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Co-op Case Study: Lord of the Rings

Meeples Together (which is now being funded on Kickstarter) breaks down the design of cooperative games primarily through the analysis and dissection of existing releases. These discussions form the core of the book, but specific games are also highlighted in individual case studies. Meeples Together contains 14 of these case studies, one per chapter, plus a few bonuses, but there are many othe cooperative games to study. This is one of them: a supplement to the material found in Meeples Together, in the same format as the case studies there.

Lord of the Rings is one the three foundational games for the co-op industry, alongside Arkham Horror and Pandemic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in print when we finalized the text for Meeples Together. Thus, rather than including details on a game that players couldn’t currently buy, we instead substituted discussion of a game that was more readily available (Robinson Crusoe, as it happens). However, we wanted to make sure that Lord of the Rings was the first game we talked about outside of the book itself.

This article has been crossposted from the Meeples Together blog, which focuses exclusively on cooperative game design.


Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2000)
Cooperative Style: True Cooperative
Play Style: Racing, Resource Management

Overview

The players take on the role of hobbits who are trying to deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom. To do so they must advance through four scenarios boards. Along the way, they need to collect sufficient life markers to avoid being corrupted, and they must resolve other threats.

On a player’s turn, he either collects cards (resources) or advances the group’s shared tokens along four to five race tracks. One of the tracks marks the group’s progress toward completing the current scenario board, while the other tracks give players life markers or resources or else complete subsidiary goals.

Challenge System

The challenge system in Lord of the Rings is triggered through the revelation of Event tiles; a player flips up one or more of them at the start of his turn. These tiles can have a variety of bad consequences such as corrupting the hobbits, stealing resources, or advancing Sauron. The tiles can also cause the scenario board’s next event to occur, which tends to be bad as well.

The hobbits’ corruption and the events’ status are both measured on individual tracks, each of which is an additional gear in the challenge machinery:

The corruption track is a linear path, with the hobbits advancing from the left and Sauron from the right. As the hobbits become corrupt they move toward Sauron, who in turn may be moving toward them. This is the most obvious threat in the game, as hobbits are eliminated when they reach Sauron.

The corruption track tends to work well for a number of reasons. First, it’s an obvious and central focus of the game. It’s always sitting in the middle of the table, with large plastic figures calling attention to it, and so players never forget about the impending threat. Second, there are several optional ways to gain corruption — including the Ring Bearer using the One Ring, players choosing to move to “die roll” spaces, and players opting not to collect life markers. Thus, corruption becomes a resource that players must manage.

The corruption track’s largest failing is that it’s entirely binary: hobbits are either eliminated or not. Thus, any growing sense of doom is psychological; there are no decaying game effects that advance the feeling of a darkening world.

The event track is somewhat subtler than the corruption track. Each space on the event track tends to require something from the players. They might have to turn in certain resources, or they might need to have reached certain spaces on the board. If the players meet the requirements something good (sometimes) happens, and if they don’t then something bad (usually) happens.

The best element of the event track’s design is that it sends players running in a lot of different directions, as they try to simultaneously meet the criteria laid out by upcoming events while not sabotaging their own efforts to advance along the game’s central race track. This causes information overload in the game, as players try to remember too many things — which is ultimately to the benefit of a challenge system.

Overall, the complex and interrelated challenge machinery of Lord of the Rings works because players must simultaneously consider a number of different goals (avoiding corruption, preparing for events, and moving on the race track), some of which might be in conflict with each other — and they must do so without having enough resources for everything. The random draw of the event tiles makes it that much harder to plan precisely, as players never know which of these game elements may be the most important in the near future.

The challenge system’s biggest flaw may be that it’s too random. When a player draws event tiles at the start of his turn, he keeps going until he gets a “good” one. This means that bad results can be largely unbounded, and that a game that was going well can suddenly turn bad in one turn. Threat-focused games certainly want some swinginess of this sort, but it may be overstated in Lord of the Rings.

Challenge System Elements: Turn & Movement Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Random Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequence; and Death Threat.

Cooperative System

Cooperation in Lord of the Rings comes mainly through the players deciding how to advance on the various race tracks; they must determine whether it’s important to finish the current scenario, collect life markers, collect resources, or finish goals required by upcoming events. Since the tokens moving along these tracks are shared, what one player does will directly affect the next player’s turn. This cooperation through manipulation of abstract game markers is pretty unique, even today — though Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012) offers a more recent variant on the idea and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017) demonstrates a different way to cooperatively interact with a somewhat abstract playing field.

Beyond the shared movement of these tokens, there’s little explicit cooperation in Lord of the Rings. There is minimal ability to share resources, and there is minimal ability to help other players — except by leaving them opportunities on the shared movement tracks.

On the flip side, Lord of the Rings doesn’t do a lot to control communication. Players can freely discuss their cards, but may not display them to each other. Communication is more subtly obscured by the preponderance of information in the game, which makes it’s easy to forget something (usually an upcoming event), but that’s minor in the scope of things. In general, this open communication can trend the game toward controlling players and perfect cooperation, both of which are a real danger to Lords of the Rings. The fact that individual characters have little physical presence on the board probably makes the problem worse, as it lessens each player’s buy-in to the game.

Overall, Lord of the Rings has some intriguing cooperative elements, but also feels like a first-generation cooperative game (which it is). If designed at a later time it might have put more focus on enabling individual players by giving them more individual presence and by limiting their communication.

Adventure System

Among heavily themed co-ops, Lord of the Rings is somewhat notable for its lack of particularly individualized characters. Though each player’s character has a special power, they don’t necessarily come up a lot. Players also have no individual physical presence on the board, and their one-use cards don’t feel like equipment: though some of the cards are named for items, collecting them doesn’t really improve a “character”.

This lack of individualization is somewhat balanced by the existence of existential threats to the individual characters: hobbits each gain corruption and will need life markers to survive. This might cause players to strive for their own survival even when it’s against the best interest of the group. This support for individual greed can help to stave off the problem of controlling players, as it highlights a way that players might diverge from the group consensus.

Expansions & Variants

Lord of the Rings has a few major expansions that vary the game. Friends & Foes (2001) and Battlefields (2006) both add variability and new threats that must be dealt with — adding to the informational overload that’s at the heart of the game. Sauron (2002) is the most notable expansion, as it turns Lord of the Rings into an overlord game.

Final Thoughts

Though modern co-op games tend to focus more on cooperative mechanics, Lord of the Rings still works quite well as a cooperative game. It’s also a milestone in the genre because it introduced eurogame elements like fast play, resource management, and abstraction to the cooperative field.

Lord of the Rings’ euro-mechanics, its cooperative elements, and its challenge systems have been widely copied with one exception: its shared movement tracks remain a distinct and unusual cooperative element — one which also bears consideration by modern designers.

About the Author: Reiner Knizia

Reiner Knizia is one of the best-known German eurogame designers. As a doctor in mathematics, he tends to create games with a clean, mathematical basis. Some feel somewhat abstract, but others like Lord of the Rings (2000) are saturated with evocative color.

Knizia has been a full-time game designer since 1997 and has produced over 500 titles total, making him one of the most prolific game designers ever. His most prestigious games are Lord of the Rings, which won a Spiel des Jahres special award for best use of literature, and Keltis (2008), which won the main Spiel des Jahres award.  The authors of this book worked with Knizia to adapt four of his games to iOS: High Society (1995), Kingdoms (1994), Masters Gallery (2009), and Money! (1999).

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples