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.”


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.


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)


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.


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.

(Ro)Han Solo

Most people who have been reading this blog for a while, probably won’t be particularly surprised to know that, for a long time, I’ve been trying to put together a good, Rohan, true solo deck. My first aim was to solo the whole of the Mirkwood cycle with it, trying out some of the campaign-style modes that fans have created, before moving on to see if it can survive in the big wide world.

The problem is, that there has never really felt like there was a viable solo deck buildable. Various things were tried without success, and gradually the (Ro)Han Solo deck became more and more of a dream, less and less likely to hit the table. A mono-sphere deck is always tricky for solo: a Spirit deck is going to struggle for combat, and a tactics deck, even with Theoden, is probably going to come up short on will-power (not to mention cancellation and threat reduction). It might be possible to plug some gaps with one or more of the custom cards I’ve created, but at least initially, I wanted to do it the official way round.

Back in the autumn, I created a tri-sphere deck that I hoped might be up to it – Eowyn for questing, Eomer for killing things, and Theodred for resource acceleration. Unfortunately, it was still a bit lightweight- chump-blocking is good up to a point, as lots of Rohan things synergise off of characters leaving play, but eventually you’ll need a decent defender – with “eventually” being about turn 3, if you’re tackling Journey Down the Anduin. As a tri-sphere deck, it also struggled to get allies out, particularly on turn 1, as there just aren’t that many 1-cost allies around.

There was also a question of theme – Increasingly I was convinced that the best Leadership hero for my Rohan deck was Prince Imrahil. Now admittedly, if you’re going to have a non-Rohan hero in a Rohan deck, the father-in-law of the King (Eomer, not Theoden) seems like a sensible choice, but it still felt a bit wrong. If you start with Imrahil, where do you stop? – Gondorian shield, Knights of the Swan? All could potentially strengthen the deck, at each step, wandering further from the initial aim.


Fittingly, fresh hope came for the beleaguered Rohirrim with the arrival of Erkenbrand in the final pack of the Ringmaker Cycle. A starting 3 defence allowed him to block small / medium enemies out of the gate, with his ally accomplices adding a little more backbone to the deck as a whole, whilst maintaining the in-sphere access to Steward of Gondor, sneak attack etc. Finally, it seemed, we might have a solo Rohan deck ready to take on the perils of Mirkwood.

The first iteration I came up with was a bit flabby (most of my decks end up 60+ cards) and it lacked for card-draw (making it good against Dunlendings), but it was a good enough place to start.

Do you not know?

Do you not know?

It’s worth pausing for a moment at this point to consider what exactly it is that I was expecting from this deck – aside from being able to make the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs! – My current expectation of a successful (Ro) Han Solo deck, is that it will cope fine with Passage Through Mirwkood, and probably be ok on about half of the other Mirkwood quests. I worry about Dol Guldur, as a captured hero could choke things completely, as well as the trolls of the Carrock, the Healing (and ranged requirement) of Rhosgobel, and the Threat of Return to Mirkwood.


When it came to the actual play-testing, things ran less smoothly than I might have hoped. I got through Passage Through Mirkwood ok, but came up short against Journey Along (or is it “down,” they never seem entirely sure) the Anduin. The opening Hill Troll, which has to be engaged on turn 2, is just too much of a problem – twice I lost all 3 of my heroes (the turn where Evil Storm wiped out 5 characters, including all three heroes was particularly special) and only once did I successfully make it through to stage 2 in order to threat out under the weight of that second card per turn.

Unfortunately, the deck feels pulled in too many directions. Chump-blocking is always dangerous against a Hill Troll, just because of the huge amount of threat you have to swallow, and even with Dunedain Warning in opening hand, Erkenbrand can only really defend it once.

As far as I can tell, to even have a hope in this quest, you probably need the troll to be the revealed card in set-up. You then need some early treacheries that just mis-fire completely, and/or a benign location or two – that way, with a lot of luck, you can quest on turn 2 with an Escort from Edoras who leaves play, use Erkenbrand to pay for an Envoy of Pelargir, transferring the resource to Eomer. He then feints the Troll, and with Firefoot, attacks for 7, plus two from Erkenbrand, putting six damage on the Troll. At the start of turn 3, sneak-attack Gandalf finishes the troll off, and you’re good to go.

This is all your fault...

