Any gamer even remotely interested in atmospheric themes in their boardgames is probably a fan of J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, and luckily there are plenty of excellent games set in his world of Middle-Earth that allow you to play out the events of this iconic fantasy work. Whether your tastes run to controlling the vast armies of the Elves, Men and Dwarves against the Shadow, or trekking with Frodo and Sam and the rest of the Fellowship as they make their epic journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, there’s a game out there for you.

The most well-known of Lord of the Rings games also ushered in a revolutionary new way of playing games—co-operatively. Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game, first released in 2000, and the various expansions that have followed, were quite revolutionary for their time. On stunning boards illustrated by the well-known artist John Howe, players had to work together to ‘defeat the game’; each playing a hobbit who moves through important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, to eventually reach Mordor and destroy the Ring. As in many games of this type, ‘bad’ events are usually triggered by card play, and Sauron moves ever closer to the hobbits on the Corruption track as the game progresses. It’s an atmospheric, tense and exciting game that has stood the test of time and really immerses you in the world of the books.

The expansion Friends & Foes brings two new scenarios to the game—Bree and Isengard—and new rule options. It’s considered a must for fans of the base game. The next expansion, Sauron, shook things up a bit—and made the game harder—by allowing a player to be Sauron and play against the other players. Finally, Battlefields brought even more changes by adding battles to the base game, expanding and extending the scope of the game and its tactical choices and challenges.

There was an old SPI board-and-counters wargame of the same name back in 1977, but probably the holder of the crown for most stunning Tolkein-themed game—and one of my favourite games of all time—is the Nexus Games/Fantasy Flight Games classic, War of the Ring. If you enjoy a challenging, moderately complex wargame absolutely dripping with Lord of the Rings theme, this game is a must-buy.

Everything about this game is big—the huge board, the roughly 200 plastic figures, over 100 cards—not to mention the huge scope of the game. Not only does WotR cover sweeping, epic armies battling over Middle-Earth, but at the same time it tracks Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor, and somehow manages to balance these two very different game mechanics into a harmonious whole. One of the innovative ways this is done is through the use of custom dice that display icons instead of numbers. The players roll these dice and can move, attack and trigger events according to the various icons that come up.

The WotR expansion Battles of the Third Age is an interesting supplement that not only expands the base game, but adds two more ‘mini-games’ that focus on the battles of Isengard and Minas Tirith, using modified mechanics. If you’re a fan of WotR this is another must-buy.

It’s an indication of the popularity and classic nature of WotR that Fantasy Flight Games have created a Collector’s Edition, that truly is an over-the-top gamer’s dream. Not only are all the figures in the game hand-painted and resting in velvet-lined compartments, but the redesigned board is 25% larger, the rulebook is gold embossed, and the game comes in a huge painted wood and resin box decorated in suitably Elvish fashion. It certainly doesn’t come cheap, but it’s probably one of the greatest expressions of the boardgame art form available!

Of course, you tabletop gamers out there are also spoilt for choice when it comes to gaming in Middle-Earth: Games Workshop’s Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, and the epic battles supplement War of the Ring. This system is one of Games Workshop’s core games (along with Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000) and features an incredible amount of support and product; a huge line of plastic and metal miniatures cover just about every character and troop type that has ever been featured in the books and films. Whether you want to replay the hobbits running for the Buckland ferry ahead of the Nazgul, or the world-shaking conflict at the walls of Minas Tirith, this is the tabletop game of choice for Lord of the Rings fans.

But what if you just want to play a relatively short strategic game set in Tolkein’s world? Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is the game for you. Created by Reiner Knizia, who also designed the co-operative game discussed above, and most recently released in a deluxe edition by Fantasy Flight Games, The Confrontation is an ingenious and very strategic game that uses plastic stands, into which slot various characters from the books that remain hidden from your opponent as you move them on the board. Each of the characters have different powers, and since you only discover who’s who once you get into conflict, the result is a very entertaining and devious game that manages to successfully combine chess-like strategy with the rich Lord of the Rings theme.

Okay… huge armies: check, tabletop battles: check, strategy games: check—what about adventuring in Middle-Earth? Middle-Earth Quest by Fantasy Flight Games is for you. This stunning game was released just last year and is a bit different in that it explores the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Instead of following the events of the books, you control new characters like a hobbit, a captain of Gondor, a hardy dwarf, or an elf. The core of the game is perilous questing, but of course one player is Sauron and has numerous minions and monsters at his command with which to foil the characters’ plans. In a way, it is a bit like two different games in one; but the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ game mechanics work beautifully together to create a memorable experience. Combat is card-driven and atmospheric, and the game brings an entirely new perspective on the events of the books and widens the focus out into a world of adventuring and one-on-one combat.

Of course, I don’t have to stop here because there are still plenty of other games set in Tolkein’s world—even when you have people around who don’t play games very often, you could break out the Lord of the Rings Trivia Game, the Monopoly edition, the Stratego edition, the Trivial Pursuit edition. There’s something for everyone.

The fate of Middle-Earth hangs in the balance, the Ring must be destroyed, and the Shadow armies of Sauron must be banished from the land—good gaming!

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for some of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).

by Universal Head

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.