Spotlight on Games > Features > Random Musings
RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

7 February 2002 . . . Apparently the puzzle was too difficult as in a year and half, there have been no guesses. Time then to reveal the solution. The game which actually published the names of the playtesters on the box was ... Die Macher by Hans-im-Glück, the original edition, by the way.

In case you're not familiar, the Hans-im-Glück name itself is a reference to a story collected by the Brothers Grimm. The two brothers were mostly concerned with linguistics, but collected folk stories from here and there as a sideline and are no doubt much more famous for their hobby than for their profession. The story itself details the rather ironical events in the life of Lucky Hans who, beginning with a sizeable lump of gold manages to gradually reduce it to almost nothing. But it has a pleasant outcome in the suggestion that there are things in life worth more than material possessions. You can read the story for yourself or even peruse their other stories.

These are the days of return for the now biennial Olympic rings. But it appears that rings of another sort have become a more than annual event in the games world. The first was Knizia's Der Herr der Ringe (aka The Lord of the Rings) by Kosmos and Hasbro at Essen 2000. In the old days, that would have been it as the Tolkien estate carefully managed just who could license the story. The estate must have been forced to cede to the movie people and they in turn are apparently willing to license to any old soul for the trouble of asking. Between late 2000 and now have appeared no fewer than eight new offerings including

1. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Suche (Neugebauer, Kosmos, aka The Lord of the Rings: The Search)
2. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Entscheidung (Knizia again, Kosmos)
3. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefährten (Knizia yet again, Ravensburger)
4. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefährten (Klaus Teuber et al., Kosmos again)
5. Der Herr der Ringe: Die Feinde (Knizia's expansion kit, Kosmos, aka The Lord of the Rings: Friends and Foes)
6. Der Herr der Ringe: Sauron (Knizia's second expansion kit, Kosmos)
7. The Lord of the Rings (Games Workshop)
8. The Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game (Decipher)

Is this what game buyers really want to see, all the creative energy of the hobby being pushed into hobbits? I think not, yet just as in a bad playing of El Grande, me-tooism is rampant. And there are surely more to come. In fact, the latest rumor is of a plan to rescue SPI's hoary old War of the Ring from a quarter century's languishment. And not with any radical changes either, but with the same designer and basic rules.

Wrong on so many levels, cataloging all the pitfalls of this plan is a real challenge. First, of course, we have more than enough games on this topic already. Second, trying to make an eco-military wargame out of this novel is just a non-starter. Even though as a novel it is head and shoulders above most of the rest for realism, the gap between that and any sort of reality is still deeper than a Balrog's plunge. Economic realities are omitted from the book for a good reason: they don't work, which is a problem for issues like supply in a wargame. But even moving beyond that, there is the even larger problem of the stupidity of Sauron. In the novel this works to support the narrative. Basically, Sauron never makes a serious effort to capture the ring, or even to consider that his opponents would want to destroy it. But had he wanted, he could have gone or had Saruman go to Hobbiton and conquer the entire place and hunt the ring down. Of course none of this happens. At the start of the novel this never bothers the reader because before Rivendell all of these facts are not conveniently not provided, an example of delayed revelation that is a hallmark of fine plotting. After this, most readers tend to be so amused by the many adventures of the Fellowship that the thought may never occur. And finally, this becomes part of the great denouement in which it is shown that evil and greed makes anyone stupid no matter how great and mighty they are, Tolkien offering no shortage of examples (Saruman, Denethor, Theoden, the Ringwraiths, Boromir) to drive his point home.

So much for novel. Now to the wargame, where it all falls apart. How do you tell a player that his best possible strategy is not allowed, and not for any good reason? It's as if in a World War II wargame the Third Reich player were told he was not allowed to defend the coast of France simply because the High Command could not imagine anyone ever thinking of trying to invade there. Ridiculous. But the Invasion of Normandy strategy is equivalent to the Destroy the Ring strategy in this setting. The 1977 wargame tried to get around this by the invention of the "Shadow Points" concept, by which every action the Sauron player takes requires one or more points and the number of points available for one-time use is limited to a randomly-determined number each turn. The suggestion is that Sauron couldn't watch everything at once. Of course, this represent an interjection, an interference with Tolkien's work by the designers as no such thing was ever stated by the author. In fact, in The Silmarillion, it is explained that Sauron is one of the most powerful of the Maiar, a supernatural race akin to angels. In addition to his powers he also has powerful servants including the former kings who constitute the Nazgul and men like the Mouth of Sauron. He owns a palantir for seeing and communicating over long distances. And he has flying creatures for reconnaissance. While no game ever seems to have limited the humans in the German High Command with anything like Shadow points (unless also similarly limiting the other side), here the very powerful Sauron is but a shadow of his true self.

So what happens in the game? First, since he already knows that Boromir can try to grab the ring, the Fellowship player separates him from Frodo. Second, since he knows that a dead Gandalf comes back even stronger, he tries to get him killed as quickly as possible. So much for the game ever proceeding anything like the novel. But this is just small lembas. Shackled as he is, Sauron does not capture Frodo at all. Even if he does, he has a good chance to escape and then becomes impossible to capture again. What ends up happening is that Sauron takes on the Fellowship at the only location where he, the player, but not the Sauron character, knows he can find them: Mount Doom. This lonely mountain will see the end of 90% or more playings even though nothing of the sort ever happened in the book. Frodo, armed with his mithril mail and elven dagger, is good for at least three or four Nazgul himself, generally, and the end result of the encounter, and of course the entire game, will depend on how many Nazgul have been able to reach the mountain and what kind of luck is to be had in the combat.

I am not new in describing these problems. They were detected early to the dismay of all of us who pre-ordered the game and have been cited many times since in many different places. The ratings for the game on the Top 100 Games Survey are middling at best. True, it has sold for healthy prices from time to time at Ebay. This is not a sure-fire guarantee of game quality, however. Games sell there for lots of different reasons. In this case I strongly suspect, as is oft mentioned, that people just want the pretty map of Middle-Earth to spread out on the table or frame for the wall. But is the price of a game what these consumers have to pay just to get a decent poster or puzzle?

The problems in this game are not really created by the designers and publishers. The simple fact is that this novel is just not cut out to be a wargame. The would-be publishers would be better off coming to this realization, but if it doesn't happen, there's no need to worry because the game-buying public is smarter than Sauron and not about to let themselves be hoodwinked twice. Judging by the themes of his books, one feels Professor Tolkien would approve. . . .


Please forward any comments and corrections to Rick Heli