Teeuwynn has been a game designer, author, and TV writer since her career began back in the '90s.
J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga, The Lord of the Rings, is a sweeping tale of good triumphing over evil. It is also a story that teaches the lesson that even the smallest of us can make a tremendous difference in the world if we persevere and work together.
Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings takes on the immense task of reducing the epic world of Middle Earth into the relatively sparse confines of a board game. Unlike roleplaying games, such as Iron Crown Enterprises’ Middle Earth Role Playing, a board game doesn’t allow its designer to spend pages and pages elaborating on the world and the characters who make their home in it.
The recent film adaptations also can take advantage of their cinematic scope to paint a picture of Middle Earth by spending millions of dollars creating ents, trolls, and oliphants for us. So, how does a board game without hundreds of pages of text or millions of dollars worth of special-effects images convey the rich depth of fellowship and epic adventure that is at the heart of this beloved high fantasy work?
Features of the Game
An Experienced Designer
Reiner Knizia is no novice when it comes to game design. Having published more than 400 games and won approximately umpteen zillion awards, this doctor of mathematics still had to come up with a game to satisfy both hardcore board-gaming fans and the legions who venerate J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. Instead of making the Lord of the Rings board game a straightforward experience, in which players compete directly against each other to win, Knizia created an almost entirely cooperative game.
Cooperative Instead of Competitive
This decision kept the game true to Tolkien’s world while emphasizing the trilogy’s spirit and theme. In Lord of the Rings, each player takes on the role of a Hobbit bent on getting the One Ring to the top of Mount Doom and destroying it in the dread volcano’s depths. In the game, as in the novels, Frodo and his companions must make their way from Bag End to Mordor, gaining help from the elves and other friends and facing increasingly more deadly attacks from Sauron and his minions.
The Game Boards
The game itself has either an entire board or a single location for each of the main lands through which the Hobbits journey on their way to Mount Doom. Places such as Bag End and Rivendell are innocuous oases of rest, where the players can receive cards or other types of advantages. Menacing places such as Moria, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair, and Mordor are detailed on separate boards that contain multiple paths. The party must face the perils on each of these boards.
Good and Evil, Winning and Losing
The main board also displays a path of corruption—from purest good to blackest evil. Sauron and the Hobbits begin the game at opposite ends of this board, Sauron in the dark, the Hobbits in the light. Different events move the sides closer together.
Carrying the powerful One Ring, for example, causes a Hobbit to move down the path toward the dark. If one of the Hobbits ever meets up with the Dark Lord, it’s curtains for said Hobbit. Should the current Ring-bearer meet this fate, the game is over and everyone has lost.
Scaling the Difficulty
You can scale a session’s difficulty by placing Sauron closer to, or farther from, the Hobbits at the start of the game. This is a nice means of maintaining the game’s challenge. As you and your fellow players get better at making the trek to Mount Doom, you can challenge yourselves by decreasing the starting distance between you and your adversary.
The Path of Corruption
The path of corruption mechanic might seem like it would push players to take individual actions to save their own hairy Hobbit feet from Sauron, but it actually binds the group together strategically. When a Hobbit grows too burdened—that is, corrupt—from carrying the Ring, it behooves the entire party to make sure that another Hobbit shares that burden for a time.
The One Ring
The One Ring is not without its benefits; it is dangerous, but it is also powerful. Any time in the game, the Hobbit carrying the Ring can put it on, so that the party can progress, invisible, along one of the multiple game tracks, avoiding its greatest perils. However, the temporary safety comes at a price, as the Hobbit wearing the Ring almost inevitably journeys closer to the Dark Lord.
A Cooperative Game
In playing the game, on every player’s turn, one or more tiles are turned over to see if time advances. When it does, bad things tend to happen—such as drawing the notice of the Watcher in the Water on the Moria board. In that encounter, the players must either discard a certain type of card or roll a die that will move them down the path of corruption.
If the group hasn’t prepared for these sort of confrontations, the Hobbits will slide quickly into the dark, lose important cards, or face an advancing Sauron. In the case of the Watcher, a savvy group will work together to make certain it has the proper card and resources in place before moving into Moria and facing this threat.
Sharing and Sacrifice
This is a radical departure from most board games, where hoarding information is one of the strategic keys to victory. Here, a player who hides information will damage the party, thus increasing the likelihood that the Hobbits will fail in their quest to destroy the Ring . . . in which case, everyone loses.
In fact, the design’s underpinning of cooperation is so strong that players sometimes find that they must make the choice to sacrifice themselves to allow the Ring-bearer to get to Mount Doom. Unlike so many other strategic board games, Lord of the Rings rewards community and self-sacrifice as a necessary components for victory.
It should be noted that the game does include a way to determine an ultimate winner among the individual players, but we’ve never even bothered to use it, since it runs counter to the game’s primary victory condition and theme.
A Brilliant Feeling of Unity
Where Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings board game delivers brilliantly is in conveying an all-important feeling of fellowship through every aspect of its design. In order to beat the game, players must talk to each other, work together, and one or more Hobbits may have to sacrifice themselves so that the Ring-bearer can get to Mount Doom and destroy his dangerous burden.
When your group manages to achieve this lofty goal, it’s a victory for all. In this, players get to realize, to some degree, the same sense of community that Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the Fellowship feels in Middle Earth as they struggle against an overwhelming force, one far more powerful than any of the individuals opposing it. Their incredible strength comes from their unity, and Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings board game reflects that truth beautifully.
The Lord of the Rings board game has proven quite successful, spawning several expansions.
Friends & Foes
The first of these, Friends & Foes, was released in 2001 by Fantasy Flight Games. Friends & Foes introduces a new potential military victory to the game. Players can win by defeating all of the foes, in place of destroying the Ring. This is an easier victory condition—perhaps too easy—for players to accomplish.
The second Lord of the Rings expansion, Sauron, was released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2002. It significantly changes the game’s dynamics by allowing one person to direct the Dark Lord. In a somewhat more traditional form of competitive gaming, that person clashes directly with the other players, who still take on the roles of the questing Hobbits.
Sauron is well done and is a worthy addition to the series, but the adversarial aspect makes Lord of the Rings a rather different game from the original, fully cooperative version. Still, it’s an interesting variation and the majority of the players continue to work together, even with the odd player out; if you only buy one of the expansions to the core game, buy this one.
The third expansion, Battlefields, was released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2006. Battlefields introduces more non-Hobbit members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This ties the overall game more strongly to Tolkien’s narrative. However, the quality of the art in this expansion falls flat when compared to the brilliant work by John Howe found in the original game and previous expansions.
© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff