Monday, May 12, 2014

Expected journeys

At its heart, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is about journeys: Frodo and Sam's journey from the Shire to Mordor, and, to a lesser extent, Aragorn's journey from a northern ranger to king of Gondor. So it follows that any board game that's really going to capture the flavor of the story should involve moving from one place to another, and overcoming obstacles along the way.

Two of Fantasy Flight's Lord of the Rings board games do just that, in surprisingly different ways.

The first, originally titled simply Lord of the Rings but in its current version subtitled The Board Game, was designed by Reiner Knizia in 2000 and is widely considered to be one of the very first cooperative board games. Players assume the roles of the intrepid hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin (and even Fatty Bolger, the forgotten fifth hobbit from the book, if you have five players) on their epic journey across Middle-earth.

Each stage of their journey is undertaken on a separate board, with a primary movement track, separate smaller tracks that the players can choose to try to progress along in order to retrieve allies and other advantages, and a list of consecutive events representing brushes with the forces of Sauron. Progress along each board is made via two methods: drawing random tiles and playing cards. Tiles are drawn at the beginning of each player's turn and can represent player movement or movement along the event path, with each event consuming player resources or moving the forces of Sauron closer to the players.

A master board keeps track of each hobbit's proximity to the corrupting influence of Sauron. If a hobbit gets too close he is eliminated from the game, unless he carries the Ring, in which case the game is lost. The players have to work together, pooling their resources to stay a step ahead of Sauron and complete their journey to Mount Doom.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) We've been playing this game for a few years now and have yet to make it all the way to Mount Doom, but the engaging and thematic game play keep us coming back.

Date played: March 15, 2014

Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation (also designed by Reiner Knizia) is about Frodo's journey to Mount Doom as well, but in a very different way. It's a two-player game very similar to the classic Stratego, with one player controlling the Fellowship of the Ring and the other controlling evil minions of Sauron such as Saruman and the Ringwraiths.

Each player gets nine playing pieces, placed in such a way that the other player can't see which piece is which. The Fellowship player's goal is to move Frodo across the board to Mount Doom, while the Sauron player must try to block and eventually defeat him. The game's strategy lies in sacrificing some characters in order to make a clear path for Frodo, or box him in so he can't escape.

Playing pieces are only revealed when they move into an enemy's space, and they affect each other in different combinations. Combat between pieces is normally a simple contest of numbers, but some Fellowship characters will automatically defeat certain Sauron characters, and many of the Sauron pieces have unusual methods of moving across the board. Additionally, each player has a hand of cards that can be played to add an unexpected element to the clashes between characters.

The out of print "deluxe edition" (as well as the current edition by Fantasy Flight) includes a set of alternate characters for each side, which adds some variety to the game play.

It should be mentioned that the artwork for The Confrontation is especially stunning, setting the stage for the upcoming Lord of the Rings: the Card Game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An entertaining game with some terrific artwork, but not quite as engaging as many of the other Lord of the Rings games out there.

Date played: March 16, 2014

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