Lord of the Rings:
Reviewed by Nigel Buckle, copyright ©2002
Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Cost: £14.99 (UK)/ $19.99 (US)
Number of Players: 2
Average Playing Time: 45 minutes
This is a little Stratego-like game (www.inficad.com/~ecollins/stratego/) by prolific games designer Reiner Knizia.
The players, representing the Fellowship (the "Good player") and Sauron's minions (the "Dark player"), face off from opposite corners of a square board (placed corner to corner, like a diamond), with The Shire in one corner and Mordor on the other. The victory conditions are simple: the Fellowship must get Frodo to Mordor, and the Dark player must either kill Frodo or move three pieces into the Shire.
Each player has nine pieces that stand so that only the owner can identify them, and to begin the game each side sets up four pieces in Row1, one piece in each in the five spaces that make up Row2 and Row3. The 4 spaces in the middle of the board (the mountains) are empty. The Fellowship has the expected nine characters: Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. Sauron has The Balrog, The Witch King, Saruman, Shelob, A Black Rider (Nazgûl), A Flying Nazgûl, Orcs, a Warg and a Cave Troll.
All the pieces have special powers – Merry, for example, immediately defeats the Witch King, and the Balrog immediately defeats any piece using the Tunnels of Moria, if it is located in Moria.
Most spaces may contain two pieces, although the mountains that cross the centre of the map contain only one, and the Shire and Mordor can hold four. Movement is straightforward; on your turn you may move a piece forward (not sideways) one space, but there are exceptions. The Tunnels of Moria allows Fellowship pieces to cross the mountains without stopping (straight from Hollin to Fangorn,) and the Anduin River allows fellowship pieces to move sideways (by floating downstream). Some pieces have powers that affect movement, such as the Flying Nazgûl, which can move to any space to attack a lone fellowship piece, and the Witch King which may move sideways to attack.
If a piece enters a space with more than one opposing piece you choose (blindly) which figure to attack first, the exception being Frodo entering Mordor – in that case the Fellowship player wins immediately (no need to resolve combat).
Each player holds a hand of nine cards that are used in combat. Most are number cards and the rest are special effect cards, that ignore the bonus of a number card played, or allow you to retreat before combat, etc.
Each piece has a combat value, a number from 0 to 9, with the balance of power lying with the dark player (a 9, three 5's, a 4, two 3's and two 2's compared with a 5, a 4, two 3's and the rest 2's, 1's and a 0). When combat occurs, first the text of the character is read and applied (so Legolas, for example, automatically defeats the Flying Nazgûl). Assuming that both pieces survive, both players then simultaneously play a card. The cards are revealed; if a special card (not a number) was played it is resolved, otherwise the number is added to the combat value of the piece and whoever has the lower total loses and the piece is removed from the board. In the case of ties, both pieces are eliminated.
On initial play it appears the advantages all lie with the dark player – whose characters are generally more powerful and who has higher number cards. However, it takes many moves to get 3 pieces into the Shire, so the dark player is more likely to win by eliminating Frodo – and Frodo is an elusive character. If attacked he can immediately retreat sideways (as long as there is a suitable space to retreat to) and there is a real danger that the dark player moves too many pieces forward (most cannot move back) and Frodo slips past and can sneak into Mordor. The mountains are a real barrier – Frodo cannot retreat sideways in the mountains, so it's a real risk moving him there, but the Tunnel of Moria is a death-trap if the Balrog is in Moria.
The more you play the game, the deeper it becomes – given the small map and limited number of pieces the element of bluff is quite remarkable: is that piece in Moria the Balrog? If it is, send Boromir in to sacrifice himself removing it, if it's not then you've wasted Boromir unnecessarily. After a number of games I think the sides are fairly balanced, and as it is so short it's best to play 2 games back-to-back and change sides for the second game.
There are 4 optional cards you can include, either to add variety to the game, or to give a handicap to a weaker, less experienced player.
I recommend this game for all fans of Lord of the Rings or Stratego. The artwork (by John Howe) is great and the short playing time means you can easily fit a couple of games into a spare hour and a half or so, and unlike some of the other Knizia games it really gives a feel for Middle Earth with the two sides playing quite differently.
Note: There is a possible confusion between the map and the rule book: the map has Hollin labelled Eregion which is the Elvish name for Hollin (www.glyphweb.com/arda/e/eregion.html), but the rulebook refers to Hollin. It shouldn't cause too many arguments as the reference in the rulebook refers to the tunnel and that is clearly marked on the map anyway.