Flight Games/999 Games
|| Reiner Knizia
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.
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
Jump to my opinions
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
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.
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
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
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.
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)
about Lord of the Rings now at Funagain
about Friends & Foes now at Funagain
about Sauron now at Funagain
one of my copies!
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