I had heard how great a game Lord of the Rings: Confrontation (Fantasy Flight, 2003 – Reiner Knizia) was before I played it, but I was a little let down when I received the game and went over the rules. It just looked too simplistic for my tastes and didn’t seem to offer many options. Of course, dozens of plays later I will gladly admit that I was wrong, finding it to be one of the best gaming systems I’ve ever played – a true tactical game, perhaps the game that Stratego should have been.
Then I received the Deluxe Edition. Not only was this version nicely produced (probably over-produced), but it added a variant set of tiles that could be used. These added a new dimension to the game that while not necessary to folks who bought the original game, certainly made the experience more enjoyable. Lord of the Rings: Confrontation basically distills the experience from the novels into an almost abstract-like mode yet retains enough of the theme to appeal to a Tolkein fan. It’s amazing how different the two sides feel – this isn’t a symmetrical game by any means – yet still come across as reasonably balanced. Truly a great design by Dr. Knizia.
Two players set a board up between them in a diamond shape fashion, with sixteen regions placed in a 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 fashion, with The Shire on one end and Mordor on the other. Each player takes either the nine characters of the Fellowship or the nine evil Sauron characters and places them on the board – four of them in their starting region (Shire or Mordor), and five in the two rows in front of that – one character per region. The characters are tiles that slide into plastic pieces so that the opponent doesn’t know which piece is where. Each player takes nine Combat cards for their side, and the Sauron player takes the first turn.
On a player’s turn, they must move one of the characters forward to an adjacent region. Each region can have only two characters in it, except the mountain regions (middle row), which can only have one; and Mordor and the Shire, which can have four. When a player moves their character into a region containing one or more of the opponent’s characters, a battle occurs. If the defending player has two or more characters in the region, the characters are fought one at a time in a random order.
In a battle each player reveals the characters and resolves any special abilities mentioned on them – such as automatic defeats, retreats, etc. Players then look at the number on each character, and both simultaneously play face-down a card from their hand. Cards are revealed, and the number on them is added to the strength of the character. The character with the highest total is the winner, with the loser being removed from the board. Both cards played are discarded, and a player can no longer use them until they’ve used all nine cards.
A few of the Combat cards have special text, rather than a number:
Magic (Fellowship & Sauron) – Can immediately be replaced by any discarded card.
Noble Sacrifice (Fellowship) – Kills both characters.
Elven Cloak (Fellowship) – Ignores a numerical card played by the opponent.
Retreat (Fellowship & Sauron) – The Fellowship card allows the character to immediately retreat backwards; the other allows a sideways retreat.
Eye of Sauron (Sauron) – Ignores the text on the Fellowship’s special card.
Players continue to play the game until either Frodo enters Mordor (in which case the Fellowship immediately wins, or the Sauron player gets three characters into Mordor (in which case he wins), or if Frodo is killed (in which case the Sauron player wins.)
The Deluxe version also has nine additional characters on the reverse side of the original nine. Players can either play a “variant” game, in which all new nine characters are used, or a “draft” game, in which players pick between which characters they wish to use. There are also four special cards for each player, which can be used in a variant. These special cards can only be used once per game but give some great advantages.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Characters: I wanted to compare the eighteen sets of characters and show which ones I preferred more. The character I list first comes from the classic set, and the second is the character on the reverse of the card.
Balrog (5) vs. Urak-Hai (4). The Balrog is stronger and can immediately kill someone moving through Moria; but that seems like it rarely happens, as the Fellowship is usually wary of any Sauron character there. I like the fast paced advance of the Urak-Hai better, which can move forward as many spaces as they want – ending in an empty region, simply for revealing themselves.
Gimli (3) vs. Theoden (2). It's nice that Theoden is power four in two territories, but I prefer Gimli's instant defeat of the Orcs, as they are annoying in all incarnations.
Troll (9) vs. The Watcher (6). The troll can't add cards, so technically the Watcher is probably more useful. Once the Watcher is revealed, however, it can no longer move; so I'll give the edge to the Troll.
Frodo (1 in both sets). In the variant edition, when Frodo is killed, Sam becomes the new ringbearer. For someone like me, who has had Frodo killed on many occasions, this seems to be the better choice. The original Frodo can move retreat sideways, however; which allows for some nice tactical maneuvering.
The Witch King (5) vs. The Witch King (2). I really like the new, albeit weakened, Witch King; as when it enters the Shire, the Sauron player wins the game! Still, you give up a powerful character that can attack sideways, but the pressure put upon the Fellowship player is great fun!
Pippin (1) vs. Smeagol (0). I'm not sure which I like better. Pippin can retreat backwards, but Smeagol can switch with an adjacent character (can you say Gandalf?) Even in my book.
Shelob (5) vs. Wormtongue (-1). Well, Shelob is a very strong character that constantly returns to Gondor, slowing the Fellowship advance. Still, Wormtongue is tremendously easy to get into the Shire, and he's almost impossible to kill with his retreating ability.
Merry (2) vs. Faramir (3): No contest here, because even though Faramir can retreat sideways, the fact that Merry can kill the dangerous Witch King means I'll always take him.
Black Rider (3) vs. Mouth of Sauron (3): This is another one in which I really have no preference. The Black Rider can move swiftly forward, but the Mouth of Sauron can change any card to a "4", defeating all but the strongest of Fellowship characters.
Boromir (0) vs. Treebeard (4): Wow, both of these guys are fantastic, as Boromir can sacrifice himself to take out anyone (Cave Troll!); and Treebeard is a "4" strength that can always attack Fangorn from any spot on the board (where he is a strength "6"!).
