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Subject: Review by SOS (from 2000) rss

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Steffan O'Sullivan
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Plymouth
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"To be honorable and just is our only defense against men without honor or justice." -Diogenes of Sinope
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I wasn't expecting to like this game. First, although I admire Reiner Knizia's game designs very much, I've long thought that his weakest element is "theme." That is, his games tend to be very abstract, with themes weakly painted on. This just wouldn't do for Lord of the Rings, which is a very rich world. I just didn't think Knizia, as brilliant a game designer as he is, was the right choice for this game.

Second, I heard the game was cooperative, and I was dubious. I've played some other cooperative games in the past, and was frankly disappointed. So I wasn't looking forward to that aspect of it, either.

And finally, The Lord of the Rings book means a lot to me (though not as much as The Hobbit, I admit). It was a book that really opened my eyes some 35 years ago, and I've always considered it the standard by which all other fantasy is measured - and most other fantasy falls short. So I was afraid someone else's conception of Middle Earth wouldn't match my own very personal view.

I'm pleased to say that my expectations were unjustified. I enjoy this game very much and am able to recommend it to any fan of Tolkien! Would I recommend it to those who have either not read Tolkien or have read him and don't like him? Probably not - I admit much of the charm in the game is in knowing the characters and situations well enough to be emotionally affected by the events. This was verified when I played with an avid gamer who had never read the books and has no love for fantasy literature in general: he was underwhelmed by this game. But the rest of us loved it.

The Basic Premise

The game is for two to five players, though it's certainly playable solitaire. In addition, I've had fun as a sixth person, guiding five new players through the game, offering advice even though I didn't have a character.

The players are hobbits trying to destroy the One Ring before Sauron can find it and enslave the world with it. In a two-player game, just Frodo and Sam are used. With more players, add (in order) Pippin, Merry, and Fatty Bolger. Fatty Bolger? Well, he was in on the plot. He was the one who stayed behind to make the house looked lived in while the other four set out to destroy the Ring. Had he been a bit bolder, he might have gone with them, so he does make a good fifth character. At least it keeps the players all hobbits, and that's good.

The other main characters in the book are represented in various ways. Gandalf is represented by five cards the players can activate when they've collected enough "shields." These cards can help keep the party alive, so are very fitting for Gandalf. Elrond and Galadriel are gift-givers, presenting much needed cards to the party to help them overcome future obstacles. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Faramir, Ghan-Buri-Ghan, Éowyn, etc., are actual cards the players can play to help them on their journey. Even Gollum is represented as a useful card - but carries a potential danger, of course ...

The group starts in Bag End and proceeds through Rivendell, Moria, Lothlórien, Helm's Deep, and Shelob's Lair to Mordor. Along the way you use Friendship, Travelling, Hiding, and Fighting cards to collect shields and life tokens and progress on your journey. You are presented with events to overcome, some of them very mild, some horrendous. Some or even all of you will probably die - be warned, it's not an easy journey! But there is satisfaction in helping each other on the way, and even a player eliminated from the game can still contribute advice - and still share in the victory if the party can destroy the ring.

What You Get

The game is quite attractive, no matter which language edition you buy. (Though I'm told the Dutch version has some typos on the boards, sorry.) There is a master board, not very wide, that is used the entire game. This contains the basic sequence of events and helps you keep track of where you are between Bag End and Mordor. The master board also contains a "Corruption line" - you can't fight evil without becoming affected by it, alas. This track contains the actual hobbit tokens as well as the Sauron token - they start far from each other and various events force them closer together. When the Sauron piece meets a hobbit piece, the latter is out of the game. If it happens to be the ring-bearer, the whole party has lost.

There are four other maps, which are mounted back to back on two boards. These are placed one at a time below the master board, making the two boards placed together about the size of an average game board. The four maps are of Moria, Helm's Deep, Shelob's Lair, and Mordor. Each contain four or five separate tracks: an Event track you wish you could avoid, three or four of Friendship, Journeying, Hiding, and Fighting tracks, one of which will be the main track to progress through the board. There are pawns to move along each track to let you know where you are. When you've completed one of these boards, you replace it with the next one.

There are a number of tokens included: chits representing events, shields, and life tokens. These are sturdy cardboard. Not mentioned in the rules, but since event chits are hard to shuffle, many people use a drawstring bag to draw them from instead of stacking them. Simply draw three at a time if you use Gandalf's power that lets you sort the next three event chits in order.

Finally, you get a number of handsome cards. The basic cards are Hobbit cards - these contain the Friendship, Hiding, Travelling, Fighting and Wild card symbols. (Minor nitpick with the English language edition: the Wild cards are called "jokers" which is not in keeping with the game setting. Wild card is a much better term.) There are also Feature cards you can collect along the way - these are distributed by Galadriel and Elrond, for example, and can help the party on their trek.

