Once more to Mordor: The Lord of the Rings rises again
Prior to college, the extent of my gaming outside of video games had pretty much been limited to the occasional board game such as Hero Quest while growing up. I eventually put together a motley crew of D&D players and tried some 2nd edition in middle school. In high school I was introduced to Settlers of Catan, Wizard, and a number of Looney Labs games. There was a lot to like, sure, but I had no idea what else was out there until I randomly purchased the Lord of the Rings board game published by Fantasy Flight and designed by Reiner Knizia sometime in my second year of college. This was my first non-traditional, cooperative, and also the first game I had played that was designed by Knizia.
The game has seen much play over the years, and I also picked up the Friends and Foes and Sauron expansions around the time I obtained the base game. Friends and Foes added branching paths and made the experience feel a little more complete, while Sauron added the ability for a player to put on the mantle of the Dark Lord himself.
When Fantasy Flight announced that they were rebranding the base game as a part of their Silver Line, as well as doing a little bit of redesign to the components themselves, not to mention a new version of the occasionally frustrating rulebook, I was excited. There was a lot of nostalgia there of course, plus the idea that fellow gamers who had never been able to try the game would now have a much easier time of tracking down a copy made me warm and fuzzy feeling. The new edition just hit shelves in the US within the past couple of weeks, and now that I have my own copy I thought I’d give my two cents as someone who has played the game and loved it for years.
LOTR itself is a take on the journey of the Fellowship from the door of Bag End all the way to the crater of Mount Doom. As you might expect, both due to the scope of the tale and the game design style of Knizia, the game itself is heavily abstracted. The group of players move along a board that essentially shows their overall progress through the game. Some of these nodes have events (such as the first, Bag End, giving the players their initial supplies in the form of cards, and offering a chance to increase those supplies at the risk of potentially strengthening Sauron), and some lead to Scenario Boards.
The game is split into four scenario boards, where the bulk of the gameplay occurs. They are Moria, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair, and Mordor, in that order. When the group’s progress marker hits one of these boards, the true adventure really begins. Each board has a collection of events that happen in a specific order that generally go from bad to worse. It is only a matter of time before they activate, and if the events push to the final one listed in the scenario, the scenario board immediately ends, and usually the group suffers for it. The rest of the board is taken up by a piece of gorgeous art by John Howe, 3-4 progress tracks. Each of these tracks represent a specific activity, with then corresponds to the icons on the cards the players use as resources through the game. The icons stand in for combat, traveling, friendship, and hiding. So for example the primary track in Moria is combat, which represents the battle against the orcs and other denizens of the mines. In order to successfully complete the board, the group must collectively move the marker though use of resources to the end of the combat track. The trick is balancing it with the other, optional tracks. Strewn about these are oftentimes essential resources that need to be picked up. The game becomes a balancing act between quickly moving towards the immediate goal and taking the time to prepare for the upcoming challenges, as the scenarios get more dire as the game passes.
Negative effects manifest themselves in 3 ways. The least dire tends to be discarding cards, which is also fairly rare. The most common is corruption. If your character is the active character, any black dots that come up cause your figure to move one step closer to Sauron on the corruption track on the main board. You can heal via items, some events, and through resting on your turn. The final, and worst thing that can happen, is Sauron’s search for the ring become more focused, and he moves a step towards the players on the corruption track. This happens when the Eye result shows up. It is possible to move him back occasionally, but is difficult and tends to cost a fair amount of your resources.
It may not sound like much, but the cooperative aspects and the constant danger the party is in through most of the game creates a ton o tension and a real sense of accomplishment when you manage to pull out the win. This isn’t on the level of something like Dungeonquest though. Is this new edition worth it though?
In a word: yes. If you haven’t played or don’t own the original, but have any interest in LOTR, or in cooperative games, this is one of the best games out there both for use of IP and gameplay. The price isn’t as cheap as you might expect of a Silver Line game, but it is really aslightly shrunken down normal box size board game. The production quality of the game itself is great, though the original’s plastic hobbits and imposing, monolithic, seriously heavy duty Sauron figure have been replaced with cardboard standees. Also the original game had a rare treat: a plastic tray in the box that was designed to literally hold everything in appropriate compartments without the need for elastics or baggies. Unfortunately many games have gone the cardboard insert with a single depression route these days, and the new edition of LOTR is no exception.
These complaints aside, the quality of the components is good, and the art style is much more unified and dramatic, fitting in nicely with FFG’s recent Middle Earth Quest, as well as the deluxe edition of The Confrontation. The life tokens seem much more appropriate, and the various tiles less cartoonish (though small, the better to fit into the smaller box I guess). The cards themselves are much busier in terms of design and art, but still work well and are easy to pick out of your hand as needed.
If you want a great cooperative game, pick this one up. If you are an old fan or owner of the original, bear in mind that the existing expansion will not work with this edition as the component design and sizes in most cases have changed significantly. I’m personally glad to have a set I can use to play the game with without fear of my old editions getting beat up even further. Plus, it’s almost travel size!