One of the big buzzes on the FFG LotR forums lately has been the second most-recent quest – The Battle of Carn Dum. Specifically, the fact a lot of people feel it’s brutally difficult, more so than any quest should be outside of maybe GenCon and nightmare, it’s just bad design, including a quest of this difficulty is a huge mistake by the designers and will cause players to abandon the game in droves until it dies, etc. The discussion has gotten pretty heated. I’m not even exaggerating that much. It was actually kind of frustrating for me for a while (the discussion I mean), not because of people disagreeing with me, but because I hadn’t been able to play the quest and thus couldn’t really participate in the discussion from a position of knowledge.
Having now gotten access to the quest and been repeatedly smacked down by it (to the point where I’ve memorised a lot of the encounter cards), I am nevertheless still inclined to think that the design of the quest is fine, or at least mostly fine. It’s brutally hard, yes, it may well be worse than any other quest released to date perhaps even including nightmares (though I haven’t tried all of them, particularly the most recent ones), but that is not inherently a bad thing. A challenge is good, and the quest is nothing like as unbeatable as some people have implied – it has its own particular foibles, which cause problems for a very large number of standard decks, but that also gives it its own particular weaknesses (admittedly weakness may be considered to be relative in this instance, but the point is there are things you can do to bypass a lot of the problems you would otherwise face. It’s just a matter of figuring out what those things are and how to proceed, strategically. This can be more difficult than it sounds – I’ve made the point before that it can be difficult to figure out why you lost a given game, and in turn that makes it difficult to figure out what the special requirements are that you need to build/edit your deck to deal with.
The other point I would make, and indeed did make, is that it’s not like this is the first time they’ve released a quest which brutally smashes pre-existing decks and left everyone feeling like they’re running at a brick wall trying to beat it. They tend to become more palatable over time, so why should this one be any different?
In the interest of making this point (and because I was curious), I asked a couple of notable community contributors in the CotR Discord server how the difficulty of Carn Dum now compares to the difficulty of Into Ithilien when that was newly released, since I knew that was a previous instance of the super-hard quest that required repeated retries before feeling it was even beatable, but I wasn’t really playing the game back then. The responses I got were:
“I think it’s roughly comparable. This one might be worse.”
“Huh, interesting question. I feel like it’s slightly harder, but feels more fair, if that makes sense.”
So there you have it, two well established opinions in support of the fact that this isn’t much worse than we’ve had to deal with before. And Into Ithilien now is still a tough quest, but definitely beatable, and the only errata it had was the one to Blocking Wargs, which was primarily to prevent a potential infinite loop. I don’t think it’s impossible that Battle of Carn Dum might get some small errata somewhere, but equally it might not, and over time it’ll become like Into Ithilien and we’ll be able to deal with it just fine. As a sidenote, the only suggestion I’ve seen that I really felt I could get behind was someone saying maybe Thaurdir’s effects should only trigger off the first Sorcery card revealed each round rather than all of them – because based on my experiences, that would make very little difference most of the time in 1 or 2 player games, but it would prevent the crazy outlier situations where Thaurdir goes all the way from no shadows to attacking you in a single quest phase, which does tend to feel a bit on the crazy side. Everything else though, I feel like it’s totally fine. Tough, but fair, we have the tools to beat it, we just need to find them (and I say this having only 1 victory from somewhere in the region of 20 attempts split between solo and two handed).
To shed additional light on this, I thought I’d take a few different incredibly difficult quests, including Carn Dum, and review what it is that made or still makes them so difficult, and in turn what makes them beatable (which as noted above, isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to figure out).