The Basic Play

You start in Bag End. The master board tells you what to do there - purely mechanical distribution and spending of cards. Then you come to Rivendell - again, no hard choices. Next, however, is Moria. Unlike the books, you don't have a chance to try the passes - you just go directly from Rivendell to Moria. Once there the ringbearer draws an event chit. If it has a symbol to advance the pawn along the main, hiding, travelling, or friendship track, well and good. Otherwise, it's less good ... either somebody advances on the corruption track, you have to lose some cards or chits, or you simply resolve the next event listed on the board. The ring-bearer can then play one or two cards to advance the pawns on the tracks, usually picking up shields or life tokens along the way. (Or he can opt not to play cards in order to heal or draw more cards - a nice mechanism!) Once the ring-bearer has taken his turn, the next player draws an event chit, and so on until you've either progressed on the main track through Moria or all Moria events have occurred. At that point, everyone checks how many life tokens they've acquired in Moria. Those with less than three different tokens advance the difference along the corruption track, and the tension mounts ...

With a brief interlude in Lothlórien, this pattern basically continues through Helm's Deep, Shelob's Lair, and Mordor. The events listed on each board give some finer detail, such as the Paths of the Dead that Gollum led Frodo and Sam along, and Ithilien where they met Faramir.

Only in Mordor do things change a bit: the final event there is Sauron seizing the ring and the game ending in defeat, for example. And the final space on the main track there is Mt. Doom, where each player tries to destroy the ring until someone succeeds - or there is no one left to succeeed.

A "Hall of Fame" score sheet is included to record how well you did. Each space of the main track contains a number between 10 and 60 - the number the main track pawn is on when the party dies is your final score for the game. If you do manage to destroy the ring, you get 60 points plus the value of all your shield tokens collected and retained.

Shields

Shields need a little explanation. I'm not really sure what they represent - maybe experience. You collect them by moving along various tracks - they have numbers from 1-3. You can make change, but sometimes you draw a random shield and simply add it to your total.

Shields are used in various ways: many events call for you to discard shields or suffer some consequences. These are especially prominent in Shelob's Lair and Mordor, so you'd better have collected lots of shields before you get too far into Shelob's Lair or you're in trouble. If a player mananges to collect five shields they can summon Gandalf at any time by turning them in: simply choose one of the five Gandalf cards and follow the directions on it. Once used, a Gandalf card is out of the game. Finally you can save shields, hoping to destroy the ring and give the group a larger final score at the end of the game.

Rolling the Die

The game includes a unique die, but you wish it didn't ... most of the time the die is rolled, bad things happen. At best, nothing happens, and there's only a 1/6 chance of that!

You roll the die when called to by the event chits, event track, other tracks, or sometimes even through card play. You have a 1/6 chance of advancing Sauron on the Corruption line, a 1/2 chance of advancing your own pawn on the Corruption line (1, 2, or 3 spaces!), and a 1/6 chance of losing some cards. The final side is blank - nothing happens, breathe a sigh of relief!

The Ring

Also included is a plastic ring that actually has the language of Mordor printed on it. A bit scary, to be honest!

Although Frodo starts out the ring-bearer, this can change. You can't just pass it to anyone, however - they have to earn the right to bear it by collecting the most Ring life tokens, to show that they won't be corrupted by carrying the ring. So the group has to finagle their progress on the various tracks, slowing down or speeding up to set it up so that the least corrupted person will be the ring-bearer on the next board. This isn't always easy, and can be very frustrating when the event chits don't cooperate at all ...

Once per board, the ring-bearer can put on the ring. This is of course risky - you have to roll the die, which is never a good thing. But the advantages can outweigh the risk, if you're lucky. You can advance along the main track, ignoring ordinarily required spaces. Since you control the timing of putting on the ring, you never put it on unless you're about to cover some bad spaces, of course.

This, by the way, is my one possible complaint with the game. I think Herr Doktor Knizia may have gotten it wrong here, but will defer final judgement until I've played more. The rule is that you roll the die, and resolve the result. So far so good. However, then you advance the pawn four spaces minus the number of symbols showing on the die. So if you roll "advance your pawn three spaces on the corruption line," that's represented by three black circles - three symbols. So you'd only advance the pawn one space.

I'm tempted to think the rule should read advance the pawn one space plus the number of symbols rolled. The way in the rulebook means if you have bad luck with the die, advancing three spaces toward Sauron, you also don't get to advance the pawn very far: you have really bad luck. If you have very good luck with the die, getting a blank side, you also have very good luck with the pawn, moving it four spaces. My way, the luck would be more balanced. Good luck with the die (blank face) means minimal luck with the pawn. Bad luck with the die (advance three corruption spaces) would mean good luck with the pawn.

