Matt Carlson: Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Cryptozoic Entertainment
Ages: 15+
Players: 1-4
Time: about 40 mins (maybe 20 with fast players)

Reviewed by Matt Carlson
Review copy provided by Cryptozoic Entertainment

There are two things this world just doesn’t have enough of: new game designs by Reiner Knizia and boardgames with a Tolkien’s Middle Earth theme.  Thankfully, Cryptozoic has managed to do the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup thing and put the two together to make something better than just the sum of its parts.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second game in a series of three cooperative titles based on the movie adaptation of The Hobbit.  Each game consists of two boards displaying quests which must be completed by matching symbols with dice.  Extra benefits and powers are available in the form of the party of characters as well as special events and items from the movie.  However, the game has a scoring system and using special cards (not the characters) reduces the number of points available.  The game does a good job conveying the themes of the movies while the dice-based quest completion prevents the game from decisions that have a definitive optimal solution.

Game Summary:
The game consists of four custom dice, two special (gold) dice, character tiles for the dwarves and the rest of the party, special item/help cards, and two game boards with their own deck of event cards.  To help with clarity, I will refer to the game boards here as the 3rd and 4th board, since they can be used to continue on from the 1st and 2nd boards in the initial game of the series.  Each board has two rows of quests, with the top row focused on running events (which must be completed in order) and the bottom row with more focus on diplomacy and fighting (which may be done in any order.)

To begin the game players are given a number of character cards (depending on the number of players) at the start, with a few extra placed by the game board for later recruitment.  Starting special resources (usable at any time, but at a cost of end game points) are placed at the top of the board, and a line of resources for the 4th board are placed upside down on the bottom of the 3rd board.  These serve as both a timer and a source of penalties, since they can be discarded as a player penalty and running out of bottom resources ends.  Resources which are preserved become available for use on the next board (along with any unused starting resources from the 3rd board.)

On a turn, players first flip up an event card.  These cards typically add new quests or upgrade quests already on the board, making them more difficult.  Next, a player rolls the four basic dice up to two times, setting aside dice each time in an attempt to complete quests on the board using symbols on the dice (running, diplomacy, and fighting.) Each side of the basic dice show either a single or double of the three symbol types. Dice assigned after the first roll may not be moved after the second roll.  Players must complete at least one quest every turn or else one of the upside-down bottom resources is removed from the game.  After completing (or failing to complete) any quests, the dice are passed to the next player.  Quests further along the board require more and more varied resources and require the use of extra powers to complete.

The best source of powers are the character cards.  They are one use only, but can be used without any penalty to the score.  Used character cards go back into the general pool and can be recruited again under special circumstances (typically completing an upgraded quest or using one of the special, points based resources.)  Powers available include extra rerolls, free dice symbols, and the ability to roll a gold die along with the four basic ones.  As one might expect, the gold dice have more symbols on each face.  (One die, usable only on the 4th board, has faces providing special powers instead.) Some of the character cards can be used during another player’s turn, albit with reduced effectiveness.

When the 3rd board is completed, all the character cards (aside from Bilbo) are collected and placed face down in the recruitment area. Players draw one character card from the top of the stack at the start of their turn.  In a nice nod to theme, this represents the character arriving via their barrels at different times.  The card backs even have a drawing of the dwarves riding down the river in their barrels.  

The 4th board contains one other difference of note.  At the bottom of the board, rather than a train of resource cards, is a row used to track Smaug’s destruction of the town.  Smaug moves down the track each turn, with the game ending when he reaches the end.  Players can spend resources to force him back up the row, but this does not count for solving the minimum of one quest per turn.

At the end of the game, points are scored based on remaining resources and the final location of the dragon on its track.  The game can easily be won when a significant number of the resource tiles are used.  However, attempting a high score can be a challenge.  To increase the difficulty of the game, two or more of the (non-instant) event cards are added to each board at the start.  This will significantly reduce a game’s score and can become difficult to even “win” with enough event cards present.

