Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Knizia)

There has been a recent avalanche of Hobbit games, for some reason. When Knizia designed his classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000 it didn't have to worry much about collisions in the namespace. Now, everyone is on the Hobbit bandwagon and nobody knows what I'm talking about when I mention I'd like to play The Hobbit. Knizia himself has done three different Hobbit games. Recently. Plus another in the back catalog. Anyway, this one is published by Cryptozoic and is a cooperative game hearkening back to Lord of the Rings – but this time with dice instead of cards, and working from a different set of thematic ideas as befits the differences in tone between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Knizia wrote a book called Dice Games Properly Explained in which he described the history and workings of different types of dice games. The Hobbit is identifiably a category dice game, in the same family as Yahtzee. Each turn you roll four custom dice with running, diplomacy, and fighting symbols, trying to match different challenges on the board (Keep the Troll William Talking, for example, requires 5 diplomacy). A set of running challenges make up the throughline of an episode and must be scored in order, while the rest can be done at any time. If you want to save any dice from your first roll, you must assign them to challenges, and then re-roll the rest. Fail to complete at least one challenge on your turn and you pay a penalty.

As usual for Knizia, the nuance of the game is then built on top of this clean and straightforward engine. Tasks range in difficulty from easy (3 symbol matches) to formidable (8 symbol matches), the hardest requiring outrageous good fortune to complete without the many special powers the game gives you. The 14 members of the Company (13 Dwarves plus Bilbo) all have cards with one-use powers which will be dealt out to the players (re-rolls, access to the bonus gold die, extra symbols). These abilities can be used to your personal benefit, but also usually to benefit another player, albeit a slightly weaker version. Bifur for example, in addition to playing the clarinet, allows you an additional re-roll, or a re-roll of 2 white dice for someone else. Once used these powers are spent, although the game gives you quite a few opportunities to bring back used Company members for another spotlight moment.

These Company powers are useful, but you will often find yourself in need of a bigger hammer. These are available in the form of resources like Gandalf (who doubles all your dice), The Contract (which allows you to recycle many Company members), The Map to Erebor (two extra diplomacy symbols), and, inevitably, Radagast's "Beasts" (4 extra running). These are powerful one-shots that will fittingly bail you out of trouble when your backs are against the wall, but cost you points to use. Your score at the end will be the sum of all your unused resources.

That's about it. Each turn you face a board full of challenges, and draw an event card which can add additional challenges, make existing challenges harder, or give you an additional obstacle to deal with this turn. You then roll, choose one or more dice to allocate to one or more challenges, and re-roll any unallocated dice. If you haven't then met at least one challenge, you lose points and a future resource – a fairly harsh penalty, so you have to keep moving.

As is typical for a Knizia design, the game gives you a great deal of flexibility (unlike the superficially similar Elder Sign which offers a much smaller decision space) and then tugs you in many different directions. You want to solve the challenges as quickly as possible, but if you sweep up all the easy ones while leaving all the hard ones on the table, it greatly increases your risk of failed turns. You need to keep your options open, picking off difficult challenges when the dice line up properly and keeping some easy ones in reserve for when you roll poorly – ideally even keeping a balance of fighting, running, and diplomacy challenges open. The big decisions revolve around how much risk to assume with the toughest challenges, when to make the big spend of a resource to finish those off, and when to take the hit or be satisfied with a lesser challenge for the turn – all as modified by turn-to-turn incidental events and the need to complete certain challenges in order.

The acid test of mechanical quality for cooperative games is whether there is enough on the table to engage several different minds in problem solving. Are four players on average going to do better than the one "best" player? The two classics in the genre attack this a little differently. In the case of Pandemic, the role cards give each player a different prism to look at the game through, which leads them to think in different ways which can then be debated and recombined. Knizia's Lord of the Rings also gives players identities with special powers, but they are less crucial. Lord of the Rings just makes the calculus of risk and reward so resistant to mathematical analysis that it deprives the players of straightforward answers even after many games. Patterns will emerge, but most decisions in the game are judgement calls and so players will often naturally come to different conclusion.