Conflict at the Carrock – This isn’t a quest I’ve ever thought of especially difficult, but I’ve seen it said that it kind of was when it was still new, and it does help me make one of my points. This was the first quest which really pushed players into the approach of controlling and limiting their questing to turtle before advancing a quest stage. I imagine a lot of people will have been brutalised by the trolls multiple times until they figured that out. And this principle applies to many difficult quests: sometimes the reason you’re losing is just because you’re approaching the quest wrong strategically. In the case of Carrock, the big challenge is not just the trolls, but the fact that all the trolls come out at once, and thus the key to beating it involves having a certain amount of superfluous power on the table before advancing, because once you do advance it won’t be superfluous any more. This one’s pretty simple by the standards of the quests I’m discussing here though.
Into Ithilien – While I wasn’t playing the game when it was new, this was nevertheless the first quest that really destroyed me. Of course one of the things that really makes quests like this one seem so unbeatable is that their greatest ability to murder you is right at the start, or if not right at the start then at least probably while you’re still on stage 1. Once you get past the beginning you realise that that is arguably more than half the challenge.
So, what kills you in this quest is most likely too many powerful enemies beating you down, particularly if you don’t clear the Ithilien Road round 1. On top of that, there are some horrible cards in the encounter deck, like Southron Support to increase the enemy swarm, or Watcher in the Wood to just threat you out all by itself. As a result, it’s easy to get it in your head that you just want to rush through the quest as fast as possible, smash through that starting Ithilien Road, and continue rushing to finish before too many of the bad cards hit you and before your threat climbs too high. Even writing it now it makes a certain amount of sense to me, but from better analysed experience I know that more important than your questing speed is your combat prowess. Because one way or another, you’re more or less guaranteed to end up at high threat and thus engaging everything. Better for that everything to be less by the time you reach that point because you took the time out from questing to kill a few of them. This applies especially if you go to stage 3, because then enemies will mount up in the staging area to swarm you all at once as soon as you arrive on stage 4. So in fact you need to go fast for the first round and make sure you get through the Ithilien Road, but then slow down a bit to get established and cull the enemies a bit before advancing. Because once you advance, especially once again if you go to stage 3, then it probably becomes a mad dash to the finish before the encounter deck kills you through enemies or through threat.
Battle of Lake-Town – Now this is an odd one. I know a lot of people prefer not to custom-build decks for specific quests. I generally don’t do so if I’m playing on OCTGN, but this quest is mostly an exception. Partly because of its difficulty, but mostly because the nature of it is so incredibly different to any other quest in the game, a typical deck has a very high chance of having something in it which is rendered pointless by the quest mechanics, and that’s just not fun. That would also be a reason why I almost never play this quest. With Smaug being the only enemy and immune to player cards effects, when you know his engagement costs you know most of the time whether or not you’ll need to defend an attack in any given round and the game becomes very mechanical. Beyond the debate over what treacheries to cancel or not everything becomes just a matter of numbers: willpower, attack and defence. I find it interesting and potentially fun to build decks for this quest, because it’s like solving a puzzle, but actually playing them quickly gets repetitive.
Given the simplicity of it, this one also I think has less problems with figuring out what you need to build for, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to build those things. All you need is the willpower to quest through locations and some means of surviving the dragon (and eventually kill him, yes, but that’s a less immediate concern), the only challenge is figuring out how to get those things working efficiently.
Nin-in-Eilph – This quest quickly garnered a reputation not just for being difficult but also for being incredibly frustrating. But as with other difficult quests I find I’ve warmed to it over time, especially as I’ve gotten a better handle on how to beat it. This quest for me though was kind of a poster child for my point that losing to a quest doesn’t necessarily help you figure out what you need to beat it. Because just throwing random decks at this quest it’s easy to feel like it’s just too demanding: you need good willpower to handle the questing past/through the locations but then the enemies get devastating if you keep them around so you need good combat power but then you can’t necessarily rely on weapons and armour because of Sinking Bog so you need just good base stats but then that means higher threat and Nalir will screw you over (as will some of the encounter cards) so maybe you want some of that power to come from just quickly and efficiently playing allies but then the passives on the stage 2 quest cards restrict your ability to get stuff out quickly so maybe you need to quickly push through to stage 3 which has less restrictive passives but for that you need lots of willpower and round we go in circles (Also while stage 3 is less restrictive on your ability to play cards it has more scope for actually killing you especially if you get the 3b which lowers enemy engagement costs and thus forces you to take on the boss straight away).
