Designed by the power house of games that is Reiner Knizia way back in the year 2000, a time filled with excitement as cinemas began to trailer one of the best movies of all time (made even better by being longer on DVD!). Lord of the Rings was everywhere, for years after that, you couldn’t go in a charity shop without falling over six copies of Knizia’s classic.
At the time, however, I was far more interested in playing Lord of the Rings, the Strategy Battle Game, from Games Workshop, (still a great game with some fantastic minis) and so Knizia’s game remained largely ignored. Even after my board game epiphany back in 2008, (a Settlers related incident that is wholly responsible for me writing this review) I poo-pooed Knizia’s game, how could anything that came out of Hasbro be any good.
Nothing appealed to me about the game, especially the art, which I know a lot of people love, but for me John Howe’s vision of middle earth has never really been mine. Anyway, one day I came home to find the expansion, Friends and Foes sitting on my bed, a £1 Age Concern sticker proudly adorning its cover. Confused I asked why the game was there, an expansion to a game I had said “no” to on several other occasions.
Senility, it turns out was the reason. However, recognising the bargain nature of the purchase I went on ebay and within a week I had both the base game and Friends and Foes in my closet and even if you include shipping, I had only paid £6.
But, do I like it? Well, you’ll just have to read on and find out…
What’s in the box???
1 Master Board
2 Double-Sided Scenario Boards:
1 Sauron Figure
5 Hobbit Figures
6 White Markers
60 Hobbit Cards
5 Character Cards
5 Gandalf Cards
35 Feature Cards
23 Square Event Tiles
11 Round Life Tokens
1 Hall of Fame Sheet
Because this game was mass produced at a time when component quality was not as big a deal as it is now, the contents of the box are poor. If that bothers you then you can pick up the FFG version which has much nicer, if much smaller components.
Personally I never play with the hobbits or sauron figures, instead substituting in models from my own collection which look much nicer. The Boards and Cards are all pretty nice though and very clear and easy to understand.
(Adding my Own Minis)
Once it’s out on the table the game takes up a lot of space. I’ve also added a tile bag to my set to help randomise the tiles drawn at the start of each players turn.
You are a hobbit, a humanoid creature that is smaller than a dwarf, with large bare feet that have a leathery sole and furry top. You enjoy the finer things in life, food, ale, pipe weed, dancing with the local bar wench, however, your world is turned upside down the day that the Grey Wizard comes to town.
Soon you are off on a dangerous quest with a magic ring and only some other hobbits for protection. Together your merry band is subjected to war and strife and death until at last, if you are lucky enough, you get to wander, open eyed and bare-footed into the heart of a live volcano, where, with what little strength remains, you can attempt to fling the magic ring into the fiery pit, thus saving the whole of Middle Earth.
Playing the Game
Ok, so, this is a Reiner Knizia game and that means that the theme will be a little abstract, I admit, it’s there and it’s informing the mechanics of the game, but it's not immersing you into the story.
To set up the game the players lay out the Master Board, this informs you of where you are in your quest, how close the dark forces are to you and which quest will be coming up next.
One of the 6 white markers is added to the top section of this board, this marks the progress of the fellowship through the story. Each players Hobbit token is then added to space 0 on the lower track. The Sauron token is added to space 15 on the lower track.
Each player is then dealt 6 Hobbit Cards, these are basically like action cards and correspond to tracks on the scenario boards. There are 5 suits, these are Friendship (Hand) Travelling (Foot) Hiding (Tree) Fighting (Axes) and Wild (Star).
Each player is dealt a Character card which shows one of the 4 major hobbits from the books and, to allow a 5th player, Fatty Bolger is also present. Which Hobbits are in play depends on the number of players. Frodo receives the Ring and play can begin.
The players begin at Bag End and set out on their journey from there. They follow each of the steps at Bag End in turn. Firstly they receive their Hobbit Cards (already done). Next, the Ring Bearer can choose to roll the dice and take any negative consequences (5 in 6 chance of something bad) if he does so the Hobbits get 4 more cards face up that they can distribute amongst themselves. Finally, the Nazgul appears and one player must discard 2 hiding cards or the Sauron figure moves one step towards the Hobbits. Should the Sauron figure ever land on a hobbit he is eliminated, if it should land on the ring bearer all the players lose the game.
With Bag End complete the players move onto Rivendell, again cards are distributed and various tasks are completed. Once this is done the players are ready to move on to Moria.
The Moria Scenario Board is now placed on the table and the white markers placed on the various tracks.
