Never underestimate Dr. Knizia. His games usually seems laughably simple on paper, but often have a sly mechanic or clever end-game scoring that make them enjoyable brain-burners. Consider Ingenious, which would be a ordinary abstract game in the hands of a lesser designer. However, the scoring in that game is based on your lowest color peg instead of the highest (or cumulative) score. That one twist turns the game on its head where you constantly fine-tune your moves to advance your pegs.
That brings me to the under-appreciated Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (2002). I think this is a real gem of a 2-player game that may be overlooked by players seeking meatier “War of the Ring” games who might dismiss this merely as Stratego with a pasted Tolkien theme. But there’s more than meets the eye here.
The mechanics are so simple that young players and gateway gamers will be able to pick it up easily. Each player chooses either the Fellowship side or the Sauron side of a board depicting Middle Earth. The Fellowship has 9 game pieces on a small board, and need to get one piece (Frodo) to Mordor, which is on the opposite side. Sauron has 9 different pieces, and needs to defeat Frodo or get three enemies to the Shire, which is on his opposite side. Each character piece has a different ability, and is assigned a strength number from 0 to 9.
The actual identity of the pieces are hidden from the other player (that’s the Stratego element), so neither player knows if they are attacking a powerful minion or a small whelp of a character. Moreover, multiple characters can occupy non-mountain places on the board and swap pieces. So a clever player can constantly play a shell-game of hiding their valuable pieces so their enemy never knows which is which. It makes this into a great bluffing games, instead of the open battleground of Chess, where every piece is known and every piece’s ability can be spotted at a glance.
Players also have a set of nine battle cards that range from attack modifiers (e.g., adding +2 to your strength) to special abilities (e.g., retreat backwards). Each player gets one movement, then (if a battle results) they resolve the battle with the character ability. If that doesn’t solve the battle, then the numbered strength is used and added to the simultaneously revealed battle cards. The battle is resolved and it is the next player’s turn. It’s not a difficult game at first glance.
Why it is So Good
Not many 20-30 minute games have this much tension, are this easy to learn, yet have an enjoyable theme. On the surface, it is Stratego with a LOTR theme. But then there are these wonderful Knizia innovations. For one, the board is diamond shaped, so the movement spreads outward from your starting position, then funnels inward to the tight enemy territory. Secondly, there are the mountains in the center where your abilities are hampered.
This would not be much of a challenge in Chess, but in this game characters must always move forward (with few exceptions). They are mostly pawn-like and cannot move backwards or sideways. So the diamond-shaped board requires that you think several moves ahead before moving. You can “dodge” other pieces by moving to the extreme right or left in this respect because of the ingenious shape of the board.
The abilities also fit the characters nicely. So the Witch King can attack sideways, since he is a flying character, while all the other characters can only attack from the front. Borimir can act like a “bomb” and auto-eliminate both the attacker and himself. There’s lots of richness in these abilities that fits the theme and storytelling.
Deeper than it Seems
I thought the game would be too easy. But like many of Knizia’s games, the end game is brain-burning fun. Like Battle Line, by the end of the game you are forced to make a game-changing decision from only 1-3 possible moves. Having the mechanic where most characters can only move forward means that you weigh each decision carefully and decide in advance which characters you can afford to sacrifice and which must be held by the end game. However, you also need scout characters to probe the enemy. One misstep and you’ve given your enemy the ability to win with no possible defense.
The good and evil sides are also balanced in unexpected ways. Sauron’s forces are much stronger, but the Fellowship’s forces have many retreat capabilities and are often very slippery. In addition, the board benefits the Fellowship by giving them a sideways move and a shortcut through the mountains that Sauron’s forces cannot use.
The hidden nature of the characters also means that the character’s identity is often not known by the attacker until after they attack. So that (plus the battle cards) adds a nice bluffing/tactical element to the game that adds much more tactical fun to the game.
I happily add Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation to the short list of great 2-player quick games (a short list including Hive, Battle Line, and Race for the Galaxy). Like those other games, it’s a tough act to follow — the game has to be quick, it has to be tactical, yet it can’t be as paralyzing as a tough game of Chess.
The Tolkien theme works beautifully and is probably the most thematic of Knizia’s games. You feel the desperation of Frodo when playing the Fellowship and using the mountains, retreats, and subtle bluffing to slip into Mordor while you feel the vice-like grip of Sauron with his pieces. The Sauron side likewise feels powerful but a bit clueless as to which character is Frodo and how to prevent him from landing in Mordor. Sauron uses his higher-strength characters to remove as many pieces on the board, while the Fellowship has a nice variety of evasive tactics that make them escape Sauron’s net easily.
Knizia may be accused of pasted themes and regurgitating old games. But I challenge any designer to come up with a more enjoyable, streamlined, inexpensive, 2-player, 30-minute game than Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. It’s just one of those quick and precise games where you wouldn’t want to change a single rule in fear that the elegant rules would collapse.