Surging Against the Shadow

In many respects, the Heirs of Numenor box was where difficulty in this game first went crazy. The sudden introduction of battle and siege turned a lot of received wisdom on its head about how your decks needed to be built, and some of the difficulty ratings were frankly comic (just remember that into Ithilien is officially a 4/10 difficulty!) the specific concern here though, is with Surge, and how frequent it is.Blocking-Wargs

In terms of straightforward, printed surge, there is a marked increase. Gone are the days of quests with no printed surge, with every quest featuring it somewhere, even the notoriously pedestrian Encounter at Amon Din, which features it on 1 card in 17. Whilst this figure of around 6% may seem low, it’s worth noticing that this is the first cycle where we haven’t had multiple quests where it was missing entirely. Surge can be found at its most concentrated in the Steward’s Fear, which has it one card in 6 in the main encounter deck, a figure which only rises in Nightmare mode, or in easy!

Lieutenant-of-MordorAcross the board, the occurrence of surge is higher, and that’s before you start to consider the peculiarities of these quests. For example, a “surge-like effect” includes the Lieutenant of Mordor who, when revealed, triggers the top treachery of the discard pile and cannot be cancelled. In the past I’ve been lucky enough to get him turn 1 or 2 when there is no treachery to trigger, which is why he only counts as “surge-like2 but certainly not a card to be dismissed lightly. Again, quests which seem a t the lighter end of the surge spectrum include Blood of Gondor, where the stats – 1 in 11 surge, 1 in 7 surge-like, don’t include the scenario-specific “hidden cards” which can spring an additional swarm of enemies at you. Likewise, The Steward’s Fear is the most surging quest even before you consider the underworld mechanic which makes almost any location a potential minefield, ready to fling armies of enemies at you, most of whom come with some kind of hideous “when engaged” effect.

Average surge likelihood:

Highest:                 1 in 6 (17%)           The Steward’s Fear

Lowest:                  1 in 17 (6%)           Encounter at Amon Din

Cycle overall:         10% standard,       11.4% Easy,         11.8% Nightmare*

Surge-type effect Likelihood:

Highest:                   1 in 3 (34%)           The Steward’s Fear, Assault on Osgiliath

Lowest:                    1 in 7 (10%)           Blood of Gondor

Cycle Overall:          24.6% standard,    23.4% Easy,         25% Nightmare*

*Nightmare figures are for Against the Shadow Cycle only, excluding the Heirs of Numenor deluxe, as I don’t own those Nightmare Decks.

Overall Verdict – Decidedly Surging.

Surging in the Dark

Who remembers the Dwarrowdelf cycle? Khazad Dum, with its swarming armies of Goblinses, leaving you constantly on the back foot, as you tried desperately to fend them off. Surely lots of surge here, right?

Deep-Deep-DarkWell apparently not. Hazy recollections aside, once you actually get down to the numbers, standard difficulty Dwarrowdelf quests don’t really look any surgier than the Mirkwood cycle. The highest probability of surge caps out at around 1 in 9, which is the same as the Hunt for Gollum, but without the forced effect from the quest card revealing extra encounter cards, there are 4 quests (out of 9) with no printed surge whatsoever, and others like the Long Dark have only a token nod to surge with one card in a deck of 60 bearing the word.

The most notable outlier comes in Foundations of Stone, where the players deal with two entirely different encounter decks at different points, and the deck for stages 4 & 5 does have an impressive 1 in 5.5 chance of surging, although if you’ve quested carefully, you should be fairly well set-up by that point.

Easy mode in Dwarrowdelf behaves as you’d expect. Aside from the second foundations deck, surge either gets even less likely to appear (missing altogether from 5 of the 9 quests now) or remains statistically insignificant. Nightmare cranks it up somewhat, with a high of 1 in 5, and only one deck escaping altogether.

Where Dwarrowdelf really punishes players though, is in the surge-like effects. In standard mode, every single quest has at least a 1 in 10 chance of revealing a surge-type effect, with the odds in a couple of decks being 1 in 3. This doesn’t really change all that much across Easy or Nightmare mode.


