Scenario Difficulty Rankings #8

Intro

We are on the homestretch of a series that went on for far too long now. Thank god.
Let’s quickly get into today’s mini-topic before moving up into the upper ranks of the difficulty ladder.

Campaign Context

Unless we are talking about standalones (and for this article series, we aren’t), scenarios do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a bigger campaign and that does have some influence on where they place on how difficult they are.
The most obvious influence is whether it is an early scenario or a late one, with special consideration to the opener and finale of a campaign. It will heavily influence the player’s capabilities because their decks are just going to be much more capable after 20XP went into upgrades than at the start. And again much more capable after another 10XP were spent. As an easy showcase of this, consider Untamed Wilds and Heart of the Elders #1 from The Forgotten Age. Both scenarios share a lot between them. Their encounter decks are very similar, the map is pretty much identical. And yet, Wilds is regarded as one of the most difficult scenarios in the game while Heart of the Elders is mostly known for being kinda forgettable. One big reason for this is that players going into Heart of the Elders do so with 20 or even 30XP already allocated to their decks. At that point, Pit Viper is simply not something you fear anymore.
But there are other things to consider as well. Something that I always find remarkably difficult is when a scenario suddenly offers a challenge that the rest of the campaign didn’t ask for so far. To stay with TFA for a moment, it has one of the poster children for this in City of Archives which just completely switches gears from what went on before and thus poses a deckbuilding challenge even when you know it’s coming up. Dunwich Legacy does it with Undimensioned and Unseen, forcing everyone to fight big monsters with their willpower. As another example, Dark Side of the Moon tests player’s agility in multiple ways and punishes them fairly hard for not meeting those tests. This would be nothing to write home about if it was a TFA scenario where decent to high agility is already something you are rewarded for. In its campaign (Dream-Eaters A) it stands on its own with this however and in turn it can throw off players a bit or require deckbuilding concessions for just a single scenario.
I do feel like no other campaign illustrates my points about campaign context like The Scarlet Keys does. Scarlet Keys is a rather difficult campaign (until you start heavily metagaming it) because of its non-linear nature. Because scenarios needed to work even if you went into them after already doing 5 others, some of them are quite hard if you do them early. Dead Heat which is cruelly placed directly next to the campaign start location is probably the best example. The other reason that Scarlet Keys can often appear a lot harder than expected is how varied the scenarios are. As alluded to, this can be metagamed pretty hard (by for example just not doing any combat heavy scenarios if you are weak in that department) but if you are going for a specific ending (and thus have certain requirements for scenarios to play) you have to cover a lot of different bases.

Alright, time to check out the next batch of scenarios. These are the ones that rank at the bottom of the upper third, so while they aren’t quite at the top they are scenarios that are very possible to faceplant already. You will also notice a lot of early scenarios here, placing this late in the list due to the considerations that i just talked about!

#22: Doom of Eztli

Return to Doom of Eztli already made an appearance on this list, all the way down at spot #60. Quite the difference! The original Doom of Eztli is rough. An encounter deck that mostly forgoes enemies, but lets it rain asset hate and action taxing. There is also a lot of doom mechanics at play, even the locations get in on it. The result is a scenario that has very little in terms of interactivity that would allow players to mitigate what the encounter deck is doing to them. The consequences of failing are also harsh, either stacking on trauma and forcing to go through this whole thing again or taking a huge hit in terms of Yig’s Fury that will have echoes throughout the campaign.
I usually don’t shy away from difficult scenarios but this is one where i am glad that it got a complete makeover in the Return To.

#21: Untamed Wilds

Before you get into the Temple of Doom, you need to get past the introductory scenario of TFA. And what an introduction it is, giving you handsful of everything you need to expect from the campaign. Notably, this is one of the three or four scenarios where Ancient Evils is actually a problem due to variance from reshuffling. But even if you get lucky on that front, there are plenty of challenges in this one that are particularly harsh for fresh level 0 investigator decks, such as the Boa Constrictor, Arrows from the Trees and of course Ichtaca herself who you hopefully have a plan for.
I adore this scenario for being just a fantastic introduction into the campaign, both thematically and mechanically. But hot damn, it can be a nail-biter.

