I was interested to read your comments about Reiner Knizia being ‘assigned a team of advisers’ to get the theme into his Lord of the Rings Board Game. The team was me, and I was not assigned to him by anybody. I thought you might be interested in a brief description of how we did get the theme into the game, so here goes.
I have known Reiner for seven years or so, primarily as a playtester, but working on various projects together, and latterly as a friend. Reiner rang me at work to say that he had been asked to do LOTR. He asked me to work closely on it with him, and as it has long been my favourite book I was overjoyed at the opportunity. Hearing that John Howe was being brought in as the artist only increased my excitement.
Reiner knew of Middle Earth, but did not know Middle Earth (if you see what I mean). So that had to change if the flavour was going to get into the game. We started by spending a whole day together while I told him the story. We sat a lot, walked a bit and went out to eat, while the story continued. At the end of the day Reiner told me how he thought the game might work. The final version is not too far from this early idea.
Reiner’s overall approach was to try to get the feel of Middle Earth into the game. For him this meant the struggle of good against evil, and innocence against corruption. Having decided to play it as a series of adventure boards, portraying the story we had to decide what this should be. Over the next month we identified the main themes and episodes running through the book, and came up with about a dozen that we wanted to do. This was unwieldy, and would make the game far too long. In the end we decided on the four within the game, plus some interludes (Lorien etc). This was not easy. Which is more important, Helms Deep or Isengard?
We identified the main characters (does this Bilbo guy really need to be in there?), and items for the game as a whole. Then it was onto the adventure boards. I would go away and analyse that part of the story. Who and what was involved. Breaking it down, identifying key events etc. We would then get back together and work on that adventure. Reiner then created the board, cards etc for that one and it was tested, revised then tested again. This approach continued over about a year, with new adventures being added, and the system constantly developing.
It was very odd for me, as I constantly read and re-read the book, but not in order. Sometimes scouring particular chapters for just one more item. Whether we were successful in achieving the right feel is for others to judge. As a closing note, when John Howe flew in to play the test version before starting on his artwork he said “I am not a board games player, and am jet lagged, but for me it has the feel of Middle Earth.”