Lastly, it’s worth noting another slightly distorting feature of the Dwarrowdelf cycle, the Goblin enemies who come out as a shadow card, then add themselves to the staging area. I think this is probably the main reason why it feels so surge-y even if the numbers don’t really suggest it- in several quests, there are no fewer than ten cards with the potential to transform at a moment’s notice from a shadow into an enemy. The figures below are worked out without factoring in these shadow effects.


Average surge likelihood:

Highest:               1 in 9 (11%)          Into the Pit

Lowest:                zero                      Flight from Moria, The Redhorn Gate, Watcher in the Water

Cycle overall:       4.5% standard,     4.3% Easy,            9.7% Nightmare

Surge-type effect Likelihood:

Highest:               1 in 3 (33%)          Into the Pit, Foundations of Stone (part I)

Lowest:                1 in 10 (10%)        The Redhorn Gate

Cycle Overall:      23% standard,      19% Easy,             25% Nightmare

Overall verdict – Not surge, but something a lot like it.

Surges Through Mirkwood

FloodingBack in the days of the core set, and the Mirkwood cycle, surge was a rare beast, occasionally sighted fleetingly through the woods. In Passage Through Mirkwood it was lacking altogether, and there were only a few examples in other core-set cards: The Eastern Crows were the most prevalent of Core-set surgers, but these could be neutralised by questing with Thalin (remember him?) killing them before they could activate – otherwise, the intensity of surge got worse and worse, as the crows were shuffled back into the deck each time they died.

IsolationIt’s probably no surprise to learn that by-and-large, the transition to Nightmare mode generally makes surge more prevalent: Nightmare Return to Mirkwood is the stand-out in this respect, with straightforward surge effects accounting for more than 1 card in ten, and surge-like effects appearing on a slightly terrifying 1 in 3 cards

More surprising is the discovery that in many instances, Easy mode actually made surge more likely, simply because many of the surging cards survived the cut, but found themselves in thinner encounter decks for a greater probability of appearing any time a random card was revealed. Clearly this says something (at least from the designers perspective) about the impact of surge on difficulty – a moderate card with the possibility of another is viewed as less of a challenge to the players than something inherently hideous.

Overall, the Mirkwood cycle is hardly overwhelmed by surge. In 4-player, Massing at Night is going to mess with you, and Return to Mirkwood is punishing, but at the other extreme, Journey to Rhosgobel is missing surge altogether, with Conflict at the Carrock not far behind. Journey Along the Anduin and Hunt for Gollum both have quest-card effects which reveal an extra encounter card, although Hunt does at least allow you to pick between 2 or 3.

The spread of surge-like effects is always broader than surge itself, and includes travel restrictions on locations (Mountains of Mirkwood) and Treacheries with mis-fire protection. However, both of these feel like they are on a limited scale, compared with what comes later

Average surge likelihood:

Highest:                1 in 9 (11%)            Hunt For Gollum

Lowest:                 zero                        Passage Through Mirkwood, Journey to Rhosgobel

Cycle overall:        5.6% standard,       4% Easy,               9.6% Nightmare

Surge-type effect Likelihood:

Highest:                 1 in 4 (25%)          Hills of Emyn Muil

Lowest:                  1 in 24 (4%)          Conflict at the Carrock

Cycle Overall:        12.7% standard,    10.8% Easy,         18.7% Nightmare

Overall verdict – not so surging.

Next up, Dwarrowdelf, get ready for some swarming goblinses…

Surge – Part 1

Sooner or later in this game, it seems that everyone has to confront the question of surge. Most blogs, podcasts, or even normal forums users have run into the question at some point.

Eastern-CrowsThere is certainly a feel that the number of cards which surge has increased since the beginning of the game, but I wanted to have a bit more of a look at the detailed numbers involved.

