This is a subject I’ve been intending a Design Debates post on for some time. On the face of it the way this game scales into multiplayer seems very simple – each round you reveal one card from the encounter deck for each player in the game. Of course, not all encounter cards are created equal, and in particular some cards in one way or another end up scaling themselves so they become more or less dangerous depending on certain conditions, among them player count, at which point the scaling becomes somewhat wonky since it’s being compounded.
Now on CotR Caleb made the case that having some of these disproportionately punishing cards in the encounter deck is a means of keeping the game interesting by allowing the encounter deck to catch up to the players once their board-state is well established. Since another significant flaw in the game can be the anticlimax when you reach the boss at the end of the quest and swat them like a fly, I can absolutely get behind that idea in principle. Of course it can lead to the annoying moments when the punishing effects happen too early, before the players are established, but that’s difficult to avoid.
More significantly though, that simply makes the case for the existence of brutal cards in general. The specific form of those brutal cards can still be debated, and so I can agree with the principle justifying the existence of brutal cards while still condemning the particular form of them that screw with the scaling in multiplayer – indeed in some ways these can miss the point, since solo games tend to produce fairly extreme examples of the above-mentioned tendency to swat boss enemies like flies since it’s easier to turtle in a solo game than in multiplayer. The existence of cards which get worse with more players simply exacerbates this.
Now that being said, I feel that a team of 3 or 4 players can be stronger than only 2 or 1 alone due to the fact the decks can get away with being more focused, the many ways the players can co-operate to support each other (which can accentuate the greater focus) and that the impact of bad draws is mitigated since it should average out more across all the players. There are advantages to having multiple players, it’s just that I don’t think they’re enough to compensate for how harsh some of those encounter cards are.
OK, that’s enough of general abstract comments, let’s consider the examples of the various different ways the developers have made encounter card effects scale with the player count.
Surge and Pseudo-Surge
By pseudo-Surge of course I mean cards which in their When Revealed effect tell you to reveal another card (or more often give you a choice between some other negative effect or revealing another card). Strictly speaking these don’t scale with player count since they only reveal one additional card regardless of the number of players, but since having more players means you reveal more cards, it also means you reveal more Surge cards. So while in a solo game you’ll maybe get a Surge card every few rounds and have two cards instead of one, in four player you can end up staging six or seven cards in a round repeatedly. That’s at the extreme end but still worth consideration.
In general though, Surge doesn’t bother me too much, because the cards are clearly balanced around it. As much as people complain about Surge, very consistently cards which Surge are ones which have minimal immediate impact, or at least can potentially have minimal immediate impact. For example, I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of enemies with Surge (if not all of them) are relatively weak and only 1 threat.
Where I do question it a bit more is in the cases of cards with conditional Surge or pseudo-Surge, which I think get more leeway to be more imposing in their own right, at which point the extra reveal feels more unfair. The most extreme case of this I can think of is the Spider of Dol Guldur which I complained about quite a bit when I did Nightmare Escape from Dol Guldur for The Line Unbroken and for What Might Have Been – it’s extra bad because it really doesn’t conform to Caleb’s idea of allowing the encounter deck to catch up since it’s more punishing early on and less later when the catch-up is needed. At less extreme levels though, the Angmar Orc while still not too dangerous is a bit worse than your average Surge card and has 2 threat so it contributes a bit more to the staging area in questing as well. Another potentially problematic one is the location Shrouded Hills, which only surges when its threat is 1, but in a multiplayer game the cases will arise where you reveal Shrouded Hills, it surges, and then you reveal one or more side-quests so it ends up at higher threat once staging finishes (especially since some side-quests also Surge). So in general I feel like the encounter deck balance gets skewed a bit more with some of these conditional (pseudo-)Surge cards than with the regular Surge cards, that is an area where I might suggest a possible wider negative tendency in the design.
