Design Debates – Tests

One of the aspects of certain quests which has tended to be more controversial than most has been the inclusion of additional tests on top of the standard questing and combat mechanics. They always have their interesting elements, but largely fail to win the community’s favour for a variety of reasons – consistency being the biggest one. There are always random elements to the game because the decks (player and encounter) are shuffled and so what you have to deal with and what you have available to deal with it can be unreliable. But the various forms of extra test add in way more randomness between consistency of occurrence and level of difficulty.

If you’ve been playing the game at least a reasonable amount of time you have a decent feel for how much you need to handle questing and combat for a given round, but the introduction of random extra tests with similarly random levels of how difficult they are can throw those calculations into complete disarray. As usual for Design Debates, the simplest way to analyse the design issues is to look at all the specific examples, so here we go:

Escape
My initial thought on how I was going to begin this was to say that Escape tests are one of the worst executions of adding an extra test into the game’s framework, but then I looked down the list at some of the others and realised they’re only, like, third from bottom. Which does not say good things about the others, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Dead Marshes can generally be a pretty easy quest. I’ve even seen people say it’s the easiest quest in the whole game, which I definitely don’t agree with. While it can be very easy, it can also be randomly more difficult at times. And as I was noting above, the randomness is where it becomes a serious issue, because it means you can’t make a reliable judgement on whether your board state is strong enough to handle what’s coming when the different possibilities for what’s coming can be even more wildly divergent than usual.
Let’s talk specifics. The Escape tests actually have one aspect that I feel is very positive, that being that failing one is not necessarily a huge tragedy, it’s something you can recover from by doing better in future. In other aspects they really fail however – the Escape values on cards vary from nothing to ridiculously high. While in principle the fact Escape tests key off willpower make them a bit like an additional quest phase and you should be building around good willpower anyway, in practice you can only have so many willpower characters, and the existence of escape values all the way from 1 to 5 (or 10 in Nightmare) combined with variable numbers of cards for them which do not account for number of players means that having enough characters for questing and Escape tests involves a lot more guesswork than I can really feel good about. Finally this is compounded even further by the question of how many tests you need to make at all – so long as Gollum is in play there’s an automatic one every round, that’s a known quantity so it’s more or less fine aside from your potentially limited number of actions; but then there are a number of encounter card effects which can force you to make additional Escape tests, and of course there’s usually no way to know if such an effect is coming or not. So when the tests themselves vary wildly in magnitude and the number of tests you have to make can vary from just 1 to 1 plus the number of players in the game, how do you know how much to hold back for them? Perhaps one might argue that it’s comparable to holding back for combat when you don’t know how many enemies you’ll get, but just how many actions/allies do you think you’re going to have available? You need to hold back for combat as well, and while each reveal of a treachery forcing an Escape test means you’re not revealing an enemy at that point, the characters you’re holding back for combat are probably not so useful for the tests because they have low willpower.
So to sum up, a single Escape test is a bit of a diceroll as to how well it goes and drains your actions. But the problem multiplies up because you’re also subject to a figurative diceroll on how many Escape tests you have to make in a given round, so when you look at your board state and ask “Is it enough?” the answer is a resounding shrug.