However, Reiner knows this, and deliberately choose an all-or-nothing approach to the die roll to build tension. He may be right, so I'll continue to use his rule for many more games before deciding to scrap it or not.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

There's a lot of luck in the game. Each board, you re-randomize the event chits, for example, and if you draw all the bad ones early on the boards, your party doesn't stand a chance of getting through Shelob's Lair, let alone Mordor. In our very first game, for example, we had it carefully and cleverly set up that the character with the fewest corruption points would be the next ring bearer. We drew the last tile on the board, and it gave a ring chit to the player with the worst corruption record, which meant she became the new ring-bearer! We died shortly thereafter, all our planning shot down by an unlucky draw. In another game, we drew five sundial event chits (advance to the next event) in our first six draws in Mordor ... no one can survive that, no matter how well you prepared for Mordor.

There are other instances of luck, also. In my first game, I summoned Gandalf with my last action (I died right afterwards) and allowed the most experienced player to arrange the next three chits in any order she wanted. When we turned them over, all three were Proceed to the Next Event chits, which meant not only was my sacrifice in vain, but we then knew in advance the party wouldn't survive the board ...

Then you might not like the cooperative aspect. There is no one winner, nor one loser. This doesn't bother me, but people who play games for the competitive aspect may not be happy with it. There is a competitive version of the game as a variant rule, but it's pretty tame. Whoever collects the most shield points by the time the ring is destroyed wins - otherwise, all fail together. I'm actually relieved it is so tame - when I first heard there was a competitive version I had horrible visions of Frodo tossing Sam to Sauron in order to win ...

It's not as "clean" a design as most of Knizia's games. This is due to the theme, of course, so I forgive him. If you really want a game to feel like a pre-existing atmosphere-rich novel, you can't expect one simple mechanic to rule them all ... oops, sorry. I mean, yes, there a few fiddly things to remember here and there, but overall it's still pretty clean. But not as pure a game as Honeybears or En Garde, no, and that may bother you if you come looking for the Knizia hallmark of "clean" rules.

Number of players: although it plays from 2-5 players, there are problems with some of those numbers. With 5 players, you're guaranteed some folk will advance on the corruption track after each round, because there aren't enough life tokens to go around. (In fact, there aren't even enough for four players.) And likewise in Mordor you're guaranteed some players will roll the die, as events there call for those without certain life chits to roll the die. This is slightly offset by having more special abilities (each hobbit has a special ability) and more cards in general to choose from for those events that call for anyone to discard - but then there are times when each player must roll the die. If you have five players rolling the die, Sauron can come swooping down on you like a diving falcon, and that's all she wrote. With only two players, conversely, you don't have enough special abilities to carry you through, and the events which require any party members to discard cards or shields hit you hard. I think three or four players have the best chance of destroying the ring, though I could be wrong. At any rate, be warned that "2-5 players" on the box doesn't necessarily mean they stand an equal chance of succeeeding ...

If you don't know or like Tolkien, there's a good chance you won't like the game. As I said earlier, much of the enjoyment is in reliving the novel.

Conversely, if you're too identified with the novel, you probably won't like the game, either. I can almost hear some people I've known in the past saying things like,

"What do you mean, Fatty Bolger's going with them? That's not right!"

"Helm's Deep! Why is this game sending hobbits to Helm's Deep? None of them went even close to there!"

"Frodo's just passively handing the ring over to Merry? I don't think so!"

"No, no, it was Pippin that got a ride on Shadowfax - Merry can't have that card!"


And so on ...

But then, this may be a good antidote for you if this describes you. You really shouldn't take the novel that seriously, you know, as fine a book and setting and world as it is. Honest.

Summing Up

I like it. It's tense, gripping, keeps you involved, not a lot of down time, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and the stakes are high: you're trying to save the world, after all! You get to work together with people you're normally trying to bowb (http://www.panix.com/~sos/bc/bowb.html, and that's a nice change of pace. The cooperative aspect doesn't overwhelm you - you can still make your own decisions even against the group's advice, if you want.

And it's very, very nice to see a Knizia game rich in theme. I've known for a long time that he was brilliant with mechanics, and now I'm happy to see him finally meld mechanics and theme. Congratulations, Reiner! Well done!

2007 Note: since this review was written, there have been some expansions published that change the game. I like the Friends and Foes expansion, but not the Sauron one. I hear there's a new one due out this year, but know nothing else about it.
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Doug Adams
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Quote:
and now I'm happy to see him finally meld mechanics and theme.


Trying hard to keep the lid on the can of worms...
 
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Steffan O'Sullivan
United States
Plymouth
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"To be honorable and just is our only defense against men without honor or justice." -Diogenes of Sinope
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dougadamsau wrote:
Trying hard to keep the lid on the can of worms...

Hi Doug, good to hear from you! Yes, please keep that lid on!
 
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Doug Adams
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sos1 wrote:
dougadamsau wrote:
Trying hard to keep the lid on the can of worms...

Hi Doug, good to hear from you! Yes, please keep that lid on!


You too, Steffan. I have to keep telling myself you wrote this in 2000
 
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