Nightmare Wrap-Up: Core + Shadows of Mirkwood (part 1)

About four months ago, I set out on a quest to beat all of the Nightmare quests with thematic decks. This post marks a milestone for the blog—the completion of all of the quests of the Core Set and Shadows of Mirkwood Cycle! Now seems like a good time to look back on my journey so far and evaluate the quests I played, the decks I used to beat them, and how my Thematic Nightmare experiment is going as a whole.

Let’s talk about the quests

There are 9 quests total in the Core Set and the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. Here are the posts I wrote on each one:

  1. Passage Through Mirkwood
  2. Journey Along the Anduin
  3. Escape from Dol Guldur (also, here’s part 2)
  4. The Hunt for Gollum
  5. Conflict at the Carrock
  6. A Journey to Rhosgobel
  7. The Hills of Emyn Muil
  8. The Dead Marshes
  9. Return to Mirkwood

Taken as a whole, this is a pretty varied set of quests. I’ve heard it likened to an extended tutorial for the game—the first quest is fairly easy, but then each quest after that emphasizes the importance of a different core mechanic, whether it be threat, healing, Locations, or big boss Enemies.

Interestingly, one lesson that these quests seem to teach is: “For Eru’s sake, keep your starting threat low!” Journey Along the Anduin and Conflict at the Carrock have nasty Enemies with engagement costs between 30 and 34, while the encounter cards from Escape from Dol Guldur and Return to Mirkwood put a lot of pressure on your threat counter to the point that threatting out can be the primary danger. There’s a good reason that the Lore version of Aragorn was typically my Aragorn of choice throughout the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle: he basically solves the threat problem single-handedly.


The non-Nightmare versions of these quests tended to be a little thematically sloppy: Locations might be hundreds of miles apart from one another, and the Enemies in each quest were an incoherent mélange of OrcsSpiders, Bats, and Undead. I appreciate how the Nightmare versions of these quests tend to focus each quest a little more by removing some of the clutter and replacing it with something more relevant. This is reason enough for my theme-loving self to prefer the Nightmare versions of the quests over their original incarnations.

Beyond just theme, the Nightmare versions of quests tend to double-down on the mechanics that make each quest special. There are fewer vanilla quests to be found among the Nightmare roster, since they remove many of the samey cards that are shared between quests and replace them with something based around the quest’s unique core mechanic.

The increase in difficulty is noticeable, but typically not as extreme as the “Nightmare” moniker suggests. In general, I found most of these quests to be relatively comparable to modern quests. They perhaps leaned toward the harder side of the difficulty curve as a whole, but—with a few notable exceptions—most of these were perfectly reasonable quests for the modern card pool.

The notable exceptions

Two quests in particular stuck out as being really (unfairly) difficult for the solo player: Escape from Dol Guldur and Return to Mirkwood. These two quests share the same problem, namely that they were never designed to be played solo at all. Both quests are much less punishing — and much more interesting — when played with more players.

That said, there is something I find enjoyable about an impossible challenge from time to time. Both of these quests (Dol Guldur especially) required a lot of deckbuilding, tweaking, and slow, deliberate iteration which was deeply satisfying once I had found a workable solution. I’m glad that quests like these are few and far between, though—it’s a fun challenge once or twice, but it doesn’t take long before it starts to feel like the game is just punching you in the face and taking your lunch money.

Nightmares can be fun

I think the quest I enjoyed most this cycle was, to my great surprise, The Hills of Emyn Muil. Maybe it’s that low-combat quests fit my particular style, or maybe it’s just that I went into the quest with low expectations and then had fun anyway. I feel like it hit a sweet spot for me with regards to difficulty—not so hard that it became frustrating, but not too easy either. The Nightmare version is a huge improvement over the original.

The award for most improved quest, however, goes to Passage Through Mirkwood. What was originally a generic (if somewhat swingy) tutorial-style quest became a full-fledged quest in its own right with clear and distinct thematic and mechanical focus. I would rank it up there among the most fun Nightmare quests in this cycle.

The only real disappointment in the bunch was The Dead Marshes, which doesn’t seem to have aged well even with the Nightmare makeover—it was much too easy for it to be enjoyable. Perhaps with a different deck I might have come away with a different impression.

I hate spiders

One thing I discovered as I was playing through the cycle was that many quests had an increased focus on the Spider trait. I suspect this was a side effect of the more cohesive theming of the Nightmare quests combined with the Mirkwood locale.

During my later games, I began to notice an interesting trend: I found myself cursing the game designers seemingly every time I turned over a Spider Enemy, my fist shaking impotently in the air. But by the time I had finished my journey through the cycle, I had begun to wonder why I had developed this particular hatred for Spiders. After all, there were plenty of nasty Enemies in all of the Nightmare decks. Why should the Spiders specifically fill me with so much more dread than even the famed Hill Troll or imposing Chieftain Ufthak?

My first thought was that the worst possible reveal in many quests was a Spider Enemy: Spider of Dol Guldur from Escape from Dol Guldur, Attercop, Attercop from Return to Mirkwood, or Ungoliant’s Spawn from… well, any of the 4 quests that she appears in.

That’s certainly part of the problem, but it felt like it went deeper than that. It wasn’t just these top-tier Spiders that ruined my day. I lost more than one game to the comparatively benign King Spider exhausting a Hero whose action I was counting on. The Web-spinner from Return to Mirkwood caused me similar problems. Hero actions are precious, especially in Solo, and losing them can really mess up combat calculations.