The thing is, while that long list of requirements may present serious issues for a lot of existing decks, just like Lake-Town, they won’t be a problem for all decks, and they certainly aren’t impossible to specifically build around. Particularly when you realise, as I did recently when trying to figure out advice for someone having difficulty with the quest, that the combat prowess you require is mostly just attack. The regular enemies don’t hit that hard, and the boss you want to mostly avoid or chump block. So that’s one less thing you need. And when you think about it, it mostly just boils down to attack power and threat control. If you have the threat control you can afford to take a little more time on the willpower while you set up despite the obstacles, and the attack power will ensure nothing kills you in the meantime. Put like that it sounds way simpler all of a sudden.
Battle of Carn Dum – Finally, what we might perhaps call the main event. The current focus of the community’s frustration. This has been discussed a lot, and one point made was as follows: “I think this quest is beatable, you just have to identify what is the main theme, or nemesis of a quest. Each quest has one, whether it’s making you discard cards, lots of enemies, powerful immune to player card effects enemies, lots of locations, limits your attachments, whatever it is. This quests main thing is awful shadow effects, therefore you should adapt your play style slightly,” which I feel is right in principle, but actually is another instance of not pinpointing the right thing to focus on: shadow cards obviously are a big thing in this quest, but most of the shadow effects actually aren’t that bad. A lot of standard attack boosts, if this attack destroys an ally, etc. The only ones that are really bad to my mind are “+1 attack for each ally controlled by the defending player” and “Flip Thaurdir after this attack.” Beyond those two, the reason the shadows are bad is not because their effects are bad, it’s just because enemies tend to end up with multiple shadow cards, meaning that the smaller effects add up and you have a higher chance of hitting the bigger ones. If this quest didn’t deal out multiple shadow cards so much, any standard beefed up defender would be fine the majority of the time.
So if shadows aren’t as much the big deal in this quest as they seem, what is? Shadow cancellation is certainly important, but it’s easier if you can just avoid the situations where a series of bad shadows would kill you, and that mostly comes down to combat prowess. Enemies don’t get shadow cards if they’re dead, and if you have means of tanking them for multiple rounds then they won’t have a chance to build up a large stack of shadow cards, a lot of the time they may just have the standard one. The other big concern is questing. Contrast with Into Ithilien, where you have one stage of Battle questing before switching to willpower, here you have Battle until you clear the starting location, then willpower. It’s a bit more of an abrupt shift and that’s the things I’ve found most challenging. Having enough attack to clear the location in many decks leaves me struggling for willpower afterwards, while decks that are good on willpower struggle to clear the location in the first place, and both of these problems are exacerbated by needing to juggle questing demands with the combat power to take out enemies. That said, being able to take the enemies removes their threat from the staging area and makes questing easier, which in turn may make it easier to hold back more for combat and keep the enemies under control and so it becomes something of a feedback loop of the board state getting under control. As a result, the difference between getting smashed by the quest and beating it is a lot less than you might expect, with a small advance in your capabilities being gradually magnified into something much more significant.
And there you have it, those are my thoughts, in admittedly a somewhat rambling format. Actually in a lot of cases the key to beating challenging quests like these still comes down to the controlled pacing approach from Conflict at the Carrock, building up your board state and only pushing forward when you’re ready. The big difference is that more recent instances present additional challenges to make it harder for you to do that. Over time we figure out how to deal with them and the pain and frustration passes. It has previously, it will with Carn Dum as well. And personally, while I know other people feel differently, I’ve been really enjoying facing up to the challenge and figuring out how to beat it. How about you guys?