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Designer Diary: The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book Game

by Marcus Ross

By Jay Little and Marcus Ross

The Adventure Begins

Jay: It is completely on brand for me that my involvement with this project started with Ravensburger telling me, “No thank you.”

Ravensburger evaluates hundreds of game pitches every year, and I had recently submitted several, including a few ideas based on The Lord of the Rings. Ravensburger passed on those submissions, so I thanked them for their time and moved on. I like to think they saw something in those ideas or in my other work because they soon reached out to see whether I’d be interested in working on a different The Lord of the Rings game.

Yes, please.

Game vs Product Design Goals

The first step was working with Ravensburger game development manager Shanon Lyon to get a better understanding of the project. That required following two parallel tracks: understanding The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book as a game and as a product.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book Game needed to deliver roughly twenty-minute “units” of gameplay per chapter across eight chapters. It needed to follow previous Adventure Book Game conventions like playing cards to move figures and complete challenges. It needed to be a co-operative game. It needed to slowly increase in difficulty chapter by chapter. It needed a level of replayability. And it needed something special to feel like a The Lord of the Rings experience.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Book product had to be accessible to a family and mass-market audience. It had to look and feel like a natural fit in Ravensburger’s line of Adventure Book Games. It had to satisfy the licensor’s expectations. It had to fit into a 10-⅜” x 10-⅜” x 2-¼” box. It had to come in under a specific budget. And it had to shrink the entire epic The Lord of the Rings film trilogy into eight separate games.

It’s Research, I Swear!

To get into the right mindset, first I re-watched the entire extended edition movie trilogy — nearly twelve hours — pausing to jot down quotes, mark the time stamp for a memorable moment, or note a significant plot point I hoped to include in the game. It was fun telling the kids, “Want to help dad do some research right now? Grab the popcorn.”

It actually required a lot more research than I expected. The previous Adventure Book Gamess each had six chapters while The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game Book would have eight chapters. How do we break down all of that action, all of those important moments into eight cohesive parts? How do we make events from The Fellowship of the Ring feel like a natural progression to the sheer scale of The Two Towers and Return of the King?

I wrote a lengthy game spec document highlighting what I felt were the key, pivotal, most dramatic moments of the full story, whether it was Gandalf warning Frodo of The One Ring’s power at the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring or Frodo carrying The One Ring to Mount Doom while the final battle rages in Mordor in Return of the King. My first draft listed more than thirty events. I started combining some to see how much could fit together into one chapter’s worth of gameplay. This got me down to about twelve events.

Shanon and I bounced a lot of ideas back and forth based on the story beats, which events would translate well into the Adventure Book format, and the practicality of components; as much as I would love to have a dozen miniatures or a hundred cardboard pieces, that wasn’t going to happen, so we re-evaluated, looked for the essentials, and brainstormed until we had a rough blueprint for the eight chapters that would eventually appear in the final product.

The rest of the ideas from that original list didn’t go to waste. A lot of them are sprinkled through the game as special cards, showcased in the art, or featured as quotes throughout the game.

Scope and Scale

Now it was time to flesh out the overall scope of the project.

Initially it was easier for me to start thinking about this as a product before thinking about this as a game. I had the benefit of seeing the previous Adventure Book Games and got a sense for what sort of gameplay they deliver — but more importantly for me at the time, I got to see what came in the box. I had run numbers and budgets for punchboard, cards, dice, and plastic from my time at Fantasy Flight Games, so I looked at all the bits and pieces from the other Adventure Book Games and tried to get a sense of the material costs and limitations.

While we didn’t initially know what we could do, Shanon’s experience helped define what we couldn’t do. She calculated the actual production costs and developed realistic combinations of possible components; if we want X number of cards, we need to cut out Y pieces of cardboard. Settling on components was one of the hardest challenges and was something constantly being tweaked along the way as we understood what each Chapter needed versus what we wanted.

Early Prototyping

More spreadsheets! I cataloged and indexed all the cards, plastic, and pieces from the existing products, then I grabbed a ruler and measured the dimensions of the chapter-spread structure. This let me create a template in InDesign. Now I knew how much room I had for set-up instructions, special chapter rules, the win/loss conditions, chapter challenges, and most importantly, dimensions for each chapter’s “game board”. Finally, I worked up some rough color-coded icons to represent the suggested card suits so that I could quickly create challenge requirements or use them on a board.

With all these structured steps, you might conclude I’m a methodical designer with a plan. Not at all. Sure, I like to start with a little bit of structure, like the chapter templates and component breakdowns, but then I go completely nuts and use whatever is at hand to create prototypes and play around with “what if?” ideas that were discarded as quickly as they were imagined. I used so many colored sticky notes, index cards, notebooks, and whiteboards. I dug through the thousands of components I’ve picked up over the years. Nothing in the basement is safe when I’m making stuff.

