Setting the stage
You have discovered the fate of the Dwarven colony, and seek to leave Moria. But exiting may not be as simple as entering… As you leave the Seventh Level, the air grows thick and drums begin to roll from the deeps. A man-shape shadow, yet greater, masses at the end of the hall, and begins to head straight for you.
Perhaps more than any other quest from this cycle, the events of Flight from Moria pose a significant challenge for me as I try to recontextualize them as a standalone narrative. This quest has the Heroes come face-to-face with the Balrog itself, which—while awesome—invites the question: Who would have seen the Balrog, but then failed to mention it by the time of the War of the Ring?
If I wanted to, I could just consider this quest to be an extension of the previous one, which I decided to set just a few days before the Fellowship enters Moria. It’s a fine solution from a narrative standpoint, but I don’t really want to build another deck out of that particular limited set of Dwarf Heroes. I’m explicitly trying to make my decks a little more varied than they were last cycle.
Instead, I’m going to go much further back on the timeline, to an event recounted in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle of Azanulbizar. Azanulbizar was the final battle in the great war between the Dwarves and the orcs which took place between TA 2793 and TA 2799, a full 220 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. Many important events happened during that final battle: Dáin Ironfoot slew the orc chieftain Azog out of vengeance for having killed both his father and his grand-uncle, Thorin earned his nickname “Oakenshield” for using an improvised oak branch as a replacement for his broken shield, and the Dwarves routed the goblins of the Misty Mountains, making the region much safer for travel for the next several decades.
The battle cost the Dwarves dearly, however, and many of the Dwarf-houses decided it was time to cut their losses and return home. Thráin, Thorin’s father and current King of Erebor wanted to enter Khazad-dûm and reclaim it then and there. He implored his kinsmen to help him with this quest, but Dáin replied:
‘You are the father of our Folk, and we have bled for you, and will again. But we will not enter Khazad-dûm. You will not enter Khazad-dûm. Only I have looked through the shadow of the Gate. Beyond the shadow it waits for you still: Durin’s Bane. The world must change and some other power than ours must come before Durin’s Folk walk again in Moria.’
This means that there was indeed one person who did see the Balrog before the Fellowship: Dáin Ironfoot. I can work with that!
There’s one other wrinkle: Glóin says during the Council of Elrond that “no Dwarf has dared to pass the doors of Khazad-dûm for many lives of kings, save Thrór only”. The general consensus seems to be that Dáin never actually entered Moria, but merely glimpsed the Balrog while standing outside the gate. But for my purposes, I need him to actually go inside.
This is the story I’m going to go with: Dáin took a small company of Dwarves on a scouting mission through the East Gate, going only as far as the Seventh Level (which we will assume is not too far in). While in there, he alone spotted Durin’s Bane (thereby discovering “the fate of the Dwarven colony”) and called for a full retreat back to Azanulbizar where Thráin and the rest of the Dwarves were waiting. The specifics of this scouting mission were largely lost in the intervening 220 years, Dáin himself preferring not to speak about the horror he had glimpsed in the shadows of Moria. Glóin, being too young to have been present at the Battle of Azanulbizar, can only tell the parts of the story that he has heard.
My version of the narrative relies a little bit on lost information and interpreting some characters’ words as slightly figurative rather than literal, but on the whole I don’t think it stretches Tolkein’s narrative too far.
The mechanics of Moria
This quest works differently from most quests. It has multiple stage 2s—8 of them in the Nightmare version—and the players proceed to each one in a random order. Only two of these quests have a victory condition on them, while the rest are worth Victory points if completed. Text on each stage gives the players the option to shuffle the current quest back into the stack of stage 2s at the end of the combat phase to try to get a new one.
The goal is to find one of the two stages that allow the players to win, and then complete that stage’s victory condition. Escape From Darkness, for example, requires the players to find and claim the Abandoned Tools Objective first, and then spend a few rounds exhausting a Hero to chip a hole in the wall to escape.
What makes this quest treacherous, however, is The Nameless Fear, a non-engageable Immune to player card effects Enemy that is added to the staging area at the start of the quest. The Nameless Fear has threat, attack, and defense equal to the number of points in the Victory display. Stage 1 adds itself to the Victory display automatically, starting the players out with 2 Victory Points, and it only goes up from there. Many of the other cards in the encounter deck also do terrible things to the players based on the number of Victory Points they have collected, like deal that much damage to a Hero or raise a player’s threat by that much. Leave your player Side Quests in the binder for this one! You do not want to inflate that number any higher than it has to be.
You can see all of the encounter cards and their quantities over at the Hall of Beorn.
