Lord of the Rings: True to Tolkien
I am a geek in many different ways; I am a film buff, a board gamer, a Star Wars fanatic, an X-Phile. I am also a faithful admirer of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I will not go so far as to say that the Lord of the Rings is the best book ever written, but I will say that I have yet to read a book which I have found to be better.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an amazing series with heartfelt characters in a deep and universal story set in a richly detailed world. There are a lot of important themes in Lord of the Rings which range from the value of loyalty, the power of corruption, and the quiet heroism of duty. Frodo’s journey truly feels like a constant battle against all odds as two simple hobbits persist against epic, grand events happening in Middle-Earth around them.
However, Tolkien’s epic tale underwent an image shift early in the decade as the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was released and made huge waves at the box office. They were remarkable films and a masterful accomplishment in the art of film-making and are three movies which I personally love. However, they have transformed The Lord of the Rings into a commercial venture which can bother those true fans of Tolkien’s work like myself.
For this reason, I was sceptical of a Lord of the Rings board game. I was worried that it was just another cash grab, just another way to turn Lord of the Rings into a cool action-adventure story instead of the sprawling, meaningful saga that it is. Luckily, this game was released a year before the movies and appears to have been untouched by the commercial hype and hysteria. Lord of the Rings actually manages to tap into the original spirit of the book and take the important emotional aspects of Frodo’s journey to integrate into the game. Its refreshing to see a piece of Lord of the Rings merchandise which understands the heart of the story, doesn’t get distracted by mainstreaming, and manages to stay true to Tolkien.
Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game where players work together to move through four scenario boards and destroy the ring of power before they are corrupted and captured by Sauron. Players must move through thee scenarios by playing combinations of cards which move them along various tracks. These tracks represent walking, fighting, hiding and fellowship; four components which make up a lot of the actions in Lord of the Rings.
It is not always clear which cards should be played and which tracks to move along. Each scenario Has a main track as well as a couple of side tracks. The side tracks will help you gain bonuses which may be necessary. However, if you do not get through the main track and end the scenario quickly enough, you will risk Sauron’s wrath as events will occur which bring him closer. This desperate need to make unsure decisions about your path are reflected straight from the book, just as the fellowship had to make tough choices like entering the mines of Moria or breaking off at Parth Galen.
Events detail actual events which occurred through the book. Event tiles are drawn by the players which can cause one of these events to happen. These events are almost never good for the players and usually result in losing something valuable. However, they are always the same, which provides little in the way of variability from game to game.
The one aspect of gameplay which really draws from the novels is the theme of corruption. As players move through the scenarios, they risk moving ahead on a corruption line which brings them closer to Sauron. Sauron himself may move as well and close the gap between him and the players. If Sauron reaches the player with the ring, the game is over. This idea of corruption is a brilliant interpretation of the real heart of the struggle in the books; Frodo’s constant struggle to fight the evil power of the ring and resist the urge to hand himself over to Sauron’s dark forces. Instead of making the central conflict a giant battle or a war with trolls and balrogs, the game uses the deeper internal struggle which is so present on the page.
The components are not flashy nor are they overly produced. They are simple and pastoral and tap into the less exciting aspects of Tolkien’s world which are usually a hard sell for the mainstream masses; aspects such as the merry, jovial behaviour of the hobbits and the gaiety of the songs and dancing. The cards and tiles are designed with this theme in mind and it fits the vision of the game well.
The players play as hobbits which are designed as figures, though they are not that detailed. There is also a large, cumbersome ring which denotes the ring bearer among the players, as well as the Sauron piece which is a nice, solid black tower figure. It really does look imposing, as it should since it represents this force of singular evil which haunts the characters of the book throughout the story.
The highlight of this game however, is the artwork itself. John Howe, a notable artist of Tolkien’s works, added his touch to the scenario boards and card illustrations, and they are fantastic. There are three board in the game, two of which are double-sided. Each of them contain a canvas of Howe’s work in the background, including the Bridge of Kazad-dum, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair, and that great picture of Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom. Detailed, sweeping, and beautiful much like the story itself.
The problem with creating a game based on such a well-known story is that the story is pretty set. Likewise, this game can be pretty linear as well and the events are never really switched up. There’s some randomization with the event tiles, but things still play out quite similarly each time with just a few different card hands or dice rolls here and there to make a difference. Therefore replayabliltiy on Lord of the Rings is not that high.
That said, it is still a fun game to play for a few reasons. The cooperative nature is a nice change from other games and trying to find a balance between what tracks move on and what cards to play is interesting. One of the best aspects of this game is that you get to actually relive the story itself, moving through middle earth just as the fellowship did; desperately trying to reach Mount Doom in time before being caught that the Eye of Sauron.
Lord of the Rings should be satisfying to Tolkien fans like myself who appreciate the novel trilogy for what it is and not for the amped-up, commercial venture it has become. It keeps the spirit of Frodo’s story at its center and manages to tap into that same feeling of reading the books themselves.