Thursday, February 03, 2005

Sauron. Tough.

This week saw an edition of WAGS dedicated to the German master designer Reiner Knizia (He is responsible for some of my favorite games, particularly Tigris & Euphrates). The games for the evening were Lord of the Rings (With Sauron expansion), and Modern Art

In keeping with the german theme, we had delicious sausage with sauerkraut(less related, but still close, were mushroom and cabbage filled perogies)!!!

First up was Sauron. Some of the group had experience with the base game (as well as Friends and Foes), but Shemp in particular hadn't really played. Even to those familiar with the original, this was the first time we had played this particular expansion. Still, despite the warning in the rules (and Kozure's pleading), I went ahead and included all the bad tiles in our first go around... Of ocurse, I was later nominated to play Sauron, so that worked out just fine.

Since we haven't really played the original at a WAGS session, I'm going to start with my impressions of that. This is a game which really took me by surprise when I first played it. It's cooperative (all players work toghether to beat the game), which is highly unusual. It's a very abstract representation of the story. The boards are really attractive, and the corruption track is very appealing to me, but I was skeptical that all the "theme" provided by these things might be undermined by such an abstracted system. After playing a few times I feel that this game is not only very good, but actually accomplishes many things few games manage to do. I'll start with a complaint: the game is loaded with a few too many bits (cards of various functions, multiple boards, various tokens and minis, "money", the Ring, etc) and rules to go with each one. This gives the game a very "fiddly" feeling which I don't normally associate with Knizia's games. It also takes up a lot of space, with many distinct piles all over the place.

In a nutshell, aach player takes on the role of a hobbit, and collectively they work together to journey to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, without being killed, discovered by Sauron or corrupted by the Ring. A series of boards represent the various steps in the storyline, and markers on those boards identify the progress of the hobbits in various "main" and "Sub" missions. A track down the side of each board describes the nasty events which could occur in that scenario if the hobbits are unlucky and/or take too long. Players must randomly select tiles to see if the good or bad tracks advance, and then play cards out of their hands to help move things in the direction they want things to go. Money, represented as shields, can be accumulated to purchase "Gandalf" cards at any time, providing much needed reinforcements. The Ring can be put on to advance on a particular track without activating the spaces... at the cost of possible corruption. Resources representing firends and items can be picked up here and there to help the hobbits along. All the while, a "corruption" track starts with the hobbits at one end and Sauron on the other. If the ringbearer ever meets Sauron, the game ends. It's a very difficult quest, which basically boils down to management of a hand of cards and resources on the table (with an eye towards the bad things on the horizon and a strategy to overcome eahc scenario). Another interesting aspect is that the game plays solo quite well, and goes right up to 5 players (with very different strategies at each number).
This is the only game I've ever played which successfully conveyes a sense of desperation and a need for effective cooperation. It manages to create tension from the very beginning (It would have been very unfortunate if the first three boards were easy and/or irrelevant and things only got interesting at the end). When I play, I get a sense of how difficult the quest really is in the books. By the time I've crossed Moria, I often feel like there is no possible way I can make it. Still, there are many opportunties for reinforcements as the game progresses and if you play smart it is possible to finish successfully.

The Sauron expansion brings a whole new level of challenge. The players are no longer working together against the mechanics of the game. A player takes on the role of Sauron and can pay attention to the discussions and actions of the players and react to their weaknesses as they become apparent. The game also introduces a new threat on the corruption track... a Nazgul token which races towards the Ringbearer, and then races back to Mordor. If this happens before the end of the scenario, the game ends. Last, but not least, are a large number of new "Bad" tiles to throw into the mix to make the game even harder (the flipside of adding the extra tiles is that a player is no longer forced to accept the tile they draw... they can reject it and draw again. Unfortunately, they must take the second tile).
I REALLY liked the expansion. Playing Sauron is not easy, as opportunites are limited (he acts in a limited way at the beginning of each players turn. He only plays in his full capacity when players must roll the die... something they will work very hard never to have to do). It is very difficult to have the Nazgul reach the hobbits and return to Mordor in the course of one scenario (however, knowing what I know now, I would try to save that for the end when the hobbits are much closer. Seems obvious now!). On the other hand, I think that Sauron is likely to win most games, and the goal would be to see HOW FAR THE HOBBITS CAN GET (for score keeping, the Hobbit's score might be the space they were when they died, and Sauron's score would be 60-the highest hobbit's score, assuming "60" is the highest possible score. It might also be appropriate to shift his one way or the other to account for the relative difficulty of disposing of the players early... maybe 80-the highest hobbit's score, for example.) The additional black tiles make the game even harder than it normally would be. The new odds for getting a "good" tile drop from 50% to 20%, but in return the hobbits get to control their fate somewhat. While the net effect is certainly not in the hobbit's favour, I think that the choices make the system more balanced than it seems. Kozure, Shemp and Luch seemed very discouraged by the difficulty, however, so I think next time we'll try without them (personally, since I would be playing for a score rather than to "beat" the game, I would prefer to play WITH the extra tiles since I enjoy the added level of decision making, and the less predetermined series of events... but I can definitely see the other point of view).

