Barely Lord of the Rings
"I don't want to be Merry. And I don't want to be Pippin. I really don't want to be either one of them. They're useless. I have to be Frodo or Sam. Definitely one of them," Ted tells me. "And another thing. I still don't get what you mean by a co-operative game. What is that supposed to mean? That doesn't make sense. Just tell me how I win the game. That's all I want to know. That's all I need to know." Ted looks at me sternly.
It's August 15th, and Diane and I have been invited up to the wilds of British Columbia by Ted and Alice for a weekend getaway. A few months earlier, Ted and Alice had bought a large piece of property on the shores of Shuswap Lake. It's a nice piece of land, no doubt about it. Trees, trees and more trees. And a cliff overlooking the lake with quite a view. Well, it would be quite a view if all the trees weren't in the way.
Ted and Alice have however in the previous months cleared a few of those trees away to make a small clearing just big enough to park their travel trailer in with a bit of space left over for a picnic table and to park some cars. From where the trailer is situated, it's a good 50 yards or so to the cliff face to the south, and another 50 yards to their nearest camping neighbours on either side, east and west. There's a gravel road on the north side amongst the trees, leading up to the roadway out to civilization.
The four of us are sitting at the picnic table in front of the trailer. It is about a half hour before dusk. We've had a relaxing day, swimming in the lake, reading our books, and just generally lazing about. The occasional alcoholic beverage has passed our lips.
Being the eternal optimist that I am, I have brought a couple of games along to hopefully introduce to, and play with, these non-gamers. If you prefer, you can cross out "eternal optimist" and replace with "glutton for punishment."
Ted and Alice aren't gamers. In that respect, they are like the vast majority of the general populace. They grew up on Monopoly, Scrabble and a few, different card games, and that was about it. Until I met them, that was all they knew of the gaming world. I have managed to introduce them to a few of the simpler, modern games, but none of the games they've tried so far have clicked with them enough to make them leap to their feet and yell "Yowza!". They've played the games amiably enough, but I think they would have been just as happy doing something else.
Reiner Knizia's game of Lord of the Rings is not a game I would normally ever consider to introduce to non-gamers. But Ted and Alice love Lord of the Rings. They love it. They've both read the books several times, and they've seen the movies many times as well. When the movies first came out, it was all they could talk about. "Gollum should win Best Actor," Ted told me many times. They are truly Lord of the Rings fans.
So I figure I'll take a chance. It's a gamble, I know. But they love Lord of the Rings. So they just might really enjoy playing the game of it. As long as we can get over the barrier of "I hope the rules don't take longer than 2 minutes."
I place the box on the picnic table, and remove the lid. As I set up the board and various cards and pieces about the table, I start to explain the rules. Ted interrupts almost immediately.
"If this is Frodo, and this is Sam, and this is Merry, and this is Pippin, then who is this still in the box?"
"Fatty? Fatty? Fatty didn't go on any quest," Ted informs me.
"It doesn't matter, we're not using Fatty. That's why he's still in the box."
"You mean if there's 5 players, then Fatty goes on the quest too?
"Yes, but it doesn't matter, because there's only 4 of us, and we're not using Fatty."
"But it's not right, Fatty didn't go. This game can't be very accurate."
"It's not supposed to be a page-by-page re-enactment of the book, nor a scene-by-scene re-enactment of the movie. Things won't necessarily turn out in the game the way they did in the book and the movie. It depends on what we do, and how our luck holds out, whether we will complete the quest or not."
"Fine. Well, I don't want to be Merry. And I don't want to be Pippin."
"It's random, actually, which character each of us is. I will mix up these character cards, and deal them out, and whichever one you get, that's who you are."
I deal the cards out. Diane is Frodo. Alice is Sam. I am Merry. And Ted is Pippin.
"This sucks. I don't want to be Pippin," Ted says sulkily, reverting to his inner child.
"Oh, grow up," Alice tells him. "If you're going to be that way, give me Pippin. You be Sam." She holds out the Sam card to Ted.
"Nope," he says, suddenly changing his mind, glaring at Alice. "I got stuck with Pippin. That's just the way it is. That's just the way it is. I am Pippin. I am the one and only Pippin. I am ze great Pippineister, don't be messing with me. I am the Pippinator, ah'll be bahk. I feel Pippy, oh so Pippy. Pippy Longstocking, that's me. You feel lucky, punk? Do ya? Do ya? Because they call me Dirty Pippy."