Locate
Locate tests might actually be the worst kind of test. The Long Dark, like The Dead Marshes, can be pretty easy – in fact I would say that when The Long Dark is easy it’s possibly the easiest quest in the game, but that’s highly dependent on the random nature of the encounter deck shuffle.
I’m going to be making a lot of the same points about each kind of test in turn that I made about Escape tests, because essentially they all do cover the same kind of aspects, but better or worse. So Locate tests are worse than Escape tests for the random nature of how much you actually have to make them. The only guaranteed Locate test is when you advance to stage 2 of the quest, the others are all triggered by treacheries and a location which you might never reveal (or you might just cancel the treacheries). Then whether or not you actually pass the test is also incredibly random. I just looked on Hall of Beorn, and if I counted right, there are 14 cards with PASS on them. 14, out of the 61 cards total in the encounter deck. So that’s just under one in four, and it’d be pretty rough even if it was just consistently that you had to discard four cards to pass each Locate test, but in fact because of how randomness works, sometimes you’ll get it from four discards, sometimes only one, sometimes you’ll dump a double digit number of cards, completely empty your hand and still not get a pass. The proportion is too low. But then add to that yet more randomness, because the penalties for failure are also ridiculously random. You have to trigger all lost effects in play, but that could potentially be nothing. Or you could have to exhaust all characters. That’s a pretty massive variance, but wait, there’s more! Even if there are no lost effects in play, the treacheries do things by themselves, so you might have to raise your threat by 7 and remove all progress from play, or deal 2 damage to all characters, potentially killing a load of your board state, at which point we’re failing the one thing Escape tests really got right, that failing a test shouldn’t equate to pretty much instant death. Finally I don’t like the mechanics, the way that you can keep retrying. I’d prefer it if you just chose to discard a certain number of cards, then flipped that many encounter cards to see if you passed, and that was it. Just do the quest once rather than putting out one card at a time from your hand and the encounter deck like some weird game of Snap.
In principle, The Long Dark could’ve been an interesting quest if it had just been a load more consistent and cohesive – Locate tests require discarding cards, and then there are a few other effects in the quest which discard from your hand so the encounter deck could synergise reasonably well. In practice though, what was supposed to be the main mechanic of the quest has too much of a chance to just never happen, random chance plays too big a role in how much of an impact it has when it does crop up, and the mechanics are kinda weird. Ultimately Long Dark is let down by its excessively large encounter deck, which dilutes your chances of everything – having locate tests happen at all, having them be impactful with the lost effects, and actually having a reasonably consistent chance of passing them when they do happen. Everything is way too random.

Riddles
This would be the other competitor for worst extra test, but I think Locate tests pip Riddles at the post because Riddles at least do what they’re supposed to do even if we don’t like that. You can’t play the Riddle quest without answering Riddles.
That said, I do feel the precise mechanics of how the Riddles were implemented is problematic. Because it’s just done by having you reveal double the cards you usually would and choosing whether to take each card as itself or as a riddle. But there is the possibility that everything you reveal doesn’t have a riddle option so you’re just swarmed by goblins instead. And on the other hand as I mentioned in the Breaking the Game post if you get nothing but riddles and can reliably answer them then your staging caused you no problems at all but in fact made you progress while contributing no threat. That’s kind of wonky. Those are corner cases though, in general you’re likely to get a mixture of the two things.
So the regularity of them is not unreasonable. Not being able to predict how many riddles you’ll get in a given round isn’t an issue as it is with other tests because answering a riddle doesn’t impact your board state. On the other hand, other tests don’t require you to jump through crazy hoops in your deckbuilding to be good at them. As I also covered in the Breaking the Game post, there’s a real night and day difference between being built for riddles and not being built for them. The former makes them a triviality, while the other makes them a problematic challenge with a lot of guesswork involved. It helps that there’s the option to discard extra cards by spending Baggins resources, and unlike with Locate tests that’s an extra emergency option rather than just a natural part of the process. On the side of how punishing it is to fail, failing a riddle isn’t an instant loss – failing 3 is, or failing 2 in the same round is. Given that the extra staging cards are there presumably under the assumption that you’ll take half of them as riddles, with higher player counts the chances of riddles screwing you over is rather noticeable.
The big problem with riddles, as I’ve said before, is that there’s nothing you can really do during the game to make yourself better prepared for them. Everything you can do you have to do in advance when you’re building your deck(s), and that’s less interesting. Add that to the rather swingy nature of how the riddles crop up in staging, the problems with failing riddles screwing you especially in multiplayer, and the supreme levels of guesswork required if you’re not specifically built for riddles, and I think it’s easy to see why I consider these a close contender for the worst form of extra test in the game.

