When the Going Gets Tough

Or “101 ways to stop you from killing an enemy”

In the beginning there were enemies. They had defence, and they had hit-points: as far as killing them went, that was basically all you needed to know.

DSC00753In the days of the Core Set, there was only a limited amount of attack available. No character had more than 3 printed attack, and the attachments that could boost your attack were limited in number, had the Restricted keyword, and weren’t all that effective unless you were a dwarf. The only really exception was Gimli who, if you loaded him up with enough citadel plate, could be hitting for about 14 (although prone to die at any moment).

It’s bizarre now to think that no core-set enemy was immune to player-card effects. The Nazgul of Dol Guldur has “No attachments” but even that was an errata. He was also the largest enemy, needing 12 attack to one-shot.

SturrockWith time, the card-pool grew, it got easier to muster large parties of allies, and easier to boost the attack of the characters you had. The designers decided that enemies needed to be tougher. They tried a few ways of doing this: more trolls in Conflict at the Carrock, with the ability to boost each other’s stats – 10 hit points, 2 defence, and a potential for 2 more if you are engaged with Stuart and the Carrock is active. The dead marshes brought us the Giant Marsh Worm, only 2 defence, 6 hit-points, but if you don’t kill it first time, it’ll heal 2 damage. For Return to Mirkwood, they stuck with the standard formula, and just made the Attercop big, 4 defence, 6 hit-points.

Khazad-Dum and the Dwarrowdelf cycle focused most on smaller swarms (apart from the odd troll), so there wasn’t much development of enemy resilience, aside from The Watcher in the Water, and Durin’s Bane, which saw the “do some healing each round” mechanic formalised in the “Regenerate” keyword.

Come down here where I can fight you

One mechanic which did start to be developed in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, was the idea of enemies you can’t simply engage as and when you want. The Goblin Sniper from the core set was the original version of this, but down in the darks of Moria, we saw this become more and more the case, with Goblin Archer, and most irritatingly for me, the Goblin Scout, a pesky little blighter with 3 threat (that was quite a lot for an enemy in those days), who couldn’t be engaged if your threat was between 26 and 36 (which was where my threat seemed to be most of the time, at least in the early rounds).

Khazad-Dum was also where these engagement prohibitions started to spread to locations, such as Turbulent Waters, and the lock-out that was the East-Gate, frequently the cause of complete stage one failure on Into the Pit. As with all these mechanics, it was an interesting twist for them to try, but an irritating thing to play against.

Immune to Fun?

What's the collective noun for a group of Smaugs? a Desolation?

What’s the collective noun for a group of Smaugs? a Desolation?

Starting towards the end of the Dwarrowdelf cycle, there have been a growing number of enemies in the game with the text “immune to player card effects” By my latest count, this includes 5 versions of Smaug, 2 of the Balrog, The Witch King (Black Riders only), The Watcher in the Water (Road Darkens only), Saruman, Old Man Willow, and Bolg. Aside from Bolg and Old Man Willow, these are all clearly top-tier enemies, who deserve a level of protection above and beyond your everyday orc. That said, “Immune to Player Card Effects” is boring. It means that your only option is massed numbers, it means that all of the thought goes out of deck-tweaking, and you just need a Middle Earth version of Hulk Smash.

There are, of course various options available. I’m a big fan of the “Relentless” keyword which Ian created for the First Age expansion – this allows players to do things with their deck, interact with the encounter cards in interesting ways, but it also means that if the enemy isn’t dead, it will attack you each round.

It was inevitable that with time, the designers would need to come up with ways to make things harder to kill, and obviously we want them to keep it interesting and innovative, but as far as I’m concerned, Immune to Player card effects and Indestructible should be used sparingly. Anything which reduces interaction between player cards and encounter cards eventually reduces the interest of the game.


