Reiner Knizia

Sophisticated Games

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G@mebox author Doug Adams writes about the game :

Mention a Tolkien themed game, I sit up and take notice. Mention a new Knizia boardgame, and my wallet begins to twitch. Combine the two together, and a new game materializes instantly into the collection. The Hobbit, by Reiner Knizia, is sitting on the shelves and has seen a fair bit of play in the past three weeks. Let's chat about it.

The Hobbit is a boardgame based on the Tolkien novel of the same name. Bilbo Baggins is recruited by Gandalf the Wizard, Thorin Oakenshield, and twelve other dwarves. He accompanies them as their burglar on an expedition to the Lonely Mountain, and has many adventures along the way. In the game, the players are dwarves on the expedition, tagging along behind Bilbo. The dwarves are trying to obtain gems by having adventures during the journey.

The game is packaged in an 11 inch square box. It is handsomely illustrated by John Howe, featuring Bilbo stealing the gold cup from Smaug. The components are good to very good. An attractive three-fold game board features a lovely panorama showing Middle Earth from the Ettenmoors, across the Misty Mountains and Mirkood, and out to the Lonely Mountain. A 70 space movement track spans the game board, beginning at Bag End and ending at Smaug's cave.


The spaces on the game board feature different icons, representing character traits you can gain (or lose) by landing on them - green plants (initiative), foxes (cunning) and fists (strength). There are also spaces where you gain provisions, which are probably some sort of Beorn honey cake, but have been quickly dubbed "toast" in our sessions. Three spaces feature the One Ring icon, where you lose a point of a trait, but gain the hot potato. The spaces are broken up regularly by larger spaces, called Adventure locations. Adventure locations depict major events from the novel - battling the goblins, fighting off the wolves, escaping the elves, and confronting Smaug.

The game also features miniatures of Bilbo and Smaug. Bilbo begins on the game board at Bag End, and is the game clock. He advances down the path towards the adventure spaces. Smaug begins at the Lonely Mountain, and advances up the path towards Laketown.


Five custom six-sided dice are included in the game. They show axes, honey cakes and shields. These are used when resolving adventures.

There is a generous helping of cardboard in the game. Two dozen "Smaug" tiles form a pool of damage chits, drawn when a player fails at an adventure. Fifty provisions chits, featuring the "toast" icon, are also included. A nice One Ring chit is included, used to record who is holding the Ring of Power.

There are five character boards, one for each player, along with some wooden cubes to record character development. The board features three columns that track initiative, cunning and strength during the game. There is also a "pile of gold" column used in a scoring variant.

The game also comes with a nice assortment of coloured plastic gems, which are used to track victory. The colours are irrelevant here, and I can imagine Knizia gnashing his teeth and tinkering with colour combination scoring options - but it's simple, most gems wins the game.

Finally there are two decks of cards. First there is a 60 card deck of illustrated Dwarf cards, numbered 1 to 60. The illustrations are headshots of the thirteen dwarves taken from John Howe's "An Unexpected Party". The other deck is the 69 card event and adventure deck, which is broken down into 4 smaller decks numbered 1 to 4. These decks represent travelling to the next adventure location, and the adventures that occur there. They are attractive to look at and each features a passage of descriptive text from the novel.

This is a very straightforward game. The rules are four pages long, however the first page is a synopsis of The Hobbit novel, the second is components and setup, leaving only two pages of actual game rules to absorb. The players in the game each take on the role of one of the thirteen dwarves accompanying Thorin and Bilbo to The Lonely Mountain to recover the treasure from Smaug. We don't get to play Gloin or Bombur, we're just dwarves – pity, it may have been nice to latch onto a character from the novel. Players each receive five dwarf cards, three provisions and the game is ready to begin.

The "1" event deck is shuffled, and the first card is revealed and resolved. Then the second card, third, fourth, and so on. This is repeated until the Bilbo figure reaches the first adventure location - Battle the Goblins. What is on these event cards? There are three different kinds - Gifts, Abilities, and Travel cards.


