A recent BoardGameGeek thread has reignited my interest in beating Escape from Dol Guldur using a single-core progression deck, and over the past few days I have played through the scenario numerous times, and chalked up a handful of victories. For anyone masochistic enough to try this for themselves, here are my strategy notes.
So I heard you like to play solo?
I suspect that Nate French didn’t give much consideration to the solo experience when he designed the core set and Shadows of Mirkwood scenarios. Nowhere is this more evident than Escape from Dol Guldur, which requires that one hero is chosen from among all the heroes controlled by the players and taken prisoner, effectively removing that character from the game. So in a 4 player game 1 hero out of 12 is taken prisoner, whereas in a one player game 1 of 3 heroes is captured! This puts the solo player at a significant disadvantage. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there are 3 guarded objectives in the staging area when the game begins. In a multiplayer game these 3 extra encounter cards might be an annoyance, but in a one player game they can be devastating.
With the odds stacked against you, winning is dependent on having extremely good luck: you need a good starting draw; you need soft guards to be drawn during setup; you need the right hero to be randomly taken prisoner. And even with a perfect setup you still need a consistently favourable draw from both the encounter deck and your player deck to have a chance of victory.
Improving the odds
One way to improve your odds of winning is to make a “prisoner swap”: selecting which hero will be taken prisoner during setup rather than choosing one at random. Prisoner swaps are common when attempting Dol Guldur solo, since having the wrong hero taken captive spells certain death. My first win came after I made a prisoner swap, but I knew that this technically invalidated the victory, so in subsequent games I always chose the prisoner at random.
Another shortcut to victory is to reset the game as soon as defeat seems inevitable. Provided you are not concerned with having a favourable win:loss ratio then resetting makes the challenge considerably less frustrating, since you don’t waste your time with games that are doomed from the outset. If I ever drew a bad starting hand, or enemies swarmed during setup, or the wrong hero was taken prisoner, I chalked it up as a loss and reset the game. Perhaps the next time I am feeling masochistic I will redo this exercise with a rule that I must see every game through to its conclusion, but for now I am happy to have won at all, regardless of how many resets it took.
When it comes to hero selection, Eowyn is an absolute must. It is not uncommon to start the scenario with 6 threat in the staging area, and without Eowyn’s help you won’t be able to muster enough willpower to quest through it.
Aragorn makes a good second hero, since he is has access to powerful resource acceleration and willpower buffing attachments. If you get Celebrían’s Stone on Aragorn then he can pay for the deck’s Spirit cards too.
The prisoner is the least important of the three heroes, since they will spend most of the game locked in Dol Guldur’s dungeons. I chose Denthor to be my prisoner, and I immediately reset any game where one of my other heroes was captured. Denethor is a strong defender, but more importantly the Lore sphere provides access to healing effects, scrying effects, and threat and enemy avoidance effects, which can be invaluable in the game’s late stages. However I imagine that a Tactics hero would work equally well in the prisoner role. Having access to Feint could be extremely useful during the Nazgul showdown.
The opening hand
The one must-have card in my deck was Steward of Gondor, so I always mulliganed if it was not in my opening hand. With only two heroes collecting resources, and Aragorn using one resource in most rounds to ready after committing to the quest, some means of resource generation is essential.
Celebrían’s Stone is less critical than Steward of Gondor, but it certainly makes life easier. With the stone attached Aragorn can match Eowyn for willpower, and he also gains a Spirit resource icon, which helps to pay for Spirit cards.
Other cards that are valuable to have in your opening hand are Unexpected Courage, Snowbourn Scout (an early chump blocker can give your heroes some breathing space), Gandalf and Sneak Attack.
The guards drawn during setup have an even bigger impact on the game’s outcome than your opening hand.
The ideal guard is a treachery, since most of the scenario’s treacheries fizzle if they resolve outside of the quest phase. High engagement cost enemies can be good too, since they give you time to set up the board state.
The worst guard is Ungoliant’s Spawn. Her relatively low engagement cost means that she will be coming at you within a few rounds, and chances are that you won’t be ready for her attack.
Drawing too many low engagement cost guards can be equally devastating. With only two heroes available you will be overwhelmed if you have to defend multiple attacks in the first round.
