The infamous Escape from Dol Guldur. To this day, I’m convinced that the whole purpose of this quest was to give players a reason to want to play 4-player. It scales incredibly unevenly based on the number of players such that it’s a somewhat reasonable quest at high player counts but it’s soul-crushingly difficult in solo.
There’s a lot of information to cover about this quest, so I’m going to break this article into two separate posts. The first post (this one) will be focused on an analysis of the quest itself and all of the different ways it can grind you into paste, while the second post describes my deckbuilding process.
The original version of the quest starts by robbing the players (as a group) of one of their Heroes, who is considered the “prisoner”. The prisoner is turned facedown, and “cannot be used, cannot be damaged, and does not collect resources”. This quest also starts with 3 Guarded Objectives sitting in the staging area, which means you have to quest past 3 cards right off the bat. Each of these Objectives requires you to (1) clear the card guarding it, and then (2) raise your threat by 2 to attach it to one of your heroes, after which it will do something nasty to you every single round.
You aren’t allowed to move on to quest stage 2 until you have placed 9 progress on stage 1 and have claimed at least one of the Objectives. Placing a single progress on quest stage 2 rescues the prisoner and adds the 5-threat, 40 engagement Enemy Nazgûl of Dol Guldur to the staging area. Quest stage 2 requires 15 progress to complete, as well as requiring you to control all 3 Objectives in order to advance. Quest stage 3 spawns a 1/1/1 Enemy for each player to fight each round, requires 8 progress, and cannot be defeated while the Nazgûl is in play. Oh yeah, and to top it all off the players as a group can only play 1 Ally per round during the first two stages.
As with all of the Core Set quests, the Nightmare version of the quest tightens up the theme a bit, adding in a bunch more dungeon-related cards that make you feel like you’re sneaking through an orc-infested dungeon to rescue someone. You’ll find some nasty new shadow cards that punish you for not picking up the objectives early or which capture additional heroes when they take damage. It also adds a rule to capture a second prisoner when playing with 3 or 4 players.
There’s a new submechanic where certain Dol Guldur Locations accumulate resource tokens through various card effects and then do bad things with them, but honestly I didn’t feel like it deeply characterized the quest as much as any of the other mechanics that were already in place.
There are so many ways in which this quest is just not meant for solo play:
- Losing 1 hero out of 3 is much worse than 1 out of 6, or 2 out of 9
- Your deck can’t rely on any one specific hero, since you’re guaranteed to lose one of them and there’s nobody around to pick up the slack until you can get your footing
- You have to quest past 4 encounter cards on turn 1 all by yourself
- At minimum you have to raise your threat by 6 to claim all 3 Objectives
- You have to suffer the ill effects of all 3 Objectives every round by yourself
This quest demands a lot right off the bat, and doesn’t let up. You have to quest steadily while dealing with enemies with low engagement costs (of which there are many in the deck). You’re down a hero for the first quest phase, so that means you’re probably only generating 2 resources per turn. You’re also only allowed to “play” 1 Ally per turn, so you have to either cheat more in with “put into play” cards like A Very Good Tale or Elf-stone or make sure that your Allies are super-efficient, out-questing whatever just came out of the encounter deck while also helping you defend and kill the enemies that engage you.
Threat is another major problem in this quest. There’s plenty of Doomed 1 to go around, there’s an Enemy that raises your threat by 7 when you kill it, there are a few shadow effects that raise your threat by 4-8 depending on various effects, and it costs 6 threat just to claim all 3 Objectives (one of which raises your threat by an extra 2 each round). Chances are you’ll fail the quest a few times too due to how many cards start in the staging area.
You’re going to need a plan for how you’re going to deal with each of the 3 Objectives, and probably which one you’ll take first. You need to have one hero that you’re okay with not participating in combat, some way to deal with a hero taking 1 damage each round, and some way to deal with 2 extra threat per round.
