The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book Game is the third title in a series from publisher Ravensburger, the previous two entries featuring The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride. These are all unique tabletop games where unfolding storybooks are used as the foundation to retell iconic narratives from film and literature. While the previous two releases have been entertaining and effective, The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book pushes the format strongly forward with a sense of maturity and accomplishment.
This is a wonderful combination of charm and lightweight gameplay that finds its groove when played across a diverse age range. It’s perfect for a family as both adults and children can sink into the story and fully grasp the structure and mechanisms. The main attraction is the book itself. Each set of pages is a new chapter in the familiar J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. It’s a hard and sturdy manual, reminiscent of children’s board books in material. The illustrations are vibrant and the graphic design is excellent, easily accomplishing a sense of immersion through the synthesis of presentation and systems.
All of the expected beats are here. From the hobbits departure from the Shire to the forming of the Fellowship, through Moria and the gates of Helm’s Deep, and finally at the mouth of Mount Doom. Each of the eight chapters utilizes a small number of special rules and objectives that sit atop a very concise core ruleset. All of the action takes place on the pages of the book, which form a unique board tailored to the current story chapter.
The flow of play feels somewhat similar to cooperative mainstream strategy games such as Pandemic and Horrified. All of the players share control of the protagonists, moving characters such as Frodo or Gandalf about the map while managing a small hand of cards. You spend various sets of cards to accomplish goals and progress the narrative. For instance, in the very first chapter you must move all four hobbits to Bree and then discard a card with an eye of Sauron symbol, and two with feet symbols.
It’s very simple overall, requiring a bit of player discussion and cooperation to organize the sequence of actions across each of your turns. The challenge arises through the plot deck. This functions as a timer and provides an injection of chapter-specific random events. In the Shire example, many of the plot effects trigger black rider patrols. This jams up your pathways, blocking movement across the board and possibly capturing hobbits that were left exposed.
Across all of the narrative chapters there’s a very basic tradeoff between conservative progress while building up the perfect hand of cards, versus aggressive maneuvering to push towards the objectives immediately. The best strategic approach is somewhere in between, picking the right moments to risk loss without being reckless.
One of the best elements of tension is a track that represents the ring bearer’s growing corruption. This comes into play when you play special ring cards as wild options or for a chapter-specific effect — but each such use progresses a token down the corruption track. This track remains for all eight chapters, sitting sinisterly above the book and providing a watchful eye and ever present temptation. If the ring token ever arrives at the end of the track, the players lose the whole campaign and the journey ends in despair. Using the ring cards is the most interesting decision in the game, and it nicely captures the themes of the trilogy.
The strongest moments are present in the creative interactive storytelling. Those familiar with Tolkien’s books or Peter Jackson’s films will recognize each vignette immediately. This captures the joy in reliving the property and interacting with the most powerful scenes. You will fight the cave troll, ride atop Ents, and hopefully cast the ring into the Crack of Doom. And each challenge is an interesting puzzle of sorts as you work out the best approach to fulfilling your destiny.
There’s nothing outright innovative about this as a board game design, but it’s a clever distillation of the many narrative heavy campaign games currently dominating the board game market. It captures some of the spark of huge crowdfunding titles like Gloomhaven or Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood, utilizing narrative and story to drive a linked session of games. But it accomplishes this with an approachable ruleset that nearly anyone can immediately understand.
It is important to realize that this is aimed at families as well as a younger audience. I felt the most joy working through the game with my nine-year-old, the adventure book facilitating a few evenings of shared storytelling and bonding. The strategic demands are not overly complex and it will not provide the rich gameplay hobbyists tend to seek out in adult game groups, but it accomplishes everything it intends and is worthy.
It’s also evident that this is the current peak of this adventure book format. The scenarios are unique page to page, featuring a stronger sense of variety and creativity than both previous iterations on the system. The unexpected mechanical twists instill a sense of mystery as you want to keep going and experience the next chapter to see what’s in store. During play, I’d often be wondering how the future story beats would play out, curious how they’d capture the death of Boromir or the danger of Shelob’s Lair. Without fail, those iconic moments would manifest with a solid sense of thrill.
Above all, this product really understands its audience. The whole book can be played in only a few hours, each chapter lasting about 20 minutes. You can stop playing between chapters and pack it up or leave the game setup awaiting your next session. The variety and pull of content is real, keeping participants engaged for the entirety of the adventure and begging for attentive minds. It’s a clever and well designed game that captures a wide scope with little fuss. It’s simply a success.
Where to Buy
The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book Game is available exclusively at Target.