An Unexpected Party
Middle-earth is usually a harrowing place of running from barrow-wights or rousing dragons, but not if we
go right back to the start.
What does Bilbo Baggins hate? As a mostly domesticate creature, it’s anything that disrupts his normally relaxed rural idyll. For example, a trickle of dwarves filling his home and making a mess of things. This is how the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts, and surprisingly it’s also the entire setting for this new Tolkien game from Weta Workshop. We talk to Daniel Falconer about making the game, and focusing on a part of the Tolkien universe that doesn’t have a dragon, elf or glowing sword in sight.
Daniel Falconer is in a strange position in this project. As one of the designers who decided how The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit films should look on the big screen, it’s funny that he’s right at the beginning again. He introduces the setting for us.
“Of course, with Middle-earth, most of the games are very gritty and dark, and about battling Sauron – which is totally appropriate. But we thought ‘what if we could find something friendlier, and smaller in scope?’ And very quickly we found ourselves zooming in on Bag End and the Unexpected Party,” says Falconer, “The stakes are quite low. You’re not trying to save the world, which is quite nice.”
The game takes place in what is only around a single minute of film time. With all of the dwarves having arrived at Bag End, bar Thorin, they set about doing dwarfish things like singing, drinking and eating – only to have Bilbo become angrier as they do. In an act of banter only seen in Tolkien, they attempt to wind up the diminutive hero of the book with a song about everything he hates about this particular situation – such as blunting knives, bending the forks, smashing the bottles and burning the corks. This song is sung while they recklessly do a pretty good job of tidying up. And that’s what we’re doing here.
It’s easy to forget that the Tolkien books are filled with intimate, domestic spaces. Smaller in scope than much of the series and the rest of the world, and often presented as particular havens amongst the more grim aspects of these stories. But it’s an important one. It is these English-summer, pastoral worlds that have the whiff of ruthless home-counties fete jam competitions about them that are being ‘saved’ in the Tolkien books.
The scope was even smaller for the game to begin with, “Originally it was designed to be a card game, but it became a board game as the game demanded it,” says Falconer. The game takes place in a slightly extended Bag End, which the players had to move the dwarves around, as they enter the home one by one.
Players set about ensuring they have a dwarf in the right room of Bag End to collect the item matching the part of the song that’s been drawn throughout play, while trying to stop Bilbo going from ‘curious’ to ‘furious’.
“While Bilbo is getting wound up, and the dwarves and poking and pushing him around the house,” says Falconer “Bilbo doesn’t realise, that they’re actually tidying up. So, part of the game is about balancing on that line about not pushing Bilbo too far.”
“There’s a mechanic in the game that Ian came up with called ‘curious or furious’ – you want to keep Bilbo curious about what you’re doing, and the closer you get to ‘furious’ you might be pushing him too far,” says Falconer, “and when you get close to that you want to sit your dwarf down and retire them from the action – and bring another one in. It’s a nice mechanic, as a parent I liked it because it’s got a little bit of a moral to it. It’s a good-natured, fun game.”
You shall not pass (the butter)
The rule design of the game was originally started by Ian Luxmoore, and later picked up by Jarrat Gray (Endeavour).
“You go around room to room in the house, matching items you find to lines in the song,” explains Falconer, “picking up the ‘blunt the knives’ card means you need to find the knives and then be in the right room to play those two in combination. And you slowly complete the song around the edge of the board.”
“Bilbo is running around after you, and the more you do – the more attention you attract. You’re trying to stay one step ahead of him.” says Falconer, “if he’s in the room with you and you do too much, he’ll become more interested and get wound up by it.”
While there is a party going on, even if it is unexpected, this isn’t a party game – we asked Falconer if the players around the table are going to be expected to sing their lines as they progress, “Well,” he laughs “that’s entirely up to you as players.”
“Each of the dwarves have their own special abilities which allow them to play slightly different, based on their personalities,” says Falconer, “when working on the film Peter Jackson was adamant that he wanted each of the dwarves to have individual personalities and for you to be able to recognise them from one another.”
“Because, when you read the book,” says Falconer, “there’s a few of them that stand out, but for the most part they blur together. Peter was adamant that we get to know these dwarves. So, when it came to the game we wanted to really lean into that, and have their personalities as part of how you play them.”
“There’s one who is friendlier with Bilbo for example, so can get away with more, while other are more efficiently mischievous. And of course, how they effect one another – for example the two brothers, Kili and Fili – is a big part of the game.”