This is all your fault…

The sheer amount of luck involved in this sequence of events is mind-boggling, and makes it clear that there is simply no way this deck will ever beat the second quest. Aside from lack of combat power (and questing, due to constantly having to chump-block), I noticed that this deck either ran constantly short of cash or – if you managed to make Eowyn Steward of Gondor, ran out of cards – I therefore threw in a few mathoms, having taken out some cards like Elfhelm, which were never likely to see the table. It helped – as did the fun combo of letting Eomer smash some Eastern Crows, then use Firefoot to carry the damage over to the troll, but not enough. This deck just wasn’t going to cut it.

Even before the dismal failure of the first incarnation, I had realised that some quests would prove beyond me, I thought I’d look at some alternatives for the specific quests. The most obvious one to me that was most likely to throw a large spanner in the works is Journey to Rhosgobel, and I thought I’d have a look at combatting this by swapping in some Lore. The focus of the deck means that I basically have to pick Leadership as the sphere to be dropped, and the determination to keep this thematic, means that Grima comes in, standing on the far , where Eomer can keep his eyes on him, well out of the way of Eowyn.

Too long have you watched my sister

Too long have you watched my sister

Without Leadership, I need an alternative way to deal with resource acceleration, and in a solo deck with Grima, “Doomed” seems the obvious choice, with a copy or two of the Keys of Orthanc. Although typically a card I avoid as being too expensive, Forest Snare suddenly looked like a plausible answer to over-sized enemies which might come my way (this isn’t ideal for the Carrock Trolls, as their powers rely on being engaged with you, but anything which avoids multiple attacks of 5 or 6 has got to be good). Healing was going to be a definite necessity – it’s one of the obvious drawback of this deck in its non-Lore version, along with card draw.

Even with this alternative version, I still felt that a sidebar was required for Rhosgobel – events for healing rather than allies (due to the “remove from game” requirement) along with some eagles to cover the combat against bats and flocks. I even threw in Radagast as (hopefully) a means of eagle acceleration, and a last-ditch method for eagle healing.

All this, though, is getting ahead of myself. I still needed to test out the deck on some more normal quests. Once again, the result was the same. The deck coped well with Passage Through Mirkwood, the addition of healing (when I could draw it) made it much more solid in combat, and the card-draw was nice too. I did get a bit concerned by threat, but never actually threated out.

Out on the banks of the Anduin though, it all went wrong again. I managed to kill the troll a few times, and the mix of attack, healing and blockers made me at least feel like it might be possible to eventually clear this quest (maybe 1 time in 30 as opposed to 1 in 100 for the previous deck) but I just don’t have the time for that many play-throughs.


It’s been interesting building, and testing these decks, even though it’s delayed this article by a few weeks. Sadly though, I don’t think there’s a properly viable Rohan True Solo deck out there. Hopefully Treason of Saruman will come with a new version of Theoden that will spring things into life, but for now, it will have to be left to others to fight on alone.

Difficulty Project – The Black Riders

When I first posted about my plan to come up with a new difficulty rating system, I was fairly clear on the two elements I was going to be focusing on –

  1. Number of players, and
  2. Whether or not a deck was custom-built for that quest.
In 4-player, a couple of these can get nasty REALLY quickly

In 4-player, a couple of these can get nasty REALLY quickly

I’ve read numerous reviews and descriptions which have been done carefully and thoughtfully, but by players who only play solo or two-handed solo, and the game-play experiences they describe just don’t match up to mine. Quests like Druadan Forest were being rated as easy to the point of boredom, whereas in 4-player, it can often end in violent and bloody death as the various encounter deck effects synergise to steal all your resources, then deal damage, or raise threat for each resourceless hero.

The player-scaling is still something I’m very keen to include, but it was soon fairly obvious that rather than focusing on generic vs custom-built decks, there was more of an interest in the difficulty of a quest when building with a full vs limited card-pool.

Evidently, this makes a fair amount of sense. By and large, difficulty ratings are probably going to be of interest to new players who haven’t played quests, more than they are to people who have already played every scenario ten times. Likewise, new players are unlikely to own all the cards needed to construct the most powerful decks, which draw on cards from a dozen different expansions. It’s impossible to predict the order in which cards will be acquired, but a reasonable work around, is to use the notion of cards available at point of release.

For practicality’s sake, I’ve decided to simplify the question of an existing, or “limited” card pool a little – for Core Set quests, the card pool is the core set, simple enough. For the Mirkwood cycle, I’m grouping them all together- so whether it’s Hunt for Gollum or Return to Mirkwood, the “limited” card pool will be core set + those six adventure packs. Likewise, for anything in the Dwarrowdelf, I’ll work on the basis of players owning Khazad-Dum and the six decks following it – partly, this is because I think it reflects the way the designers have designed the cards, and partly because it makes it more feasible for me to build decks to test.

