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[Review] War of the Ring

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

Some games get unbelievable hype before they come out, especially if they are about a popular subject or theme. War of the Ring (Fantasy Flight Games and Nexus Games, 2004 - Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, Francesco Neptello) got more hype than any game in recent memory. Playtesters howled its praises; and once the game came out, it slowly grew in popularity until it reached its current spot of #3 on the top rated games at www.boardgamegeek.com, with over 100 people giving it the perfect “10” rating. I was intrigued, not just because I was a fan of the books and movies, but because of the massive amount of plastic pieces that came in the box. The game just exuded the “cool” factor, and I was eager to get my hands on a copy.

Now that I have a copy, I can state that the hype was not unjustified. While not a “10”, I rate the game a “9.5” as it’s near perfect. The theme is evident throughout the game, and the designers have managed to present us with a fair, balanced, fun game. As of this writing, there are at least fifteen reviews on the internet, so I’m not going to focus on rules of this game (all twenty-three pages of them). Instead, you can find out the details of the game from another review - I’ll just focus on my thoughts of the game...

1.) Miniatures: My, how Fantasy Flight Games just keeps getting better. From no miniatures in Twilight Imperium I, to the terrible plastic miniatures in Twilight Imperium II, to the marvelous, soft plastic miniatures in this game, the amount of miniatures is staggering, rivaling that of an Eagle game; and the detail on them is very well done. If you head to the internet, you’ll find tons of articles and pictures detailing how to paint them. I’m afraid that my skills are sorely lacking in this regard, but that doesn’t sadden me; because even in their unpainted form, the miniatures still look great on the board. The game provides counters to use if the miniatures crowd up too much room on the board, but I’ve only used them in one situation; because the miniatures provide such a wonderful visual of how the game is progressing.

2.) Dice: I have found the dice system absolutely incredible. From the dark side having an overwhelming amount of dice, showing their sheer physical dominance, to the makeup of the dice the light side has more versatility but has a harder time getting their armies to move. Having the Dark side sacrifice a number of their dice to put them in the “Hunt for the Ring” box is very thematic. Yes, as Sauron you want that ring; but if you waste too many resources chasing it, you won’t put enough pressure on the good forces. Meanwhile, the Light side must agonizingly decide just how many dice to devote to moving the Ring and how many to move those crucial companions.

3.) Companions and Minions: I seriously think that in a game, the less experienced player should play the Dark Side. This is because while the evil player certainly has a lot of decisions to make, they aren’t as difficult as the forces of good. Hardest of these decisions are the companions. Leaving a lot of companions with the party means that the hobbits are less susceptible to the ring and helps absorb damage from the dark side. At the same time, keeping too many companions allows the Shadow to send greater hunting parties, and sending the companions away from the party can crucially help the light side - especially Gandalf and Strider, as they can “morph” into their more powerful counterparts. The extra dice they provide are SO crucial to the Free People. Knowing where to send the companions (should Gimli activate the dwarven nation?) is crucial, but the choice to split them off from the party is agonizing. This doesn’t belittle the Evil Player’s choice of when to reveal the Witch King. Sure, the guy is massively powerful, but he activates all the good nations. Reveal him too early, and you hurt yourself. Reveal him too late, and he doesn’t do much good.

4.) Political System: This is another tremendous mechanic. I really enjoy how the Dwarves and northern armies are basically out of the game, unless the Light player goes to extreme ends to get them involved. The Shadow player has crucial decisions in the beginning of the game. Does he attack Gondor, Rohan, or both? It’s probably best to only attack one nation, as the chance of the Free People spending precious actions to get the other in the war is fairly small. Yet unless Gondor and Rohan unite, they will be eventually swept away in a tide of Orcs. If the Shadow player refrains from attacking too many players, they can keep some of the nations out of war for a good part of the game, tying up many crucial units. At the same time, it would be useful if the Free People could get the Elves into battle quickly, in order to allow their strong forces to stem the flood of evil. As the Free People player, it can be frustrating (true to theme) that they have so many pieces on the board yet can only use a fraction of them. I love the thematic flavor of this (even while complaining about it during the game.)

5.) Chit Pool: More games should involve a chit pool - Air Barons does it, as well as a few other games, and it just makes things a little more exciting than merely rolling the die. The fact that each player can add tiles both helpful and destructive to the pool makes the Hunt for the Ring that much more interesting.