Eowyn is of course the deck’s dedicated defender. She should be committed to the quest every round. Unfortunately this makes her vulnerable to treacheries that deal damage to exhausted characters, so it is good to have a Test of Will or two in your back pocket.
Aragorn should ideally quest every round too. It is prudent to leave a resource in his pool after the planning phase so that you can pay for his readying ability and use him for combat as well as questing. Aragorn should receive Celebrían’s Stone to boost his willpower.
How to kill a Nazgûl
You need to be very careful about placing the first progress token on the second quest stage, because the Nazgûl will enter play the moment that you do, adding 5 threat to the staging area. This is yet another example of how this scenario scales poorly. It is much easier for two or more players to muster 5 additional willpower each round than it is for a single player.
My preferred method for managing that additional threat is to neutralise it with Radagast’s Cunning, which lets you ignore an enemy’s threat strength during the quest phase. Because Radagast’s Cunning costs one resource you can afford to play it the round after Denethor is rescued and the Nazgûl enters play.
The Nazgûl can kill two characters each time it attacks, so avoid engaging it until you have a few allies in play. Then you can destroy it in one round using Gandalf, Aragorn and one other attacker. Try to save at least one copy of Gandalf for the showdown with the Nazgûl – the cost and time required to bring the Nazgûl down without his assistance make winning much tougher.
General strategy tips
- Gandalf’s Map should be attached to Eowyn, since she is never required for combat. Collect the Map as soon as possible and use it as a buffer against the Cavern Guardian’s shadow effect, which makes you discard an attachment. It is usually preferable to discard the Map, then claim it again, than it is to lose Steward of Gondor or another critical attachment.
- Don’t collect the Dungeon Torch and Shadow Key objectives until you have cleared stage 2B and are about to proceed to stage 3. That way you suffer their negative forced effects for as short a time as possible. There is an action window between Staging and Quest Resolution during which you can claim them.
- If Caught in a Web is revealed during setup attach it to the hero that you want to be the prisoner. Unfortunately if Caught in a Web is revealed later in the game you can’t attach it to the prisoner, so you should put it on Aragorn, who has a built in readying ability, and hopefully a surplus of resources thanks to Steward of Gondor. Unexpected Courage is another way of bypassing the Web’s forced effect.
- Try to save Lore of Imladris, Radagast’s Cunning, Miner of the Iron Hills, Daughter of the Nimrodel or Forest Snare for when Denethor is rescued. You will probably only have the time and resources to play one or two of those cards before the game ends, so keep the ones that will be most valuable given the state of play. Surplus Lore cards can be discarded to trigger Eowyn’s ability as required.
Beating Escape from Dol Guldur with a solo progression deck is certainly not impossible, as is sometimes claimed. It just requires a willingness to lose repeatedly until the card gods eventually smile on you, and a pinch of tactical gameplay. I don’t think I will be revisiting this scenario anytime soon, but it is satisfying to have filled the only gap in my solo progression through Middle Earth.
Here is the deck that I used against Escape from Dol Guldur:
2x Daughter of the Nimrodel (Core Set)
2x Faramir (Core Set)
3x Gandalf (Core Set)
2x Gléowine (Core Set)
2x Guard of the Citadel (Core Set)
1x Henamarth Riversong (Core Set)
2x Longbeard Orc Slayer (Core Set)
2x Lórien Guide (Core Set)
2x Miner of the Iron Hills (Core Set)
2x Northern Tracker (Core Set)
3x Snowbourn Scout (Core Set)
2x Son of Arnor (Core Set)
1x Wandering Took (Core Set)
2x A Test of Will (Core Set)
1x Dwarven Tomb (Core Set)
2x Hasty Stroke (Core Set)
2x Lore of Imladris (Core Set)
2x Radagast’s Cunning (Core Set)
2x Sneak Attack (Core Set)
1x Stand and Fight (Core Set)
2x The Galadhrim’s Greeting (Core Set)
2x Valiant Sacrifice (Core Set)
3 Heroes, 50 Cards
Cards up to Core Set
Decklist built and published on RingsDB.
Header art by David Nash