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Letters to the Editor
The Lord of the Rings
Nothing’s changed since I reviewed The Lord of the Rings Tarot Card Game back in TGR 16. While I played plenty of Dungeons & Dragons in high school and college and enjoyed The Hobbit, I only made it through the first fifty or so pages of The Fellowship of the Ring before I threw in the towel from boredom. So depending on your perspective, I’m either the wrong guy or the perfect guy to reviewing the latest game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal saga.
[Editor's Note: I finally read the books in December 2001, in anticipation of the film. My assessment? Tolkien was a lousy writer who benefited from being first to market with an adolescent/adult-ready fantasy world. Fewer tangents and casual mentions of arcane names and fictional historical minutiae which have no emotional resonance to the reader, please, and more plot and character development. Before long I didn't care a whit about Frodo-- Sam was the real protagonist and a far more compelling character.]
The second thing you need to know about The Lord of the Rings, after its title, is that it’s a cooperative game. All players win or lose together, as a team. That kind of Musketeer mentality is de rigeur in the fantasy role-playing circuit spawned by Tolkein’s opus, but it’s a more alien concept in the world of board games. Scotland Yard pit one player’s Mr. X against a team of opposing detectives, and horror games like Chill: Blackmorn Manor featured struggles between fluctuating light and dark sides. But the shelves aren’t overflowing with games which put all players on the same side, and for good reason. Where’s the fun in that? A good part of the fun of a game is the battle of wits among the players. A mechanical system can’t possibly rise to that challenge.
Which brings me to the third thing you need to know about The Lord of the Rings: it was designed by Reiner Knizia.
The One Ring starts in Frodo’s hands. Up to five hobbits— Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and “Why do I always have to be” Fatty— play hot potato with the bauble on the journey from Bag’s End to Mount Doom, where the powerful artifact will hopefully be destroyed and the world made safe for hirsute folk of abbreviated stature everywhere.
The central engine of the game is a stack of event tiles, about evenly split between good and bad. A player starts his turn by revealing and resolving tiles until a good tile comes up. Bad things therefore tend to come in clumps, which can mean dramatic shifts in the party’s fortune with little warning. This randomness is the main complaint against the game, and it’s entirely justified. If a bad stack of tiles comes up, there’s really very little the group can do about it. If tiles are favorable, the party has an easy time of it. The most interesting games come from a varied stack, and fortunately these are more common than the aberrant distributions. Each of the game’s four main scenarios comes loaded with a fixed sequence of events— some beneficial, some inconvenient, others downright disastrous. These events are triggered by bad tiles, making each scenario a race to get to the finish before the final calamitous event.
Sauron represents the dark side of the Force, always threatening to overwhelm the noble hobbits. Throughout the game events can cause hobbits to become more corrupt, advancing towards Sauron’s embrace. Sauron himself can also close in on the hobbits and, if he ever catches up with one, the poor soul goes gibbering away into the shadows and out of the game. If the hobbit was carrying the Ring, Sauron clutches it greedily and the game ends in failure.
Each scenario features 3-4 movement tracks representing friendship, hiding, traveling, or combat. Good tokens advance the party along these tracks, and players can play cards to advance further. Moving along these tracks earns rewards in the form of shields or life tokens. With enough shields, a player can spend them to call on Gandalf the wizard for one of five types of powerful assistance. Think of him as the party’s Lifelines— when to use them, and which one to use, is one of the game’s key strategic dilemmas. Speaking of lifelines, each hobbit needs one of each of the three kinds of life tokens to avoid corruption after each scenario— so while a quick finish runs less risk of hitting bad events, it can mean the corruption of your party.
Reaching the end of the primary track ends the scenario in the hobbits’ favor and avoids any remaining events. If the fellowship completes the final scenario and survives to tell the tale, the Ring is destroyed and the players win. Their group score is increased by the number of shields they have remaining, encouraging players to call on Gandalf only as a last resort.
More than anything else The Lord of the Rings is an experience game, by which I mean the enjoyment comes from the feeling the game evokes. I’m not talking about the fantasy setting— not having read the books, the individual names and places mean nothing to me. What’s remarkable is the group dynamic as players band together to beat the system. As a cooperative game, players are encouraged to communicate with each other and are allowed to talk freely about their hands. This open communication and the common goal for all players creates a group atmosphere similar to a role playing game. Working together to overcome the obstacles thrown into their path by the game creates an entirely different feel from games where players go head to head, and it’s a very welcome change of pace.
Group victory can be tremendously satisfying, particularly if some players sacrifice themselves along the way for the greater good. Making that choice between saving a hobbit from death or protecting the Ring-bearer at the cost of knocking a player out of the game is a unifying rather than divisive experience. That’s quite remarkable.
It’s also not everyone’s flagon of mead. Some are put off by the heavy random element which, while it can be guarded against, can’t be entirely mitigated (it is, after all, the heart of the system). Paradoxically, still others are worried by the rigid event sequence. While the timing of events is random, each game always presents an identical set in identical order. This sameness may reduce the game’s shelf life. The mechanical nature of the game means decisions boil down to probability calls and hedged bets. There is arguably a “best” strategy to pursue, a “right” decision to be made at each juncture. Once a group unlocks these secrets, such as holding onto traveling cards in the 2nd and 3rd scenarios for use in the final dash through Mordor, the game’s luster may well dull.
The cooperative nature of the game can be a twin-edged sword. With discussion flowing freely, it can be all too easy for more experienced or domineering players to drive the session and leave the others feeling like they have little to contribute and are just along for the ride. A variant creates the possibility of a mole in the ranks, but in the standard game it’s all for one and one for all. This, and the rules’ encouragement of information-sharing, means the game is essentially a solitaire game with the activity divided among the players.
The Lord of the Rings is quite an impressive and versatile game design— it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see it reappear with different themes, much as Mike Fitzgerald has reworked the fundamental rummy mechanic into the various Mystery Rummy games (Alea’s upcoming Wyatt Earp was originally developed for that series). The game scales well from two to five players, and can even be played solo. I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the spectacular artwork, particularly on the five game boards— this is a very pretty game. But this is not a game for everyone. It’s quite abstract despite the art and theme, and some people just won’t warm to the whole cooperative foundation, preferring to match their wits against those of other humans and not a set of random occurrences.
My greatest concern about the game is with its replay value and longevity. While I respect the design and am duly impressed with how well it creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and cooperation, I suspect most groups will tire of it before long. Even so, it’s successes and unique cooperative niche are enough to make me happy to keep it among my collection. The Lord of the Rings feature film may bring a renewed marketing push come next December, but by then the gaming community will have long since moved on to more varied and challenging pastures.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)