What happens when two of your passions that are quite disparate in their nature, are fused together? Is there crushing disappointment or perhaps a synergy where one enhances the other? Read on to see if the marriage of Tolkien and Knizia, in the form of Lord Of the Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition, can work out!
I am a real fan of Reiner Knizia. He has designed hundreds of brilliant games. Previously I’ve written about his skills in game development and highlighted a string of puzzles and colourful titles. This obviously comes from his background as an excellent mathematician. I also have had a love of “all things Tolkien” since my childhood. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been a particular favourite set of books of mine. You can imagine my joy when given the 20th Anniversary Edition of the Lord of the Rings game.
This title has a history. Indeed, it is the grand-daddy of cooperative games and has spawned a host of games of this genre. If you love working together to fulfil a quest, and have a soft spot for hobbits, then this is the game you must try for yourself.
Many of Knizia’s games are competitive puzzles. Lord of the Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition is entirely collaborative. In the same vein of the books, the aim is to get the ring bearer to the top of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring before the forces of Sauron claim it for themselves. The game involves hand management of the cards that need to be played to advance the characters through Middle Earth. It is marketed for children from 13 years and older and up to five can play and there is a solo mode.
The player board has two elements; the corruption tract and the conflict tracks. The former indicates the journey towards Mordor starting at Bag End. There are a few spaces where players can gather resources, confer and plan for the challenge ahead. In Bag End, Rivendell and Lothlorien, as in Tolkien’s books, these are places of refuge. Additional equipment cards may be drawn and assistance and advice gathered from key characters. The lower part of this board shows the corruption tract. The hobbits and the black rider advanced towards each other and if Sauron’s steed reaches the ring bearer the game is lost.
Each hobbit will advance independently, dependent on cards and tiles drawn and also on the roll of a custom dice. The Anniversary Edition has a set of five hobbit mini-figures and the one ring. This sits comfortably over the ring bearer and this role will change throughout the game. The player carrying the ring will change according to who has the most ring tokens at the end of each conflict round. It’s not just Bilbo that has the privilege.
The game is a condensed version of Tolkien’s tale. Four key parts in the quest are marked by conflict areas; The Mines of Moria, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair and Mordor. As the fellowship reaches these points so the appropriate conflict board comes into play. Each conflict board contains a series of tracks. Players can advance tokens along these tracks by playing cards from their hand, but before any player
can play any cards, a conflict tile must be drawn. This may indicate one of these four tracks that will start the progress of the quest. At this point the player may either play up to two cards to advance the quest token, draw two cards to the hand or perhaps rest and restore their health [this entails moving back down the corruption tract away from the black rider]
Beware Of The Black Rider
There are seven conflict tiles that cause events for the fellowship rather than advancing along the track. These issues do need resolving and might involve loss of cards, or the movement of Sauron towards the hobbits. Often the action is determined by the role of the D6 dice which affects both the cards in the hand and movement along the corruption board. For each conflict, players need to advance along the quest, battle, friendship and spell tracks. With each movement, players will claim runes and additional items. The runes are needed to avoid events or even call upon Gandalf’s advice to help later in the quest. Each Hobbit should try to acquire three specific items during each conflict phase if possible. Failure to do so means a worse outcome and movement along the corruption tracked at the end of that specific conflict.
As in the books, the ring bearer might try to wield the ring. This gives invisibility and avoidance of some parts of the quest. Invisibility comes at a cost – potential corruption and descent to the dark side. Each player, therefore, advances at different rates along the corruption track. Occasionally one might choose to sacrifice a player in order for the ring bearer to be protected. That player is removed from play but the quest has not failed as long as the ring does not fall into enemy hands.
Lord of the rings will take about 45 to 60 minutes to complete. With the solo mode, it will play a little quicker. Depending on player experience the separation between the hobbits and black rider can be varied at the start. Players can also choose their favourite character as each has specific abilities that also can influence the outcome on the conflict track.
