It’s another game day, and time to look at some more of my favourite card game: it’s time to enter the Dwarrowdelf, in Lord of the Rings!
This was the second cycle for the Lord of the Rings card game, published throughout 2012. Following on from Khazad-dûm, the cycle featured a thematic story whereby your fellowship begins the cycle escorting Arwen through the Misty Mountains, from Lothlorien to Rivendell, at which point Elrond asks you to investigate reports of unusual Orc activity within the Mines of Moria. The encounter sets use cards from the Khazad-dûm box, so there are lots of goblins here! The cycle also continued the theme from Khazad-dûm with increasing the Dwarf cards in the game, leading to a beautifully-synergised deck type. While the Hobbit saga boxes really rounded that archetype out for me, the cards from just this set are enough to make some very powerful decks that can be both fun to play as well as being wrecking-balls. I’m not going to talk much about the player cards here, as I tend to think of them as a separate issue – the cycle is all about the quests!
However, it would be remiss of me to do this blog without mentioning the Secrecy keyword. It basically lowers the cost to play cards, provided your threat is below 20. This seemed like such a difficult feat to accomplish for most of the cycle, and led to two-hero fellowships seeing a surge in popularity – particularly when packs one and two gave us the brothers Elladan and Elrohir, who have a wonderful synergy together. But then pack six hit, which I’ll talk about later, but which has a really hilarious built-in way to use Secrecy really well.
The Redhorn Gate
This one is pretty brutal. The idea is that you’re moving through the tops of the Misty Mountains, escorting Arwen home to Rivendell. This is simulated wonderfully by having the tip of mighty Caradhras staring at you from the staging area from the very beginning, which you can’t travel to until you reach the quest card that makes it the active location, at which point it makes everybody -1 willpower. That might not be a bad thing, but there are so many effects here that remove people with 0 from the quest (or even, the game!), which makes this a really difficult one to overcome. Of course, you can use your Northern Trackers to place progress on it in the staging area and try to remove the threat that way, but that always just feels a bit like cheating to me. It’s a great quest, highly thematic, and one that I often find myself returning to for just one more jaunt through the mountains!
Road to Rivendell
The second quest is similar to the first, as we’re still escorting Arwen to Rivendell. It introduces the new Ambush keyword, which sees enemies make an engagement check against everyone when they’re turned up from the deck – they’re usually quite squishy enemies, so you can usually kill them pretty handily, but their often-high attack might mean you won’t get to fight back! It also features what I think is the most controversial card in the entire game, Sleeping Sentry. This treachery card deals one damage to each exhausted character when it is turned up from the deck, then every other character is exhausted, so you can often see your fellowship fall apart when this card makes an appearance. If it’s played as a Shadow card, however, you must discard all exhausted characters – the potential for the game to end right there is huge, especially when the quest cards in this one have a massive amount of progress needed. It seems a bit lazy, but it’s also pretty thematic, when you consider the damage a sleeping sentry could cause to a small band of folks on the road. However, the almost arbitrary way it can cause the game to end if it’s turned up in that way has led to a lot of hate, but there are a lot of player cards that can deal with such things – remember, it’s When Revealed, not Forced, so you can cancel these things, but it can still crush your game, and remains my most-hated card in the game.
The Watcher in the Water
I won’t lie, this pack nearly killed my enthusiasm for the game back when it was first released, and in fact I would go as far as to say it has never returned to its former heights following the release of the Watcher in the Water. Having escorted Arwen to Rivendell as an Objective card, we now received the daughter of Elrond as an ally character that saw a lot of geekgasms back in the day. We also had our first repeat-hero, a new version of Aragorn that fits more with his persona as Strider.
This quest, however, was just a bitch to get through. I have since completed it multiple times, and while I wouldn’t say it was easy, it wasn’t as bad as that first attempt. There were just too many tentacles! I think I was completely enveloped within the first two turns, and just gave up in sheer frustration. There are two victory conditions here – either kill the Watcher, or solve the riddle on the Doors of Durin and enter the mines. The riddle here is to match the first letter of the top card of the encounter deck to any number of cards from your hand. If you have the Doors in your victory display, then you can win, which is perhaps easier than going up against the regenerating Watcher. Of course, if you’ve got a fellowship that can just tank its way through, then that might be the preferred strategy!
The Long Dark
The fourth pack has gained a bit of a reputation for being a really easy quest, much like Hills of Emyn Muil in the last cycle, but it’s one of my favourites (albeit not, perhaps, in my top ten), due to the thematic nature of the whole thing. We’re back to the cave torch from Khazad-dûm, and lots of cards that once again emphasize the claustrophobic feel of the mines. There is also the Lost mechanic, which I find super-thematic here. Certain cards – mostly the new locations – make players take a Locate test, whereby you can discard a card from your hand to discard the top card from the encounter deck; if that card has a bold “pass” printed in the bottom-right, then all is well. If not, you can do it again, or else something bad will happen, and you’ll be forced to trigger any Lost effects in play. These effects are usually terrible, such as returning enemies into play or discarding allies, etc. It’s meant to represent losing your way in the dark, of course, and I find it comes together pretty well – the only thing I don’t like, of course, is how there aren’t many encounter cards in the deck to support it – much like the Escape test in The Dead Marshes, actually!
