**Note: The review references the original, non-deluxe version of the Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation game.
"It is a strange fate we should suffer so much joy and amusement… over so small a thing. Such a little thing." - Boromir, Fellowship of the Ring, slightly paraphrased.
A small thing, indeed. The original Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation board game sits comfortably in a box smaller than a personal pan pizza. It would likely fit in a pencil box were it not for the need to carry with it the game's extraordinarily lengthy name. Small is, in fact, a distinguishing characteristic of the game, in stark contrast with other current games based on Lord of the Rings which emphasize the same epic duration and magnitude of the movies and books themselves.
The Confrontation is a two player game based on the Lord of the Rings movies. One player commands the familiar characters of the Fellowship of the Ring while the other leads various evil characters of Sauron's sizable armies. The game comes with a small game board depicting the world of Middle Earth split evenly between evil side and good side by a range of mountains. Unlike many board games, players station themselves at the corners, rather than sides, of the game board. This diamond shape arrangement is curious at first, but makes perfect sense once one understands how the game plays out. With the Shire in one corner, and Mordor itself in another, players move their pieces (forward only, with notable exception) in attempt to fight, flee, and ultimately overcome their opponent through strategic movement and card play.
Also included in the game are eighteen game pieces, nine white and nine black, which are the familiar characters that players move across the board. Each character has a number rating, which is its strength value in battle. Additionally, the character hosts a special ability. Aragorn, for instance, can attack any adjacent square (even backwards). Samwise gains a strength bonus when in the same area of the board as Frodo. Orcs instantly destroy the first unit they attack, though Gimli can instantly defeat the Orcs. Frodo, most important of all, can always retreat sideways when attacked, creating quite the elusive chase for the Dark side even once his location is revealed.
As well, eighteen cards, nine white and nine black, grant players a chance to ante up any fight that lasts long enough to require numerical resolution (inherent special abilities of characters can end fights instantly). Most of these cards are number bonuses, though some grant special actions, such as retreating, sacrificing both pieces (Noble Sacrifice), or even a magic card that allows a previously used card to be reused.
Victory conditions are both simple and fragile. For the light side, moving Frodo across the board into Mordor is the singular key to victory as we know it from books and movies. As for the dark side, eliminating Frodo or getting three dark units into the Shire will give victory to the dark and send Middle Earth into utter darkness.
During play, each player moves one of their pieces forward. Up to two pieces can exist in a single area of the board at a given time (though in the mountains only one character can be stationed therein, a point sometimes forgotten to one's own great peril).
Comparisons to Stratego are fair but limited. Each game piece has unique abilities, which when paired with other unique abilities makes for some interesting confrontations that aren't a simple matter of numerical strength. During combat, the numerical strength acts only as the initial basis of combat resolution, for both players can choose to play additional number cards (or special text cards) to sway battle. With only nine cards for each player, using up powerful cards can exhaust options for more important battles between players later on.
Game Size: One distinct advantage to Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is both its compact physical size, and the short duration of gameplay. With so little in the way of components, and such a small footprint, the game can be played nearly anywhere. At the same time, the fun factor packed into the short game duration is remarkable. It's not unheard of to blaze through several games in an hour or two.
Integral Theme: It's been levelled against renowned Reiner Knizia that he often takes a solid abstract, mathematical game play mechanic, then applies a light theme atop it, with the result being that the game entertains but doesn't always satisfy those who purchase said product purely on the basis of its theme. No such argument can be made for Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. Through and through, the design decisions and gameplay mechanics support, and are supported by, elements of the world of Middle Earth, its inhabitants, and elements of the story of J.R.R. Tolkien's creation. Even the game board speaks of Middle Earth with its special movement rules for the Light side.
Quick, entertaining gameplay: Despite the game's roots in games like Stratego, the emphasis on each piece having a unique presence and purpose in the game adds depth and variability, personalizing the game into more than just "General against Corporal". Further, the ability to sway the results of combat in certain circumstances using the additional cards adds an extra dimension of risk and reward. Luck plays only enough of a role to keep games from becoming drudgerous or predictable.
Balance: Any discussion of balance usually provokes arguments, but truth be said, every time an imbalance seemed to have arisen regarding the abilities of the different units in The Confrontation during play, it was summarily dismissed in further play sessions. Despite the daunting task of adding eighteen unique pieces with unique impact on the game with eighteen unique cards (granted, the numeric cards aren't necessarily difficult in this regard), the game plays with a challenge at every turn, and a feels very fair in nearly every regard. Bad choices usually breed bad consequences, good choices likewise with good results, and risks come with an appropriate level of reward or disaster, all within the confines of the player choices made.
Special ability clarification: It's *very* important to read the rules thoroughly in The Confrontation. Without being vary careful reading the text of the cards, misplaying the game can easily give the impression of imbalance. Some have read the Orcs ability (instantly kills the first character it attacks) to only be used once per game (the rationale being the impression of utter imbalance if used "correctly", which is to say that the Orcs ability is used everytime it attacks.) The topography of the game board also lends to additional assistance for the White Side, something missed by the participants of this reviewer's game sessions. This is a "bad point" more for folks who throw careful attention to rules into the wind in order to get playing quickly.
Pondering Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, having spent several weeks in near continual nightly use, it's clear that the game was made out of love and respect for the Lord of the Rings, with a supreme emphasis on meaningful, short play sessions, and with an approachability and simplicity to easily bring casual gamers into its audience of adorers. And in retrospect, "...of all days, it is brought home to me, it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple game."