Campaign Mode: Flight to the Ford (Part 1)
Our heroes successfully made a stealthy exit from Bree, gave Bill Ferny a good thrashing, and added a few more notches to the Nazgul kill count, including The Witch-king himself. However, Frodo was grievously wounded during the fight, and now the only hope for his survival lies in Rivendell. The safety of the Last Homely House is just within reach, but the Nine will not let the Ring escape their clutches without a fight.
This is the first part of the third article in the TftC Campaign Mode series, and addresses the final scenario of The Black Riders expansion: Flight to the Ford. Just like last time, I will be publishing this article in segments, with the first dealing with general strategies, the second outlining changes to my decks, and the third providing the session report. While I have said elsewhere that A Knife in the Dark is my favorite of the scenarios in this expansion, I do enjoy all of them quite a bit, and they all have a different feel. This one happens to capture the theme implied in its title perfectly, as it truly is a furious rush to the finish.
Part 1 – General Strategies
While A Knife in the Dark is the toughest of The Black Riders scenarios, I would rate this one as perhaps the easiest. However, this is all relative, and it would be a mistake to think of this quest as being “easy” in some general sense. In contrast to the marathon that is A Knife in the Dark, Flight to the Ford is a sprint. It’s fast-paced, tense, and potentially deadly if you don’t play your cards right. This is actually a positive aspect of this quest: if you fail, it’s probably only after a few turns, and it goes by quick enough that you can reset and play all over again without too much despair. This is an underrated quality for a quest to possess. Still, you’ll want the best fighting chance you can get, so let’s dive into some strategies that can help you to keep Frodo alive.
1) Arm yourself with willpower and quest like mad
As Flight to the Ford is a race to the end, and as that race takes the form of questing, you are going to need a ton of willpower for this quest. Probably the single biggest factor in determining whether or not you succeed against this scenario is how much willpower you can consistently bring to the table each turn. To understand why, consider that while there are only two quest stages, they both require plenty of progress tokens to complete. Pursued by the Enemy, quest stage 1A, has 15 quest points, which is on the mid-to-high end of the scale. The second quest stage, which is Race to Rivendell, also requires 15 progress to clear, but has the additional stipulation that if any Nazgul are in play, an additional 15 quest points are added, for a grand total of 30. All told, you are looking at having to place between 30 and 45 progress tokens to defeat this scenario (leaving aside locations). On the other side of the equation, the game begins with one Fell Rider per player in the staging area (2 threat apiece), along with The Last Bridge, which has X threat (X being the number of players). This scenario features Nazgul enemies and locations with moderate-to-high threat.
What all this adds up to is a pressing need for players to build decks centered around willpower. There are more ways to accomplish this than I could ever hope to enumerate here, but a general rule of thumb for your deck building should be to err on the side of adding more willpower when in doubt. Because there is a “timer” for this quest, with Frodo only having 15 life (which is tracked on a threat counter), and because questing is so essential, on most turns you will want to take a slightly more reckless approach to committing characters to the quest than you might otherwise. I wouldn’t overdo it, as there certainly are nasty enemies lurking around, but consistently putting huge chunks of progress on the quest each turn is your number one priority. I might even consider taking a flyer on a card like Ravens of the Mountain, which may allow you to speed up the pace a bit.
2) Killing enemies is nice, but not essential
When facing many quests, your general strategy should be to pull down enemies only when you are ready to face them (if given the choice), and aim to dispatch them as quickly as possible. However, Flight to the Ford falls into that category of quests where it is actually better to focus on tanking enemies rather than destroying them. Think about it this way: you only have so many characters in play and so many actions available each turn. Any character you “spend” on an attack is one less you have available for the quest. Of course many factors come into this equation, with certain characters being unsuitable for questing and readying effects changing this picture a bit, but the general rule applies. When taking on Flight to the Ford, I am fine with defending against engaged enemies over several turns rather than eliminating them, if it means that I can devote more characters to the quest. In addition, pushing yourself to take on more enemies than you might normally engage clears out the staging area of threat, which enables faster questing. This strategy is rewarded/faciltiated by the Ford of Bruinen location (see #3). As with building for willpower, building for defense can be done in a bunch of different ways given the current card pool, from Beregond/Gondorian Shield to Sam/Hobbit Cloak to Elrond/A Burning Brand. Choose the options that make sense for you and appeal to you, with the goal in mind of being able to consistently block attacks from enemies with 3-5 attack strength each turn. If you are running with this strategy, then including shadow cancellation through Hasty Stroke, Balin, A Burning Brand, or some other means will be essential, especially given some of the nasty effects that are included in the encounter deck. If you are playing multiplayer, then it may be possible to build one deck solely around combat, which might render this point obsolete, but in most cases you will want to follow a generally defensive orientation.
