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Nightmare Preview: The Dead Marshes

by on March 18, 2014

the_dead_marshes_by_noahbradley-d475fx4

With the first six Nightmare packs already released to the general public, and three more on the horizon (The Hills of Emyn Muil, The Dead Marshes, Return to Mirkwood), this new “mode” of playing the game has already entrenched itself and earned quite a few admirers. For experienced players and those craving a challenge, Nightmare Mode has indeed breathed new life into the game by reviving older scenarios and making them worthy of further plays. Several Nightmare-hungry players have contacted me recently asking for previews of the final three Nightmare packs of the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, as these are available in certain places (notably by participating in local game store events or trawling through eBay), but have not yet hit Print on Demand. Never one to disappoint my readers, or at least doing my best not to, I will devote some time here to talking about my experiences with the Nightmare version of The Dead Marshes, including an in-depth look at the cards themselves.

The original version of The Dead Marshes was quite honestly a disappointment. When you’re dealing with one of the most iconic gollumcharacters in Tolkien’s world (Gollum) and finally getting to see him in card form, along with a unique and intriguing location like the Dead Marshes, this should be a recipe for a captivating quest. Unfortunately, the actual end product fell far short of the mark, despite an escape mechanic that was a decent idea. The main problem was that the quest was far too easy as long as you brought strong willpower and readying effects to the table. While quests like Passage Through Mirkwood and Encounter at Amon Din are widely cited as some of the easiest around, I’ve actually had some of my biggest blowout wins against The Dead Marshes. I’m talking two round why-did-I-bother-to-set-up-this-quest victories. So my biggest hope for the Nightmare version was that they would find a way to dramatically increase the difficulty and extend the length of the quest. Related to this experience is the fact that I’ve never had Gollum escape, which is actually a negative, as there should be a real danger of him fleeing in order to add needed tension. Even worse, those players who have had Gollum loose himself from their clutches faced extreme levels of frustrations because he could be discarded as a shadow card and they could end up spending hours trying to cycle through the deck to track him down (there were ways around this, such as through Shadow of the Past or The End Comes, but neither is perfect and both cards weren’t available when the scenario was released). Thus, with all these flaws in mind, there are few quests begging for the Nightmare treatment more than The Dead Marshes. For far too long, it has simply been a dead quest n my collection that never saw the light of day.

So how does Nightmare change matters, and have my experiences made me more willing to traipse through swampy land in search of filthy pseudo-Hobbits? Let’s take a look at the Nightmare set-up card first:

nightmare

Right off the bat, this version of the quest helps solve the issue of a discarded Gollum:

Forced: After Gollum is placed in the discard pile, shuffle him into the encounter deck.

This means that while you will still have to search for Gollum through the encounter deck if he escapes, you are guaranteed to find him again in one cycle of the deck, as he can no longer be simply discarded. Also notable is the fact that players can’t reduce their threat, but since managing threat wasn’t a huge part of this quest, that doesn’t necessarily have a large impact, at least in my experience. The Nightmare version does add more threat increases, but it still didn’t play a huge role. More influential is the instruction for players to add The Mere of Dead Faces to the staging area, as this brand new Nightmare location is crucial to the feel of this updated version of the quest:

mere

The Mere of Dead Faces does two main things. First, it makes it easier for Gollum to escape by starting him off with two resource tokens from the beginning of the quest, cutting down the number of failed tests required to send him packing from four to three, which is actually quite meaningful. Second, the Mere makes recapturing Gollum quite difficult once he escapes, as it will build up resource tokens from failed hide tests while he is out of play, and these get transferred to him when he re-emerges. Potentially, he could come into play and immediately escape! Of course, this would be a meaningless change if Gollum never escapes, but I’m pleased to say that my first playthrough of Nightmare The Dead Marshes actually saw him flee into the mists far out of my grasp for the first time! This was caused not only by the two resources Nightmare starts him with, but also by the added tricks the Nightmare cards have up their sleeves:

devilryForgot all that text for a moment and just skip down to the escape value. Yes, that’s right, Devilry of the Dark Land has an escape value of 10! Previously, the highest escape value in the original The Dead Marshes set was five, with a typical average of two to three. However, ten is massive and ensures that you will fail most escape tests that have this card show up, and indeed this reared its head on a couple of my play experiences, and I failed both times despite having a bunch of willpower committed to the test. This may seem cheap, but it’s actually a great way to build actual suspense into the escape tests, as this larger range of escape results makes it more difficult to simply commit a certain amount of willpower each time that will assuredly succeed, and puts a greater strain on your characters’ actions. Importantly, it makes escape tests feel slightly less robotic and more like the dice rolls they are meant to be. In general, the thinning of the encounter deck and the addition of higher escape values on the Nightmare cards has made the central mechanic of the scenario, escape tests, tougher and far more meaningful. There are also a couple of new encounter cards that throw some wrenches into the works of the willpower machine as well:

candles

Candles of Corpses basically raises your threat if you fail an escape test (as you’ll likely never choose to discard a hero). More importantly though, this treachery forces you to exhaust some characters that you might have been saving for the regular escape test forced by Gollum each round or the final escape test to win the game. It’s also a nice touch that this one, like a treachery from the original version of the quest, The Lights of the Dead, forces each player to make an escape test, as this can really mess with multiplayer or two-handed setups where one deck is the willpower engine and the other is more combat focused.