The Hobbit embraces both, although not to the same degree as either. Your role identification is not as strong as it is in Pandemic, and neither is the math as intractable as in Lord of the Rings. However, both still work, and the combination is effective. You'll usually have a few Dwarves (and maybe a Hobbit) in front of you that only you can use, and that will give you a perspective the other players lack. These powers tend to be moderately strong, and the fact that they are stronger on your turn than they are on other players turns is a nice way to encourage you to try to set yourself up to deal with challenges you are going to have the best shot at, while still giving you tools to help the other players out.

Dice games often fall afoul of relatively easy odds calculation – probably one reason why there are relatively few good ones. Monopoly Express is a classic example of a game where the unambiguously best choice is only some fairly easy math away. Even in Roll Through the Ages, the cost-benefit math of a re-roll is reasonably straightforward. In Elder Sign the math is harder, but the available choices are too few for it to help. The Hobbit does better, and offers players a rich and interesting set of die-rolling choices for a fairly straight-ahead category dice game. Once you've committed to a given challenge, the odds of finishing it (without using powers) are usually not too complex, but that is not where the game is – the game is in deciding what tasks to attempt in the first place and when to use those powers, and those decisions are much more resistant to straightforward mathematical analysis given the number of challenges, special powers, and resources usually available. The need to commit dice in order to save them is the key element that drives game tension. By giving you a great deal of flexibility on where to commit after seeing your first roll, but then needing to lock in at least partially before seeing your final roll, the game nicely balances control against the tension of rolling dice for stakes. Sometimes you'll roll well and the choices will be easy, but usually – especially on higher difficulty levels – you'll be somewhere in-between and the choices are not obvious.

The difficulty levels were a great and crucial feature of the original Lord of the Rings, and later cooperative games have not always managed this well despite the fact that appropriate difficulty is so key to this genre. The Hobbit does a good job here. If you start at level 0, you'll get a game that is easy to learn and while it won't be particularly challenging for cooperative game veterans, it's a good way to get into the game. Knizia then gives you point thresholds for when you should advance to the next level. Level 2 is still moderately easy, but level 4 starts turning the screws, and level 6 is tough. Level 8 is advertised as exceptionally difficult, and while I haven't made it there yet, I have no doubt that is true. Anyway, although I started at level 0, hardened gamers should probably consider starting at least at level 2. It should be mentioned though that unlike the life-or-death stakes of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has a much more action-adventure feel and the game appropriately is more about scoring than about whether or not the Company is going to survive, at least until you hit the top difficulty tiers.

The narrative elements of The Hobbit are driven similarly to Lord of the Rings. Each episode or act of the story is represented by a board and a set of events, which the players must work through against a ticking clock. After completing the board, the players get a refresh, collect resources earned, and press on. The multi-act structure is great and avoids death-spiral games – if you're going to lose (which is pretty unlikely outside of the high difficulty levels), game tension is still maintained almost all of the way. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative element was somewhat railroaded, which had the downside of predictability but the upside of keeping the narrative "beats" of tension going and avoiding the worst narrative lulls and crushes. The Hobbit is more free-form. The events are unique to each board but come in a random order. While they serve to mix up the game and keep you on your toes, they aren't as interestingly varied as allowed for by the scripted events in Lord of the Rings and so don't have as much texture and are not as evocative of the narrative of the movie. A lot of the drama and ebb and flow of the game is in coping with the vagaries of the dice themselves – not a bad way to go, but not as explicit.

