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.


2 thoughts on “Difficulty Project – The Black Riders

  1. Tonskillitis

    I do wonder if FFG will ever try to provide any official amendments to this currently limited system. I broadly agree with your judgements here as another person who plays almost solely 2 player or 2 handed solo: I agree that the second quest is the hardest by far and requires the largest card pool to solve its many problems. Difficulty rating is especially relevant when introducing new players I find, because I never want to choose something that is going to smash us several times (see Into Ithilen – difficulty 4). This is an interesting project by the way and I look forward to seeing what you come up with…

  2. Pingback: Difficulty in the Dark | Dor Cuarthol

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