A few weeks ago, Fantasy Flight Announced the release of Nightmare decks for the Khazad-Dum expansion. This was a bit of a departure from their previous approach, in that it was released straight to direct sale, rather than coming out as part of a game-night kit first, and then joining the Print-on-Demand range later.
I wanted to take this prompt to think about Nightmare versions of quests as a whole. So far we’ve seen 15 Nightmare versions including these new ones: the 3 quests from the Core Set, the 6 from the Shadows of Mirkwood Cycle, 3 from the Hobbit Over Hill and Under Hill, and now these 3 from Khazad-Dum. I’ve had a chance to play 9 of these (we’re still waiting for our Hobbit game-night, after the other guy who plays LotR at my FLGS was hospitalised with some kind of exotic illness).
Before I launch in to looking at individual quests, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the whole concept of Nightmare decks. To my mind, they can offer two things to players- firstly, as a tweak of the scenario, and secondly as an increase in the difficulty. I’m much more interested in the first. Whilst there are some early scenarios which probably needed a harder option – Passage Through Mirkwood for example, I don’t recall ever thinking “Escape from Dul Guldur is just too easy” (the same could be said of Return to Mirkwood, Riddles in the Dark and a few others).
I also feel like I ought to throw in a note on deck-building here, as it has a big impact on perceptions of difficulty. I like theme. I like themed decks. I know that the Grey Company talked a lot about this in a recent episode, and Matthew commented on how he doesn’t see why people artificially restrict themselves when building decks – the “If you can’t show me them having a conversation in the books, I’m not putting them in a deck together” approach. I can see this, up to a point, and I will put a Miner of the Iron Hills in my elf deck, if I need to remove Condition Attachments (although I’m now tempted to swap in Power of Orthanc).
At the same time, there’s a reason that the card is called “Defender of Rammas” not “Random Cheap Defender #2” – I tend to build decks that have a broad thematic consistency, and that may not always make them the most powerful. As a result, I probably find the game harder than players who build more for power and less for theme.
Passage Through Mirkwood
This was the first ever quest we had in this game, and I think it did a good job. That said, it’s starting to feel a bit dated – the ability to ready a hero on turn 1 is a bit of a freebie, and the locations are generally pretty easy to circumvent. It has nastiness without doubt- mostly notably Ungoliant’s Spawn, although Hummerhorns can make a real mess of you without the right tools to deal with them.
Generally, this Nightmare deck is pretty good. The Nightmare version of Ungoliant’s Spawn does feel a bit ridiculous – if you reveal it drawing questing, it’s basically instant death, but the other cards are fairly well-balanced. The Spider’s Web for example, is not only a nastier version of Caught in a Web, but it feels like there’s a greater element of choice after that first round, about how you use that hero. It’s still a trawl through Mirkwood with Spiders bearing down on you, but it feels a bit fresher.
Journey Along the Anduin
I’ve always liked this quest – it can be a pain solo, due to the starting Hill Troll, but it had a nice mix of unusual restrictions (i.e. you can’t just power through with Willpower), without becoming overly convoluted with 27 new keywords and checks.
Whilst it may not have needed a Nightmare version, it certainly wasn’t so hard that it couldn’t stomach one. Changes like “Trolls cannot have attachments” stop you from just using a Forest Snare to break the quest, but they don’t particularly change what the Troll is.
There are some truly monstrous cards in this deck- the 10 threat / 10 progress required for Gladden Marshlands is an obvious example, and Flooded Ford is a definite contender for “worst location to remove with a Northern Tracker” as you risk giving every card off the encounter deck “doomed 5.” That said, there are also some really nice thematic touches- like the rats, who you can’t get rid of and continue to gnaw away at you until everything else is gone.
Escape from Dol Guldur
The fact that the designers were even able to conceive of a Nightmare version of this quest says a long way about how far we’ve come from the days of the Core Set.
That said, this quest can get quite silly. In a way that we never really experienced with the original core set quests, the Encounter-Deck can synergise to a point where it just steamrolls you. This is most notable with the new “resource tokens on Dol Guldur locations” mechanic.
Arguably, this quest was a bit on the easy side with 4 players in its original incarnation, due to the diminishing impact of having a hero captured. However, the restriction on the players collectively only playing or putting into play a single ally per round essentially cancelled this out. Either way, the new nightmare version is nigh-on impossible in 4-player – it’s really not that far from the realms of plausibility to reveal a torture chamber, and trigger the instant-loss condition within a single round! 2 player it’s a fun challenge, although it needs to be built for.
Moving into the Mirkwood cycle is where I feel like we first experienced the designers trying to fix old quests, rather than simply tinkering with them. Hunt for Gollum, Hills of Emyn Muil and Dead Marshes all contained changes that seemed designed to combat a major bugbear that people had about the original version.
The Hunt for Gollum
If you’ve spent long enough on the LotR forums, at some point you will have seen someone complain that hunt for Gollum was dull.
The clue mechanic was a bit odd. Most of the time, you actively wanted to get clues out of play, as they just made the enemies nastier.
The change-around for Nightmare was designed to add a bit more flavour- now the forces of Mordor are after those clues too – and if they get too many of them, they will find Gollum first. New encounter cards attach clues to enemies, power up enemies with clues attached, and penalise players without clues. Players need to go after the clues more aggressively, and be dispatching the Hunters from Mordor who have picked the things up.
Conflict at the Carrock
Conflict at the Carrock was a bit of an unusual situation – by the time the Nightmare deck came out, we’d already had “We Must Away Ere Break of Day” – a more modern, revised troll quest, so no matter what they did, there was a danger of this feeling a bit too familiar.