Shuffle in one copy of [card] for each player in the game
This is something which came up a few times in earlier quests and I find it weird that the designers back then didn’t realise why it doesn’t make sense, because it works on the basis of a principle which any player in a deckbuilding game has to learn. It’s the same principle by which you include 3 copies of crucial cards in your player decks even if you only want to get one copy in play. To extend this analogy, shuffling in one copy per player in the game for encounter cards leads to contrasts like building one deck with one copy of a crucial card and another which breaks the rule by including four copies of the crucial card and also uses hero Erestor – the difference in how consistently you’ll see the crucial card is obviously huge.
The point is that the impact of a specific card in the encounter deck already scales with the number of players because at a higher player count you reveal more cards and will therefore see that card more often. By also scaling the number of copies you make it so in fact, on average, a four player game should see that card 16 times more often than a solo player since they have 4 time as many copies and also reveal 4 times as many cards. In practice this means four player games may feel overwhelmed by the repetition of the effect whereas solo player will often never see it at all.
As with Surge, Archery technically doesn’t scale with player count (usually) except in that you reveal more cards with Archery on them. But with more players, in theory you should also have more characters in play to take that Archery damage, but for some reason it never seems to work out that way. Honestly, outside of Archery which does scale (Druadan Forest of course being the infamous worst instance of this) I’ve never been entirely sure why Archery always seems to end up being much worse at higher player-counts, so I can’t really comment on it other than to acknowledge it.
Effects based on global board-state
That is, as opposed to effects based on a single player’s board-state. For example, Watcher in the Wood raises each player’s threat by the number of questing characters, so with more players the threat raise rapidly gets bigger and bigger, make the card disproportionately punishing at higher player counts. Or consider the Druadan Hunter in The Druadan Forest which will inevitably have more Archery at higher player counts because there are more heroes to have no resources (so a range from 0-12 instead of 0-3). By contrast, consider something like the Forest Battleground from Attack on Dol Guldur or the Pitch Black Tunnel from Beneath the Sands – they only scale according to the number of allies controlled by a single player rather than by all players and so while they’re still tough cards to deal with they should at least be equally bad at any player count (with the difference being made up of course by the fact the higher player counts reveal more cards).
X is the number of players in the game
Now this is something where whether it screws with the scaling or not depends on the context. This is fine for something which is a defined part of the quest, like say the threat of a boss enemy or key location which appears when the players advance to stage 2 or 3, because this is a thing which happens once regardless of the number of players so you want it to scale. If it doesn’t scale then you may well instead be in the position where you then reveal more cards for each player or each player except the first.
On the other hand, this leads to wonky scaling if it appears on just regular cards which can be revealed as one of multiple in staging for a given round. The simple illustration is to consider a card with X threat and 4 copies in the encounter deck – in a solo game you reveal 1 threat and that’s it for the round, that’s a very gentle staging; in four player you potentially reveal all four for a total of 16 threat which is a pretty harsh staging. Of course 4 threat isn’t totally outlandish for a single card so this is more manageable than some possibilities, but the fact remains that the experience is out of proportion between different player-counts. A similar principle applies to cases of Archery X except obviously it works against your hit points rather than your willpower.
But it gets worse. Two of the earliest cases of this were Massing at Night and Massing in the Deep – in solo these amount to “Surge” and “Doomed 1. Surge” but in four player your 4 card staging suddenly turns into a 7 card staging, if not more. Perhaps the worst case though is the Orc Drummer from Khazad-Dum, which compounds the problem of a card with X threat. In a solo game the Drummer itself is 2 threat and even if you’ve been cautious about engaging enemies you’re very unlikely to have more than 2 in the staging area, so it ends up effectively contributing in the range of 2-4 threat, which is entirely reasonable (and that’s your entire staging). In four player, on the other hand, the Drummer itself is 5 threat and even if you start with no enemies you could reveal 3 more in the same staging so that one card of the Drummer ends up contributing 17 threat on top of the base threat of the other cards. If you have other enemies in the staging area beforehand then it becomes even more of a nightmare to deal with, potentially enough to start a cascade towards a horrible loss. At least there’s only one copy of it so you can’t reveal multiple in the same staging, but then you don’t need to because where with a simple X threat card you have to reveal multiple copies for the threat disparity to really become apparent, with the Orc Drummer you just need to reveal other enemies. The ridiculous case example would be combining with the three copies of Stray Goblin from the same encounter set – in solo you reveal a 1 threat Stray Goblin or a 2 threat Drummer, whereas in four player you can reveal Drummer and Stray Goblins for a total of 29 threat plus anything which was already in the staging area.
