Sooner or later in this game, it seems that everyone has to confront the question of surge. Most blogs, podcasts, or even normal forums users have run into the question at some point.
By this point in the game’s life, we certainly have plenty of data to work from: there have been 4 complete cycles of quests, 5 Saga boxes, assorted stand-alone quests, and the first 4 quests of a new cycle. Throw in Nightmare and Easy mode, and that’s a lot of quests. To be a bit more precise, 60 unique quests with just over 150 variations.
- NB, I don’t currently own the Nightmare packs for Heirs of Numenor or Black Riders, so won’t be factoring these in.
- “Gen Con” is the heading I’m using for The Massing at Osgiliath, The Battle for Laketown, and Stone of Erech. – The Old Forest, and Fog on the Barrow Downs I’ve put with the Saga quests, although Fog on the Barrow-Downs remains unavailable in Europe, so will also be ignored for stats purposes.
At root, whilst there are a number of things in the game which probably can’t be quantified easily – nastiness of enemies or locations, particular mechanics etc, there is one thing we can see which should provide a good overall guide, which is the simple question of “how many cards will I be revealing off of the encounter deck each round?”
Aside from the traditional “surge” effect, there are various other cards which have effects similar to surge. Some of these are conditional on player-numbers, making their impact harder to measure statistically.
The classic example of this is “Massing at Night” a treachery card from the Core Set, which reveals an additional encounter card per player.
In solo-play, this card could easily be removed from the game, as it will never do anything beyond disappearing and drawing a replacement. In 2-player, the functional effect is the same as giving the next card “surge” and by the time you reach 4-player, it snowballs to terrifying proportions.
Early on in the game’s life, there were a pleasing number of treacheries which, although potentially nasty, could also whiff completely at times. Quest with everyone the use Grim Resolve to ready, then the Necromancer’s Reach will do nothing. Have low threat, and Evil Storm will miss entirely too.
Nowadays, it’s very rare that the designers will let you off so lightly. Most treachery cards these days have some effect along the lines of “All X’s do Y. If there are no Xs / no Ys happen, this card gains surge.”
Obviously, this card increases the difficulty of the game. Previously, there was a chance for a let-off. Now there is not.
The question is, whether this type of effect is best considered under the “surge” heading? Yes, the card has “gained surge” but as it is otherwise a blank card, the total number of cards causing issues for the players will be no greater than originally expected. One of the issues of a “living” card game, is trying to determine what is “normal” (i.e is it now, or is it how things were before?)
It’s also worth considering effects which give other cards surge – Bolg in Battle of Five Armies gives surge to the first Orc enemy revealed every round, the Quest Card in the Weather Hills gives surge to the first weather treachery each round.
A subtly different effect is the effect which reveals an extra card each round. However heavy an encounter deck may be with orcs, we’ve never yet seen one which would guarantee an orc appearing. You can strongly suspect that Bolg’s “surge” effect will trigger, but you can’t guarantee it. When (for example) you are in stage 2 of Journey Along the Anduin, you know that there’s an extra card coming out.
Only Bad Options
A pleasing development in the card-game over more recent cycles, is the increased amount of choice players are given. Rather than simply “this bad thing happens” there is now often a choice between “do this bad thing, or suffer this other bad effect.” – It’s still bad (which is the point of the encounter deck), but at least players have the opportunity to make decisions, feel like their actions matter, and they aren’t simply being swept along by the game. Of course the difficulty of this, is that it’s no longer clear whether the card surges or not, particular in the “Do X or reveal an additional encounter card” structure.
Is More Always Bad?
It’s also worth considering whether there are ever times when having more cards revealed from the deck is actually a good thing? Obviously, if this is ever the case, it’s going to be very marginal, but I thought I should at least cover the possibility.
The one example which jumps to mind, is Wingfoot. Especially with low player-counts, or without scrying, there’s a definite chance that this will simply miss, and your hero won’t ready. Is it worth having an extra card come out just to get that extra action?
I think it’s at least possible that it could be – if you have the characters to deal with the enemy, then seeing an enemy and a location could be better than just the location. Beravor is a fairly good target for Wingfoot, given her rounded stat-pool, and ever if you don’t need her for combat, the action advantage gets you two cards. If you have Legolas in play, you can place progress for killing the enemy (although the enemy would have to have only 1 threat for this to be a net gain), and the extra body might enable you to trigger Foe-Hammer when you kill it, or Valiant Sacrifice, Horn of Gondor, or any number of “character leaves play” effects. If your board position is good enough, you might even be able to let a high-threat enemy hang around for a round, to quest with Halbarad then lower your threat with Secret Vigil.
Whilst the list of options above isn’t small, it’s still only going to be a very small minority of situations where you’ll want that extra card appearing- and only then if it’s the right type. You can always hit an enemy harder than you need to (I’ve lost count of the number of times Legolas has stuck an extra arrow into an already dead orc just for some progress tokens) and as already mentioned, it generally needs to be a very specific type of extra card. Overall, almost without exception, I feel like “one more card” of unspecified type is going to be a bad thing.
Ultimately, there will never be a set in which every card surges. However, there will be sets which are much more likely to swarm you than others. What I’m looking to do then, is to produce a kind of statistical average, quest-by-quest of how many cards are likely to be thrown at you.
To simplify things, I’ve decided to break it down as follows:
No surge – A standard card which appears, and that’s it.
Surge – A card which appears, does something AND adds a card. I’ll also use this for forced effects which reveal an extra card (or more) each round.
Conditional Surge – This will cover all of the other effects, cards which surge when certain conditions are met, cards which offer you a choice between an extra card or another penalty (discard an ally, remove a time-counter, take some damage etc)
For each quest, I’ll try to provide a ratio between the 3 card types, and a few other helpful numbers indicated the likelihood of cards swarming or the total number of cards you can expect to see.
By now, you may have come to the same realisation I have, that this is a fairly sizeable undertaking. You may also be questioning the wisdom of taking on this kind of project with so many gaping holes remaining in the difficulty project, but I think that this will actually feed into that in a fairly helpful way, giving some kind of factual information to go with the gut-feeling approach that I’ve been using as the overriding principle. (at least in theory, I should have a bit more time over the next few weeks to get some of this stuff done [famous last words, I know]).
So, having set this up, I’m going to post a series of mini-articles (hopefully more frequent than standard articles) for the various cycles, and a final one to draw them all together.