Spending money on a badge in order to spend more money to register for actual events … waiting in line to get into the exhibit hall, only to wait in line for another three hours to spend even more money on the newest games … before that, submitting your wish list at noon on the dot, but missing out on nearly every event you wanted to sign up for … These things are reminiscent of a Black Friday nightmare, but they are all in fact features of one glorious event – Gen Con!
This year’s quest was Attack on Dol Guldur. It appears Fantasy Flight Games was too tied up with some of their newer products (especially Legend of the Five Rings) to publish a preview article for the Lord of the Rings quest, so the only spoiler we got was the short description on the Gen Con event site: “Rally your heroes for an epic battle against the forces of Sauron! Attack on Dol Guldur, is a unique, epic 12 player scenario!”
We knew the quest would continue the epic multiplayer mechanic from last year, and that we were attacking Sauron’s forces at Dol Guldur. I presumed this meant the quest would be playing out the White Council’s overthrow of the Necromancer during the time frame of The Hobbit. I was surprised that we weren’t getting the Scouring of the Shire, but in hindsight I’m glad we didn’t, as no one would have had a chance to finish their saga campaigns yet.
Attack on Dol Guldur
I was also surprised when I sat down at the event and browsed through the encounter cards that this quest was actually not about the attack by the White Council during The Hobbit but about events that happened at the end of the War of the Ring. Quest card 1A contains the below flavor text:
“The Dark Lord of Mordor has declared war across Middle-earth. His Nazgûl lead the Morgul host against Minas Tirith in the south, while Easterlings lay siege to Erebor in the north. And in a move long-prepared, the armies of Dol Guldur cross the Anduin to assault Lórien…”
The basis for the story of this quest comes from Appendix B, “The Tale of Years,” of The Lord of the Rings:
“Three times Lórien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself. Though grievous harm was done to the fair woods on the borders, the assaults were driven back; and when the Shadow passed, Celeborn came forth and led the host of Lórien over Anduin in many boats. They took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits, and the forest was cleansed.”
The first wave of the assault on Lórien took place on March 11, 3019, the day Denethor sent Faramir to Osgiliath, and Gollum visited Shelob to plot Frodo and Sam’s demise. The second assault occurred on March 15, as the city of Minas Tirith was breached by the enemy and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields reached its conclusion. The third was March 22, the day Frodo and Sam left the road in Mordor to turn south towards Mount Doom. Celeborn’s crossing of the Anduin happened on March 28, three days after the destruction of the Ring, Sauron, and Barad-dûr.
Thranduil was also besieged in northern Mirkwood, but his foes were overcome, and Thranduil and Celeborn met together on April 6, the New Year of the Elves. They renamed Mirkwood, formerly known as Greenwood, Eryn Lasgalen, or The Wood of Greenleaves. Thranduil reclaimed the northern region for himself, while Celeborn claimed the areas south of the Narrows (including the location where Dol Guldur stood), naming it East Lórien. The expanse between the two elven realms was granted to the Beornings and the Woodmen. A few years after Galadriel passed into the West, Celeborn moved to Imladris (Rivendell) to live with the twin sons of Elrond, Elrohir and Elladan. As the power of Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, passed away, so did the splendor of the land it so long preserved. While Silvan elves continued to live in the Greenwood, “in Lórien there lingered sadly only a few of its former people, and there was no longer light or song in Caras Galadhon” (The Lord of the Rings, “Appendix B”).
Dol Guldur is Sindarin for “Hill of Sorcery” and refers to the fortress built by Sauron around the year 1050. It was constructed upon Amon Lanc, Sindarin for “Naked Hill,” which was the highest point of the western highlands of the forest and received its name because no trees grew near its summit. The area was significant because the surrounding forest was the first home for the elves that later came to inhabit northern Mirkwood.
By about 1100, the White Council discovered that a dark sorcerer, the Necromancer, lived in Dol Guldur. Over the course of the next thousand years, the dark power grew and corrupted more and more of the forest around it, until its name was eventually changed from Greenwood to Mirkwood. Gandalf entered the fortress in 2063 to learn the identity of the Necromancer, who fled from the stronghold, but later re-inhabited it in 2460. Gandalf again entered the fortress in 2850 and discovered that the identity of the Necromancer was none other than Sauron (it was at this time that Gandalf also found Thráin in the stronghold’s dungeon). It wasn’t until 2941 that Sauron was driven out of Dol Guldur by the White Council. He fled to Mordor but sent three of the Nazgûl back to Dol Guldur ten years later. It was finally during the War of the Ring that the events of this quest took place, and the fortress was finally overthrown and cast down.
