Setting the stage
You are investigating the Seventh Level of Moria, searching for the Chamber of Records and any sign of Balin’s colony. In the heavy twilight of a hall, a bulky tome is discovered in the grip of a Dwarf skeleton. You carefully take posession of the book. Perhaps it will give you some answers…
The second quest of Khazad-Dûm presents an interesting conundrum when trying to fit it into Tolkein’s existing narrative. In addition to all of the problems I’ve written about previously, the introduction of the Book of Mazarbul as a key plot element makes the timeline for this quest very difficult to place.
Over the course of The Seventh Level, the Heroes discover the Book of Mazarbul, carry it with them as they fight off goblins, and then, upon discovering Balin’s tomb, leave it there as a testament to his colony’s valour. This is the very same book that Gandalf later discovers during the events of The Fellowship of the Ring in the Chamber of Records—right where our Heroes left it.
What was meant to be a throw-back to the books and a fun continuity moment introduces a problem, however. During The Council of Elrond, Glóin tells the story of Moria to the gathered company:
‘…for no dwarf has dared to pass the doors of Khazad-dûm for many lives of kings, save Thrór only, and he perished. At last, however, Balin listened to the whispers, and resolved to go; and though Dáin did not give leave willingly, he took with him Ori and Óin and many of our folk, and they went away south.
‘That was nigh on thirty years ago. For a while we had news and it seemed good: messages reported that Moria had been entered and a great work begun there. Then there was silence, and no word has ever come from Moria since.’
Shortly after Glóin gives this speech, The Fellowship sets out from Rivendell towards Moria, where they discover both Balin’s tomb and the Book of Mazarbul.
When we combine this information with the quest card text, what can we say about when The Seventh Level could have taken place, and which Heroes might have been along? Well, we know that:
- Balin is long dead by the time the quest begins
- The quest must take place before the Fellowship enters Moria, so that Gandalf can find the Book where the Heroes left it
- The Heroes who go on the quest start out not knowing that Balin’s colony was defeated, but end the quest knowing his fate
- Since nobody who was at the Council of Elrond knew his fate, the Heroes could not have been anybody who was there (or in contact with anyone who was there)
- As far as Glóin knows, no Dwarves have been to Moria since they stopped hearing from Balin
I can only think of two possible interpretations that satisfy all of these conditions:
- The Heroes on the quest were not major characters in the events of The Lord of the Rings, and basically kept the information of Balin’s doom to themselves
- The Heroes on the quest entered Moria shortly before or during the Council of Elrond, such that news from their mission had not yet reached Rivendell by the time the Council took place
I could probably achieve #1 by using a motley crew of FFG-created Heroes like Beravor and Eleanor, but that doesn’t feel terribly satisfying to me. I would have to construct an entire narrative around how these characters came together, why they cared about Balin’s colony, and why they didn’t see fit to explain it to anybody else.
Instead, I’ll go for option #2. The story goes like this: Shortly after Glóin left Erebor for Rivendell, Dáin decided to send a second company out. With emissaries of Sauron threatening war upon the Lonely Mountain, the goal of this second company would be to see if the King Under the Mountain could count on help from Balin. In this interpretation, the Heroes on this quest and the Fellowship probably only narrowly missed seeing one another by a few days.
The mechanics of Moria
Unlike most other quests in LotR LCG, the original incarnation of The Seventh Level doesn’t rely on any unique mechanics or complicated gimmicks to stay interesting. Instead, it primarily focuses on ensuring that you have to fight lots and lots of small Enemies at once. Most of them only attack for 2-3 and only sport 2 hit points—nothing too challenging if taken individually. But Enemies make up more than half the encounter deck, and several of them have shadow effects that put them into play. There are other cards in the deck that fetch additional Enemies, too.
The other mechanic in the quest is that the players start the game with The Book of Mazarbul, a Restricted Objective that allows one Hero to quest without exhausting, but prevents that Hero from attacking. This Objective is removed from the game once the players reach Stage 2 of the quest.
The Nightmare cards introduce a new mechanic that wasn’t present in the original quest. It involves several cards which place resource tokens on Goblin Enemies in play. These resource tokens don’t do anything on their own, but other cards that enter play give them meaning. For instance, Orc Taskmaster turns these resource tokens into shields, such that any damage you do to a Goblin is cancelled and a resource token is removed instead. Goblin Skirmisher, on the other hand, grants each Goblin +1 attack for each resource token on it.
The quest itself has 2 stages. The first stage simply requires 15 progress to clear. The second stage requires 17 progress to clear, but it also has a chance of adding an extra Enemy to the staging area each round during the quest phase. In the Nightmare version of the quest, reaching the second stage also brings in a boss Enemy, Overseer Marûl, whose statline reads 3 / 3 / 3 / 12, but who also gets +1 to threat, attack, and defense for each resource token on whichever Goblin in play has the most tokens. It also adds a new Location, Chamber of Records, which has 8 quest points, adds 2 resource tokens to Goblins after they engage a player, and makes any Goblin with any resources on it immune to player card effects. Both Marûl and the Chamber of Records must be defeated in order to win.
