Return of the King

Session Report- Lord of the Rings co-op game, 4/21/20

Players: L, Ash, Scarlett, me

I did something last night I hadn’t done in over a decade.  I played the classic Knizia Lord of the Rings co-operative board game.  This was the first modern designer board game I had ever purchased, and I remember being awestruck by the simple mechanics (back before I knew what mechanics were even called), the co-operative play (again, I’d never encountered this style of play before), and how thematic this game was, evoking scenes from the books and movies with such a clean presentation of event titles and simple mechanical consequences.  I remember playing this game a lot with my old group, all of us Lord of the Rings fans, and adding in the Friends and Foes expansion and eventually the Sauron expansion, as well.  Like many co-operative efforts, this game lost a bit of its luster once we beat it for the first time.

When I read The Hobbit to my children two years ago, I found myself disappointed, not in my children’s reactions (Ash cried at the end, which made me exceedingly proud), but with my own experience revisiting the text and world of the book.  Would this prove to be a similar experience?  Would I bring my children and girlfriend back to the Shire only to discover that it was no longer as I remembered it, either because the world had changed… or I had?

Why did I even bring this to the table in the first place?  Why do I even include it in my collection, nestled between War of the Ring and Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation on my fantasy strategy shelf, and not relegate it to my Euro shelf, almost a museum of my modern gaming origins?  Why, when this game’s innards haven’t seen the light of day in over a decade, does it not simply live in my cold storage cabinet, far from the sanctity of my “live” collection?

Laura has been wanting to rewatch the movies for a while now, and it seems that the kids have forgotten more than they remembered of Middle-Earth, Tolkien’s world being overrun in their little minds by Star Wars and Disney Princesses.  As Laura had never seen the extended versions (le gasp!) and with us having a bit more time on our hands these days, we’ve begun rewatching the films, punctuated by my daughter’s whispers of “my preccccioussssss.”  I’m a theme junky, so some sort of LotR game was destined to happen.

In addition, the kids have been a bit challenging to game with lately.  Ash has had consistent issues with sportsmanship and sore-loserdom, and Scarlett hasn’t really engaging in the higher level games that appeal to Ash.   I should note here that Ash is 7 and Scarlett is 5, so these issues aren’t overly concerning to me, but I’ve been doing my best to address them.  I thought a co-operative game with overt tie-ins to a movie trilogy we are currently watching would be a great opportunity.

Before even setting up the game, the kids and Laura had decided upon their colours, Ash departing from his usual favourite of red in favour of yellow, making him Frodo.  Scarlett took red for Sam, L took the green Pippin, leaving me with Merry.  I went through the rules and was pleasantly surprised at how simple this game is to explain to both adults and children.  The common cooperative mechanic of “do something bad, then do something good” was easily accessible to the kids, and the tile bag (snatched from the Sauron expansion) provided a nice tactile activity for the kids on their turns.  The kids were also very excited to have a chance to hold the One Ring, though they were a bit disappointed that they didn’t become invisible when putting it on.  

“Okay, I have GOT to read these books.”

–Ashford Grayson

Ash read his card text like a champ, made good use of his joker symbols and special ability with a few reminders and coaching, and was overall engaged with the game.  A key moment for him was jumping to my character’s aid by using a special card to push me back three spaces on the corruption chart when I found myself  staring at Sauron block from a space or two away.  Thanks, buddy!  Also, upon seeing the Ghan card on the Mordor scenario board, Ash asked who that character was.  When told he was a character from the books and not the movies, he exclaimed, “Okay, I have GOT to read these books.”  Love this guy.

Scarlett did a good job of identifying the symbols on her cards and distinguishing the white and gray hobbit cards for one another when we quizzed her at the beginning of the game, but she still opted to play “open-faced sammiches” which allowed us to help her play and stay engaged with the game.  We definitely used her as a support character, which she was more than fine with and kept her mind engaged and her hands out of the tile draw bag.  She had some awful tile-pulls, which prompted a nice explanation of how while you can’t really be “bad” at drawing tiles or rolling dice… sometimes it’s fun to pretend it’s someone’s fault.  Which it is.