The first stage of the quest is Assault on the Golden Wood has a few things going on. One copy of Dol Guldur Marauder per player starts in the staging area. With their low engagement cost of 24, that means each player is probably going to be facing combat on turn one. They only have an attack of three, but reminiscent of some of the “raider” mechanics from the Dreamchaser cycle, they grow as they accrue resources, and they gain resources as they attack. Like last year’s quest, their forced effects give you the option to remove progress tokens or face another nasty effect, in this case add a resource token to the Marauder. I typically like quests where players are given these kinds of choices to make, but this makes questing very important on the first turn, leaving you light on characters for combat.
To make things worse, this set includes a classic treachery card effect on Servant of Sauron that triggers an immediate attack when revealed. If this treachery card gets revealed during staging on the first turn, you’ll (likely) have no progress to remove, meaning the first player is facing four attack. Then, if the players did not quest successfully (because Servant of Sauron, like all awful treachery cards, has surge), the Marauder will get another resource during the combat phase. We did not find it uncommon in our games at Gen Con to be facing a five attack enemy on the first combat phase of the game. The Marauder then also has three defense, making it very difficult to eliminate until you’ve built up your board state. This initial hole can quickly get too deep to climb out of.
As you’re questing at stage one, you’re moving progress from the quest card to Power of Lórien (which has some fantastic art). This objective, once you earn it, allows you to cancel and discard one encounter card. Unfortunately, then, you need to keep questing hard, no matter how hard you quested on a given turn, since you’re starting out each turn with no progress on the quest that you can remove to prevent nasty effects on enemies.
At the end of each round, you place a resource on the stage one quest card, and once there are three, you move on to stage two. I love how this stage works, not only from a game play perspective of letting you build up your board state before facing the real battle, but also from a thematic perspective of the three waves of assault on Lórien. I kind of wonder why resource tokens were used to track this rather than the “time” keyword, as the stage is representing definite periods of time. The “time” keyword usually counts down to some kind of negative effect, imparting a sense of pressure to explore a location or beat a quest stage before some bad thing happens. In this case, we’re not necessarily counting down to some bad triggered effect as much as we are keeping count of suffered wrongs, before we’ve had enough and storm the fortress, so I guess it makes sense.
Once you’ve driven back three assaults, it’s finally time to cross the Anduin and defeat the hosts of Dol Guldur. At this point, you may remove 10 progress from Power of Lórien to gain control of the out of play Host of Lórien (eat your heart out, Peter Jackson). If you can remove an additional 20 progress (who’s quested for 30 progress in three turns at this point!?), you also get the Power of Lórien itself. If not, you remove it from play. Each player also has to add a Dol Guldur location from the encounter deck or discard pile to the staging area. There are only eight, two copies each of four unique locations, but location lock becomes a very real possibility for the rest of the game.
The third stages of the quest (no that’s not a typo) are where things really get interesting. There are four different stages, and unlike some previous quests with multiple stages of the same number, you actually get to choose which one you want to go to – the backside of the quest card is not hidden from you, and you don’t have to deal with a “quest deck.”
Your decision of which quest stage to choose can be based on a few considerations. First, each quest stage has a corresponding boss enemy. Fortunately, they all have an engagement cost of 45, so you don’t have to plan to fight them right out of the gate. Their engagement cost does get reduced based on the amount of progress on the quest, but you can generally pace this, and with the added locations, you won’t be questing for a ton anyway.
Second, the 4 different Dol Guldur locations each correspond to one of the quest stages and cannot be traveled to or have progress placed on them until you are at that quest stage. The locations themselves all have classic Gen Con/Fellowship Event hate mechanics, but I appreciate that they were done in a slightly different way this year. The Sorcerer’s Tower and The Shadow Road both foil A Test of Will. Dungeon Door hampers healing, while Gate of Dol Guldur thwarts threat reduction. What I think is better about these locations than some from previous quests is that they don’t outright neutralize whole aspects of players’ decks. Some locations in other quests outright prevent threat reduction or treachery cancellation. These just weaken their effects. Truth be told, the worst location in the whole deck is without a doubt Forest Battleground, but more on that later.
For now, just remember that location lock is a very real problem in this quest, and you really don’t have many ways around it. Your biggest advantage will be cards like Thrór’s Key, that can blank location text boxes, or Thrór’s Map and West Road Traveler, that let you switch the active location (because these cards don’t say “travel,” the text on the Dol Guldur locations doesn’t restrict these kind of shenanigans). Thematically, I think it’s appropriate that the map and key, which Gandalf obtained from Thráin in the dungeon of Dol Guldur, should play such important roles as player cards in this quest.
