Despite the fact that it is, in reality, a small, simple game, Knizia’s Lord of the Rings understands epic fantasy. It takes place across not one single board, but four separate boards representing the key moments from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, plus an additional board tracking the players’ progress in the overall quest and Sauron’s progress in locating the One Ring. As simple as this game is, there’s no reason this couldn’t have taken place on a solitary, larger board, but the game’s creators understood that a story about travel across unimaginable expanses of harsh landscape requires the feeling of actually going places.
And it works. Carrying the ring all the way to the peak of Mount Doom feels like the culmination of an epic quest, even as the actual length of gameplay averages only 60 minutes.
Released in the early 2000s to coincide with the announcement of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is a significant game design. It is often perplexingly cited as the first cooperative board game, despite the fact that such games have existed since…well, for an awful long time. In fact, five years after publishing Knizia’s game, Fantasy Flight Games reprinted a classic cooperative game from the late ’80s, Arkham Horror, starting one of their biggest, most profitable product lines. Something about Knizia’s design, however, stood out enough to effectively reinvigorate the cooperative genre, inspiring a decade and a half worth of increasingly popular designs (2014 saw the release of roughly 400 new cooperative games and expansions, although only the first couple of hundred count as notable releases).
So, what was it about Knizia’s design that captured the imagination of so many and turned a rare, novelty mechanic into a thriving gameplay genre? To start off with, Lord of the Rings is, like so many of Knizia’s other designs, mathematically balanced to perfection. It’s challenging to pull off a win, but despite that, the game feels consistently fair, as you know that the odds are always…well, not in your favor, but there’s a significant possibility that you might win. Call it 20%.
That consistency is the point. Where earlier cooperative games often based their mechanics on the ever-popular roll of the die, Knizia plays with probabilities, distribution, and other concrete, reliable concepts. There is a die in the game, the terrible Threat Die that can bring Sauron closer to capturing the ringbearer or sow corruption in the hearts of the Fellowship, but it seldom sees play–if you have to roll it, you know things have gotten desperate. Instead, Knizia embraces the theme of corruption and temptation from the Lord of the Rings novels in his mechanics, inviting players to race to victory, with the possibility that they won’t have the resources to finish their quest, or dally at each board, gathering boons and allies, at the risk of negative events. Most bad things that happen in The Lord of the Rings happen because somebody allowed them to.
In The Lord of the Rings, up to five players each take the role of one of the famous hobbits of the Fellowship. To maintain the consistency of the story, the available characters depend on the number of players: 2-player games will always have Frodo and Sam, 4-player games add Merry and Pippin, and the unlucky fifth player gets Fatty Bolger, who I don’t think made it into the movies (or, indeed, past the first book).
For this game, I departed on a 2-player quest with Frodo (as portrayed by Jerry Seinfeld) and Sam (masterfully depicted by William H. Macy). Like the novels, the Lord of the Rings board game begins from a place of relative safety and calm. Before the players venture into the first conflict at Moria, they visit the “Safe Havens” of Bag End and Rivendell, two of only three such stops in the game. There, they prepare for the journey ahead, receiving a starting hand of cards, doing some trading amongst each other, and evenly distributing the Legendary Cards of Rivendell, representing the resources the Fellowship gained at that stage in the journey, from allies like Aragorn or Boromir to weapons and items like Sting, and a Mithril Shirt. The third Safe Haven at Lothlorien doles out another set of such cards, but after that last moment of rest, the final three conflicts (Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair and Mordor) must be accomplished using only what dwindling resources the hobbits have remaining.
Unlike many thematic games, Lord of the Rings‘ cards are almost entirely textless. They merely depict 1-3 icons of four different types: the sword represents those moments the hobbits must fight against orcs, goblins and spiders; the cloaked hobbit represents travel; the shield represents hiding (a hobbit’s most useful skill); and the hobbit pipe represents friendship, fellowship or rest. A fifth icon, the star, acts as a wild card. Each conflict board has separate tracks representing three of the four icon types. On a player’s turn, they first draw a square story tile, which usually shows one of these icons, progressing the hobbits on one of the three tracks, with the undepicted icon also serving as a wild card. Then, the player may play 1-2 cards, a maximum of one silver and one brown card, to move further forward along the tracks. Specific spaces on the tracks always have an effect, gaining the active player runes (spent to call upon the services of Gandalf), life tokens (in three types, needed to resist corruption at the end of the conflict), or other positive or negative events. Only one of these tracks will actually end the conflict and progress the game, but the side-routes often have tantalizing benefits.
The danger here is that the story tiles aren’t always friendly. They also include a number of negative effects that force players to discard cards, move them closer to Sauron’s corruption, or cause a board-specific event (usually bad) to occur. The longer the players dally, the more likely they are to draw these debilitating story tiles; on the other hand, ignoring these side-channels means missing out on some powerful bonus cards and, probably, giving in to the corrupting influence of the ring.
I’ve mentioned corruption several times without really explaining how it works. You see, in the actual conflicts, the hobbits travel as a fellowship. Their individual character standees only appear on the Corruption Track on the main board. The hobbits and Sauron begin on opposite ends of this fifteen-space track, but certain negative effects will move the hobbits to the right or Sauron to the left on the track. If Sauron’s marker ever occupies the same space as a character’s, that character and player is eliminated from the game. If the ringbearer gets eliminated, Sauron claims the ring and the game ends in a loss.
Following, again, the theme of the novels, fellowship is everything. Players will take turns acting as ringbearer, and winning on the higher difficulties requires selflessness and sacrifice to protect the holder of the One Ring. But when is the power of the ring justified? To move quickly across the conflict board, the ringbearer may slip on the One Ring and move ahead, ignoring some hazards but suffering the unknown effects of the Threat Die. A constant temptation, this call of the ring….
Fooled by Samwise Gamgee’s resilience (his special ability allows him to avoid the worst effects of the Threat Die), I made sure he became the ringbearer when the Fellowship exited Moria. However, the passage through Helm’s Deep saw Sam moving dangerously far up the corruption track; in fact, I needed to spend several of his turns using the “Refresh” option, moving him back to the left on the corruption track instead of playing any cards. Frodo remained the ringbearer for the rest of the game after that–Sam lacked the inner strength to carry it. Navigating Mordor required all but one of Gandalf’s favors and all of the party’s items from previous stages of the quest. However, it was Sam who ultimately brought the Fellowship to the peak of Mount Doom and cast the ring into the eternal flame, freeing the land of Middle-Earth once and for all from its corruption.