing/damage cancellation, or treachery cancellation.

In solo I ran a tri-sphere deck. I did have 3 copies of a test of will in the deck, but to be honest, my main strategy was “hope this card doesn’t appear” (or appears as a shadow) – it worked on 2 of the 3 scenarios, and with the third I just started again.

Was that it?
Other scenarios can run strangely short – if we had started Assault on Osgiliath with 4 locations in the staging area and no means of exploring them without travelling, we would have needed 5 rounds minimum – assuming the unlikely occurrence of no other location showing up. By contrast, I was able to beat it solo on round 3:

  • Turn 1, travel to first location and kill enemy revealed in set-up
  • Turn 2, clear first location, travel to second location (revealed in round 1 staging) and kill enemy revealed in round two.
  • Turn 3, deal with treachery revealed from encounter deck, explore second location, win.

I think that this scenario is easier, as well as shorter, in solo play. I’d previously been scared away from this scenario after trying it out 4-player and drawing Southron Support turn 1 (ended up with 6 locations, and 9 enemies in the staging area after the first round’s staging- together with doomed 3, we lost by enough to make us engage ALL the enemies.)

Bucklebury-Ferry Generally, the “have no X in the staging area” scenarios are easier with fewer players

– Shadow of the Past 4-player made me feel like it was never going to end, as we had more than enough out to quest through all the threat and defeat the Nazgul, but we couldn’t ever get the staging area down to a single location in order to travel to Bucklebury Ferry (yes, we should probably have brought more location management, but this was a pick-up game at a shop, including 1 player who only owned a core set plus Celebrimbor’s secret).

Overall, I do think this game is worth playing solo – and it’s been a refreshing change this week to revisit some of the solo decks and approach scenarios from a different angle. I think it is, generally, harder than multi-player: It’s harder to just roll up to a random scenario with a random deck, and you certainly have to accept the LCG model for what it is (i.e. an assumption that you will buy more packs than just a core set), but with those caveats, it’s not only possible to play, but more importantly, it’s still capable of being fun. I still think that two or three-player will continue to be the way in which I play the game the most, partly because it feels better balanced, but also because that suits the people I typically have around for gaming. I’d be interested to know what other people’s thoughts and experiences of solo play are.

Difficulty in the Dark

A while back, I published the first in a series of scenario reviews and ratings for the difficulty project: working through the quests from Black Riders, using only the cards from the first two Lord of the Rings Saga boxes and the Core Set.

ValiantRecently, I finished this play-through, taking the same two decks along the darkening road through Moria, to the Breaking of the Fellowship.

It’s worth noting that we were playing in Campaign Mode. This meant two things this late in the game- firstly, it meant that Gandalf and Aragorn had permanent bonuses to their attack and defence respectively, but also that the encounter deck was growing ever more heavily stacked with burden cards, typically surging treacheries that not only do something nasty, but also replace themselves. Overall, I think the good and the bad balance each other out fairly well, but it’s worth making people aware before I write the actual quest run-downs.

The Ring Goes South

The first of the quests in the second box, this one kicks off with a fun re-creation of the Council of Elrond, where the players have to decide between a series of cards, putting one into play for free, one in hand, one in the discard pile, and shuffling one back into its owner’s deck.

Howling-WargThe main theme of this quest, is damage to the active location, with various nasty effects which strike the players when the quest stages leave play. Combined with a compulsory requirement to travel when able, and a series of nasty Wargs, this one keeps play moving at a fairly hefty pace.

Healing is pretty much a must-have (at one point, I was forced to sneak-attack a daughter of Nimrodel, heal with her, ready with ever vigilant, then go again) especially if you have Hobbits with their small pool of hit-points, but you also need  combat to deal with those Wargs, strong questing to move through the stages quickly, and ideally a bit of staging-area location management.

Whilst this one certainly challenges players, it does so in a fairly rounded way, making me feel like I could deal with this using decent “standard” decks (I appreciate that my view of healing as a “standard” requirement for a set of decks is not universally shared).

Difficulty wise, this certainly wasn’t as punishing as knife in the dark, and felt a bit calmer than the other box 1 quests. The punishing amount of damage though, makes it tricky to handle.

Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 6/10

Journey in the Dark

Journey in the Dark takes the players once again into Moria. Evidently, this is becoming well-worn territory by now – I discussed last time out, that this is the third version of the Balrog we’ve seen in one shape or another, so they needed to do some work to keep it fresh.

First up, this quest presents some challenges. There’s a lot of archery damage to be reckoned with (although not on a Druadan Forest scale), and you’re actively punished for making optional engagements, which means that the archery damage is going to keep piling up.

Whilst there’s definite potential in doing a bit of custom building, to have a super-Dunhere, Legolas with Rivendell Blade and Great Yew Bow, or even just some Sneak-Attack Descendant of Thorondor work, the easiest way is to just quest hard and strong straight through.

