Aug 10, 2015

Lord of the Rings LCG: Down to the river

I'll talk about the quests in the game in more detail in my next post, but for now, let's talk about difficulty.

First of all, I entirely agree with this post: the difficulty ratings for the various quests simply cannot have been determined by playing them. Our limited sample so far supports this. A Journey Along the Anduin is brutal, especially to new players, especially right after Passage through Mirkwood. It has a difficulty level of 4. Our first three attempts at Journey ended in utter defeat, as did my four solo tries. Playing on my own, I only got out of the first quest stage once. It is just really not easy.

After being completely destroyed by the Journey Along the Anduin, we decided to try something different. We got the Dead Marshes adventure pack for Boromir, and Hunt for Gollum for Eagles and questing allies, but being adventure packs, they obviously included quests as well. The official difficulty level of A Hunt for Gollum is 4, the same as A Journey Along the Anduin, and the Dead Marshes is 5, which is harder.

Are you kidding me? On our first attempt at Dead Marshes, we drew several escape test -forcing treacheries right off the bat and Gollum escaped back into the encounter deck, but we got lucky and he showed up again almost immediately. On our second attempt, he never managed to escape in the first place, and we just blasted right through the quest. So when the Tales from the Cards blog says "it is possible to blow through this quest in a couple of rounds and feel a bit underwhelmed", I would not only agree that it's possible but say that that's exactly what happened to us both times. A third three-handed attempt took quite a while after Gollum escaped, but we had no trouble waiting for him to show up. I can't think of any way in which this quest can be considered harder than A Journey Along the Anduin. Even playing solo, I still haven't beaten Anduin, but Dead Marshes was a joke. It did involve a hell of a lot of waiting after Gollum escaped and ended up in the discard pile, but to be honest, that was just boring. Now that we've also picked up the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion, I can point out that Dead Marshes has the same difficulty as Into the Pit, which is sort of technically funny but is not.

Our first two-handed experience of A Hunt for Gollum was challenging, but we did manage to beat it on the second go. On another attempt we lost to an unfortunate flood of encounter cards, drawing several objectives and surges, followed by a treachery that eliminated a huge swath of our allies. A three-handed attempt was again more succesful. I actually think Hunt for Gollum is a good quest: it doesn't have the brutality of Anduin, but it isn't a walkover like Dead Marshes. My three solo runs through Hunt for Gollum were a resounding success, something I've never experienced with Anduin yet! Giving these two quests the same difficulty level is completely mad.

Despite both of the adventure pack scenarios clearly feeling easier than Anduin, we were buoyed by this strange experience of victory and had another shot at the Great River. And we beat it! Again, I think we were a bit lucky, but we did also play somewhat better. Since the Tactics deck is rubbish at questing, my partner had Thalin quest and focused everything else on destroying any enemies that showed up, while I pretty much quested with everybody all the time. Eventually, that combo got us through. Flush with our success, we also took a three-handed shot with a Leadership deck and won again, albeit with heavy damage and the loss of a hero. A three-handed attempt at Hunt for Gollum got a bit hairy at times with a huge pack of locations, but my Northern Tracker saw us through.


So, some difficulty observations. First and most obvious, the official difficulty levels are a terrible guide to the actual difficulty of a quest. In my opinion at least, to take the quests covered here, I maintain that Dead Marshes is the easiest. A Journey Along the Anduin is clearly harder, while Hunt for Gollum falls somewhere in between the two. So any new players struggling with A Journey Along the Anduin: don't worry. It gets easier.

Part of the reason the difficulty levels are flawed is that I'm not really convinced it's possible to usefully distil the difficulty of a quest into a single number. Why is Anduin harder than Hunt for Gollum? Part of the reason has to be randomness. Individual iterations of Anduin will vary widely, because so much depends on the luck of the draw. If, for instance, you reveal the Hill Troll right away in setup, you've got a fairly easy beginning. Everyone who's played the game can probably remember combinations of cards that weren't quite so benign; and any beginning can be completely destroyed when the second Hill Troll shows up. The same goes for the third phase: playing three-handed, we drew five locations. Not much of an ambush, that. It could have gone very differently! On a couple of my solo attempts, I drew practically no locations and was overwhelmed with enemies. Had it gone the other way round, I might have done much better! It's been pointed out that even Passage through Mirkwood has a significant random element that makes beating it a bit harder than the measly difficulty rating of 1 might lead you to believe. So really, it might make a lot more sense to break difficulty down into different components.