While my general impressions of The Hobbit have been very positive, there is also no question that it took a hit when Peter Jackson made his fateful decision to split two movies into 3 late in the game. Players travel through two episodes of adventures, The Shire & Lonelands and Misty Mountains ... Gollum, Goblins, and Wargs, after which they are carried off by eagles and the game ends (if they make it). The second board offers nicely increased stakes and tougher challenges, and then an abrupt finish. There obviously should be a third act. There isn't. This is the game's biggest problem – one more board would clearly be more satisfying. Since the game is based on the movies rather than the books, we then have to dive into the morass of whether or not Peter Jackson knows what the heck he is doing in turning a nice, tightly-plotted 200-ish-page classic of children's literature into a bloated, 9 hour cinematic monstrosity. Obviously, my guess would be not, and the boardgame is sadly stuck having to work with the narrative mess of the movies. Knizia is legendary for his design economy, and economical is one descriptor I would not apply to Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. Thankfully Knizia's design elegance has done a better job at getting to the essence of film than Peter Jackson did.

Interestingly, though, The Hobbit does channel some of the flavor of the book. The story of the book is basically one of a bunch of not particularly competent dwarves going from adventure to adventure and repeatedly getting into more trouble than they can handle and requiring Gandalf or Bilbo to come along and bail them out. The game has a similar ebb and flow to it. While the Company will be able to handle the mundane tasks of getting from point A to point B, tackling the most difficult challenges will often require calling in bigger guns. The movie dwarves are rather more competent than their cousins in the book, and the game seems to split the difference. The little bits of personality the dwarves in the game have, with their individual special powers, is just about right. Balin and Gloin, the more senior dwarves, have extra die symbols. Fili and Kili, the youngest, have good powers that can't be shared. Thorin has the unique ability to give anyone a gold die – more leadership than he showed in the book, maybe, but it feels right.

I'll just say a couple words on the physical design of the game, since in this sort of game art and presentation can make a big difference to the game's ambiance and ability to evoke its source material. In many cases Cryptozoic has done a good job. The Dwarf cards are well designed, use clear and large iconography  and have a nice heft to them. The resources are similarly clear, although they could benefit from some art. The boards have nice scenic landscape shots on them. Although they compare unfavorably to the much more active Lord of the Rings boards, which show people or creatures doing things, on the other hand much of the board space is going to be covered with challenge cards most of the time so this is arguably better. But – oh dear. The font sizes. The names of the challenges on the board and cards are difficult to read at 2mm high, leaving the overall design with lots of dead space and looking boring. This doesn't cause a gameplay problem, but it does make it a bit harder to get into the spirit of the game when you can't really tell whether you are trying to finish "Split the Rock to Let the Light Through" or "Follow Bilbo Baggins to Rescue Him".

I liked The Hobbit. It's a classic Knizia design, elegant in gameplay but with subtlety to the strategies. The characterizations and narrative elements are economical but very effective. Decision are fraught with ambiguity and risk. It doesn't ask the player to make unimportant or uninteresting decisions and doesn't waste their time. The mechanics of playing the game are kept to a minimum (just two rolls of the dice each turn) so the players can get on with the interesting discussion and decision making. The game has a narrative momentum and pulse, although like Lord of the Rings you'll need to move up through the difficulty levels to get the full experience. Unfortunately, while it's reasonably satisfying on its own, it won't feel complete until the Desolation of Smaug (at least) can be linked up to it. With only two boards, it still works, is short, and has all the elements I want from a medium-weight Knizia. But it feels truncated. I'm really looking forward to getting the full experience.


  1. You had me up until the second to last paragraph, but darn it, I was burned by Elder Sign due to the excruciatingly small flavor text. It's one of my personal favorite experiences is combining a fun game with flavor text that uplifts the whole play. Without that, it's just statistics and luck. Thanks for the excellent review!

  2. The fact that Bilfur plays the clarinet makes this a must-play for me, if not a must-own.

  3. Great article. You are demonstrating that gaming is art and that gamers are not fools.

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  6. Knizia's book on Dice Games Properly Explained is really very good. Thanks for the excellent review!

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