We encountered the Balrog on stage 3, but couldn’t muster anything like the attack needed to finish him off (especially now we know that he’s still immune to player card effects, and staggered out of Moria, all heroes still alive, but no Balrog in the Victory display, leaving a large number of Burdens to be added to the Campaign Pool.

Definitely the hardest of the 3, we got wiped out once by the orc-swarm, and if you have the misfortune to encounter the Balrog before stage 3, it’s probably curtains.

Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 8/10

Breaking of the Fellowship

On the surface, appears one of the most challenging quests. In reality, I think it’s a lot more doable, it just takes a bit of planning.

In quest stage A, all enemies have a defence boost of 2, many have toughness (damage reduction) and they cannot be engaged. Sniping the staging area as in Moria isn’t going to work here.

You also have a pair of locations – Sarn Gebir and the Argonath which need to be dealt with before you can clear the stage. The Argonath don’t really do anything, but Sarn Gebir will damage you when it’s cleared. Both (obviously) are immune to player card effects.

Sarn-Gebir The-Argonath

We failed at this a few times, before deciding to just chuck everything at it. Quest hard- don’t worry about leaving characters ready, as you’re probably not going to have to fight anything. You’ll take damage when you advance, but it can’t be helped.

The transition is difficult – you’ll need some kind of action advantage (we used the boon Lembas bread) to stave of the initial wave of attacks.

After that, it gets a lot easier. The fact that you can choose which quest stage you tackle, allows you to play to your strengths, particularly with 2 players. I was able to quest away my enemies, without needing to bother worrying about having to fight them. The other player was able to re-ready heroes every time they quested successfully, allowing us to fight as necessary.

The way of digging through the deck for Frodo’s choice, and then covering his escape was nicely done- I found Frodo and was able to push through fairly easily. Although it’s a puzzler, with a few odd tricks to start with, this one’s actually not that hard once you get it sussed, and once you make it to stage 2.

Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 6/10

I realise that these reviews are making the difficulty project take a lot longer than initially anticipated, but I still think it’s a worthwhile exercise – thanks to all those have already contributed ratings, I’ll be trying to get them compiled shortly

A Balrog of Morgoth (What did you say?)

Last year, there was a small flurry of controversy around a particular card in the Lord of the Rings LCG, namely The Balrog.

So far, we have seen 3 official versions of what is essentially the Balrog in this game – The Nameless Fear of the Khazad Dum Box, Durin’s Bane from Shadow and Flame and finally The Balrog from The Road Darkens.

The-Nameless-Fear All of these have been significant foes: The Nameless Fear had attack, defence and threat as X, where X was the number of points in the victory display, and the scenario actively pushed cards into that display. It had 27 hit points, and was immune to player-card effects. It wasn’t technically unkillable, but as it could not be engaged and was immune to play-card effects, it might as well have been. This first iteration didn’t really interact with you directly, it just loomed in the dark, contributing threat, and possibly smiting a hero at short notice.

Durin's-Bane Moving forward to Durin’s Bane, the stats had crystallised at 4 threat, 6 attack, 3 defence and – once again, 27 hit points. This time it had gained additional powers, in the shape of “regenerate 3” (a round-by-round self-healing ability) and “indestructible.” This keyword – so far seen only on Balrogs, Dragons, the Watcher in the Water, and – most recently – Old Man Willow, meant that simply accruing damage equal to its hit points would not kill it, and you had to use a built-in-to-the-quest mechanism to tumble it down a pit. It also attacked each player every round, unless you had some kind of threat-gain avoidance, or a blocking card.

the-balrog The third (and presumably, final) version, saw the Balrog unveiled in all its fiery terror. Finally having its real name displayed for all to see, the threat has risen to 5, the attack to 8. Defence is a whopping 9, although the hit-points are tempered slightly to 25. This Balrog was also indestructible, it was automatically engaged with the first player (and them only) and both the Balrog and its shadow cards were immune to player-card effects. The only chance for the heroes was to outrun it, or for a hero to sacrifice themselves on the bridge of Khazad-Dum to damage the Balrog and strip it of its keywords.

This is where things got messy.

The exact text of The Great Bridge is as follows:

Response: When The Great Bridge is explored, discard a hero from play to deal X damage to The Balrog. X is that hero’s threat cost. Then, The Balrog loses all keywords for the remainder of the game. Any player may trigger this response.”

The-Great-Bridge

So then, what keywords does it lose?

I think (hope?) that it’s easy enough to agree that the second paragraph on the Balrog is not a keyword

“While in the staging area, The Balrog is considered to be engaged with the first player and only the first player can declare attackers against The Balrog.”

