Victory & Defeat

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • The Counsel of Elrond – a loud consensus is reached that The Ring must be destroyed. Gimli rises from his seat and brings his axe crashing down up The Ring. The Ring shatters, and across the vast distance, Barad-Dur comes crashing down, lifting the shadow from the lands of Middle Earth. The Hobbits spend a few weeks longer at Rivendell before returning home with no-one any the worse for the expedition aside from Frodo and his shoulder.

  • Gandalf stands upon the Bridge of Khazad-Dum and issues a booming “you cannot pass!” the Balrog sweeps him contemptuously aside and proceeds to devour the fellowship. The Ring falls into the hands of the Orcs and takes only a matter of weeks to makes its way thence to Mordor, at which point Sauron regains physical form, and begins systematically destroying the free peoples.

I think it’s safe to say that if either of these were an accurate summary of the plot of Lord of the Rings, few of us would bother reading or watching it as we do – it’s possible that you might be able to contrive an ok story out this start, but doubtful that you’d produce something truly great.

Most of the time, most of us want to see our heroes triumph – but we don’t want it to have been so easy that there was never any jeopardy. Obviously we all know enough of Hollywood to expect the general curve, but there should be room for genuine surprises. How many people reading/watching Fellowship for the first time truly expected the loss of Gandalf or Boromir? Or in the first viewing of Two Towers expected Gandalf’s return.

Victory and Defeat in Games

Today I want to think about how that desire for a well-earned victory translates into the world of gaming. Most of us like to win, but we also recognise that it’s not always possible – if you sit down weekly with a group of 3 friends to play an ordinary board game then, assuming equal luck and skill, you’d expect to win about once per month. This is a normal part of life, and we all accept it.

But how about when it becomes a cooperative game? If one of the four of us wins all the time in a competitive game, then perhaps all four of the four of us should win each time in co-op? on the other hand, perhaps it should still be 1 in 4 – most of the time the game defeats us, and we are left to lick our wounds in mournful silence.

When Lord of the Rings LCG came out, there were a limited number of scenarios, and a limited number of deck-building options. Most people were in roughly the same position: multi-player, with a bit of luck, most quests were beatable. A second Hill Troll in Journey Along the Anduin could scupper you, as could the capture of Eowyn in Escape from Dul Guldur, but generally you knew where you were.

Asfaloth Beyond-Expectations

Over time though, the waters have muddied. Quests like Massing at Osgiliath appeared, with the deliberate aim of smashing all player decks before them. Then came Spirit Glorfindel with light of Valinor and Asfaloth, to eat Massing for breakfast. (East Bank? West Bank? Who cares)

More and more quests, more and more decks strategies. All good things, and necessary to keep the game alive.

But the trouble is, with all these cards, there are some incredibly powerful deck-types out there, and that can actually LIMIT the options for players.

When the designers make a new quest, they have to keep in mind the fact that these decks exist – if they make every quest so that it can be beaten with a mono-sphere core set only deck, then it will become boring for the more hardcore players. However, it’s easy to go the other way, so that anyone trying to get into the game late, or anyone without a PhD in deck-building just gets beaten down. More to the point, every quest needs to be especially built for- a quick pick-up game is becoming harder and harder to throw together.

I buy every expansion that comes out for this game (not to mention making my own), and when a new quest comes out, I want to be able to play it with a decent chance of success. At the same time, I deck-build primarily for theme, and tend not to notice the super-combos which seem to power some of the particularly mighty decks. The increased synergy of the encounter decks makes this particularly bad for 4-player, and there have already been a few scenarios where the only real option for us 4-player was to put it back in the box, and give the player-card pool 6 months to catch up.

We also need to realise that different people have different ideas about winning – some groups will probably be happy with a 50/50 win loss ratio, which I think would make most of my group give up. On the other hand, ever since this game began Turin’s Bane, that great fire breathing wyrm of the north has been complaining on a wide variety of forums that the game is too easy, and needs to be made harder- clearly this isn’t an easy situation for the designers to solve.

The Road Darkens

Earlier this week, Fantasy Flight posted an article about the upcoming “road darkens” expansion, which will cover the second half of the events of Fellowship of the Ring – flavour-wise they look brilliant, and you can tell that the designers are definitely real fans of the game. However, the difficulty raises concerns for me.


The Balrog has 5 threat, 8 attack, 9 defence and 25 hit points. He is indestructible and both he and his shadow cards are immune to player card effects. Only a single player can attack him at a time (regardless of ranged or other tricks).

As Caleb points out, the Balrog is indeed meant to be “a foe beyond any of us,” it would be anti-climactic at best if we were able to 1-shot it, but there are effects that we’ve seen on the Nazgul of Minas Morgul or the Mumak that can make enemies harder to kill than just being big, without getting silly.


The effect on The Great Bridge will allow us to at least have a chance to defeat the Balrog, but at the cost of a hero, which is a particularly significant loss if you’re playing in campaign mode, where that character – in all forms – will be banned for future use. My current thinking involves bringing in Fatty Bolger, to absorb some of the Balrog’s threat, then discarding him, as he’s unlikely to be needed in the future – I certainly don’t plan on sticking to the story and discarding the brand-new Gandalf hero, at least not unless the Treason of Saruman features a new Gandalf the White card.


In the meantime, here’s a completely non-playtested alternative for all your Two Towers needs.




One thought on “Victory & Defeat

  1. Fouilloux

    I agree with you about difficulty. However, I just tried Voice of Isengard scenario, and it was good to be able to have a chance against them without a specially fien tuned deck, unlike Heir of Numenor quest.

    However, regarding the Balrog, the way I read the article is that you can actually win the quest without meeting him, if you’re fast enough. I may even mean that you just have to be quick enough to end the first quest in less than 10 round to runaway before he arrives. So I guess it’s a kind of two way of winning the scenario, with one being really harder that the other one. (although I am anticipating some nasty effect that make the balrog arriving more quickly)


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