Review – Lord of the Rings: 20th Anniversary Edition
|Fantasy Flight Games
|2000 (new version in 2020)
The Lord of the Rings Anniversary Edition is a re-release of the classic cooperative game based on the adventures of Frodo and friends. Besides some very slight component upgrades, this version of the game remains essentially unchanged from the original 2000 version. It features the same lovely art and the same tough-as-nails gameplay. 20 years is an eternity in the board game world; does this one still hold up?
Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is significant for a number of reasons. Chief among them, it is often considered the first modern cooperative game. (It pre-dates Pandemic by 8 years.)
Simply put, this game comes from a different time. It was made long before Kickstarter revolutionized the industry, long before Catan was a household name, and long before board games were big business. Heck, when this game came out, JNCO jeans were in fashion (*shudder*). By all accounts, it’s a dinosaur.
I first played Lord of the Rings around 2008, when I was just getting into the hobby. I didn’t care about the source material (still don’t; sci-fi > fantasy, fight me nerds), but the gameplay was so intriguing that I just kept coming back to it.
In this game, players work together to journey through 4 locations from the Lord of the Rings series. Each location has its own board, and any time players advance to a new area, they change out the board. (To this day, this mechanism still feels really cool and I haven’t seen it done many other times.) To progress through a location, players have to spend cards to advance the party along the track.
As they progress through the levels, however, players will be battered by all manner of challenges and misfortunes. At the start of each turn, the active player must draw an event tile (sometimes multiple), which can be mildly helpful or very, very bad. Then, during their turns, players will usually be strapped for cards, fighting to inch along the track, all the while trying to keep a safe distance from Sauron who continues to bear down on them.
Each area also offers side quests that players can work on if desired. Given the game’s difficulty, new players will often be inclined to just ignore them, choosing instead to focus on the main objective. They will quickly learn, however, that not completing the side quests can have brutal consequences.
Thus, Lord of the Rings is the kind of game where players want to accomplish everything, but they have neither the time nor the resources to do so. As a result, they have to decide what to focus on – when to willingly take penalties, who should take them, when to use the few precious special actions they have, etc.
If players can complete all 4 boards, they destroy the ring and win. Otherwise, if the ring-bearer dies or a specific Sauron event occurs, they lose immediately.
Usually when I review a game, I go somewhat in-depth about how it’s played. I realize that I did not do that here, but the reason is that I wanted to save room to talk about why this game works so well.
Unlike many of Reiner Knizia’s games, whose themes are pasted-on at best, The Lord of the Rings has always felt very thematic to me. This seems odd, though, because of how very abstracted it is. At its core, the gameplay is little more than “play cards that match the symbols on the board,” but somehow, I always find myself getting immersed in the Middle-Earth theme. I would say this is because the theme is so universally loved that players can mentally attach the gameplay to it, but I have neither read the books nor seen the movies (*gasp*), so that can’t be the reason. (Okay fine, I guess I saw half of the first movie 15 years ago and then slept through the rest. Hate-mail can be sent to email@example.com.)
There is one particular round of Lord of the Rings that has always stuck with me. It was around 2011, and I was playing with 3 friends. We had scraped our way to the end of Mordor, the final climax of the game. In order to advance those last few spaces to win, we needed to survive an onslaught from Sauron. All of the hobbits were near-death, so it was an all-or-nothing situation. With Sauron breathing down our collective neck, one player sacrificed himself so that the ring-bearer could survive another turn, and it was just enough to eke out a win. It was an act of heroism that transcended the game. Our victory was thrilling, but bittersweet, as though we had really accomplished a great feat but lost a friend in the process. It’s hard to describe, but it was a very poignant, meaningful moment, and it still lingers in my mind a decade later. Not bad for a box full of carboard.
Now, shifting gears, regarding this new version of the game, I was extremely disappointed to see that it is essentially a straight reprint, near-indistinguishable from previous editions. Tabletop gaming has seen unprecedented changes since Lord of the Rings came out, but this version does not reflect them at all. Given that the game is celebrating a milestone anniversary, I would have liked it to have looked more grandiose, perhaps with a metal ring rather than a plastic one, and perhaps with new content or the hard-to-find expansion maps included. As it is, the production quality is functional, but it doesn’t feel remotely like an “anniversary edition.” In terms of coolness, it pales in comparison to the anniversary editions of games like Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, and Catan.
Still, The Lord of the Rings is a timeless classic which still holds up today. In terms of board gaming’s timeline, it is historically significant for laying the groundwork for future co-ops. For that reason alone, it’s worth playing; it’s a sort of tabletop history lesson. Also, more importantly, the game is fun and engaging. Fans of Lord of the Rings will definitely want to check it out, but even folks like me who don’t care about the IP can still find a lot to enjoy here.
A review copy was provided by Asmodee.
The Bottom Line
Though this version of the game does not feel remotely like an anniversary edition, Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings still holds up as a timeless classic.