#20: Devil Reef

A wide-open map with multiple layers of randomization, populated by plenty of Deep Ones (both from the campaign-wide encounter set and from the scenario specific ones). Add a somewhat tight doom clock and a fat boss monster and you have a recipe for a scenario that is just not relenting at any point of its run time. The mechanics around the boat work both in the players favor and against them. While it’s a free party-wide Safeguard, it’s also something that encounter cards care about and something that funnels players into the path of the Kraken.

#19: Curtain Call

I do appreciate how this scenario just keeps ramping up. The encounter deck already starts fairly strong, with some standouts like the Poltergeist and the Agent of the King being dangerous enemies and with treacheries like Frozen in Fear and Spires of Carcosa making a huge splash. Thankfully, the presence of Rats and Fanatics keeps it from being too ridiculous. But once the Man in the Pallid Mask goes down the first time and the theater goes up in flames (or goo, or …) things get very uncomfortable. Then the Royal Emissary is added on top of that. If you are playing Return To, the Emissary itself even ramps up. This scenario just constantly ups its difficulty until it passes the point of what we expect from a campaign opener and its easy to just succumb to everything stacking on top of each other.

#18: Pit of Despair

We don’t do ramping in Pit of Despair. Pit starts rough and stays rough. Every turn spent in the caves is dangerous and the doom clock is hard (but fair). Like Curtain Call it has a recurring enemy that you can knock down but it will get up again. It’s not as high impact as the Emissary is, but the rest of the scenario easily makes up for it. While the doom clock is ticking away, it is often the stamina or sanity of investigators that is threatening to run out beforehand, as the encounter deck gnaws at it at every corner.
This placement is for the Normal/Easy version of the scenario. It should be noted that on Hard the difficulty of Pit of Despair shoots up, beyond the usual considerations of playing on Hard. That is because the token effects will now fire even if the test succeeded, putting an even bigger pressure on health and sanity. On Hard, really everything is trying to kill you, even just taking any test.

#17: Essex County Express

Look, we all fell off the train the first time. It’s a time-honored ritual. But even on replays, Essex just dumps on you sometimes. It has what is probably the tightest doom clock in the game and between very short thresholds and a gazillion (i counted) doom effects in the deck it advances the agenda almost every second turn. Frozen in Fear is astonishingly horrible in Essex and every single scenario specific card is awful for the players. Also, failing the scenario resets your campaign progress to zero in every conceivable way. Necronomicon? Gone. Story allies? Inexplicably captured. XP? Lol, here have one. You want to resign? Buddy, there’s only one way off this train. Down.
Oh right, in case you thought it can’t get worse, this entry is only for the base scenario. We will talk about the abomination that is Return to Essex later in this list.

#16: To The Forbidden Peaks

In spite of all the rage that it induces, i ultimately like Essex Express just fine. I even enjoy it for how ridiculous it is. Sadly the same cannot be said for one of its many offshoots, Forbidden Peaks. Potentially the second scenario you play in Edge, Peaks is similarly rough on players as Essex is. It doesn’t have the constant threat of instant defeat from disappearing locations, but the overall time limit is similar. While it doesn’t constrain the time limit further through doom mechanics, Peaks does throw some heavy duty enemies at the players that they will have to get past because of the linearity of the location layout. Actions are heavily taxed and there are even encounter cards that will push players back down the mountain, having them move through the locations again (and suffer their location effects).
But the thing that really sets Forbidden Peaks apart is the consequences for failing. All the supplies? Gone. Any partner allies you have with you? Gone. XP? Even if you did play all of Ice and Death without skipping anything, you might be going into City of the Elder Things on 10ish XP instead of 25ish. I think this scenario is the biggest fail in terms of allowing players to fail forward a campaign and it puts a huge pressure on the team to make it through here.

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