As anyone who ever played the Atari 2600 version of E.T. will testify, games based on movies tend to suck. And nowhere is this more evident than the world of board games, where every blockbuster harbingers a remainder shelf at Kaybee Toys filled with hastily thrown together “Game Of Life” knockoffs rechristened with the movie’s title. You can always spot a crappy movie adaptation, because it feels obligated to mention that it’s a game right on the box, presumably so you don’t confuse it with a key lime pie. Behold Titanic: The Board Game (Typical review: “Must…not…swallow…own…tongue…”), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Quidditch Card Game (typical review: “Broken.”) and The Hours: The Board Game (Typical review …. okay, I made this one up).
Still, every once in a while we get lucky. Such is the case with Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, a new offering from Fantasy Flight Games. This is not to be confused with the original Lord of the Rings game by the same company. Unlike its Big Brother, Lord of “The Rings: The Confrontation” (hereafter “LotR:C”) is strictly a two-player game, has a third of the rules of the bigger game, plays in a fraction of the time and sells for half the price. But the two games do share one thing in common: they are both amongst the best in my collection.
The central mechanic in LotR:C will be familiar to anyone who has ever played Stratego. The board, which depicts 16 regions of Middle Earth, is positioned diagonally between the two players, so that the person playing “Light” has The Shire in his corner while “Dark” has Mordor in his. The combatants each have nine unique pieces, which they place into their own territories any way they chose. As in Stratego, the “faces” of the pieces show who they are, but the backs — the sides visible to the opponent — are nondescript. Once the forces are arrayed, the battle begins.
On a turn, a player may move one of his pieces one step forward. Because the regions are staggered, brick-style, this usually means that an advancing piece has two territories to choose from. Unless the moved character now resides in a space occupied by an enemy, the player ends his turn. But if both Light and Dark pieces inhabit the same area, a brawl erupts.
Combat is fairly simple. First, both players reveal who is involved in the battle. Because each character has a special power, identifying the warriors is often enough to determine a winner. For example, Gimli’s power is “Instantly defeat the Orcs,” so if the dwarf is revealed and the Orcs prove to be his sparring partner, that’s as far as you go: Orcs dead.
If the fight continues, both players chose a card from their hand and reveal them simultaneously. Most of the cards have numbers on them (from 1-6), and the value of a played card is added to the charatcer’s “Strength” (indicated by a digit on the charatcer’s piece) to determine his combat total. The piece with the lowest total loses and is removed from the game.
All in all a pretty hum-drum system, I’m sure you’ll agree. But what makes LotR:C such an addictive little gem is the asymmetrical nature of the contest. For starters, both players have different goals: the Light player is trying to get Frodo all the way across the board and into Mordor; the Dark player, in turn, just wants Frodo whacked. Secondly, the Dark player has much more raw power than the Light player — higher valued cards, numerically stronger characters, etc. — but the Light player, by virtue of some special cards and character powers — has more tricks up his sleeves. In other words, the Dark player wins through force, the Light player wins through guile, just as you’d want a game based on The Lord of the Rings to play out.
Furthermore, the powers of the pieces are remarkably well suited for the characters they correspond to. Boromir is a time bomb: when he gets in a fight he automatically loses, but he takes the opponent down with him. Sam is generally weak, but if he’s in the same space as Frodo his strength more than doubles. Frodo is useless in a fight, but, when threatened, he can flee to an adjacent territory. The Balrog, meanwhile, defends Moria — anyone who tries to go through the mines is immediately defeated if the Balrog is in the house. And the Flying Nazgul can attack any piece anywhere on the board.
Best of all, the atmosphere of the epic is recreated by the game: Light seems doomed from the get-go, and most victories by the good guys are Pyrrhic in nature. In the last game I played, for example, I threw Sam to the wolves — the Wargs, actually — so that Frodo could move one more step towards Mordor. When you win as Dark, you have to resist to urge to cackle evilly and gloat about your dominance; when you win as Light, your first impulse will be to sigh with relief and wipe the sweat off your brow.
Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation has rapidly become one of my favorite games. I honestly don’t know how long I’ll be playing it — it’s entirely possible that I’ll “burn out” on it in a month or so — but right now I’m itchin’ to play it at every opportunity. It’s thirty bucks, it’s available through Funagain, and it’s the perfect pastime for the long months until The Return of the King hits the theaters in December. You should get it.