Planning the deck
The theme for my deck is going to be “The Battle of Azanulbizar”. Since the battle happened so long before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a lot of the Unique Dwarf characters we have as cards weren’t alive at the time, or were too young to have been at the battle. Right off the bat, we can eliminate Fili, Kili, and Gimli for not having been born yet. As far as the rest of the characters go, I have found this timeline from the LotR Project Blog to be most informative.
If we assume that Dwarves reach fighting age at 30 (as is suggested in The Peoples of Middle Earth) then the only characters we can be sure were old enough are Dáin, Thorin, and Balin. There are a few Dwarves whose birth years we don’t know, so they could conceivably have been old enough to be at the battle. However Dáin, Thorin, and Balin form such a compelling mono-Leadership team as-is that I think I’ll just stick with them.
What else goes in the deck? Well, Dáin and Thorin both synergize best with a Dwarf swarm strategy, so I’m going to need lots of Dwarf Allies. But after I eliminate all of the Leadership Dwarf Allies who probably wouldn’t have been at the Battle of Azanulbizar, I don’t quite have enough left for a swarm. Plus, even though he’s off-sphere, I absolutely have to find some way to include Veteran of Nanduhirion—”Nanduhirion” being the Sindarin word for “Azanulbizar”.
Leadership does provide an easy answer to my conundrum: Narvi’s Belt, a Unique Attachment which allows me to gain any one of the four standard resource icons of my choosing. That’s definitely a 3-of card to help me play off-sphere Allies. But it’s not really enough on its own; I don’t want to be stuck waiting for a single card before I’m able to play most of my Allies. I’ll also need to include cards like A Very Good Tale to help me cheat Allies into play for free and Sneak Attack to let me get good use out of my off-sphere Allies even if I can’t keep them in play for long.
This is starting to sound like the basis for an interesting deck.
Deck: Legends of Azanulbizar
Theme: The Battle of Azanulbizar
“When the Dwarves saw the gate of their ancient mansions upon the hill-side they sent up a great shout like thunder in the valley. But a great host of foes was arrayed on the slopes above them, and out of the gates poured a multitude of Orcs that had been held back by Azog for the last need. At first fortune was against the Dwarves; for it was a dark day of winter without sun, and the Orcs did not waver, and they outnumbered their enemies, and had the higher ground. So began the Battle of Azanulbizar (or Naduhirion in the Elvish tongue), at the memory of which the Orcs still shudder and the Dwarves weep.” —Durin’s Folk, Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings
Balin (On the Doorstep)
Dain Ironfoot (Return to Mirkwood)
Thorin Oakenshield (Over Hill and Under Hill)
1x Azain Silverbeard (Flight of the Stormcaller)
3x Dwarven Sellsword (The Drowned Ruins)
3x Ered Luin Miner (Temple of the Deceived)
3x Ered Nimrais Prospector (The Morgul Vale)
3x Longbeard Elder (Foundations of Stone)
2x Longbeard Orc Slayer (Core Set)
3x Longbeard Sentry (Across the Ettenmoors)
2x Miner of the Iron Hills (Core Set)
3x Veteran of Nanduhirion (Khazad-dûm)
3x Cram (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x King Under the Mountain (On the Doorstep)
3x Narvi’s Belt (Khazad-dûm)
3x A Very Good Tale (Over Hill and Under Hill)
3x Hidden Cache (The Morgul Vale)
3x Lure of Moria (Road to Rivendell)
2x Reinforcements (The Treachery of Rhudaur)
3x Sneak Attack (Core Set)
3x To me! O my kinsfolk! (On the Doorstep)
3x We Are Not Idle (Shadow and Flame)
3 Heroes, 52 Cards
This deck is a slight twist on the standard Dwarf swarm strategy.
At its core, as with any Dwarf swarm deck, the goal is to get a ton of Dwarf Allies in play. With the global stat boosts provided by Dáin, it won’t be long before I’m generating a ridiculous amount of willpower every round and capable of generating plenty of attack to deal with Enemies.
The trick is figuring out how to get all of those Allies into play quickly. Dwarf decks can suffer from a slow start since they rely on having a bunch of Allies in play before they can trigger effects. This deck has to worry about slow starts even more than most since several of its Allies are off-sphere, requiring Narvi’s Belt or A Very Good Tale to get them into play permanently.
That’s where the Events that put temporary Allies into play come in. In the early game, rather than paying for Allies outright, I use Sneak Attack, Reinforcements, and To me! O my kinsfolk! to put Allies of any color into play to help cover my bases anywhere I’m lacking (usually during the combat phase). Once I’ve established my position, these events become less useful, but in the early game they give me access to expensive and powerful Allies long before I could usually afford them.