It’s a great quest, that also features an Objective boon that is the first since the Massing at Osgiliath. Durin’s Greaves give a +1 defense bonus to a hero, which can be really useful with the amount of goblins swarming around you! The idea of giving us useful stuff to find in the encounter deck would be reworked with style in the form of boons in the Saga expansions, of course, but while we have had such cards before, The Long Dark is, to me, the first time I’ve wanted to go through an encounter deck specifically to find something like this.
Foundations of Stone
Without a doubt, the highlight of this cycle for me. Foundations of Stone sees our intrepid fellowships broken up, as we’re washed away part-way through the quest! There are essentially two encounter decks here – a sort of generic thing made up of cards from Khazad-dûm that you’re most likely sick of seeing by now, then, following the splitting of the party, the specific Foundations of Stone deck, which features all sorts of horrible things as we find ourselves in the very depths of the mines of Moria. It’s a terrific mechanic that sends each player to his own staging area, a mechanic that has been reprised a few times since in fact, though as I only ever play this game solo (by choice, actually), it doesn’t have much of an impact.
We get two more Objective boon-cards that make us work for them this time, but more important than that, we get the Lovecraftian Nameless Things in this scenario! When this pack was first announced, I thought it was a hilarious counter to the Zigil Miner controversy that I mentioned in the Khazad-dûm blog. If you remember, the Zigil Miner gives you resources equal to the cost of cards he turns up from your deck. At this time, the meta saw players pack their decks with expensive cards to maximise on this effect – only to then have these Nameless Things swoop in and attach cards from your deck to them, the cost of which dictating their attributes. So we suddenly see people facing Elder Nameless Things that can deal 15 points of damage, because you have expensive cards in your deck – it was great! Having never seen the point in being a power gamer, I permitted myself a hearty chuckle at that, I must admit.
Regardless, Foundations of Stone is just an amazing experience, and I highly recommend this one!
Shadow and Flame
The final pack rightly has that feel of encountering the big boss in a video game, as we go up against Durin’s Bane, the mighty Balrog of Moria! This is actually a real pig of a quest, I’ve always found, and as such I have never really attempted it. The object of the game is to defeat the Balrog by pushing it into the Deep Pit, the only way to remove it from play. Indeed, the new keyword Indestructible was brought into the game specifically for the big guy, ensuring that he would never be killed, even if you managed to deal the enormous 30 points of damage it would take! Unfortunately, Deep Pit only enters play through quest card effects, so you need to quest as quickly as possible, but Durin’s Bane is considered engaged with every player and, with an engagement cost of just 1, will be attacking you each and every round. The one respite is that, upon setup, your threat counter is set to 0, kinda giving you a free pass – and, as mentioned earlier, giving you the perfect time to play those Secrecy cards!
As always, if the regular game doesn’t hold enough challenge for you, there are Nightmare decks available for all six of these scenarios, giving you more hurdles to overcome than ever!
I had the dubious pleasure of beta-testing these, though the group was organised into six, with one person having a scenario – and lucky me, I got Shadow and Flame! However, it’s a trend I’ve noticed with a lot of the Nightmare scenarios for this game whereby the new deck improves greatly on the original design. That’s not just to say that the original deck wasn’t really that good, but the Nightmare cards merely bring even greater synergy to the deck, and increase that feel of playing against a real person, or whatever.
It would be easy for the game designers to make the scenario harder by throwing in some really tough enemies, some high-threat, high-quest locations, and a couple of treacheries like Sleeping Sentry. However, these 18-19 cards have a meaningful impact on the encounter deck as a whole, and serve to enrich the gameplay experience, even if they also feel much more impossible to beat. Shadow and Flame in Nightmare Mode is a great example of this, as it includes cards that can attach to Durin’s Bane like weapons, making him a much more interactive enemy than he once was. Of course, that’s probably not what you want to see, but I can appreciate a well-made deck even if it’s being used against me. The other scenarios also have more tweaks that make them play more focused and such, as well.
I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Dwarrowdelf cycle. When it first came out, it nearly quashed my enthusiasm for the game, as the quests would get ridiculously difficult to play through with the cards available at the time, should you play thematically as I do. Indeed, if I’d written this three years ago, I’d likely be ranting about how this game has been killed by the power-creep. Over time, this has naturally diminished – especially since the new Dwarf synergies that came out with the two Hobbit Saga boxes. As a result, I feel that I can now enjoy these games for what they are: some highly thematic games with some truly immersive experiences. Don’t get me wrong, these quests can still prove to be a real challenge, and I still get beaten by stuff like Redhorn Gate, but I don’t think I would talk anyone out of getting this cycle for their collection.
Shadows of Mirkwood is still my favourite, and I think the roleplaying aspects of Against the Shadow might mean that cycle is also up there, but Dwarrowdelf has some awesome and epic moments to commend it.
Definitely worth the time returning to the Mines of Moria!