Burgle
As I’ve noted before, I have way less of a problem with burgling than I do with riddles, despite the fact there are some clear similarities between the two. They both become easier with more consistent decks, but on the other hand burgling gives you more control as a player because you see the card then get to try and match it. And there’s something you can actually do during the game to better prepare yourself for it, that being drawing more cards (and trying to avoid needlessly playing or discarding them) so you’re more likely to have a match for whatever comes up, as opposed to riddles where your only real control over your riddle-answering capability comes at the point of deckbuilding before you start the game.
On other points, burgling is consistent as to when and how much you need to do it so it can’t take you by surprise, and it doesn’t put so much of a drain on your general board-state as things which require exhausting characters. In contrast to riddles again the mechanic for starting a burgle attempt is completely separate from the rest of the game so it doesn’t interfere with staging or anything. Once again you have a panic button in the form of the effect on The Lonely Mountain itself. Finally, the penalty for failure is an attack, which from a 6 attack dragon is tough, but when there’s almost no other combat in the quest you should be able to handle it on those rare occasions. Either way, it’s certainly not the close-to-instant-loss sort of situation you can get from some other kinds of test.
So, looking at all of this, you have a reasonable level of control over whether you’re prepared for burgling or not during the game, the mechanic for triggering them is reasonable, it’s consistent so you never have to make more tests than you were expecting and the punishment for failure isn’t that bad. I really have no problem at all with Burgle tests, the problem with The Lonely Mountain as a quest is that it’s just an incredibly straightforward quest, particularly exemplified by the really minimal combat allowing a specialised deck to really focus on the things which do make a difference here. The quest has issues, but the test isn’t one of them.

Hide
The existence of Hide tests in Shadow of the Past tends to do a lot to shape my decks when I’m starting a campaign, more than the other quests before Rivendell. They’re a big problem. Hide tests are a lot like Escape tests, exhaust characters with willpower and discard from the encounter deck. The mechanic has been streamlined since Dead Marshes, keying off the discarded cards’ threat rather than adding extra stuff to the cards, so that’s a plus, and it makes it easier to judge what’s a sensible amount of willpower to send. On the other hand we still have the problem that the exact number of Hide tests you need to make in a given round is totally random and subject to the whims of the encounter deck so you can’t consistently and accurately judge how many characters you should be holding back for that purpose, and that the number of cards discarded for each test is determined by the card with no reference to number of players so the scaling could be seen as questionable.
And here’s a problem Hide tests have that’s totally separate to Escape tests – they’re the epitome of “pass the test or die.” Even without revealing the condition treachery that discards the attached hero if you ever fail a Hide test, the big penalty for failing a test is that all the Nazgul engage you and make immediate attacks, which basically equates to instant death for a vast majority of decks (even if you’re ready to deal with them, are you ready to deal with all of them at once, and all of them attacking you twice this round, once for failing the Hide test and once normally in combat, assuming you don’t fail any more Hide tests in the interim). Riddles count down the failures to your loss and Locate tests can be pretty brutal, but Hide tests really take the cake in this regard.
So Hide tests present an uncertain number of tests in a given round for which you need a certain amount of willpower which is somewhat random though comparable to questing. It’s a drain on the actions and the penalty for failure in a lot of cases equates to instant death. Aside from the streamlining of keying off threat rather than a separate value I’m not sure why I placed these above Escape tests in my rankings – all I can think of beyond that streamlining is that Escape tests come attached to a much worse and less interesting quest than Hide. Maybe divorced from context Escape tests are actually better, though that’s hard to debate because arguably the context includes the Nazgul who kill you when you fail to hide.