6.) Hunt for the Ring: This is a huge part of the game, as the Free People’s only real viable strategy is to get that ring into Mount Doom. Sometimes the good guys can get so caught up in defending their bases (and it really cannot be ignored) that the ring can sit still; but it must keep moving, or all is lost! The hidden movement track is a unique mechanic that allows players to not have to spend precious time tracking where the hobbits are moving via pencil and paper. It also allows the good guys to have a bit more leeway as to where they send the hobbits. True to the book - going over the mountains at the beginning is easier but longer, while going through Moria is quick and deadly. The Shadow player can divert Nazgul to hunt for the ring; but their use in battle is extreme, and shifting them away can cause some of his battles to drag on longer than they should.

7.) Cards: The cards allow the game to have more thematic flavor than a simple war game would, introducing elements like the Ents, Shelob, Tom Bombadil, to the game, where miniatures for these folk would have just gotten too cumbersome. The card’s usage accurately reflects the theme of the book, in my opinion, and playing the right card at the right time can drastically effect the game. The cards also have a dual-use, where players can use them in battle. This causes a player to choose between the usefulness of the card as an event, or the help it would do them in battle. My only complaint about the game actually comes from the cards. A player who has played the game has a leg up on those who haven’t, simply due to the knowledge of what’s on the cards. For example, if a Shadow player doesn’t know anything about the Ent cards, they might leave Saruman undefended, assuming that the Light forces are too weak to break through. The Ent cards could then wipe out Saruman, hurting the Dark player considerably. If I’m the Shadow player, however, I know these cards exist and will make sure that Saruman is NEVER left undefended. This probably means that the first game of any player is going to be a learning game.

8.) Battles: The battle system, while interesting, isn’t anything spectacular, but it works. It allows for a maximum of five dice to be rolled at a time, and the leaders play a powerful role. At the same time, the siege system is much more interesting. It allows the Free People to hole up in a secure spot but forces them to just sit there, taking hits until they are wiped out or rescued (highly unlikely).

9.) Victory Conditions: The game is like a complicated race. The Shadow is racing to destroy as many Light Strongholds as they can, while the Light side is struggling to get the Ring in Mount Doom. The Light side military victory (while non-thematic) is practically impossible, but they must do their best with their forces to tie up the Shadow player as long as possible. It’s all a race with that accursed ring!

10.) Rules: The rulebook is very detailed and long; but after a careful reading or two, the game is fairly simple. At the same time, the game does take a while to explain; even when I explained it the third time to a group, it still took me twenty to thirty minutes before they had a general idea of what was going on. There are PILES of helpful downloads on the internet; and I recommend finding a good one, because you will find yourself referencing it a lot. Everything on the board is fairly clear; but some things like the symbols on the tokens on the political track aren’t labeled, and only a Tolkien fanatic would know what they stood for.

11.) Artwork: A quick note on the artwork - it’s beautiful and very true to the spirit of the books. From the hefty box, to the rulebook, to the huge game board, to the little tokens - everything looks and feels Tolkien.

12.) Fun Factor and Time: The game is a LOT of fun, especially if you’re a Tolkien fan. Games come down to the wire; one of my games ended as the hobbits teetered on the edge of Mount Doom about to cast the ring in. The game is lengthy, running three to four hours; but it’s an involving game, and watching the events unfold is interesting. The game follows the general path of the book, but there’s enough deviation for the replayability factor to be high. It’s a tremendous two-player game (works well with four) and satisfies even a war-game hater like me.

If you like Tolkien, light war games, or just good games in general, then this is one for you. Yes, it’s long and fairly complicated, but the experiences it will provide are worth it. I know it’s not for everyone; many folk who prefer light, fluffy games will be overwhelmed by this heavy, heavy game. Yet if you have any interest at all, pick it up; it certainly will provide one with enough fantasy war to last a long time. This, in my opinion, is the definitive Lord of the Rings game. Knizia’s is fun and interesting; but to get the full experience of the books, look no further - the superlative game has arrived.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”
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jwarrend
Offline
Joined: 08/03/2008
[Review] War of the Ring

Tom,

Thanks for sharing your WotR review with us. A few comments...

Quote:

2.) Dice: I have found the dice system absolutely incredible. From the dark side having an overwhelming amount of dice, showing their sheer physical dominance, to the makeup of the dice the light side has more versatility but has a harder time getting their armies to move.

I agree that the makeup of the dice is very clever. In particular, the light side dice each have 2 “character” icons and NO “army” icons. When we first played, we were pretty sure that our dice were misprinted. But it turns out that this is intentional, and it actually works very well at creating an asymmetry between the two sides.

Quote:

Having the Dark side sacrifice a number of their dice to put them in the “Hunt for the Ring” box is very thematic.

