16 Dec 2021. One day during younger daughter Chen Rui’s school holidays, she looked a little bored so I asked her whether she wanted to play some games with me. She said okay, so I browsed my shelf for suitable 2-player games. At home Chen Rui is usually the one more willing to play boardgames with me.
I picked Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. I greatly admire this Reiner Knizia design. It is a simple and concise package but it packs many of the key elements of the story. It is amazing how much is being conveyed through this little box.
The light side (the good guys) uses white pieces, while the dark side uses black pieces. At game setup, you are free to position your pieces subject to stacking limits. Initially you don’t know who is who among your opponent’s pieces. You will only find out when your pieces start fighting. The light side needs to send Frodo to Mordor – the last space on the dark side of the board – to win the game. Frodo’s job is to destroy the One Ring. The dark side needs to kill Frodo. It can also win by having three pieces occupy the Shire – the last space on the light side of the board. That’s the hobbits’ home.
Game pieces are only revealed when one piece attacks another, Every character in the game has a special ability. When a fight starts, you check the special abilities of both pieces to see if they determine the outcome of the fight. If they don’t, both players simultaneously play a card to determine how the fight goes. All characters have a strength value. Most cards have a strength value too. You add both to determine your total strength. Some cards have special powers instead, and these too can affect the outcome of the fight.
The dark side characters have higher strength values and generally it is slightly easier to play the dark side. So I let Chen Rui play the dark side. That said, it is usually tough for a new player to win against an experienced player. There is a lot to learn about the interactions between character powers and card powers. It takes time to discover the many tactics in the game.
The strength cards of the light side player are weaker than the dark side, but the light side has more special powers. It is important for the light side player to utilise the character abilities and the special power cards. The story in the game will develop very differently from that in the books and the movies. In the books most of the good guys survived till the end, but in the game many of them will be sacrificed to get Frodo to Mordor.
This was a bad situation for the dark side player. Chen Rui (dark side) only had four pieces left while I still had six. Usually if the light side can force a one-for-one exchange, it would have already been a good deal. You clear the board to allow Frodo to sneak past the dark side defenses into Mordor. When the light side has more pieces than the dark side, it is very bad news for the dark side.
In this game you must move a piece forward every turn. You can’t turn back. There is pressure whenever you decide which piece to move and where to move it to. The dark side always needs to worry about guessing the position of Frodo wrong and letting him slip through. The light side is always worrying about walking into a strong enemy it can’t take down.
Frodo is a measly 1, but his special ability is being able to escape sideways when attacked. It’s not easy to catch him. While playing Chen Rui complained that it was too tough. It was too difficult to make decisions. Indeed this is what makes this game great. You are often torn between 50-50 decisions, and you have to guess your opponent’s intention. Winning or losing a fight comes down to reading your opponent’s thinking correctly.
Towards late game, since Chen Rui had few pieces remaining, I thought it would be an easy ride the rest of the way sending Frodo to Mordor. Unfortunately I became careless and Frodo was caught and defeated by the Black Rider. Chen Rui had first attacked Frodo with the Witch King. Frodo was able to escape sideways. To my surprise, on her next turn she sent the Black Rider moving multiple steps to reach Frodo. That was its special ability. I should have anticipated that possibility and I should have done something about it. Frodo could not escape sideways again since the Witch King was in the way. At the time both of us had only one card left, so we both knew which cards they were. I had the Magic card, which is normally the best card in the deck because when you play it, you get to reuse any other card on the table. It can be what you want it to be. However Chen Rui had the Eye of Sauron, which nullified any text card. Magic is a text card. Unbelievable! I lost to a newbie. Serves me right for being complacent.
Frodo caught by the Black Rider.
The other game we played was Attika. I bought it in 2003 or 2004, when I first got into the boardgame hobby. I bought it in Taiwan. After so many years, I still enjoy the game.
With 2 players, the map is set up using only 4 tiles. There are two ways to win. You either connect two temples with your buildings (the discs), or you construct all of your buildings.
The player board is an important reference. It shows all the buildings you can construct, their costs, and which buildings can be built for free next to which other buildings. E.g. any ship built next to a harbour is free (bottom right group). I used the blue player buildings to mark which of my buildings have been constructed on the map. Some buildings are temporarily placed on the player board until you can construct them on the map.
