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TL;DR - Elder Sign sprinkled with elements of To Court the King in co-op form, TH:AUJ is a theme-light, abstract dice game that isn't terrible, and can be pretty difficult and unforgiving.

THE RANT

So, it's another game based on The Hobbit. Yep, that's ten (yes, ten. ELEVEN if you count a German entry separately) that are called "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" or some permutation thereof.

So, how does this game stand out among the crowd of movie tie-ins?

Um...truth? It doesn't.

And that's no fault of the game, mind you. It's just that THEY NAMED TEN-MAYBE-ELEVEN GAMES "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY."

The fact is, this game is easily lost in a sea of redundancy because there's nothing to distinguish it from the other games with nearly the same name. It's like Peter Gibbons in Office Space. Remember how the Bobs reacted when he said he had eight bosses?

Now imagine those bosses all had identical names.

It drives you nuts, and therein lies the identity crisis with this particular game. There are too many identically-named games to even try to suggest a person trudge into their FLGS and buy it. Because unless they know exactly what they're looking for, they'll probably buy the wrong thing.

But enough railing on the name. It's not the game's fault, nor is it Cryptozoic's fault that the license owners think that when you print something derivative of Tolkien that it magically turns to money.

And that brings us to the reality of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It's not really derivative. The theme is painted on, and the adventure cards you complete in the game are like bullet points taken from Cliff's Notes. That's really all there is in the way of theme from a story standpoint.

Now maybe some of you think I'm being harsh. I'm really not. This game really holds up without the theme, although some of the cards' abilities tie in well enough. The fact that the game's theme is tied to The Hobbit is really the limiting variable in the equation.

THE GAME

So the game itself. It's really a dice game that has similar mechanics to the adventure completion of Elder Sign. There is, however, no 'big bad' coming to destroy the world or enslave humanity like in ES. When you reach the losing conditions, the Company just loses. No explanation, no muss, no fuss. Just FAIL.

But looking past the painted-on theme, the game kinda works. The mechanics are only similar to ES insofar that you roll dice to complete adventures. There the similarities end. When rolling in TH:AUJ, you get one roll, and one free reroll. That's it. In order to get more rolls or extra dice, you have to use members of the Company, which get dealt randomly to each player and then leftover Company members go into a pool.

In order to get more rolls, dice, or special abilities, like bonus icons required to complete adventures, you have to exhaust members of the Company. The abilities that are listed on the Company tiles reminded me of the cards you claim to improve your ability to roll in To Court the King, except the tiles aren't a reward like they are in TCtK. Each Company member has an ability that effects dice rolls, results, adds required icons, and some are even used to help the other players. When you exhaust a Company member, their tile goes back into the unassigned pool. The strategy of the game comes in the form of when to decide to utilize the resources, and when to try and save them. That's part one of the press-your-luck mechanic.

You might be thinking, "once I exhaust a Company member's ability, is it gone for good?"

On that turn, yes. But there are ways to get Company members back, like completing adventures and drawing certain cards (a deck from which you'll be drawing each turn).

But, with apologies to the late Billy Mays, wait...there's more.

There are also randomly generated resources tiles that reside at the top of the game board that are usually extremely powerful. Those resources have characters like Gandalf (oddly enough who's not a company tile), Saruman, Lord Elrond, and items like Glamdring and others, all with similar powers that the Company members have, except they're usually more powerful.

The other aspect to the P-Y-L mechanic is that the randomly generated resource tiles have points on them.

Yes, folks, we're scoring victory points based on the remaining random resources. And there are three sets of cards like this, and not only do the cards manage victory points and resources, they also act as the penalty-for-failing-an-adventure-cum-doomsday-clock. And the game has two stages (so far...more on this later), so you have to roll well and manage your available resources well, because every failure to complete an adventure takes away one of the facedown tiles for the next phase of the game. So you really have to be smart about your use of Company members and resources almost as much as you need to roll dice well.

There are quill tokens to denote successfully completed adventures. Trust me, you'll need them. And you hope you use a lot of them, but I digress.

There are two rows of adventures in each phase. The first one is a loose framework of the movie/book, which has to be completed in order, like the story. The second row comprises of several adventures that can be completed in any order (or in the place of) one of the adventures in the first row. So, as long as you complete an adventure of any kind, you're fine. No penalty, and your future resources (and VP) are safe. In each phase, there is also a single treasure tile in case you get greedy. The thing is, that particular adventure doesn't count toward your required completion each turn.

If you make it through to the next phase of the game, the remaining resource tiles on the 'doom-track' are flipped up and added to the resource pool at the top of the board. Then another set of facedown tiles replace them, and it's lather-rinse-repeat in phase two, except the adventures are much harder to complete. Complete phase two, and you win. Count the points on the remaining resource pool, and that's your score as a team. There were many clues that there would be expansions to this game, probably one for each movie, which means more resource tiles, two boards, and more rarely-good-things-happen-when-you-draw-these cards for each of the two remaining movies.

THE COMPONENTS
The Components are of fine quality, from the dice (although they weren't engraved...pity) in a drawstring bag, to the cards and cardboard tiles being of good stock. The boards are mounted, and there is a useful insert in the box, although I foresee issues trying to fit the inevitable expansions in one box. Also a pity.

THE FINAL WORD
I liked this game. I would play it again. It was fairly difficult, and there was tension from losing points and resources with almost every roll. There is real strategy in the use of the resources, and the trade-off of lowering your maximum score keeps you yearning for those dice to line up perfectly.

The fact is, when it comes right down to it, the game is fundamentally driven by dice rolling, and while the event cards bring a a randomly generated feel to part of the game, the game sacrifices dynamic adventuring through a card mechanic like in Elder Sign for a very structured single adventure. Sure, there will be expansions, and that will be satisfying to a degree, but without a design element that really shows off the robust world of Tolkien's Middle-Earth through more random encounters, the narrative gets a bit stale.

I am a huge Tolkien geek, and I love the setting (which drew my attention to the game in the first place), and what surprised me was that I found myself liking the game's mechanics more than I liked the theme, which was just kinda OK. That spoke volumes to me.

SCORING

Scoring is done on a scale from EPIC WIN to EPIC FAIL, with WIN, MEH, and FAIL sprinkled in between. A completely subjective aspect of each game is scored based on level of annoyance generated by that particular aspect, and has no bearing on the overall score, unless it's so annoying that it can't be ignored.

Mechanics - WIN
Theme - MEH
Replayability - MEH
Components - WIN
(*) Naming convention - EPIC FAIL
Overall - Somewhere in between WIN and ME

This review was reprinted from Reviews from the Asylum
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Kevin B. Smith
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Operadragon wrote:
So, how does this game stand out among the crowd of movie tie-ins?

Um...truth? It doesn't.

And that's no fault of the game, mind you. It's just that THEY NAMED TEN-MAYBE-ELEVEN GAMES "THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY."

Out of all those "Hobbit" games (and you didn't even count the ones that came out before the movie so don't have "unexpected" in the title), I believe only 2 are pure co-ops. This one, and the quite-sucky "Adventure Game". So that by itself does kind of make this one stand out. But I agree that trying to instruct someone to buy this and not one of the many others could be quite difficult.

Thanks for the review. I'm still trying to get a handle on whether my wife and I would enjoy this game or not.
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Kevin B. Smith
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Having played the game myself now (solo as if I were 2p), I agree with just about everything in this review. Except perhaps the naming rant.
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