Thursday, June 27, 2013

Boarding Pass, episode 2: The Hobbit card game

For this second entry in my Boarding Pass series, I’m inaugurating a little faceted analysis of the games reviewed.  These represent my initial effort at breaking down some key facts about every game, developed after not a little bit of research through sources like Board Game Geek and by playing and playing and thinking and playing.  I want to capture both the traditional game-y info that people would want to know for the purposes of actually playing, as well as the more--dare I say--artistic considerations, such as board games’ very own versions of genre and medium.  Am I missing anything key?  Is something I have included superfluous?  Are any of those listed here unclear in purpose to you? Please do let me know! Now, on to the post...

  • Game medium: Card game
  • Game genre: Unknown! Any thoughts?*
  • Context genre: High fantasy (Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and The Hobbit)
  • Mechanic type(s): Trick-taking
  • Player role: Prosaic (literary characters)
  • Number of players: 2-5
  • Time for setup: Quick
  • Time for play: 10 minutes - infinity

*Two typical genres listed by some experts are Ameritrash--super complex, super thematic games--and wargames, which are somewhat self explanatory.  I’m open to making up new genres!  What could we call subtle, mildly thematic, engaging yet low-key gameslike this?  British-style Games? ;-)

Picture from


In a game that expands and contracts for the number of players around the table, the forces of light and shadow face off in a war that brings together orcs, elves, spiders, wargs and all the rest of the races of Middle-Earth.  A simple bid and trick mechanic dressed up in the trappings of The Hobbit makes for an engaging entree into themed gaming.

Play as Thorin, Bilbo and Gandalf on the side of goodness or as Smaug and Bolg from the seedier side of Tolkiana.  Each card has a value, and the higher bid wins the trick--allowing the player to assign damage, health, or bonus draws where it will be most helpful to his cause, whether pure or nefarious.

My thoughts

This game is simple, but it borders on addictive.  It was my first experience with the trick-taking mechanic, and The Hobbit card game demonstrates that it is effective outside the realm of faux-economics or casino lite games; it’s simply a fast-moving inroad to a lot of subtle strategy.  It’s not so easy as to just always assign damage to your foe and health to yourself, as health for one faction doubles as damage for the other, and vice versa; you have to weigh your strikes against the hits you think you can sustain safely.

Things are nicely balanced and play out in such a way that each faction, and even each character, approaches the game in a different way.  Smaug is a powerhouse, absorbing loads of damage while dishing out even more, as well as discarding threats to himself and help for his foes.  The good guys, meanwhile, perhaps in token of their more benevolent nature, are unable to discard at all, leading to situations where you have no choice but to hurt yourself or help your enemy.  This makes for interesting choices and delicate expressions of power: you might choose to lose a trick now and then rather inflict pain on yourself (even though, yeah, I know, the baddies will just do it to you then, but hey, there’s a psychological factor here).

There really isn’t too, too much here that screams “Hobbit!” in the actual gameplay; yeah, each character’s unique rules for disposing of won tricks sort of broadly reflect their literary personalities, but not in any kind of quintessential way.  The theme is light but effective enough in mirroring the literary modus operandi of the characters to lend a bit of impetus to in-game choices.  What really marries the theme into the game is the beautiful artwork on each card, delightfully reminiscent of the classic art in the Middle-Earth canon.  It makes perfect sense, for example, that “Dragonfire” would be a devastating attack, so placing it as a high-value card depicting Smaug’s desolation (sorry) makes great sense.

If you’re familiar with the card game Crazy Eights, this is essentially a souped-up version of that.  It satisfies and it’s compulsive.  It’s not the most complex marriage of theme and mechanic, but it’s a good starter game for fantasy enthusiasts interested in getting into the gaming artform.

Library Use

  • Good simple game for beginners; neither too long nor too quick
  • Opportunity to connect novice players to the more experienced who can talk them through the rules
  • Illustrates a mild but effective marriage of theme and mechanics to enhance gameplay--works to illustrate this principle of modern gaming to novices
  • With the second of three Hobbit movies due this holiday season, this game might provide extra pull to your library for game programming!

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