3) Take full advantage of the Ford of Bruinen
I was eager to see how the sweeping away of the Nazgul by the Bruinen would be implemented in game form, and I have to say that the designers struck thematic and gameplay gold with their incarnation of the Ford of Bruinen. This location does exactly what it should do:
Response: After Ford of Bruinen leaves play as an explored location, all engaged enemies are discarded.
Just as the Nazgul in the story were powerless against the power of Elrond and the raging river, the cardboard versions are discarded in a similarly epic fashion, with no hesitation and no remorse. Rather than just being a neat little nod to the story, the Ford should be an important part of your overall strategy against this scenario, especially if you plan on adopting a tanking stance. If you are able to be a little bit patient and successfully defend against the enemies engaged with you, you can let the Ford of Bruinen do the dirty work of wiping them out. This is especially vital once The Witch-king comes out during the second quest stage, as any help in defeating this tough enemy is welcome. While you can certainly defeat The Witch-king through conventional means (heck, you did it already in A Knife in the Dark), why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity of simply discarding him from play rather than having to muster the defensive and offensive resources necessary to take him on? Again, this allows you to devote more attention to the quest than might otherwise be possible.
There are a few factors to keep in mind when planning around the Ford of Bruinen. The first is that there are several encounter card effects that can return enemies to the staging area. For example, the shadow effect on The Nine Are Abroad pushes the attacking enemy back to the staging area after its attack resolves, while the Black Steed, which attaches to a Nazgul, returns the attached foe to the staging area at the end of the refresh phase. With there likely being no opportunity to engage such enemies again between when these effects trigger and the Ford of Bruinen leaves play through questing, you may lose the opportunity to wash them away. There are a few options available if this happens. You can include some forced engagement effects like Son of Arnor and Knight of Minas Tirith that can bring them back down to you during the planning phase. Alternatively, you can hold back some questing power in the hopes of not clearing the Ford until you have the opportunity to engage the escaped enemies once more. However, Rode Like A Gale is the worst of the bunch, as it can come up during staging, leaving you little opportunity for shenanigans (Sneak Attack + one of the aforementioned allies might be your only hope), and it returns every last engaged Nazgul to the staging area, including The Witch-king. This can be absolutely heart-breaking when it hits right before the Ford of Bruinen is set to trigger. I should know, as it has happened to me, and isn’t as unlikely as you might think. This is a case where your only hope lies in A Test of Will, Eleanor, or the One Ring. Keeping a Fellowship resource around and the One Ring handy in case this card shows up while the Ford is brewing is certainly a smart move. Including shadow cancellation in your deck(s) to handle the effects that return enemies to the staging area is also wise. The other factor to keep in mind when dealing with this location is that forced engagement effects are your friend, even leaving aside nasty encounter cards. If you’re going to get the most out of the Ford, then Son of Arnor, Knight of Minas Tirith, and The Hammer-stroke might work well to pull enemies down to their death. The latter card particularly, which can engage all enemies in play, could make for an epic moment. Then again, it may end up sitting uselessly in your hand. How many eggs you want to pile in this basket is up to you, but I often find myself pulling out all the stops just for the thematic satisfaction of it all. Not to mention that eliminating all Nazgul from play cuts the quest points of the second and final stage by half!
4) Manage the Fell Riders with care
Although I have emphasized the approach of questing hard, engaging enemies when possible, and tanking, this doesn’t mean that you should be completely reckless when handling foes, especially the Fell Riders. These Nazgul enemies force the first player to make a choice during each encounter phase: either to engage them or to reduce Frodo’s life by 1. It might make sense in the first couple of turns to “spend” Frodo’s life to avoid the Fell Riders until you have a decent tanking set-up, or at least some viable chump blockers (but that’s not the most desirable option, more on that later). While you don’t want to take the life counter for granted, any successful attempt on this quest will likely conclude within a few rounds anyway, especially if you took my advice on loading up on questing power. In general, you can “spend” Frodo’s life more freely up front, and then become much more conservative with it as you have the capacity to handle the Fell Riders. What becomes difficult is if a bunch of Fell Riders hit the table at once (there are 4 copies in the deck). This provides a case where you may need to actually focus on destroying a few of them to stop the bleeding a bit. Also, keep in mind that since the first player rotates in multiplayer games, you either need to have a tanking option in each deck or plenty of sentinel available.
