Alright, this post is going to be taking a bit of a closer look at Siege of Annuminas. If you haven’t yet had a chance to try it yourself and you want to play it blind, do not read this post as I will be going into detail about quest mechanics and specific encounter cards. I’m still going to be talking about my own experiences with the quest on Saturday, but more using that as a lens for a more general review of the quest.
OK, I trust that now anyone who doesn’t want quest spoilers is gone. Now, as I mentioned in my first post on the subject, we didn’t custom-build our decks for the quest by any stretch of the imagination. We didn’t know the Fellowship kit had turned up, we thought it was pretty likely we’d just be playing random other quests and getting to Annuminas in January. Plus, we were all going into the quest blind so we wouldn’t have known how to custom-build for it anyway. Despite that, I think we did make some rather good deckbuilding choices for the quest just by chance. Perhaps most notable of these was Qwaz’s decision to include the full 3 copies of Thror’s Map. Dodging all those travel costs (except on City Wall and Battering Ram) which would’ve given us more damage, threat and most significantly enemies made the quest a whole lot easier I think.
I’m just going to drop in the Hall of Beorn link here so you guys can look up all the cards I’m mentioning: http://hallofbeorn.com/LotR?Scenario=The%20Siege%20of%20Ann%C3%BAminas
In general in fact having location control was pretty useful, for the usual reasons (though there were a couple of rounds where it was pointless as we had no locations in play at all). There was some slight concern given the Shores of Lake Nenuial, but as anti-location-control measures go, it’s a pretty reasonable one, and thus one I rather like. It presents an obstacle to location control but doesn’t entirely invalidate it, instead just perhaps tweaking your priorities a bit (prioritisation being where a lot of the interesting decisions in this game come from). This to my mind is how it should be done (in contrast to e.g. the Esgaroth Wharf from Battle of Lake-Town). It also helps that there are only two copies.
From there let’s expand out to consider the other non-unique locations. I have an issue with the Gate of Annuminas – specifically the travel cost. Because a lot of the time that travel cost will be actually impossible to fulfil because you won’t have enough enemies in the staging area to engage. In our game I’m not sure we ever had 3 enemies in the staging area except maybe towards the end of the quest, because we kept engaging and killing them so as to keep Annuminas from taking damage. The City Wall is a nice design, though obviously frustrating for the players, I have no real issues with it. Whether you travel to it or leave it you have to reveal a card, so the difference lies in your ability to travel to other locations and the damage to Annuminas. The Arnor Battlefields are fine, unless maybe if multiple stack up and you’re particularly concerned about engagement costs, but that’s not going to be a hugely prevalent issue. Hills of Evendim I would hazard a guess is the location people will hate the most. How bad it really is obviously depends on the when revealed effects, which I’ll get to in a bit. Suffice to say though, I don’t think anything is an absolute cancel-or-die, at least not in isolation. The biggest issue would be if this comes up early, while you’re still establishing yourself – hopefully a little further into the game and you’ll be sufficiently set up that you can deal with the odd treachery going off when this turns up in staging. The chance to get both copies at once definitely pushes further for the value of location control though, since you can only travel to one copy at a time. On the other hand, again, only two copies total isn’t so bad.
Another deckbuilding decision which gave an easy solution to some problems from the encounter deck (though ones which definitely could have been solved through other means as well) was my decision to build with Leadership Faramir. Actually come to think of it both the alt art heroes released with this quest potentially solve these issues. I am of course thinking of a couple of the enemies. The enemies in the quest have a general focus on removing progress from the quest, which for other reasons you really don’t want to happen. In particular, the Warg of Carn Dum either removes a progress or has you exhaust a character when it engages. I’d just exhaust an ally then ready them again with Faramir. Meanwhile the Angmar Warg-rider either removes progress or makes an immediate attack when it engages, so I’d engage it with Aragorn after killing something else and have Faramir ready my Defender of Rammas to defend the immediate attack. Use of Aragorn could theoretically have avoided the forced effect on Orc of Angmar by engaging it after enemy attacks as well, but that would’ve required me to be below its engagement cost of 30, which for most of the game I wasn’t. There I did have to take the removal of progress a couple of times to make sure I could kill the Orc afterwards.
The remaining three non-unique enemies very neatly illustrate one of the things I said in the non-spoilery post, that certain classic encounter card ratios like enemy engagement cost/attack are not messed with here and follow standard patterns – that is, the 5, 6, and 9 attack enemies have 40, 45 and 50 engagement cost respectively, so you’re not going to have them sprung on you early when you’re in no way ready to deal with them (plus the Hosts of Angmar don’t enter the encounter deck until stage 2). Now I’d seen a fair amount of concern about the Hosts of Angmar, and I’ll grant that 9 attack is intimidating, but I’d just accept the loss of 2 quest progress for chump-blocking and then kill them – especially since them being in the victory display reduces the quest points of stage 2. I guess they’re more of an issue in Epic Multiplayer mode, when you get a steady stream of them always moving through the different staging areas. That makes it more of a challenge, to be sure. In standard mode though, the enemy I thought was actually a serious problem was the Vanguard of Carn Dum – had I not had a Westfold Outrider available, the Vanguard would have forced us to take an extra round to complete the quest, and as I recall the city strength of Annuminas would have been reduced to 1 at the end of the round, putting us really on a knife-edge. Fortunately I did have a Westfold Outrider so I could pull the Vanguard out of the staging area and we could make the full 10 progress we needed on the quest to let me kill the Lieutenant and end the quest.
