This is one of the games I purchased while on my recent family vacation to Europe. My wife kept a careful eye on me this time, since last time I purchased 16 games while in Germany. So, I was a good boy this time, only coming home with 2 games. OK ... confession time. Sure, my desire to please my wife was one of the reasons I purchased so few games. However, the main reason is that I actually already owned or had no interest in most of the games I saw in the various stores!
I had read some positive things about this Knizia card game which capitalizes on the Lord of the Rings movie. The cards have photos of the various characters from the movie and, in my opinion, are well done. Unfortunately, once you get past the characters and the names of the locations, any resemblance to the movie or classic books vanishes. However, that really isn't too much of a drawback, as long as you are willing to accept this fact and not moan about how the game isn't true to the book or movie.
The basic game is not all that difficult to play. There are ten Middle Earth locations, which is depicted by two side-by-side full size playing cards. Each player has a deck of cards consisting of various movie characters. These cards carry values from 1 - 5, with the deck consisting of more 1's and only one 5 (Gandalf). Plus, each player has a Nazgul, which can ultimately be used to capture an opponent's card, with both of them being discarded from the game.
The first location is set onto the table and players take turns playing cards adjacent to that location. Once the location is completely surrounded by cards, it is scored and the player with the highest cumulative point value of cards at that location scores victory points as indicated on the location card. Players who capture second and third place also receive points, but in a decreasing amount. Ties are broken in favor of the player who played the final card at that location, or the player closest to him in a clockwise fashion. Although this may seem unfair, players must use the knowledge of this tie-breaking procedure when planning their card plays.
On a turn, a player may play one or more cards following certain rules:
1) If the location is a 'safe' one (white), then cards must be played to a vacant spot adjacent to the active location. If, however, the location is 'not safe' (black), then players may play cards to a vacant spot OR on top of another previously played card, but ONLY if the value of the card being played is higher than the card it will cover.
2) A player may play as many cards with a value of '1' as he desires.
3) A player may only play one card IF the value of the card is higher than 1.
4) The zero card or the Nazgul may be played in addition to any other card or cards played.
This would be easy enough to understand and remember, but these rules can be modified by special rules which are in effect at certain locations or by various rings. You see, when certain locations are scored, rings are also awarded to the player who exerts the most influence on that area. These rings grant certain powers and can be played in conjunction with a card at a future location. These 'powers' alter the rules and often cause some conflicts which aren't clearly explained in the rule book. Most of the situations are fairly easy to rectify, but others required on the spot rulings which may or may not have been correct. Many of these situations were subsequently clarified on the internet.
Once a location is scored, the player who played the final card at that location gets to place the next location cards to the table. These must be adjacent to a previously laid card, but with the exception of that one restriction, can be placed anywhere on the table. This makes playing the last card at a location a very valuable move and one which should be planned for whenever possible.
The game ends in several fashions. The most obvious is when all ten locations have been scored. However, the game can also end if everyone depletes their supply of cards or if only one player has cards remaining following the scoring of a location. In any case, the player with the most cumulative points is victorious.
The game was rather interesting and is clearly influenced by many of Reiner's earlier designs and mechanisms. Each player holds six cards and draws back up to six from his face-down deck at the conclusion of his turn. This has a similar feel of Samurai, as do the mechanics of exerting influence over certain locations. The game works well and is rather fun. The special rules in effect at various locations, as well as the special powers conveyed by the various rings, add some confusion to the game, but also add needed spice. Without these, the game would undoubtedly feel rather bland.
My biggest complaint with the game is that it simply takes too much table space to play. The game will spill over the sides of all but the largest of tables. We were forced to shove two cafeteria-style tables together and even then we were teetering on both edges. This could easily have been solved had the manufacturer released the game using half-sized cards, similar to the ones used in Cartagena. As is, it may be easier to play the game on the floor where there are not 'edges' except for the walls. I understand that there was a 'table' rule in the original prototype wherein the edges of the table were the limit for expansion, but this was dropped by Ravensburger as a rule.
Early on, we were all getting used to the rules and mechanics, so no one had a clear advantage. Once we began understanding the various strategies, the game became more fun and challenging. Unfortunately, we began the game VERY late and didn't finish until near 1 AM. Several folks were tied, so I think this somewhat affected our overall enjoyment of the game.
Jim and Keith seemed to be leading early, but Elizabeth made a late run and was threatening for the lead. However, Jim had conserved several of his high valued cards and used them to great effect on the final few locations.
Finals: Jim 29, Elizabeth 20, Greg 20, Keith 17
Ratings; Greg 6.5, everyone else 6