One interesting difficulty component is multiplayer. So far, in several scenarios the balance is good: more players means more resources to deal with problems, but also more encounter cards i.e. more problems to deal with. In general, I've felt that more players make quests easier. On our first three-handed attempt at Anduin, though, the deluge of encounter cards was very intimidating! But playing solo, I'd still say that Anduin is by far the hardest quest. For every quest we've tried so far, adding more players made it easier. I think that so far at least, the economies provided by additional players like division of labor are more powerful than the additional encounter cards and effects; in other words, even though there are more problems, there are also more players to deal with the problems.

What I do find a bit odd is that the core game comes with four starter decks, one of which is pretty much completely useless for solo play. With practically no willpower, the Tactics deck can't quest to save its life. On the other hand, the Leadership starter with its Stewards of Gondor generates more resources than it knows what to do with, to the extent that I've now seen Brok Ironfist enter play at his full resource cost - twice. Then again, the spirit deck struggles to defend against anything more intimidating than Eastern Crows. While it's obviously a good thing that the various starter decks are different, the total unsuitability of the Tactics deck for solo play was a bit of a surprise. Obviously your deck will also considerable impact on difficulty, again making me wonder if it's at all meaningful to try to give quests an overall difficulty rating.

Solo play with just the core set can be frustratingly difficult, if not at times impossible. My suggestion would be to look at the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, both for new player cards and quests that are mostly a lot easier than A Journey down the Anduin.


I fully appreciate that from a game design perspective, hitting on the right difficulty level for quests can't exactly be easy. Passage through Mirkwood is a good introductory quest that can at times turn out to be surprisingly difficult. To a new player, especially playing solo, A Journey Along the Anduin is absolutely brutal. The hill troll and the flood of encounter cards in the second phase are a real one-two punch to the face. It's an interesting design decision to hit new players with something like that straight out of the box; based on a lot of forum posts and comments I've seen, it's turned quite a few people off the game, and left even sober-seeming reviewers with an inflated notion of the overall difficulty of the whole LCG. It really doesn't help that at least one of the starter decks is almost unplayable solo.

The thing is, though: A Journey Along the Anduin is a really good quest. It has a clear, strong narrative that ties its various phases together. The narrative combines with the encounter cards and the art to create a powerful atmosphere. In terms of gameplay, there's an excellent mix of questing and combat, with the three different stages of the quest each posing a different challenge. The quest is challenging, but beating it is immensely rewarding.

Although it's considerably easier, much of the same is true of A Hunt for Gollum. Only the Dead Marshes quest falls somewhat flat in all respects. So thus far, my overall impression of the Lord of the Rings LCG remains overwhelmingly positive.


After adding player cards from Journey to Rhosgobel and Return to Mirkwood, this is what my current deck looks like:

The Amazons

50 cards: 29 Spirit, 20 Lore, 1 neutral; 3 heroes, 23 allies, 9 attachments, 15 events


Allies: (23, 13/9/1)
Elfhelm x2
Northern Tracker x2
Lórien Guide x2
Escort from Edoras x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker x2
West Road Traveller x3
Haldir of Lórien
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong

Attachments: 9 (5/4)
The Favor of the Lady x2
Unexpected Courage
Ancient Mathom x2
Forest Snare x2
Protector of Lórien x2

Events: 15 (9/6)
Astonishing Speed
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Will of the West
Lore of Imladris x2
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2
Strider's Path

Still a bit too much Lore going around, but overall I'm quite happy with this deck. I ended up adding some extra healing in the form of a second Lore of Imladris and third Daughter of the Nimrodel, because of our three-handed experience with A Journey Along the Anduin. Some of the location control cards came in quite handy in A Hunt for Gollum, which we'd frankly never have managed to beat without my Northern Tracker. My deck's shadow and treachery cancellation abilities have also been very useful.

I should probably make a clearer decision as to how viable I want this deck to be in solo play. The boosted healing is there solely for multiplayer, but on the other hand, I'm not sure if I actually need cards like Forest Snare or Mirkwood Runner in multiplayer at all, since I'm mostly going to be teaming up with fairly combat-oriented decks. Then again, after I wrote that, my Mirkwood Runner made a very meaningful contribution to a quest by eliminating enemies, so... I really like the fact the deckbuilding isn't easy!


Next time: the Hobbit saga begins!

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