In a five player game, including Dave Farquhar who co-designed with Reiner, we were taught the rules and played all four boards (scenarios) in 2 hours. As you probably know, the game is co-operative in nature and the sooner you realise it, the better will be the game experience.
The game is pre-scripted, in as much as it replicates the book. So you start off in Bag End, move via Rivendell, Moria, Helms Deep, Lothlorien, Shelob's Lair and eventually to Mordor. The graphics are really good and add significantly to the flavour of the game.
A separate board tracks the progress of Sauron at one end and the hobbits at the other. When Sauron reaches the same squares as a hobbit, its time to make the tea for the player playing that hobbit. If the hobbit is the ring bearer, it's game over. The ring bearer receives a large gold ring and some game advantages, but he is also the target for more damage and a neat device allows teh ring to be transferred to other hobbits if the current ring bearer is under threat of conversion to Sauron's ways.
Your passage on each of the double-sided boards is indicated by three or fours tracks - covering hiding, fighting, friendship and walking. In addition, each board has a series of challenges that harder as you encounter them. The immediate progress of the fellowship is dictated by an event pack that causes the challenges and/or movement down the tracks. Each board is completed by finishing the a specific track or facing all the challenges.
The key to the game is the cards, which are distributed at the beginning of the game and you get refills at Lothorien and Rivendell. the cars replresent all the main characters in the book, but do not have special powers associated with the book and are more geared to helping with game-related problems.
The cards are used for all sorts of actions, to move you forward, overcome challenges and help other players survive the hurdles, while the shields you earn from fighting can be used to summon Gandalf's help. The balance of the game is uncertain as I've only played one game, but with luck (and we had lots of luck) you can get the ring into the Crack of Doom.
Our game finished with Sauron hardly moving towards the party, but the party got progressively more toward the dark side. Fortunately, we all managed to survive. Not only is this uncommon, but down to lots of luck and Dave Farquhar pointing out all the options we had.
There are plenty of decisions to take and mainly these are group decisions, but even the best decisions can be ruined by bad luck - dice rolls or poor sequence of events. But there are so many options, that even the worst circumstances can be avoided or at least mitigated. Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that felt like you were walking into more danger and one to repeat very shortly. I hope your first games are as enjoyable - it reminded me of my first D&D game in the mid 70's. (That was a good experience in case there are scpetics!) Lots of things to learn and explore and uncertainty about the future.
Dave is attending Essen for the first time and spending his mornings teaching the game so those of you looking to learn rather than read the rules might look him up.