The Lord of the Rings ★★★★

The Lord of the Rings is not a story of war. At its core, it’s not even a story of orcs, elves or magicians but one of sacrifice and friendship. Knizia’s adaptation of the literary classic is the only game I’ve played that truly recognizes this fact. Through its mechanics, it reflects the difficult journey of the novel and how only cooperation could overcome such dire odds.

JOURNEY

Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings is a cooperative title. As the hobbits from the original novel we walk across Middle Earth in an attempt to reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. It’s a gruelling task, rife with danger. Be it through exhaustion or by falling prey to Sauron’s corruption, the most likely outcome is failure.

The game comprises several boards. Each has a large path that connects to the next stage of the journey, as well as several minor ones which don’t. The latter distracts us from the main goal but also provides benefits such as gaining the support of allies. To move forward we must spend matching cards from our hand, which are always in short supply.

Corruption is represented by a track on top of these boards. At the beginning of the game, the hobbits and Sauron rest on opposite sides. Events and other hazards may force us to move either closer to the other. If both end in the same space, the hobbit and his controlling player are eliminated from the game. And, while the hobbits might go back on the track, the Dark Lord never does.

The dangers of the road are represented in the same abstract manner. On our turn, we flip a chit over. About half of them have a negative effect, such as forcing us to discard or making the ringbearer move along the corruption track. What’s worse, we won’t stop flipping tiles until we reveal one that’s positive. Harm can come fast and hard, giving the game a continuous sense of dread.

Some of these chits trigger events, which are different on each board. They directly attack our resources and demand sacrifices, such as completing minor paths or discarding certain cards. Since several of them may resolve one after the other, players must decide whether to fulfill their demands or suffer the penalties, a decision best taken with the group depending on the circumstances.

With all this in mind, turns are simple. We can spend cards to move along the track, rest to draw two cards or go back one space in the corruption track. Like in other Knizia games, the simplicity of the choice hides its difficulty. Time is not on our side but recklessly charging into the next board proves fatal. To succeed, we must choose the right path, together.

SACRIFICE

Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings is built on a theme of sacrifice. It is, after all, one of the central themes of the novel as well as the Catholicism which informed Tolkien’s work. We start at the strongest and only by giving away cards, time and other resources will we be able to reach the end. The game is based on expenses, not gains.

Unlike most other titles, where progress is marked by an increase of power, there’s no way to obtain a permanent advantage. We might feel less pressured or be afforded to rest, but the pressure to push forward makes these respites temporary. Even if we do well in all other areas, Sauron can only get closer. Staying still has a cost of its own.

Our own cards partake in this theme. Early in the game we visit Rivendell, one of the few safe spaces in the game, and receive gifts from Elrond. They take the form of powerful cards that allow us to repeat dice rolls, go back on the corruption track or avoid triggering effects. But they are all single-use. Once we spend them, we’ll never get them back, no matter the circumstance.

Gandalf’s help may also support our efforts. Many spaces on the board give us runes, which can then be spent in groups of five to call for his help. Again, these powerful effects can only be used once. More importantly, each hobbit manages his own supply, meaning we must cooperate to gather them all in one place.

Above all, The Lord of the Rings offers the possibility of our own sacrifice. As Sauron looms closer and defeat seems inevitable, it might be best to risk it all for the group. Through careful play we may give up our own seat to protect the ringbearer. Not all hobbits will cross the final line and they are not meant to.

This is the most beautiful use of player elimination I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s a perfect match for the story it portrays and always comes as a responsible choice on the behalf of the player. It’s the ultimate sacrifice of resources. It strikes strong and deep because it affects us on a personal level. And while being eliminated seems unfun, it inevitably comes right at the end, where it’s not an issue.

ABSTRACTION

However, it is important to recognize that Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings is still as dry, mechanical and abstracted as its famed to be. The game cannot hide nor overcome the fact that it’s a bunch of tracks stapled together. Progress is a matter of taking and spending resources. It captures the themes of the novel, but not its immersive aspects.

Even though it is a wildly popular game, I believe many entrenched gamers will bounce off of it. Characters other than their own hobbits are interchangeable. A sword or a cloak have the same effect as the Army of the Dead or Legolas. Reading the events beforehand takes away the element of surprise and comes across as slow and clunky.

More importantly, Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings has a limited lifespan. While it seems extremely difficult at first, it becomes less challenging with experience. Some of its minor decisions become automatic once you understand the game well or after discussing it with the group. Rushing to the exit is a touch too effective and it’s easy to get the most out of the cards.

This is not to say there’s no nuance to it. There’s more variety and thought that its linearity would imply. For example, letting all events fire instead of completing a board is a viable strategy as is carefully giving the ring to Sam, whose special ability makes him better at handling corruption. But it’s a small game that won’t stand up to heavy repeat play.

EDITION

While technically playable at lower player counts, I believe The Lord of the Rings is best with at least four players. Fewer than that number makes the game easier and reduces the importance of sacrifice. It enables rushing to a larger degree than other player counts and the larger hand size makes the decision to rest or not much more obvious.

A larger player count also makes hand management harder. Not only are we more likely to run out of cards, the importance of secondary paths goes up as well. Exiting a board without picking up some resources is not much of a worry for Frodo and Sam but it’s different when there are four or five hungry hobits who need of supplies.

There have been many editions of Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings. All feature beautiful artwork by John Howe, who had a long experience doing illustrations for the novel and even worked on Jackson’s films. However, the original release layers ugly, cheap-looking symbols on top. This takes away from the illustrations and gives it an outdated look.

Sadly, the nicer editions by Fantasy Flight, including the current Anniversary Edition, are not fully compatible with the expansions.The different art on cards and tiles make them an awkward match. Not that they are easy to find, they were released almost two decades ago and fetch high prices. They also eschew the original miniatures in favour of standees. Normally, I wouldn’t mind but the Sauron figurine had a great look.

Still, Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings remains a great title. While most modern cooperative games follow the mold of Pandemic, The Lord of the Rings remains unique in its approach. It’s abstract, powerful, and thematic. Its idiosyncrasies are part of the appeal and, while some may be driven off by the coldness of its mechanics, it captures the spirit of the novels like no other game does.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2000)
DESIGNReiner KniziaARTJohn Howe
Kevin Childress
PUBLISHERFantasy Flight GamesLENGTH60 minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
3-5 (Best with 4-5)SCORE★★★★

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