With the dark depths of Moria behind me, it’s time for another Thematic Nightmare retrospective. I’m going to take a little time to look back on the quests of the cycle, the decks I used to beat them, and the series as a whole. This time around, I’ll also be able to compare the Khazad-Dûm / Dwarrowdelf cycle to the Core / Shadows of Mirkwood cycle that came before it. What was better? What was worse?
Let’s dig right in
I may have taken some issues with the narrative of the Khazad-Dûm / Dwarrowdelf cycle, but I would still consider it a good cycle as far as the gameplay goes. In case you missed an article along the way, here’s what I had to say about each quest:
- Into the Pit
- The Seventh Level
- Flight from Moria
- The Redhorn Gate
- Road to Rivendell
- The Watcher in the Water
- The Long Dark
- Foundations of Stone
- Shadow and Flame
There are a bunch of good quests here
My favorite quest of the cycle was Foundations of Stone. It features an excellent narrative, with the characters being swept away by an underground river to a nest of nameless horrors. The focus on the story means that Foundations of Stone drips with thematic goodness—always the fastest way to my heart. Mechanically, it’s a fun quest too, with excellent pacing: the first half is easier to give you time to prepare for the second half, which is quite difficult. The random nature of Stage 4 means you’re never sure quite what to prepare for, so it always stays exciting. The Nightmare remake was great for this quest, really pushing the difficulty of the second half of the quest up to 11 while leaving the first half manageable.
Foundations of Stone was my favorite quest of the cycle, but I have to give an honorable mention to The Seventh Level. It’s the best “swarmed by goblins” quest we have to date, with both the Goblin Swordsman and Goblin Spearman making a prominent appearance, putting themselves into play with their own shadow effects. It’s a fun challenge to be pitted against a horde of small Enemies rather than a few larger ones. I’m not sure that the Nightmare version of the quest was much of an improvement, though (if indeed it was an improvement at all) adding a new “place a resource token on this Goblin” mechanic that didn’t really affect the quest’s outcome.
Speaking of Nightmare improvements, Nightmare The Redhorn Gate is one of those quests that’s much better than its non-Nightmare counterpart. But the most improved quest has got to be Flight from Moria. I remember disliking Flight from Moria the first time I played it because of its swingy nature and how difficult it was to find Abandoned Tools and Escape from Darkness in the right order. In the original quest, the only other victory condition was to get through a purely random effect on the quest card Blocked by Shadow to the tune of: “discard the top card of the Encounter Deck, if it’s a Treachery you lose,” and I was never willing to take that chance. In the Nightmare version of the quest, Blocked by Shadow was replaced with the still difficult but not so random Pursued by Shadow, which simply has a chance of revealing A Foe Beyond each round. This made the quest feel way less swingy and much more enjoyable.
While we’re talking about fun quests, Shadow and Flame probably deserves a mention, too, since its take on the boss-fight formula was so unique and interesting. I like that Durin’s Bane isn’t immune to player card effects, leaving players with lots of options for dealing with it. Plus, the fact that the quest reduces your starting threat to 0 regardless of your Hero choices opens up room for interesting decks that might not work elsewhere.
But there were a lot of mediocre quests too
There’s nothing wrong with Into the Pit or The Long Dark on the whole, but they just didn’t stand out to me as having much to offer on their own. Nightmare Into the Pit’s increased focus on Dark Locations was a good idea, but it wasn’t enough to differentiate it from the rest of the cycle. The Long Dark might be more fun with more players (and therefore more potential to trigger Lost effects) but as a solo player it was basically just a standard quest with little to recommend it.
It probably doesn’t help that one third of the quests from the cycle feature the Cave Torch. The Torch felt like a unique and interesting mechanic when it first appeared in Into the Pit, but by its third appearance it had started to feel like old hat. It didn’t really add much to any of the quests beyond the first, and would have been better left as a gimmick in a single quest rather than something to carry through the whole cycle.
The Watcher in the Water is fun the first time, when you’re still trying to figure out how to beat the deckbuilding puzzle presented by the Doors of Durin, but once you’ve done that there’s not much left to go back to. The Nightmare update of the quest didn’t really change that, unfortunately.
The only true disappointment of the cycle is Road to Rivendell. It’s characterized by a strange Ambush mechanic which doesn’t affect the game very much, as well as some really harsh cancel-or-die Treacheries and Shadow Effects. It’s a dull quest when you’re perfectly in control of the situation, and things can go from dull to game over with a single bad card flip. I don’t see myself revisiting this quest again any time soon.
It’s worth noting, though, that there aren’t any quests in this cycle that are terribly unfair to solo players in the same vein as Escape from Dol Guldur or Return to Mirkwood from the first cycle. In all, each quest seems pretty reasonable as a solo experience, with nothing stepping too far over the line between difficult and punishing.
