Tuesday, January 12

Two Tolkien Games Part One: Lord of the Rings

Cait and I recently played two of Lord of the Rings board games. One has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. The other, I don’t think we’ll ever play again.

That game is Lord of the Rings, a co-operative game from board game legend Reiner Knizia. Even though the experience of muddling though it was pretty lousy, it’s nevertheless worth reflecting on, since it raised a crucial and rarely-seen existential question: should this game have been made at all?

Lord of the Rings plays out over a series of four boards, representing Moria, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair, and Mordor. (Full disclosure: in our first—and only—game, Cait and I didn’t even make it through Helm’s Deep.) Gameplay is identical on each: players draw tiles that can trigger either generic or scenario-specific bad things, and then they advance pawns along the board’s tracks. These tracks confer tokens that are used to either activate Gandalf’s powers or keep the ring from corrupting the Fellowship. Track advancement and bad thing–prevention is done by trading in cards, which have symbols that represent friendship (a handshake), hiding (a bush), fighting (a sword), traveling (feet), or wild (a star).

I cannot describe the tedium of playing this game any better than BoardGameGeek user MontyCircus:
Player 1: "Okay I flip this. Darn. Does anyone have a bush? Or a star would work too."
Player 2: "I have a bush."
Player 1: "Awesome that you had that bush card."
Player 2: "Okay my turn. Flip this. Darn. Does anyone have a handshakey?"
Player 3: "I have a handshakey."
Player 2: "Good thing you had that handshakey. Okay I'm going to move this cone and take a ring."
This repeats until you get to the end of the fourth board or until the Sauron marker reaches all of the hobbit markers on the corruption track.

Does any of that sound like Lord of the Rings to you?

Lord of the Rings?

Nope. Instead you either play your own cards, get one of the other players to play one of theirs, or just suffer the corruption consequences. This means that the entire game boils down to choosing to discard cards now or save them for later. For four boards. Or until you all die.

I’m unsure of whether this game is boring in and of its own mechanics, or if the attempt at being a Lord of the Rings game is what makes it bad. While I find the typical characterization of Dr. Knizia’s themes as “pasted-on” a bit unfair (I can see the theme in Tigris and Euphrates!) the symbol-discarding is tragically unevocative of Tolkien’s epic. Oh, sure, elements from the book are there: after all, the “Sting” card has two fighting symbols instead of one!

Furthermore, the co-operative aspect of Lord of the Rings is disappointing. Though the self-sacrifice aspects (“I’ll suffer the corruption so that you can go on.”) are perhaps the most thematic of the game’s mechanics, discussions among players seem to amount to nothing more than risk-assessment. Compared with the co-operative puzzle-solving that you find in, say, Pandemic or Ghost Stories, Lord of the Rings is unsatisfying. I’ll admit that a better sense of the pace of the game would give context to make more informed choices, but in our defense, Lord of the Rings is not a game that made us want to play it again.

The greater question remains, however: what is the reason to play or even make a Lord of the Rings game with these mechanics? What do you gain by discarding symbols to advance pawns on boards, even if the boards have John Howe art and the discard prompts share descriptions with events from the books?

In Lord of the Rings, you can’t deviate from the original narrative. You can’t brave the avalanche and take the pass rather than descend into Moria. You can’t save Boromir, seeing what happens if the Ring takes Gimli or Legolas instead. You can’t send Merry to Gondor, Pippen to Rohan, or Sam to Isengard. You can’t sneak through the gates instead of climbing the stair. You are locked, 100%, into the story as written. (Actually, not strictly 100%: ironically, the fewer of the book events that you trigger, the more likely you are to survive to the end.)

Cait is of the opinion that if what you want is to re-live the books without actually reading them, you might as well just watch the movies. The power of the game medium is to give players agency, the chance to execute their own strategies and see what comes of them. Lord of the Rings offers none of that. There’s no way to carve your own path through Tolkien’s world, only to follow the tracks and hope you don’t die.

Next post, I’ll talk about War of the Ring, the brilliant game that is everything that Lord of the Rings is not.

Finally, I can’t ignore this game’s greatest crime: in order to support five players, they added a fifth hobbit to the Fellowship. That hobbit’s name? Fatty.

Correction: I was wrong about Fatty. He is, in fact, a canonical character: Fredegar Bolger. This what I get for watching the movies over and over but going for 15 years without reading the books. Thanks to Jimbers for setting me straight, and apologies to the game developers for mistakenly calling this a “crime.” The rest of my objections still stand, however.