Gift cards grant each dwarf some benefit, such as a gain a point in a specific attribute, or pay something to receive something else. An example is "The Troll's Cache", where each player has the option to pay two provisions to receive a point of cunning. Each player exercises their option and play moves onto the next event card.

Ability cards are awarded to one dwarf. Players secretly play then reveal one of their dwarf cards, and the highest or lowest (the ability cards specifies which) wins the ability. Abilities are one shot "break the rules" cards used during adventures, and are nice to have. An example is "Elrond's Council" which allows a die roll result to be doubled in value.

Travel cards are the most common event card, and are what drives Bilbo along the spaces on the game board. When travel cards are resolved, all the dwarf players secretly play then reveal a dwarf card, which are then resolved in ascending order. When resolving the cards, each player moves Bilbo one space and receives the reward or penalty of the space entered. This typically gain one or two attribute points in initiative, cunning or strength. You also can gain provisions, or lose attribute points. There are also three One Ring spaces, which cost an attribute point but give you the Ring. Players quickly realise they are in a battle of bluff and hand management, trying to anticipate what spaces the others want to hit and play their cards accordingly. The only guarantees are cards 1 and 60, although if you're a card counter you will have a distinct advantage here.

Let uss play an example. It is a three player game, and Bilbo is on space 6 on the game track - a double strength space near Rivendell. We're about to climb the Misty Mountains. A travel card is drawn so we scan the board. Bilbo is going to move three spaces (the number of players) and the next three spaces are two initiative, three honey cakes, one strength. I'm feeling rather muscular so don't want to waste a precious Bilbo movement hitting the one strength space, so decide to play a low card ... my thinking is I don't mind if it's initiative or honey cakes, just not strength. I've seen cards 3 and 4, and I'm holding 2, so if I play that I'm guaranteed one of those two spaces. Still early days so I don't want to waste it now. I'll play sneakily safe and drop 12 on the table - should be low enough. Fili and Bombur play their cards and we reveal - Fili has played 8 and Bombur 32. Fili picks up two initiative, Dwarven Doug gets three honey cakes, and Bombur earns the one strength. Bilbo is now half way up the mountain.

Bilbo will eventually reach the four adventure locations on the game board. Any remaining travel cards from that deck are discarded, and the corresponding adventure deck is worked through. Adventure cards all follow the same pattern - they have a title and some text from the novel ("Dodge loose boulders ... Boulders, too, at times came galloping down the mountain sides..."), a requirement and a reward if the requirement is met. Adventures ramp up in difficulty during the game, forcing players to keep developing their character so they are in with a chance later in the game.


The player with the highest initiative level resolves the first treasure card ... it is flipped up, examined and either attempted or deemed too difficult and passed onto the next player. If attempted, the five dice are rolled to see if the requirement on the card was met ... say one shield and three provisions. If not, there are four ways to supplement the die roll:

  • bonus symbols that have been obtained via character development on your player board.
  • ability cards may be discarded to provide some benefit towards the requirement.
  • your cunning level on your player board may allow you to reroll some of your initial dice.
  • the One Ring allows you to flip one die to any other result - handy!

If you succeed, you take the corresponding number of gems as indicated on the adventure card. If you fail, then you have to draw a dragon tile and take the damage indicated. Damage can include loss of attribute points or provisions, or having Smaug moving down the game board towards Laketown. The decision to go for a treasure and risk failure and damage, or pass it onto the next player, can be tricky and adds a nice little niggle of agony and doubt to the game. If everyone passes on a treasure, it is discarded and Smaug advances towards Laketown.

