Strategic Bluffing: A Review of ‘Lord of the Rings – The Confrontation’

by frangibility

I’ve recently been introduced to Reiner Knizia‘s Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation by one of my room-mates and I have to say that it is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. If I had any trepidation going it, it was simply due to the good doctor’s prolific output: over 350 games at last count. As such, even though he has designed some of my favourites (including Tigris and Euphrates, Modern Art, Samurai, and Battle Line), you will also see his imprimatur on far less noteworthy titles. Fortunately, I didn’t need to worry: LOTR – The Confrontationis a clever and engaging two-player game that packs a lot of strategy and enjoyment into 30 minutes or less.

So, what kind of game is LOTR – The Confrontation? If you imagine taking the fun part of Stratego (i.e., the initial stage of planning and set-up) and combining it with a system of semi-blind bids for combat resolution (think: Dungeon Twister), as well as asymmetric player powers and victory conditions, you basically have this game. To be more specific, it plays out as follows: each player selects one of the two sides (Fellowship or Sauron), retrieves their single-sided counters and freely positions them upon their side of the diamond-shaped board, following some fairly simply placement rules. The Fellowship player’s goal is to run the ring-bearer into Mordor – the region that represents the Sauron player’s “base;” conversely, the Sauron player’s goal is either to kill the ring-bearer (easier said than done) or to run any three of its units into The Shire (the Fellowship base). The movement rules are very simple: on each turn, a player *must* move a unit forward (or sideways if you are in the forest squares on the Sauron side). Since the board is diamond shaped, this means that each move on your side of the board allows you to choose between two different target squares, whereas moving onto enemy turf is always going to be unidirectional.

The catch is that – as in Stratego – the one-sided player markers conceal the identities of all of a player’s units from his/her opponent, meaning that much of the game consists of guess-work about which unit is being moved where: a puzzle that is only resolved when one piece attacks another, which causes both to be revealed. Since all the units have very specific powers (e.g., Gimli instantly kills the Orcs, Frodo is allowed to retreat sideways when attacked, the Flying Nazgul can attack any square on the board), placing and moving units so as to maximize their potential utility, while simultaneously attempting to keep their identities hidden as long as possible, is the major strategic focus of the game.

When combat does occur, each player must play a particular combat card, which augments their character’s attack value. For example, the Black Rider has a strength of three, so playing a four card gives the Sauron player a total attack value of seven. In addition to number cards (Fellowship has +1-5 and Sauron has +1-6), each player also has a number of magic cards, whose effects include allowing players to retreat, ignoring their opponent’s special power text, reusing an already played card, etc. While this system could descend quickly into chaos, the thing that keeps it manageable is that each player initially has only nine cards to choose from and that cards played on previous turns are left face up, visible to both players. As such, as the game goes on, it becomes easier and easier to predict the opponent’s card play, due to the depletion of the pool of available combat cards.

So, how do I like the game? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Initially, I was underwhelmed by what I assumed would be a reasonably small range of viable strategies, given the modest size of the board (a diamond-shaped affair with only sixteen discrete spaces). After further consideration, I realized that the considerable freedom in the initial placement of units means that there are actually a very large number of potential game-states, even before units start moving around. Likewise, even though one could look at the combat mechanism as simply adding randomness, it can also be seen as an engaging press-your-luck or bluffing element. In fact, that aspect more than anything has come to characterize this game for me. Doing well with your initial placements and the combat cards certainly relies on knowing the game, but it also requires a certain psychological intuition as well. For one example, the Sauron player as a unit (the Balrog) that can eliminate – without the need for combat – any player who attempts to pass through the Mountains of Moria, so long as he is standing on a particular square. If you are playing as Sauron, you have to choose whether you will camp the Balrog on that square (knowing that it will likely never get used) or whether you’d rather put another unit there as a feint, saving your Balrog for more meaningful combat elsewhere. For this reason, it has been my experience that this game becomes more and more fun through repeated plays with a specific opponent, as each previous play helps to inform the types of ruses, deceptions and bluffs that could be attempted. In all, I’m really enjoying LOTR: The Confrontation and wish that Ace was around so we could play it right now!

Two final comments: first, even though I’m not a huge LOTR fan, I thought that the theme of this game was cleverly integrated, as the J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy tale obviously inspired each player’s goal in the game, as well as every specific character power. The game’s visuals also contribute to the theme, as it is quite a well-executed example of modern fantasy illustration. Moreover, since the game predated the Peter Jackson films, you get to see a Frodo who is not Elijah Wood and a Gandalf who is not Ian McKellan: a pleasant surprise. Second, it should be noted that I’ve been playing the Expanded Edition of the game, which includes additional event cards and an entirely different set of units. In addition to being able to play a vastly different version of the game by choosing to play entirely with the expansion units, the rules also list the possibility of playing with a drafting variant, which could also be quite appealing. Given the tremendous boon to replayability provided by these expansion cards/tiles, I would certainly argue that this is the definitive edition of the game.

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