My deckbox is getting full
I built a lot of fun decks for this cycle:
- May the Stars Shine (Into the Pit)
Arwen Undómiel / Elrond / Galdor of the Havens
- Goblinrend (The Seventh Level)
Dwalin / Nori / Thalin
- Legends of Azanulbizar (Flight from Moria)
The Battle of Azanulbizar
Balin / Dain Ironfoot / Thorin Oakenshield
- Leaf and Land (The Redhorn Gate)
Celeborn / Galadriel / Gandalf
- A Light from the Shadows (Road to Rivendell)
Amarthiúl / Aragorn / Idraen
- The Path of Wisdom (The Watcher in the Water)
Arwen Undómiel / Elladan / Erestor
- The Hunt (The Long Dark)
The Three Hunters
Aragorn / Gimli / Legolas
- Balin’s Company (Foundations of Stone)
Balin’s Colony in Moria
Balin / Óin / Ori
- The Secret Fire (Shadow and Flame)
The Fellowship of the Ring
Aragorn / Frodo Baggins / Gandalf
Last cycle, I noted that I leaned pretty heavily on the Spirit and Lore spheres when building my decks. This cycle, I seem to have filled in my roster with a fair number of Leadership decks as well, but Tactics is still largely underrepresented. I find this interesting. Since this cycle focused a lot more on combat than last cycle, I would have expected to need more red Heroes this time around.
Looking back on my deck choices, it seems I was satisfied with simply splashing in a few Tactics Allies rather than going all-in on a Tactics Hero. Elrond gave me access to Mithlond Sea-watcher and Veteran Sword-elf for May the Stars Shine. I used Narvi’s Belt to get Azain Silverbeard, Longbeard Sentry, and Veteran of Nanduhirion into play in Legends of Azanulbizar. Gandalf helped me play Legolas and Rúmil for Leaf and Land as well as Boromir for The Secret Fire. Amarthiúl’s color-changing ability allowed me to include Fornost Bowman in A Light in the Shadows, and in the same way Óin allowed me to use Erebor Battle-master in Balin’s Company. Interestingly, the only deck I built this cycle without any Tactics Allies in it was The Hunt.
I hadn’t noticed this propensity to splash Tactics Allies before. I think in part it has something to do with the traits I used. At present, Noldor, Dúnedain, and Silvan each have only a single Tactics Hero: Elladan, Aragorn, and Legolas, respectively. I fully expect to see more Tactics Heroes in my future lineups as we head into the lands East of the Misty Mountains, where the martial sphere is more fully represented among the Men of Gondor and Rohan.
I’d take that to the game shop
Unlike last cycle, where most of my decks were fairly specialized, several of the decks I built for this cycle were more multi-purpose. This was partially intentional on my part, since I was hoping to mine my blog for some fun decks that I could use in other contexts. In fact, only the final deck, The Secret Fire, is heavily specialized. All of the others are flexible solo decks in their own right.
Leaf and Land in particular was a blast to play, and remains my favorite take on the Silvan archetype to date. I have had it sitting in a deckbox since the day I finished building it, and while I still haven’t had a chance to take it for a spin against other quests yet, I fully intend to do so at my earliest opportunity.
I would also count the Noldor deck May the Stars Shine, the Dwarf deck Legends of Azanulbizar, and the Dúnedain deck A Light from the Shadows among the decks I would like to revisit some day. Each of these were particularly good at what they did, and were well-rounded enough that I feel they could be successful against a number of different quests.
A note on theme
Another thing I noticed when comparing this cycle’s decks against last cycle’s decks was that last cycle my themes were a little more colorful. I had themes like “Mirkwood and Lórien,” “Eagles at the Carrock,” “Aragorn’s search for Gollum,” and “The courage of hobbits and the counsel of the Wise”. This cycle, over half of my deck themes were single-word trait names.
I think this was largely because I was trying to build towards a narrative of my own design during this cycle. In a sense, the theme for each deck was “the story that I decided upon in my opening paragraphs,” but that doesn’t condense nicely into a deck description for RingsDB so I went with generic trait names instead.
In general, I have no problem with using a simple trait for my theme. But when all is said and done, I think I’d like to have more decklists with complex themes next time, because I often find them more satisfying to build—and they’re probably more interesting to read through as well. (You can let me know if I’m right about that in the comments below). I’ll be keeping an eye on my thematic complexity as I start building decks for the next cycle.
The future is bright for Nightmares
I’m still having a lot of fun with this project. It’s incredibly satisfying to challenge myself with a clear goal and then find a way to accomplish that goal. In all, I’m quite satisfied with how well this experiment has been going so far.
As before, I’ll be making a few small changes to my template for the next cycle, tweaking some of the things that didn’t work as well or took too long to write. If there’s anything you’d like to see from my Thematic Nightmare series going forward, please let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear your ideas.
I’m chomping at the bit to get started on to the Heirs of Numenor / Against the Shadow cycle but I’m simultaneously a little worried about how difficult it will turn out to be. When Heirs of Numenor was first released, my partner and I took a break from the game for a few months; we were so frustrated with the difficulty that we nearly gave up the game for good. How much darker will those quests get in Nightmare mode? I’m not sure what to expect. We’ll all find out together, I suppose!
But first, starting next week I’ll be launching a new series alongside my Thematic Nightmare posts. Come back soon to find out what new devilry I’ve been planning!