Thoughts On Lord Of The Rings
Lord of the Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition was a real surprise for me [in a good way]. From the moment I opened the wrapping of my present I knew I would love this game. The box has familiar faces. The font screams “Middle Earth”. Knizia has managed to distil the tension of the books into four key conflicts so well.
“The fate of the fellowship is balanced on a knife-edge. Waiver just one step to the left or the right and the quest will fail” Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Much thought has gone into the quality of this 20th Anniversary Edition. Each mini-figure is shaped to allow the one ring to sit around its base to indicate that this hobbit is wearing the ring. The boards are very clear and colourful. The path ahead and tracks are easily identified with excellent iconography and superb printing.
My only slight issue would be a desire that each individual Hobbit could have been moulded slightly differently to provide some other features rather than just colour to differentiate them. However, the black rider certainly is a menacing individual as he gallops along the corruption board. The first two “zones” of the quest are purely for setup and preparation. Again, as in the book, this will set the scene and is very much in keeping with the quest. This phase allows some cards to be exchanged and players can develop their hand in preparation for the forthcoming challenges.
At the start of each turn, a player must draw tiles to allow the quest to progress. In its current form, these tiles are shuffled and then arranged to form a stack and the top one taken. In my opinion, this would be a slicker mechanism if there was a small bag to contain these tiles and then a tile can be drawn as necessary. This also would increase the tension as many of the tiles can cause problems with the quest.
Once into the four challenges of Lord Of The Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition, players can see the “puzzle” element of Knizia’s thinking. If players choose to play appropriate cards, it might be possible to race through each quest - progressing along a single pathway. To do so would mean forfeiting the chance to gain additional runes and tokens. These could be helpful for later challenges and, at the end of each conflict, there is a reckoning. Any players without a full complement of additional tokens must advance along the corruption track. By working together it is possible to plan who will claim which token to ensure a balanced mix so that Sauron might stay at arm's length.
This balance of speed versus the need to acquire tokens has been carefully considered. To tarry too long on some of the other “side tracks” means that the probability of drawing one of the seven unfavourable tile tokens will increase. If the fellowship has not completed the challenge by the time the seventh tile is drawn then the penalties are extremely stiff.
Ultimately, the decision which path to advance is a matter of discussion and whether the team is willing to take a risk. Again, risks can be mitigated by the use of spells and help from Gandalf [at a cost]. This means that the pace of the game is entirely dependant on the choices made by the players. Advance quickly and the gap closes between the hobbits and the black rider. Go too slow and there is a greater probability of bad events coming into play. As with many games, there is a balance that can only be identified after several games. Each game not only differs through a player’s decisions but also choices that are determined by cards in the hand. This too enhances replayability.
Who Was Fatty Bolger?
Lord Of The Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition is designed to play for up to five gamers. Four hobbits I could name but who is the fifth? Knizia and the team obviously did their research. Fatty Bolger was a close friend of Frodo and one of the few people outside of “The Fellowship” that knew of the ring. He helped Frodo to escape Hobbiton by continuing to live in Bag End himself to keep up the pretence that Frodo was still there. So for me, this game has been an education too.
Final Thoughts On Lord Of The Rings
This is not LOTR: Journeys in Middle Earth. It pre-dates it by over 15 years! What you have is a relatively quick set of challenges that distil the essence of Tolkien’s trilogy extremely well. I’m sure that if there were Rivendell and Lothlorien boards [as well as the existing four conflicts] then the artwork depicting these would have been superb too. The feel of the game with the ever-threatening approach of Sauron is excellent. There is the opportunity, as in Tolkien’s books, for players to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the quest. Playing Lord of the Rings allows plenty of communication with some planning. Teenagers could easily master this game and younger children could play this with help from parents. There is a lot of enjoyment from this game that has definitely stood the test of time. It is one to keep in mind for fans of Tolkien and Knizia.