That said, they managed to really turn things on their heads and in quite a neat and simple way: They moved from trolls who boosted other trolls whilst in play, to trolls who boosted other trolls once defeated. Thematically, I’m not 100% sure of the thinking behind this- it certainly isn’t as transparent as Gimli’s +1 attack per damage, but it doesn’t jar too badly for me.
They also removed Grimbeorn (the “pay lots of money to beat all trolls” option), and provided a block against people stalling the quest, by adding automatic progress each round. Given more recent changes, I think it could have been slightly better if they’d have given stage 1 a time rating, with some kind of choice to be made – you can take 5 rounds, but it’ll add a load more threat/damage etc, but that’s just with the benefit of hindsight.
Journey to Rhosgobel
Journey to Rhosgobel is one of those quests I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I absolutely love the fact that they decided to try this – it was so completely different from anything we’d had at that time. On the other hand, this is probably the quest which requires the most specialist deck-building (certainly from the early quests), and that always made it a bit too much hassle to get regular play.
The original version had LOTS of direct-damage treacheries, which were both annoying, and low on player options – you took Eleanor and 3x Test of Will and hoped for the best – this time round there were things like condition attachments and forced effects on enemies, which still did the damage, but at least gave players some decisions for dealing with them.
Lastly, getting hold of the Athelas was a major issue. There is a certain amount of real-life logic to scrambling round the countryside, finding only orcs and woods, with no healing herb in sight, until you realise the sick Eagle has died of waiting, but it doesn’t make for particularly satisfying gameplay experience.
In terms of the “fix” this quest wasn’t bad – it did a little to remove the randomness of having Athelas get lost all the time. If an Athelas is discarded, you can now shuffle it back into the deck.
The Hills of Emyn Muil
For many people, Hills of Emyn Muil was one of those quests most in need of a fix. Whilst the start could be crippling, especially in multiplayer, with the two locations beginning in play and towering over you with their massive threat, it offered something different from just another orc-slaying fest, and genuine decisions to make about travel, as there were so many active locations with effects that you really didn’t want to be dealing with. The downside was that (provided you survived the first few rounds) once you got a couple of Northern Trackers into play, it became a bit of a stroll to the finish line.
The Nightmare version adds the caveat “only 1 progress token can be placed on a location in the staging area per round.” On balance I think this is a good step – “immune to player card effects” would have made it impossible with so many locations, but this strikes a good balance.
It still isn’t a combat-heavy quest, but the two new enemies added have a lot more interaction with locations being explored and leaving play, rather than just another visit from the Dol Guldur Orcs.
The Dead Marshes
Once again, this was a quest that you could “break” – the idea of the quest was to avoid effects which put resource tokens on Gollum, as this would increase the likelihood of him escaping at the end (the game concludes with an “escape” test where players reveal cards equal to the number of resource tokens on Gollum). However, players quickly realised that they could let Gollum escape immediately, then sit forever and a day, waiting for him to return, at which point they would push through to the final stage and win easily.
A new location – the Mere of Dead Faces has been brought in to absorb resources tokens which would have otherwise vanished into the ether, meaning that you’ll always have at least a couple of cards being revealed for the escape tests. On the flip side, Gollum isn’t going to spend the game in the discard pile- if he heads that way by accident, you can fish him out and shuffle him back into the encounter deck.
There are also some nasty cards added in – like the card which damages a character every time they commit to an escape test, as well as a bit of a sub-theme around undead enemies, although handled very differently from Stone of Erech.
Return to Mirkwood
This, I think, was the point at which they lost me. Even with the modern card pool, Return to Mirkwood is a pain with 4 players, and it’s hardly an easy ride in solo, although the challenges are different.
Massive threat-boosting effects, a spider which comes and attacks you for 8 on round 1, and the chance of having your entire deck milled out. Throw in a quest stage where you get no resources, and this already had challenge aplenty. Throwing in the additional requirement to exhaust a character / reveal an extra tantrum each round, just felt a bit needless.
This is the only one of the 9 which I’ve played and not managed to defeat yet. I’m sure that with a bit more concerted deck-building (or as I plan to try soon, some first-age Noldor), a way around it could be found, but I just couldn’t really follow the logic.
Thematically, all we’re doing here is dragging Biblo to Thranduil’s hall for interrogation. The monsters should be the same as other Mirkwood spiders, not Shelob reborn. On the day when the full army of Sauron shows up at Osgiliath, I expect it to be difficult, but it is not this day!
Overall, the fact that the Nightmare quests exist is a good thing. It allows the designers to revisit old quests, and “fix” them, and the end result is more content for players, with less work needed by the designers, and fewer cards needing to be bought by players to reach that point.
The fact that the difficulty gets so ramped up with the Nightmaring is a mixed bag. Some quests (Passage Through Mirkwood) could definitely use a Nightmare version. For others, it feels like the thing has been commissioned on the basis of one guy’s forum trolling.
On a wider note, I wonder about the logic of having Nightmare decks as part of the Organised Play scheme. For me, if I’m going to a shop to play this game (particularly if I’m playing the with the same group I’d normally be playing with around my own kitchen table), I want the chance of someone else seeing us playing, and wanting to join in: “Hey, come and join us in getting crushed by monster on steroids!” – for this reason, I really like the announcement of Autumn’s Fellowship Event– a new quest on a fan-favourite section of the book, which was deemed a bit too obscure for the films / saga box, with alternative art cards. Nightmare is the fix for the hardcore addict, not the gateway drug.
For the other half of the quests, I thought about jotting down some thoughts based on reading the cards online, without actually having played them, but decided it would make more sense to wait until I’d actually played them. These will follow in a later article, probably in a few months’ time.