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June 03, 2003

Favorite Games III

I've already built up a list of some 32 titles for this series, so at a pair every other day, this won't be done anytime soon. And that's the limit only if I don't think of (or acquire!) other games deserving mention before I wrap this up.

But here's the next installment, a "lordly" pair if ever I've seen one...

Lord of the Rings is another Knizia creation, this one an ambitious attempt to create a game from the highly popular books (and initially released the summer before the first of the movies came out to get that tie-in as well). In this game, the players (in the roles of the hobbits, including the often-forgotten Fatty Bolger as a 5th player option, allowing from 2-5 people to play) cooperate against a difficult series of game boards, trying to maneuver through the various obstacles (Moria, Helms Deep, Shelob's Lair and Mordor) on their quest to destroy the ring. Yes, I said cooperate. This is a game that is either won or lost by all players.

Most of play is done by trying to match cards of certain suits (conflict, friendship, travel, hiding, and the wild suit of magic) against the current challenges, and do so rapidly as the challenges get nastier if not quickly overcome. Every board has tracks for three of the suits (Mordor has all four suits, making it even nastier), and an Event track, representing plot events that act as a time limit on finishing the other tracks. Each hobbit has a unique "power", essentially one rule that applies differently to them than it does to everyone else, as a way of differentiating them. The non-hobbit members of the Fellowship are abstracted into cards that help push past big challenges, and the Ring is the ultimate tool for evading danger... but using it carries a major risk, as it can move the Ringbearer closer to Sauron on a critical corruption chart. Players must get the ring to Mount Doom before they are pushed to Sauron's location on that chart by game events gone wrong and use of the Ring. It isn't easy, and the game suggests an aggressive means of cranking up difficulty (essentially starting with Sauron much closer to the hobbits) as players get better at the game.

Also available for LOTR are two supplements. Friends and Foes adds two new boards to play through -- the fairly easy Bree and the fairly nasty Isengard -- plus scary monsters that start trailing the party but which, if overcome, can allow some boards to be "skipped", though at a price. For example, if the Fellowship can evade all pursuit through Bree, they can avoid Moria, but at the price of giving up most of the rewards that would have come from visiting Lothlorien and starting the next board with several newly drawn Foes on their tail. Also, each Hobbit gains a second power, though this one can only be used once per game.

The newer Sauron expansion is an even more dramatic change to the game. When using it, one player stops cooperating (or a 6th player joins in), taking on the role of Sauron, now intelligently throwing dangers in the Fellowship's path, though limited by the cards and tiles he draws and by the Fellowship "activating" him when taking risky actions (of course, risk is unavoidable in their quest, so Sauron won't sit quietly for too long). Also added is a direct mechanic for the Black Riders, traveling up and down the Corruption board, from Mordor to the hobbits then back. If they complete the cycle, it's all over for the good guys. Game balance still favors the hobbits over Sauron, but not by much.

As a whole, this game is a lot to learn (the rules re-write at the site linked to above clears up a few points from the original rules), but it's manageable, especially if you grow into the rules one expansion at a time. This is a very challenging game, however, and you can expect to lose and lose badly if you don't work out how to cooperate effectively. Scan ahead on the boards as soon as they come up to work out which sub-quests you need to complete first, or you'll give up some of the nicest benefits (for example, at Helms Deep you must work fast on the "Friendship" track or you won't get help for the Riders of Rohan, and that is quite a loss). Throughout the games, in the rules and on the board and cards, is full color art by John Howe, one of the two main conceptual artists of the Lord of the Rings movies, so the look of this game is very well matched with the films. Also, there are many little game bits, from an oversized plastic ring (complete with the traditional lettering), a haunting Sauron piece and, with the Sauron expansion, a very imposing Black Rider. The hobbits themselves are a bit chintzy, but that's a small problem in such a lovely game.

Lord of the Fries is my second choice from Cheapass (though their whole catalog features only a couple of clunkers), an odd card game of the rummy family, only here the meldable combinations are the ever-shifting makings of various combo meals at a zombie-staffed fast food joint (the same place as their earlier and almost equally fun Give Me The Brain). The target hand at any time is the "order", chosen from a menu, which might range from simple to very complicated. There is a fair amount of strategy in card-passing and in order selection, but not overly much. For the most part, it's just "try to get rid of all your cards", and that's easy to figure out. The current "deluxe version" comes in color and with several alternative menus (though no longer in the cool chinese take-out box that was used to pack it briefly), creating even more game play alternatives, and still at a price well below most any other game anywhere near this much fun.

Posted by ghoul at June 3, 2003 01:05 PM

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It's especially fun playing Sauron... you can work out a lot of aggression with that position.

Posted by: Scott at June 5, 2003 10:20 AM

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