"They call you drunk," says Alice.
"I'm not drunk. I've only had a couple," Ted says defensively. "Besides, I'm on holidays, and I'm not driving. I'm fine. Let's play the game."
"We've only just begun the rules," I tell him.
"Well, I'm listening. Go for it."
I explain a bit more of the rules.
"Now, hold on," Ted says. "How can a game be co-operative? That doesn't make any sense. When we play a game, someone wins and everybody else loses. Just tell me how I win alone."
"No, this is a co-operative game. Sort of like the Three Musketeers. All for one, and one for all," I explain. "We all win or or we all lose together. If we reach Mount Doom and destroy the ring, then we all win. If we don't reach Mount Doom , and we don't destroy the ring, in that case Sauron wins the game and we all lose. Think of it as a team game. We're all on the same team—the Fellowship Team—and we're in this together to defeat the other team—the Sauron Team. It's us, the good guys, versus Sauron and his minions, the bad guys."
"But there's no Sauron team," Ted states. "All four of us are hobbits and we're all on the same team. Some of us should be on the other side."
"Well, there is an expansion to the game that lets a human player take control of Sauron, but I didn't bring that since I figured it'd be best to just stick with the basic game for your first time through," I tell him.
"But if we're all four on the same side, it's going to be pretty lopsided. There's no one playing against us."
"Well, actually, we're playing against the game events. The events in the game can be pretty tough," I inform him.
"I don't know if I'm going to like this," says Ted.
"Oh, Ted, just give the game a chance. It's the Lord of the Rings for goodness' sake!" Alice tells him.
"Fine. I'm listening," Ted mutters.
I explain more of the rules. At the five-minute mark of my explanation, Ted interrupts again.
"There seems to be an awful lot of rules, here. When can we get started actually playing?"
"Soon," I tell him. "Soon. You have to understand what you can do and can't do in the game."
"Yeah, I guess so. I'm going to get another drink. Anyone else want anything?"
Everyone else is fine.
"O.K, back in a minute," Ted says.
Four minutes later, Ted is back.
With his drink.
And a bowl of potato chips.
And a bowl of Cheesies.
"O.K.," says Ted. "Go on with the rules."
"Um, Ted?" I look at him.
"We really can't be eating Cheesies when we play this game."
"Why not? Cheesies taste great. You don't like Cheesies? Do you want me to get something else?" Ted inquires.
"It's not the taste I'm concerned with. Cheesies are fine for eating. But not when you're playing a game," I state.
"Oh, it's O.K., I can eat and play at the same time. It won't be a problem."
"The problem is not you eating and playing at the same time. The problem is Cheesie dust."
"Cheesie dust?" Ted asks.
"Yes, Cheesie dust."
"You mean the orange stuff on your fingers when you eat Cheesies?"
"Yes, that's Cheesie dust," I tell him.
"Oh, that's no problem. We can wash our hands in the lake when we're done. It'll take the orange stuff off," Ted says cheerily.
"Yes, but in the meantime, orange Cheesie dust will get on everything we touch. And that's why we can't eat them while we're playing this game. We'll get Cheesie dust on all the cards and the pieces and the board. It'll make a terrible mess and it'll stain all the game components," I inform him.
"Don't be silly," Ted chides me. "If it's that big a deal, I'll just eat them with my left hand. I'll use my right hand to play the game with."
"No, that's not going to work. You may have the best intentions, but cross-contamination will occur."
"Cross-contamination?" Ted looks puzzled.
"How can you hold your hand of cards and pick one or two out, all with one hand? You can't. You'll have to use your Cheesie hand too."
"No problem. I can just grab the cards I need with my teeth and drop it on the table. Easy. My Cheesie hand will never touch the cards."
"What about your Cheesie mouth?" Alice asks.
"What's with you guys? I'll eat some Cheesies with my left hand, then I'll take a drink and swish it around in my mouth and it'll be clean."
"I don't want you biting my game, Ted. And I don't want Cheesies anywhere near here while we're playing."