Each player must…
There are two flavours of this. The one people tend to think of is the kind that produces additional encounter cards, either through “Each player must [do something] or reveal an encounter card” or through “Each player must search the encounter deck and discard pile for [an enemy/a location] and add it to the staging area.” This is dubious scaling for the same reason as Massing at Night and Massing in the Deep – in solo it potentially produces a single encounter card, in some cases allowing the player to choose the card they want, while in four player it produces four cards and then you continue revealing more cards for staging (I don’t know if there’s a card like this with four copies, but if there is then theoretically you could reveal all four at once and have your staging produce 16 cards).
The other variety of this is applying some sort of negative to each player in the game, like dealing one or more points of damage, exhausting a character, etc. These sorts of cards are more palatable than the other kind, but the same argument kind of applies: a single card applies a greater negative to multiple players than it does to a single player, where in principle the negative should be equal and additional negatives provided some way or other by the additional cards being revealed.
Since as I said before the examples there can be advantages to having more players, effects of the second type may, depending on their particular negative, be an OK middle ground where the extra scaling is more in line with the kind of advantage a higher player-count can actually produce. The first brand of effects, turning one card into many, I’m generally against however.
(2 [X] instead if there are 3 or more players in the game)
At some point in the past I was musing on the problems of scaling in this game, considering that as noted a higher player count can yield advantages but that the kind of encounter card scaling we get tends to end up out of proportion. So I tried to think of a suitable middle ground type of effect that would make sense, and the natural direction for my thoughts to go in was “What if instead of X being the number of players in the game, it was half the number of players in the game?” A few seconds later I realised that at least in the context of adding enemies or locations to the staging area I’d just independently come up with an effect which already existed in a few places.
So this is a case of encounter cards scaling with player count which I’m very much in favour of and I really think it should be used more often – as it is it mostly comes up at fixed single points in quests while things scaling according to the full number of players pop up on many encounter cards, which strikes me as the wrong way round. Depending on the nature of what you’re scaling one could also consider effects which ask for one less than the number of players (to a minimum of 1).
One could argue effects like this are more punishing for 1 and 3 player games, and if other bits of questionable scaling were avoided they’d lose some of their other advantages, but no solution is perfect, I think less reveals per round still would make a noticeable difference (especially for solo), and so I think this is one of the best cases of encounter cards scaling with the number of players in this game.
And that’s my take on the various different ways encounter cards end up scaling into multiplayer in this game. Of course some of the bad ones are artifacts of early design, so while I still wonder at the fact they got in at all, at least the mistakes have been corrected. On the other hand, other dubious cases still persist to this day while at least one more reasonable and moderate possibility hasn’t been used enough for my liking. It’s all very well for Caleb to say the encounter deck needs to have means of catching up to the players, but there are other ways of doing that which would help the encounter deck catch up to solo players as well as groups (I might do another post about some of those).
I will note that while some cases I’ve criticised, others I have not. As frustrating as it can be, Surge is OK by me so long as the designers are careful about where they put it, which generally they are (though perhaps less so for conditional or pseudo-Surge). “2 [X] if there are 3 or more players” I think is fine. “Each player must” may be OK with milder negatives but not with producing extra cards. Hopefully this is an area where the design will continue to improve and become less frustrating than it has been in the past.