Two Deck Nightmare Musings
Deck builders beware: I only have one core set, I don’t intend to buy more - I did contemplate it at one low point, but luckily I can wait for the expansions - and I haven’t yet mixed up any dual sphere decks, just mono spheres here. You want more spheres per player? Move along, these are not the woirds you’re looking for. I’m not sure it’s even necessary, although it may be great fun for you. I just wanted a game playable out of the box. But how to play it out of the box?
It struck me some days ago that beating all 3 scenarios solo with just one mono deck was technically just shy of utterly impossible. Scenario 1 ‘Mirkwood’ is eminently playable with one deck, and, with luck, you can beat it with any mono sphere deck included in the box. Scenario 2 ‘Anduin’ is much trickier, and despite hearing reports to the contrary, after 6 plays against it with one mono deck I’ve yet to succeed. Scenario 3 ‘Dol Guldur’ is redonculous with just one deck. You start out crippled, with one hero gagged and bound. With four players and 12 heroes, you’d barely notice or feel this effect between you, but with one player and three heroes? That’s it. Pretty much game over before you start.
To begin with, I was reticent about playing solo with two decks, in much the same way as I originally didn’t like being forced to play with 3 heroes (which is why I created a solo hero scenario). Sure, you could play with less heroes, but you’ll lose. And not in a ‘hey, that was close’ manner. No. Instead, you’ll be bent over your table and have the encounter deck apply a wicked series of paper cuts to your buttocks, whilst all the while listening to it whisper “Two decks, two decks, to Mordor we will take you”. That actually happened to me once.
But, even though it’s only really implied rather than suggested, for some reason I was sticking to this whole one mono deck thing. And it got quite frustrating. Yet whenever I played with a friend we would have much more luck, and progress much further. Reason being: the player scaling for the base scenarios in this game is not actually that great. And that’s coming from, ostensibly, a fanboy.
Mirkwood starts you out with 2 encounters. Not 2 per player, just 2.
Anduin starts you out with 1 encounter per player... Plus 1 Hill Troll. Not ½ a troll per player.
Dol Guldur starts you with 1 less hero. Again, not 1 less hero per player...
You see the issue here: it’s not just ‘more challenging’, it’s imbalanced.
But, hey, it’s still a great game – I just want to play it and have at least a chance of winning, right? So after playing through all 3 quests in ‘regular mode’ many times with or without a friend but always with two decks (btw: two decks in solo play is easier than I expected, I just put the first player marker on the appropriate hero deck to remind me to move it each turn), Scenario 3 remained thoroughly and totally unbeatable. Which is when I started playing nightmare mode...
There are apparently different interpretations of nightmare mode. Some argue that you have to discard any allies or attachments you have in play between scenarios to make it harder. I see no good argument for this thinking, so clearly these folk are fans of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. The game says don’t reset the decks, wounds, etc, so I just stack all 9 scenario quest cards on top of each other and play it as one big scenario. Which I’m pretty sure is the intent.
In any case it provided for a heart-pounding experience that left me lying awake replaying the scenarios in my head. Like when you fire up Resident Evil 5: Mercenaries Mode on the PS3 for a quick round before bed, and before you know it, the clock says 3am, and you remember it’s a week night, and you have to be up in the morning for work and it’s your turn to feed the baby and so stand up in a sudden sobering panic and spill cold beer all over myself.
Combining the combat abilities of Tactics (basic game, 1 core set, mono sphere) with the questing skills of Spirit (again: basic game only, 1 core set, mono sphere) and Gandalf in each I had my heroes set off, or ‘venture forth’ if you’re a fan of Baldur’s Gate...
Making steady progression through Mirkwood, the synergy came nicely into play of Eowyn exploring, Eleanor hanging back to deal with emerging treachery and Dunhere assassinating anything foolish enough to remain in the staging area. On the other side of the table, Thalin got stuck into the questing and also got his axe stuck into anything and everything emerging from the encounter deck, Legolas nipped back and forth across the table murdering things wherever possible and enabling us to nip more quickly through the forests, whilst Gimli endeavoured to get beaten up and thus, angrier, wherever he could.
Lucking out, I found Beorn’s path, so Ungoliant’s Spawn reclined in its lair biding its time and letting us run safely through to the River Anduin with 59VP. And after guiding us down his aforementioned path Beorn actually decided to join in the quest. Helping to tackle the pesky Hill Troll he quickly proved his worth in spades by soaking up damage and threat from the troll on the one turn and delivering some seriously angry killing skills on the next turn, helping Gimli to bring the gigantic moron down to its knees. As the poor Troll breathed its last, Legolas jumped on its back with a “huzzah!” and shot an arrow into the top of its head to claim the kill (and bag us some more progress). Gimli and Beorn shared a look as the elf preened and pranced.