Third, each stage three has an end of round effect that requires removing progress to avoid. Each also has a good effect, however, if you can remove even more progress (again – who is questing for that much progress in this quest?!). The bad effects are all pretty bad. They include discarding an ally, to discarding all but one card from your hand, to putting enemies into play engaged with you. Probably the softest one to start with merely raises the city strength. The city strength starts at five, plus five for each player at each stage. You need to reduce it to zero through defeating enemies and exploring locations with the siege keyword, in order to remove the indestructible keyword from the lieutenant boss enemies.
Finally, in epic multiplayer mode, each team has to choose a different stage three. If your group played the slowest that turn, expect to get stuck with one of the worst stages.
At the end of each round, a few triggers happen that can be hard to keep up with. First, you have to resolve the forced effect on your active stage three. Next, you have to resolve the forced effect on Dol Guldur, which reduces the city strength by the sum of the siege values on each enemy destroyed and location explored this round. Finally, you have to resolve the forced effect on the back of the setup card, which makes you either resolve the forced effect on a random out of play stage three for standard mode, or the forced effect on the only out of play stage three if in epic multiplayer mode. Finally, you have to discard any remaining progress on your active stage three and choose a new stage three to be the active one.
Your win condition is pretty difficult to achieve, though it doesn’t feel impossible. You must first reduce the city strength to zero. This removes the indestructible keyword from the lieutenant enemies. You then must destroy whatever lieutenant enemies are in play. The trick is that the end of the round forced effects still happen when the city strength reaches zero (they actually get worse when the city strength drops to a certain point). This means that you need to be able to one-shot the boss enemies in a single turn. Damage doesn’t stay with them when you go to a new stage three, so they’ll keep coming back regenerated. You need to rack up enough damage on them in a single round to destroy them, or you will not be able to win the game. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the forced effects on the stage threes really wear down your board state. The good news is that if you’re playing in standard mode, you only need to kill one lieutenant to win, as long as you can keep the city strength to zero through the end of the round. In epic multiplayer mode, you may need to face more of the bosses if some teams can’t take out their lieutenant in a single turn and you have to end up choosing that stage three.
Much like last year’s Gen Con quest, the non-boss enemies in this encounter deck all do something to remove progress tokens from the quest card. Mirkwood Olog-Hai is a fun (depends on your definition of the word “fun”) throwback to the Hill Troll from Journey along the Anduin. Instead of raising your threat, though, the Olog-Hai removes progress from the quest for each additional point of damage it deals. It’s also fun to see the Olog-Hai in this quest as they first emerged as a race of “super” trolls in southern Mirkwood. They could endure the light of the sun, and their appearance was such that they were actually thought by some to be large orcs rather than trolls. The art on the Mirkwood Olog-Hai does a good job at depicting a rather orcish look.
The Host of Dol Guldur gives me terrible flashbacks to last year’s Host of Angmar, especially if one is sitting in the staging area when a Servant of Sauron is revealed. Battle Warg is the only enemy to feature surge, as they would be the outriders of the larger army (hopefully a Host of Dol Guldur isn’t following behind them). Beast of Taur-nu-Fuin is a fun reference to the First Age. Taur-nu-Fuin means “Forest-under-Night” in Sindarin and came to be the name of Dorthonion after it was abandoned as a result of the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame). It became filled with terrors and was where Sauron fled in the form of a vampire after being driven from Tol Sirion. Sauron was a master of werewolves, so it makes sense that werewolves would dwell at Dol Guldur. The Beast of Taur-nu-Fuin appears to possibly be, then, a werewolf servant of Sauron that survived in dark places down until the end of the Third Age.
As far as locations go most of them are the Dol Guldur locations already mentioned. They’re not too bad in and of themselves except that you can only travel to them or place progress in the staging area when you’re at the corresponding stage three. This makes location lock a real threat, though I will say that unlike some other quests, there’s kind of a limit on how bad the location lock can get. Stage two makes each player fish out a Dol Guldur location, but if they’re already all in play, it doesn’t get any worse! Between spending three rounds at stage one, the effect on stage two, and the treachery card Power Sevenfold, I feel like it’s pretty common that they’ll all end up in play.
