I’ve reached the end of the first cycle of Nightmare quests, and just as with standard mode, it’s now time for something of a wrap-up post. Of course some aspects will be different as Nightmare gives no player card aspect to consider except that of what player cards I chose to use against them. There’s also of course the additional element in considering the quests of how the shift to Nightmare altered the quest.
As far as my player card choices go, it was quite noticeable for me especially having just finished the Ring-maker cycle in my regular run that I was regressing back to the earlier card pool which means I only have 3 really good choices for Spirit heroes (Eowyn, Frodo and Glorfindel). Of course this is kind of comparable to how when I did standard mode for the first cycle I used Eowyn for 8 out of 9 quests, only in this instance I was dividing it between those 3. The slight flipside was that I think I used more Spirit than I have been lately in non-Nightmare content, where I might well have only one Spirit hero per quest a lot of the time.
Of course I noted that I ended up going for Secrecy more often than I would’ve anticipated. Partly that’s because with the seriously randomly brutal nature of some of these early nightmare quests I was really keen to try and Out of the Wild things, and partly because a couple of times my basic inclination was ‘low threat is good’, and then why not go all out. It’s pretty heartening given that a lot of people were pretty down on Secrecy’s viability that even at this point it could be made to work in Nightmare.
The multiple uses of Secrecy mean that Mirlonde actually is my joint third-most used hero for NM so far, the only non-Spirit hero to have been used 4 (or 5) times. My hero use stats for Standard mode and for adding Standard and Nightmare together are still very skewed towards the Core Set, plus Frodo; but specific to Nightmare it’s more evenly split, with my top 6 being 2 Core, 1 Shadows of Mirkwood, 2 Dwarrowdelf and 1 Against the Shadow. Meanwhile, for an interesting example, Leadership Aragorn has yet to make a Nightmare appearance (and he may not ever) despite being my joint 5th most used in Standard. Certainly makes something of a point to my mind about how some Core heroes I’ve used a lot because they’re still good while others I’ve used a lot because early on there were less good options.
Anyway, that’s enough player card ruminations for now, onto the main subject under discussion – the quests.
Passage Through Mirkwood remains basically pretty easy but with some very random elements. It has at least been upgraded to easy by Nightmare standards instead of just plain easy, but it really shows off both faulty earlier quest design in that difficulty is provided by a few rare cards that are really horrible rather than a consistent level of difficulty through the whole encounter deck; and a theme which comes up in some of these other quests, where alterations to the encounter deck aren’t enough to change the basic nature of the quest. In this case the basic nature of this quest is to be pretty easy and pretty short.
Journey Down the Anduin in standard mode I noted as being a decent testing ground for new decks as it’s basic but represents a bit more of a challenge. However the level of challenge has seriously waned over time, making the shift to Nightmare somewhat welcome as far as I’m concerned, as it retrieves a quest which had otherwise lost its interest for me as the card pool expanded. Here we also see another side to the argument about consistent difficulty versus single horrible cards as expressed by Gladden Marshlands – since there are three copies, it’s a much more consistent problem in the quest, with the downside being that you can potentially get more than one copy in play at the same time. I’d say the balancing is a bit dubious there, but I still much prefer it this way than the Passage way.
Escape from Dol Guldur I honestly never felt was that difficult on standard difficulty outside of solo play, but the Nightmare deck definitely fixed that and then some. I went into a lot more detail about this one in the specific Line Unbroken post so I don’t think I need to retread all that ground here in full. To summarise, fixing the prisoner mechanic to scale with player count, good; I think they should’ve also let the “one ally per round” thing also scale with player count; the stuff punishing players for not claiming the objectives early is dumb, exacerbates a typical unpleasant difficulty curve in quests in general and this one specifically, and Spider of Dol Guldur is just ridiculous; more focus should’ve been put onto the Nazgul, perhaps with a new nightmare version of the Nazgul since it’s not actually particularly threatening for a boss enemy. In general the quest would’ve benefitted a lot from the Nightmare design being more focused on a particular key mechanic rather than smatterings of lots of different things. As it is, this is certainly still one of the hardest Nightmare quests I’ve played, but more significantly I’d say it’s probably the one whose difficulty feels the most unfair, and so this remains a quest I’m pretty much never going to pick out as one I want to play. There are other challenging quests where the difficulty feels more fair, the quest mechanics screw with how a lot of decks function, and nothing else about them really appeals, so that unfair difficulty is all that really marks this out.
Hunt for Gollum I noted particularly as a clear example of a Nightmare quest where the thing which potentially kills you is held over from the regular version of the quest rather than being a Nightmare addition. In this case, extremely so, because little of the Nightmare stuff is actually that bad to my mind. Something of a disappointment to my mind, since I quite like the simple mechanics of Hunt for Gollum, but the difficulty is too low for me to find it really that satisfying to play, and Nightmare doesn’t do enough to fix that for my liking.