Predictably, I won as Sauron. The hobbits did get all the way to Mordor, however, which means they were probably playing much better than I was.

Exhausted from the experience of Sauron, we moved on to Modern Art. I enjoyed it, as always, and even managed to pull a win (although slim, with Luch hot on my tail). As in Traders of Genoa, we are getting better at actually making money in this game. I still don't think I fully grasp how to swing the dynamics of the game in my favour as much as I could, but I'm learning! A fun game.

Lord of the Rings: 8.5
Lord of the Rings, Sauron Expansion: 8.5


  1. I must disagree, and disagree heartily, about almost everything. I am disagreeing with a heart full of love, but disagreeing. Vehemently.

    First, I will list the parts of this report that I agree with. It is a short list.

    Sauron IS tough. We did play Lord of the Rings (With Sauron expansion), and Modern Art. They are both designed by Reiner Knizia. We did eat delicious sausage and pierogies. I do not dispute the description of game mechanics, nor do I dispute Easy’s characterization of the LOTR game as "fiddly". The co-operative aspect of said game is a nice change of pace, and the corruption track is a cool mechanic. Modern Art was quite fun, as always, and we do seem to be improving at it.

    I agree with the above.

    AND, I dispute the following:

    1. The assertion that this game is highly abstracted. I’m hoping that I haven’t lived my life misunderstanding the concept of “abstract”; based on my understanding of the term, this isn’t very abstract at all. It’s not an abstract representation of the story – it’s a fairly literal one. Players represent specific characters from the LOTR story, and follow the same journey that the company in the book do, across specific boards that are themed after places in the book. Calamities (which are exactly as those in the book) befall the players/characters. One player is bearing the ring. Journeys are completed by playing cards which represent fighting, hiding, hiking, etc. A LOW level of abstraction, I say. This sure isn’t chess, dig? There is very little abstraction to undermine the theme, as you might have worried. The theme is all over everything in the box, and bleeding beyond the box as well. Those two million fiddly pieces are all about extending the theme.
    2. I also don’t think that there are that many opportunities for “smart” play. It seems to me that the players are always trying to minimize the negative effects of drawn tiles, and the effectiveness of that attempt is based, quite literally in the luck of the draw. If there is unfortunate tile selection, I don’t see any way for the players to make up for that.
    3. And, well, yeah, the game conveys desperation, but I dispute whether that is a good thing. A very difficult quest isn’t any fun if there aren’t adequate opportunities to OVERCOME the many obstacles. I feel as if Kniza just ran some odds in order to come up with a game that players can win approximately 12% of the time. (I know that’s not what really happened. That’s just what it felt like.)
    4. And so, yes it accomplishes things other games don’t. I dispute whether that is, in and of itself, laudable.
    5. And as for the attractiveness of the board, I will say that the game is really solidly put together, and the art is nice in that clichéd fantasy art sort of way, put I have some issues with the design of the tiles and cards. They are balanced out by the REALLY NICE box liner, however.
    6. Personally, I would not find the playing for score option to be satisfying, but that ties into the fact that I feel that any level of success at this game is fairly arbitrary, dependant on the chance of the tiles.
    7. Just to clarify, I was discouraged not by the difficulty of the game, but by the way it is designed so that there is nothing to DO. Draw a tile, do what the tile says, try to avoid the bad effects. Sure, there are some “gotcha” cards, but not nearly enough to make the game roll along. It’s a very long game for the few things that happen.
    8. And then I dispute the conclusion. In my opinion, not really a fun game at all. Game night is always fun, but outside of that context I would NEVER reach for this game, unless I was trying to keep a bunch of very patient children occupied. Of course, all of this is just my opinion, eh?