Mûmak Ways to make enemies harder to kill returned with a vengeance in Heirs of Numenor. At the most basic level, this included a fair amount of just making them big. Even the standard little orcs and brigands regularly had 3 defence, with 3 hit-points being at the low end of things. We also got the Mumak, a big enough beast to begin with, at 3 defence, and a mighty 12 hit-points, the Mumak cannot have attachments, and had a new text “Mumak cannot take more than 3 damage each round.” Unless you can find a way to discard it, that’s a minimum of 4 rounds the Mumak is sticking around for, either contributing 4 threat in the staging area, or hitting you for a bruising seven attack. (The Nightmare version, Mumak elite, ups the defence to 5 and adds archery!!)

Nazgûl-of-Minas-MorgulThe rest of the Against the Shadow cycle featured plenty more large enemies, all dwarfing the things we’d seen in Mirkwood, but it wasn’t until the Morgul Vale that we saw a new anti-damage mechanic, this time on the Nazgul of Minas Morgul. Any time you would deal damage to the Nazgul of Minas Morgul, that damage is reduced to 1, meaning you need to damage it on 5 separate occasions to kill it.

I think this is one of my favourite options in terms of the routes the designers could have taken. This gives you options: Gondorian Spearman, Spear of the Citadel, Dwarrowdelf Axe, any of these are possibilities for speeding up the 5-round process of killing the Nazgul, meaning that players actually have interesting decisions to make. The Nazgul is a still a pain (between the shadows which returned him to the staging area, and the bodyguards, I think it took me 9 rounds to kill him last time I played this quest), but the game remains interesting and interactive.

Running Away

It’s worth noting, of course that another major weapon in the designers arsenal is an enemy that simply doesn’t hang around long enough for you to kill it. The Wargs of the Core Set were the original example of this, where an attack with no shadow led him to run away, back to the staging area, where you couldn’t attack him, and he could continue contributing his threat. Since then, there have been many variations on this theme. Enemies which return to the staging area after they destroy a character are a popular way to punish chump-blocking, (Uruk-Hai fighter, Angmar Marauder) but there are also cards which make you pay threat to stay engaged with an enemy (such as the original iteration of the Witch King), or shadow cards that make every enemy a sudden flight risk – such as Lurking in Shadows.

Ultimately, these enemies, unless they are the big boss, tend not to be too bad once you can actually get them to stand still long enough for an attack, but the number of times I’ve seen Journey Down the Anduin drag on for another round or two, just because I can’t keep a Warg engaged with me long enough to kill it…

Moving forward to Voice of Isengard, there was little real change in the approach to enemies. The Dunlendings are big (much too big for theme, if you ask me), the Huorns are massive, as befitting something that’s basically a tree. The Ringmaker cycle continued to give us lots of big enemies, and even bigger boss-fights, but at least on the how-to-kill-this-thing front, there were no major developments.


Uruk-hai-Captain The biggest change in recent times has come in the Saga boxes, where we’re seen the rise of “Toughness” on the Uruk-Hai. Toughness X is a new keyword which means that EVERY time an enemy is dealt damage, you reduce that damage by X – in combat, this simply operates like an extra point of defence, but crucially it also locks out direct damage effects. Thalin, Spearman, Spear, Dwarrowdelf Axe – none of them do anything to an enemy with Toughness. If you’re dealing with Ugluk, the boss enemy from the first quest in Treason of Saruman, then even Gandalf’s “enters play” ability will only do a single point of damage!

Toughness is an interesting change- on the one hand, it does shut down a LOT of options, as there are a remarkable number of ways to deal 1 point of damage to enemies, but at least it still leaves room for players to experiment. Part of me thinks that the developers have backed themselves into a corner slightly, by making the Dunlendings so improbably powerful that to have the Uruk-Hai seem appropriate in relation, needs them to be “tough” in this way. That said, there are a lot of ways this could have been handled worse, and whilst the Treason of Saruman is certainly at a fairly high difficulty level, I don’t think that it has gone too far to still be fun


2 thoughts on “When the Going Gets Tough

  1. Francois Germain

    Great article with good points! I LOVE the game, but the Immune to player cards effects really bugs me : with pay cards to play cards, and now… well… a lot of those cards you payed for, you can’t use them! Sometimes, I think I should just ignore that rule…


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