Let's work through another example... it is late in the game and we are resolving the last adventure cards at the Lonely Mountain. I have flipped up "Charge The Bodyguard Of Bolg". It is a toughie - it requires 12 Axe symbols, but will grant five gems towards victory, so I can't dismiss it lightly. My character sheet shows I have 3 axes, 3 re-rolls, and I have the Sting Ability card that turns all single axe die results into doubles. I am three gems behind Bombur who is next to play. If I pass on this one, Bombur make succeed and draw further ahead. I reach for the dice and roll ...

Honey Cake - Axe - Axe - Double Axe - Shield.

Hmm, I have a total of 7 Axes now, or 9 if I cash in my Sting Ability card. I reroll the Honey Cake and Shield and an Axe and now have ...

Double Axe - Double Axe - Axe - Axe - Honey Cake

This is 9 axes in total, or 11 if I turn in my Ability card. Not good enough, I fail and take a Smaug tile for damage. Bombur, the large one, is next in line to attack Bolg and easily succeeds to claim five treasures and an Arkenstone or two.

Now let's imagine I had the One Ring ... this would allow me to change one die in the final result to any other result. If I flip Honey Cake to Axe, and use Sting to turn my three Axe results into Double Axe, I now have 13 Axes and have succeeded.

The game ends in one of two ways. First, if the final adventure card in deck four is resolved, the game is over. Second, if Smaug advances into Laketown, the game ends immediately. In either case, the player who has claimed the most gems from adventures wins the game.

I've played the game six times now and it's really grown on me. It’s one of these classic 45 minute games Knizia does so well. The first game was a learning experience and I found it a little lacking, however every game since then has improved and, while still at the lighter end of the scale, you do have to assess your options and weigh your opponents intentions. You'll be asking yourself questions such as what does my character need? What do they need? What card can I get away with playing - do I junk a card here to build a better hand now? Do you keep your good cards for the useful Abilities when, or even if, they appear? Keeping track of the low and high cards is a great idea ... knowing 1-5 and 55-60 have been played is very handy to know going deep into the game.

Adventures can test your mettle - do you play it safe and pass it on to the next player, or take a risk and hope for a lucky result. Re-rolls, built up with the cunning characteristic, and are very handy to have. There are several factors to take in - odds of success vs. your position in the game. You may even want to lose an adventure! If Smaug is one space away from Laketown and you're leading, a controlled tank on a die roll may give you the game!

Knizia games tend to be recognisable from earlier incarnations. It's a little difficult to follow the family tree to get to The Hobbit. Superficially it looks like Beowulf - same artist (even down to fox and fist icons), step path game board, and so on. Mechanically it's trickier - the playing of cards to move seems a little like Marco Polo, but feels in game play more like 6 Nimmt! Resolving the adventures, we almost descend into a game of Risk Express with a whiff of Clash of the Gladiators!

The rules also provide several variants that can be easily integrated into the game. Knizia loves balance, so we get a Euphrates & Tigris/Ingenious variant where you score bonus gems based on your lowest characteristic at the end of the game – forcing you to keep them at even levels to score well. notherd variant is starting your character development on a lower setting - I can tell you from experience this makes the game much more difficult, and is thoroughly recommended aftera learning game or two. There is also is a semi-cooperative variant, where everyone loses if Smaug sacks Laketown. The rules also recommend a handicapping version, for playing with children, where they begin with their attributes higher on their player mats.

Any problems with the game? Not many, really. The English rules have an error in them, indicating the Adventure cards are placed on top of the Event cards. We were also unclear exactly where Laketown was when Smaug was moving, but assumed Smaug enters the Laketown space simply because his miniature base is the same size and shape as the Laketown space! I assume some gamers will be disappointed that because Fantasy Flight Games have picked it up, there is no 40 page rulebook in the box.


The Hobbit is a great little game, perfect for families. It also makes a nice 45 minute super-filler for gamers who want an appetiser before playing something deeper. Components are attractive, the rules are so straightforward that Grandma can be playing in five minutes, and there are plenty of laughs and groans as the dice come out at adventure time. Recommended for families, and gamers who want something light and fun.

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Copyright © 2011 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany