“By the afternoon they had reached the eaves of Mirkwood, and were resting almost beneath the great over-hanging boughs of its outer trees. “
Welcome to my latest article that wraps up the ‘Shadows of Mirkwood’ cycle with a punishing quest for the solo adventurer, and where I discuss my thoughts on the cycle as a whole and the game as it stood back then.
‘Return to Mirkwood’ is really difficult – it has a whopping 10 cards removed from its encounter deck for the official Easy Mode. I don’t know what the design team were aiming for with some incredibly nasty Encounter cards – Attercop, Attercop alone is the most powerful Enemy card released so far – mixed with some very nasty Treachery cards. It’s not a pleasurable experience. I really do dislike the ‘bang, you’re dead unless you have packed X’ Treachery cards that FFG sometimes put into quests, so I think I’ll do some Encounter deck tweaks to slightly balance the quest for solo play, such as when dealing with Gollum, and also Woodman’s Glade and Wood Elf Path, both of which help multi-player but do nothing for the poor solo player:
Gollum: At the end of each round, raise the Threat of the player guarding Gollum by 2.
Gollum’s Anguish: When Revealed: Raise Threat by 6. Shadow: Raise Threat by 3
Gollum’s Bite: When Revealed: Do 2 Damage to a Hero guarding Gollum. Shadow: Do 1 Damage to Hero
Wasted Provisions: When Revealed: Discard 6 cards. Shadow: Discard 3 cards
Wood Elf Path: Response: Whilst Wood Elf Path is the active location, Gollum does not raise the Threat of the guarding player.
Woodman’s Glade: Response: After exploring Woodman’s Glade, reduce the threat of each player by 2.
I also think the third quest card need to be balanced too (and bring it in line with Quest card 2B):
Quest 3B: To the Elven King’s Halls: Add “(unless the only player in the game)” to the quest card’s text.
Favourite Player card: This adventure pack has some excellent cards that combo well, but for sheer usefulness in solo games and a card that almost always finds a way into my deck is Rumour from the Earth.
I kept my usual heroes of Aragorn, Beravor and Legolas for this quest as I really enjoy the way the cycle has grown into a campaign and I’m trying to keep the story going. It’s also making thematic sense as we get closer to Thranduil’s Halls that Legolas would be present, and I’m changing my deck slightly to include some more copies of Forest Snare and Burning Brand that I think I’ll need, plus swapped out the Eagles who have now repaid their debt to the heroes in rescuing Wilyador, and replaced them with Silvan Trackers and Mirkwood Runners (even though they are expensive – theme wins). Aragorn and Legolas had Song of Wisdom as starting attachments to pay for these extra Lore cards, and Beravor had Song of Travel to access Spirit cards (in tandem with Celebrian’s Stone being in the deck). I’m keeping my Steward of Gondor re-theme as Emissary of the Woodland Realm. My starting Threat, with no Haven, was the usual 31.
Just like other quests, speed was of the essence, but even so, my first attempt was successful. I was very lucky however and the encounter deck just gave me lots of easy locations and few enemies. Questing quickly, I managed to get to Thranduil’s Halls in 5 turns with no enemies in the staging area, so no last battle.
My second attempt lasted exactly 4 turns. This time I had a few enemies straight off the bat that kept me busy, including a Hill Troll and Ungoliant’s Spawn. Then I drew Gollum’s Anguish and with no handy threat reduction coming from my deck and a threat increase of 3 per turn (thanks Gollum…), my threat just soared to 50! In fact, all the nasty ‘Tantrum’ Treachery cards in this pack just scream ‘play Test of Will or it could be game over’ – although they are slightly reduced in severity due to my tweaks for Story Mode.
