Sunday, February 13, 2011

LOTR: The Duel - Balrog and Gandalf Doing The Dew-l

Sometimes things happen to you that you don't expect, and while it's not always a good thing, in my experience the good outweighs the bad. Several months ago I went to Indiana to see a buddy and play some games, and he asked me to borrow Cyclades so he could play it with his extended family who were coming in for a holiday. I, of course, was happy to oblige, as this guy is a very, very good, long-time friend who is more than likely one of the biggest game enthusiasts I know. I figured that in a month or two, he'd send it back or, better yet, come out and hang with me. Just as I used to do during our Attacktix days, I underestimated him.

Now, I have been blessed far beyond that which I deserve in an uncountable variety of ways, the least of which is to have a wide ranging group of amazing friends all over the world. This guy is no exception. I mention this because instead of Tim just returning Cyclades, he put this game in the parcel as well, simply because he's such an amazing friend. So, I felt it my duty to put out a review of the game for all of those who, like Tim, are looking to gift someone to someone when you ask yourself, "What would Tim do?"

When I opened the game's box, I was instantly impressed with the fact that inside the box was a perfectly designed, blow molded insert that all of the bits fit inside with laser precision. The three-page rules were simple, with ample and very useful example illustrations, and the game even came with a do-it-yourself plasticard bridge that was reminiscent of Star Wars Pocketmodel creations. I was stoked, to say the least, that this light, 2-player card game was in my house, ready to be unleashed upon my friends and family.

Before I go too far, let me tell you what the game is actually about. Lord of the Rings: The Duel is, essentially, a re-enactment of the epic battle between Gandalf the Grey and the feared and loathsome Balrog demon which took place in the Mines of Maria. In short, it's a wizard's duel, more or less. The object is to gain the high ground on the bridge, which is done by damaging the opponent during four rounds of dueling. Each round has players drawing nine cards from their deck and taking turns playing a card until up to six of them have been played each or one player is defeated for the round. When each round is over, the players finally pull three cards from their original nine and reserve them for the final duel. Whomever is higher on the bridge is the winner, simple as that.

The components in this game consist of two cubes, two pawns, the aforementioned bridge, the game board itself, and finally, two decks of cards. The board art is outstanding, and the cool little bridge gives the game a really neat 3D look, making it feel even more thematic. Gandalf's cards are all very well illustrated as well, which adds even more theme, but then when you get to the Balrog cards, that's when the disappointment will set in. Nondescript doesn't even begin to state how crappy the art on those cards is. It's not even that the card art is that bad, really, it's that it's mostly unintelligible, and the nature of the game is such that it's important to understand which side of the card is up.

With the cards as they are, it's virtually impossible to easily determine the orientation of the Balrog cards. I even went so far, after my second play, as to put a small mark on the bottom of each of the Balrog cards, on the front side, so that I can easily determine which side is up. No game should ever force a player to mark up their cards, and this is an unforgivable oversight. With the other art being so clean and well-drawn, I simply cannot understand why the hell they did this for the Balrog. Sure, he looks all mystifying and smoky, as a Balrog surely is, but the attempt to obscure the creature in fire and smoke did nothing less than dishonor the game, which otherwise looks superb.

Anyhow, let's talk about setup. Setting up the game is very simple, even the first time when you have to assemble the bridge, which takes all of 2 minutes if you don't glue and 5 minutes if you do. Essentially, you simply lay the board out, put the two little cubes on the energy track, put the bridge in the middle of the board over the chasm art, and then pop your pawns in the obvious location. Beyond that, you just shuffle the decks and you're good to play.

Each player, on every round, draws nine cards from their deck, and those are their hand. Most of the cards simply have a picture on them and two columns of four rows of diamonds, some of which are colored in and some which are empty. These diamonds represent attacks and parries that the players perform against each other, vying to knock their cube down the energy track to the negative side, thereby winning the round. Some cards are special abilities, though, that perform varying effects on the game, such as allowing a player to remove a card from their opponent's hand, regain some energy, or other beneficial actions.

The meat of each round is in playing cards. The first player, on his turn, plays a card to the tableau, with the right side of the card having your attack diamonds represented. The other player then plays a card to counter it to the right of the opponent's card, with the diamonds on the left of the responding card representing the defensive value. Now while I'm calling this the defensive value, all positions on all cards can cause damage to your opponent. To determine where damage was taken, you simply compare the colored positions in on the cards' touching faces, and wherever a colored diamond is met with a blank one, damage is taken by the opponent.

To score damage, you simply move the cube of the damaged player toward the negative side of the energy track, and if at any time a player's cube ends up in the negative area, the round ends. There are some rules for ties which allows the round to continue, but in many cases it's very clear-cut. Alternatively, if each player has played six cards, the round ends and the winner is the one furthest from the negative area.

Once a round ends, you simply measure the distance, in spaces, from the loser to the winner and, using the table in the rulebook, you move your pawn up the bridge steps based on the magnitude of the asswhipping you just laid out. The game can end before the final battle if any player reaches the top of the bridge, but if not, each player will choose three remaining cards in their hand and set them aside for the final duel. If a round ended prematurely, all excess cards remaining in each player's hand is discarded and is lost.

If at the end of three duels no player has reached the top of the bridge, the final duel ensues. Players may only use the nine cards that they had previously held in reserve for this moment, but instead of only being able to play six, they may play all nine, if necessary. Another difference in the final duel is that the cubes start further up on the energy track by about a third, and thus the final battle is, by definition, a longer duel than previous duels. As usual, the end of the game comes when a player has depleted his opponent's energy and the player who, after tallying the space between the winner and loser, is higher on the bridge is the winner.

Gameplay is incredibly simple, and I was surprised that for such simple mechanics, the game has a tremendous amount of important choices to make, with each and every one being critical to success in the end. The game itself is fairly fun, and is a hell of a way to spend thirty minutes or so with a friend or loved one. My only real complaint, again, is that the Balrog cards were so poorly designed that I had to mark their orientation. I should note for you that on the Balrog card backs there is a large diamond with a flame on it that has a slight contrast, which is what helps you identify the orientation, so it is indeed possible, but it's a giant pain in the ass.

What Makes Me Want To Do The Dew-l:
* Mostly great art and theme makes this fun to look at
* Fast, easy gameplay doesn't have you sitting around between turns
* Important decisions and long-term planning make this a thinker's game
* Short playtime make this an excellent filler game for two

Why Balrog's Smoke Is Clearly Meant To Mask The Pooty Smell:
* Why do Gandalf's cards look so good and Balrog's look so uber-craptastic?
* This game may be too simple for some

This game is a moderately fun, thinking person's filler game. While I and my wife liked it, many of my friends were underwhelmed by it, so I think I can fairly say that it's not for everyone. I can see this being a hit with people who have spouses that like to game it up with Eurogames or light card games, but maybe not so much for people that like Ameritrashy dicefests or more complex games. All in all, I think it's a good game that you'll enjoy, and for the cheap price, you really can't miss.

3/5 Stars

You can learn more about this Kosmos line game from their website, albeit not easily:

I'd also note that you can get this game for $4.00 USD from as of this writing, so you really can get this thing cheap!

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