The Lord of the Rings Board Game: A Review (UPDATED) - Full Disclosure on What to Expect

Many thanks to Kaspian for sending in this perfectly thorough review of the game! I have a copy, but have yet to play it... though after reading this review, I'm itchin' to sit down for a spell and give it a whirl!

LORD OF THE RINGS BOARD GAME REVIEW
By Kaspian (kaspian@acadia.net)


Lord of the Rings Game Package.
The new Lord of the Rings board game, designed by Reiner Knizia with artwork by
Arwen CardEach player chooses one Hobbit character: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, or Fatty Bolger(!). For a 2-player game, only Frodo and Sam are represented. As the number of players increases, other characters are added. Each Hobbit has some special ability that makes this character different from the others -- and thus uniquely valuable to the Ring Quest.

The Hobbits join together to represent the Fellowship of the Ring. Non-Hobbit members of the Fellowship are represented in various ways by the mechanics of the game. So too are other allies, adversaries, and the Dark Lord himself.

Having chosen a character, everyone places his/her Hobbit figure on the master board, where a scale runs from Light to Darkness. The Sauron figure is placed at the opposite extreme of the scale. During the course of play, as terrible Events befall the heroes, the Hobbits will move step by step toward the darkness, while Sauron moves step by step toward the light. Should Sauron overtake a member of the Fellowship, that Hobbit is toast.

At the start of the adventure, Frodo is the Ringbearer. The Ring will likely change hands as the game
progresses. Carrying this dreadful object is a mixed blessing, at best: you can "put on" the Ring in time of need, avoiding terrible consequences ... but always at a cost. Moreover, holding the Ring presents a constant danger of corruption, and the Ringbearer may find his Hobbit marker edging into the Dark.

HOW THE GAME MODELS THE STORY

Game play follows the plot of the Lord of the Rings fairly closely. Key events of the story are represented chiefly by "Event boxes" on the 4 scenario boards. Wooden markers track the progress of the Fellowship from one Event to the next, and also along separate tracks representing the different aspects or themes of the story: Friendship, Traveling, Hiding, and Fighting.

Of especial importance is that the Fellowship progresses ONLY as a whole -- NEVER Hobbit-vs.-Hobbit. The game is designed in such a way that the Ring Quest cannot possibly succeed unless all players work together at every turn: anticipating Events, pooling resources, choosing which of several possible courses of action (i.e., game tracks) to pursue. Often, immediate personal advantage must be sacrificed to the overall good of the Fellowship.

Movement is governed by cards (as opposed to die-rolling, for instance), and tracked by cone-shaped white wooden counters on the board. Besides the basic movement cards, there are 35 "Feature" cards which represent various helpful gifts, weapons, and allies -- Lembas, Elessar, Athelas, the Riders of Rohan, the Army of the Dead, et al. -- which enable the Fellowship to accomplish certain tasks or to avoid dreadful Events. There are also 5 "Gandalf" cards, representing help or guidance from the White Wizard that may be called upon in times of direst need.

Each player holds a hand of cards, which are played in turn to aid the Fellowship as a whole on its Quest. These cards may be DISCUSSED, yet never SHOWN, to other players. This is a clever and subtle mechanism, because it makes it possible -- albeit pig-headed and self-defeating -- for a Hobbit to keep secrets from his comrades, to hoard goodies rather than share them: in effect "pulling a Boromir."

An optional rule actually makes it possible for one Hobbit to deliberately connive to take the Ring for himself and go over to the Dark Side. Naturally, this subverts the whole "cooperative" design of the game -- yet it is quite in keeping with the nature of the Ring, an object of vast and horrible seductive power.

When the Fellowship is moving on one of the Scenario boards (i.e., for most of the game, except for all-too-brief respites in Rivendell and Lothlorien), play proceeds clockwise, in turns, starting with the Ringbearer. On his/her turn, each player takes 2 steps, in order:

  • Turn an "Event" tile from a stack of 21 such tiles. A slim majority of these tiles are safe -- they allow the Fellowship to get on with the journey. But others trigger story Events, most of which -- true to the plot -- are bad, very bad, or very very VERY bad.
  • Play 1 or 2 cards from his/her hand. Most of these move the Fellowship forward. Some do other nifty things. A player may also choose to forego this step, thus gaining the right to draw 2 new cards OR to move his hobbit back a step toward the Light. Good for the Hobbit -- but it slows down the Quest. You gotta choose.
In addition to cards (which chiefly govern movement), players must also divert themselves occasionally from the main track of the adventure to gather additional resources: "Life" tokens of 3 types, and "Shields" which represent valor and personal accomplishment. These things are needed at certain times, and to perform certain actions, such as "calling" Gandalf for help. Thus, at every point of the adventure, the Fellowship must make difficult choices between at least a couple (usually 3 or 4) alternative courses of action.


The Gameboards.
There is too much to do. There is never enough time. Yet if a crucial step is neglected, the entire Quest may fail. Many gamers will recognize this kind of dilemma as being characteristic of Reiner Knizia's designs. Except here, Knizia's mechanics are linked to a theme and story-line that make such game-decisions downright agonizing.