My copy is a German version, so all the building names are in German. It is slightly inconvenient since I don’t know German, but the game is very much still playable. In fact I like that my copy is German because that makes me cool. Well, at least in Malaysia.
Chen Rui started this game dominating the centre of the map, which had many resources. Resources on the map can be used by players when constructing buildings. You can use a resource when you construct a building next to it or directly on top of it. This reduces the number of resource cards you have to play from your hand. Once a building covers a resource on the map, that resource is exhausted. My buildings were divided into two groups. There wasn’t enough space to go around so I was forced to establish a second group.
There are four resource types in the game.
During the game you will get to place new tiles. This is important because you’ll need the space for buildings, and resources that come with the new tiles will be useful too. You have to be careful when placing new tiles because you don’t want to make it easy for your opponents to use “your” tiles. You want to position the new tiles where they would be convenient for you. Sometimes a new tile helps in connecting temples. Where there is new land, there may be new paths.
The two temples were originally at two extreme ends of the map. Now the temple at the bottom was almost surrounded by land tiles. Due to competing for land and resources, Chen Rui and my buildings were split into groups. Normally you want to avoid creating separate groups of buildings. You need to pay an extra cost when creating a new group.
Chen Rui constructed her buildings in the backyard of the temple.
22 Dec 2021. We played Attika again. This particular game above ended soon after this. I (green) was soon able to connect the two temples with my buildings. Chen Rui hadn’t been alert about it and didn’t defend against it. Actually even I didn’t realise it until she noticed the opportunity for me and told me. When I taught her the game, I said it was usually hard to win by connecting temples. So she didn’t pay much attention to the risk. Even I seldom allocate much effort to connect temples.
This time I used glass beads to mark buildings already constructed.
This was another game. This time we each controlled half the map. We guarded our frontlines carefully. Neither of us jumped over each other’s frontlines to create new groups.
This game looked like multiplayer solitaire, with both of us carefully expanding in our own areas. However we did have to compete at the frontlines, and we also had to be careful how we placed new tiles so that the other party could not easily exploit them.
An important way to discourage your opponents from stealing “your” new tile is to place it far away from them and near your own buildings.
24 Dec 2021. I was very lucky with my initial building draws. I not only drew my capital Korinth, I also drew two buildings which could be constructed next to Korinth for free. This was very convenient. In this game I managed to construct all ten of the capital group connected to one another. This is usually hard to do because this is a big group.
I (green) was close to connecting two temples. I had connected to the temple below, and was just two steps away from connecting to the temple above. Chen Rui was forced to stop me. She had to seal off access to that temple, even though it was a costly move. This is how threatening to connect temples can be effective.
That tile at the bottom left was placed by me. Once I placed it, Chen Rui placed her three roads to steal it from me, blocking me off. She initially placed her road somewhere else. I saw that she could have placed it here and monopolised the new tile, so I advised her to do so. She gleefully accepted. I just screwed myself.
I had not expected Attika to be among the fives and dimes for 2021. We had a spurt in December. The last time I played it was 2015. I didn’t realise it had been that long ago. Now that Chen Rui and I have played a few games, she is getting more familiar with the tactics and I am remembering more too. Now we play in a more aggressive manner, actively grabbing land and resources, and always watching out for opportunities to jump behind enemy lines.
I (green) had three groups of buildings, and Chen Rui (yellow) had two. During this game she sometimes had three groups, but later merged two of them by placing buildings to link them up. My capital Korinth was quickly surrounded by her buildings in the early game. Many of my buildings which could have been constructed for free next to Korinth then had to be constructed elsewhere at a cost. That was painful. I should not have constructed my capital that near the frontline. This was asking for trouble. It was a very close game. I beat Chen Rui by only one turn. After I constructed all my buildings, she only needed one more turn to construct all of hers.
At the bottom left, I (green) had one “group” of buildings which consisted of just one single building. In hindsight, this was probably a lousy move. When I drew this building, I could build it here by spending just one resource, for starting a new building group. There were enough resources on the map which could be used for the building itself. So it seemed a good idea to do it. I saved an action. Otherwise the building would have gone to my player board, and I would later need another action to construct it. However having an additional group was a risk, because the next time I wanted to start yet another new group, it would be even more expensive. This single building group did seem rather wasteful. I didn’t expand from there.