January 6, 2006

Review: "Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation"

LOTR: The Confrontation distills the epic struggle for Middle Earth into a thirty minute game of deception and wits. Best described as a flavored variant of Stratego, the game is celebrated in many circles and has one of the largest franchises in human history driving it forward, but how well does it hold-up to the scrutiny of Critical Gamers' all seeing eye?

Summary

  • Learning Curve: 5-10 Minutes
  • Game Length: < 30 Minutes
  • Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
  • Our Rating: 2.5 Stars

The Quick Word
This title brings a lot great ideas to the table: stealth gameplay, a great tie-in with the LOTR characters (especially how each character effects gameplay), simplified combat, etc. Unfortunately these elements simply don't mesh well enough to make the game much fun. This game isn't awful, but it certainly could have been a lot better.

Overview
We have to admit that as a group we don't obsessively celebrate Tolkien's work nearly as much as others. We don't sleep with LOTR books beneath our pillows. We don't decorate our cube-walls with Elf figurines tactfully placed on the high ground. And unless you're that freaky-freak who pilfers our curbside garbage cans early Wednesday mornings, then we can openly state that we've never even heard of Frodo O's, nor do we eat them for breakfast, lunch, nor dinner.

But we've read the books, some of us a few times, and we believe LoTR is one of finest fictional series from last century. We get the plot elements, we understand the struggle of good vs evil, of nature vs industry, and of the weak overcoming the powerful through cooperation. LoTR: The Confrontation attempts to attach gameplay elements onto these various overarching plots. Unfortunately the resulting game is a rough conglomeration of cool ideas, rather than a ideas that compliment each other for the good of the whole (Ironic, ain't it?).

The gameboard.The Board
The game is played with the board at an nontraditional tilt. In one corner sits the brooding territory of Mordor, land of industry and chaos. It stares down the bright, green and good lands of the Shire nestled in the opposite corner. The Misty Mountains diagonally span the center of the board, acting as a no man's land at the start of the game.

Each space has an illustration of a specific region in Middle Earth. Rohan is rendered in a vast plain of amber, Rhudaur (home of Rivendale) is heavily forested, etc. The box cover proudly boasts that the acclaimed Tolkien illustrator John Howe created the board's illustrations, but they're hardly impressive; most illustrations are muddled colors and altogether boring. If you look close, very very close, you can see intricate details that might have once impressed the folks at Fantasy Flight Games, but now the details have been lost (probably due to the board darkening through the mass production process). When we first opened the game and took the board out of the box someone scoffed, "That's the most ugly thing I've seen today."

Only three spaces are at the least bit interesting: the dark fiery region of Mordor, the Gap of Rohan which is ruled over by the tower of Isenguard, and the green hedgerowed lands of the Shire. The rest are flat blobs of dark green or brown. The board's only true success the ease in which players can differentiate one space from the next. It achieves this through contrasting colors, but it even falters here with some confusing zones that bleed into the Misty Mountains. Overall the hand-illustrated board is a missed opportunity that could have provided a unique feeling of human warmth to this title. In a board game industry chalk-full of mass market cartoony renderings this would have been a treat. At least it gets the job done.

The Pieces and Setup
Each side's 'army' is comprised of 9 unique pieces. The side of Good consists of the famous heroes of the Fellowship: Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Boromir, etc. The side of Dark has a few anti-heroes - Sauromon, the Witch King, etc, with a small collection of non-character forces (such as Worgs and Orcs) to fill out the bunch. The illustrations on the pieces are far better than the board itself, hitting the mark a much closer to center in Howe's attempt to add character to the game.

The art of some of the pieces i the game.The two players setup their units in secret (like Stratego) with the token's nondescript back facing their opponent. Each player places 4 units in their home territory (Shire or Morodor) and one unit in each of the five other empty spaces their side of the mountain range. Units can only move forward during a turn, and because some units are more powerful when they reside in particular spaces (the Balrog in Morodor, for instance), half the game becomes the setup strategy. There's some room for play here, switching things up between matches, but in the end the initial setup decides so much that it makes some games entirely anticlimactic.