The one mitigating factor to all of this is that the enemies in this quest don’t actually hit very hard, especially compared to more modern quests. Most enemies swing for 2, and some for just 1. There are a few that swing for 3 or 4, many (but not all!) of which have an engagement cost of 35+. The Nazgûl itself only attacks for 4, but it also discards a character each time it resolves a shadow effect, so you probably don’t want to plan on tanking it round after round and watching it destroy your board state.
Another interesting wrinkle that we can take advantage of is that the Nazgûl isn’t actually unique. This has been the key to victory in every game that I have won against this quest to date.
Cards to look out for
There are a whole bunch of cards in this quest that can wreck your board state in an instant.
The Torture Chamber is one of those new Dol Guldur Locations that accumulates resource tokens. It gets 1 at the end of each round, and there are a few other cards that can add resources to it if they’re revealed while it’s in play. Once there are 4 resource tokens on it, the “prisoners” were killed and the players lose (even if you’ve rescued all of the prisoners, interestingly enough). I love the flavor on this one, but gosh it can be frustrating to lose because you can’t quite clear its 6 quest points fast enough. One good counter would be to bring something that can place progress directly on Locations without requiring direct progress on the quest.
The Dungeon Jailor Enemy and Sentinel of Shadow Treachery both punish you for questing unsuccessfully. Dungeon Jailor shuffles an unclaimed Objective back into the deck if you quest unsuccessfully while it’s in the staging area. Unless you’re killing Enemies right away or avoiding engaging most Enemies somehow, a shuffled Objective is probably more likely to go as a shadow card than for you to see it again, which can be infuriating. Sentinel of Shadow adds 2 threat per player (so just 2 threat in solo) and brings the Nazgûl out early if you fail the quest, engaged with you. Both of these cards can be game-enders in the early game while you’re trying to get your footing.
I feel like the Spider Enemies in this quest are the worst of all the cards in the encounter deck. While working on this project I often felt that if I were to just remove everything with the Spider trait from the deck at the start of the game, my win ratio would improve by an order of magnitude. What are spiders doing in the dungeons of Dol Guldur anyway?
The King Spider always seems to come out on turn 1, exhausting one of your precious Heroes and frequently leaving you with only 1 Hero standing to quest, defend, and attack it somehow. Its low engagement cost of 20 basically ensures you have to deal with it as soon as it comes out, and its 3 attack is a little too high to safely take undefended. Ungoliant’s Spawn has always been nasty, either destroying your willpower on the turn it shows up, or raising your threat by an unreasonable amount if it shows up as a shadow card.
The worst of them all, though, is the boringly named Spider of Dol Guldur. It’s a terrible 3/3/3/6 Enemy with an engagement cost of 28 that gains Surge if you haven’t claimed all 3 Objectives (and let’s face it, for most of the game that’s going to be true). Its shadow effect is similarly devastating, giving the attacking Enemy +3 attack per unclaimed Objective in play, which means that for most of the game it’s worth between +6 and +9. There are 3 of these guys in the deck, too, which means they’re going to show up eventually one way or another.
“Cannot be used”
When I started out trying to build decks to beat this quest, I spent a lot of time looking for shenanigans I could pull involving the prisoner. I sent in a whole bunch of rules questions to game developer Caleb Grace in the hopes I could find something I could use to turn the loss of a Hero to some slight advantage; but ultimately I found nothing.
Caleb ruled that the prisoner does not leave play, and is still considered to be controlled by the owning player. So that means you can’t put Brok Ironfist into play from your hand, and you don’t get any of the 2-Hero benefits from cards like Strider or Vanish from Sight.
But because of the phrase “cannot be used” you also don’t get to count that Hero towards the number of Dwarf characters you control for the purposes of cards like Thorin Oakenshield and it doesn’t count as controlling an Ent character for playing cards like Ent Draught. Try as I might, I could find no upside to the fact that this quest takes a Hero away.
This is going to be tough
All of this paints a pretty bleak picture. This quest clearly wasn’t designed for solo play, why not do the sensible thing and just skip it?
It seems I am too much of a completionist for my own good. But, my losses (and losses, and losses) are your gain! In my next post, I’ll show you how I managed to liberate a few wins from the dungeons of Dol Guldur.