That leaves only the first Paragraph which reads as follows:

“Indestructible. Cannot be optionally engaged. The Balrog and shadow cards dealt to The Balrog are immune to player card effects.”

That seems to offer us 3 possibilities for “keywords”

  1. Indestructible
  2. Cannot be Optionally Engaged
  3. Immune to Player Card effects.

For us, it seemed clear that it meant all three. After all, we’ve just sacrificed a hero to trigger this effect – unless you’ve got some Fortune or Fate shenanigans up your sleeve, their services are lost to you for the entire campaign. (Theme says you should use Gandalf, a long-view suggests that Fatty Bolger might be a more prudent option).

It was one of the highlights of our recent games to play this scenario and, having got 22 damage on the Balrog, drop in a Mirkwood runner, boosted up to three attack by Celeborn and have him slice through the Balrog’s defence for the win.

Mirkwood-Runner

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. After some arguments on the forums, and an amount of nerd-rage that might surprise anyone not familiar with either Gamers or Tolkien enthusiasts, FFG issued an official clarification in an FAQ that all that disappeared was “Indestructible” – the reference to Keywords seems to simply be future-proofing.

So, our victory was a false one, the designers have ruled and that is – of course- their right. However, as I reach the end of what has become a very long pre-amble, it does raise questions to me regarding the complexity of the rules of this (or indeed any living) game.

The Hall of Beorn’s Card search for the Lord of the Rings LCG currently lists 28 different key-words (assuming you treat “Time 1,” “Time 2,” “Time X” etc as one keyword) – of these 3 are from Ian’s First Age expansion, leaving 25.

Some of these are core features of the game- It’s hard to imagine the LCG without “Surge,” “Doomed,” “Ranged,” or “Sentinel.” Others, like “Time,” “Siege,” or “Battle” have come in for particular periods of the game, before diminishing as they go into the west. There have also been large numbers of keywords which appeared for only a single scenario, before disappearing – “Hide,” “Prowl,” “Villagers,” or “Underworld.”

The oddity though, is what it takes to qualify as a Keyword. Consider, for example a Hide Test from Black Riders, vs an Escape Test from The Dead Marshes. Superficially, these are very similar: at points dictated by the quest, you exhaust characters, discard cards from the encounter deck and compare a random figure. However, “Hide” is a keyword, whereas “Escape” is a trait. (Apparently)

Evil-Crow

If you come to Lord of the Rings from the world of competitive games like Magic, then this level of nuance is probably not a problem for you- in high-stakes competitive games, there are always going to be rules-lawyers, and you need a suitable amount of precision to deal with it.

This game however, as we’ve so often said is co-operative. Whilst it certainly has depth and complexity, to a greater extent than Magic, or even than one of Fantasy Flight’s Competitive LCGs, it should be an opportunity for players to come together and enjoy a game immersed in the flavour of the world Tolkien has created. I know I have certainly introduced this game to people I would never have considered trying to teach Game of Thrones to (I don’t play Magic, and I think my wife and my bank manager probably want it to stay that way…)

Giant-Marsh-Worm The-Watcher The constant challenge for the designers is to keep the game fresh, and one of the ways they do that will inevitably be via new mechanics.

Equally, there is clearly a time for taking a concept previously tried and streamlining it. Compare the Giant Marsh worm with its rather long-winded “Forced: Remove 2 damage from Giant Marsh Worm at the end of each round” with the Watcher in the Water’s “Regenerate 2.” Both do exactly the same thing. The ability on the Watcher takes a lot less space, allowing other ideas to be placed on the card – however, it also requires you to understand what “Regenerate” does in a way that the Marsh Worm doesn’t.

For the most part, I think the designers have the game about right- given the number of things they need to be able to do, and the inevitably of some errors making it through even the most strenuous play-testing, the number of clarifications we have in the FAQs seem reasonable. At the same time, we are now dealing with a 17-page document, which is unlikely to be read, let alone remembered by casual players.

I don’t really have any suggestions as to how the designers can best manage the complexity of this game, and the balancing of intent vs function on new cards. However, I do think that they need to make sure that this game remains accessible to new players as well as those of us who have been in from the start, and hope they keep it in mind.

A Question of Theme

Recently, we had a LotR night at our local games shop. The plan was to test the relative merits of Elves vs Dwarves.

legolas-gimliInevitably, there were issues – I was providing the decks for three players, and the other two don’t deck build. One guy came by himself, and another two came with a pair of decks. In the end, we split into two threes, our table had a single dwarf deck and a pair of elves (although not the matched pair that had been built to go together), whilst the other table had the matched pair of dwarf decks and a lone Elven offering.

Aside from the inherent difficulty of deciding which was “best” we uncovered some fairly fundamental differences of understanding around what constitutes a “theme” deck. As I commented last time, I’m not happy building a Rohan deck with a non-Rohan hero in it (not that it can’t be a good deck, it just isn’t a “Rohan” deck). Equally, I’d raise an eyebrow or two at a deck where all the heroes, but none of the allies, attachments or events keyed into the particular theme.

