This year I’ve played the Lord of the Rings LCG about 25 times. As it’s only mid-February, that doesn’t sound like a bad total at all.
However, three quarters of those games came in a single 48-hour period, against a single scenario, after which the game didn’t make it out of the box in a fortnight, and I’m fairly sure I know why.
The Battle of Carn Dum was the penultimate adventure in the Angmar Awakened cycle, and it saw the heroes trying to fight their way past a literal army of Undead, Orcs and other nasties, in order to rescue their friend Iarion who was trapped inside: It combined epic-scale combat with a big-boss showdown.
In the life of this game, there have been many quests, but this one is far and away the most difficult that I’ve played (I haven’t played the Nightmare versions from Voice of Isengard onwards).
A lot of quests in this game are difficult – the numbers are high, and you need to amass a lot of stuff to deal with it. A lot (and this seems to be a growing trend) require you to custom-build your deck. Others skew significantly against particular player-counts: some are straightforward in solo mode but impossible in large groups, others practically require you to have a large group.
Carn Dum is different, it seems at first glance like you can approach it with groups of any size, and of any deck-type, and still get stomped. We’ve tried and failed this with Boromir decks, and Erestor Decks. Black Ridders Secrecy Hobbits, and Dain’s Dwarf Swarm. Dunedain Engagement tricks and Rohan questing surge. None have got us anywhere.
On one particular 3-player game, I had the Perfect start for my dwarf deck (Dain, Thorin, Ori) I had the 1-cost Lore ally in my opening hand, along with We Are Not Idle, Fili (or Kili – the Purple one…), and A Very Good Tale – by the end of turn-1 planning, I had 5 allies out, and we looked destined to bring the encounter deck to its knees with sheer weight of numbers… …until a Shadow card increased an attack by the number of allies I controlled, Dain died, and everything fell to pieces.
The problem with this quest is that it has everything:
- High Threat Enemies and Locations – check
- Destructive Treacheries – check
- Surge – check
- Shadows which make attacks worse – check
- Shadows which throw out extra enemies – check
- A Big Boss enemy who can kill most heroes in a single swipe – check
- Intermittent Battle and Willpower questing – check
- Effects which increase the threat in the staging area – check
- Really high percentage of cards with Shadow Effects – check
If you take a small party against this, the threat is overwhelming (you have a minimum of 6 threat, Battle-Questing on turn 1, and probably need to fight at least one enemy). If you go with a bigger group, you remove any real chance of avoiding the particularly nasty cards that can end you in one turn.
Crunching some Numbers
To analyse it a bit more closely, you have a 48-card encounter deck, on which 9 cards have surge, and a further 3 have either conditional surge, or a surge-like effect, meaning that roughly one card in three will generate extra.
There are 18 enemies – if you ignore the fairly small “Orc grunts” (on the basis that they have surge, and will be additional to whatever else you’ve encountered) no enemy has a defence/hit points total of less than 6, and some have significantly more. Most have high attack – several 4s and 5s, along with high threats that make it problematic to leave things lying around in the staging area. The side quest that gives all Orc enemies +1 Attack, Defence and Threat is basically a game-ender.
Where the Shadows Lie
Where this quests gets particularly brutal though, is with the Shadows. 38 of the 48 cards have a Shadow effect, and game mechanics make it quite likely that an enemy will have two or more shadow cards when you fight it. These shadow effects can increase the enemy’s attack, or make it attack again, meaning that even your stoutest defender can suddenly find themselves in trouble.
It’s also worth noting that most of the anti-shadow tech players have at their disposal is in Spirit or Lore, whereas the big defenders are in tactics or Leadership. (Anti-Shadow effects like Balin or Erkenbrand just won’t work in this quest, as the killer shadows are way too common).
Whilst all this is going on, you will also face a constant battle with threat: there are treacheries, shadows, and locations all of which can ramp your threat rapidly, not to mention the difficulty of breaking even on (Battle) questing in the early rounds.
All of this, of course, is just dealing with the generic cards of the encounter set. Thaurdir, the unique boss enemy of the quest starts at 6 attack, and may pounce on you at any moment.
After getting smashed in a variety of different ways by this, I set myself the task one weekend in January of beating this.
I tried a few of my own decks, and posted an appeal on BoardGameGeek for someone who had actually beaten this. There were a few suggestions which I built and tried out.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and one strategy I saw appealed to my inner Pippin: as this quest prevents unresolved Shadow-cards from being discarded at the end of the turn, try to get as many cards as possible turned into unresolved Shadows, and eventually the encounter deck will mill itself out. Aside from this far-distant goal, it also allows you to trigger various Dunedain effects like Amarthiul’s extra resource and Tactics icon, as well as the cost reduction and character readying abilities of some of the other recent cards. Knowing that you’re going to be resetting, you also take cards like Deep Knowledge to ensure you see the key pieces early enough
Using Lore Aragorn, Damrod and Amarthiul, you eat threat in the early rounds whilst you set up, then reset. Damrod guarantees you can afford a Forest Snare each round, whilst Amarthiul takes Steward of Gondor to become a mega-defender with Gondorian shield.