You can see all of the encounter cards and their quantities over at the Hall of Beorn.
Planning the deck
So I have already decided to do a Dwarf deck. The question is, which Heroes should I use? I’m going to assume that at this time period—with war looming on his doorstep—Dáin is too busy to go himself. Balin is obviously out, as are Óin and Ori, who went with him. Glóin and Gimli are currently attending the Council of Elrond. And Thorin, of course, died long ago at the Battle of Five Armies.
Looking through the list of Dwarf Heroes, that leaves Dori, Thalin, Dwalin, Nori, Bifur, and Bombur. It seems that Leadership—arguably the strongest sphere for the Dwarf trait—is already out.
The low hitpoint scores of many of the Enemies in this quest make Thalin‘s direct damage appealing, so I’m going to try to make something work around him. Similarly, the large number of Orcs in this quest make Dwalin a more appealing prospect than usual. I like the idea of using both of them together for this quest, since I don’t use either of them very often.
But now I have a problem to address: How will I make progress on the quest? Without a global willpower boost from Dáin Ironfoot, it’s rare to get more than 1 willpower from Dwarf Allies, even in Spirit. And the Heroes I’ve chosen aren’t exactly great in the questing department either. Ideally I’d like to pick a quester for my third Hero choice, but of the Dwarf Heroes that remain the best I can get is 2 willpower. I’m going to need some other way to make progress.
Looking over the list of Spirit cards that mention the word “Dwarf”, I notice a rarely used gem: Untroubled by Darkness, a 2-cost Event which gives each Dwarf character +1 willpower, or +2 if the active Location is Underground or Dark. In The Seventh Level, every Location is Underground, so it should be pretty easy to play this card for a hefty willpower bonus. Even a Dwarf with 0 base willpower becomes worth sending on the quest on a turn that I play this card!
This gets my gears turning. If I can find enough threat reduction, I’ll be able to tread water for quite some time even if I fail to quest successfully by a few points every round. I should be able to keep the Enemies under control using Dwalin’s combat prowess. Then, as long as I can reliably find Untroubled by Darkness, I can use it to make a huge questing push. With a little recursion, I should be able to pull this stunt a few times each game to power through the quest.
And with that, the deck begins to fall into place.
Dwalin propped his axe against a doorframe, causing the clinking of metal against carven stone to echo throughout the hall. “Would you look at what they’ve done to this place, Nori?” he muttered in disbelief to one of his travelling companions, whose travelling sack thumped to the ground as he considered the scene. “Goblins are looters and vandals,” Nori replied with a sigh, “but we knew it would be like this, from Balin’s messages.” The first dwarf nodded slowly, the full weight of the desecration heavy on his shoulders. “I just didn’t realize it would feel this… empty,” he said after a moment. “Come, let us move on. The sooner we find Balin, the better. He always brings cheer to even the darkest of places.”
Nori (Over Hill and Under Hill)
Thalin (Core Set)
3x Blue Mountain Trader (The Dunland Trap)
2x Bofur (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Erebor Guard (The Sands of Harad)
3x Ered Luin Miner (Temple of the Deceived)
2x Longbeard Sentry (Across the Ettenmoors)
3x Zigil Miner (Khazad-dûm)
2x Dwarf Pipe (The Mûmakil)
3x Dwarrowdelf Axe (Khazad-dûm)
1x Dwarven Axe (Core Set)
3x Unexpected Courage (Core Set)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
3x Dwarven Tomb (Core Set)
2x Feint (Core Set)
3x Foe-hammer (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Goblin-cleaver (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Hail of Stones (Road to Rivendell)
3x Hasty Stroke (Core Set)
3x Quick Strike (Core Set)
3x Untroubled by Darkness (Khazad-dûm)
3 Heroes, 51 Cards
This is a tempo deck built around direct damage and enormous one-round quest pushes.
Every turn both Nori and Thalin quest, as well as any 1-willpower Allies that I’m able to get down. They don’t add up to much, but it’s enough to keep the threat in the staging area from getting out of hand. I’m perfectly fine with under-questing and taking a little bit of threat damage since both Nori and Dwalin can reduce my threat by so much that it usually doesn’t matter.
I generally hold Dwalin back as an attacker, and as such the first two Weapons I can find go on him. I may use him to help defend a few attacks in the early game, but ideally I’d prefer to defend as little as possible. Instead, I use Events like Goblin-cleaver, Hail of Stones, and Quick Strike to kill most Enemies before they even get a chance to attack. Later in the game, once I’ve managed to get a few defensive Allies down like Erebor Guard or Longbeard Sentry, I can start using them to defend attacks and having Dwalin destroy them the usual way.