    I don’t feel like I’m able to rate the Sauron expansion separately from the main entity, so I’ll just provide one score.

    LOTR, base and expansion: 5.5, because there is just not enough entertainment compared to the scope, ambition, and time investment in this game.

    But I’ll give it another shot, of course.

  2. Ah, Shemp... Good to hear from you!

    One thing I missed in my description was a description of our actual session. I forgot to mention how things went really badly right from the get-go, with Sauron three quarters of the way across the corruption track before the end of the first board, and the hobbits one step away from oblivion. It was dire from the very beginning, and every step of the journey afterwards was hard fought. Reactions from the other players ranged from "These black tiles are brutally hard" (Kozure) to "I'm far more afraid of the tile draw than I am of Sauron" (Luch) to "When does FUN happen in this game" (Shemp... author of comment #1, above). Kozure and Luch had played before, without the Sauron expansion, and thought the game was good. Shemp, on his first playing, didn't.

    While we are on the topic of hard, I should point out that I've discovered we forgot a rule... which makes the game substantially harder again! When the Nazgul reaches the ring bearer on the corruption track, Sauron is supposed to get a new Nazgul card, and a FULL turn (as though replaing a die roll). This would add SIGNIFICANTLY to the power of Sauron, and to the usefullness of the Nazgul (without these rules, I couldn't see the point in even bothering to activate the Nazgul on the first few boards, until the ringbearer had been corrupted a little bit by the game). Sauron is already tough, but it's good to see that the mechanics are also well thought out.

    Now, my response to Shemp.
    I'm glad to hear you are willing to try it again, hopefully the experience will be better next time. Funny how the exact same thing can be enjoyable to one player, and not to the next! (Particularly in this case, since our ratings tend to be very similar for games)
    1) I stand by my assertion that the game is highly abstracted. Sure, it's not Chess, but Chess is not claiming to allow players to live out the story of a well known book. I suppose I should have qualified my statement by saying that the game is a highly abstracted retelling of the books. A literal version of the game would have players moving hobbits through Shelob's lair and fighting it, or it would have attempted to recreated the Battle for Helm's Deep with miniatures and war game rules. etc. True, there are hobbits miniatures, but they are on a "corruption track"... a measure of their resistance to the power of the Ring. That's pretty abstract. Other mechanics are similar. Anyway, I do see your point... I guess we just saw that differently. In the scope of your comments, I assume this is a minor point anyway.
    2. This is a bigger point. I really dissagree with you here. The fact is that players can and do get good at this game. With experience, the original can be managed quite easily (I'm told), and the expansions add to the difficulty in order to keep things interesting. If the game was all luck, and all responses were predetermined and obvious, this wouldn't happen! A bad series of dice rolls in Pirate's cove, or a bad draw of tiles in T&E, etc, can all hose a player's chances. I don't think this is any different! Normally, it doesn't happen, but it can.
    The distribution of the tiles is known. The initial resources of the players (the Ring, the cards, etc) are supplemented by Gandalf and friends/ equipment which can be collected during the quest. It's up to the players to decide how to spend those resources, which friends/ items to try to reach, how to organize themselves to give the Ring to the right hobbit, distribute the life tokens properly and manage the shields. The plan needs to be constantly adjusted and re-evaluated based on all the bad stuff thrown at you by the events, but that doesn't take away from the effort! Still, in the Sauron expansion, the situation is made worse because the game is SO tough that players are often just struggling from one bad thing to the next.
    3. Again, this game does get easier (even easy) with experience, so I don't think you are right here. The resources are there, if you manage to get them. Whether a feeling of desperation is a good thing IS up to the individual, though. If you don't like it, you don't. Can't debate that!
    4. Same as above.
    5. I think it's nice! Cliche, yes, but still attractive.
    6. I can see that, in the same way that many might not think that a cooperative game is much fun in the first place. As above, I dissagree that the party's progress is randomly determined, so the score should mean something (within a range)
    7. The game is long, but I think that your feeling of "no choices" might have been accentuated by the difficulty of the expansion. With the added difficulty, the margin for error was reduced, leaving the inexperienced players with little ability to do anything but react to the bad stuff. I bet that after a few plays, players would have their way more often.
    8. Sorry you didn't like it. It would probably make sense to try the base game next time, so you get a sense of it without the extra load imposed by Sauron. As an example, I played this with Coryna and Wes (Priscilla's sister and her husband, who like Settlers of Catan but are not otherwise gamers), and they really enjoyed it... They were all really involved and working hard to get to the end... it felt very satisfying when we made it! They spent quite some time afterwards talking about how they might have done things differently, or about how Coryna was glad she sacrificed her character in Mordor so the rest of the group could make it.

