Design Debates – Cancellation

My checklist of articles I want to write for this blog has since its creation had at the top “Cancel or die.” Referring of course to those most hated of treacheries. After picking it as something to write about, I realised I could actually expand it into a wider discussion of cancellation in the game, which is somewhat current as well given a recent forum thread.

So. Cancellation. Treachery cancellation is one of the most powerful effects in the game – there’s a reason why Test of Will is an instant x3 in any deck that uses Spirit, and there’s a reason why Eleanor is still one of my most used heroes in The Line Unbroken. In general, treacheries tend to include the worst effects in any given encounter deck, so being able to play a 1-cost card to say that horrible effect just doesn’t happen is incredibly potent. On the other hand, you can only do it a limited number of times each game, so the balance is reasonable. On the other other hand, this means the designers have to be awfully careful about including any new effect which could do the same thing.
Thing is, simply from a game design perspective I feel that cancellation shouldn’t be too common. The encounter decks are designed containing certain effects, with the assumption that those effects will happen to the people playing the quests, and that they will have to find ways to deal with them. As ways of dealing with certain negative effects go, simply having them not happen to you because you’re running 3 copies of A Test of Will and hoping you draw them at the right time is not an especially interesting one (in addition to being unreliable unless you have a ton of card draw). Games without access to cancellation can be much more interesting, because when the nastier effects crop up, instead of playing a 1-cost event and ignoring them, they go off, they throw your plans into disarray, and you have to find a way to cope with that. When your threat is riding high, your characters come within an inch of death or get straight up destroyed/discarded (potentially even including heroes), and you’re still engaged with noticeably more enemies than is remotely healthy for you… those are the most exciting times.

The counterpoint to this comes in the design of the treacheries themselves (and other When Revealed effects, but as noted, treacheries tend to be the worst). The aforementioned “cancel or die” problem. If cancellation is going to be limited, if the effects are going to be left free to trigger a majority of the time, if the players are going to be forced to just cope with them, then the effects have to be things players can cope with. Earlier in the game’s life there were some which to my mind were really not effects you could actually take, not consistently anyway, whereas now I feel that real cancel-or-die effects are pretty much a thing of the past. We get some very challenging effects, but then we also have more tools with which to handle them.
I think the most fruitful way to continue this line of thought is to talk about just how we define an effect as “cancel-or-die”, with examples. When I say “cancel-or-die” I don’t mean literally treacheries that will cause you to instantly lose the game if you can’t cancel them. Rather I mean that if you face them consistently without a means of cancelling them they are liable to cause you to lose – not immediately but in the long run (of course I’ve noted before that picking out the exact cause of a loss can be difficult, but I think a fair number of losses could be traced back to certain treacheries earlier in the life of the game). Of course it is also possible for certain treacheries to be literal cancel-or-dies, for an individual hero if not for your entire board state, but that’s a contextual thing based either on the circumstances of the game (you’ve taken a bunch of damage or raised your threat a lot, for example) or your particular choices of decks (e.g. Gollum’s Bite is cancel-or-die for one hero if none of your heroes have more than 4 HP) and thus a risk you have to accept when you choose to play that deck against that quest. That last point is significant to the general discussion – if you choose to put yourself in a position whereby you cannot deal with a certain effect, then that’s on you, it’s under your control at least to some extent, and that makes it OK. Where it’s a problem is if it’s not under your control, if it will be death to any deck (or almost any deck, since restricting consistent victory to only a limited selection of deck types would be questionable design), if it ends up coming down to pure randomness, with nothing you can do to influence the outcome it pushes you towards.

So, enough generalities, let’s talk some of the treacheries I would say could potentially be said to fall into the more consistent “cancel-or-die” territory and examine these points in context:

A Frightened Beast
I don’t generally consider threat-raising treacheries to be that big a deal, with a few exceptions that appear on this list. This one of course is situational, if you get the staging area clear it’s probably not a big deal, but if things stack up it becomes horrific, and that will inevitably happen to some extent when you advance to stage 2 and add 4 trolls to the staging area – unless you engage all the trolls at once but obviously you usually don’t want to do that. I suppose this may be more a contextual one dependent on strategy, which I did say above is kind of OK, the only thing that makes it more questionable being that the strategy it penalises is the standard strategy against the quest, and for good reason. Plus of course, with big threat raises (such as may be caused by multiple trolls and perhaps a River Langflood or two) it may not take too many uncancelled copies of this to make you hit 50. On the plus side, there’s an additional way of cancelling it which you can build for.

Roasted Slowly
Definitely situational again since it’s only a problem if you have a hero stuck in a sack at the time, but under those circumstances it is obviously a literal cancel or die for that hero. On the other hand once again there is effectively another way to cancel this effect, by simply removing any sacks which turn up so it’s not a huge issue.

