Manufacturer Kosmos/Hasbro/Parker Brothers/Fantasy Flight Games/999 Games
Year 2000
Designer Reiner Knizia
Lord oof the Rings box

Lord of the Rings


The intrepid hobbits attempt to destroy the One Ring, saving all of Middle Earth from the power of the Dark Lord Sauron in this cooperative game from master designer Reiner Knizia.

Background

Ever since the Lord of the Rings became a cult classic, attempts have been made to make it into a game. Few until recently were very successful at doing so. The first of the "new crop" of LotR games to come out was this Knizia design. What really separates this game from others is the fact that in this game, all of the players are playing against the "system" of the game, and all of the players will either win or lose, regardless of whether or not their individual hobbit survives. Also in this review the Friends & Foes and Sauron Expansions!

Jump to my opinions

The Gameplay

The game begins with the players taking on the role of one of the four hobbits that left Rivendell in the fellowship, (or as Fatty Bolger if five are playing), and setting out from Bag End on the way to Mt. Doom. Each player receives a hand of cards, which are either white or gray, and the game begins. The game is played over four boards, (or scenarios if you prefer), representing key parts of the story: Moria, Helm's Deep, Shelob's Lair and Mordor. Each board has a series of "tracks" along which markers are moved to show the Fellowship's progress. One of these is the main Activity track for the board and the others are side tracks. There is also an Event track which functions as a "timer" for the board, (and which throws various kinds of nastiness at the hobbits). There is also a master board, which shows the Fellowship's overall progress, and is used to track the corruption of each hobbit, and the "nearness" of Sauron. The hobbits markers are placed at the "0" space on the corruption track, and Sauron is placed on the 12 space, (or on the 10 space for a harder game, or 15 for an easier game). A few minor things happen in the Shire, mostly involving the players getting more cards, and the marker is moved to Rivendell on the master board, where players gain a few special cards, ("Feature" cards). Once the party sets out from Rivendell, the main game play begins. On each player's turn, a tile is revealed from a stack of tiles at the side of the board. This tile will show either one of the types of tracks, (hiding, fighting, traveling and friendship), also known as "Activity" symbols, or a sundial, (representing an event), or a sundial with some additional symbols, a black dot and a ring, or an eye, or an eye/two black dots combination. A player continues to turn up tiles, and carrying out their effects until an activity symbol is flipped. Here's what the various symbols do:

Eye: Move Sauron down one space on the corruption track toward the hobbits.
Ring/Dot: The current ring-bearer must take one point of corruption, moving toward Sauron on the corruption track.
Eye/Two black dots: One hobbit must take two corruption OR Sauron moves one step closer.
Sundial with Symbols: The players can choose to discard the items shown on the symbols OR move the marker on the event track down and carry out the effects of that event..
Sundial: The event track marker is moved to the next event, and its effects are carried out.
Activity Symbol: If the symbol shown has a corresponding track on the current scenario board, move the marker on that track one space, and carry out the effects of that space.

After revealing a tile or tiles, (once an activity symbol has appeared), the active player may now play one or two of the cards in their hand. These cards show either an activity symbol or a star(s), (which are wild cards). If two cards are played, one must be white and the other gray. For each symbol shown on a card, the marker is moved along the corresponding track, and the actions of that space are carried out. These will generally be to take a shield token, or to take a life token, (which come in three types), to roll the die, take a point of corruption, or to take a scenario-specific feature card. A player can also choose NOT to play any cards in which case they can either heal one point of corruption or draw two cards. If at any time a player's hobbit figure is on the same space on the corruption track as Sauron, then that player is eliminated, and is out of the game.

The active player moves to the left, and the process is repeated until either the marker moves to the last space of the scenario's main activity track, or until the marker reaches the last space of the event track, (generally with disastrous consequences). Upon the conclusion of a scenario, any player who doesn't have one of each type of life token takes a point of corruption for each missing type, and the hobbit with the most ring tokens becomes the new ring-bearer. And what about the ring? What powers does it possess?

Once a scenario, the ring-bearer can put on the ring. At that point a die is rolled, and the marker on the main activity track is moved 4 spaces, minus one for each symbol shown on the die, (so it can be from 1-4 spaces of movement), and any effects shown on the track's spaces are ignored. This is really handy for those spaces that have corruption or die rolls on them, allowing the fellowship to avoid paying those costs. Of course they also ignore the shield token symbols. And shield tokens are good to have, because at any time a player can trade in 5 shield tokens to pick up one of the available "Gandalf" cards. These cards are very powerful, allowing the player to ignore an event's effects, heal a hobbit two spaces, draw four cards, etc.

If and when the Hobbits make their way to Mt. Doom, (the end of the Mordor board's main activity line), they must survive one more die roll. If any hobbits remain alive, the ring is cast into the Cracks of Doom, and all of the players win, (even the dead ones). If they never reach there, or are all felled there, then Sauron has triumphed.

The Scoring

Scoring is more for posterity than anything else, due to the cooperative nature of the game, but a score can be established by taking the number shown on the last main activity track space that was reached, if the hobbits failed in their quest, and if they were successful, taking the number of the Mt. Doom space, (60), and adding the number of shields the hobbits still have left.

Why this game is so great

The game is so great because it is unlike almost any other game out there. It finely balances the need for cooperative play with the fact that no one really wants to die and stop playing. So a player is torn between doing something that will help the fellowship and may in fact kill them, or doing something to save their own skin. Then of course, you have the theme, which is richly woven through the game by the wonderful art on the boards, and in the events, which are recognizable occurrences from the books. The game has a tremendous degree of tension, as Sauron moves down the corruption line, closer and closer to the hobbits.

