Lord of the Rings: The Dice-Building Game is a semi cooperative game from Whizzkids, in which players start out with just the resources of Sam and Frodo, and have to recruit more powerful allies to their Fellowship in order to face the growing threat from the force of Sauron, and take the ring safely to Mount Doom.
The game comes with a large number of custom dice, representing various characters and objects in the game. For the most part these are good quality- all the dice are etched – but the paint-job also leaves a bit to be desired. Inevitably when trying to represent a character on a dice, there are abstractions to be made, and some of the decisions are puzzling to say the least. A Ring shape for Frodo or (my personal favourite) a Frying Pan for Sam makes perfect sense, but I’m not actually sure what the Saruman image or the picture on the brown artefact dice is even supposed to be.
The cards which come with the game are all glossy colour photos, stills taken from the films. This seems to be pretty standard for Whizzkids products, and is probably an easy option when trying to mass-market a game for film-viewers. Personally, I think I may have been spoiled by the fantastic artwork of Magali Villeneuve, but I can’t see photos like this without being disappointed, and would definitely have preferred the sort of art quality we get in the LCG.
The game also cuts corners a bit with tokens – there are corruption markers which get used for two slightly contradictory things, and a decidedly feeble “one ring” token which is cardboard, and about half a centimetre across- we tended to supplement these with bits from other games.
The rules for this game are truly abysmal. Despite any assertions to the contrary from Whizzkids, its hard to believe that these rules were written in English, or indeed by anyone who had ever played a board or card-game. Whizzkids have now made LOTR_DBG_Rules_v2 available for download, which is at least slightly better than the original insert, but even then, you’ll have to read it through a couple of times, and spend most of your first game or two digging through the rules for every other action.
Overall: reasonable job on the dice, and the cards are perfectly adequate, but generally there’s little here to get excited about. The less said about the rules the better.
Each round you roll dice, use them activate dice you already have, or buy better dice for the future. You can then send them forth to destroy Sauron’s dice. Once per round, Sauron gets a turn, where he will use “corruption” to make one type of dice function as it were blank (players can block this by sacrificing ‘glory points’) and then he will attack you, trying to destroy your units, and prevent them from earning you glory on your next turn.
It’s impossible to say too much about the game-play without getting into the whole concept of semi-cooperative games, and that was a topic which I felt warranted a whole separate article.
For us then, the fully cooperative variant of the game is how we tend to play it. It’s not bad. There’s certainly some fun to be had, and it’s enjoyable to build up the strength of your fellowship and throw them into battle against the growing hordes of trolls and Mumaks.
The fact that everything is dice-driven instils a fair amount of randomness into the game, but it does allow for a good degree of replayability – aside from the first turn or two, you’re never likely to have re-runs of the exact same situation. There’s also a decent amount of scope to vary the difficulty, although you suspect in part that this may have been due to a lack of play-testing, rather than simply a deep concern for meeting the needs of a broad sweep of gamers.
This game is a spin-off from Quarriors, a competitive dice-builder in a fantasy setting made up purely for the game, and you can definitely feel that it’s a re-theme. Sometimes, the thematic element feels a bit pasted on, and you’ll find yourself making decisions that you probably couldn’t condone so easily if you were more absorbed – “Sauron’s got 6 corruption this turn? Well let’s just corrupt Arwen, no-one’s using her”
A bit of cost-cutting on components also makes for some odd gameplay issues. Typically, each of the powerful unit dice represents 2 different things, depending on which side of the card is flipped. Some of these make perfect sense – the dice with the strange crawling creature can be either Smeagol or Gollum, and functions differently depending on which is randomly selected. However, one dice also has to do double duty for Aragorn and Arwen, meaning you can never have both in play at once. At the most extreme end, you find Legolas and Gimli sharing a dice with Eowyn & Theoden, pushing the barriers of theme a bit too far for my liking.
The end of the game can also be a bit climactic. Of the 8 stages or location, only the first six really do anything, with Mount Doom saying “add up points a final time, then advance to the Grey Havens” (or similar) and the Grey Havens saying “you have won.”
This game is fine. It scores a definite “OK.” It certainly isn’t without a feel of Middle Earth, and whilst it is a re-theme of another game, these aren’t mechanics which have been done-to-death elsewhere, so it does feel different enough from other games to be worth bothering with.
That said, this isn’t a particularly gripping game, the theme isn’t really immersive, and there are a few odd moments which jar. The fact that most of the time you’re likely to be playing what’s technically a “variant” doesn’t help massively either.
Overall verdict – if you like dice and like Lord of the Rings, there are certainly worse games out there, but don’t expect to be playing this 3 times a week for the next few years.