All the while, I’m digging for two cards: Untroubled by Darkness and Dwarven Tomb. I want to collect as many copies of these as possible, since they are essential to being able to advance the quest. Once I have a few copies in hand, I pick a round to commit most of my characters to the quest, only holding back a defender or two. After staging, I calculate how many copies of Untroubled by Darkness I would have to play to clear the quest in one shot, and if I have enough, I play them.
Note that I can use Dwarven Tomb to retrieve a copy of Untroubled by Darkness immediately after I just played it, so it’s effectively a second copy of the same card (just at +1 cost). If the Active Location is Underground (and it always is in The Seventh Level) with a couple of copies of Untroubled by Darkness, even my wimpy 1-willpower Allies end up questing for 5. It doesn’t take many Dwarf Allies before that starts to add up to a huge rockslide of willpower.
If I happen to get Dwarven Tomb in my hand but Untroubled by Darkness is nowhere in sight, Allies that discard from the top of my deck like Zigil Miner can help me get the chain started by dumping cards into my discard pile. I usually try not to over-do it with discard-from-deck effects unless I have a copy of Dwarf Pipe in play, though; this deck can get pretty close to drawing through itself by the end of a game since it spends so much time stalling. Plus, I wouldn’t want to delve too greedily and too deep and end up losing all of my willpower potential or Weapons. Another neat trick: if I put something I want on the bottom of my deck with Dwarf Pipe, Tactics Bofur can shuffle my deck for me, giving me a chance to see it again sooner.
I’m still not sure what to make of Foe-hammer from a thematic standpoint. “Foe-hammer” is a common-speech translation of “Glamdring”, which is the name of Gandalf’s sword. Gandalf doesn’t actually make an appearance in this deck, though; so perhaps the card is out of place?
But upon closer inspection, there’s something odd about Foe-hammer: it’s an Event. If this card were meant to represent the sword itself, then it would have been an Attachment. As an Event, it comes off more like a title or a legend than a literal, physical sword. This interpretation lends it a little more flexibility—perhaps the dwarves are invoking the name of the noble blade to strike fear in the hearts of the goblins (since the goblins of the Misty Mountains are likely to remember it from the events of The Hobbit), or perhaps the mental image of Gandalf wielding Glamdring in Goblin-Town lends the dwarves some mental fortitude.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 4 / 5 (80%)
The direct damage approach turned out to be a perfect fit for The Seventh Level. The shadow effects in this quest can wreck your game state pretty quickly, either by bringing out more Enemies to swarm you or discarding your defending Allies and forcing you to take attacks undefended. Direct damage essentially short-circuits this problem, killing Enemies before their shadow effects have a chance to resolve.
This was a great set of games. They were usually pretty tense, since I was always fighting an uphill battle to stay on top of the questing situation, and playing a constant tug-of-war with the encounter deck over my threat counter. Trying to control the game tempo was interesting, since most of the time I was just biding my time until I could find the copies of Untroubled by Darkness I needed to actually win the quest.
The game I lost was due to the Chieftain of the Pit being revealed during setup. His 5 attack (8 on the first turn!) was too much for me to take so early in the game. I wasn’t able to get a defensive foothold, and I couldn’t quite build up enough attack power to take him out. With him killing every Ally I played each round, I eventually ran out of things to throw at him and he cut all of my Heroes down.
In general though, I was pretty surprised at how effective the deck was at dispatching Enemies. I usually left the especially nasty Cave Trolls in the staging area for a few rounds until I had the Events needed to help me dispatch them, but most games I was able to kill 1 or 2 of them. In my first game, I lost control of the staging area, causing my threat to rise too high and I was forced to engage 2 of these nasties at once. Getting them out of the staging area turned out to be vital for my success, though, since the next turn I drew into an Untroubled by Darkness, which gave me exactly enough willpower to close out the quest. Talk about a close call!
Dejected and despairing, the dwarves escaped the ancient halls of Khazad-Dûm with their lives and little else of value. Though their packs were light, the burden they bore out of the mines was the weight of terrible news. If war was indeed on the horizon, the King Under the Mountain would see no help from Khazad-Dûm.
The Seventh Level is a very popular quest. It ranked 12th in the Swiss portion of the recent Quest Championship, and for good reason—it’s a lot of fun! There’s something very satisfying about cutting down hordes of small Enemies in a seemingly never-ending stream. I’m not sure that the new mechanic of putting resources on Goblins had much of an effect on the game, but it was an interesting wrinkle from time to time. I suspect the mechanic would be more meaningful with more players (since more cards would be revealed, causing more combos).
How does The Seventh Level rank for you? Does it make your top 10 list? Leave a comment below to let me know!
If I don’t get distracted by some other topic again, next week we will come face-to-face with The Nameless Fear for the first time. Who will I bring into the mines with me to stare the demon down? Find out soon!