There is obviously a huge overlap between fans of J R R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and those who design, publish, buy and play board games. Long before this new game, Hunt for the Ring, arrived on the scene. I’d lost count of the number of games that have been based on or around the Lord of the Rings franchise. And then add to that the legion of games that have clearly been inspired by Tolkein even if they’ve managed to avoid paying over any licensing fees. If you reckon in the whole Dungeons & Dragons genre of games, we’re talking about an entire games industry that traces its roots back to the Tolkein’s epic saga.
So Hunt for the Ring is following a well-trodden path. It is based faithfully on the episodes from the Fellowship of the Ring (the first book in the trilogy) that trace the journey taken by hobbit Frodo Baggins and his companions from his departure from the Shire to his arrival at the relative sanctuary of the elvish stronghold of Rivendell.
Hunt for the Ring – the Prequel
If aspects of the design look familiar, it’s because it shares designers and artists with Ares Games’ previous Tolkein title War of the Ring. Indeed, the rules even offer ideas for linking the games together so that Hunt for the Ring is played as a prequel affecting the set-up of a play of War of the Ring.
Both games are highly asymmetric and both share some key concepts, especially in the use of a corruption track that delivers victory to the denizens of the Dark Lord if the Ringbearer is ever completely corrupted. Hunt for the Ring definitely isn’t more of the same, however. It plays very differently to War of the Ring and, once you’ve scythed your way through the unnecessarily bloated 40 page rulebook, you’ll find it’s a very much simpler game.
The Ring of Invisibility
Hunt for the Ring is a hidden movement game with a lot of similarities with predecessors like Fury of Dracula and Letters from Whitechapel (both published by Fantasy Flight Games). In this game, one player is trying to get the Ringbearer safely to his destination while the other players control the Nazgul (Ringwraiths) – working co-operatively together to try to find Frodo and corrupt him. All four Nazgul move and take actions each turn but they don’t have each to be controlled by separate players. In practice, Hunt for the Ring works well as a two-player game (one player controlling all four Nazgul) or as a three-player game (two of the players each controlling two Nazgul). Five players obviously works, though not as smoothly, but four players, though doable, is less satisfactory as it inevitably involves further asymmetry within the Nazgul side.
Hunt for the Ring – a game of two halves
Hunt for the Ring is played in two discrete parts. In the first part, Frodo is trying to get from his home in the Shire (the Western edge of the board) to the town of Bree at the Eastern edge. In the second part, the board is flipped over and he has to safely make his way from Bree to Rivendell. The second part isn’t merely a reworking of the first; it involves some different rules and a number of different cards and components, so each part feels different and plays differently. In Part 2, Frodo’s moves are card driven and the Ringbearer is mainly controlling Gandalf in attempting to hamper and frustrate the Nazgul who, as in Part 1, are hunting the ring.
The game comes supplied with an envelope for storing components between parts, so that, in effect, players can ‘save’ a game at the end of Part 1 and continue on with Part 2 at a separate sitting. You’re quite likely to need this facility because you’re very unlikely to complete the game within the ’90 minutes’ gameplay time indicated on the back of the box. You should expect each part to take 90 minutes or more, especially if you are playing with five players.
It is the Ringbearer whose moves are hidden. As with other hidden movement games, Hunt for the Ring comes with a player screen and a grid into which the player slides in a sheet of paper on which he records the location he moves to on each of his moves. Helpfully, the screen replicates in miniature both of the playing boards so, while determining your next hidden move, you don’t need to stare at the main board and risk giving away information through opponents tracking your line of vision.
Many of the spots are unnumbered because they are regarded as “in the wild”. If the Frodo player marks a dot or circle on his sheet (for the “in the wild” symbol) then he is deemed to be at any wild spot that could be reached from his previous number; the actual spot is determined only when he enters his next move to a numbered location.
More than not meeting the eye…
Although the similarities are obvious, Hunt for the Ring isn’t just a chase and deduction game like Scotland Yard (Ravensburger), the first of the hidden movement games. Each side has access to special cards that can aid them. Part of the skill in this game is working out how to deploy these cards to best advantage. For example, Frodo can place out onto numbered locations ally tokens that block the Nazgul from travelling through that spot without halting and spending an action to eliminate that ally.
The Nazgul have some basic movement and search actions that they can always take but they additionally roll special dice and can take one of the actions that are indicated by their die rolls. Typically, their sorcery cards may dish out corruption. This is recorded on a corruption track and gives the Nazgul their way of winning the game (Frodo loses if his corruption is maxed out). Using the ring symbol on a die, the Nazgul can use their power of perception to quiz the Ringbearer by naming a section of the board and asking if Frodo is within that sector. Obviously, players are expected to be honest in their reply. At least, that’s true in Part 1 of the game…
In each part, Frodo only has 16 turns to get to his destination and if he chooses too convoluted a route he will simply not have enough moves to make it. That means the likelihood is that the Nazgul will find Frodo’s location at least once before he reaches his objective. However, catching the Ringbearer is not the end of the game. If the Nazgul have his location, they must take a hunt action (sword face of the die). This forces an encounter which will involve more card play and a probable rise in the Ringbearer’s corruption. This makes Hunt for the Ring a cat and mouse game where the four cats are playing with and wearing down their prey rather than leaping in for an immediate outright kill.
Great components; shame about the rules
The components in Hunt for the Ring are great (especially the minis: with different sculpts for each of the four Nazgul). Sadly, the rules aren’t as clear and well presented as they should be. Everything is there, but you have to look to find it. That makes this game less accessible than it should be for new players.
And be warned that, though it is nowhere near as complex as War of the Ring, Hunt for the Ring is still a step up in complexity from most previous hidden movement games. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not difficult to play once you’ve finally navigated your way through the rulebook, but the balancing of its use of cards and the opportunity to develop an attrition strategy forcing an opponent to burn through their cards make this more of a gamers’ game than if it had been a simple hunt and find chase game.
On the plus side, this added complexity doesn’t just make Hunt for the Ring a better hidden movement game, it also adds markedly to player’s engagement with the theme. The player taking the Ringbearer’s actions isn’t merely sneaking and skulking but he is having to use his allies to hinder the Nazgul’s progress and maybe plant red herrings that divert them from his path.
Savour your Precious victory
Given the context of the game, I can’t help but think that the designers missed an opportunity to do something really different here. It would have been intriguing to have added Gollum into this game as a second hidden movement player… Maybe I should pitch my rules for that to the publishers as a future expansion?
Nevertheless, if you are a Lord of the Rings fan, this is a game that is certain to appeal to you. Whichever side you play, you’ll find you swiftly slide into role, and Hunt for the Ring is a game that maintains a level of excitement throughout. It is quite well balanced overall between the two sides, so tension is sustained throughout both parts. As a result, the eventual victory, whether for Frodo or for the Nazgul, feels like a genuine achievement at the end. If you do happen to find, however, that the game is proving too easy for one side or the other, the rules offer some practical suggestions for tweaking the resources players start with.
If you enjoy hidden movement games, then you’ll want to check Hunt for the Ring out even of you are otherwise quite agnostic about the Lord of the Rings theme. In my view, the game is not quite as much fun as Last Friday – another hidden movement game, from the same publishers, even more dripping with theme – but it offers a tense and exciting gameplay experience.
With a better rulebook, it would have scored higher, but even with its rulebook handicap, Hunt for the Ring still deserves a 6/10 score.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.