They’re highly themed characters and offer a tiny bit of asymmetry, offering a little more depth in how you play the game turn to turn. “They’re not massively asymmetrical, we’ve balanced it as well as we can, but undoubtably some are easier to play than others. But you get to choose,” says Falconer, “the dwarves arrive at the door in groups of three, and you as a player get to choose who you play as next – so you get some control as to who you play as each round.”
“And of course, it’s all over when Thorin shows up,” says Falconer, “which is somewhat random. So, it can be a shorter game in some cases. As soon as he arrives, it’s like, ‘the party’s over, it’s time to get serious now’.”
“Because we wanted them all to be different it meant we could have quite a lot of fun with the art. It was an excuse for me to do a cartoon version of all the dwarves,” says Falconer, “they’re based on the mini epics line [of figures] with cute exaggerated features. When we were designing for the films we would try and find certain aspects of the character to make them distinctive – ‘does this one have a flick in their beard?’ or ‘does this one have a bizarre hairstyle?’ While we were able to find those for the film, turning those into cartoon versions for the game just meant exaggerating those characters to their extreme.”
“And of course, since you get to know the actors playing them while on set, doing caricatures of your mates grants some impish delight,” says Falconer, laughing. They’re instantly recognisable, but certainly nothing like what we’ve become used to for Tolkien games.
Extending Bag End
“One of the challenges for the game was the board itself,” says Falconer, “we wanted it to reflect the approximate layout of Bag End as was made for the films, but then trying to get that to fit to the size and shape of the board, and leave room for the players was tricky.
We had to warp it a little bit on an angle to get everything in. And we invented a couple of rooms you don’t see in the movie – the coal cellar and wine cellar.”
“And Bag End is very cluttered by its nature. Part of its charm is that there’s stuff everywhere. So that became a heavy task painting in all these things.”
These are comments you could only make having been working intensely on making a fantastical place real for so many years. For most of us who play board game adaptations know we’re dealing in abstraction immediately. It feels less like talking to someone who had made a board game as someone whose major focus in life is as the shepherd of this particular world – it’s reassuring that this level of care has been put in to a lighter family game.
We talk then that maybe this is ultimate prologue – before everything gets darker and heavier in the world. And that’s an interesting aspect to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Party, it’s not a game that’s moved away from the source materials in any way whatsoever, it works within the canon.
“It’s a deep breath before the plunge, as Gandalf says at one point,” says Falconer, before suggesting that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is simply full of lighter moments of ‘play’ like these – including the tricking of the trolls early on in Bilbo’s journey with thrown voice, “and even Frodo plays games with riddles with Gollum.”
“The possibilities are endless,” says Falconer, suggesting that these small moments could be exploded out into other games in the future – all going well with this one. But it’s the source text that keeps him coming back, or rather, why he’s never left.
“This is why I’ve spent so much of my career in Tolkien’s world. The books are so rich in material, there’s just so much there to talk about. Even now, and I started working on The Lord of the Rings in 1996, I still love reading the books and exploring this world.”
“I still love Tolkien’s turn of phrase,” says Falconer, where we return to The Hobbit as a source text, “he turns the most mundane sentences and turns it into something magical and delightful.”
“It’s a tremendous privilege. I know that, personally, I have felt a great burden when working on the films – people have read these books for years, they’ve imagined what these things are going to look like. And you’ve got to do justice to one, what the author is imagining, two, what the director is imagining, and three, what the people who read the book are imagining.” says Falconer, “It falls on us to live up to the text.”
And this is the kind of love that’s being applied to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Party. “It’s nice to sometimes juxtapose against saving the world with something like this,” says Falconer, “and it’s nice to stay in this world, but with lighter stakes.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Party can be pre-ordered now, with delivery expected for September 2020
Continuing the Adventure
Want to know where to take your Tolkien-flavoured gaming next on your tabletop? Here’s a few options.
A co-op card game that asks you whether you can be the heroes that Middle-earth needs. Tough, as any co-op that sees you up against Sauron should be, but with the usual Fantasy Flight Living Card Game accessibility.
Continue your adventure – nearly. Focused on a fairly close-up version of the Lord of the Rings adventures, this game offers full on branching stories and a clever smartphone AI to do all the Uruk-hai wrangling.
If you want a Giant Eagle’s eye view of the conflict in Middle-earth, and to experience vertigo in comparison to quaint surroundings of Bag End (even with the shocking blunting of spoons), this is where to get your kicks. Control the side of shadow or that of the free peoples and make a bid for victory.
Words by Christopher John Eggett
This article originally appeared in issue 44 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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