I had to focus my enthusiasm when prototyping Chapter One. It is the introduction to the game system for the players. It had to be quickly paced, feature the different gameplay elements, and still provide some sense of challenge. The first chapter was going to focus on Gandalf and the hobbits leaving The Shire and heading to Bree. My first draft looked like this:

I liked the initial idea, but the sense of scale needed to change. Looking at the story beats, I added the hobbits meeting with Aragorn, fighting the Nazgul on Weathertop, and ending with a transition to Rivendell. I wanted to design a feeling of motion. Gameplay naturally moves players from left to right, creating a sense of travel and progression across the chapters. Overall, Chapter One remained pretty close to my original idea.

Armed with confidence after creating a functionally working sample for Chapter One, I moved on to Chapter Two. Ideas came fast and furious. It was difficult to keep up with them all. Chapter Two ended up being the most difficult chapter for me to design, with more than 22 different prototypes developed fully enough to test in Tabletop Simulator. (In the end, I had to keep coming back to Chapter Two even after most of the other chapters were locked in place and started going into layout.)

Early versions of Chapter Two were all over the place. I needed so many index cards and sticky notes to remind myself what all the tiny drawings, pictures, and comments meant.

Prototyping literally kept me up at night. I would be working into the wee hours or wake up in the middle of the night to run downstairs and quickly mock something. Or I would lay in the dark and stare at the ceiling wondering, “Jay, what have you gotten yourself into?”

I had so many different InDesign and Photoshop files open that I forgot to name. Mock-ups were scattered all over my design space. This was drawn on one of my whiteboards:

I have no idea what this meant or what chapter it went with.

Humbled by Chapter Two, I looked at the rest of the line-up and realized it was far too much work for me, especially given our timeline. I told Shanon I was going to need some serious help — but I had the perfect person in mind: Marcus Ross.

A Helping Hand

Marcus: Jay got me up to speed on the scope of the project, and I dove in immediately. I spent the first weekend re-immersing myself with the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies (along with a pen and a notepad). I’d always had a fondness for them, but it had been awhile and I knew I had to up my game for this fandom. Beyond the source material, I just had a lot of catching up to do. I spent the next week getting overly familiar with the prior Adventure Book Games — The Princess Bride and The Wizard of Oz — and rewatching their movies to see how faithfully they had been adapted.

Stepping in at this point in the design process let me leverage Jay’s work ahead on the project’s overall structure, and I got to immediately focus on creating my assigned chapters.

A Vast and Sprawling Tale

Jay: Not only were we designing eight individual game chapters, we were designing a sequential tale that slowly increased in difficulty — and it needed to feel like The Lord of the Rings. While there are a number of differences from the other Adventure Book Games, I wanted to focus on two thematic elements in particular: The One Ring and corruption.

The Power of The One Ring

I wanted to introduce a new suit of wild cards that could be played as any other card type when completing a challenge, with the downside of triggering the corruption mechanism. Early wild card samples featured the Eye of Sauron, and I couldn’t figure out why playtesters weren’t using them despite how powerful they are. Shanon suggested changing the Eye to The One Ring, and this immediately solved the problem. Using The One Ring artwork, the card has exactly the same function as before, but now looks beautiful…and enticing. It’s a fantastic example of how the look, feel, and presentation can completely change a player’s perception of a game mechanism.

We also created custom plot charts for each chapter. These charts help pace the action, introduce random events, and make sure players have to stay on their toes. To increase the value — and lure — of The One Ring cards, we designed a special ability for each chapter that’s shown at the bottom of the plot chart. These powerful effects are another temptation to engage with the corruption mechanism. Playtesters started using The One Ring cards more often, and the unique plot chart ability created design space for Marcus and I to further customize each chapter.

An early mock-up of the corruption track

The Cumulative Curse of Corruption

One of the ways we wanted to help tie all the chapters together and feel like a complete story was to have a consistent mechanical throughline that measured overall group progression, something beyond completing one chapter game after another. Corruption is a persistent presence in The Lord of the Rings, and we wanted to represent it in the gameplay.

In a way, it is a press-your-luck element, which I absolutely love. You can use The One Ring cards as wild cards or to trigger powerful chapter effects at the cost of advancing the group’s marker along the corruption track. Reaching certain spaces on the track triggers a special event from the corruption deck. While all of the repercussions are negative, some are relatively mild while others can be brutal if drawn in the wrong situation.

Final version of the corruption track

Marcus: Our biggest departure from the previous games in the series was the addition of the corruption mechanism and its campaign-wide effects. The puzzles are designed to be beatable, but just barely. Your life would be so much simpler if you were just to use The One Ring’s special powers. It’s so tempting. It’s right there, and somehow its super-powered effect is the perfect thing for the moment.

But if you come to rely on The One Ring, you’ll increasingly suffer consequences up to losing the whole campaign. It’s potentially our widest departure from the source material, but really immerses the players in the weight of their task. You’re faced with holding and managing The One Ring cards to avoid corruption, all while they’re absolutely begging you to use them. We had a ton of fun coming up with specific things The One Ring would do in each chapter, and it ended up being my favorite thing in the whole game.

Project Design Challenges

Co-operative Games

The Adventure Book Game system provided the base framework, but also immediately eliminated a dozen different ideas we couldn’t repeat from the prior games. It’s a very clever system. Every time you turn the page, you get a brand new board, new abilities, and a new set of challenges. Our job was to make sure each chapter stood on its own as a unique experience and progressing through all of them took players on a full Middle-earth journey. Is it too much to say “there and back again”?

