One of the more original games I’ve ever played, Lord of the Rings, published by Fantasy Flight Games, is as difficult as it is beautiful.The artwork is exquisite – truly art! In between bouts of despair you will spend hours mesmerized by John Howe’s thematic masterpieces. Each of the six scenario boards (including the Friends & Foes expansion) is vividly rendered, depicting critical settings from Tolkien’s trilogy. There are also more than 100 illustrated cards, tiles, custom-designed dice, five Hobbits (yes, five), a very evil-looking Sauron miniature, and the piece de resistance, the One Ring, inscribed in Elvish and Hobbit-sized. *Note to potential buyers – this description is of the first edition. The Silver Line edition is smaller and cheaper, with less-attractive elements.
Gameplay is complicated, and the instructions are not easy to make sense of. Apparently the manual has been streamlined in the new edition; that would be a welcome improvement. The two primary devices which move the Ringbearer closer to fulfilling the mission of the Fellowship, or more likely, toward his destruction by Sauron, are the Master board and the scenario boards. The Master board is used to indicate the progress of the Ringbearer and the rest of the party toward Mount Doom. More importantly, it measures each player’s level of corruption and proximity to Sauron and the failure of the quest. Whereas the Master board remains in play for the duration, the scenario boards are temporary, representing one leg of the journey at a time. Using the cards to advance along a series of four possible routes, players accumulate artifacts that can help along the way, and try to avoid being corrupted by the One Ring. The most engaging dynamic is the paired use of dice with each board’s built-in set of evils. This is almost impossible to try and explain – you really need to see it and walk through a scenario to understand how it works, but I promise you it is compelling. How each player navigates the board, balancing the forces of corruption against the increasingly pressing challenge of avoiding consequences, determines the tone of the game and players’ ultimate fate. It is absolutely possible to lose Lord of the Rings on the very first scenario board. And why not? Frodo was very nearly caught by the Black Riders in Bree! Only through effective teamwork and a fair amount of luck can you succeed and destroy the Ring. You are going to lose this game. Often. In fact, when my friend and I finally destroyed the Ring after many failed attempts we “retired” the game.
The Friends & Foes expansion adds the Bree and Isengard scenario boards and a deck of monsters to deal with. It’s not all bad. Defeating all the mosters provides an alternate victory condition which is actually far easier than carrying the blasted One Ring all the way to Mount Doom. Players are forced to deal with them, though, and the extra boards just make it more difficult to avoid corruption and Sauron. If that weren’t enough, the Sauron Expansion puts one player in the role of the Dark Lord. This is like having a killer DM that has it in for the players. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to win when the deck is so stacked against the Fellowship. Before buying, you should know that the expansions don’t mesh with the Silver Line edition. No word on whether Fantasy Flight will reissue those to match. Depends on how well it sells.
It should be painfully clear at this point that Knizia’s masterwork is not for the impatient or easily-frustrated. This is a complicated game for seasoned strategy board gamers who don’t mind setting up a game they know with reasonable certainty they will fail at in 3 hours. For those elite gamers who crave a challenge and value innovative play and compelling, dynamic strategy, Lord of the Rings is the crown jewel of any collection. For everyone else, I recommend the Silver Line edition from Fantasy Flight. For $25 you can experience one of the great unique games of the past fifteen years, and maybe even come to appreciate the impossible series of events Frodo had to overcome to destroy the One Ring.