"It's just a game. What's the big deal? You can wipe the cards and pieces off when we're done. I mean, really, what's the problem? I thought you wanted to play this game?" Ted asks.
"Well, I do, but not with Cheesies around. They'll wreck my game. They'll make a terrible mess."
Ted looks at me. "Oh, fine. Be that way."
Ted gets up and takes the bowl of Cheesies and places them on the ground near the edge of the trees, and then comes back. "Happy now?" he asks.
"Well," I say, "I'm really not too thrilled by the potato chips either."
"What's wrong with the potato chips? They're Sour Cream and Onion."
"Yes, I know. They're not as bad as Cheesies, but if they're really greasy chips, there could be problems getting the cards all greasy," I inform him.
"Do you want me to wear gloves?" Ted asks sarcastically.
"Do you want to hire someone to feed me, so I don't have to actually touch the chips myself?"
"That's not a bad idea," I agree.
"Yeah, I'm sure you think so. Do you want to play this game?"
"Yup," I say.
"Well I need nourishment. I need food for strength. Chips will give me strength. Especially since I can't have any Cheesies."
I give in. "Fine. Go ahead. Eat your chips."
I finish the rules after a few crunchy interruptions from Ted seeking to clarify some points, and we finally start to actually play the game.
After an hour of gameplay, all the members of our Fellowship are still alive. We have successfully traversed the first three gameboards, and have now entered the final board on our quest to destroy the ring. Sauron has advanced a fair bit towards us, but we still have a chance.
It is starting to get dark now, and it's getting harder to see the game.
"I think we're going to need the lantern pretty soon," Alice says.
"Yeah, pretty soon," Ted agrees.
We know from the previous evening that without the lantern, when night falls, it is very, very dark. Without the lantern, the only sources of light are the moon and the stars. And the moon is nowhere to be seen at the moment. It's starting to get spooky.
There is a fairly loud crack in the trees off to our right. We all turn our heads in the direction of the sound.
"What was that?" Diane asks.
"Sounded like a branch breaking," says Ted.
"Why is there a branch breaking?" Diane asks.
"Wind, probably," says Ted.
"What wind? There's no wind," says Diane.
"Some animal, then. Raccoon or possum or something. It won't bother us," Ted announces.
Something is moving in the undergrowth off to our right. We can hear noises. We're not imagining things.
"Are those bushes moving?" Diane asks.
We all peer into the undergrowth at the bottom of the nearby trees. It is dim, but yes indeed, we see a bush suddenly shake, as if something brushed against it.
"There's something in there," Diane says.
And there is.
Because suddenly the bushes part and a black bear strolls into view. And while it may be getting dark, there's certainly enough light left for all of us to see that the animal entering our little clearing is definitely not a squirrel.
The black bear stops at the edge of the clearing. The bowl of Cheesies is right beside him. He looks at us briefly, and then sticks his nose into the Cheesies.
The four of us waste no time. Our Fellowship makes a very hasty retreat into the travel trailer, closing tight the door behind us. The "Lord of the Rings" game itself, however, is still sitting on the picnic table where we left it. There was no time to pack things up.
The bear finishes munching on the Cheesies, and then saunters over to the picnic table.
"Crap, now we've got a bear who's going to hang around," says Ted. "You should have let me eat those Cheesies."
I ignore Ted and stare out the window at the bear.
The bear is sniffing around the picnic table. There are some crumbs left in the potato chip bowl on the edge of the table, only a few inches away from the scoretrack board where Sauron and our alter-egos Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are currently standing.
The bear places a paw on the Lord of the Rings gameboard and sticks his snout into the potato chip bowl, licking the crumbs up. The bowl falls onto the ground.The bear now starts sniffing the game components. Sauron disappears into the bear's mouth.
I can't believe it. This stupid bear has just eaten Sauron. Or at least it looks like he has. Then one by one, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin get swallowed up too.
"Bears don't eat plastic, do they? What's he doing eating plastic? Why is he eating the game pieces? They're not food," I say, somewhat distraught.
"Maybe they're salty from the potato chips," Alice says. "Maybe the game pieces got a little salty when we touched them," she suggests. "Or maybe there's a chemical or something in them that smells good or just happens to appeal to bears."