Players are also given a set of cards which are played in the combat phase. Most cards provide a boost to a combatant's strength, but others play into the overarching tactical game -- some allow you to transport units to specific regions, spy on enemy territories, etc.


Gameplay
Units have two values used to resolve combat: a 'strength value' scaled from one to nine, and 'special rule text' which augments the flow of combat.

As a rule of thumb, when two units share the same space they enter into a battle. Players reveal their characters by reading aloud any special rule text (and thus breaking the secrecy of which unit is where). Then each players selects a combat card from their hand to boost the strength of their character. Combat cards are revealed simultaneously, and the winner is the character who's combined strength (base strength + added card strength) outmatches the other. Pretty straight forward, which is good because simplistic combat that isn't based on a die roll is a-okay with us.

The Special Rule Text on each unit can make combat a bit more shifty. The side of Good generally has slight strength values complemented by powerful combat-oriented special rules text, or text that provides elusiveness; Frodo can escape from combat sideways, Gimli will automatically defeat the the Orcs in combat, etc. The side of Dark is designed for raw power, with rules text geared more toward positioning than on combat. For instance, the Balrog has the highest strength on the board, and if he's in Moria than he instantly kills anything in combat. The Nazgul can attack any space on the board, and the Black Rider can charge forward any number of spaces to attack.

Players take turns moving their hidden units forward to the fray until one of three things happen: The side of Dark floods three units into the land of the Shire (not bloody likely), Frodo is found and killed, or Frodo makes it to the land of Morodr.

Criticisms & Accolades
The game itself is both quick to learn and to play. Your first session lasts about 30 minutes as you bicker over some of the rules. Thankfully the instruction manual is short and concise, so disagreements (fisted arguments) are settled fairly quickly and before harm comes to anyone. Future sessions last about 20 minutes.

Now, in many circles this is a game has received acclaims for being one of the best 'simple and pure' games around. Unfortunately we have some concerns with the title's gameplay.

A vast majority of the game centers around you're ability to keep the identities of your characters secret. But so many mechanics butt-heads with this:

1: You can only have two units in the same space at any time.
This rule isn't anything huge on it's own, but then let's see what else.

2: When two enemy units occupy the same space, then each player must read the character's text out loud before combat begins
Ahh.. now we're getting somewhere. Even if you lose your round of combat, then you've at least gained some knowledge of your opponent's army's internals. This wasn't a big deal in the game Stratego because there were so many pieces on the board, and moving to take advantage of your new found knowledge took time. But on this tiny board - and with only nine pieces - things are much more straightforward and often predestined from that moment on. Finally...

3: You can move units forward, and only forward
Ah the nail that seals the coffin. There's only a small selection of spaces that a unit can move into, and this rule only services to increase the ease at which a player can hunt down a specific unit once it's uncovered. The gameplay favors the Hunter. Remember - the game ends when a specific unit on the side of Good (Frodo) is hunted down and killed., so there's an endgame scenario for the only the side of Dark (which favors the Hunter). 1+1 = We have an unbalanced game here.

It seems the game designers knew about this, too, and decided not to fix it. There's a section of the rulebook that reads (and we kid you not):

We recommend that you play two games. Each player should play the Good Player once and play the Dark Player once. The winner of each game receives one point for each of his remaining characters, and the loser receives no points. After two games, the player who has the highest number of points wins.

This sounds like a flake-out. Players shouldn't have to go through two full sessions for a game to be fun and fair. Things should work out of the box -- the gameplay for this one is a disappointment.

This game does serve it's purpose though. If you're hosting friends and someone comes early, then you can play through this title pretty quickly before others arrive. This game also travels well since there aren't very many pieces to lose, and because it fits into such a small box. Finally, this title would make a good gift for a younger player who's starting off their interest in strategy gaming; it's not overly complex, and it's cobranded with the popular and fun The Lord of the Rings franchise.

In the end though, we rate this title a Boromir: You're a great guy and all, and you were okay while you lasted - but it's good that you ended when you did.

2.5 stars out of 5.

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Posted by Critical Gamers Staff at January 6, 2006 10:51 PM

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