Third time out was similarly quick with a rocketing Threat plus a horde of 2 Mirkwood Bats (which can wreak havoc with your weaker allies as they cause 1 Damage after just engaging you) and a King Spider making a nasty bite out of my party in only a few turns! My last attempt was successful however, although only just, with a final Threat of 45, and fairly gentle Encounter deck cards. I was fortunate to get Celebrian’s Stone in my opening hand and then a few appearances by Gandalf and 2 Woodman’s Glade locations to reduce my Threat.
Favourite card combo: Again, not a combo, but a card I’m liking more and more, and finding all kinds of use for is Shadow from the Past. It is clearly useful in ‘The Dead Marshes’ to stop Gollum escaping into the mists of the Encounter deck if revealed as a Shadow card, but it has lots of other utility too – try putting back a harmless card from the discard pile to the encounter deck and you get a free round to quest!
A Hero’s Story – Dain Ironfoot: Initially Lord of the Dwarves of the Iron Hills and then King of Erebor after it was reclaimed from Smaug, Dain is one of the most important Dwarf characters in Middle-earth. Correspondingly, he is part of the Leadership sphere and his ability to rally and inspire all Dwarf Characters and increase both willpower and attack is incredible. He is also a great Defender (although you have to ready him afterwards if you want the Attack bonus for the other Dwarves). I always feel that Characters with Defense 3 (eg Elrond or Denethor) indicate that they are with ‘unseen’ soldiers or men-at-arms who protect their Lord/Commander.
I found this quest really enjoyable, if a bit ‘bipolar’. It seemed that there were loads of mechanics and cards that punished the solo player, the most drastic being that you have to guard Gollum every turn! This means a threat increase of at least 3 each turn so you almost always have to use Gandalf for threat reduction.
Reflections on the Cycle – Looking back over the 9 Quests I have completed from the Core Set and Mirkwood Cycle and the decks that I have used and those that have been successful, a few things come to mind.
Certainly, playing a mono-sphere deck doesn’t work in solo at all. It’s much better to have dual or even triple sphere decks on occasions so that a wider card pool and the strengths of the different spheres are available to you as a single player rather than part of a team of players where you can rely on your team-mates to supply vital elements that you may lack. The ability to have the various Songs as starting attachments can really smooth things over however – a solo player really has to be a jack of all trades.
Understandably, not all the game’s many elements have been developed yet. Traits and themes are only just starting to gain momentum and some won’t gain much until a few more cycles are added. As a result, and because of the game’s strict scenario focus, it is difficult to construct decks with a total theme yet, or with a theme that fits a certain Quest. As such, I have yet to bring in Dwarves as Heroes as they don’t fit in trudging through Mirkwood, delivering messages to elves or hunting Gollum. Similarly the Men of Gondor don’t fit. I have restricted myself to Rohan (which is still stretching the imagination a bit) or ‘Dunedain plus friends’. This will change of course as a new cycle starts and the focus shifts to new areas of Middle-earth.
In terms of deck-building, I’m never keen on ‘power cards’ but there are certainly cards that you ALWAYS have to include as they are so useful, such as Test of Will, Unexpected Courage, Galadhrim’s Greeting and Hasty Stroke from Spirit, Feint, Blade of Gondolin and Quick Strike from Tactics, Steward of Gondor (or a rethemed version) and Sneak Attack from Leadership and Rumour of the Earth, Henamarth Riversong, Burning Brand and Forest Snare from Lore. Plus, of course, always pack 3 Gandalf cards! I’m sure everyone has their favourites too.
It’s a tough call to choose my favourite quest out of the 9, although it is probably a coin-toss between Journey to Rhosgobel or my re-imagined Escape from Dol Guldur. Both of these are rich in theme and challenging to make a very enjoyable quest through Tolkien’s wonderful Middle-earth.
So that wraps up my trek through Mirkwood looking for tricksy Gollum, and my heroes sit back and enjoy the hospitality of Thranduil (it was a LONG time before we actually saw him enter the game though…).
But what’s that? I hear that old Balin hasn’t sent any emails back from Moria! Time to go underground…
“The Road Goes Ever On…”