Beyond that though, I think there has to come a point where practically being able to play the game overtakes questions of pure theme. My Dwarf swarm, to my mind, was a legitimate dwarf deck – Dain, Thorin and Ori, with allies including Fili, Kili, Gloin, Longbeard Elder, Orc-Slayer and Mapmaker, Erebor Record Keeper and Hammersmith. Legacy of Durin and Hardy Leadership are the key attachments, whilst it was Lure of Moria that enabled me to smash through two guardians before they knew what had hit them on stage 3 of the Three Trials.

However, at no point in the building of this “dwarf” deck, did I feel under any obligation to leave out Gandalf – in a deck without spirit, threat reduction is always an issue, and when you have access to sneak attack, leaving him out feels even more bizarre. I also threw in a Warden of Healing or two (although the non-unique character hate in Three Trials made this invariably a waste of time). The only characters I actively avoided were Elves in the Dwarf decks, and Dwarves in the Elf decks.

Northern-TrackerBy contrast- at the next table, a player was rebuked for having a Northern Tracker in their deck (a deck I had built, using the logic above), and when they drew Gandalf were instructed to discard him and draw a replacement. The Errand-riders, who could have smoothed the distribution of the resources being generated by Steward of Gondor, were also ruled out – although interestingly, Steward of Gondor itself was allowed to remain within elf-land (I had almost swapped it out for Ian’s “High Kingship of the Noldor” which does the same thing, just with a different thematic twist).

In large part, the issues we had are about how organised play works – if one part of a group has a discussion about what to do next time, a second group (containing some, but not all members of the original discussion, plus a few extras) then talk about it on the Facebook group, and a third group (containing all the previous folk plus a few more) turn up to play, then obviously there are going to be communication issues, but what I’m wanting to think about, is what makes for a good “theme” deck.

Part of this will, inevitably, tie-in to difficulty – if you are one of those unusual folk who find this game too easy, then deliberately tying your own hands to impose a very narrow limit on what you can include in a deck could be a good way of doing this: If you are playing Passage Through Mirkwood, with a matched pair of well-honed decks using the full card-pool up to the end of the Ringmaker cycle, then a ban on any character other than a Dwarf might be a sensible option. On the other hand, if you’re going for a three-player pick-up game of a Gen Con scenario, or something out of the Ring-Maker cycle, then this level of difficulty probably isn’t necessary.

Eagles-of-the-Misty-Mountains

Fly you Fools!

As far as the thematic relevance of these odd characters goes, the issue gets a little fuzzier. Gandalf was quite prepared to shove his nose in wherever he felt like it, and seems a fitting figure in any deck, whether it be themed around Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, Rohirrim or Gondorians. Even the most marginal deck-type, such as Eagles can accommodate Istari amongst their ranks comfortably. It has always struck me as ironic that the Gandalf from the Hobbit box is more like the Gandalf we see in Lord of the Rings (here for the long-haul, very powerful, but likely to attract the attention of the enemy) whereas Core Set Gandalf clearly draws inspiration from The Hobbit. (shows up, fixes things, disappears again).

Others could be considered on a case-by-case basis. A group of Silvan elves wandering the wilds of the North could easily have one of the Dunedain amongst their ranks (maybe they’ve been taking the advice from Thranduil at the end of the last film…) On the other hand, you have to admit that a Warden of Healing is probably less likely to go wandering in the woods, more likely hanging back in Minas Tirith – but even then, the presence of this old man on your journey is no more improbable than the Steward of Gondor and a Hobbit together facing down Smaug the Golden.

This, I think is where the difficulty lies – for this game to allow us to play as our favourite heroes from the books, it requires us to suspend our disbelief somewhat. Consider Passage Through Mirkwood, in which the players are delivering a message from Tranduil to Galadriel (or is it the other way around) – this is just the sort of task you might assign to Beravor and Thalin, possibly even to Elladan and Elrohir, but you can’t really imagine Theoden and Denethor doing it.

Personally, I still plan to keep building “thematic” decks. By thematic, I mean that the heroes, and many of the allies / events / attachments will fit into that theme. However, if there’s a card that makes a deck work that much better, but comes from elsewhere, I’m not going to leave it at home. Horn of Gondor will be in my Rohan decks and my Silvan decks (although possibly not my Gondor decks…) Steward of Gondor will continue to crop up in any deck with Leadership in.

My approach to this game has always been that having fun is more important than strict adherence, either to the rules minutiae when it comes to timing, or even to the more extreme constraints of theme on deck-building. I’d be interested to know others thoughts on these issues, but ultimately, I don’t plan to change much any time soon.