Wednesday, 14 March 2007

An AT apology to Knizia's LOTR

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 CARCASSONNE, maybe even combined- this is a game that will undoubtedly be referred to as “significant” in years to come. The real legacy of this game points to things that have really changed the hobby for the better- strong licenses, hybrid mechanics, and knockout production.

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.


Ken Bradford said...

Dude! I'm glad you came around. I love this game, there literally isn't another like it in my collection.

That's what I was getting at in that geeklist I did on Knizia...when he nails theme, he NAILS it.

BradH said...

This is a truly great game, unfortunately for me, it's been toppled by FFGs Arkham Horror. There's a game that ties up theme and system, and adds oodles of Cthulhu Mythos stuff to boot.

Oh, and it also keeps the "AI" you mentioned.

Matt Thrower said...

We've really got to stop being the only people replying to each others' blog posts. It's starting to look like a big Ameritrash gang-bang.

Anyway, I'm seriously disappointed that one of the few people who shared my opinion on this game has recanted. Not only do I continue to completely not see the theme in this one, but I dislike co-operative games generally. Without some sort of serious random factor guiding the game mechanisms you're playing against they always seem to degenerate into the loudest/most experienced/most skilled player going "you do this and you there, you do that" which isn't my idea of cool creative strategy.

The last time we played LotR my game group ended up competing to be the one finishing with the ring. We all died. Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere ...

Ken Bradford said...

*single-handedly gang-bangs matt*

Michael Barnes said...

Right on, I'm _glad_ we disagree about some things Matt! I hate to keep disappointing you though, what with my "8" rating on TITAN and experiences with the game in the past sound a lot like yours Matt, and it should be stated that this is a game that won't work with all groups...when we played the last few times, it was very much a group strategy game, not just some guy telling everyone what to do.

I definitely want to see someone other than us posting here...more voices, please!

Brad- Remember that ARKHAM HORROR was before LOTR...I love that game too, but it's really a very old-fashioned game (in a good way). LOTR is more avant-garde. BTW, anybody else notice that the monster movement in BATTLEFIELDS is almost just like ARKHAM HORROR?

Ken Bradford said...

Impossible. Knizia doesn't play any other games.

BradH said...

Remember that ARKHAM HORROR was before LOTR

Point taken, but I was merely saying that it has replaced it for ME. Whilst I admire it's quality, design and theme, it's not going to get played quite so often now that Arkham Horror tempts me from the shelf.

Michael Barnes said...

They're entirely different experiences and the cooperation is on a completely different level. In AH, you typically have "specialists" like a gunsel, somebody that has a job/retainer to get money, somebody good with LOTR, players are on more or less an equal footing and there are many points during the game when it becomes necessary to slow down or help the weaker players (i.e., those with fewer cards/resources or closer to getting eaten by Sauron). Arkham is more like everyone for themselves with a common goal, not so much a "we're in this together" kind of thing.

Both great games though, no doubt.

TheRankO said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheRankO said...

I definitely want to see someone other than us posting here...more voices, please!

Hey, what am I? Chopped fucking liver?

Anyway, I'm going to have to go with Thrower on the "you do this and you there, etc." syndrome. The one time I've played LOTR, I had to ask the one experienced player to make no suggestions whatsoever. His guidance turned the experience from playing a game to playing a system, and I just didn't dig it. Once that was out of the way, I enjoyed the game, even it lacked in HSF ("Holy Shit!" Factor).

BrayD said...

One of the things that "takes me out of" the Knizia LOTR experience is that players allowed are allowed to determine whether they will pay the tokens or accept a _known_ punishment. That was never really an option for the characters in the story: "Well, we can skip the Balrog if we can appease him." (Matt's point of directing the action.) The Balrog simply came and did his worst.

Long ago I suggested that the encounters for each board be placed on a small packs of cards and placed in a open, uh, "tuck box."

You hit an encounter space, you pull out a card and read the encounter. Players make the decision to pay the penalty listed or accept the punishment on the back of the card. Trick is, players don't know what the punishment is until they decide to take it. Ifplayers decide to pay the penalty, the card is discarded. If the players decide to take the punishment, flip the card over, read it, apply it.

That keep players inside the story. It doesn't change the problem of players that know the game from directing the action. But it at least forces them to remember what will happen to them and, if they don't know or remember, they face the problems the characters faced.

Michael Barnes said...

That's a good point...but it's one of those situations where you have to ask "is it gamey" or "does it just work"? I think it works because it really rewards long-term planning and it also maintains a strict narrative structure.