For the Saga expansions, I’m also going to do a bit of lumping – I’ll do the 6 (maybe 7 if I’m feeling brave) Hobbit quests, using only cards from the core set and the two Hobbit boxes. For Black Riders and The Roads Darkens, I’ll similarly be lumping together.

Ever-VigilantThe Lord of the Rings Saga boxes were where I decided to start, and I built up the suggested decklists from the notes inside Road Darkens. This is a pair of (roughly) matched decks using Aragorn, Sam and Pippin on one side, Gandalf, Fatty and Merry on the other. It was certainly an interesting experience- cards like Ever Vigilant had been gathering dust in the box for months, if not years, and probably good to challenge some of my deck-building assumptions (I generally go “3 of” if I’m bothering to include a card).

That said, it was still fairly obvious that these were not the most powerful decks that could be built, even within this broad archetype – there were various times when we found ourselves wishing for other cards – Expert Treasure Hunter, Ring Mail, some kind of Song for the tri-sphere deck, cards that would clearly have made life easier. The difficulty, then, was definitely affected by the building restrictions.

In terms of the quests themselves, here are a few thoughts below:

Shadow of the Past

Before we get started, I’ll say up-front that this has never been a favourite scenario of mine, Hide Tests are a pain, but they pale into insignificance against the challenge of getting the staging area free of locations so you can actually travel to Bucklebury Ferry. This becomes more of an issue, the more players you have.


For a two-player game, this turned out not to be too bad. Having mostly Hobbits, we were painfully aware of our combat limitations, and focused instead on questing past the Nazgul most of the time, and being forced to pay serious attention to the Hide Tests – very thematic. We had a Northern Tracker out to keep the staging area relatively location light – although we still had to travel to pathless country when it came up, but all-in-all, whilst this was often tense, it was manageable.

  • Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 5/10

A Knife in the Dark

I believe I’ve said in the past, this is another quest which winds me up somewhat – Bill Ferny is annoying, I fully appreciate that. However, what he isn’t, is a boss-level baddy. Bill Ferny is the sort of enemy who can be dealt with using nothing more than a well-thrown apple, which makes me fairly irritated when he turns an awkward quest into nigh-on impossible.

MidgewaterIt took us several attempts to manage this one, with Bill shuffling in his extra Nazgul, no access to things like Hands Upon the Bow to take him out in the staging area, and actually worse than that, Midgewater, which locked up the staging area a few times, allowing us a brief respite from being killed, but only replacing it with location-lock and massive threat instead.

We eventually managed to clear the early stages with some good starting hands, and a really big push out of the gate, enabling us to reach- and then clear Midgewater before the staging area got too rammed. Even then, the sudden wave of Nazgul which hits the instant you get to Weathertop is fairly horrific, especially for a Hobbit-heavy party (aside from the presence of Gandalf, Hobbits + Strider is about as thematic as you can get for Weathertop), but we managed to survive the first wave, thanks to some stalwart defending from ally Boromir, and gradually managed to whittle them away for the win.

Overall, a hard-fought victory, requiring a lot of luck

  • Difficulty rating: 2-player, limited card pool – 9/10

Flight to the Ford

As I’ve said at length on previous occasions, I’m not a great fan of the rush, rush, rush quests. That said, this is one of the ones which I feel works better. The “Ringbearer’s Life” mechanic provides an over-arching maximum time-limit for the quest, with nasty effects that can bring it down / force you to make difficult choices, without tying so tightly into a given quest stage that it becomes impossible.

The fact that it is a rush definitely favours fast decks – this deck has a fairly even spread, not really producing masses of willpower, even once the allies are out, although key attachments can make all the difference (Hobbit Cloak, Gandalf’s Staff etc). The burden cards are also a bit hit-and-miss: some can let you off fairly lightly, whilst others are simply devastating.

The Ford of the Bruinen is a particularly interesting twist in this quest – I suspect that at times, it may be easier to ignore it, and deal with the quest normally. However, thematically, I struggle to bring myself to do anything besides engaging as many Nazgul as possible, then exploring the Bruinen to wash them away.


The fact that this quest is always over fairly quickly makes it feel easier than Shadow of the Past, which invariably drags on for a while. Looking at it more closely though, and considering some of the cards that can wipe you out (not to mention the sheer fact that it features the Witch King), I think it ultimately deserves a harder rating.

