With a company of dwarves, I am pretty sure you could do just about anything. Just ask Bilbo Baggins. Riding high on the popularity of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey film, Cryptozoic teamed up with Reiner Knizia to put together this cooperative dice game with, wait for it, the exact same title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In this game you and your fellow players take on the role of the company of dwarves, and, of course, Bilbo as they set off on their trek across Middle Earth. There are some who are here because of the Lord of the Rings franchise, and there are some who are here for Reiner Knizia. Is The Hobbit just another game? Or is it The One Game to Rule Them ALL? Lets find out.
The Hobbit is a cooperative game, where the players will either win or lose as a group. Winning is carried out by completing all of the tasks before running out of resources, and losing would be letting your precious resources slip away before the journey is completed. If you really want to judge yourself from different plays of the game, there is a point system on top of all of that to differentiate if you scraped by, or if you vanquished your enemies.
Each task will need a specific set of skills to be completed. There are 3 different skills: swiftness represented by rabbits, diplomacy represented by dwarf heads and fighting power represented by axes. On each turn at least one task must be completed or the group will lose a resource. When a task is completed, a quill token is placed to mark that part of the journey complete.
On each turn a player will draw an event card. These cards will either add tasks, make tasks harder, or temporarily handicap the player in some way. Then the player will roll 4 dice. These dice are the source of the resources you need to complete tasks. Each dice has every skill twice, once as a singe skill, and once as a double skill. At this point a player may allocate dice to a particular task. This means that the resources are committed to that task, they cannot be removed. Then the player may re-roll all un-allocated dice. Depending on the outcome, the players can collectively play resource and/or character tokens to alter the dice even more. After all of this is done, tasks are marked, and the next player starts their turn.
The tasks are laid out on a board that represents the given ‘chapter’ of the journey. The group starts in The Shire, but when all is complete in the Shire, the company will move on to the next board, The Misty Mountains. When a board is completed, the resources are collected and placed with whatever other resources are available.
Some inquisitive people may be wondering if this game follows the book (The Hobbit, by J.r.r. Tolkien) or the movie adaptation (so far The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, by Peter Jackson). If the title of the game did not give it away, this is based on the movie. Your next question may be: “Wait… the movie is split in to three parts! Is the game?” Yes! Yes, the game is designed to be played stand alone or with 2 (yet to be published) other games following the last two movies in the series. The later games will add more boards to be completed. Resources carry over, so your performance on the first board does influence your ability to complete the next board. Without playing the yet-to-be-published expansions, it looks as though the game will seamlessly flow when they are all added together.
I have been talking a lot about resources and characters. Both are a tool to mitigate poor dice rolls, and resources are also used as victory point trackers. The group collectively starts the game with 6 resources, and each player starts with some characters, each one has a special ability, ranging from supplying skills to allowing more re rolls or even setting the dice to whatever side you want them to be. Once the group uses a resource it is removed from the board. This means that you cannot use it again, and it is not worth any points. Characters are able to be retrieved after use, but are not as powerful as the resource cards, and provide no points.
The game ends when the last task is completed on the second board, or when the group has run out of resources on the current board. The group totals up their victory points on their remaining resources, and rejoices in defeating the evil of Middle Earth.
Things and Bits:
This game is done right. Cryptozoic did a stellar job on the production of The Hobbit. The resource and character tiles are thick and heavy, the boards look great (all three of them!). They included reference sheets to clarify some of the abilities of the resources and event cards. I am sure this will be useful as you add more to the game later. The art is either photos of the characters or original work, all of it looks really clean. The icons are so-so, some of them help the game move along, but some of them rely on the reference card. My only complaint is the dice. While they are fine, I think the gaming community has been spoiled by playing games with custom engraved dice. When I first pulled out the dice, my heart sank a little. For a game with such high component quality, the printed dice seemed a little lack luster.
The rule book is a good one, both good looking and efficient in explaining the game. The game is on the lighter side, everything flows fairly well, and is easy to teach and play with non-gamers. The nature of the game leans towards smaller groups, playing with 4 seemed to work, but was not as fun as 2 or 3 people. The game moves at a quick pace, 30-40 minutes on average. This game is going to shine with gamers who are looking for something to play with their family or non gaming friends.
First off, I need to get this out of the way: Elder Sign. I don’t really like to reference other games when I review them, just because some people may not have played the other game… anyway, Ill make this quick. This is a much better, more enjoyable game experience than Elder Sign (another cooperative, roll dice to complete task game). Playing Elder Sign always leaves me feeling like I am not in control of what is happening, I either win or lose by chance of the dice and cards that come up. The Hobbit makes mitigation of poor dice rolls manageable, and fun. It is a little lighter, but the end of the day, they are very similar, but The Hobbit does it better.
I can see how some hardcore gamers will argue that this is more of cooperative puzzle solving than a game; or worse, thematic Yahtzee. I can see their arguments, and while I don’t necessarily agree, the game can be boiled down to ‘just’ rolling dice and seeing what happens. I would argue that the resource and character tiles give the players a varies of good choices as they play the game. People who like deterministic games are not really going to enjoy The Hobbit. However, if you love rolling dice, this will be a great one.
The theme in The Hobbit is subtle. If people are looking for a ‘Tolkien Experience,’ this is not it. While the game does feel like you are romping around middle earth with a bunch of dwarves, some players ignored the theme all together and just rolled dice. All of the tasks reference some part of the movie (e.g. ‘Keep the troll Tom Talking’), and all of the resources are aptly named. I don’t necessarily think the theme was ‘pasted on,’ but it is light at best.
The duality of resources is amazing. When reading the rules, you don’t really pick up on why the resources are in the game, it takes a play through to really understand how they are used. As noted above, resources mitigate bad rolls, they act as a game play timer, and they provide victory points. When playing, some groups tended to burn through their resources, while some clung on to them desperately. The way you gain them after every board makes me very excited about the next two games. It is going to be very interesting to see how this game fits in to the next, as currently the resources you collect on the second board are only used for Victory Point calculations. In the future these are going to be used to complete the following boards. They are a game mechanic that is simple, effective and elegant.
This game fits a nice niche by not taking too long, not being too complex, but still is enjoyable. Because of other players being able to play their characters on your turn, all of the players are engaged throughout the game. Turns tended to be group turns, not really individual turns. The active player was just the person rolling the dice. The Hobbit brings up a lot of open discussion, while straying away from the Alpha Gamer problem, because no one knows how the dice are going to roll. The choices in the game are simple, but still interesting enough to keep my attention. I could see this being a great game to play with kids. You can remove the failing condition of the game, and just play to completion for those with younger children.
People are always leary of ‘licensed games,’ afraid that they are not going to do the license justice, or the game justice. The Hobbit falls into the exception of this concern. Tolkien fans will enjoy the game because of the theme, even if light. And gamers are going to enjoy the game because of its interesting mechanics. I could easily see this becoming a gateway game for Tolkien fans, it is very easy to teach, and just start playing. I hope that Cryptozoic can get this out to mass market stores, I think it would do great in a Barnes and Nobel or a Target.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was an unexpectedly enjoyable game. Based on solid game design by a well known designer, with an honest Tolkien theme, Cryptozoic’s production is one worth noting. I highly suggest this game for someone looking for an interesting game to play with their families, or young children, and would also suggest this to gamers who are looking for a comfortable, easy to enter cooperative game. I am already looking forward to playing the next two games. So put on your best cloak, grab your trusty sword, and roll those dice.