I love game mechanics. Beneath the tokens, fancy art work, bits and boards lies a game that, if the mechanics are bad, can not be saved by any amount of flair (Even if it does willingly exceed the fifteen recommended pieces). Lord of the Rings by the famed mechanic mastermind Reiner Knizia combines flair with mechanics and tops it all off with a dose of cooperative play.

In Lord of the Rings, you and your fellow hobbits set off from the Shire and work together in a desperate attempt to try to reach the Mordor and destroy the ring. Along the way you will occasionally receive aid for your quest but that does not come often. Soon you will find yourself in a desperate struggle to survive, low on resources and hoping against hope you can make it to the top of the mountain and destroy the ring.

Lord of the Rings’ game play is centered around card and resource management with a little luck thrown in as well. Each hobbit sets out from the Shire with a number of cards representing different actions: fighting, hiding, traveling and friendship. Main story events are enacted by the gaining, sharing or sacrificing of cards (i.e. the fellowship is formed by each player discarding a friendship card).

Sauron’s power over the ring is represented by a corruption line that has the ever watchful eye moving towards the hobbits as they strive to keep their distance and not move forward towards the darkness. The main story arc and the progress of corruption are tracked on the main progress board. The story arc is segmented into main events starting with the hobbits departure from the Shire through Rivendell, Moria, Lothlorien, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair and finally Mordor. Note: there is an expanions that adds Bree and Rohan to the game.

The events differ at each of these stops and the story arc only continues once you complete the corresponding event. Some stops, like Rivendell and Lothlorien provide the hobbits with much needed aid in the form of cards. The other stops are where the real game play occurs. Each of the four remaining stops have individual game boards that the hobbits must work together to progress through and survive before they can continue on in the story arc.

Each of the board have several path crossing it, but only the main is necessary to complete to escape and move on. Each player takes turns pulling tiles that trigger the advancement on one of the paths or a major event for the board. The major events almost always hurt the progress of the fellowship (i.e. Sauron advances towards the hobbits on the corruption line or the hobbits must discard a number of cards). Once a player has pulled a tile allowing the advancement of the fellowship down one of the paths, they may play up to two cards from their hands to further advance the fellowship down the paths. There are some other game mechanics that expand upon the boards.

Finally there is the power of the ring. Whoever is the ring bearer for one of the boards can put the ring on once for that board to help them escape a very difficult situation. This power comes at a price, the ring bearer must roll a die that has all but one negative consequence. This makes using the ring a very risky enterprise and is not often done.

What makes this game so much fun is how difficult it is to win. You really have to work together if you hope to have any chance of success. You are not trying to outmaneuver or eliminate the other player. On the contrary, your success depends on helping them survive. The social and cooperative aspects of the game, along with the strong literature connection make this a good choice for teens and adults.