Monday 23 July 2012

Review - Lord of the Rings: The Duel

As I continue to move across the old reviews from I will occasionally find a review for a game that I no longer own. Such is the case with this review of Lord of the Rings: The Duel, which I originally wrote back in August 2008.

There is one big problem with this review: I don't own the game any more so I can't take any pretty photographs of all the cool bits. So, without further ado, I introduce you to a wall of text... Please don't hate me.


Lord of the Rings: The Duel (hereafter referred to as LOTR:TD, which is a bit like TL;DR)
Published by Kosmos
Designed by Peter Neugebauer
For 2 players, aged 10 to adult

I bought LOTR:TD for several reasons, not least because it is a Lord of the Rings game with beautiful illustrations by the uber-talented John Howe. The fact it was a two-player Kosmos game was a bonus as I have found many of the games in that range to be well worth checking out (I also own Dracula, Lost Cities, Dragonheart, and Odin's Ravens, and I used to have a copy of Blue Moon).

So, was I happy with my purchase? Let's find out...

LOTR:TD comes in a pretty little box which is just a little deeper than usual for a Kosmos game. The reason? Well, they had to make room for the bridge, didn't they? Oh yes, the bridge - possibly the most irrelevant piece of chrome I have ever seen. Indeed, LOTR:TD has about as much chrome as it is possible to get onto a small game designed for quick plays between just two people. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

What you actually get for your money is a very simple card game. There is a deck of 54 beautifully illustrated cards (thanks John!) and these basically represent the tactics of Gandalf and the Balrog, who will be battling over the aforementioned bridge, just like in the book. Actually, not really at all like in the book, but I'll get to that in a minute...

The deck is split, with 27 cards for Gandalf, and 27 for the Balrog. Cards are not interchangeable, so Gandalf will never use the Balrog cards, and vice versa. That seems pretty logical.

You also get two playing pieces (wooden, abstract interpretations of Gandalf and the Balrog), two wooden cubes for tracking scores, a groovy little board with the fellowship and some goblins drawn on it, and a 3D bridge which is used to represent who has the upper hand in the fight (the character who is higher up the bridge is currently winning, and if a character reaches the top then he instantly wins).

That sounds like quite a lot of stuff for a little game, doesn't it?

So how much of it do you really need? Honestly; just the cards. That's not to say everything else doesn't have a function. The bridge looks pretty and allows you to quickly see who is winning, and the board allows you to track wounds easily. Personally, I like all that chrome. It adds character which is sorely lacking from the very abstract card play. You don't really need it, but it doesn't hurt to have it, and the bridge never fails to attract attention when it is set up. It's like Blue Moon: You don't need the little plastic dragons, but they're half the fun!

Cadwallon: City of Thieves
A picture for a completely different game.

Okay, okay, enough already about the bitz. What about the game? How does it recreate the exciting moment when Gandalf faces his greatest fear and is dragged into the abyss? (Sorry, that was a spoiler... damn.)

Well, it doesn't. Each card played is supposed to represent an attacking or defensive move from one of the characters. There are symbols on the left and right of each card. If you play the first card, your opponent has to try to block the symbols on the right side of your card by playing a card with matching symbols on the left of his card. Of course, his card also has symbols on the right, and your next card should have symbols on the left to block those, and so on. It's quite difficult to explain, but plays VERY easily. The rules will take about three minutes to learn, and then you will be well away.

Oh yes... some of the cards also have special powers that allow you to move cards around, ignore cards, and do other stuff that adds a bit of variety to the gameplay.

The game involves slightly more thought than you might think. You have just 27 cards to use throughout the fight, and the fight is divided into rounds (a maximum of four). In each round, you draw nine cards, but you can't use them all, you have to save three. This happens in each round until the last, when you will be left with the nine cards from the previous three rounds. If you have managed your cards well, you should have a killer hand left; if you have frittered away your powerful cards in early rounds, you may find yourself in a world of hurt. Bad management of cards can see a clear victory turn into a crushing defeat, as it is possible to lose so badly in the last round, that all previous rounds become irrelevant. However, after each round, the victor gets to move up the bridge by a number of steps determined by how much of a beating he dished out, so if you try to save up all your heavy-hitting cards for the last round, there is a chance that your opponent will reach the top of the bridge, claiming an early victory, in which case all the cards you saved will be wasted. It can actually be quite a balancing act.

Now, question time...

Is the game fun?
Yes. In a "one game and then we'll play Fury of Dracula" kind of way.

Does the game accurately recreate the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog?
Not on your life. In the book (and film) the battle was brief and vicious. Here it goes on and on and on. There isn't even a Gandalf card that allows you to smash down the bridge. Tsk.

Will you enjoy the game?
The elegant, simple mechanics of the game allow you to get playing right away and you can easily get through multiple games in an hour on your very first try. If you like card games, then I think there is something here for you to enjoy. But if you are thinking of buying it just for theme, then don't bother. The artwork is lovely, and adds character; but you will never get the sense that you are really involved in a tense battle, no matter how many cardboard bridges you fight over.

Put it this way: I bought the game for the theme, but there was enough here for me to love anyway, and I rate the game very highly for what it is (a light, quick game to play before moving onto something with a bit more weight).

Unfortunately, my wife didn't like the game at all, and as most of my two-player games only get played against her, this game has now been culled from my collection. I was pretty sad to see it go.

And finally, would this review have been better with pictures?
Shut up.


  1. The mechanic of dueling over several rounds makes more sense if you think of it as representing the entire fight between Gandalf and the Balrog - on the bridge, down below in the depths, and then up to the top of the mountain where Gandalf finally defeated it. The bridge then, as you say, is just a score-keeping mechanism; it doesn't really mean to say that all the action took place only on the bridged.

    Not that it matters since you don't own it anymore ;)

    1. It's a good way of thinking about it - and I suppose that is in keeping with the rather abstract nature of the cardplay itself.

      The "get to the top of the bridge and win" mechanism never made sense. If you get to the top you are just closer to the middle and therefore farther away from the edges. Where would you rather be standing if the bridge is at risk of collapsing?

      If Gandalf had stayed a little closer to the edge, he might still be wearing grey...


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