Festering Wounds/Exhaustion/Rockslide/Dark and Dreadful
This is a general category of treacheries, obviously – treacheries which deal indiscriminate damage to characters fitting a certain criterion (exhausted/questing/already damaged). They’re fairly brutal in general simply because significant allies can be randomly killed by them, unlike many more recent treacheries which make you assign a certain amount of damage any way you choose. These ones are particularly bad cases though because they deal 2 damage rather than 1 (only sometimes in the case of Dark and Dreadful), which amplifies the problem, killing many more allies and potentially some heroes. If you can’t cancel these, you need to finish the quest quickly before they kill you, or have what would usually be considered an excessive amount of healing at your disposal to prevent numerous death which may well lead to your loss. And it’s not something you can really avoid, because questing and exhausting characters are things you absolutely have to do in order to progress through the game.

Sudden Pitfall
This one strictly speaking is not a cancel-or-die. But only because it actually can’t be cancelled. It’s a situational one of course, once you’re up and running it’s not such a big deal, but early on it causes random hero deaths (the shadow effect can be even worse, though at least that can be cancelled). I’ve seen the argument that you should play around it by being cautious to quest with your heroes early on, but if you haven’t played any questing allies yet, that means not questing at all. Even if you’re using a deck which can get away with letting threat mount up in staging and on your dial early on, personally I would much rather actually participate in the game as opposed to simply waiting until I’m ready to deal with a certain specific card before beginning.

As much as we might like it, practically speaking we are unlikely to have every character in play having a minimum of 2 willpower, which means that if Avalanche is revealed on stage 3 while Caradhras is active or in the same round you reveal Snowstorm you’re going to be discarding a decent number of characters. Specifically of course these will be your combat characters, which also spells bad news for the incoming combat phase. Hell, in that regard just the “exhaust all ready characters” part is bad enough without then discarding a bunch of them as well.

Sleeping Sentry
Regular readers of this blog must have known this would be on the list, since I described it as “pretty much the mother, father and any other family member you care to name of cancel-or-die cards” and made sure to include Spirit in both decks for The Line Unbroken for maximum cancellation. I do not like this card. It combines the indiscriminate damage that I complained about as a general category with exhausting everyone before combat as I complained about for Avalanche. And the global exhaustion may be more likely to be punishing in Road to Rivendell since it has a greater emphasis on combat.
On top of that, what will the damage do? It’ll kill your 1 hp questing allies, but all such effects do that and we cope with them even though we dislike it. The damage also can lead to a certain amount of attrition (especially if playing progression-style since RtR precedes the Warden of Healing by two adventure packs), and on stage 3 healing doesn’t work, making it worse. And, well, what else were you going to be doing with objective ally Arwen than questing with her? She can survive this if resolved once. The second will kill her and cause you to lose the game. But if you don’t quest with her in case of Sleeping Sentry then she’s not actually doing anything for you, and I hearken back to my point on Sudden Pitfall – I would rather be doing things. And as in that case, once again the shadow effect is even worse. The risk to Objective Arwen is just the icing on the cake of a treachery that even if it specifically excluded her would still be liable to make you lose if its effect resolves, say, more than once.

Orc Ambush
This is a much more situational one. It’s a situation which I have never seen arise, but have heard about wherein if you reveal Orc Ambush with no Orcs in the staging area, it returns all Orcs from discard to the staging area. So if this happens when you’re at or near the bottom of the encounter deck, that could be every single orc in the encounter deck. The majority of the time this won’t happen, but the fact it’s possible at all doesn’t sit right. The fact its impact can be so widely variable makes for hugely inconsistent experiences, and that is one of the biggest problems with these sort of cancel-or-die treacheries, that there are massive differences in how the quest plays out depending on whether you see them or not (or in this case, whether you see it at the wrong time).

Collateral Damage
Despite my particular emphasis on Sleeping Sentry, it could be argued that cancel-or-die effects hit their worst in Heirs of Numenor, because the effects were still randomly brutal, but we were transitioning into the smaller and more consistent encounter decks so it was no longer such a viable strategy to just sprint through the quest and hope not to see the one or two horrible cards in the massive deck. Collateral Damage has the potential for wildly divergent results as I was discussing for Orc Ambush, since a single reveal can theoretically raise your threat by anything between 0 and 16, but with the tighter encounter deck even if one copy does whiff completely, you’re likely to see another soon enough. So once again this one is situational, it’s not necessarily cancel-or-die but it can be, depending on the timing of when its revealed and how the encounter deck has been shuffled up. But the worse timings are more likely to happen here since it’s 4 cards out of 33 rather than 2 out of 56.

