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Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 2
Time: 20 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

I'm very rarely blown away by a new game these days. I've seen such a variety of games that it's difficult for something to really make me say "wow!". Happily, The Confrontation is just such a game and I've been very impressed with it. Not only does it fit its theme reasonably well, it plays quickly and offers a surprising degree of "cleverness" in the situations it presents.

Each player controls nine unique figures, the "Good" side features members of the Fellowship whereas the "Dark" player has a variety of nasties from Shelob and the Orcs to the Witchking himself. Each figure has a combat rating (from 0 to 9) and a special ability. (Gimli, for example, immediately defeats the Orcs in battle.) These figures are placed in stand up holders that conceal their identity from your opponent. Each player also has a hand of cards, some of which have a combat value (1-5 for the Good player, 1-6 for the Dark) and others with a special power.

The board is a sort of "double pyramid" with one space for the Shire, then two spaces above it and so on. There are four mountain spaces and then the board "shrinks" back down to one space for Mordor. The Good player starts with most of his pieces in the Shire while the Dark starts with most of his pieces in Mordor.

The basics of The Confrontation are pretty simple: on your turn you must move one of your pieces forward. (Normally, you have only one or two spaces to which you can move a figure.) If you encounter an enemy figure a battle ensues: the players reveal the characters involved and consult their special abilities (some characters instantly defeat others or may affect how the regular battle rules function). Each player secretly and simultaneously selects a card from their hand and both are revealed. If a special card is played then its action is performed first. (If both players have chosen special cards the Dark player's is executed first.) Finally, players add the value of the card played to their character's combat value; the higher total wins and the losing character is removed from the game. (Both characters are lost on a tie.)

The Dark player wins if he can kill Frodo or get three characters into the Shire. The Good player wins if he can get Frodo into Mordor (even if there are enemy characters there) or if the Dark player is unable to make a move.

I don't suspect that this brief description of the rules will impress all that many people. It doesn't sound particularly innovative or clever and many will dismiss it as a sort of Stratego variant. This would be a mistake as the game is absolutely brilliant as far as I'm concerned. Once again Dr. Knizia has crafted a challenge that is greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, the mechanics are simple but your decisions are not. The nature of the special abilities guarantee that you'll win some battles and lose others, the trick is in knowing what to concentrate on, where to feint, how to draw your enemy out. The Dark player has some nasty characters that must be dealt with—the Cave Troll and Saruman can be particularly troublesome whereas the Good player can wreak absolute havoc with Gandalf.

Dark player cardsIt's dealing with such problems that forms the heart of the game. In almost every game I've played there's been a point at which it seems that victory can be guaranteed with a particular course of action. Your options are varied enough that discovering this can be truly frustrating (but in a good way). Of course it's often the case that you don't have a certain win but it's working through these situations that I find enjoyable. There are just enough options available to you to make your decisions non-trivial without being completely overwhelming. It's true that not all playings of the game will be filled with these agonizing decisions but the short playing time tends to lessen the effect of these "boring" occurrences. Normally a game that is rather straightforward will be over in 10 minutes so you can easily try again. I find The Confrontation compelling enough that I'll usually play multiple times in a session either way.

Now, despite my enthusiasm, it's not without its problems. Most notably is the fact that the opening game is rather uninteresting. Every character is of greater and lesser utility against certain opponents and so it's difficult to develop any sort of reasonable setup. For every configuration you can devise there's a counter that will practically devastate you. This may sound like a good thing but what actually results is that the first several moves tend to be of the Rock-Paper-Scissors variety. Each player makes a series of guesses, wins a few battles and loses others. In the games I've played there hasn't been much (if any) opportunity for clever play at this stage. Further, there's the possibility that one player could get lucky and win the first three or four battles at which point the game would be over for all intents and purposes. Fortunately, this would seem to be a very rare occurrence and it's far more usual for there to be parity among both sides early on. Still, it would be a better game if the opening held as much tension as the mid and end game.

The Black RiderAnother concern that some have expressed is the imbalance between the two sides. However, there's also debate as to which side is favored! This alone should be enough to alleviate any worry but I think it's understandable that people have this point of view. I believe that there's an effective countermeasure for most strategies and tactics that people develop. Until these are discovered it may seem that the game is rather lopsided. At first, the Dark player will be frustrated by Frodo's ability to retreat sideways when attacked. Once it's discovered that the real challenge for the Good player is to get Frodo through the mountains (where his ability cannot be used), the balance is restored. Likewise the Dark player has a couple of characters that are nearly invincible (under certain circumstances). Several games may be lost until the Good player realizes that simply "getting out of their way" is often the best course of action. In short I think there's a great deal of back and forth that will occur as players discover new and interesting strategies. Now, if this isn't good enough and you find that one side is always winning, there's another easy way to address the problem. Included as an optional rule are two special cards for each side. These are one-use special actions that you can use instead of (or in addition to) a regular turn. Giving one or both cards to the "weaker" side is a clever way of addressing any perceived imbalance. (I also award bonus points to Dr. Knizia for making these cards very appropriate theme-wise.)

Finally, a word on the components: Some have complained that there's a slight manufacturing defect in the plastic stands that hold the character counters. This is present in my copy and takes the form of a slight imperfection that shows up on either the right or left hand side of the stands. In most lighting conditions this will be virtually undetectable but if held "just right" it stands out like a sore thumb. Honestly though, I can't see that there's anything to complain about at all. The character counters can easily be removed after a game to be placed in different holders the next time. In other words there's no way you could tell that Gandalf is in a "left" holder or a "right" holder. In fact, you could mark the backs of the holders with letters A through I and it would not affect the game much at all. Don't let any talk of such defects discourage you from buying the game, it's a non-issue.

In summation, I have to say that this is one of the most enjoyable games I've had the pleasure of playing in the past year. Highly recommended.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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