Dale Yu: Review of EXIT: The Lord of the Rings – Shadows over Middle-Earth

EXIT: The Lord of the Rings – Shadows over Middle-Earth

  • Designers: Inka and Markus Brand
  • Publisher: Kosmos
  • Players: 1+
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 60-120 minutes

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The EXIT series was one of the original puzzle-game franchises to hit the market when the escape room game craze took off a few years ago. To date, my family and I have been able to play all of the ones released here in the US, and this is a series that we continue to look forward to future installments. While there are many worthy competitors in the genre, the EXIT series is possibly the best known of the bunch – due in part to the initial set of games being awarded the 2017 Kennerspiel des Jahres award.

This most recent installment in the series places you in the mythical world of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  “Middle-earth is in grave danger. Frodo and the Fellowship are on their way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. But they need your help! Make haste and carry out Gandalf’s secret assignments. Can you buy Frodo enough time to reach Mount Doom?”

I will try to give my thoughts on this game, but beware – much of what I saw will be couched in generalities. As with all the other escape room game reviews, I will not spoil any of the secrets. Any details come from the box or the rules themselves.  Like almost all the earlier EXIT games (except The Catacombs of Horror), this game comes in a small format box, and all the puzzle material is contained within the box.

However, the rules specify that you will need some extra material – it recommends having paper, pens, and scissors handy. Unlike some of the other entries in the escape room game genre, this one is definitely more of a “legacy” style as the intent is that you will need to alter the components in some way in the process of solving the puzzles.

The format of the game is similar to the previous games. Each has a small book of rules, a large deck of cards and a few assorted specialized bits that are specific to each game. In each game, there is a glossy booklet which is shared by the team. This book has the introductory information about the puzzle as well as components of the various puzzles.

exit lotr stuff

The deck of cards is split up into three stacks.  The first stack is a bunch of green clue cards. There will be three clues for each of the ten puzzles in each game.  So far, in the entire EXIT series, there have always been ten puzzles in each box. The puzzles are identified by a shape (in the game components) and this same shape is found on the back of the associated cards.  The second stack are the light blue numbered answer cards. You will use these to see whether you have answered a puzzle correctly. A final stack are the red letter cards, from A thru … (different for each game). As you solve different puzzles, you’ll be directed to reveal certain letter cards which give you more information or puzzle pieces.\

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So, when you start the game, you generally only have the glossy book to start with – the initial story and hints are usually found on the cover and the first page of the book.  Again, puzzles will be denoted by a black outline of a shape (such as a circle, a crescent moon or a cross). However, many puzzles have multiple parts to them, spread out amongst the different game components, and oftentimes they’re not all labeled – it will be up to you to figure out what goes with what.  As you look thru the bits, you will often see a red letter card icon. Whenever you see this, you can then look at the matching letter card from the deck.

All of the puzzles have a three part solution – which might be letters, numbers or shapes.  It all depends what is on the solution wheel in the particular game. When you think that you have the right answer, you use the solution wheel to dial in the answer.  The outermost ring has the ten puzzle shapes. You line up your three-part answer in a column under the appropriate shape, and then you look at the hole in the inner section.  It will give you a number. You then go to the deck of numbered cards, find the match and then look at the back.

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Generally, that numbered card will have a grid on the back of it – and then you have to find the number which matches the puzzle you’re actively trying to solve.  The grid will not be filled with the black shape outlines but rather images which are somehow associated with that puzzle; this prevents cheating or inadvertent puzzle solving.  The chart will direct you to a second card number which you then find. If you’re wrong, the card tells you to try again. If you’re right, there will be instructions, puzzle bits or letter cards on the back of the second card that you can then add to your inventory.

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The group wins the game when they complete the ten different puzzles.  If, at any point, you feel like you’re stuck, you can flip over one of the clue cards for the puzzle you need help with.  They are ordered from one to three. The early clues mostly make sure that you’re at the right place in the game to be solving the particular puzzle – the earliest clue usually telling you which game components you need to have access to at that time in order to be able to solve the puzzle.  The game doesn’t necessarily specify an order to the puzzles – but for many of them, you have to solve other puzzles first in order to have all the information that you need. It is not uncommon for there to be two or three puzzles that are active at any time, and usually solving an earlier puzzle will give you a needed card or special component needed to progress on a different puzzle.