Conflict at the Carrock I like a lot. It was one of my favourites from the cycle the first time through and it definitely remains so in Nightmare. Once again I tend to have more problems with the standard cards than the Nightmare ones, but in this instance that’s more because the problems they represent are exacerbated by the presence of the Nightmare stuff. The way the Nightmare trolls power up their compatriots after you kill them puts a new twist on the quest’s difficulty curve, the effect on the Nightmare card has a meaningful impact on your strategy by limiting the amount of time you can spend turtling on stage 1, the challenge is increased but not in a way that feels unfair. This is a great example to my mind of how Nightmare design should work.
Journey to Rhosgobel meanwhile is actually a good example of pretty good nightmare design. Unfortunately the quest it’s being bolted onto, and the particular mechanic from that quest which some of the cards focus on (the whole requirement for Ranged or Eagles) do not hold up so well. The nicest little extras won’t help when the thing they’re being added to is fundamentally broken to start with.
Hills of Emyn Muil is even worse. Not because I think the design of the Nightmare cards is worse, though I would have more criticisms of them; nor because the basic quest is worse (that’s debatable). Rather it is because the design of the Nightmare cards, however good it is, was focused entirely on the mechanics of the quest which didn’t appeal; the comparison between vanilla Rhosgobel and Emyn Muil is debatable as I said, but while Rhosgobel’s Nightmare deck added at least some potential for different aspects to the strategy, Emyn Muil mostly just doubled down on the things which were already bad. The final nail in the coffin is that while the Nightmare card effect makes sense from the perspective of increasing the challenge, the main thing it does is make the game last longer – and if for whatever reason I have to play a quest I don’t like that much, I’d prefer that it be short.
The Dead Marshes was again a case where the Nightmare edits couldn’t overcome the basic nature of the quest. It’s pretty easy to beat this quest by just sprinting through it, as I came close to demonstrating in my playthrough. The reason I didn’t win on round 3 was of course because of a couple of the Nightmare cards, but they really just represent a different bit of bad design because the existence of a card with an Escape value of 10 is simply far too swingy on a mechanic which was already incredibly randomly swingy (as I detailed in my post on tests). Escape tests already had serious issues with the randomness of them, and adding more randomness was not the answer. The fact I didn’t win there (but instead won a few rounds later, still very easily) was due to no mistake on my part, it was pure random chance of how the encounter deck was shuffled.
Return to Mirkwood executed its shift into Nightmare much better than its obvious comparison in Escape from Dol Guldur (both are incredibly difficult and especially unfair to solo players). The reason is twofold – for one, Return to Mirkwood focused on mechanics which fitted together well, those being the Tantrums and Gollum in general; and for the other, it’s consistent. The effects in Nightmare RtM are brutal, but they can be managed, and they stick to a reliable level rather than having mostly one level of difficulty with occasional massive spikes. A particularly obvious example is the effect on the Nightmare card – needing to exhaust a hero at the beginning of the quest phase each round or repeat one of Gollum’s tantrums is horrible, but it’s completely predictable, happens once per round, won’t surprise you so you go “Well, everything was completely under control until that happened and then it all went to hell.” That being said, it is brutally hard, but this is a quest which I might choose to play when I want that level of challenge, because leaving aside the odd early scoop (which tend to be prompted by non-Nightmare cards) I tend to feel like my fate is at least somewhat in my hands rather than being entirely subject to the whims of random chance.
Overall, I’d say that while there are good points, this cycle of Nightmare quests didn’t turn out so well. Essentially I figure this was because on the one hand the base quests were from early in the game’s life and so they had some bits of more questionable design, and on the other hand this was obviously likewise the first lot of Nightmare quests so there were some kinks to work out in how Nightmare design should go as well. The good bits still hold up fine though. So here are my little pseudo-awards:
The hardest quests: Escape from Dol Guldur, Return to Mirkwood.
My favourite quests: Journey Down the Anduin, Conflict at the Carrock.
My least favourite quests: Escape from Dol Guldur, Hills of Emyn Muil.
The biggest difficulty spikes: Journey Down the Anduin, Escape from Dol Guldur.
The best transitions: Conflict at the Carrock, Return to Mirkwood.
The worst transitions: Escape from Dol Guldur, Hunt for Gollum. The problems with Rhosgobel, Emyn Muil and Dead Marshes were there already, but Hunt for Gollum was alright if easy and so Nightmare could’ve potentially revitalised it, but didn’t, so I consider it a bit of a disappointment.
And that concludes The Line Unbroken’s first foray into Nightmare mode. I will be going back to regular difficulty for the next while, but I’m glad to have dipped my progression-style toe into the deep end as it were, and will be returning to this at some point. I hope you’ll all continue to follow and enjoy the series!