Renier Knizia’s year 2000 “Lord of the Rings” game was not the first co-operative board game, but it was the inspiration for a significant number of subsequent games, including probably all of the Lord of Rings co-op games we have today.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it simply means that rather competing against each other, players compete as a team against the game itself, all losing or all winning collectively. This is the format of the Renier Knizia Lord of the Rings, the Fantasy Flight Living Card Game, and various other games outside of Middle Earth (Pandemic, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game etc).
There are variations possible on this theme –for example, one player representing the forces of evil whilst the remainder, collectively are the forces of good. This is the set-up in Middle Earth Quest, where one player is Sauron, and the others represent the free peoples of Middle Earth. As a twist, the player acting on behalf of ‘evil’ may be masquerading as one of the good guys, as you find in games like Shadows Over Camelot, or the Cylon in Battlestar Galactica.
A more recent development, is the idea of the “semi-cooperative” game. Before I go any further, I want to clarify this term a bit – it is sometimes used for games like Shadows Over Camelot, where there is a hidden traitor, or even for games with multiple teams working together against other teams (who may or may not know that they are on the same team.) I’m using it here specifically to refer to those games in which players have to co-operate sufficiently to ensure that they overcome the game (as infighting will simply lead to defeat). However, if they win, there will be a winner, typically the one who has earned the most Glory / Victory Points /etc.
There are (at least) two games in the Lord of the Rings Universe which feature the semi co-op mechanic, The Lord of the Rings the Dice-Building Game, and Lord of the Rings: Nazgul. (henceforth Dice and Nazgul for short). These came out in 2012 and 2013 and are both published by Whizzkids. They share a lot of characteristics, aside from the LotR semi co-op mechanic, there are the movie visuals (lots of glossy colour photos, no artwork), and the fact that the rules give the impression of having been originally written in Swahili and then translated by a computer into something closely approaching English.
Nazgul currently has an average rating on BoardGamegeek of 5.79/10 based on just over a hundred ratings, Dice 5.87/10 from just under three hundred ratings. (For reference, the Living Card Game, which has received nearly 9,000 ratings, scores a rather more respectable 7.64/10).
In terms of what the games represent, they are very different. In Dice players start off with dice representing Frodo and Sam and try to recruit additional, typically more powerful, dice to confront the forces of Sauron as the game progresses. Assuming players successfully reach the Grey Havens, the one who has accrued the most “glory” is the winner, otherwise all lose. In Nazgul, players represent the ring-wraiths, bent on crushing the armies of the Free Peoples before they get to Mount Doom. Again, should this activity be accomplished, there will be a ‘winner,’ this time the one who has accrued the most ‘favour’ from Sauron.
You can find a more detailed review for Dice elsewhere on the site for the general mechanics and components (review for Nazgul to follow), but my main concern here is the theme. The whole idea of a game being “semi co-operative” in the world of Middle Earth.
Dice initially struck me as the most unlikely setting for this mechanic. Evidently, there are many different people who take part in the war of the Ring, but can we really say that any of them do it for “glory?” Frodo, the one who arguably suffers the most and who ultimately destroys the ring itself is little-regarded after the war back in the Shire- Tolkien tells us that it is Sam, the many-times mayor of Hobbiton, and Merry and Pippin as the Thain and the Took who gain the public recognition. Admittedly he does ultimately earn himself passage to Valinor, but that was hardly what led him to set out from Bag End in the first place.
Of the Fellowship, perhaps the best argument of one seeking glory is Boromir. Despite the touching flashback scene of the re-taking of Osgiliath in the films [Two Towers, extended edition, if you’re not watching the extended edition, go and get it now], Tolkien tells us that Boromir insisted that he should be the one sent to Rivendell, and sought to bring back Isildur’s Bane to be the salvation of Gondor.
Even then though, the notion that Boromir would be the “winner” if he were still alive at the end of the books and had gained the most “glory” is an awkward one. Sam would probably count himself as having done fairly well to have returned safely home to raise a large brood of children with Rosie Cotton, even if he were never heard of again in Minas Tirith or Edoras. Simply slaying the most monsters just isn’t that big of a concern for most of the free peoples.
By contrast, Nazgul seems, on the surface of it, to be a far more logical setting for some back-stabbing. After all, these are the bad guys, and a bit of jostling for position amongst them seems sensible – surely they would push their luck as far as they thought they could without word getting back to the great eye? Possibly further if Cirith Ungol is anything to go by.
All of which is fine for Orcs and Goblins, but doesn’t work nearly so well for Nazgul. The Nazgul are depicted as being so completely under the power of the one ring, and are portrayed so entirely without individuality that the notion of self-assertion and bickering for personal interest just doesn’t quite fit. Even amongst the most hardcore of Tolkien fans, you’ll struggle to find someone who can subdivide the Nazgul more clearly than “The Witch King” and “the other 8.”
Theme aside, the mechanic is an issue. If a player is losing, there is little incentive from a game-play perspective to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. If Fellowship were a semi co-operative board game, then Boromir would have known by the final chapters that he was in last place having tried to take the ring from Frodo, and probably hidden behind a tree whilst the Uruk-hai dealt with Merry and Pippin. Likewise, whichever Nazgul let Frodo give him the slip at Buckleberry Ferry might think twice before piling into the Ford of the Bruinen – why not let the others check whether the water is safe first? Ultimately, neither the honest heroism of the Fellowship, nor the stifling control exercised upon the Ring-Wraiths really allows for a semi co-operative game to make any real sense here.
Fortunately, both of these games have fully co-operative variants (although particularly in the case of Nazgul, successfully deciphering it from the rule-book should earn you enough glory to claim instant victory), and it is possible to play these games in a manner that feels more fitting to the theme of Tolkien’s world.