By this point in the game’s life, we certainly have plenty of data to work from: there have been 4 complete cycles of quests, 5 Saga boxes, assorted stand-alone quests, and the first 4 quests of a new cycle. Throw in Nightmare and Easy mode, and that’s a lot of quests. To be a bit more precise, 60 unique quests with just over 150 variations.

Normal Easy Nightmare
Mirkwood 9 9 9 27
Dwarrowdelf 9 9 9 27
Shadow 9 9 9 27
Ringmaker 9 9 18
Hobbit 6 6 6 18
LotR Saga 11 11 3 25
Angmar 4 4 8
Gen-Con 3 3
60 56 36 152
  • NB, I don’t currently own the Nightmare packs for Heirs of Numenor or Black Riders, so won’t be factoring these in.
  • “Gen Con” is the heading I’m using for The Massing at Osgiliath, The Battle for Laketown, and Stone of Erech. – The Old Forest, and Fog on the Barrow Downs I’ve put with the Saga quests, although Fog on the Barrow-Downs remains unavailable in Europe, so will also be ignored for stats purposes.

At root, whilst there are a number of things in the game which probably can’t be quantified easily – nastiness of enemies or locations, particular mechanics etc, there is one thing we can see which should provide a good overall guide, which is the simple question of “how many cards will I be revealing off of the encounter deck each round?”

Massing-at-NightAside from the traditional “surge” effect, there are various other cards which have effects similar to surge. Some of these are conditional on player-numbers, making their impact harder to measure statistically.

The classic example of this is “Massing at Night” a treachery card from the Core Set, which reveals an additional encounter card per player.

In solo-play, this card could easily be removed from the game, as it will never do anything beyond disappearing and drawing a replacement. In 2-player, the functional effect is the same as giving the next card “surge” and by the time you reach 4-player, it snowballs to terrifying proportions.

No Escape
Early on in the game’s life, there were a pleasing number of treacheries which, although potentially nasty, could also whiff completely at times. Quest with everyone the use Grim Resolve to ready, then the Necromancer’s Reach will do nothing. Have low threat, and Evil Storm will miss entirely too. Evil-Storm

Nowadays, it’s very rare that the designers will let you off so lightly. Most treachery cards these days have some effect along the lines of “All X’s do Y. If there are no Xs / no Ys happen, this card gains surge.”

Obviously, this card increases the difficulty of the game. Previously, there was a chance for a let-off. Now there is not.

The question is, whether this type of effect is best considered under the “surge” heading? Yes, the card has “gained surge” but as it is otherwise a blank card, the total number of cards causing issues for the players will be no greater than originally expected. One of the issues of a “living” card game, is trying to determine what is “normal” (i.e is it now, or is it how things were before?)

Extra Punishment
It’s also worth considering effects which give other cards surge – Bolg in Battle of Five Armies gives surge to the first Orc enemy revealed every round, the Quest Card in the Weather Hills gives surge to the first weather treachery each round.

A subtly different effect is the effect which reveals an extra card each round. However heavy an encounter deck may be with orcs, we’ve never yet seen one which would guarantee an orc appearing. You can strongly suspect that Bolg’s “surge” effect will trigger, but you can’t guarantee it. When (for example) you are in stage 2 of Journey Along the Anduin, you know that there’s an extra card coming out.

Only Bad Options
Orc-Hunter A pleasing development in the card-game over more recent cycles, is the increased amount of choice players are given. Rather than simply “this bad thing happens” there is now often a choice between “do this bad thing, or suffer this other bad effect.” – It’s still bad (which is the point of the encounter deck), but at least players have the opportunity to make decisions, feel like their actions matter, and they aren’t simply being swept along by the game. Of course the difficulty of this, is that it’s no longer clear whether the card surges or not, particular in the “Do X or reveal an additional encounter card” structure.

Is More Always Bad?
It’s also worth considering whether there are ever times when having more cards revealed from the deck is actually a good thing? Obviously, if this is ever the case, it’s going to be very marginal, but I thought I should at least cover the possibility.

