Hey folks! Welcome to another Tuesday Game Day!
Today I’m going to take a look at the first cycle of Adventure Packs for the Lord of the Rings LCG, the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. This is a cycle that is really close to my heart, so I may well wax lyrical quite a lot – just to warn you!
The cycle began shortly after the core set was released, though I seem to remember Fantasy Flight didn’t appear prepared for just how successful the game proved to be, and were constantly being harried for reprints in the early days. It was around July 2011 that the cycle eventually started, and ran for the rest of that year, with packs coming out monthly. I had initially resisted this game, as I was still quite new to card games (thinking of myself still as a boardgamer, primarily), and remember being put off particularly by the amount of cardboard tokens – fine in a boardgame, but not in a card game! Oh, how naive.
Journey to Rhosgobel was the first pack that I bought upon release, and I remember being so incredibly impressed by the artwork – it just blew me away! I sat down to play the scenario, and was brutalised forthwith! Oh, but it was just excellent! The core set was a good gaming experience, but it was Shadows of Mirkwood that converted me wholly to this game.
The release model for the game is for a big box followed by six smaller packs, each of which uses encounter sets from the earlier big box to create the individual scenarios. For Shadows of Mirkwood, that big box is the core set itself, naturally. Along with the scenario are new player cards, including a new hero. However, I’m so much more interested in the new scenarios, so the course of this blog will follow those. I also keep all of my player cards together, by type-within-sphere, so have no easy way of remembering which player cards came from where!
That said, I do recall some particularly good cards from this cycle which, for me, remain really popular, three years after their release.
If there is one subset of cards for which this cycle should be forever remembered, however, it is the Song cards. Neutral attachment cards, they allow you to attach them to your hero to give him a second sphere, easing your economy as the game moves on.
Song cards have developed quite a bit since these initial four as the game has grown, as have sphere-manipulation tricks in general, but back in the day, these were among the most important player cards you could include in your deck!
However, as I said, it’s the scenarios that interest me the most in this game, a fact that has held true ever since those first days of the game. Let’s have a look at each in turn…
The Hunt for Gollum
As the “original” expansion for this game, this pack is quite special. I also think it is one of the most underrated packs to have been released. The story behind the cycle is that of Aragorn’s search for Gollum, which is recounted in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. The cycle replaces Aragorn with the player’s Hero Fellowship, as we are tasked by King Thranduil to find the miserable little wretch and make him tell us what happened to him in Mordor.
The objective of the scenario is to find at least one of the ‘Signs of Gollum‘ Clue cards, and basically make it through to the end of the quest with one of these cards attached to a hero. All the while, you are having to avoid the usual encounter deck nastiness, including the Hunters from Mordor, who get stronger as more of these Clue cards are in play. As the fourth scenario ever released for the game, it works extremely well, and I think this is one of the reasons why people do underrate it.
Conflict at the Carrock
The second pack sees the heroes on a side quest. Combat-heavy, Conflict at the Carrock pits the players against a quartet of vicious Troll enemies. These guys are trying their best to place your heroes into Sacks, potentially removing them from the game. The trolls all have the same engagement cost, and each buffs the other, so you want to try to keep your threat low enough that you can deal with them on your own terms – there’s nothing more unpleasant than seeing all four of these chaps come down to engage you!
I find this quest to be a bit too much of a hack-and-slash type of thing, without really that much storytelling involved. We’re just trying to beef up our Fellowship in order to face down the four trolls, and even the Objective Ally Grimbeorn the Old isn’t exactly a must-search-for type of card. Well, maybe he was when the pack was released, but things have moved on in the past three years! The quest is definitely enjoyable, of course, but it’s not one that I find myself wanting to play time and again.
A Journey to Rhosgobel
Another side-quest, the third quest is similar to the first in that you’re searching the encounter deck for a specific Objective card, but unlike the first, this is most definitely a race-against-the-clock style quest. The heroes have agreed to aid Rhadagast the Brown in healing the eagle, Wilyador, but they only have so long before he’ll succomb to his wounds!