HOW THE GAME IS WON. OR LOST.

By carefully husbanding their ever-diminishing pool of resources (i.e. cards, Life tokens, Shields of valor), by careful planning (i.e. discussion among players), and especially by getting into the spirit of the Fellowship -- the Quest MUST succeed, no matter what the individual cost -- it is possible, albeit difficult, to carry the Ring across all the Scenario boards, through the land of Mordor and to the slopes of Mount Doom. But even then, the Quest has not achieved its objective. The Ring must still be destroyed.

Many games, in the experience of early players, seem to come down to the last stretch of the adventure on the "Mordor" scenario board. The conflict here between the things you need to do, and the lack of time to do them, becomes almost unmanageably intense. The game Events, shown in the series of "boxes" on the board -- and triggered unpredictably by revealing Event tiles -- become really ghastly. There are so many DIFFERENT ways to fail at this point, it is a wonder that anybody ever succeeds.

Yet people do succeed. As long as a single Hobbit survives to hurl the Ring into the Crack of Doom, the Quest succeeds. Some members of the Fellowship may have succumbed to the Darkness ... yet they will be remembered forever in song and legend (and also on the "Hall of Fame" sheet included in the game for this purpose).

The method of scoring reflects the distinctive, cooperative aspect of the game. If the Quest fails, all members receive the same score: the number of the space on the scenario board where the final member perished. Scores in the low 40's -- corresponding roughly to Frodo and Sam falling in the Dead Marshes, the Plains of Ash, or the stairs of Cirith Ungol -- are not uncommon. The mid-50's -- which means you have come to Mordor, but failed to reach Mount Doom -- is the best my family has managed so far.

If the Fellowship reaches Mount Doom, but fails in its efforts to destroy the Ring, then everybody scores 60: the number of the final space on the Mordor board. You won't feel too bad about this, I shouldn't think.

Finally, if the Ring is destroyed, all players receives a score of 60 plus the number of shields collected, all together, by the Fellowship. Scores above 90 have been reported on rec.games.board (by individuals noted for their gaming valor and truth-speaking ;) -- though personally, I can't see how it was done.

There is a "Competitive Game" variant. If the Fellowship succeeds, then each player receives an individual score: 60 plus the number of Shields that player holds. You still have to cooperate to have a hope of finishing the Quest.

Then there is what I call the Evil Rule, whereby a single Hobbit can seize the Ring and betray the Fellowship. This cannot be done EASILY, I should point out. Still, I expect my son Tristan will try it sooner or later.

I have given my verdict on the Lord of the Rings Board Game up front: it is a wonderful game, beautifully produced by Kosmos in Germany, with stunning artwork by John Howe. Reiner Knizia, the designer, has been criticized in the past for producing games whose mechanics of play are ingenious, but whose "theme" is rather thin. This time, he has managed to create a game that manages stunningly well to create the feeling of Tolkien's great work. Much of the credit probably goes to the team of hardcore Tolkien devotees whom he (wisely) recruited as advisors and play-testers -- notably David Farquahar, whom Knizia credits with "significant contributions to the thematic development and testing of the game."

I suspect that the quality of experience had by various players may be related rather closely to how vividly Tolkien's original resonates in this or that person's mind. Someone for whom the word "Mordor" sends a chill up the spine will feel differently than someone for whom "Lord of the Rings" is the name of that movie that's not opening till next year, isn't it, so what's the fuss about?

That said, this is a terrific game that even non-Tolkien buffs should enjoy -- as long as they enjoy gaming in general, and are playing with at least one person who knows the original story. I do think you need SOMEBODY to gasp in dread when, say, the Nazgul first appear.

Spiel Spaß, as we German game fans say!


SOURCES:

For the German edition, published by Kosmos Spiele Galerie:
http://www.adam-spielt.de - excellent prices, ships throughout the world

For the English edition, published by Hasbro UK, distributed in the U.S. by Wizards of the Coast:
http://www.funagain.com - major U.S. importer/retailer of German and other games
http://www.fairplaygames.com - slightly lower prices than Funagain, online ordering
http://www.bouldergames.com - lowest prices, but ordering must be done by phone or e-mail

Note on the U.S. edition: The edition currently on sale in the U.S. is identical to the German edition except for language, and is produced in the Kosmos factory in Germany with high-quality components. Hence, it has a relatively high list price. A few months ago, Hasbro announced plans to produce a separate U.S. edition through its subsidiary Wizards of the Coast. If this edition appears (probably to coincide with next year's movie release) it will probably have cheaper components and a lower retail price. The Kosmos/Hasbro UK edition is particularly well made and is strongly recommended over a future mass-market U.S. version.

The Dutch edition is not recommended.

UPDATE: From Nick in the Netherlands... I have the Dutch edition and I have no comment on the game, it's great! And about the translation... maybe there are translation errors... but I couldn't find them..

Add New Comment

Latest Forum Posts

Join the Conversation!