What might be argued to have been a fortuitous deckbuilding decision on my brother’s part was partly including Eowyn – with the amount of progress needed having her quest for 5-7 each round was very helpful – but also including Eleanor, which neatly leads me into talking about the treacheries in the encounter deck. This couldn’t have turned out better if I’d planned it. Now, as I recall we didn’t actually use Eleanor’s ability that many times (it helped that we had two decks running Test of Will x3), but the times we did it was fairly significant. I don’t think there was a particular treachery we cancelled with Eleanor more than others, which is nicely indicative of consistency. We definitely never bothered to cancel Sorcery of Carn Dum at all, because since we didn’t have many attachments and did have healing available, it really wasn’t a concern.
Hordes of Angmar is a problematic one, because it has that unfortunate questionable scaling where one card turns into three cards. On the other hand, only two copies, didn’t happen that often, and we were able to just pull out the Wargs, thus avoiding their Surge and only having 2 attack each to deal with. Weary Warriors can be a problem but isn’t necessarily – people hate text blanking, but it’s only sometimes a problem, and knowing it’s a risk means you try to be careful about where you place your damage. Plus, healing gets around some of the problem of course. If I had to pick a treachery as my least favourite to deal with I think it’d be Caught in the Press – but that’s partly because it happened to screw us over towards the end of the game when we were unfortunate enough to reveal two copies of it in the same quest phase, thus making no progress so I couldn’t damage the Lieutenant and we had to take an extra round (and Hills of Evendim was in the staging area so we couldn’t cancel it with Eleanor. Real whammy from the encounter deck). Caught in the Press is undoubtedly a difficult treachery to handle, most likely having to choose between losing a large amount of willpower this round or losing a smaller amount of willpower permanently in the form of dead 1 hit point questing allies. But that decision is an interesting one to have to make and there are ways you can try to strategise your way around it.
One other aspect of the quest, which I don’t intend to go into that much detail on but will talk about in passing, is shadow effects. I mentioned in the non-spoiler post that only about half the encounter deck has shadow effects. An interesting point in this respect is that there are no shadow effects on any of the locations. Most of the shadows are pretty standard shadow effects which you can deal with easily enough, with three notable exceptions. First and second, the two which last until the end of the round: “Defender gets -2 defence until end of round” and “Defender cannot ready this round”, both of which could be either devastating or fairly meaningless depending on your defensive strategy. If you use a super-defender then you may well be screwed, but if you use many different defenders you should be fine.
And thirdly, Shadow card MVP!
Beneficial shadow effects are incredibly rare, and I certainly wouldn’t have expected one to turn up in a GenCon quest, since those are traditionally very much on the higher end of difficulty, but here it is. Humorously, our first encounter with this (not having looked at the Dunedain of Annuminas before shuffling them in) was when Qwaz decided to use his Master of the Forge as a chump against a 3 attack enemy and the shadow caused the Master to actually live.
I’m a fan of the Dunedain of Annuminas in general. Well, I tend to like good objective allies as a general rule, I suppose. An interesting point we realised is that actually, if one is going to chump-block an enemy, the Dunedain is a pretty good choice of chump, since he’ll then go back into the encounter deck whenever it gets reshuffled, to potentially be a shadow card, or just come out in staging again. You could also recycle him with Shadow of the Past, which has always been my favourite use of that card. Whichever way they turn up, those Dunedain are great. A beneficial shadow effect can count for a lot, or in staging you get a ranged, sentinel ally with 4-cost worth of stats for 1 resource. That’s crazy good value.
Back to a general look at the quest before I move onto the progression through it – I mentioned in the non-spoiler post the point about some things being fairly standard, and I think that’s actually one of the most prominent features of the quest. You can’t get ambushed by high attack/low engagement cost enemies, negative shadow effects appear on actually less than 50% of the encounter deck and they’re mostly not that bad, things are tough but there’s nothing that’s really noticeably worse than the rest, and there are only 6 cards in the deck which surge – 3 of them being objective allies and the other 3 being the weakest enemies in the quest. All of that adds up to a very consistent experience, even if it’s also a very difficult one (OK, I can’t be absolutely sure of that based on only playing the quest once, but it seems that way). I feel like that’s pretty thematic for a big siege – you’re in a position of power, you can see the enemy coming, you have a lot of control and plenty of options for how you devise a strategy with only a limited amount that can really surprise you; the only problem is that the oncoming enemy are incredibly (perhaps overwhelmingly) strong. I’ve talked before about how quest design in this game has improved as it has gone on, with more recent quests having more of a consistent high difficulty instead of occasional random difficulty spikes, and I feel like in some ways this may be the epitome of that more consistent challenge. I don’t think all quests should be like this, but it’s certainly very interesting and I enjoyed it a lot.