Of all the locations, though, Forest Battleground is the worst. It’s a real double whammy and hits you on its way in and out. It gets plus one threat for each ally controlled by the player with the most allies. Other effects like this in the game only give the penalty for each ally controlled by the first player, so you at least have some respite on turns where the first player doesn’t have a lot of allies. This one doesn’t give the players any break. This thing hit the staging area in one of our games with an Outlands deck on the table and ruined our chances of questing successfully for the rest of the game (we were already location locked in a bad way). It hardly gives you any reason to travel to it, though, because once it’s explored, each player has to add an orc to the staging area. Once you’re at stage three, it’s hard to want to choose to travel to a non-Dol Guldur location, because it feels like a wasted opportunity. But once a player has any more than a few allies on the table, it practically becomes a necessity.
Treachery cards in this quest, like in most quests, can be the most game-changing. I feel like Fastness of Mirkwood is supposed to be worse than it feels, but most times we found ourselves breathing a sigh of relief when we revealed it. Fear and Despair is classic anti-Boromir. The Necromancer’s Rage, besides boasting some creepy art, is a fun reference to the Necromancer’s Reach from the core set (albeit a leveled up version of it).
Power Sevenfold (a quotation from Haldir in The Fellowship of the Ring) can be downright game ending at the wrong moments once all the Dol Guldur locations are in play. If enough enemies are already out, this can mean one or two players are engaging unplanned for Hosts of Gol Guldur or losing allies to an Amon Lanc Archer. We had an amazing turn where a tactics Aragorn was pumped up with Inspiring Presence and Hour of Wrath and cleared the entire board of enemies in a single round (except for a single enemy). At the end of the round, our random stage three made us all engage an enemy, the next quest phase we got a Power Sevenfold (and we all had to choose the orcs, because the locations were all in play), and we explored a Forest Battleground. We went from zero enemies to twelve in one turn and lost within the next two rounds.
I’m glad that Gen Con featured another epic multiplayer quest. It would be hard to package and sell an epic multiplayer quest in a normal release, but events like Gen Con and the Fellowship Event give the designers and the players a chance for a unique game experience. Epic multiplayer gives players a chance to take part in a quest that feels bigger than what their normal game groups can offer, which is exactly what events like Gen Con should provide.
I must confess, though, that there are elements about this year’s quest that I like less than last year’s and elements I like more, and that my opinions in each camp are contrary to one another. On the one hand, The Siege of Annúminas felt more like each team had a different part to play in the game, and I really liked that. Each set of stages represented a different geographical location in the siege, and each team of players had a different mission to accomplish to help the group as a whole. Once the players hit stage two, the Hosts of Angmar marched down the staging areas to siege the city. At stage three, each team had another different mission to accomplish, and the boss enemy bounced from stage to stage.
In Attack on Dol Guldur, the players are more or less at the same stages doing the same things until stage three. Once at stage three, while the different stages do represent different locations, each team can pick any of the stages, as if the teams are running back and forth crossing each other’s paths. They each have a mission to accomplish that can help the other players, but it more often felt like their mission was to prevent the bad parts of the forced effect from affecting the other players, and they often failed. I’m also not sure I understand what’s going on with the story or the theme when the players have to choose a different stage three each round. It feels like the players are having to madly rush around the fortress, running into boss enemy after boss enemy, without being able to stop and accomplish one objective at a time. I’d be interested to hear if any readers have a thought as to what this mechanic is supposed to represent or accomplish, except to make the quest more challenging. I think it would be more fun, at least for standard mode, if the players could choose to move on to a new stage or stay at the current stage, much like in Flight from Moria.
On the other hand, what I really like about this quest is that playing it in standard mode does not feel like as much of a second-rate experience. Because of how different the roles and locations of each team in last year’s quest were, the translation to standard mode (or even solo play) felt like a sharp contrast. Many of the best elements of the quest were removed to make it playable for one to four players like a normal quest. With Attack on Dol Guldur, the players all basically visit the same quest stages, and no mechanics really change between epic multiplayer and standard, giving the quest a much more consistent experience between the two modes. This gives it a higher level of replayability after the fact. I can play the quest with my normal game group, or even solo, and not feel like I’m missing out as much on all the best parts of the quest’s mechanics. In short – The Siege of Annúminas made for a better epic multiplayer experience, but Attack on Dol Guldur definitely has more consistent playability in the standard format. Since most players of our fine game would struggle to assemble a group of twelve on a regular basis, I think that Attack on Dol Guldur will be more heavily played and enjoyed after Gen Con, and once it’s released as a print on demand product.
Do you look forward to playing Attack on Dol Guldur? Do you think my assessment of its experience compared to The Siege of Annúminas is valid? Do you have any ideas as to what stage three is trying to accomplish by forcing players to rotate between stages? Please let us know in the comments! Thank you for reading, and check back in a few weeks for a player card review of The Mountain of Fire.