Why others don't agree

The biggest knock on the game is that there is no "game" in it. Since the players are playing against the system, rather than each other, and as the game is necessarily linear, many feel that the game plays them, rather than the other way around. Also, the fact that the event tiles are drawn randomly, with little ability to modify them leads to a feeling that the game is a total luck-fest. And certainly, getting a bad run of event tiles at the wrong time can be completely disastrous, and isn't much fun. However, this doesn't happen all that often, at least in my experience. You will get a bad run of tiles at some point, but you can generally find a way to overcome that.

Another issue that can be leveled at the game is that if there is one dominant personality among the players, they can ruin the game for everyone by trying to tell everyone exactly how they should be playing. This can also happen if there is a much more experienced player in the group. Such a player can suck the fun right out of this game, as that person might as well be playing solitaire.

Finally, if the players aren't fans of the Lord of the Rings, they might not get much out of the game, although the unique cooperative nature of the game can ameliorate this somewhat.

Friends & Foes Expansion

Soon after the release of Lord of the Rings, the Friends and Foes expansion was released. Many people felt the base game was too easy, wondered why the numbering on the main activity tracks had two big gaps, and wanted a bit more from the game. Friends and Foes provided it. The Friends and Foes expansion includes two new scenario boards, Bree and Isengard, 3 new Gandalf cards, 13 new feature cards, a deck of foes, and a special "one-shot" card for each hobbit. Here's how they work.

Rather than getting to jump straight to Rivendell, the hobbits must now make the trek from Bag End through Bree, and the Shire and surrounding lands have gotten much less friendly. There's nothing particularly new on this board, although it has one really nasty event, and it begins bringing out the foes. The foes are various nasty creatures that the hobbits must defeat throughout the game. In the base game, there are events and such that require the hobbits to discard cards or be eliminated. In Friends and Foes, each "discard card" symbol is changed to mean "reveal foe". When these show up, a new foe card is turned up, and placed in a row above the board. Each foe card shows at the bottom what is required for the hobbits to defeat the foe. These can be take corruption, take a die roll, discard a life token, move Sauron closer, etc. On a player's turn, they can, in addition to their card plays, choose to fulfill the conditions on the leftmost, (last revealed), foe card to defeat it, removing it from the foe line. They can then defeat the next one, etc. Or they can choose to not play cards, draw cards or heal, and defeat the foe without taking any of the foe's consequences. Each foe that is defeated will add one shield to the players final score, but that's not much of a benefit, so why even bother with them? Because if at the end of a player's turn, there are 8 foes showing, then the hobbits have been overtaken by the foes, and instantly lose! So this is a pretty good incentive for keeping the foes under control. But there's more.

While some feel that the base game is too easy, the though of adding two full new scenario boards for the hobbits to survive clearly isn't offset by 3 new Gandalf cards and a bunch of new feature cards, especially given the foes to deal with. But, if at the start of certain boards, there are no foes in the foe line, the players can choose to skip the board entirely, sometimes with other conditions as well, and then revealing four new foe cards. This is huge. Now the fellowship can make some strategic decisions as to what to do and when to do it. Skipping one board is a must, and two is generally preferred, but which ones to skip?

There is also a rule about a "military victory", where if the hobbits can defeat all of the foes, they win, however most everyone thinks that this doesn't feel right, and an additional card was issued, "The Black Gate" which returns the nastiest of the foes to the deck, making this an even harder feat to accomplish. All in all, the Friends & Foes expansion is nearly a must have to bring out the true potential of the game. It is still a great game without it, but it is even better with it, and makes the game feel more complete. It also makes the game MUCH more difficult. In fact, I have yet to ever win when using Friends & Foes, whereas we nearly always won when playing the basic game.

Sauron Expansion

After Friends & Foes came out, yet another expansion was released, the Sauron Expansion. In this expansion, the cooperative nature of the game is partially removed, as one player gets to play Sauron. Sauron is given a set of cards of his own and a set of Nazgul cards. Before every player's turn Sauron can play a card to inflict pain on the hobbits, as well as whenever a die symbol appears. Many of the Sauron cards show a black rider symbol, which allows Sauron to move a Black Rider figure down the corruption track toward the hobbits. If the Black Rider is able to reach the ring-bearer, and then return to Mordor, Sauron is informed about where the Ring is, and the hobbits lose. The Nazgul cards are really, really nasty, but luckily Sauron doesn't have that many of them.

The hobbits do gain some benefits however. There are some additional resource markers that are placed along the side tracks of the first three scenarios, which are helpful, and each hobbit is given another "one-shot" special effect. Then there are the dark tiles. A bunch of new event tiles are added to the mix, all of which are bad for the hobbits, (though generally far less nasty than the standard event tiles). This is countered by the fact that when a player draws a tile, they have the opportunity to reject that tile, and then draw another. The second tile drawn MUST be accepted. So if you draw a not too nasty non-activity tile, you are faced with a hard choice: accept the minor pain, or take the risk that the next tile will be a sundial. This adds yet another nice bit of control and "strategy" to the game.

Now the downside to all of this is that if playing with Sauron, AND Friends & Foes, AND the Dark Events, the game becomes almost impossibly hard. Now I haven't played very much with Sauron, but the few times I have, it was over in a hurry for the hobbits, though there are those that claim that you can win with all of the above. Also, many of the people who felt that the game was too formulaic or that the cooperative nature was boring really seem to like the ability to have an actual enemy to play against.

Recap (Base Game-Friends & Foes-Sauron)

Strategy:  5-6-7
Complexity:  6-7-8
Fun:  7-8-9
Overall:  8-9-?

Buy/Read about Lord of the Rings now at Funagain
Buy/Read about Friends & Foes now at Funagain
Buy/Read about Sauron now at Funagain

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