I think it’s thematic, and it works well, but the entire hunt mechanic feels too passive to me. The idea seems to be that if the good guys just “hunker down”, Sauron can’t catch them. You get the exact opposite idea from the books. I feel that a LotR game should have Sauron able to do something active to search, rather than to just set the risk factor that the good player will face should he decide to move.

Quote:

4.) Political System: This is another tremendous mechanic. I really enjoy how the Dwarves and northern armies are basically out of the game, unless the Light player goes to extreme ends to get them involved.

I think it works thematically, but it feels to me like a lot of wasted plastic and wasted board space. The biggest areas of the board are the ones that will likely see no action in 95% of the games, whereas the space alloted to Rohan and Gondor is barely enough to fit the huge armies that will frequently occupy those spaces. The huge board is visually very pleasing, but it’s not nearly as functional as it could be.

Quote:
The hidden movement track is a unique mechanic that allows players to not have to spend precious time tracking where the hobbits are moving via pencil and paper.

I agree; this is a fantastic solution for the Fellowship’s movement, very creative.

Quote:

9.) Victory Conditions: The game is like a complicated race. The Shadow is racing to destroy as many Light Strongholds as they can, while the Light side is struggling to get the Ring in Mount Doom. The Light side military victory (while non-thematic) is practically impossible, but they must do their best with their forces to tie up the Shadow player as long as possible. It’s all a race with that accursed ring!

Something about the victory condition left me a little flat in my most recent playing of the game. I was the good side, and was in pretty good shape mid- to late in the game. The dark side was mounting an offensive on Lorien and Rivendell, and my response was to do precisely -- nothing. Those two strongholds would only have given him 4 of the needed 10 VPs, and it was just more efficient for me to keep pursuing my strategy rather than try to save the elves. It just didn’t feel right thematically.

I suppose you could argue that some nations are making “the ultimate sacrifice” to further the quest, but really, I didn’t feel any agony at all. I think it might have been better if the strongholds -- Lorien, Rivendell, Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, etc -- each have some intrinsic value to you that, if you lose them, you lose some ability or power. Eg, if you lose Lorien, you can’t use Galadriel’s ring any more. Or maybe you get some sort of resource each turn based on how many of your “home bases” you still control. It seems like it would make preservation more important.

Quote:

Rules: The rulebook is very detailed and long; but after a careful reading or two, the game is fairly simple.

It’s a simple game conceptually, but there are a TON of fiddly rules, and the rulebook does an abysmal job of explaining them. I think the game works well, but it’s not terribly elegant.

Quote:
Everything on the board is fairly clear; but some things like the symbols on the tokens on the political track aren’t labeled, and only a Tolkien fanatic would know what they stood for.

My problem with the symbols wasn’t that they weren’t intuitive, but that they’re so stylized it’s hard to see what they’re supposed to be. The eye is simple enough, but the White Hand and the Lonely Mountain require very close inspection to see what they are.

Quote:
This, in my opinion, is the definitive Lord of the Rings game. Knizia’s is fun and interesting; but to get the full experience of the books, look no further - the superlative game has arrived.

I do agree that the game is great, and while I don’t like it as much as Knizia’s games (LotR and LotR: the Confrontation), I agree that it is bigger in scope and more satisfying. However, I still believe there’s room for a game that does an even better job of evoking the books. For me, the defincies are:

The Hunt should be active, not passive. Mentioned above; Sauron should be able to proactively seek the Ring, but doing so should reduce his ability to militarize. The game handles the latter well.

There should be more big battles and fewer skirmishes. It seems like most of the battles that take place in the game are small-scale skirmishes, and staging a big battle of the scope of Helm’s Deep or the siege of Minas Tirith is basically impossible. I’d like a game that had only a few battles during the game, but they were big ones.

Saruman and Sauron are not true allies. The whole reason the quest worked was because it slipped through the cracks in the Saruman/Sauron alliance. If Saruman really was working with Sauron collaboratively, game-set-match bad guys. Saruman and Sauron should be separate players with separate, opposed, goals.

Frodo shouldn’t be able to give the ring up so easily Both LotR and WotR abstract this, and it’s probably hard not to. I think the point is that from “the Shadows of the Past” in the Fellowship of the Ring, you already know that the quest is going to fail -- Frodo is not going to be able to give up the Ring at the end. Yet, it’s still the good guys’ best hope. I think that having an ending scenario that recognizes this, yet still makes victory possible, will basically be impossible to design, but man, it would be sweet.

There are a few other things, but suffice it to say, for me, this is a great, fun game, but it isn’t (I hope) the last Lord of the Rings game that will ever get made or the last that you’d ever need. There’s still room for an even more thematic game, in my opinion...

-J

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