Orcs (2) vs. Orcs (3): The first Orcs kill the first character they attack - great if Gandalf is wandering around, but the expansion Orcs have a strength six when attacking, making their long range usefulness better - my preference.
Sam (2) vs. Sam (1): The first Sam is strength five when with Frodo, but the second is equal to the strength of the Sauron character when attacked. No contest here, the second Sam can take down that annoying Cave Troll!
Flying Nazgul (3) vs. Flying Nazgul (5): The weaker one can attack any region (winning the game in many cases), while the stronger one can skip one region to attack. They're certainly both good, but the ability to strike on the board is a terrific ability.
Gandalf (5 in both versions). The only real powerhouse of the Fellowship, he's useful in both incarnations, although I prefer his ability to make the Sauron player play their card first rather than his new support ability, giving +1 to an adjacent character.
Warg (2) vs. Gollum (1). The Warg is a throwaway character, even though he ignores the opponent's text; but Gollum is by far the easiest to move, since he can retreat forward! Definitely one to get into the Shire.
Aragorn (4 in both versions). A powerful character in both versions; I can't decide if I like the ability to decide that no cards are played better, or the ability to attack in any direction.
Saruman (4) vs. Saruman (3). Okay, I like his ability to determine that no cards are played, but the fact that he can instantly defeat Gandalf AND force the Fellowship player to play a different card makes him my favorite new character.
Legolas (3) vs. Elrond (3). I hate to skip out on my favorite archer character, but Elrond cancels two of the magic cards of Sauron, and that's better than killing the Flying Nazgul.
2.) Components: First of all, I want to congratulate Fantasy Flight games on a really top notch production in the Deluxe version, which is really well done. The artwork, done by the wonderful John Howe and others, is simply amazing and catches the feel of the Lord of the Rings quite well. The tiles stand up rather tall in the plastic holders, which look really nice and hold the cardboard counters well. Small cardboard counters are included for use with the draft game, so that players can know which characters their opponents have chosen. The cards are of a good quality and are large and easy to handle – not to mention the fabulous artwork. The board is very similar to the one in the original game, only larger to accommodate the larger pieces. My only problem with the new game is that while everything is bigger, the box size is MUCH bigger, and the pieces inside take only a small fraction of the space inside. Also, some may be saddened to know that the new expansion characters can only be gotten by completely buying the Deluxe version; there is no upgrade for the first game.
3.) Rules: The large, eleven page full color rulebook does a great job at showing and explaining the rules. More importantly, there is detailed description of each of the characters and special cards, something that is quite helpful when playing with the variant characters. More importantly, two reference sheets that show all cards and characters of each player are included, allowing players to have a good grasp on the special abilities of their opponents. When teaching the game, I use only the basic version and allow the newcomer to use the Sauron army, which seems to be slightly easier for a new player. The game isn’t that difficult to learn, but children are usually not very good at the bluffing aspect; so I usually wait until they are older before bringing this game out.
4.) Bluffing: I usually don’t do very well when playing Confrontation, if only because I have the hardest time calling the other player’s bluff. With no luck in the game, much of the outcome is a direct result of certain battles. When playing cards, a player must make difficult decisions. Go for the sure win, but using up their best card in the process, or play a lower card, hoping your opponent does the same? Bluffing also applies to characters – is that character that the opponent is pushing forward so blatantly the vicious Cave Troll or the weaker Orcs? Just where is Frodo? The uncertainty (which is really quickly resolved) is fairly entertaining, and the main reason I enjoy the game – even if I stink at it.
5.) Dark vs. Light: In my first game, I immediately decided that the Fellowship player was at a distinct disadvantage, after being totally trounced when using them. The instantaneous rematch, in which I was the Sauron player, quickly proved my theory wrong, as I lost badly that way, also. Since then, after many plays, I’m convinced that the sides are different yet equally matched. The Dark Side has shear power, with higher powered strength cards and strong characters. The Fellowship has better special cards and nicer abilities, although it may take a more experienced player to use them to their maximum effectiveness. I’ve met people who swore that the Fellowship / Sauron player could not lose, and I think that the difference in opinion proves that the game is more balanced than some might think.
6.) Special cards: The special cards are extremely powerful and really change the course of the game. I think that I would only want to play with one or two of them, because otherwise, the entire face of the game is different; and character abilities seem to be lessened. Still, considering that the game includes two variant groups of characters and these cards, the variety is there; and the game will stay fresh for quite a while.
7.) Fun Factor and Time: Part of the allure of LOTR: Confrontation is that the game can be finished in twenty minutes and still retains a heavy, strategic value. I’ve lost games in a couple moves (stupidity – I assure you I’m not good at the game) and still thought the design was brilliant and enjoyable. I’m amazed at how Christian Petersen and Eric Lang managed to make a variant set of characters that were very well balanced and seamlessly fit into the main game.
Although it’s slightly overproduced (and I say this about few games), I will give a hearty thumbs up to Lord of the Rings: Confrontation: the Deluxe Edition. Games are short and tense; and when you win, it’s because you played better! It retains the feel of the Lord of the Rings universe, while introducing a clever combat system used in many other games – such as Game of Thrones. Some might categorize it as “Lord of the Rings Stratego”, but that is oversimplifying this elegant game; it’s deeper and more interesting than that older, classic game. Even folks who aren’t fans of Tolkein may enjoy this game – one of the best two player games I’ve ever played.
“Real men play board games”