5) Time your chump blocks with care
Sacrificing your puny allies with impunity is a time-honored LOTR LCG tradition and I would not presume to stand in the way of it. However, you do need to be smart here about when to chump block and when it is best to avoid this approach. There are a few encounter card effects that punish the player(s) for the destruction of a character. Perhaps the worst example, depending on the timing, is The Enemy Is Upon Us!, which removes ALL progress from the current quest when a character is killed. If you don’t want to get any sleep tonight, imagine having 29 tokens on the second stage and this bad boy showing up at the last minute. With this in mind, keep an eye on the current state of progress when making defensive choices. If there’s no progress on the current quest or only a few tokens, then feel free to chump block. Otherwise, you might want to think it through unless you have shadow cancellation available. There is also the Pain Assailed Him shadow effect, which removes 1 life from the counter if a character is destroyed. If this happens once, you’re probably fine, but multiple instances may prove fatal.
6) Include shadow cancellation
In case I didn’t get the message across clearly enough in some of the other entries, I’ll make it its own separate point: include shadow cancellation effects. In addition to the shadows I’ve already mentioned, there are two from the Hunted encounter set that demand attention. One gives an additional attack to the enemy, while the other does the same thing but also moves the enemy between players. Since you’re facing tough Nazgul and not puny little Orcs or Bats, it’s probably not a good idea to feed them extra attacks. With this in mind, bringing along Balin and/or a hero equipped with A Burning Brand is definitely not a bad idea at all. Keep in mind that the One Ring can cancel shadow effects (since they are encounter cards), but you might have used it earlier to cancel something during staging.
7) Avoid all burdens or take all burdens
No, I’m not like the elves who say both yes and no when asked for counsel, it just all depends on whether you’re playing Campaign Mode or not, as any burdens that have been shuffled into the encounter deck by the end of the quest are taken on as permanent burdens. This quest sometimes requires you to choose between adding a burden to the encounter deck or some other nasty option (i.e. Stricken Dumb forces you to either take a burden or immediately end the quest phase and boost your threat by 3). If playing Campaign Mode, you also have the option of taking burdens to make your road easier, and you can actually cancel any attack by taking a burden according to the Campaign Mode card itself. Still, I would resist the temptation personally. With many quests to come and a long road to tread, it’s probably not wise to load your future decks with burdens. On the other hand, if you aren’t playing Campaign Mode, some of these options will be closed to you, but when are given the option, you might as well take a burden. They are pretty nasty, and might come up from the encounter deck later as shadows or during staging, but there aren’t any long-term penalties. Still, if you don’t like living on the wild side, perhaps the wisest course of action in all cases is to simply avoid the burdens altogether.
8) Look out for The Nine Are Abroad
This is a deceptively nasty treachery that can potentially end your game, if it hits at the wrong time. The Nine Are Abroad makes the text boxes of all characters in play blank until the end of the round. This means Sam won’t ready if an enemy engages, Boromir can’t use his power to ready multiple times, the Warden of Healing can’t heal anyone, etc. In many cases, you should be able to weather the storm, but it’s worth keeping track of the 2 copies of this card.
9) Plan for 30 quests points on 2B (but take advantage of the Nazgul discount if you can)
As previously mentioned, stage 2B has 30 quest points if there are Nazgul in play, but only 15 without them. The question then emerges: should you focus on questing or removing Nazgul from play? My own personal approach should be clear from this article, as I prefer the questing and tanking strategy, which means that I take the 30 quests points for granted and plan accordingly. However, if the opportunity to eliminate all Nazgul falls into my lap through the Ford of Bruinen and/or other situations, then I will certainly take it. Choosing a more attack-minded approach of attempting to clear the board of Nazgul is certainly viable, it just entails a more fine balancing act of doling out actions between questing and combat.
Hopefully, these strategies will aid you in your quest, though they are not exhaustive. As with the previous two Black Riders scenarios, you will again be facing tough enemies with high attack, defense, and hit points. Here, your priority is to really have some solid defensive plans in place and make sure that all players are covered. Attack is not as high of a priority as it was in A Shadow of the Past, where clearing all Nazgul was a victory condition, but it still can prove useful to surgically remove the biggest threats. More than anything though, success against this quest will hinge on your ability to get questing power out quickly, and your capacity to cancel and handle encounter card effects. It is with sadness that I sense the end of this particular Saga Expansion coming, but I look forward to sharing the conclusion of my experience with you all!
Look for Part 2 soon, as I’ll be breaking down my decks, and figuring out how to tweak them for the needs of this particular quest.