Having built several scenarios in the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle around the notion of a ‘trick’, Return to Mirkwood is more a jack-of-all-trades effort. You had to be good at lots of things, and it duly rewards a multi-sphere approach. In terms of the effectiveness of the decks though, I can’t say with certainty that the ones I put together have the scenario cracked. Two out of three is probably the best I would promise from my decks. YMMV.
The problem I found in the playing was that you would be frequently hit with a one-two punch from the encounter deck. Gollum’s Anguish causes you to Raise the threat of the player guarding Gollum by 8, would see the Tactics/Leadership desk to soar past 40 then be followed by Hummerhorns and you with no method of taking it out in the staging area. Dead Hero. Gollum’s Bite forces you to choose a new player to guard Gollum so you have to switch him to Spirit/Lore with no allies and the next card is Attercop. Attercop. Dead Hero. I realise that Dead Hero does not guarantee its game over – I won this time around with a Dead Hero – but that’s the way to bet. Return to Mirkwood is strewn with hazards like that, and I’m not convinced you can account for most eventualities, let alone all of them.
The scenario isn’t totally devoid of good design. The locations are cleverly set up so that there there are lots of low threat locations which come with a cost for travel. Leave them in the staging area, right? Except when you flip to 2B, you find yourself only able to quest with the player not guarding Gollum. You can clear those locations, but it takes time and you might not have that time with threat rising for the guarding player by 4 every turn. None of the choices are good ones, but you have a choice. You can also plan ahead by ensuring that each of your players has a hero with 5 hit points and no damage. Oh boy, if you only have one take-away from my experience, that would be it. It can’t be that hard if I managed to get through without a single A Test of Will which seems to be indispensable when looking at the scenario in its totality.
One tangential thought before we summarise and place this scenario in the pantheon. I observed that Wasted Provisions struck me as a weak treachery, or at least the headline part of it – Discard the top 10 cards from the deck of the player guarding Gollum. Is this meant to be traumatic? If you don’t look at the cards that you discard, what have you lost? Only cards you never had in the first place. Even looking at the cards after the quest was over, I shrugged to see what I might have had. There were references in the the recent episode of Cardboard of the Rings that some people found this to be devastating. It must require your mind to be wired a particular way, because I cared not.
- Mulligan for a chump-blocking ally or Feint (Tactics/Leadership) and A Test of Will, Asfaloth or Light of Valinor (Spirit/Lore).
- Always have Tactics/Leadership guard Gollum. If anything causes him to move him to Spirit/Lore, move him back as soon as possible. Do not be tempted for Spirit/Lore to take the hit.
- Be conscious of the need to clear locations before flipping to 2B.
- Avail of threat-reducing opportunities as soon as you can. Do not wait, it might be too late by then (NB Song of Eärendil can’t absorb an increase in threat before the threat is applied to Tactics/Leadership. If it gets to 50 before Song of Eärendil can react, it’s curtains for Tactics/Leaderhship.
- Both players should keep a 5 hit point hero (Grimbeorn the Old/Aragorn and Glorfindel) free of damage in anticipation of Gollum’s Anguish.
The scenario makes you roleplay flinging Gollum in exasperation across Thranduil’s threshold at the end. I guess this counts as thematic, but it didn’t feel invigorating in the way The Dead Marshes did. It’s definitely not in the top three, but there’s a drop off after that. There’s a lot of frustration in this scenario, but the greater variety within lifts it above the other quests in the cycle.