I actually received a copy of this game years ago as a gift from a friend. I played it at least once with him and his family, which was the genesis of the famous “The archers died, at least they tried” inside joke. Unfortunately I’ve not had much other opportunity to play it until this last weekend when my kids discovered it in the garage and, loving all things Tolkien, insisted we play it.
Lord of the Rings Risk is, of course, a re-marketing of the classic strategy game Risk which has been around, oh, forever–or at least three-quarters of my life, which to my kids would be the same thing. In this instance, however, there are some additions that significantly change gameplay.
For starters, the map is essentially a customized map of Middle Earth from the Gray Havens to the north-eastern border of Mordor. They’ve taken a few liberties to facilitate gameplay (like removing parts of the mountain ranges), but the feel is there. It’s also dotted with “strongholds” and “places of power” coinciding with (mostly) established landmarks. Strongholds give the defending player a slight bonus (a +1 to the highest die roll). Places of power are source of acquiring and completing missions (more about that later).
Instead of continents getting in the way of maneuvering armies about, here the mountains and rivers block movement, except where there are bridges or the artificial gaps I mentioned. This creates some interesting tactical situations for which the players need to compensate, and which give the game more variety.
To further liven things up the game includes “leader” pieces for each army (only four armies in this set, but there’s not really room for more). A leader can either accompany armies in battle or perform missions. When in battle they add a +1 to that player’s best die roll on either offense or defense (and is cumulative with strongholds on defense), though they themselves do not count as a battalion piece. On missions they move about the board trying to reach various places of power as dictated by a second set of cards, where they can get extra points for the player, extra armies, or various other benefits.
The second set of cards further expands game play. It contains the mission cards just mentioned (such as go to Weathertop and gain 3 points), event cards that are played immediately to impact various aspects of the game, and power cards that can be played at will by the player to achieve an important effect at a key time, such as nullifying a stronghold defense bonus or blocking a bridge. Leaders can gain additional cards by visiting places of power. I’ll admit I find these added cards more of a distraction, but they’ve integrated them enough that you can’t just ignore them unless everyone does.
The final change–and probably the most important–is The Ring. A “collectors” replica of the Ring, it represents The Fellowship of the Ring. It begins in The Shire, and follows along a specific path. At the end of each player’s turn it moves one more territory along that path. In certain locations, such as Moria, it can only move with a successful die roll, or it can be slowed by playing event or power cards. But once it leaves the map at the end of it’s path the game is over. At that point the players total up their scores and determine the winner.
The set also includes rules for playing a more “traditional” game of Risk, just in case. But considering one of the most difficult aspects of Risk is the length of games, I view the addition of the “timer” mechanism to be a bonus. Yes, it also introduces a random element that can give the final player(s) an advantage, but it also introduces a sense of urgency that adds more strategic complexity. At best you have 6-10 turns to wreck your mayhem, so you use your time wisely.
It also means the game is over before my kids have had too long to build up resentments and grudges.
The rest of the game is mostly cosmetic. The pieces represent two sides, Good and Evil, with elven archers, elven riders, and eagles representing the 1, 3, and 5 army tokens, while Evil using goblins, black riders, and cave trolls respectively. Leader tokens are either an orc or elven shield.
The one aspect that is perhaps confusing is the concept of “Good” and “Evil” players. All that really means is which token set you use and which part of the board you are more likely to be strong in. But several of my kids–and even I, who should have known better–took that “allegiance” to be more than cosmetic and actually tried not to pick on their counterpart. That error nearly saw me wiped out early on; my daughter, the other evil player, had no compunction against killing her “ally”, while my two boys refused to attack each other until late in the game, leaving me as their primary target as well. It also allowed my two boys to largely dominate the game to where the timing of the Ring’s exit was the soul determinant of which of the two of them would win.
Come to think of it, that was probably pretty true to the books.
I suspect our next game will be much more of a free-for-all. And I’m sure there will be another game. Of course Risk is a tried and true concept, but I find this specialty version to be an excellent successor to the series. As most of the games around our house tend to run short-ish (an hour or less) or long (four hours plus), this provides something to fill the middle range a bit. There is a definite time limit on the game, thanks to the Ring “timer”, but you can still expect to take upward of two hours. When the kids are bored and you want to keep them distracted a little longer, this game works.
My only real complaint is that the board can be a little hard to read at times, and the color groups of territories are not sufficiently different from one another, so unless you’re really, really up on your Middle Earth geography the territory cards can leave you scratching your head as to where to find some of the places listed. It’s a minor problem, and one that gets less important the more your play, I’m sure.
Over-all Rating: 8 – It’s not better or worse than original Risk, just different. I really enjoyed original Risk, and the Lord of the Rings theme appeals to my inner Tolkien-geek. I do like the “timer” factor.
Lotsa-Pieces: 6 – There are a lot of them, but not that much variety.
Randomness: 6 – Die rolls are necessary for much of it, but so many die rolls tend to average out over time. Still, it can lend for some tension when the dice go against someone rather dramatically. Random card draws also make aspects of the game unpredictable. There are some mechanics that add some tactical benefits to the die rolls, as well.
Competition: 9 – You can’t win without fighting the other players. Your gain is their loss, and vice versa. Strategy: 7 – Hard to say until we add in all the rules, but there is a lot to keep track of, and a variety of ways to victory.
Variety: 6 – Starting positions are random, and setup is under the control of individual players, so the board will be different every time. But from there on it becomes largely predictable. You try to take as much of the board as you can.
Will my wife play it: I doubt it, but with only four players, she may never get asked.
Will my youngest play it: Yes, and he won.
Questionable Elements: This is all-out war. Your objective is to take down the other players and capture territory.
Time: 1-2 Hours dependant mostly on number and speed of players, semi-fixed end point.
Players: 2-4 More players likely reduces the competitiveness, as you have more people to be mad at.
Age Range: 9 and up. That’s probably about right, though particularly smart/mature younger kids might do okay. My nine year old played it and won. Age and maturity may factor, so groups close in age group might be preferable for younger kids.