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

That gives me my first 3 ratings for the scaleable difficulty project- obviously, these are only my own opinions, and the project will become a lot more useful as we build up a bigger stock of data. I’ll average out scores sent in by others, and update a table over time.

As much as I’m tempted to just provide difficulty ratings for everything at once, so that the starting position is a bit less bare, I’ve decided not to, as I want to re-play each scenario as I rate it – I’ll continue to produce a series of these articles, somewhere between play-through and review over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, please feel free to send any ratings in, or just generally let me know your thoughts on the quests.

2014 – some thoughts

I started this blog last Spring, with only a very limited idea of what I was going to do with it. I had been playing Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game since its launch a few years ago, was impressed by the extent of the online community for the game, and wanted to be more involved – I had considered applying for the vacancy for a new co-host on Cardboard of the Rings which had recently appeared until I realised that, living in England, I would need to record at about 2 in the morning. Podcasting by myself wasn’t a particularly appealing prospect, so I decided to opt for a blog instead. I initially tried to put content out at one article per week, before realising that this wasn’t particularly sustainable, and moving down to an average of around fortnightly.

Last week, WordPress sent me an email saying that the blog had been viewed 10,000 times in 2014. Even allowing for a few hundred views which I can write off as me refreshing pages to check they had uploaded correctly, that was a pleasant surprise: there were various points last year, when I started to suspect that I was writing solely for my own benefit – most of the time, I’m not even sure whether my wife (who I hold entirely responsible for my Lord of the Rings addiction) is even reading these, never mind anybody else.

These are not the dwarves you're looking for...

These are not the dwarves you’re looking for…

Last year saw some interesting changes in LotR play for me – for one thing, we got ourselves hooked on the Pathfinder ACG, which probably saw Lord of the Rings take a major hit in terms of amounts of play time, but it also saw the start of a regular(ish) organised play group at our friendly local gaming shop.

This was the first time I’d ever played the game with people who I hadn’t taught the rules to – it proved an interesting mixture of seeing cards and combinations used that I’d never have thought of, with the challenge of suddenly having to co-ordinate decks and heroes, rather than just grab any set of decks out of the cupboard. I think you know you’re involved in a pick-up game, when the heroes of you dwarf deck are Thorin, Ori and Celeborn!

https://hallofbeorn.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/history-absent-but-not-forgotten/Organised play also meant a bit of a divergence in custom cards – on the one hand, doing this blog gave me the impetus to think a bit more concretely about the custom cards I periodically design, and to actually get some of them printed out. On the other hand, ensuring legal decks to turn up at an official event for has occasionally involved last-minute panics, and arriving with a barely-functional elf deck that relies on the now-absent Celebrian ally to function properly (apparently Hall of Beorn isn’t an official FFG site)

The year to come looks good for Lord of the Rings the Living Card Game- I’m looking forward to The Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Treason of Saruman expansion, combined with the new Erkenbrand (technically he’s already out, but no sign in the UK yet) and the next cycle set amongst the Dunedain in the North. The biggest items on my want list are a new version of Theoden (Leadership probably, although I could see Lore) and an objective ally Maglor appearing in the Lost Realms! (ok, this is never going to happen, but I may make one anyway…) The multiplayer difficulty rating system is turning out to be a much bigger project than I’d imagined, but I’m still optimistic of getting something in place that can be a useful resource for players.


Although you (or I) might easily forget, this isn’t solely a blog for the LCG, but for Lord of the Rings related gaming generally. Hopefully this will be the year where I finally get enough time to play enough games of Middle Earth Quest to work out a variant with a shorter run-time (bit of a vicious cycle here, if the game was shorter, I’d be able to play it more often, then I wouldn’t need to create a shorter variant…) I also hope to spend more time on the Lord of the Rings Dice-Builder and see whether there’s potential here for a Lord of the Rings Dicemasters (It’s an idea I’ve seen mooted on Board Game Geek – I suspect it won’t work, but I still want to try). I also hope that this will be the year when I finally get round to doing as much work for Ian’s First Age project as I always intend to.

Thanks to all who read, comment, like and follow the blog – it’s always nice to have feedback, especially when the feedback is helpful / constructive. I’d also encourage people to like the Facebook page, as it’s a much less unwieldy way of posting short notes, comments, and updates from game company websites without needing a full article – I’d love it if we could get some proper conversations going on there this year.

Wishing you all a good year of gaming.