The final aspect of the quest to examine is the progression through it. I mentioned in my non-spoiler post that it starts relatively gently, but in this context that means it starts off at a more regular difficulty then gets harder later – I meant stage 1 of the quest obviously. It’s very much a stage for preparation, spending the first 3 rounds setting up a decent board state and reinforcing Annuminas a bit. But this isn’t like the optional stage 1 of Helm’s Deep, or stage 1 of Pelennor Fields, or any other similar case, where you actually get a free round (or two) for that preparation. In this case, you’re still playing normally, questing, staging, travelling, doing combat. It’s just that the Hosts of Angmar haven’t been added to the encounter deck yet and you don’t have any extra negative effects going on, which was what I meant about it just being ordinarily difficult and then getting harder. We struggled to get 10 progress on stage 1 to increase the city strength before we ran out of time, but just managed it. Though we also let a City Wall go, giving us 26 to work with, minus a bit for some enemies I hadn’t been able to kill right away.
Stage 2 is the meat of the quest, and with 50 quest points, it’s pretty damn meaty. This is never really going to be a stage you can just breeze through. The fact the quest stage grants healing was useful, though I wouldn’t think it’d be enough to keep up with all the damage on its own. Player card healing definitely still recommended. The forced effect is the real defining feature of this quest stage though. Depending on precise setup a case could perhaps be made for leaving a weak enemy in the staging area permanently to avoid the additional reveal. In our case though, and I suspect in a lot of cases, we could more easily cope with the extra demands of (effectively) an additional staging card than the loss of actions to having three attacks every quest phase, plus after a while I was perfectly capable of killing every enemy that popped up. Also of course if you leave an enemy in the staging area it’ll keep damaging Annuminas, so it’s a potentially risky strategy in any case. That forced effect definitely feeds into the general trend that you really need to be taking on the enemies – you can’t really say “No, I won’t engage that 6 attack enemy because I can’t take the hit,” because if you don’t, then you’ll have to take the hit next round in the quest phase, and so will everyone else. You better have made sure to get well set up on stage 1. It also strikes me that the extra reveal as alternative to attacks makes this somewhat like Journey Down the Anduin, and that in turn ties into my feeling that a lot of this quest is just very standard stuff, albeit very difficult – which is of course how the GenCon quests started out, with Massing at Osgiliath being rather generic, but also very challenging and very well-polished.
Finally we reach the climax of the quest with the boss fight on stage 3. The frequent problem with boss fights in quests is of course that they come when you’re fully powered up, everything else is under control and so you just smash the boss right away with no other concerns. The designers have taken various different routes to avoiding this, but this seems like a pretty effective addition to the list. Part of the problem is that the players can get everything under control so when the boss turns up they have nothing else really to worry about. Well here, you advance having just had staging (possibly plus an extra card if there were no enemies in the staging area), then advancing gives you most of another staging’s worth plus the Lieutenant and Battering Ram, then travelling to the Battering Ram (which is difficult to put off given the damage it’ll keep doing to Annuminas) gives effectively another staging. With effort, you certainly can (and we did) reach a point where you can keep things under control and deal with the cards you get in staging. Three staging’s worth of cards all pretty much at once is a bit trickier to handle. So just as the boss comes out, potentially everything else spirals out of control. Add to that, you can’t initially damage the boss because you need 10 progress on the quest first (which in turn requires you to explore the Battering Ram). So he gets at least one free round to hit you. And of course you’re somewhat on the clock at this point because of damage being done to Annuminas. The Battering Ram will hit it at least once, plus any enemies in play at end of round, which will inevitably be the Lieutenant and possibly others since you’ll have more difficulty with them as it’s now impossible to remove progress from the quest to dodge the other bad effects since there isn’t any. Most significantly this means that if there’s a Host of Angmar in play, unless you actually have a super-defender who can take a hit for 9 attack, you should pretty much just give up on them because by the time you can actually keep them engaged with you after their attack and thus kill them you’ll be ready to kill the Lieutenant and just win the game outright. Which isn’t actually so bad, given the 50 engagement cost and that they’ll no longer attack everyone from the staging area it’s reasonable enough to just let them sit there, but that will wear down Annuminas that much faster. When we hit stage 3 we’d been holding steady with Annuminas taking no damage for several rounds, but at the point when we won the sudden rush of enemies plus the Battering Ram put the city at definite risk again.
Since I haven’t played Epic Multiplayer I won’t comment on it except to say it looks really hard, with potential for some really interesting but also incredibly complex strategy between the three teams.
All in all, Siege of Annuminas is a very good quest. It’s very difficult, but without much potential to just be randomly unfair like many other difficult quests, and with a lot of potential for very interesting strategic decisions. The one downside which occurs is that it takes a while to play. It’s a bit too soon to say for sure, but I think this year’s GenCon/Fellowship offering is liable to become one of my favourite quests in the game.