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)
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.
There 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.
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).
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
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.)
– 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.