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Tom Vasel
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Apparently Lord of the Rings game needs a colon, and then a cool description. So far, we had LOTR: The Confrontation, LOTR: The Search, and now LOTR: The Duel (Kosmos and Rio Grande, 2002 – Peter Neugebauer). When I heard about the game, I was torn – wondering whether it would be a good game, or another travesty like LOTR: The Search – which had the same designer. However, my love for all things LOTR, and my unshaken faith in the Kosmos two-player line won out, and I was glad to give this game a whirl.

And my verdict was better than I thought. The theme is plastered on, but the mechanics don’t work against the theme, like in The Search. While not one of my favorite games from the Kosmos two-player line, I still enjoyed the game quite a bit, and we found that strategy, while not exactly evident in the first playing of the game was enough to make game play quite fun.

A thin board is set up between the two players, and a bridge placed between them. The bridge has six steps on each side (including the first one on the board), and each player places their token (Gandalf or the Balrog) on the first step. Each player places an energy marker of their color on the fifteenth space of the “energy” track. They then take the deck of cards (twenty-seven) that corresponds to their character, shuffle them, and make a deck. There are four rounds in the game: three “preliminary” duels, and one “final” duel. For the first three duels, the players draw the top nine cards from their decks – forming their hands. Gandalf goes first, and then play alternates between the players.

The first player places any of their cards face up on the table. Each card has four symbols on each side – some of them filled in, and others empty. There is also the possibility of special text on the card. After the first card is played, the next player places a card on the right of the first card, so that the symbols match up. Each set of symbols is compared. If both symbols are full, or both are empty – nothing happens. However, if one symbol is full, and the other is not, the player whose symbol is empty must move their energy marker one space on the energy track. The next player places a card next to this card, and so on, and so on. Some cards have a high “attack” – symbols filled on the left, while other’s have a high “defense” – symbols filled on the right. If any special text is on the card, it occurs after the energy markers are moved.

This continues until each player has placed six cards. The other three cards are placed aside, and will be used in the final duel. After the duel is over, the player whose energy marker is lower (some exceptions are made if the markers are on the same space – but I haven’t seen that happen…) moves his figure up on the bridge. He moves a certain number of steps, depending on how far apart the markers are. The next duel then begins with the players drawing cards, and the other person going first this time. After the three preliminary duels, the final duel occurs. This time, the players use the nine cards they set aside during the first three duels and play all nine cards. After moving the figure at the conclusion of this duel, the person whose figure is higher on the bridge is the winner! If either player’s figure reaches the top of the bridge at any time during the duel, they win; and the game is over at that point.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The box for LOTR: the Duel is thicker than most of the Kosmos line, which is because of the very nice bridge that is included with the game – a bridge formed of firm cardboard tiles. The bridge, which is the centerpiece of the game, and yea verily, the theme, is most certainly not necessary, but it does really make the game look nice and add theme to a game where no theme dare go. The cards are very nice, and extremely distinguishable from each other. My only minor quibble here was that on some cards, the Balrog, being the big flaming guy that he is, was a little difficult to tell which side of him was up. Of course, the small symbols on the sides of the card help, but this could be a little confusing. Great artwork, though, and the cards look fantastic! The wooden pawns are nice, even though the energy tokens are very, very small wooden blocks. Everything fits wonderfully in the box, which again is masterfully illustrated.

2.) Rules: The rules for the game are very straightforward, printed on a six-page color foldout, with illustrations and pictures. The rules could have been clearer, but were not really that difficult. There were two pages dedicated to explaining all the special cards, which I thought were fairly self-explanatory, but still were nice. The game is extremely easy to teach, except perhaps to a die-hard LOTR fan, who perhaps couldn’t get over the theme…

3.) Theme: This is definitely a case of theme plastered on game. The game could easily have worked with a tug of war theme (oh wait, we already have Heave Ho!), a sword duel, etc. Yet the LOTR license is so financially rewarding that one cannot blame Kosmos for choosing it. Yet if you come to the game, looking for the feel of LOTR, look elsewhere. In the movie, the duel on the bridge was short, and in the book – even shorter. In this game, the duel is rather long and drawn out. Still, the bridge really helps put a theme back into the game regardless.

4.) Strategy: At first glance, and at first playing, it may seem obvious when to play which cards. I have found that the best strategy and tactics to use in the game revolve around when the special cards are played. Playing the right card at the right time – using the special text to their advantage – can cause a player to win the game, although it might cause them a temporary loss of a preliminary duel. Players must carefully hoard good cards for the final duel, but yet take care not to lose the game in the early rounds. It’s a neat dance, trying to stay right on the edge.

5.) Contestants: In the games I’ve played, both Gandalf and the Balrog have come out pretty much even. Balrog’s cards are naturally stronger, but Gandalf has better special cards. Considering how simple the game is, there is not a huge difference between the two decks, but there is some.

6.) Kosmos Scale: Compared to other Kosmos two-player games, I would rank this one about in the middle. It does not match the fun and excitement of Balloon Cup, Lost Cities, or Odin’s Ravens, but also doesn’t reach the dredges of LOTR: the Search and Crocodile Pool Party. I bring it out on occasion, but it’s usually not our first choice.

7.) Fun Factor: The cool bridge adds a little to the fun factor, and the cards help – but the game doesn’t really “rock our world”. It’s fun, but in a passive, mild sort of way.

Therefore, I would recommend this game – if you must own all the Kosmos two-player games, and play them all often. There was no shining mechanic here that really stood out, but yet the game was fairly enjoyable. I liked the theme, but for the theme’s sake (mostly the bridge) and not the game play. It seems like luck was lower than other games, but still highly prevalent. It is an enjoyable game, just not one necessary for most folk to buy.

Tom Vasel

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In the review, you say that you draw three cards at the beginning of the game to make your hand; you actually draw nine cards. Also, you stated that you play six cards, but this does not happen if one player reaches the defeated area of the track before all six cards are played. Lastly, you state that you play the cards face down, but you actually play them face up; there is no reveal of symbols at any time- once a player plays a card, you see where the symbols are.

Otherwise, a very good review, though I think I liked it a bit better than you.
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Tom Vasel
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Thank you for the catches. I've fixed the review.
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tim Tim TIm TIM TIMMY!!
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finally played this one, the Balwog cards are so terrible to tell which way is up, just silly to not make them readable like Gandalf's.
 
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