  3. I enjoy the basic version of this game. This expansion, at least with the included black tiles, felt like being stuck in a winding tunnel where you were forced to go forward constantly and people with night vision goggles and clubs bashed you randomly as you struggled through. To top it off, there is a train coming down the tracks, and you have to get to the end of the tunnel before it hits you.

    OK, I exagerrate a bit, but it was not the experience I usually hope for in a gaming evening.

    The game, typically in the basic set anyway, is challenging and can be arduous, but you feel as if there is a chance. Here I didn't really feel as though we had a chance.

    On the other hand, the first time I played the basic game, it felt hopeless, and we were, after about four plays, able to make that one manageable to the point where we won more often than we lost.

    What I really, really recommend is playing the basic game three or four times before we try this one again. We have to be completely familiar with the tricks of resource and risk management before we try Sauron again.

    That said, we didn't do too too poorly, considering the odds stacked against us.

  4. I took so long to comment because there was so much to say. See, I’m surprised at the disagreement on this one too, since our views are normally simpatico – this does make for a more interesting discussion, however. Numbered points correspond to the above.

    1. We do see the abstraction thing differently. Ultimately, not that big a deal – I see where you are coming from, but still disagree.

    2. Well, I am at the disadvantage of only having played once, but still feel that the game lacks enough choices to make it compelling – even if you roll poorly at Pirate’s Cove, or draw an unfortunate set of tiles when playing T&E, those games provide enough variety of possible action that one can try something different – a different strategy, or some wild moves with a slim chance of panning out. Maybe the different action will work and maybe it won’t, but there is some room to move. In LOTR, if you draw an “advance the event track” tile on your second draw, that’s it – the event counter advances, the consequences occur. It’s a deflating experience, and I suspect it’s bound up in the fact that this is a co-operative game (emphasis on Suspect.) Without a reasoning opponent, a narrative track and a sequence of events need to be forced on the players. After playing once, I don’t feel like there is anything left to discover in the game. It feels played out, kind of like tic-tac-toe. I don’t think the game is ALL luck – just too much luck for any success to feel particularly rewarding. Gathering friends and equipment isn’t very compelling – the process is “well, we need some hiking points, so I’ll select the friend that gives hiking points”. It just isn’t at all interesting to me.

    3. Right – I won’t argue about what you find entertaining. I was just pointing out that different isn’t necessarily good.

    4. Same as above.

    5. Like I said – the boards are nice. The cards I would like to see some more clarity on, and the fighting/hiking/hiding icons look like someone dashed them off with pencil crayons in about 5 mins. Not really complaining, but it seems like the manufacturers are going for a really premium set, and the details count for something like that. AND, I’m a big old snob.

    6. I didn’t think that I had a problem with co-operative games in general when I wrote my first comment, but maybe I do. More research is required. To flog the dead horse just one more time, the point is I don’t feel that a score of say, 50, would necessarily be due to better play then a score of 40. If that is the case, than any particular score is kind of meaningless. I think that a binary win/lose condition is fine with this game.

    7. I think my complaint isn’t really “no choices”. It is “no interesting or unobvious choices”. Could be wrong, I would need to play more to be sure.

    8. My boat remained unfloated. Personal opinion, I suppose. The horse has been beaten quite enough, and if I write anything further will arise to exact it’s undead revenge.

    And see, I agree with Kozure’s evocative portrayal of what the game felt like, and maybe we would be better after playing 4 or 5 more times, but why would I WANT to go back into that tunnel of masochism again and again?

  5. And also, regarding partial scoring, I don't find that the effort/struggle in trying to complete the quest satisfying in itself, or laudable.

    I guess at heart I'm a Yoda man:

    "Do or Do Not. There Is No Try."

  6. The horse is dead. Long live the horse!