QUICKBEAM'S OUT ON A LIMB:
The Games the Thing!
I am a fervent fan of gaming. Be it strategy game, party game, dice, trivia, fantasy role-playing, collectible cardyou name it, I have surely played it. One of my favorites has become something of a hobby, the wonderful Dragon Dice game (imagine a cross between Risk and Magic: the Gathering and youve got the best collectible dice game there is). Ive played in tournaments across the West coast, even claiming the title of Western Regional Champion.
But there is a special place on my table for board games. Ah, the joy of playing Scrabble with close friends who allow vulgar words! The glee of popping Mousetraps plastic contraption into chaotic motion! I even get a kick out of the prehistoric Clue; now that theres a new edition with The Simpsons characters.
But the most satisfying board games of all are those bearing the name Lord of the Rings. And strangely enough, there are only two.
For the record, I have found a variety of other strategy games and CCGs (collectible card games) that have been based on Tolkiens legendarium, some more loosely than others. Every month at Green Books we get several misguided letters trying to correlate the names of the nine Nazgûl with the Middle-earth: The Wizards CCG published by Iron Crown in 1995 (just a hint, there are frequently non-Tolkien names on those cards, made up by the company to fill in details Tolkien did not record!).
But here I will explore the two delicious board games that (through the magic of over-paid lawyers and tricky licensing) actually claim the name of our beloved epic.
Harking back to late 1978, we uncover the treasure of Ralph Bakshis rotoscoped animated film. Surely many people wish to leave it buried, but thats another story. Within months of the films wide release in the US, the classic game company Milton Bradley had store shelves piled-high with "The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game." My Stepmom and I were wandering through Sears, of all places, and my eyes lit up like a certain wizards fireworks when I saw it. I squealed and begged to get one, succeeded, and spent the next ten years adoring it like no other game.
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The board, cards, and character tokens all bear designs from the Bakshi film. Here are the character tokens in the Fellowship:
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Even though the maximum players is four, a player may choose any of the Nine Walkers and insert the token in a colored plastic base. I always chose yellow, along with my faithful Sama habit unbroken after all this time.
The most striking feature of this game is the over-sized board. Actually, its kind of wacky. The general map of Middle-earth, just like the one found in any edition of LOTR, is reproduced on a grid of hexagons. To the distaste of many there is a great deal of abstraction in the layout of this hex-map; but it really is quite clever. Places along the travel route are given names (Bree, Rivendell, Lórien) and some are designated by color. For example, the Mines of Moria are colored with a black background to indicate underground darkness.
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Players each take turns trying to move from Start, adjacent to a homely picture of a hobbit-hole, across the entirety of Middle-earth to reach the last space labeled Mt. Doom. Thus the game mechanics are standard: whoever gets to the end of the board first is the winner.
There are a variety of obstacles, culled from the adversarial creatures that appear in the book: Nazgûl tokens that can be shifted about to block opponents, stationary Orcs marked on a quarter of the boards spaces, and even Shelob qualifies for her own hex. The mountains are especially difficult to cross, for each player has to roll a "delaying die" that determines how many turns you lose before you get to move out of the terrain.
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The real meat and potatoes of this game is in the playing cards. They allow remarkable ruthless and cruel behavior among the players. You can steal little plastic Rings from your opponent, move him helpless into a posse of Orcs, or even bring a Nazgûl back from the dead to haunt his progress. I wonder what power of the Valar could ever conceive of resurrecting a Nazgûl! Yikes
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Admittedly, the designs are simple, even a little silly at times. Looking at the goofy icon used for the Orc spaces I wonder "Who on earth was paid to draw that?" But given the way United Artists was trying to sell the LOTR property with a juvenile appeal back in 1978, it makes sense that the same flavor would sneak its way into this game.
The only way to play it is to know going in that you will be mean, heartless, and opportunistic at every chance. Two-player games end up being dull, really, because the dynamic is all wrong. I strongly advise 3- or 4-player matches played with gusto. The Bakshi film never actually completed the story, but thankfully this game allows you to fulfill your quest and destroy the Ring. But only at the expense of other players!
Nowadays the 79 "LOTR Adventure Game" is a rare collectors item. Never reproduced in later editions, you will have to scour through eBay auctions, Gaming Conventions, even specialty shops to find a decent copy that still has all its pieces. I am very lucky to own one in superb condition and an extra full game for replacement pieces.
In stark contrast we have the just-released "Lord of the Rings" board game designed by Reiner Knizia and released in America through Hasbro. [Well, actually theyre Wizards of the Coast
no, no that cant be right. It has the Parker Bros. logobut the new logo for Tolkien Enterprises is also on the box. This is confusing. Seems the lawyers have been at it again.]
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Anyway, take everything I just said about the old MB game and reverse it. This extraordinary new game is lush, detailed, considerably more complicated, and rides on a principal that may just shock: You have to help your opponents, not hinder.
Knizias design turns the traditional formula of board games on its ear. The spirit of cooperation reigns over the players as they struggle against the game itself. It is the truest representation of "fellowship" a board game can hope for. Even better, it keeps an amazing fidelity to themes and events in the novel, as you will see. At the risk of drooling, I stand up proudly and admit how much I love this new game.
It is difficult to dilute the essence of the mechanics but Ill try. The main action is split along several game boards: the "Corruption Line" and the four "Scenario Boards." Each player (as many as 5) takes the role of a hobbit from the story: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, or the estimable Fredegar Bolger. Why Fatty? It makes sense, since he too was one of the friendly conspirators and knew about the Ring, so you can extrapolate how he could have been included in the travelling company if the story had taken that course.
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The hobbit players take turns being the Ringbearer, making their way through various adventure boards (Scenario Boards). Here is the one for Shelobs Lair:
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The "Corruption Line" is the constant element, and a rather ominous piece that resembles an Eye atop Barad-dûr is placed at the darkest end of the spectrum. The hobbits begin over at the light end and, appropriately, the Ring corrupts everyone throughout the game. The only winning outcome is if everyone stays in the light and somehow keeps the Sauron piece at a safe distance. If he catches any of the hobbits on the Corruption Line, theyre removed from the game.
You have to be a very sharp strategist to get through this. Typical of a Knizia game, there are many choices to make and they become increasingly hard as you go. Generosity is keyyou will spend your best cards and life tokens for your fellow player, giving support and advice as events get worse. At the end, several others may willingly die so you can have one last chance to destroy the Ring. Its marvelous.
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Instead of simplified iconography, we have John Howes excellent artwork that covers every inch of the play area and cards. It is no surprise that Peter Jackson hired Howe to stay in New Zealand for a year, alongside Alan Lee, producing conceptual work for the films. The rich textures and colors are exemplary. I want to put the Helms Deep Scenario Board in a nice frame!
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You can buy "Lord of the Rings" at hobby shops, and the Wizards of the Coast chain of stores (also check at The Gamekeeper stores). I recommend the official British website by the publisher, Sophisticated Games, and be sure to consult the FAQ at Chris Lawsons site, dedicated to all things Knizia.
I can only make a wild guess at what other LOTR games may be coming down the pipe, as the first of PJs films gets closer and closer. I better throw out that dusty old Pictionary and make room in my closet for more.
Much too hasty,