The one example which jumps to mind, is Wingfoot. Especially with low player-counts, or without scrying, there’s a definite chance that this will simply miss, and your hero won’t ready. Is it worth having an extra card come out just to get that extra action?

I think it’s at least possible that it could be – if you have the characters to deal with the enemy, then seeing an enemy and a location could be better than just the location. Beravor is a fairly good target for Wingfoot, given her rounded stat-pool, and ever if you don’t need her for combat, the action advantage gets you two cards. If you have Legolas in play, you can place progress for killing the enemy (although the enemy would have to have only 1 threat for this to be a net gain), and the extra body might enable you to trigger Foe-Hammer when you kill it, or Valiant Sacrifice, Horn of Gondor, or any number of “character leaves play” effects. If your board position is good enough, you might even be able to let a high-threat enemy hang around for a round, to quest with Halbarad then lower your threat with Secret Vigil.

He's twitching because he's got my axe embedded in his nervous system...

He’s twitching because he’s got my axe embedded in his nervous system…

Whilst the list of options above isn’t small, it’s still only going to be a very small minority of situations where you’ll want that extra card appearing- and only then if it’s the right type. You can always hit an enemy harder than you need to (I’ve lost count of the number of times Legolas has stuck an extra arrow into an already dead orc just for some progress tokens) and as already mentioned, it generally needs to be a very specific type of extra card. Overall, almost without exception, I feel like “one more card” of unspecified type is going to be a bad thing.

Ultimately, there will never be a set in which every card surges. However, there will be sets which are much more likely to swarm you than others. What I’m looking to do then, is to produce a kind of statistical average, quest-by-quest of how many cards are likely to be thrown at you.

To simplify things, I’ve decided to break it down as follows:

No surge – A standard card which appears, and that’s it.
Surge – A card which appears, does something AND adds a card. I’ll also use this for forced effects which reveal an extra card (or more) each round.
Conditional Surge – This will cover all of the other effects, cards which surge when certain conditions are met, cards which offer you a choice between an extra card or another penalty (discard an ally, remove a time-counter, take some damage etc)

For each quest, I’ll try to provide a ratio between the 3 card types, and a few other helpful numbers indicated the likelihood of cards swarming or the total number of cards you can expect to see.

By now, you may have come to the same realisation I have, that this is a fairly sizeable undertaking. You may also be questioning the wisdom of taking on this kind of project with so many gaping holes remaining in the difficulty project, but I think that this will actually feed into that in a fairly helpful way, giving some kind of factual information to go with the gut-feeling approach that I’ve been using as the overriding principle. (at least in theory, I should have a bit more time over the next few weeks to get some of this stuff done [famous last words, I know]).

So, having set this up, I’m going to post a series of mini-articles (hopefully more frequent than standard articles) for the various cycles, and a final one to draw them all together.

The Wizard’s Voice

“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwearily to that voice could seldom report the words that they had heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke, they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.” – The Two Towers

This week, the world received the news that Christopher Lee, better known to Tolkien fans as Saruman the White had taken the last ship into the west. At 93, his death can hardly be considered a surprise, but here at Dor Cuarthol, we wanted to pay tribute to the man who brought this character to life.



Christopher Lee led a long and full life: he fought in the Second World War, and to many of elder generations, he will be remembered as Dracula, for his work in the Wicker Man, or even as a Bond Villain.

For me though, Christopher Lee remains inseparable from two parts, both taken on very late in his career: Saruman the White of Middle Earth, and Death of discworld. Both are parts defined in large part by their voices: Lee may not actually have been able to speak in capitals as the disc’s reaper did, but it isn’t hard to see how the casting team picked him for the role. [As a strange aside, anyone not familiar with Lee’s work on the symphonic metal concept album “Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” should check out the videos on youtube – ]


Saruman the White was the chief (although not ultimately the Wisest or Greatest) of the Five Istari sent to Middle Earth early in the Third Age. The others were Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown, and the two Blue Wizards who long ago disappeared into the East, and whose names Gandalf tells Bilbo (in the Hobbit films) he has entirely forgotten – fortunately for you, we can confirm today that the individuals you’re looking for are Allatar and Palando.