Sailing
And here we come to in my opinion the best of all the different types of extraneous test which has been added to the game for certain quests – though after writing them up I realised that Burgle tests in and of themselves are actually pretty good and their only real problem is the quest in which they happen. Sailing tests don’t have that problem of course, the two Sailing quests so far have both been fun experiences.
So let’s run down the different aspects I’ve been covering for each test. Consistency of how many tests you have to make? Fine, one per round and that’s it, no exceptions. Mechanics are like Locate tests, but the proportion of wheels is much better than the proportion of PASS cards in Long Dark. Requires exhausting characters, but since it’s not tied to willpower they can be absolutely any characters, so you’re not limited in what sorts of decks you can use to sail with. Well, other than I guess decks with very low ally counts, but even then you always have the Dream-Chaser available. The combination of better proportions and smaller encounter decks compared to Long Dark mean you can get a decent feel for the odds and thus how many characters you want to commit each round. Bad shuffles can still happen, but bad shuffles can always happen.
Finally, the big one that really makes Sailing test stand out – penalty for failure. The penalty for failure is that you’re off course. That is not inherently a penalty, but it makes assorted encounter card effects worse and you may also lose some benefits you had for being on-course. The big reason this works so well is that the on-course/off-course mechanic is built into the entirety of each quest, thus making the Sailing tests an integral part of what’s going on rather than an extra thing tacked on the side of the otherwise normal quest. The penalty for failing a Sailing test is essentially that the quest becomes harder. But then for all that people will generally advice you never ever to go off course under any circumstances, in practice it’s not necessarily that bad to go off course for a round, and the following round you can just commit more to sailing and get back on course again. That constant give and take, pulling back and forth, is something that’s absent from the other forms of test, where each test is a separate thing to the previous and next tests. Honestly thinking about it I wish Hide tests had been more like this – rather than failing to hide meaning the Nazgul immediately murder you, maybe instead failing a test makes various things harder, they’re more likely to notice you etc but then if you hide better subsequently you can get them off your trail. These are some very vague thoughts which I’d have to develop further if I wanted them to work cohesively, but the idea sounds better to me in principle than the current binary of either you hide or you’re dead.
Anyway, back to Sailing. It meets all the criteria I’ve kind of laid out – you know going in what you need to do, pretty much any deck can do it, the odds are suitable that most of the time you won’t get really frustrated by it, failure is punishing enough to be meaningful but not impossible to deal with and the whole thing integrates neatly into all of the rest of the quest without interfering with the basic structure of the standard rules. All that makes them clearly the best kind of extra test we’ve had in my opinion.

And that’s the full list unless I’m forgetting something. Previously my conclusions on Design Debates have been that the designers basically get things right with odd exceptions, but here I would say that is very much not the case. All the test quests until Sailing are ones which if I randomly selected them I’d probably re-roll to get a better quest. In the case of burgling, as noted, that’s a problem with the quest rather than the test, but the point still stands. They never really got it all right until Sailing in my opinion. That said, they got it really really right with Sailing, I love how Sailing tests work and they clearly prove that the idea of adding extra tests into Lord of the Rings quests is not inherently flawed, merely tricky to execute.
So what about you guys, would you agree? Do you still hate tests, even sailing, or conversely are you actually OK with some of the other cases?

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10 Responses to Design Debates – Tests

  1. INK1ing says:

    I am surprised that a sailing tests seem so popular considering that generally tests are a bit of a pain. I am yet to try sailing quests though.

    Locate tests are by far the worse and feel like a way to make a fairly average quest into something interesting. The odds are so low for passing that it never feels worth attempting them and it’s a lot easier to just blow through the whole quest.

    I am with you on the Hide tests. Having the Nazgul engage and then attack you is often a game ender and a price that I think is far too high. Thematically I love that quest but I have found it pretty tough.

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  2. Excellent analysis! I felt like I enjoyed Sailing tests but couldn’t figure out exactly why, but I believe you have nailed it. So have the designers, in my opinion. The game does indeed keep getting better.

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  3. Anonim says:

    I agree with all here, but have to say that Frodo, Sam and Pippin would have been murdered at the moment a Nazgul had find them.

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    • PocketWraith says:

      This is true, but on the other hand it wasn’t a simple binary of found or not found. There’s at least one point where a Nazgul is close to finding them but then is thrown off the trail or distracted at the last minute, which would suggest the possibility for multiple checks before jumping straight to instant death.

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  4. Anonim says:

    I don’t think anybody will read this, but I remembered another test: ent rexruitment in Road to Isengard.

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    • PocketWraith says:

      Oh yeah, I guess that sort of counts. Well, judging by the same criteria, it’s one of the better ones because by the nature of that quest stage, doing the test cannot negatively impact your aility to handle the rest of the game because there is no rest of the game.

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