swarming

Besides having art that makes me chuckle every time I see it, Swarming Mosquitoes forces the first player to make an escape test using defense instead of willpower. This is a clever way of messing with the standard way of beating this scenario and passing escape tests, which is loading up on willpower. An original treachery, Through the Mist, actually did this as well, substituting attack for willpower, but this one is much trickier, as it is harder to muster defense than attack, especially for some of those high willpower Spirit characters. Speaking of attack and defense, combat was sorely lacking from the original scenario, with only one new enemy introduced, a Giant Marsh Worm that didn’t inspire much fear, and didn’t synergize particularly well with other encounter cards, which allowed players to simply stock their decks with willpower and ignore combat. A well-designed scenario of this kind should include dangerous enemies so that players have to walk a fine balance between questing, committing to escape tests, and having strong characters available for combat. To this end, the Nightmare version includes a few new foes designed with synergy in mind:

marsh wight

This Marsh-wight was a real pain to deal with during my play experiences, as it forces the player it engages with to make a tough escape test (discarding three cards from the encounter deck), placing two resource tokens on Gollum for failure and causing the Marsh-wight to immediately attack as well (thus, it would attack twice in one round). While the Marsh-wight is not too tough of an enemy, with only three attack strength, it can pose real problems for a combat-focused deck by forcing it to make an escape test that it will likely fail (which my combat deck did), and is just dangerous enough to cause combat problems for a questing/willpower deck that can pass the escape test. Finally, with four threat, this enemy makes it tough to keep him in the staging area and avoid the forced escape test despite its high engagement cost, but it can be sniped over time if you are willing to eat that threat.thing

Things in the Pools is another example of using an enemy to enhance the escape tests and make them more difficult. By dealing one point of damage to all characters that commit to an escape test, Things in the Pools completely neutralizes cheap, high willpower allies with one hit point like Ethir Swordsman, West Road Traveller, and Escort from Edoras. I tend to use a bunch of these allies in my heavy willpower Spirit decks and found myself unable to use them for escape tests, and keep in mind that this can apply to multiple escape tests per turn (such as those required by treacheries or the Marsh-wight, for example). Even low hit point heroes like Eowyn will soon take a beating over time. Thus, you will want to get rid of this nasty foe as quickly as possible, but it takes 10 damage to do so, meaning that heavy attack power (and direct damage) is actually rewarded in this quest, which forces you to bring more balance to your decks. This becomes even more crucial when you consider the repercussions of letting multiple copies of this enemy stack.

stagnant

The final spoiler is a three-threat location that adds its escape value of two to all escape tests while it is in play (not just while it is in the staging area), meaning that you will have to commit at least three willpower to each test just to pass, and that’s before you even draw any cards for the actual test!

the capture

The final test is complicated by high escape values and extra resources tokens provided by The Mere

Altogether, I found myself absolutely enjoying my experience with Nightmare The Dead Marshes, and I can confidently say that it has fulfilled my hopes and redeemed this scenario. In a memorable playthrough, Gollum escaped not once but three times thanks to The Mere of Dead Faces (which can make the last escape test to win a real pain with all those extra resource tokens on Gollum; I failed this test twice) and I finally captured him for good as one of the last cards in the encounter deck and won the quest. Knowing that Gollum could not be discarded and would be caught as long as I cycled through the encounter deck helped this hunt feel thematic and enjoyable rather than frustrating, as did the struggle to keep resource tokens off the Mere, which both gives you something to do while Gollum is off the board and serves as a crucial strategic foundation of the quest (indeed, the design of The Mere of Dead Faces is perhaps one of the best Nightmare decisions). While my “Nightmare killer” duo of decks, based around a questing/willpower mono-Spirit machine (Frodo/Eowyn/Glorfindel) and a combat mono-Tactics powerhouse (Beregond/Legolas/Boromir), was ultimately able to defeat The Dead Marshes, it was a challenge and lasted much longer than the two or three rounds it took to conquer the old version. While this scenario isn’t the toughest of the Nightmare quests, it has rehabilitated the quest and I had such fun playing it that it may have a shot of becoming one of my favorites.

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From → Reviews, Spoilers

8 Comments
  1. Tonskillitis permalink

    While I liked the original theme idea for the dead marshes,tracking Gollum across a perilous mire, I actually thought that many of the original encounter cards were rather weak in terms of creating the feel of wading through the murky fetid waters and facing submerged enemies and being plagued by hordes of insects and foul spirits. I certainly think the size of the encounter deck has a great deal to do with it, and removing lots of the generic core set stuff makes for a tighter and more immersive experience. Again, it seems like FFG have taken their time and made some effective gameplay improvements and enhanced the theme significantly.

    I was sceptical initially about the Nightmare quests but I really enjoyed the first wave of Shadows of Mirkwood and I suspect that many of these adventures will grow to be my favourites. I am currently getting pecked to death by surging swarms of crows in Nightmare Rhosgobel. Losing can actually be a lot of fun (as long as it isn’t being continually crushed on turn 1), because it makes victory all the sweeter and drives you to play and replay the quest for the sense of achievement.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      I think the NIghtmare quests really add a lot, especially considering several of those old Shadows of MIrkwood quests were duds. It’ll be interesting to see how the Nightmare packs handle more recent quests that are already quite difficult or good already.

  2. Glowwyrm permalink

    Thanks for sharing! I love the Nightmare quests because they add more challenge and more theme. They are some of the best content this game has to offer. Can’t wait to get my hands on Season 3.

    • TalesfromtheCards permalink

      Agreed! I love the Nightmare mode stuff.

  3. Glaurung permalink

    Thanks. Dead marches looks very promising! Cannot wait to play

  4. OnkelZorni permalink

    This one looks really cool. I’m looking forward to have a real Dead MArshes Challenge. The first version was quite boring and too easy after a couple of plays.

  5. Gloin Denethor and Imrahil permalink

    Dead Marshes is Awesome

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