Once you have finished the game, you can give your performance a rating using a chart provided in the rules.  Essentially, the best rating is for finishing the game in under an hour and having used zero hint cards. Your rating decreases with more time spent and more clue cards used.  There is a certificate on the last page of the rules which can be filled in if you want to keep track of your successes (or failures).

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My thoughts on the game

I continue to be surprised how the Brands can come up with so many new puzzles in this series.  The small physical size of the box does limit the number of things one can do in puzzle construction, but yet there are still one or two puzzles that really impress me with each new EXIT game – and this one is no different.  It is getting to the point where we are starting to see puzzles that feel familiar, and it’s likely because we’ve done so many EXIT games, that we’re getting used to the style of puzzles that they create!

Overall, this one was on the easier side – my companion and I solved this in about 45 minutes. though we did require hints on two of the puzzles. The puzzles are well constructed, and most of them are “fair” in the sense that you are given all the information that you need to solve them.  Sure, there is a bit of lateral thinking involved in solving some of the puzzles, but there is generally enough clues given to you in the game material to at least allow you to make the mental leap (if you’re able to piece together the information correctly).  Though you are not supposed to need any prior knowledge of the Lord of the Rings story, there was one puzzle that was made much easier using things we knew from reading the books.  Sure, I missed some clues provided by the game which would have made this extra knowledge un-necessary, but John quickly figured out what we were supposed to do because he actually remembers things that he reads!

Also, we felt that one puzzle had a misleading instruction icon on the card, pushing down the wrong path entirely.  We quickly corrected course with a clue card – but it was frustrating for a few minutes.  The game even anticipates that you’ll do the puzzle wrong…. but man, it seems like they could have done a better job with the instructions on what to do rather than come up with a work-around for you.

The EXIT games all have a difficulty rating on the front of the box, and this one is a 2 out of 5, the lowest difficulty rating found on the EXIT games (there has yet to be a 1 out of 5) though we both felt that this one could have easily been rated a 3.  It was certainly on the medium end of the puzzle spectrum, with two puzzles opaque enough for us to need clues.   As with most EXIT games, there is only one “live” puzzle at any time, and given the size of the components, this was perfect for us with two payers.  The information for the puzzles is often found on different cards (or in the booklet), and this is good because you can split up the work amongst the different team members – but there isn’t that much to go around, so this might get crowded with 4 people all trying to look at the same things.

Though the overall difficulty level is low to medium, the hint cards are well written to help nudge you in the right direction if you were to need help. In our play, again, we required hint cards for two of the puzzles.  I did glance at the other hint cards after the fact, and they seemed to be well designed to get you on the right path to solving the puzzles.

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I know what they all say, but it certainly looks like if you’re willing to go far enough to the East, you can simply walk into Mordor. Just saying.

Unlike many of the games in the genre, these games are meant to be used only once.  As the rules clearly tell you, you might need to alter the components (drawing, cutting, pasting, eating, etc.), and once you do that, it may be impossible to play that particular set again.  I don’t have a problem with this at all. First, and foremost, allowing (or demanding) that you change the components opens up all sorts of possibilities with puzzle creation, and I think that the Brands have done an excellent job at this.    Second, the cost of the game is not high – and at an MSRP around $15-20 (I have found them as low as $11 online), that is a fair price for a good one to two hours of entertainment for a group. If nothing else, it is certainly in line with the price of other one-use games.

An affiliate link: https://amzn.to/3RhRewl  Check back often as they do occasionally go on sale!

Now that there are nearly 20 EXIT games available – I think many of you will already know if you want to do these or not.  If you haven’t played them yet, they can be found online fairly easily, and they are perfect for a little activity when you’re stuck at home. The amount of puzzling goodness is very high given the size constraints of the box, and I think that the overall experience of this series is the best of any of the escape room games I’ve played thus far.

Overall, my rating for the entire series is an enthusiastic I love it!

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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