That still wasn’t it, though. I can compensate for the loss of a Hero action once in a while. There was something else that just drove me up the wall about the Spiders in this cycle; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. So I did what any self-respecting engineer would do and I crunched some numbers. I put the stats of all of the Spider Enemies that appear in the Nightmare Core + Shadows of Mirkwood cycle into a table:

Name Engagement Threat Attack Def + HP Total Stats
King Spider 20 2 3 4 9
Ungoliant’s Spawn 32 3 5 11 19
Forest Spider 25 2 2 5 9
Attercop, Attercop 1* 2 8 10 20
Ungoliant’s Brood 31 2 3 7 12
Spiders of Mirkwood 18 3 2 6 11
Spider of Dol Guldur 28 3 3 9 15
Treetop Bird-eater 1* 2 4 8 14
Web-spinner 33 3 3 7 13
Average 21.00 2.44 3.67 7.44 13.56

* Technically these values are higher than 1. But the text on these cards causes them to automatically and unavoidably engage the players regardless of threat, so I’m approximating that with 1 here.

Okay, so that’s interesting, but it’s not terribly useful without something to compare it to. So I did the same thing for the other 3 major Enemy traits that feature in this cycle:

Name Engagement Threat Attack Def + HP Total Stats
Wolf Rider 10 1 2 2 5
Goblin Sniper 48 2 2 2 6
East Bight Patrol 5 3 3 3 7
Dol Guldur Orcs 10 2 2 3 7
Chieftan Ufthak 35 2 3 9 14
Dol Guldur Beastmaster 35 2 3 6 11
Dungeon Jailor 38 1 2 8 11
Misty Mountain Goblins 15 2 2 4 8
Goblintown Scavengers 12 1 1 3 5
Orc Horse Thieves 35 3 1 8 12
Torture Master 45 5 1 6 12
Goblin Eagle-hunter 48 2 5 7 14
Orc Interceptor 39 2 2 8 12
Ambushing Orcs 28 2 4 10 16
Pursuing Warg-rider 48 3 4 6 13
Average 30.07 2.20 2.47 5.67 10.33
Hill Troll 30 1 6 12 19
Anduin Troll Spawn 26 2 4 8 14
Savage Hill-troll 21 1 3 8 12
Rob and Bob 34 4 5 14 23
Louis 34 4 4 12 20
Morris 34 3 5 12 20
Rupert 34 2 5 13 20
Stuart 34 2 4 14 20
Average 30.88 2.38 4.50 11.63 18.50
Cavern Guardian 8 2 2 3 7
Things in the Pools 50 3 4 10 17
Marsh-wight 40 4 3 7 14
Lost Soul of Lorien 30 1 5 5 11
Ill-fated Guard 18 2 2 10 14
Average 29.20 2.40 3.20 7.00 12.60

So if I just look at the “Total Stats” column, I can see that Spiders do indeed seem to be slightly higher on average than many of the other types of Enemies that appear during the cycle, second only to the appropriately beefy Trolls. The key difference, however, seems to be their engagement. Whereas other Enemies seem to hover somewhere around the 30 mark, Spiders clock in at an average of 21—that’s a huge difference.

So then I did a little math and found each trait’s average stats per point of engagement, allowing me to “equalize” the traits so I could do a quick-and-dirty comparison of them as if they were all the same engagement cost. This is what your average 30-engagement Enemy might look like from each of these four traits:

Trait Threat Attack Def + HP
Spider 3 5 11
Orc 2 2 6
Troll 2 4 11
Undead 2 3 7

This explains my intuition perfectly. It turns out that your average Spider has higher stats per point of engagement across the board than any other trait in the cycle—even Trolls! This is why I hated them so much, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time: they engage early and their stats are higher than they should be, putting pressure on me in the early game and preventing me from keeping my threat low to avoid combat.

So there you have it: Spiders are officially the worst, and I have the math to prove it.

Of course, these calculations have their limitations: I’m not taking into account the number of times each Enemy appears in each quest’s encounter deck, so the big boss-type Enemies may be getting more weight than they’re due. It’s also worth noting that threat, attack, and def+HP don’t necessarily scale uniformly with engagement cost, so the comparison is imperfect. Even so, I found it was useful to put some numbers behind my intuitions here, even if they’re just approximate.

I got a little off track

I hadn’t meant to do a full analysis of the Enemies in the cycle when I started this post; it just sort of happened. Such are the joys of blogging!

Next week, I’ll finish my analysis on the Core and Shadows of Mirkwood cycle with a look at the decks I built, as well as what I’d like to change about the Thematic Nightmare series going forward.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a question: What are your favorite and least favorite quests from the Core & Shadows of Mirkwood cycle (Nightmare or original) and why? Leave your answer in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Nightmare Wrap-Up: Core + Shadows of Mirkwood (part 1)

  1. This is my favorite ongoing blog series about the game. I love your thematic considerations, original decks and analysis, and easy-to-read writing style. Keep up the great work into the next cycle and beyond!


  2. Have to echo loving the blog. The wrap up is an excellent idea and I too am a sucker for the purity of numbers followed by the very human desire to spot patterns in them. Great stuff.

    Currently only two cycles in and about to start the hobbit cycle. Favourite normal quest so far is Conflict at the Carrock as the first quest that slowed the race to quest and has to plan for threat and engagement costs. Great to be encouraged to takensure the time to plan the assault. Other faves include Foundations of Stone (for forcing multiplayers to go solo. Bonkers and fun) and Massing at Osgiliath for being easier than expected but still being a blast. Honorable mentions for Dol Guldur, Journey down the Anduin and Watcher. No nightmare games yet but going to try emyn muil first!

    Thanks again!


  3. Pingback: Play Report: A Journey to Rhosgobel | Darkling Door

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