We also found an opportunity to address an issue I’d noticed playing solo through the prior games: Truly playing an Adventure Book Game as one player is a much more difficult experience. The number of cards you have access to is far fewer, and since you have only one hand of cards there is no ability to trade. Given the hand limit and the corruption cost of spending The One Ring cards, I knew we had to address it, so for this game, a solo player draws an additional hand of cards strictly for trading. It’s a small tweak for a niche audience, but it’s there and it works.

Family-Friendly Audience

Jay: I’d argue that I’ve never designed a game specifically for the family audience. Some of my games ended up serving that audience, but it wasn’t a specific design goal going into the project. Other than following my instincts and the established Adventure Book Game approach, I relied on the support and feedback from Shanon and Marcus, who both have a lot more experience in this area.

Marcus: All my prior games live in that family-friendly space. The key challenge is choosing mechanisms and integrating them in a way that younger players can honestly be competitive at their ability level, while still making the gameplay engaging for more experienced players. Our floor is ten years old. “Can a fourth-grader (who is into Tolkien) understand and solve this?” is a lens I had to keep in mind when evaluating the puzzles we designed. We definitely skirted that edge in a couple of places, but I’m content with what we delivered.

Compressing the Enormous Scale of Events

Let me deep dive on Chapter Six for a minute: Helm’s Deep. I knew it was super important to nail this chapter in particular because it’s such an iconic scene and arguably still the best battle portrayed on film. I watched the entire sequence at least a dozen times in preparation for the design. I downloaded maps and schematics. I watched the behind-the-scenes documentaries. I stopped when I got to VR reconstructions of the battle. I needed to fully understand the geography of the whole thing: Who went where when and what were they trying to accomplish.

That research led me to one key observation: Helm’s Deep consisted of our heroes having a few moments of triumph, but ultimately performing an increasingly desperate series of retreats deeper into the fortress walls due to the enemy’s overwhelming numbers. Conveying the epic sense of scale of that conflict — having thousands of combatants while working with only a one-page spread — meant that I had to get creative.

First draft

We had to abandon this attack track concept early on

There are so many events and characters in this scene that I wanted to include, but the token budget and board space limitations meant that I couldn’t just throw twenty chits on the board and bash them into each other, so I localized the conflict to our character miniatures, with the advancing army represented by individual orcs facing off against them. Because of how the scene is structured, the battle takes place sequentially over a number of locations.

In this adaptation, if the orc tokens overrun our key players in an area, it represents Saruman’s forces taking complete control, and the battle is lost. I added Haldir and Theoden as helpful spaces on the board to hint at their heroics at the appropriate time and places so that I could include them, while freeing up the chapter’s challenge goals to focus on our main characters’ big moments. I even squeezed in Gandalf’s cliffside cavalry charge right at the end.

Fixed Story Path with Replay Appeal

We aimed to make the game as replayable as the movies are rewatchable. Each time you find something new in the experience to appreciate between the familiar story beats. In particular, the special cards you receive over the campaign are varied and numerous enough that you’ll have to change your approach to completing the chapters each time. The challenges are the same, but the plot chart is constantly putting you on your heels and forcing you to reconsider moves you planned to make just before you would have made them.

Notes on Prototyping

Jay: Throughout the project, I was constantly impressed with the mechanisms and gameplay Marcus designed. We are very good friends with very different approaches to design and prototyping — one of the reasons we worked so well together — and I learned a lot watching Marcus’s chapters come together. Since I talked about my approach earlier, Marcus shares his thoughts.

Marcus: The team and our testers were spread out everywhere, so we primarily used Tabletop Simulator (TTS) to share our chapters in development. I personally don’t trust a lot of the conclusions I could draw from TTS, so I created all my chapters physically on paper and cardboard and played them on my table.

The simulator tends to mask issues around cards: shuffling, management, and in particular visibility. In addition, the time it took to play a chapter in the simulator bore little relation to table time. Since I wanted to replicate our future players’ final experience as closely as I could, I added miniatures from other Rings games and printed every component in development at 1:1 sizes. When I got them to a place good enough for the team to test, I’d scan my components and bring them back into TTS. I lost track of the number of changes, but paper is cheap and I think it was worth the effort.

Very early Chapter Eight

An early version of Chapter Eight

Final version of Chapter Eight

Thanks to the Ravensburger Team

Ravensburger is a fantastic publisher with which to work, and Shanon was one of the most supportive, involved project managers we’ve experienced. The graphic designers and artists did a phenomenal job taking our scribbles, rough drafts, and clutter and turning them into an amazing product. The playtesters were active and engaged, and they provided actionable feedback.

A Final Thought

Jay: I have been very fortunate with the opportunities I have had in my career, but it also took a lot of work and persistence. I constantly second-guess myself and suffer from impostor syndrome like almost every other game designer I know. None of my games would exist if I stopped the first time I told myself I wasn’t good enough. If you love the hobby and love designing games, don’t let the voice in the back of your head stop you!

Jay and Marcus

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