The unfinished tales tell us that the Istari, although clothed in the likeness of aged, mortal men, were in fact Maiar – that is to say, the same type of creature as Sauron himself, or the Balrogs. Gandalf’s “true” name is Olorin, and Saruman’s is Curumo.

Whilst the Blue wizards are unlikely to trouble designers of the Lord of the Rings Card Game, the other three have already appeared, and I’m going to think today, a little about the Saruman cards we’ve seen so far.

Saruman officialSaruman first appeared as an ally. For those familiar with his later treachery, this may seem odd, but the card game is (primarily) set before the Ring sets out from the Shire, when Saruman is still head of the white council – indeed our illustrious heroes spent an entire cycle helping him unite the Dunlendings, forge his own Ring of Power and create the Uruk-Hai.

Even for those who didn’t spot ahead of time what Saruman was upto, this card fits well into a distinct playtype, that of the Doomed deck. Doomed cards allow you to trigger effects much more cheaply (in terms of resources) than would otherwise be the case, but with the added cost of a threat raise.

Saruman himself embodies this doomed mechanic well: for a mere three resources, he is a neutral ally (so affordable turn 1 by most) with 3 willpower, a whopping 5 attack, four defence and four hit-points. The sum of his stats are comparable with ally Gandalf, although he is a better attacker, but a worse quester. The catch for the 2-resource discount is the “doomed 3” text, which raises everyone’s threat when he enters play.

His ability is also strikingly different: whereas Gandalf lowers your threat or draws you cards, Saruman takes the fight to the encounter deck, and can treat a non-unique enemy or location as out-of-play for the round: at first sight, this can seem like a very marginal effect, but there are moments when it can prove highly useful, such as when you need a round’s respite before being bashed again by a Hill-Troll, or you desperately need to send your Northern Trackers to work on the staging area, but can’t cope with the Twisting Passage sat there. (I still have nightmares about The Long Dark.
The-Wizards's-VoicePersonally, I can’t say I’ve got all that much use out of the Doomed player-cards so far: I did build a solo deck with Saruman’s lackey Grima, Lore Aragorn and Theodred, which was fun, but in multi-player people seem strangely reluctant to have their threat raised by ten on round one…

Power of Orthanc does see fairly regular inclusion, but other cards like The Wizard’s Voice never quite seem to make the cut. Hopefully, the rise of the new Valour mechanic, and related cards which reward you for a threat over 40 will see this become a more viable deck archetype.

Another reason for Ally-Saruman not being flavour of the month, is that we’re still not that long past the Treason of Saruman box in which [spoilers] Saruman appears as an enemy.

Why are the enemies always stronger?

Why are the enemies always stronger?

Because the game just doesn’t like you very much, enemy Saruman has an extra point of attack, an extra hit-point, and has 1 more threat than his ally counterpart’s willpower. He’s also immune to player card effects, indestructible, and cannot leave the staging area, but you can probably lock him in his house, and leave him under the watchful guard of a treeherder.

Christopher Lee was already nearly 70 when he played Saruman for the first time, and even in the Fellowship of the Ring, he appears more for his command presence and might vocal intonations than his dynamic on-screen activity, but that didn’t stop him from playing a major part in the feel of a very fine Trilogy of Films. Whilst it would have been nice to see more of him, perhaps in the Scouring of the Shire, the last thing Return of the King needed was another ending.

As a parting tribute to the great man, I leave you with a couple of cards: one simply an alternate art for the Saruman ally card, and another an event, inspired by the scene in Lee’s final foray into Middle Earth

Saruman-Front-Face Leave-Sauron-to-Me-Front-Face

Christopher Lee: 1922-2015

Riddles in the Dark

Wong sort of Riddle?

Wrong sort of Riddle?

Recently, I’ve been dealing with what I believe is the king of the “must custom-build for” quest: Dungeons Deep and Caverns Dim.

