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
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
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
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!
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
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!"
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.
"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
"No, no, it was Pippin that got a ride on Shadowfax - Merry can't have
And so on ...
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, 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!
Hear are links to the publisher's web site and the official FAQ.
Other games by this designer I've reviewed are:
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