Well, I had been working on this post here and there intending to post it to BGG...but, um, I can't. Not just that I can't, but I _wouldn't_ at this point So here it is, and I completely expect Frank to open the bomb bay doors on me.
Reiner Knizia’s LORD OF THE RINGS (2000) is a game that I’ve had a fairly up-and-down relationship over the past several years ranging from shameless, awe-struck love for a game that at one time I considered one of the most brilliant pieces of pure design I’d ever seen to more recently lambasting the game on Steve Weeks’ “Ultimate Podcast” as an ultimately themeless exercise in process that reduces epic concepts to playing friendship cards to advance markers along abstract paths. Undoubtedly, WAR OF THE RING stole much of its thunder as the quintessential game on its subject and I’ve never wavered in my love for THE CONFRONTATION but somehow LORD OF THE RINGS simply slipped away from my interest as I felt myself moving away from Eurogames and back into the theme-heavy, more complex American style games I had always loved even during the salad days of 1995-2001, when Euro designers were doing their best work and really breaking new ground in terms of design, accessibility, and efficiency. With the release of the new BATTLEFIELDS expansion, I found myself interested in trying the game again just to reassess my position on it and see if, as it changed in the past, it might change again in the game’s favor. Would I still feel an odd disconnect between theme and game process? Would the game be derailed by my group’s friendly yet pitched degree of competitiveness? Would the game be any fun? The answers are "somewhat", "no, we discovered that we can actually get along", and "hell yes it was".
I’m glad to say that returning to LORD OF THE RINGS after a long absence has proved to be a welcome reunion- it sort of feels like I’ve gone through that gulf between really loving something and growing tired of it and then realizing later that you really did love it to begin with. Is that what “true love” is? Perhaps. At any rate, tackling the long trek to Mount Doom with some of the greatest gaming buddies I’ve ever had made a huge difference and even though we didn’t make it, viewing the game from a fresh , “post-Ameritrash” perspective made all of the difference in the world. LORD OF THE RINGS is, despite my criticisms (some of which I still maintain), a truly innovative and unique design that bears a very finely detailed, subtle description of the LOTR theme that may not have the broadbrush, epic tone of WAR OF THE RING but considering that the story centers on small people doing big things I find it completely appropriate.
We’ve likely all played the game at some point so there is little reason to slavishly replicate the rulebook or mechanical structure at this point. With this review of revisitation I am much more interested in getting into what makes it work and where it comes up short. It’s not hard to see the game spread out on the table, lavishly illustrated with all of that awesome John Howe artwork and think “man, this game is nothing but theme” yet I find it very fitting that the more abstract parts of the game (such as the life tokens, the shields, and the icons) have simpler, more abstract art. I believe this really illustrates my chief criticism of the game- that there is a point at which the game theme and what you actually do in the game do not match up.
No doubt- the cooperative elements of the game, the planning of how to use resources and problem-solve upcoming events or eventualities, and the necessity of sacrifice speaks more to the bigger social and moral themes of LOTR than anything else ever has in a board game. That being said, I’ve never felt that moving a white cone along what amounts to a glorified victory point track to be all that thematic, let alone collecting “sun”, “heart”, and “ring” tokens that mean absolutely nothing other than providing a gamey way to prevent players from blitzing through a scenario board. It seems that for all of the subtle, fine detail (such as the grey cards players receive in Lothlorien, representing the elven cloaks) Knizia just can’t get away from abstraction. The result is sort of a strange mix of vagary and specificity that somehow manages to work. As an aside, I think one of the chief failings of BATTLEFIELDS is that it tips the balance far more to the abstract end, reducing epic events like the siege at Minas Tirith to flowchart-based logic puzzles.
I really believe that this game, above all others in the Knizia canon, is the one that he put the most heart and soul into. It’s hard to say how much of that is from the theme, but the intricacy of the design (I love the way tempo and pacing is managed with the event track) seems like it couldn’t have possibly come from the dispassionate, analytical mind that seems to have designed AMUN RE or THROUGH THE DESERT. I think with LOTR, Knizia found a muse for his design talent, something that made his idiom more alive than it ever was before and hasn’t been since. It’s definitely an anomaly on his resume, and in many ways it is a complete aberration in the Eurogame ludography- the rare game that has theme-derived mechanics, intense and pervasive player interaction, huge amounts of luck, and an immersive atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the game also seems to have been a complete dead end stylistically- Eurogames have failed to carry its innovative mix of theme and mechanics any further and American adventure games haven’t bothered to pursue some of its more radical concepts such as cooperative goals and a simple yet completely effective (and menacing) “AI”. Yet the game is still an undisputed, revered classic by gamers of all descriptions and although it’s just seven years on I think it’s completely safe to call it a “classic”, “timeless” title. With over 1 million copies sold worldwide- more than TICKET TO RIDE or
So then, let me apologize to Knizia’s LORD OF THE RINGS…I’m sorry I neglected you and said all that mean stuff, I just didn’t realize how much I missed you.