A direct retelling of Lord of the Rings in the Board Game

01 September 2022
Join us for a look at a direct retelling of the original story of Lord of the Rings, which became what is often called one of the first ‘modern’ co-operative board-games.

Words by Simon Castle

In a hobby filled with no shortage of Lord of the Rings themed games, Reina Knizia’s 2000 co-operative contribution – simply called The Lord of the Rings – stands out as a design in much the same way as its name doesn’t. Even as the books on which it is based proved foundational for a whole ongoing genre of writing, the game’s position as one of the earliest ‘modern’ cooperative games and an early example of many elements that are now standard of the category.

As might be suggested by the name lift, Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings directly retells the story from Tolkein’s trilogy, with the players each controlling an individual Hobbit on their journey from Bag End to Mordor with the goal of destroying the One Ring. While the overall quest is tracked on the small main board, most of the game plays out on larger side boards for dangerous locations such as Moria, Helm’s Deep and Shelob’s Lair, swapped in and out as the game progresses.  On each of these boards, the Hobbits must attempt to speed through the location by spending resource cards before being overtaken by the various bad events that occur in the books – suggesting, at least, that the actual book characters weren’t doing any better at getting through locations than your group of friends.

The threat in the game, therefore, comes not in being overrun by these events but by being too corrupted by them. Each Hobbit’s piece stands on the Corruption line, and as the game continues, will advance down it, being tainted by the power of the One Ring.  Sauron stands at the other end of the line, providing a deadly finish line, and if a Hobbit ever reaches him, they are eliminated from the game – or, if that Hobbit was the current bearer of the Ring, the game is over.  The use of player elimination is not something that has made it through to most modern co-ops, but fittingly for the theme it provides the opportunity for a meaningful sense of individual sacrifice for the collective good. It works so well as both a threat and for memorable stories that it’s almost a surprise it’s not used in more games today.

One aspect of the game that does prevail more today is the sense of character individuality. Each Hobbit has their own player power, plus a unique hand of cards that – according to the rules – can be discussed but not shown to other players: an early and simple approach to countering alpha gamer concerns.

The game had three expansions released for it, each of which added a very different element to the base.  Friends and Foes was the most directly ‘more of the same’, adding two new scenario boards for Bree and Isengard, but also introduced a deck of Foe cards offering new win and loss conditions.  Unfortunately, that new way to win (defeating all the Foes achieves a ‘military victory’) is both notably easier to achieve and feels less satisfying than reaching Mordor and throwing the Ring into Mount Doom, but some simple variants on BGG (search for ‘The Black Gate’) can help address that.

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The other two expansions introduced larger overhauls.  The second, Sauron, reinvents the game as a one-vs-all competition, allowing a player to control the titular Dark Lord and attempt to defeat the Hobbits by carefully targeting their weakest spots and adding even more loss conditions for them to worry about.  The third and final expansion, Battlefields didn’t come out until a full 7 years after the original game. It finally added the rest of the Fellowship in a role beyond their minor one-shot card appearances in the base game, via additional boards in a puzzle-style mini-game.

But it’s the original game that helped to popularise the co-op genre in a competitive-dominated landscape, even as its own rulebook proffers a “Competitive game variant” (closer to a semi-co-op) seemingly unsure players would take to the idea of a wholly cooperative experience. While not without its flaws – including an old-school willingness to have you Just Lose to a sequence of bad luck with minimal chance of mitigation – it still holds up well today.  FFG published an anniversary edition of the game in 2020, making it easier to get hold of than many games of its age (although its expansions were not similarly republished).  Whether as a historical experience or the most direct re-telling of the original books that you’ll find in board-game form, it’s a quest that’s worth experiencing. 


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