This is one of the early quests that remains fairly difficult, showing how well these scenarios hold up to the progression of the player cards. There are a number of encounter deck effects that really hate on the players, sometimes forcing some really tough choices. I remember, back in the day, using the original Glorfindel hero card for his healing ability, completely forgetting that the third stage of the quest forces a card’s discard once its healing effect is used – argh! It remains one of those niggling, annoying quests that might not be thought of as “difficult” in comparison to what we’ve seen since, but still requires a very specific deck type to play successfully.
The Hills of Emyn Muil
This is my absolute, all-time favourite quest, and I really don’t care what anyone thinks of me for that! The first single-quest-card scenario (and it remains one of only about two or three), the objective behind this pack is simple – pick up Gollum’s trail again. This is represented by the accumulation of Victory Points, something that is barely touched upon by the core set. The whole quest is exactly that, a quest – your heroes are moving through the vast landscape of Emyn Muil, groping in the dark really as they search through iconic locations in an effort to pick up some sign that Gollum might have been through here.
As such, the scenario is location-heavy, and that is something that I really like about it. There is a real sense of exploration happening as you play this quest, and as more and more locations build up in the staging area, your escalating threat becomes symbolic of the enormity of the task before you. A lot of players don’t like it because there aren’t a lot of enemies to defeat, and there is a general consensus that it is “boring” as a result, but I find it one of the most thematic gaming experiences of my entire life. It’s so rewarding when you have those 20VPs and no locations left, but it can also be so frustrating when you have those points, but you keep turning over Emyn Muil locations and threat-out. Overall, this is a quest that I keep coming back to again and again, just for the unbridled pleasure of being in Tolkien’s world!
The Dead Marshes
I think the fifth pack, like the first, is also one of those unjustly-underrated scenarios. Assuming you were victorious in Emyn Muil, you’re back on Gollum’s trail, and find yourself in the Dead Marshes. Gollum makes his first appearance in the game in this pack, as an Objective card. The scenario introduces a mechanic called the Escape test, which, if failed, places a token on Gollum – if he has 8 on him, he’s shuffled into the encounter deck and the game becomes a chase as you try to find him again.
This is another of those really thematic quests. When you start the game, you can see Gollum, staring back at you from across the marsh, but he’s a slippery little git, and if you fail the Escape test often enough, he’s gone! I’ve had a few games of this quest where this has happened, and I don’t think there’s another game I’ve ever encountered that can have such a wild shift in its feel, from a steadily-plodding effort to take hold of the creature, to a mad scramble to find him again before you threat-out. Wonderful stuff! It’s also worth noting here that this pack gave us one of my all-time favourite ally cards, Elfhelm. A staple of my favourite Rohan deck (mentioned in my original look at the game), I like to include him wherever I can nowadays, due to his all-round utility.
Return to Mirkwood
The final pack is also one of the most brutal. Once again, Gollum is an Objective card, and this time the heroes are guarding him as they return to King Thranduil’s palace. I love the artwork on that Objective card, it’s one of the best-looking cards in the game!
The basic premise is to outlast the encounter deck, and get to the final stage of the quest with Gollum at your side. However, Gollum isn’t coming quietly, and is throwing tantrums left and right. All this noise attracts some unwanted attention, reflected in the brutal threat-raising mechanic. And this quest has some of the most unwanted attention you could ever hope for – Attercop, Attercop, I’m looking at you! I think that card was the worst enemy yet seen in the game, and one to really stop a Fellowship in its tracks! However, it’s not all bad news, as the pack also gave us one of the truly great heroes, Dain Ironfoot. This guy became very important very quickly, with the subsequent release of Khazad-dûm and the incredible Dwarf synergy that came out of the next cycle. To this day, even with the release of the Hobbit Saga boxes, Dain is a real powerhouse of a hero, and I don’t foresee him leaving my Dwarven deck any time soon.
All six of these packs have a lot to commend them singly, but together, they can be an awesome adventure. I think I mentioned it back when I did my blog overview of the game, I only ever play this game solo, as it allows me to really immerse myself in the world and just shut away everything else. As such, the final pack can be a real pain in the behind, as the player guarding Gollum raises his threat by 3 each round, which can be a real game-over situation really quickly. However, that can never put me off this cycle, for which I retain an unbridled love even all these years later.