Coming as the third quest in the first Saga Box, this quest see players following the parallel stories of Thorin and his dwarves as they battle Goblins and try to make it out of the caves alive, whilst Bilbo and Gollum play their game of riddles.

The Challenge

First up, I want to say that this is a really difficult quest. The main staging area sees players faced with a location that is immune to player card effects, cannot leave the staging area, and contributes X threat, where X is double  the number of players in the game. In what is already a fairly surge-heavy encounter deck, players also reveal 2 cards each, making for a minimum of 8 cards coming off the deck each round in a 4-player game.


Whilst this stage is hard, mechanically it’s pretty standard. Reveal lots of cards, kill the enemies, make progress. The big twist in this quest comes from the other quest card, representing Bilbo, Gollum and the Riddles.

Many of the cards in this encounter set have riddle effects. A riddle requires a player to shuffle their deck, then name various characteristics, as demanded by the riddle – sphere, type and cost, etc. finally, they discard a given number of cards from their deck, hoping to find a match – for each match, they can place a progress token on the quest stage.

GollumThis is the only way to place progress at this stage, and in all our recent games, it has taken us significantly longer than the regular quest. If you fail to get a match, Gollum will attack Bilbo, so three failed riddles means dead Bilbo, and the players lose the game. Gollum and Bilbo are the only cards at this quest stage, and become immune to player-card effects, so there’s no way to kill Gollum, bolster Bilbo’s defence, heal him, or even re-ready him to defend an extra attack.

All of the above should make it clear that failing to answer a riddle is not something you want to do. However, for a normal deck, failure is the exception rather than the norm. To take the most extreme example, how confidently do you think you could predict the type, sphere and cost of the top card of your deck, without looking? I tried this quest recently with a set of decent decks- a 2-ish sphere dwarf swarm, a mostly mono-Lore Elrond deck, and a mostly Leadership Aragorn questing machine: we cleared the normal stage easily, but Bilbo was dead by round 3.


We tackled it again with custom decks. The dwarves were out, the leadership and Lore decks were now properly mono (aside from Gandalf), no tactics Ents, Vilya, Elrond’s Counsel, no more Arwen. I built an entirely brand-new tactics deck in which no card (except Gandalf) cost more than 2, and it was mostly allies.

With a lot of damage and copious use of cards like Mighty Prowess to take out the goblin-swarm, we made it through – it was still a relatively close call, as we were losing our decks rapidly, and taking damage left, right and centre. We did at least manage to avoid losing more than one riddle. We were still very vulnerable though, particularly to the treachery that makes each player add a goblin to the staging area, and for our four-player assault on this quest, I added a mono-spirit deck, focused around cancelling hideous effects like this, and recycling cards with dwarven tomb and will of the west. If anything, this quest gets slightly easier with four, just because you already know that all the goblins are coming out, and you can cover all the bases, whilst remaining mono-sphere.


Thinking about the difficulty of this quest overall, I think it’s difficult at the best of times, and impossible when not. A “one deck to rule them all” is likely to see Bilbo get riddled full of holes, and regardless of how many players you have, I think it’s all going to be down to blind luck.

When you start to custom-build, the quest becomes possible, but it’s still a challenge. Crucially though, I think you start to see more nuance across player-numbers. Solo is harder because you’ll struggle to cover the bases mono-sphere, and are more susceptible to being overwhelmed with an untimely surge or two. Two or three player you start to be able to get on top of things, but the sheer number of cards you’ll be revealing (surge is almost guaranteed, as is the goblin-fetcher) make it hard to plan. Weirdly, at four it’s almost easier: the uncertainty has gone, as provided you’re prepared to throw half your deck on riddles, you can probably survive. That said, the fact that the Island in the Lake is now 8 threat, and at least one of your decks probably sucks at questing doesn’t help.


General Deck – Solo: 10, 2-player: 10, 3-player: 10, 4-player: 10

Custom-Build – Solo: 8, 2-player: 6, 3-player: 7, 4-player: 6

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.


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.


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