Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Lord of the Rings: Sauron

Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite games. It has three expansions, all of which I have bought, and only one that I have not played, the Sauron expansion, until Sat 12 Apr 2008. Officially the Sauron expansion requires a minimum of 3 players, 2 to play the hobbits, and 1 to be Sauron. However since I was keen to play it, we played with just 2 players. I played 2 hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and Michelle played the dark lord Sauron, since that would be easier, and I guess also devilishly fun. Of course, we used the easiest difficulty level (for the hobbits) - Sauron at 15.

In the Sauron expansion, there are new challenges for the fellowship, and also new help. What the bad guys get:

  1. Sauron - Now instead of the game system, the hobbits have a living, breathing, thinking, listening and scheming opponent playing Sauron. At the start of every hobbit's turn, even before he starts drawing event tiles, Sauron can do something bad. Sauron can play a nasty card on the hobbit, or draw more nasty cards to be used later. In addition to that, when the die is supposed to be rolled (which would be the case in the base game), Sauron is activated instead, and the effect of the card play in such situations is more severe.
  2. The black rider - He starts at Mordor at the start of every scenario board and moves towards the Ringbearer. If he meets the Ringbearer, and then makes it back to Mordor before the end of the scenario, the hobbits lose the game.
  3. There are 4 more bad event tiles added.

What the good guys get:

  1. The hobbits each have a one-time-use special ability.
  2. One new Gandalf card and one enhanced Gandalf card.
  3. Resource tokens placed on the minor activity lines of the first 3 scenario boards.

There are some other optional elements that can be added to the game. There is a set of the dark event tiles, which when used allow you to skip some tiles. There are also two special cards - Watchful Peace and The One Ring - that can be used to help the fellowship. We played with the two special cards but not the dark event tiles.

Setting up Lord of the Rings: Sauron and getting ready to start.

The hobbits have a one-time-use special power.

Now Sauron has a pet - a headless horseman.

The Sauron character card is on the right. It summarises what Sauron can do. Sauron starts with 2 Nazgul cards. Nazgul cards are powerful cards, and there are only 9 of them in the game, of course, because in the book there are 9 Nazguls.

Two of the resource tokens. Some of them come with corresponding cards, like these two. Others give awards like shields, or hobbit cards, or recovery from corruption.

In our game, the hobbits were pretty much surviving from day to day, trying to minimise damage, but unfortunately not really having a long term plan. At least that's what I felt. By the time we reached Mordor, the last scenario board (yes, we managed to get there with both hobbitses still alive) (hey, why am I talking like Gollum, using "we", when it was only me playing both the hobbits), we were low on cards and resources. I wonder whether the game was designed to force you into such a situation, which is exactly what it was like in the story, or whether better planning would have helped to avoid such a situation. I tend to think the latter.

Sauron fumbled a little at the start, being new to the job of dark lord of Mordor where the shadows lay. She spent some effort on moving the black rider, which I felt was not worthwhile, since the distance was still so big in the early game. There was also some confusion with Sam's power of only suffering one of the icons of the Sauron cards. Basically Sauron's moves were not fully optimised, due to being under new management.

However that did not matter, as the exhausted hobbits were eventually overcome by events in Mordor. The Watchful Peace had been used to push Sauron back three steps. Frodo, who had been carrying the Ring throughout the first 3 scenario boards and only handed it to Sam upon entering Mordor, succumbed to the evil forces. Sam didn't have much resources left. Before Frodo fell he had used up his shields as much as possible to summon Gandalf's help, to give Sam a better chance. 5 out of 6 Gandalf cards were used. In the end, the last event - the Big Eye - was reached. Game over... there will be no dawn.

The game ended when the last event on the Mordor scenario board was encountered - "The Ring is Mine!"

Having finally played the Sauron expansion, I think playing Sauron would be delicious. I also think it is better not to be played as a 2 player game. It was a bit of an information overload when I juggled both Frodo and Sam's cards. Also it would be more interesting and challenging for the hobbits if they were played by different players, because they would have to discuss their cards and their plans aloud in front of Big Brother Sauron. Sauron, although having more turns than the hobbits, can play his turns quite quickly, unlike the hobbits who have many more cards, resources, life tokens, shields etc to manage. In fact while I was struggling with the tough decisions, Michelle helped me with the admin work, collecting shields for me, discarding unneeded feature cards, clearing off resource tokens. But I don't think playing Sauron would be boring or too easy. I think it will be interesting.

I wonder whether playing the Sauron expansion is particularly hard when you have only two hobbits. I find this is the case for the Friends & Foes expansion, but after one game of the Sauron expansion I cannot tell for sure whether this also applies. When Reiner Knizia designed the game, two ways of balancing the difficulty when playing with different numbers of players are the life tokens and the shields required for Gandalf cards. With more players the hobbits will together have more cards and "lives". However because the life tokens are limited, it will be harder to collect those. And since Gandalf cards can only be activated by individual hobbits, they will also be harder to activate because it is harder for individual hobbits to collect 5 shields. More plays are required to tell whether two hobbits is too difficult.

The Sauron expansion certainly feels quite different from the other two expansions. I think there is still a lot more for us to learn and to explore. Sauron can definitely be played more viciously. Having lost so decisively even when Sauron was not at top form, and at easy difficulty level, makes me dread how scary it will be when Sauron is his usual self. Also consider that in our game Sauron was not able to eavesdrop on the conversation between Frodo and Sam going on in my head. Hmmm... We startsss to sound like Gollum and Smeagol.

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