"Yes, they probably don't test for flavour when they're doing all that game-testing you say they do before a game gets published. If they had tested it for flavour like they should have, then there probably would have been a label on the game telling you not to feed it to bears," Diane says.
"You're not helping," I tell her.
"Or maybe the bear's just really, really hungry and will eat anything," Diane offers.
"Yeah, but plastic's not food. He might eat anything that's food, but why is he eating stuff that's not food?" I ask.
"I can't believe we've got a bear around here now," Ted says.
The bear is snuffling and snorting and looking around the picnic table for more food. But there isn't any.
"We're stuck in here now until morning. Great, just great," mutters Ted.
The bear now leaves the picnic table and is now sniffing about the clearing. He seems to be in no hurry. It's getting harder to see him as the darkness is now starting to really set in.
"Are your neighbours in travel trailers too, or are they in tents?" Diane asks.
"They've got trailers. But sometimes they have extra guests, and when they do and there's not enough room in the trailer, they stay in tents," says Alice.
"Do you know if they have anybody in tents today? Can you phone them?
"Got no phone," says Ted.
The bear leaves the clearing and disappears back into the trees, close to the same spot it entered from, where Ted had placed the bowl of now-gone Cheesies.
"Now what?" I ask.
"We wait until morning," Ted says. "Not going outside in the dark with a bear around."
I'm not going to argue with that.
We wait until morning.
We look out the window. No bear visible. Ted and I open the door and step outside.
I check my game. The boards seem all right. There are some cards on the ground. And then I see Sauron. And Frodo. And Sam. And Merry. And Pippin.
They're all on the dirt just a few yards away from the picnic table. The bear must have tasted whatever it was that he wanted to taste from the pieces, and then spit them out. He didn't eat them after all. He just took them for a ride in his mouth.
"Your game pieces are all still there?" Ted asks me.
"Yes," I exclaim. "I think so I think they're all here."
"He's still in the box, and he's still there. The bear didn't touch him." I say.
"Good," Ted says.
"Wait a minute," I say.
"What?" asks Ted.
"The ring. The ring's not here. It was with Sam when we scrambled into the trailer. I found Sam, but not the ring!"
"Is it on the ground somewhere?" Ted asks me in response.
I do another quick scan of the clearing around and about the picnic table. No ring. I don't see it anywhere.
"Great, I didn't see him eat the ring. But it's not here."
"Well, it was round and smooth—maybe the bear actually swallowed it by mistake," Ted replies.
"I hope not," I say. I look around some more, but I definitely can't see the ring anywhere. It's gone.
"Well, look on the bright side," Ted says cheerfully. "In the original story, the ring was lost for years and years and years and years and years before Gollum found it. Now it just happens to be lost again—swallowed by a bear this time. You're the one that said that things in the game wouldn't necessarily turn out the way they did in the books or the movies. I guess you were absolutely correct!"
"Thanks, Ted," I say.
"And besides," Ted continues, "I know what we can do. We've got some frozen donut rings in the freezer. We could use one of them to stand in for the ring and finish the game. Then once we defeat Sauron, we can all eat the donuts as a reward. Sound like a good idea?"
"You want to use a donut? Lord of the Donuts?" I ask.
"That could be the sequel. Or maybe a cop movie," suggests Ted.
"Yeah, I guess," I say, rather glumly.
"Come on. It's O.K. I'll even let you be Dirty Pippy."
"Thanks, Ted. That means something coming from you," I say.
"Great. Let's go check on the neighbours, and then we'll come back and have breakfast and finish the game. Then we'll go into the store down the road a ways and report the bear to the Wildlife guys."
And so that's what we do. The neighbours are fine, and the breakfast is good and tasty. Then we finish the game.
To our dismay, Sauron defeats us before we can reach Mount Doom. Our Fellowship goes down in defeat. Sadness fills the forest clearing.
But then we laugh in the face of defeat. We laugh in Sauron's face. "Ha!" we say. "Ha Ha!".
Sauron may have won this battle, but we will win the war. We eat the donuts anyway, even though we lost the game. The Ring is no more. We have eaten the Ring. Sauron is thus Lord of Nothing. "Ha Ha!", we say again.
The Cheesie-Bear-Saliva Fellowship is victorious. And perhaps a bit stinky.
- Dan Bosley