The Moria board has three tracks on it, Fighting, Hiding and Travelling. Also, down the side it has an Event Track. The Life Tokens and Shields are placed near the board, along with the two Scenario specific cards. The Event Tiles are shuffled and placed in a stack. The Scenario can now begin.
Play begins with the Ring Bearer, he draws tiles from the top of the stack until he reveals either a Foot, Axe, Tree or Hand, resolving any other effect on the tiles as he draws them. Once he draws an activity tile (Foot, Axe, Tree or Hand) he moves the marker on the appropriate track and takes any action listed on the space, usually this will be take a shield, life token, card or roll the dice. Even if there is no activity line for the tile he drew, the player can stop drawing tiles as soon as he draws an Activity Tile.
Apart from Activity tiles there are also event tiles which trigger one of the six events on the board (representing famous events from the book) If the 6th Event is reached, it’s effects are carried out and the scenario ends and play is returned to the master board.
There are also tiles which cause either Sauron or Hobbits to move on the lightness/darkness track on the Master Board.
Once a player has drawn an activity tile and moved the appropriate piece he may play upto two cards from his hand. He may play 1 white and 1 grey. Each card will move one of the white markers 1 –3 spaces on the activity tracks. If the end of the main activity track is reached (the one that runs across the centre of the board) that scenario is over and play returns to the master board.
A player may play any number of yellow cards on his turn, or at any time during the game. He may also spend 5 shields at any time to play a Gandalf card, these each have 1 of 5 special powers and are always available to players but each can only be used once.
Once a player has played upto 2 cards it is the next players turn. Players may choose, after drawing tiles until they get an activity tile, to skip their go. If they do so they can draw either two Hobbit Cards, or move back one space on the Lightness/Darkness track on the Master Board. When a scenario ends, each Hobbit needs to have one of each of the three life tokens, a Sun, a Heart and a Ring. For each token he is missing he moves forward 1 space towards the darkness on the Master Board. It is worth noting that in a four or five player game it will be impossible for all players to get all the life tokens.
After the Scenario ends play returns to the master board and the fellowship moves on to the next location following the instructions. The game ends when the players reach the end of the main activity line on the Mordor Board and successfully destroy the ring, or when the Ring Bearer is knocked out of the game, or if the Event Marker reached the Big Eye space on the Mordor Board.
I like it. I didn’t think I would but I kinda do. It’s not that thematic, yes it has all the events that happened in the book, but they are represented by a white marker moving or by cards of a certain type being discarded. Perhaps its the art that keeps me from being absorbed in the game or perhaps it’s the mechanics, but regardless of the cause, I don’t feel like I’m saving middle earth, in the same way that I don’t feel like I’m saving the world in Pandemic.
That said, it’s still enjoyable, perhaps because the game is such a challenge. 10 games in and we’ve only won twice. I certainly think that knowing the events and working to prepare for them will give you a better chance of survival, but really you are at the mercy of the tile stack. In theory you can draw 6 event tiles in a row and fail the scenario before you ever got a chance to play a card. However, through skilful use of yellow cards (which usually represent powerful artefacts from the mythology of the books) and timely use of the Gandalf cards (which cost 5 shields but can be used at anytime) you can mitigate some of the luck involved.
Often times the game will come down to pure sacrifice as players deliberately throw themselves into harms way, often even out of the game, so that the Ringbearer can survive and win the game. So while you are constantly aware of the mechanics of the game, you still get that feeling of team work and sacrifice that runs throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
One problem that the game suffers from is lack of change. The events are always the same, the boards are always the same, even the characters are always the same. Part of that is necessary to deal with the totally random nature of the tile stack that runs the game, because without foresight the game would be much harder, but this predictability does mean that you will always feel like you’re playing the same game over and over.
The fact that Lord of the Rings is so damn hard to win helps with replayability, as it stirs within you a desire to beat the game, but, perhaps I would have preferred the game to be a little less brutal, but to have a little more variety. Event Decks for each board so that they felt different each time perhaps, alternate paths to victory or a larger pool of playable characters with special powers.
Overall I enjoy the game and I think that every now and then it’s a good game to break out, if you feel like being brutally beaten by a game.
Of course, that make victory all the sweeter. The game also plays in a short enough time that if you do lose it’s entirely possible to have another go.
If I were buying this game now, I’d probably plump for the new Silverline Edition, because the components look nicer and the game takes up less table space. But if you do stumble across the game in the charity shop, with it’s cheery Hasbro label on the front, pick it up and spend a hour or so questing through Middle Earth with your friends and family, And of course, when you’re done, you can always give it back for someone else to enjoy!
Until next time, have fun questing…