Hidden penalties? It could work...most of the penalties are pretty abstract, really.

Jason Lutes said...

Nice to hear you reassessing your previous loathing of this game, Mr. Barnes. I appreciated the misgivings you've voiced about it, and share some of them myself, but as you've articulated, LotR is an extraordinary achievement in game design which, with the right group of players, can provide a gripping and fulfilling evening of entertainment.

One thing I love about it is the way the design brings out player personalities in ways that only a high-stakes cooperative game can manage. Part of the entertainment for me is watching people debate and fret over the proper course of action; different personalities come to fore in very different ways than could happen in a game designed around head-to-head conflict. When a player sacrifices himself for the good of the team, or is selfish with his cards, you get a glimpse of Frodo or Gollum sitting right there at the table with you.

One big drawback to the design for me is that, with too many analytical players, the experience can turn dull and plodding as the analysts break everything down. This game is best played with a group of intuitive players who are willing (or unknowingly prone) to engage with the narrative. The other big drawback is that you need to have read the books to really appreciate the experience, but that's also sort of a plus

It does tend toward being overly abstract, but I think the payoff is a kind of subtlety and range in game-narrative that is unprecedented in the field.

And friendship cards are part of that! :)

Michael Barnes said...

Well stated all around Jason- I do think the game is one of those that really hinges on the group you play with. It's not insignificant that I actually get more out of the game now, playing with a great group of folks, than I did playing with people who just weren't feeling it or didn't like the cooperative angle.

You pointed out something I wish that I had- the stakes in this game feel SKY HIGH, which is something Euros really lack. It really feels like you're up against impossible odds and the fate of Middle Earth hangs in the balance. Practically every decision counts and it's one of the few games I've ever played where I find myself _regretting_ choices earlier in the game.

Danny said...

LOTR remains one of my favorite Knizia designs. I wrote a re-review of it for Counter last year and my re-visit session expanded my love for a game. I'm dying to get my D&D group to play this, but we have such problem finding days for D&D it is hard to imagine carving out a board game night.

Shellhead said...

Disclaimer: I haven't tried LOTR again with the Battlefields expansion. I've only played the original game plus the Friends & Foes expansion.

I enjoyed LOTR at first, despite the fact that the other players were heavily coaching me on my every turn. I played a total of three games, and then I just didn't want to play anymore. And since then, I've found that I enjoy Shadows Over Camelot and especially Arkham Horror as much better cooperative games.

My main problem with LOTR is that it feels too scripted. The cards do add some variability and replay value to the game, but otherwise, the tactical choices for the players become too obvious after several plays.

In truth, LOTR reminds me of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and not in a good way. I love mocking bad movies, but I hate it that all the mockery of Rocky Horror is scripted. Deviate from that script, and you are shunned. Taking a script and transforming it into an attractive board game with nice components still leaves players following a script.

--Mike Miller

Mr Skeletor said...

OK, I'm sold. Battlefields would have been purchased by some of the dockers guys, so if I see it being played I'll jump in and give the game a second look.

Still, you deserve a smack in the face for the AI comment. There is no way this 'take the top chit' bullshit comes anywhere close to Arkham Horror.

Also if i do change my mind on this game, that means the only FFG game I don't like will be Beowulf, which means Nate will be riding my balls for the next millennium.

Wargamer66 said...

Strangely, I thought Micheal was off-base hating this one, but now he appears to like it more than I do! I enjoy this game, but see it more as a puzzle with a good theme, with a healthy dose of push your luck elements. Great fun. It definately fits into that niche of "if I must play a eurogame, this is a good one."

Sean McCarthy said...

I would say that playing Lord of the Rings feels like you're trying to solve a puzzle; you have little chance of success; and if you fail, Sauron will destroy Middle Earth! The mood is perfect, while the mechanics themselves openly admit to being just a game.

Vaughn said...

I love this one as well.

I've only played a few times but I quickly ordered the three expansions for it and I'm looking forward to playing them all.

I'm a LOTR fanatic so I eat the theme up. It's got cards, pawns, a die. It's all good.

dougau said...

Played a ton of this in the past week since Battlefields came out, after 18 months on the shelf. Really nice game, which has made me decide to turf Shadows over Camelot. Battlefields is good, it works, but is a bit detached thematically. I wonder if the late Dave Farquhar's input is missed?

dougau said...

Anyway, I'm going to have to go with Thrower on the "you do this and you there, etc." syndrome. The one time I've played LOTR, I had to ask the one experienced player to make no suggestions whatsoever.