Game production is very high, with the character cards and resources made of nice, thick cardboard rather than simple playing cards (and I like the barrels in the river art on the back of the character cards.)  The event cards seem fine, but are a bit small.  This is necessary, though, since they must fit over event locations on the board (when an event is “upgraded”.)  The dice are a good size, not too small and easily read.  The boards are also colorful, easy to read, and provide a nice layout for all the necessary elements – although I’m not sure why they weren’t just made double-sided to save weight and space. One things stands out when looking at the pieces, the small, round wooden token used to represent Smaug on the final board is simply hideous.  I can understand making it different than other cardboard pieces, but the black imprint on the token is simply ugly.  It is as if the dragon was meant to be some nice plastic or large wooden piece but then a round wooden piece was chucked in as a cheaper substitute at the last minute.  Even a color cardboard token in the style of all the other tiles would have been far better.

The rulebook is large and filled with great images of the game and while the text is kept simple, I would have loved to see some of that space used up with a few more examples.  As in any game with card based exceptions, there typically arise some ambiguity.  Perhaps it is better covered in the initial game of the series, but there were several items in the game that were not clearly described in the rulebook.  (Any leftover character cards are returned between boards, and some symbols on the 2nd gold die were not explained at all!)  A few event cards had a simple typo that was easy to spot but they weren’t game-breaking.  The rules are not bad, but I can’t give them high praise.

Desolation of Smaug is both a stand-alone game as well as an expansion to the first game in the series of three. I did not have access to the first game of the series, but from what I understand it is very similar in design.  It does not have the “characters showing up in barrels” seen on the 4th board.  Those players who wish to complete both games in sequence are able to continue with their saved resources from the 2nd board, but are not given the default “starting resources” used for playing the The Desolation of Smaug by itself.  (Presumably, the same effect will continue with the third game in the series – with players saving resources from previous boards for use in the 5th and 6th boards.)

Final Verdict:
I enjoy the game, and found it an excellent cooperative game to play with my young son.  On easier settings we could easily defeat the game, at the cost of some points.  As he improves we can attempt higher scores or advance the difficulty.  The theme of story seemed to come through the game better some other Middle-Earth games I have played.  Fighting the dragon on the 4th board, pushing it back and forth, seemed to embody some of the battle of Rivertown.  The characters bobbing down the river in barrels was another nice touch.  While the names and situations of the events did not always draw me in, the entire idea of the party trying to fight, bargain, and “flee” their way through situations seemed spot-on.  (Particularly since fleeing/running was a major part of the whole endeavor.)

A comparison to the die-rolling quest game Elder Sign seems unavoidable.  The Hobbit trilogy is faster paced and more streamlined than Elder Sign.  There are fewer symbols on the dice, resources are always available to all players, and most quests can be attempted at any time.  There are far fewer occasions when a die is “locked down” in The Hobbit, although there are fewer dice to be rolled.  Finally, in The Hobbit players are not represented in the game by an avatar.  They are abstracted out of the game altogether.  As I played I was strongly reminded of Knizia’s seminal Lord of the Rings game.  While it is a classic, this series seems to be more family-friendly.  There are far more resources to be used, and much of the game’s strategy is to figure out when (and if) to use the resources available.  I also prefer using dice rather than cards (as in the LotR co-op) since I feel they help prevent one player from controlling the entire game.  (With dice rolling, it isn’t always a given what the “proper” move may be, as sometimes it’s fun or necessary to take a bit of a risk…)

Taken as a game, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was just the right length for my son and I to play after supper and before bedtime.  The dice provide a nice randomizing factor, so that the best decisions in one game may need adjusting in later plays.  Some long-term strategy is present through resource and character card conservation, and the difficulty of the game can be easily adjusted.  However, when I step back from the game and place it into my family’s budget, I’m not so sure it would give me enough return for my investment.  Perhaps if it weren’t part of a trilogy a $40 MSRP would sit better with me.  However, since it is just one part of three games (and while it plays fine as a stand-alone the game clearly “feels” like it is the middle of a trilogy) I would be tempted to acquire all three titles.  Even sold at a common online discount, $90 for a complete game about the Hobbit adventure is not entirely unreasonable, but seems a bit much for my taste.  Ignoring the price point, it is a fun cooperative family game that works well with its theme.  I give it a strong “I like it”, but reserve the right to upgrade that to “I love it” if I find the complete trilogy works well together and does not take too long to play.

Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it.  Matt Carlson
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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