Choices are at the heart of our game – as indeed they are at the heart of any decent game. Your success or failure will be determined in large part by the cumulative effect of lots of choices: what deck to play, what cards to play each round, who to quest with, how to defend, do I take this undefended so I can kill the enemy or leave it for another round, etc. There’s a lot of scope for discussion in there to be sure, but that’s not actually what I want to talk about here. The topic I’m wanting to examine is that of choices imposed by the encounter deck of a given quest. And specifically explicit choices – there are some implicit choices which relate to what I mentioned above, like “Either bring A Test of Will or get screwed by this treachery,” or “Bring Thalin or get aggravated by this 1 hit point enemy.” These are again interesting, but I want to specifically focus on the explicit choices, when an encounter card’s text directly offers the players a choice between two different effects.
The two cases I just mentioned incidentally I consider to be bad design. The Thalin case is a bit more complicated to explain my full thoughts, suffice to say it makes things too much of a binary distinction between playing the quest with Thalin and without him. The former case of course is that of the Cancel-or-Die treachery, which I’ve talked about before. And the problem with it which is relevant to this discussion is that it gives the players no agency in determining their fate. If they just don’t have a Test of Will available at the right time then there’s nothing they can do. By contrast, encounter cards which offer an explicit choice do allow the players agency, because any time such an effect happens they can assess the current board-state and decide which of the available options seems the most acceptable. It puts them in control and thus adds more of a skill-based element to the game in that assessment and decision-making. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that every card should offer the players a choice in its when revealed effect, but things which do I consider to be some of the best designs in the game.
Also at times some of the most frustrating of course, but frustrating in a good way (from my perspective at least), where I’m mentally looking at Caleb/Matt and going “Curse you, but well played, you magnificent bastard.” Because the fact that such an effect gives control to the player means that you then feel responsible for the outcome. So rather than having the encounter deck just punch you in the face, by presenting a choice the designers have compelled you instead to decide whether your nose or your teeth are broken. By the nature of such a thing, it will be designed such that neither option is appealing under most circumstances, so by giving you the choice instead of them doing something horrible to you they’ve forced you to do the horrible thing to yourself. In some cases it almost feels like the designers have seen people saying “This effect is the worst, I never want to see anything that does this,” and taken it as a challenge to make the players actually voluntarily trigger such an effect because the alternative is actually even worse.
Honestly, at this point I’ve made all my main points, so I’m just going to pick out some examples. A Hall of Beorn search for encounter cards with the word ‘either’ produces 125 results at present, including shadow effects, of which there have been some interesting Nightmare ones (one of which inspired this whole article a while back). There are also a few which crop up on quest cards and campaign cards.
So let’s start with some that are particularly tied into the workings of a particular quest or indeed the saga campaign. A lot of them work on similar principles where they offer a short term benefit in exchange for a longer term detriment.
The King of the Golden Hall (Helm’s Deep Stage 1) is perhaps the archetypal case, where you choose between everyone getting a free ally and a free round, but also shuffling Poisoned Counsels into their decks; or skipping Poisoned Counsels but going straight into the brutal action of the quest. The starting boost is a big deal, but Poisoned Counsels has the potential to absolutely wreck you later on, and of course this is compounded if you’re playing in campaign mode and will therefore have to include Poisoned Counsels in your decks for subsequent quests as well. Similar effects elsewhere in the campaign include (but are not limited to) Bill Ferny in Knife in the Dark – the Ringwraith isn’t an immediate problem while the threat raise potentially is, but you have to deal with those Ringwraiths later on; and Shelob, in Shelob’s Lair, where giving her an extra resource (and +1 threat) rather than taking an attack every single quest phase may seem like the easier option, but you may well regret that decision when you have to chip your way through all those resources to kill her at the end.
Another definite category of choices are those which tie into quest-specific mechanics (or perhaps cycle-specific mechanics). For example the Orc Skirmisher from Voice of Isengard makes us choose between an extra encounter card and removing a time counter from the quest, and of course all the quests he appears in feature the time mechanic prominently – It has been my experience that removing the time counter is always the default assumption, but depending on how many counters are left that can be a rather risky proposition, so that generally dreaded “Reveal an additional encounter card” can become more and more tempting. Returning to the saga, the Army of the Dead and many other cards from Passing of the Grey Company offer the choice between attaching Overcome by Fear to your threat dial or doing some other horrible effect, that being again the central mechanic of the quest – this one definitely stings since quite apart from the extra threat you’ll be eating that game from the attachment, in campaign mode there’s the risk you’ll have to keep it as a burden moving forward and continue hovering around the risk of threating out for the next two quests. The Altar of Midwinter in The Dread Realm offers us the choice between revealing an additional card or reanimating the top card of our deck, which again is a central quest mechanic – increase the enemy swarm with a specific player or just reveal an extra encounter card which you can possibly deal with in other ways (and if it’s an enemy it may end up engaged with someone better equipped to deal with it). I could continue, but I think this point has been fairly well illustrated.
And then there are some more generic ones. Choices between two bad effects which are just bad in general – though sometimes those generic effects like threat raises or ally discards may be also particularly focused on by certain quests.
For example Investigating the Crime (Murder at the Prancing Pony stage 1) offers each player the choice between extra threat or extra cards revealed, which is a pair of generic effects, but threat raising is a particular focus of the quest; which means that when everyone gets into the high 40s you may really regret not taking the extra card at least once.
The Angmar Orc is at this point I would say one of the most archetypal and memorable examples of a card offering a choice. Extra reveal or discard an ally. Most of the time you’ll have an ally you don’t mind losing, but not always – and writing up all this I’m starting to wonder if we aren’t sometimes too scared of extra cards being revealed. They’re bad, to be sure, but it’s a one-time extra reveal compared to maybe this Master of the Forge will really help my deck get the foothold it needs and it’ll stall out without those crucial attachments. Worth thinking about at least.
And finally I’d just like to bring up one of my favourites – a card which I have not yet had the dubious pleasure of having to deal with, but which inspired me almost a year ago now to put this post on my list of things to write because of how magnificently it needles player sensibilities. If you see people talking about this game, one of the effects which draws the most ire is always that dreaded shadow card which reads “Attacking enemy makes an additional attack after this one.” Many people will loudly and vehemently declare such effects to be the absolute worst. And so I couldn’t help but be darkly amused when the news article about Ring-maker Nightmare decks spoiled the Blood Hound and its deliciously horrifying shadow effect.
By the power of such magnificent bastardry, those same people who despise additional attack shadows may well find themselves voluntarily choosing to have an enemy make an additional attack, because the alternative is a threat raise of 10, and even when you get all the way down to 0, that’s still a harsh prospect to have to face. As I said above, it kind of makes you want to applaud the designers and curse them within the same breath.