The river journey proved advantageous in some respects as the emergent band of Lorien Guides and Northern Trackers gave good directions and allowed us to avoid the more menacing locations. And the angry, battle-hardened Tactics team stepped off the boat occasionally (or flaunted a showy volley of arrows), slaughtering orcs and spiders where they could. The encounter deck kept throwing up all kinds of challenges and any occasion where I dared, or needed, to commit Eleanor to questing came with a guaranteed Treachery card that would batter my forces.
Upon berthing the boats, our heroes were beset on all sides by vicious orcs and spiders and a bloody battle ensued. Whilst the Spirit deck kept a handle on the Threat track with help from Gandalf and the Galadrim (and sparing a thought for the Tactics deck where possible), Tactics found themselves flailing, and punished by Threat-raising Treachery and Shadow events. Although the battle on the shore was eventually won, the Tactics deck limped to Dol Guldur with 45 Threat and very few playable turns ahead of them. Spirit was at a respectable 24 Threat. Pretty much every character was wounded, and some were collecting their injuries like stamps/pokemoncards/insertothercollectibleitemhere along with their 69VP.
Gimli was abducted and the heroes rushed into the dungeons to find him quickly, with as many characters questing as I could possibly manage. A somewhat innocuous looking Orc Jailor put up what initially looked like a meagre defence against the combined might of Legolas and Beorn. And then I drew the dreaded Hummerhorns as a Shadow Effect. “Deal 1 damage to each character the defending player controls.” I counted up the characters with only 1 hit point remaining:
Everyone but Eowyn.
It was a bloodbath. Even if I hadn’t counted myself as the same player for both decks, the Tactics deck hit 50 Threat that turn and the battered and broken Spirit team simply could not have hobbled past the first stage of the final quest.
Bleeding out slowly as their enemies gathered around to watch them die, Dunhere and Eleanor looked at each other in despair.
“I think she made a run for it.”
It was over.
Until the next day when I set out with the same setup!
This time I had slightly better luck with the card draws but also focussed heavily on keeping Threat down to give my heroes breathing room should they actually reach Dol Guldur. With Beorn making a welcome appearance in the second turn of the game I was off to a rollicking start. Quickly racking up kills and blasting through scenario 1, Beorn became essential to my war strategy and I was loathe to put 3 wound tokens on him from the first Anduin River Hill Troll fairly early on. Readying myself to use his special mega-attack ability and wash him back into the deck clean of wounds, I actually ended up keeping the poor wounded giant of a man with us the whole time.
Choosing between playing down multiple low cost allies and attachments or saving up for tougher allies like the Tracker (or Beorn) and Gandalf – or making Gandalf Stand And Fight – I erred towards bringing in the big guns as soon as possible. And they’d often pave the way for the little guys later on.
Gondorian Spearmen won my respect anew, especially when three of them Stand Together and inflict 3 damage on one attacking creature.
I hung onto certain counter Event cards for dear life, living in fear of the dreaded Hummerhorns, for example.
By the time we reached Dol Guldur, 2 Hill Trolls and a Marsh Adder had fallen, the Trackers and Guides were tearing through locations, and I’d accrued a respectable war party of Gondorians. Gimli was taken captive (again: lazy, workshy git) and Thalin died at the first stage. Undaunted by this dreadful turn of events I quested like crazy to get through to the second stage and free Gimli, with Eowyn taking on the Objective card that stops you from attacking/defending: Gandalf’s Map.
My tenacity paid off and we made it through to free Gimli. And then, whether by Fortune Or Fate, Thalin miraculously returned to the battle from the dead, accompanied by cheers from the gathered forces of good...
... Only to be webbed by a gigantic spider on the next turn and taken out of action for the rest of the game.
Before long the Nazgul of Dol Guldur was upon us and what had once looked like an army of Rangers and Gondorians was quickly ripped to pieces. Staggering over the bodies of their fellow dead, Legolas, Gimli and Beorn stepped up to face off with the Dark Rider, whilst Eowyn literally dragged Dunhere and Eleanor through the dungeons to desperately try and find the exit. As they turned down a dank, spider filled tunnel, Eowyn spotted the light of day filtering through from the exit. Framed by a halo of daylight, Gandalf stood at the opening, spurring them on.
Sacrificing himself to the malevolence of the Nazgul, Gandalf generously allowed the Tactics warriors to descend upon the doomed Ringwraith and show the blasted thing that sometimes it’s better to give than to receive. A beating.
Orcs swarmed the caverns as the Nazgul squealed and expired, and the heroes made a desperate break for the exit, bagging the final couple of progress tokens needed to get us all out the door and into the daylight.
32 Threat on the Spirit deck + 4 Wounds (for 36) and 43 Threat on the Tactics deck + 10 Wounds, mostly on a plated Gimli (for 53), minus 17 points for 1 Marsh Adder, 2 Hill Trolls and 2 Gladden Fields netted me a final score of 72.
Next I’m gonna play through my own series of Scenarios in Nightmare mode, maybe with Lore + Leadership this time...
Phew, thanks for reading if you did!