Watcher in the Wood
Watcher in the Wood is problematically designed to my mind because of how it scales with player numbers – since it’s based on the global number of questing characters the effect becomes worse with more players, but it also affects all players rather than just one, so it essentially scales up twice over. I’m not going to go on about this one in the abstract, I’ll simply state my experience – in solo Watcher in the Wood isn’t so bad, I can generally cope with it; playing two player I can take it once but the second reveal will probably cause me to threat out if I can’t cancel it; three or four player even once may be too much.

The Master’s Malice
A more interesting case, but this one is the seriously imbalanced binary situation like Thalin and 1hp enemies – if you play mono-sphere decks then this card does absolutely nothing. It’s like a random, free, Gildor’s Counsel. If you don’t play mono-sphere though, 3 damage will wipe out all but the hardiest allies, and kill a reasonable number of heroes, making it a cancel-or-die in those cases. At least there is some counterplay, but it’s too restrictive to my mind, and indeed too effective. The difference between building around a bad card or not shouldn’t be such a big gulf as it is in this case.

So there we go. A few examples of the cancel-or-die mould of treachery which irks me so much. These cards and arguably some others reduce the game too much to pure chance of “Do we reveal this card?” or “Do we reveal this card at the wrong time?” or “Do we reveal this card more than once?” This is a problem much better solved by having the treacheries be less horrible rather than including more cancellation. And then in turn, if the effects are better balanced then it’s more interesting to make the players deal with them rather than having too many ways of ignoring them.
One trend I do find much more interesting is the inclusion in the card pool of some effects which may effectively allow you to cancel the effects of certain treacheries without full-on cancelling them. In particular the existence of more options for threat reduction and the introduction of damage cancellation can pull the teeth from a certain number of treacheries – those I’ve listed above as cancel-or-die less so because while the effects most of them have are things one can deal with, the scale of them is too large.
The other point of course is that treacheries, in my opinion at least, have improved, and we haven’t had a real cancel-or-die in some time. To illustrate my point in this matter, let’s consider one of the most difficult quests released to date, and released recently – The Battle of Carn Dum. What treacheries do we have here?
Terror of the North – Adds to the staging threat, but that’s it. Quest well and it shouldn’t be a huge problem. The deck milling is a bigger issue but you have to expect and accept that in this quest.
Dark Sorcery – Can be an issue, but again you have to expect the discard pile hate. Only really a problem if you’re really totally dependent on a certain specific ally. Also worth noting that under the right circumstances this becomes just “Sorcery. Doomed 2”.
Heavy Curse – Again, discard hate is expected, but you can use condition removal, clear the quest stage, etc to deal with this. The only issue I have is with the Surge.
The Sky Darkens – This is one of those effects which scares me a lot in theory but has never proved that bad in an actual game. As with Dark Sorcery, only an issue if you’re really dependent on a certain specific card.
Vile Affliction – The much more palatable type of direct damage treachery, where you control the assignment of damage so no-one dies unless you choose for them to do so or actually run out of hit points. Healing and damage cancellation deal with this.
Daechanar’s Will – The closest, but it’s only really a problem early on because if you can’t deal with Thaurdir flipping periodically you’re going to lose the quest in the long run anyway.
And that’s it. Those are the treacheries in the brutal Battle of Carn Dum. They can be problematic in specific situations but in general aren’t that bad. I’ve played Carn Dum quite a few times, and you know what I think I’m most prone to want to save my Tests of Will for if I have them? Angmar Orc. Granted A Test of Will is the only way to cancel When Revealed on enemies and locations as well, but still. Though actually that is a bit of limited cancellation I think I’d be fine with seeing at some point – something (probably in Tactics or maybe Lore) that specifically cancelled When Revealed effects on enemies (and possibly some alternative effect you could trigger on enemies that don’t have When Revealed).

In general though, I think treacheries are sufficiently palatable now that cancellation is no longer such an absolute must, and I feel that in some ways the game is more interesting without it, so I really don’t want any more blanket cancellation effects added to the game (unless maybe if they come at some serious cost so they won’t just be no-brainer auto-includes). There are admittedly point to be made on this regarding scaling up to higher player numbers wherein cancellation becomes a bigger concern, but I think my point still holds up reasonably at least. If you think I’m spectacularly wrong, please leave comments to tell me so.

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2 Responses to Design Debates – Cancellation

  1. It looks like I am in agreement with your perspective on things. It’s great to have treachery cancellation, especially when you save it for that card that will end the game if you choose to take its effect.

    Like you said, it’s more fun to deal with the quest or to build a deck that works around it. If there is a quest with nasty treacherous based off allies then build a hero heavy deck.

    It’s definitely somewhat on the player if they knowingly come into a quest with a deck that has a weak matchup to the encounter deck.

    But yes, if we could cancel everything, or could cancel more frequently then this game wouldn’t be as challenging. As it stands I’m happy with some of the less efficient cancellation effects and having to deck build to work around a scenario, while having test of will as icing on the cake.


  2. Pingback: Design Debates: Choices | Warden of Arnor

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