Of course, the scenarios have become a lot more sophisticated as time has gone on, and we’ve seen some truly amazing stuff from the design team since this cycle was released. But it retains its prominent place in my heart! It’s really fun to look back and see how the designers were clearly feeling their way through with how things could go in this game, particularly the way they play around with Objective cards (which had, at the time, only been used in Escape from Dol Guldur). Representing allies as well as real game-objectives continues to delight me, though of course, as the game has developed over time, we’ve seen so many more twists come out of the encounter deck that these things seem almost basic by comparison.
The “problem” with this cycle is that it is very narrative-focused. While all of the cycles are, to some extent, focused on telling a story in Middle Earth, this first cycle is still very much the original product of the design team. Subsequent releases have been, I feel, much more informed by popular opinion, with the Dwarrowdelf cycle in particular being quite responsive to early criticisms from the fanbase. But there is nothing that can beat the epic sweep of playing through the cycle from start to finish (caveat: I’ve not yet done a proper play-through with The Black Riders, which I feel might be even more epic).
Nightmare Mode has been in the game since the very beginning, as an official “variant” of gameplay that involves playing one quest consecutively after another, without refreshing your threat etc. It can be really fun to do that, and I’ve done it quite a few times with the Mirkwood cycle, but back at the end of 2012, a new Nightmare Mode was developed, that involved new cards for the encounter deck. FFG has since revisited about half of the game with new Nightmare Mode decks of 20 cards that replace some of the original cards, the idea being that the encounter deck has been updating itself just like a regular player. Of course, it’s never going to work out entirely that way, but that isn’t really a bad thing – rather than just adding in 20 new enemies/locations/treachery cards, some of these Nightmare Mode decks alter the entire feel of the original game.
The Mirkwood cycle has had this treatment, and while I haven’t actually tried out any of these at the time of writing, I’ve had a look at each and can say that I’m really quite impressed!
The first three quests all feel quite different, with noticeable changes including a third quest stage (and five all-new trolls, including replacements for the original four) for Conflict at the Carrock, and (my personal favourite of any Nightmare Deck to date) the ability of Hunters from Mordor to gain Clue cards as well as the heroes in The Hunt for Gollum.
Packs four, five and six all feel just that much more brutal in Nightmare Mode.
Particular note should be made of Mere of Dead Faces for The Dead Marshes, one of these subtle differences that can make the game play so much more different. Normally, if Gollum has escaped into the encounter deck, it’s just a matter of trying to find him again and grab hold of him when you do. This new card, however, collects tokens when Gollum has escaped, and when he reappears, the tokens shift over to the little guy – potentially sending him right back into the encounter deck again!
We also have more Tantrums for Return to Mirkwood, and more Emyn Muil locations for Hills of Emyn Muil. All these little tweaks make these quests that much more difficult to complete, and add their own wonderful little twists in the process.
I’ve always said that the greatest thing about Lord of the Rings LCG is the expansion design, which effectively gives you a new game every month. Shadows of Mirkwood really showcases this, with six very thematic, and very different quests to play through, yet all forming a cohesive narrative if you take them as a whole. The addition of the Nightmare Mode cards adds even more replayability to the game, and while they’re all getting on a bit now, they nevertheless each remain highly enjoyable. For me, playing any of these six has a real feeling of “coming home”, as I used to play the game really very regularly back then. The lustre has absolutely not gone, of course, but I sometimes feel that I don’t know the more recent quests as well as I know these. I have some really fond memories of playing them, particularly whole-cycle play-throughs that first Christmas after the game was released! Wonderful times.
In short, I can highly recommend the entire cycle to you all!
In fact, in writing all of this, I feel like breaking out the decks and playing a game or two!
Buy it from amazon:
The Hunt for Gollum (Nightmare Mode)
Conflict at the Carrock (Nightmare Mode)
A Journey to Rhosgobel (Nightmare Mode)
The Hills of Emyn Muil (Nightmare Mode)
The Dead Marshes (Nightmare Mode)
Return to Mirkwood (Nightmare Mode)