After a few false-starts (i.e. violent deaths), It was going well it was going well until I reached stage 2, which read “When Revealed: raise each player’s threat by X where X is the number of shadow cards in play. X was 23 (no Laura Kinney reference intended), and I was dead.
I tried again with Favour of the Valar and a Test of Will thrown into the deck (relying on Aragron getting Celebrian’s Stone to play this, there was no point running 3 of). Again there were failed runs, and violent deaths. I finally got into stage 2 without threating out, but Thaurdir was laying waste to my allies, and I couldn’t get the bodies required to quest through. Finally, the Accursed Battleground re-appeared, allowing me to move back to Battle-questing. Amarthiul had Gondorian Fire and a whole stack of resources, and was able to heave us over the line.
So after nearly 20 attempts, I finally had a victory in solo.
What of the Fellowship?
The question though, was how to tackle this in multi-player? All the suggested approaches I had seen – this trapping tactic, a build centred around Frodo with Sentinel, Song of Wisdom (to allow him to have Burning Brand), Fast Hitch, Burning Brand and numerous other accessories – all relied on resetting your threat with Aragorn – fine for a single player, but much more problematic as a group.
I pondered this for a while: Decks lay gathering dust whilst I sank into dark gloom. And some things that should not have been forgotten, were lost. History became legend, legend became myth, and for two-and-a-half weeks, the Battle was forgotten.
At length, spurred to action by Facebook angrily reminding me that it had been a while since I posted anything, and by the realisation that the new deluxe would be arriving next week, I dusted that cards off once more and rebuilt. I took the Burning Frodo deck that had been posted on BGG, and combined it with a Boromir, Glorfindel and Galadriel deck, designed to make maximum use of Boromir’s re-readying (hopefully balanced by Galadriel and Elrond’s Counsel) with Eagle-y support. I took as much “When revealed” cancellation as possible, but Shadows were still a major issue (I decided not to bother trying to pull off the Song of Travel on Boromir / Shadows Give Way combo, as Galadriel alone isn’t enough card-draw).
The first few attempts went the same old way – death, destruction and despair. Threat, swarming by enemies, a single knock-out blow, or good old-fashioned location lock all undid us in the early rounds.
Finally we got a bit of luck – Frodo managed to assemble his full collection of attachments: Steward of Gondor, Song of Wisdom, Burning Brand, Hobbit Cloak, Dunedain Warning, Gondorian Shield and triple Fast-Hitch. Combined with ally Arwen (obviously it took us a few rounds to reach this point) this enabled him to defend 3 or 4 times a turn anywhere on the table, without having to worry about the shadow cards.
Even then, this was only possible thanks to a fair slice of luck. My wife was playing the Boromir deck, and managed to get several Vassals of the Windlord to cover gaps during the early rounds of Battle-Questing, and once we had Asfaloth and a Northern Tracker in play, we were able to avoid the nastiest of the Active Location / Travel effects. The fact that Glorfindel had Light of Valinor and a Rivendell Blade can’t be underestimated either, and at least one of the early enemies was only dispatched thanks to a timely appearance from Fair and Perilous.
So eventually, battered and bruised, we staggered across the finish line. It had taken something like a dozen or more rounds of play, and we were exhausted.
After the Battle
Beating a quest – especially one that has been putting up a major fight, should come with a decent sense of triumph, or at least achievement. This didn’t it was simply relief that this could go back in its box, and stay there untouched for a long while to come.
There are two quests in this past cycle that I’ve really played a lot. The first was Escape From Mount Gram, which is generally reckoned to be one of the easier quests in some respects, although it certainly poses a lot of unique challenges. It was also the most fun quest I can remember playing in a long time, and there are lots of other decks, combinations, and player-counts where I look forward to trying it out as soon as I get the time.
The second quest was this one, Carn Dum, which (as mentioned above) I believe to be the most difficult quest yet for the game. I played it a lot because I got fixated on beating it, and now I have. But at no point was it ever fun: we played with a resigned sense of impending doom, and the chances are that we made mistakes whilst playing, which could have prevented the win. I don’t care. This quest is going away now, and if I never see it again, I won’t be sorry.
The new cycle for this game will be here in a few days. I know there will be new mechanics, lots of ships, and more Noldor draw-and-discard shenanigans. I just hope the difficulty is pitched more sensibly so that we can actually get back to enjoying things.