Transcript of our podcast from 12 April 2010

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Variations on a theme - how boardgames develop

by Moritz Eggert

This time I would like to show you how boardgame design has changed over the years by following one single popular theme, with game after game replacing the old designs. The theme I have chosen is "Lord of the Rings" - no other game theme has inspired so many diverse and totally different games, all of them somehow attempting to bring the flair of Tolkien's creation to a gameboard.

The first ever published Tolkien game was "Conquest of the Ring" from 1970, a lacklustre, game played on a chess-like board which borrowed the usual mechanics - capture pieces, bring the ring to a certain space on the gameboard to win. It was more Parcheesi than Lord of the Rings, to be short.

Among other things the game was completely lacking any sense of geography which is so important to the Lord of the Rings feeling, so "Quest of the Magic Ring" came along to replace it as a better game, by all accounts a good design that had a Candyland like board in which individual characters were travelling along the roads of Middle Earth to destroy the ring.

But this game was completely lacking any kind of conflict, which is also crucial to the sense of adventure in Tolkien's works, so along came, in 1976, "Battle of the 5 Armies", a pure-bred hex-and-counter-wargame by TSR, now a highly sought after collector's item.

The problem was that this game was restricted to one single conflict from the "Hobbit", and replayability was low. So it was replaced by "War of the Ring" published by SPI, also 1976, a large effort by Richard Berg, yes I mean THE most disputed game designer of all time, that attempted to merge traditional wargame mechanics with character's special abilities, magic and even some diplomacy. The long-lasting popularity of this game seems to prove that it has something going for it, even though many say that the 3-player version with one player playing Saruman really, really sucked. For Saruman, that is.

But "War of the Ring" also had other problems, one of it being that the rules on one hand simulated the story of the Ring Trilogy quite well, but as Sauron was a player who had read the book he knew that the ring inevitably had to go to Mount Doom, so a working killer strategy was to simply put all of the strongest monsters on Mount Doom and simply wait until 2 little hobbits came along.

Other games appeared that tried to stress the adventure aspect of the books, like "There and Back again" by West Coast Games, published in 1977, with a hexagonal map like in "War of the Ring", but with less combat and a concentration on the player playing against the system, a.k.a. a solitaire game.

When the first animated film of "Lord of the Rings" came out - the underrated effort by Ralph Bakshi - Milton Bradley published "The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game", similar to the old "Quest of the Magic Ring", but simpler and more geared towards a family market. Actually not a bad game and now also a collector's item, but too abstract and simple for real fantasy fans to hold any long interest.

Now Iron Crown Enterprises entered the ring so to speak by acquiring the licensing rights, producing a line of very different games with different audiences in mind, the most advanced being the wonderful "Fellowship of the Ring", which again tried to create a complex simulation of the Ring War that concentrated on character action and a very clever and innovative hidden movement system. Sadly the game was bogged down by very confusing rules, especially regarding the skirmish combat system, but for many - including me - it was THE definite Lord of the Rings game for some time to come. For a while ICE dominated the market for Tolkien Games with their other games as well, among them many classics like "The Lonely Mountain" or their version of "The Battle of 5 Armies".

But in Europe the urge for replacing these games stirred again. After some botched attempts like the awful "Ringgeister" from Laurin Games along came a giant of game design, Reiner Knizia, to give us "Lord of the Rings" by Kosmos, a game that totally broke with any concepts that so far had dominated the Tolkien games scene so far, by being a Euro-style card management game with abstract adventure elements that still came quite close to simulating the trials and tribulations of the fellowship and their need to help each other out with special abilities. For many this game completely replaced all other Tolkien Games that came before by being rather elegant and less fiddly than many American designs. It also marked the beginning of the new cooperative games trend of the Noughties.

The problem was that now again the elements most important to fantasy fans were missing - real adventure instead of abstract icons and real combat instead of moving along abstract paths.

And along came "War of the Ring" by Nexus game design - the game to rule them all and an exceptional design most faithful to the Tolkien universe. "War of the Ring" had everything going for it - rich but not fiddly rules, a card driven game engine that ensured no game was alike, epic Risk-style battles and an elegant solution to the "all-knowing-Sauron" problem that limited both player's actions with a dice pool. This game has probably replaced all other Tolkien games - and right now one can say it is the king of the hill.

Oh, pardon me, of course there are new games here already, ready to grasp "War of the Ring's" throne. "Middle Earth Quest", for example. But that game doesn't really count, as it is purposefully not referring to any Tolkien-described book or event but fits somewhere in-between the Hobbit and the Ring War in the timeline, therefore it scratches, perhaps, a different itch, that of games like "Runebound" and "Talisman".

But being gamers we all know that the day will come - perhaps in 2 years, when the "Hobbit" is coming out - when new games will appear that could perhaps replace "War of the Ring" in popularity or endurance. And that's the way it always will be. Good for us!

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