Best way around that is play competitively with face down shields and individual scores. Heck, even chuck in the corrupted hobbit if you want to get really devious. You can tune the game a bit.

philoiz said...

Wow. Y'know I always balked at this one. It never grabbed me. But after this I think I'll grab the dusty copy that's sitting on my FLGS shelf. I just picked up War of the Ring last week and after playing that amazing monster I'm kind of riding a "LOTR high" at the moment anyway.

Octavian said...


I'm probably the biggest LotR fan you'll find here, and I'd strongly suggest you try before you buy. I think it's a phenomenal game, with or without expansions, and am more forgiving of the "gamey to make it work" aspects, but individual tastes and group dynamics has a huge say in how much enjoyment you'll get out of this one.


philoiz said...


I'd really love to. Sad thing is, I've never run into someone with a copy and I'm generally the only one in my group that'll pony up the cash for games. Thanks for the heads-up, though. I'll really look about for a chance to play this one before disbursement comes in. I have a limited budget out of this check and I have to pay for Tide Of Iron out of it too.

southernman said...

This game is a favourite of mine because it is simply a game for having fun with mates due to it being cooperative, but also competitive as no way are you going to let that ring get captured. In this way it probably leans towards an AT persona - which is probably why I can't get it out that much with my group who are very euro-centric.

And if you are feeling particularly pissed off when you arrive then pull out the Sauron expansion and play the dark guy, as you do your darndest to burn all those self-righteous hobbits ... I love the Sauron expansion.

Due to lack of tabletime I have not had the F&F expansion out so don't know what I'm missing.

All the best with the new spot here - I am ultra disgusted with the thin-skinned egotists on BGG and (as per my nature) have let my feelings known. I'm from the southern hemisphere where we are a bit more straight forward with what we say and I can't stand whiners who can't take a bit of contrary opinion. I recently made a comment on BGG to friendless which (a bit gruffer than normal) didn't come across exactly as intended, but was on the PM page pdq rectifying the situation so he new that I wasn't calling him an arsehole ... just a case of two southern lads being a bit too straight forward - but were open-minded enough to understand that.

Michael Barnes said...

We just can't seem to make Sauron work with a live player- it makes the game impossible, as opposed to next to impossible. With the Sauron player getting twice as many turns (or more) and very little to address the shift in difficulty in terms of more cards and stronger resources, it seems like it just doesn't work. I _want_ it to work though...any advice from you guys who dig it?

Octavian said...

All the expansions represent new sources of resource drain coupled with new ways to get resources. The challenge, then, is to not let the balance tip too far the wrong way.

With the Sauron expansion the new resources come in the form of bonus cards available on the sidetracks. The resource drain comes from a slow trickle of annoyance from Sauron with the occasional burst via a Nazgul card.

In my experience Sauron has three main strategies to choose from - build up Nazgul power and then pound the hobbits around Shelob's Lair/start of Mordor; build up dark rider movement and then make a play for a dark-rider victory in Shelob's Lair or Mordor; pound the hobbits with as much strength as possible early so they are playing from behind the entire game.

All are viable but have their dangers - the first two can be brutally effective but the hobbits could pull off their own blitz and finish the game before you have a chance to use your stored up power. OTOH, if the hobbits survive the pound-early strategy it is difficult for Sauron to catch up.

Essentially, the hobbits have to be reactive. They need to store cards if they sense Sauron is saving up and they have to be willing to spend their reserves to counter when Sauron strikes.

Either way, if you are having difficulty against Sauron and are playing with the Dark Tiles, don't! They only make the game harder.


will douglas said...

See, it's a revisiting of a game (like this) that really, really makes me mad that you're no longer on BGG.

How many Eurotrash players would ever give the same courtesy to an Amerigame? Not many, I'm guessing.

It's a big man who can admit he was wrong. You have proven here that you're a hell of a big man. (Some of us already knew that.) It kinda makes me wonder truly how big Aldie or some of the 'Barnes Bashers' over there on BashGoodGeeks really are?

I found the whole Amerigame vs. Eurotrash discussion on BGG highly amusing. Partially because I'm a wargamer (and thus outside of the argument) and partially because your comments rarely failed to bring a smile to my face.

(Funny how none of the Eurosnot responses ever did._

I haven't played LOTR, and probably won't (wargamer, remember?) but if I ever did, it'd be because of a review like this, and not because some Eurosnot started quoting a Tom Vasel review at me.

You rock, Mr. Barnes. Please, continue. Guys like you and I will still be gaming long after the Eurosnots have succumbed to congestive heart failure.