Scarlett’s shining moment was actually just before the game began:

“Everyone’s always after the ONE RING.  It’s all about the ONE RING.

Why don’t they just get their own?!”

–Scarlett Poe

Gods I love her.

Both kids were entranced with the prospect of using the ring.  L and I did our best to provide recommendations on when it might be most effective, but ultimately, we let the kids have their final choice in the matter.  A nice combination of the game design and our tactics allowed for each of us to have a turn as ring-bearer during this game, and for the most part we used the ring to skip one or more die rolls on the main track.

I was impressed that our first attempt lasted longer than the first scenario board, though we did start Sauron on the 15 mark for this first game.  I was increasingly astonished at each further board we conquered until we found ourselves in Mordor.  I had been repeatedly cautioning everyone about how difficult this game was, how much harder things would get in subsequent boards, and how we would most likely lose and could try again another time.  Ash actually seemed quite okay with this.  He was happy with our progress and seemed okay with the prospect of us losing in the end.  

We did a nice job of strategically and selflessly giving up shields for event spaces in Mordor, chugging along on the main travel line while also making good progress on the friendship track.  We mostly ignored the other tracks on this board.  To my surprise, we found ourselves within two spaces of Mt. Doom, and I had a secret weapon in hand for the final challenge awaiting us.  L was able to use a special card to hand me the last needed card to complete the travel track, and after the die roll at the end of that track was completed, we headed to the end game.

I had reserved my Belt card just for this purpose, ensuring our win by avoiding my initial die roll to toss the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.  We.  Freakin’.  Won.  The feeling to me was similar to the last time I remember winning this game.  It was, of course, exciting to win, especially with L and the kids and it being our first play together.  On the other hand, the nature of the win, using a card to ensure the victory, left me feeling a bit unsatisfied.  While the use of a die roll to decide the ultimate fate of our game (and all of Middle Earth for that matter) can seem on paper to be unfair and random, there is a lot to be said for the drama and tension created by the entire game resting on a single roll of the dice.  Ash seemed satisfied and excited with the win, but in retrospect, I should have used the Belt to avoid the die roll on the last space in Mordor and proceeded with the die rolls to preserve the excitement, especially considering none of us were in any danger of being eliminated from the game.  I could also have held onto the Belt to save the day and win if things looked even bleaker after several failed die rolls at Mt. Doom.

Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying evening overall.  The game still impresses me as a masterful piece of design linking seamlessly with the theme in a very economical way.  The lack of text on most cards not only make the game seem very clean, but also make it much more accessible and understandable by children, and the mechanics overall are as elegant as one could possibly hope for in a game that evokes such a strong narrative feel of the source material.  Moreover, the game is tense, challenging, and fun, both for adults and kids.  The art by John Howe is simply gorgeous, and Scarlett was actually disappointed to have to use a friendship card because she didn’t want to give up the picture of Sam eating soup.

Despite keeping the kids up well past their bedtime, and Scarlett being in one of the wackiest moods I’ve seen, everyone had fun through the game and are anxious to play again with the normal difficulty… and then add expansions.  Although my tastes have shifted away from euros over the decades, it was a real treat to play a masterpiece by one of the all time masters of game craft.  The art and overall production of my copy (the original Hasbro box is the one I own) supports clean mechanics that avoid being dry and stale.  One rule in particular stood out for me this play-through.  Players being allowed to share any and all information about their cards and intentions is a contrast to games like GloomHaven, in which discussing numbers and other specific are forbidden.  This really shone when playing with my kids, and combined nicely with the iconography of the mostly text-free cards to allow all of us, including Scarlett, age 5, to engage in full strategy and tactical discussions before each turn.  The artwork is gorgeous, vibrant, and evocative without being intrusive or distracting to gameplay.

Misplays:  None, really!  I did have one moment when I attempted to use the Belt to avoid a die roll when using the ring, but I looked it up quickly afterwards and ret-conned the move before the next player (L) took her turn.  It’s a testament to the elegance of this game that there is not much room for mis-remembered or misinterpreted rules.

Until next time.  Onward!  


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