Beyond that, this deck is chock full of combos:
- Cards that discard from the top of the deck [Ered Nimrais Prospector, Longbeard Sentry, King Under the Mountain, A Very Good Tale] + Cards that grant a bonus for discarding them from the deck [Hidden Cache, Ered Luin Miner]
- Exhausting every character to fuel We Are Not Idle and then readying them all again with Lure of Moria
- Using Sneak Attack, Reinforcements, or To me! O my kinsfolk! to trigger cards with “Enters play” abilities multiple times [Ered Nimrais Prospector, Longbeard Orc Slayer]
- Using Sneak Attack, Reinforcements, or To me! O my kinsfolk! to put an expensive Ally down, then exhausting that Ally for A Very Good Tale to get something permanent instead
Technically, Cram is a bread made by the men of Dale, not the Dwarves. I often forget about that, since the card itself has a picture of a happy Dwarf on it, munching away. The reason they chose that image, of course, is that cram was a gift from the men of Dale to Thorin’s company during the events of The Hobbit.
But because my deck is meant to take place over a century before that event, it does feel a little off. Unfortunately, without any Dale cards in the Leadership sphere, a strict interpretation of the Cram card would make it into thematic binder fodder. This is made even more tragic by the fact that the card is a mechanical staple for the Leadership sphere. I used it in this deck, for instance, to help me get double-use out of Thorin’s excellent stats, since readying is otherwise pretty scarce in Leadership. To save this card from an unfortunate fate, I think I’ll let it slide in Dwarf decks for now.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 4 / 5 (80%)
This was a pretty fun deck to pair against this particular quest. They both feature some interesting tradeoff decisions which often boil down to high-risk / high-reward. In particular I love the Pursued by Shadow quest card, which allows me to gamble on the lives of my Heroes (with pretty decent odds, mind you) a few turns in a row for a chance at victory. 3 of my 4 wins were through this quest card, with only 1 of my wins being the result of finding the Abandoned Tools and the Escape From Darkness Quest in the right order.
The other fun thing about this deck / quest pairing is that they both match pace with one another—as my deck starts to ramp up in power, so too do the number of points in the Victory display. By the end of three of my games I had 7+ Victory points, causing several of the encounter cards to ramp to terrifying levels of difficulty, but at the same time I had a massive Dwarf swarm, perfectly capable of chumping a few huge attacks and still coming back swinging. I only ever lost a Hero to the effect on A Foe Beyond once—poor Balin never made it out—but by that point I had a sufficiently large Dwarf army and I didn’t really need him anymore anyway.
The one game I lost was due to my cards coming out in the wrong order. My hand was full of off-color Allies I couldn’t play, and I drew into too many copies of Hidden Cache. Enemies kept coming out of the encounter deck so fast that I couldn’t keep any Allies in play long enough to stay apace. I was able to tread water for a little while, but I never managed to find any of the quest cards that would allow me to achieve victory, so I eventually threatted out.
Most games, though, I was able to avoid building up too many Victory points in the early game by bypassing quests before I had completed them. This let me bide my time a bit until I could get my swarm up and running. At some point, though, some encounter card combo would go off, or I would end up overquesting and clearing a quest stage unexpectedly. Once I hit 5 Victory Points—that was my magic number to start sprinting—I would quest like mad, clearing quest stage after quest stage until I found one that had a victory condition, hoping against hope that nothing too terrible would come of the encounter deck before I had a chance to win.
Only hours before, Dáin had stood on these very steps, his heart stout and his will iron-set on reclaiming his people’s ancestral home. But now his heart quivered in his chest, and his brow was soaked with sweat beneath his heavy helmet. They had barely made it out alive—barely escaped that… that terrible thing in the dark. He looked around at what had once been an army of his kinsfolk—now a mournful, broken people. They could not face it; not today. Possibly not ever. It was a foe beyond any of them.
From back in the day, I remember Flight from Moria as a particularly swingy quest. Sometimes you find the stage 2 quest card you’re looking for, sometimes you don’t. But this time, I didn’t have that experience. Many games started out with what appeared to be certain defeat, only to have just the right quest card appear in the nick of time! It made for several enjoyable edge-of-my-seat games, so the randomness didn’t really bother me.
I like this quest—especially after the Nightmare revamp—but it doesn’t quite beat out The Seventh Level for my favorite quest so far. What do you think readers? Which of the three quests from the Khazad-dûm Deluxe expansion is your favorite?
And the cycle is just getting started. I’ll be taking a short recess next week to catch up on some other work that has been building up, but the following week I’ll be back out of the mines with Nightmare The Redhorn Gate. I like the Nightmare version of that quest way better than its original incarnation; come back soon to find out why!