Michael Barnes said...

Good to see you here, Octavian, welcome! Thanks for the "tips" on running Sauron. We tried it last night (6 players, base game and Sauron, no dark tiles) and it worked pretty well! Robert and I had pretty much written it off after trying to play Sauron with EVERYTHING else last week but with just the base game it's pretty damn good after all. This post was all about second chances, right?

We sort of breezed through Moria and had little trouble with Helm's Deep...Shelob's Lair got a little sticky but by the time we got halfway through Mordor it was literally a skin-of-the-teeth game. The Black Rider would have clenched it if we didn't have the Star of Elendil and I (ringbearing Frodo) was one step away from Sauron when we made the ol' slam dunk. It was literally down to every decision meaning victory or defeat.

I really like the Black makes the tension higher. I do like Sauron making "intelligent" decisions but there were times when there was a potential for him to take like 8 or 9 turns...which would have pretty much cost the game. Sauron makes the danger level higher, no doubt.

We'll try again soon with Friends and Foes in the mix.

pbwedz said...

With over 1 million copies sold worldwide...

Do you have a reference for this? Just wondering... I was curious to see if I could find the totals for CC and TtR.

Tom Hazlett (Southernman) said...

In our first time with Sauron we did use the black tiles ... and Sauron toasted all the hobbits. My record was pulling five black tiles in a row out of the bag on my turn - the other hobbits were not impressed.

When I played Sauron the hobbits just got in - my next card was going to toast the ring holder ... I think we used the black tiles then.

PS Displayname changed due having no idea what happenned with the google account changes ... but at least you know who I am now ;-)

Oldstench said...

We just can't seem to make Sauron work with a live player.

I got the chance to play as Sauron last night against Mike and Robert (and Nicholas - the rudest hobbet in the land), and I thought it went really, really well.

There was one point in Helm's Deep where I would have won had we not done a rewind so that they could try a different tack, but the end was amazing.

The ringbearer was healed one space and the next full turn by Sauron had him moving to the space that the ringbearer was originally on.

Even as the Sauron player I was thrilled to see them pull such a close win out of their ass.

I was in the game with Mike and Robert with all of the expansions AND a live Sauron and we basically got our asses handed to us.

I am still on the fence about Battlefields even as a standalone expansion. As a matter of fact, Barnes and I ditched a two player base+BG game at Atlanta Gamefest this past weekend due to the fact that we were getting our asses handed to us with just that.

We played a great game of Confrontation which also had an epic 'down to the very last move' ending.

Knizia + LOTR + mouthpiece of the AT movement = gaming nirvana?

Who'da thunk it?

--Billy 'Sparkle' Motion
--Oldstench on BGG

Oldstench said...

Er...Nicholas is the rudest Hobbit in the land.

I think all the Hobbet's were killed during the second age.

Michael Barnes said...

With over 1 million copies sold worldwide...

Do you have a reference for this? Just wondering... I was curious to see if I could find the totals for CC and TtR.

Well, it's certainly not hard sales data but check out this article:

It's a very interesing article by Knizia discussing the design of the the end is where I got the sales figure.

To put it into perspective, most hobby games are amazingly lucky to sell 5000 copies...remember the jubilation when T2R had sold 250,000 copies?

Octavian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Skeletor said...

I just got back from playing this (base game only.)
It's not as bad as I remember. I'm still on the fence over it though, but I may pick up a copy..

JoshBot said...


Great read, and parallels an experience I'd had recently. I bought LOTR when it first came out, played it several times, and wasn't that impressed. I felt like the game was playing me, and it had a contrived feel to it. When I started to investigate BGG, I was absolutely shocked that the game was so revered. So I've cranked it out a few times over the past few months, and liked it a lot more than I'd recalled. There is a comment above that it's probably best played in an intuitive, quick manner, rather than just crunching the numbers. I agree. It's also a profoundly social activity, as the game can be lost if individual players are not willing to sacrifice for the greater good, which is distinctly unusual in a board game. I've played with both sets of my relatives (in-laws and blood), and everyone has had a great time.

Having said that, it's still not a pinnacle gaming experience for me(I upgraded my "4" to just a "6" recently), but is great for a group of nongamers, primarily for the social aspect.

Also, I haven't weighed in on the recent events between you and BGG yet. I thought your comments on The Geek were a real source of good, and the way everything went down at the end was just fucking silly.

BTW, there is a BBC-produced history of The Fall on You Tube that is well worth a viewing.