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War of the Ring...and beyond

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jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008

I had the chance to play “War of the Ring” yesterday, and since there has been some discussion of the game here, I thought I’d post some of my impressions. This is in no sense a “review”, since I haven’t played the game nearly enough to consider myself to have a really solid evaluation of the game. My interest in the game stems in part because I have been trying for a couple of years now to sketch out my own ideas for a Lord of the Rings game, and I was wondering whether War of the Ring would put that idea to rest. (for publication purposes, it probably does, but I wasn’t necessarily looking to publish my LotR game anyway...) Happily (from a designer's standpoint), I think that War is deficient in exactly the areas that I hope my game would shore up. But that's not in any way a dig at the game -- it is great, great, great.

First, some obvious stuff. War of the Ring is possibly the most beautiful game I’ve ever seen. The visual presentation, the size and scope of the game, are staggering.

War of the Ring is most definitely a war game. There are some German-style filligrees, but the title of this one is not a misnomer. I would say it’s a war game more in the Risk/Axis and Allies pedigree than in the “tons of cardboard chits/lookup tables/stats/etc” tradition.

I’ll comment briefly on a couple of the aspects of the game that I liked quite a bit. First, the actions you take on your turn are determined by rolling a number of “Action Dice”. This is an interesting take on “restricted action selection”. Some may complain about the randomness associated with such a system, but I like games that restrict what actions you can take and I like the variability in this game specifically. Where I think this system is flawed, though, is that each face of the die permits five or six sub-actions that you can choose between. For example, the “Character” action can be used to: Advance the Fellowship, move all of your “characters”, move an army with a Character or a Leader, initiate combat with an army that contains a Character or Leader, hide the fellowship, or separate a Character from the Fellowship. Whew! To me, the concept of tying the actions to dice is brilliant but the implementation is extremely fiddly. I think it works just fine, but it lacks a certain elegance; pas de probleme for a war game, though.

The kinds of actions you take include mobilizing armies, initiating attacks, playing “Event cards” which have various and sundry effects, mustering troops, and a couple of other things. The “good guy”, in addition to fighting the bad guys, must also advance the Fellowship. Herein lies another very nice system. The “Fellowship” pawn is placed on the board, and represents the last known position of the Fellowship. Then, there’s a track numbered 1-12, and when the Fellowship is moved, this track is incremented. When the Fellowship is “revealed”, the good guy then may move the Fellowship from its last known location to another location as many spaces as the number on the track.

When the fellowship moves (on the track), this triggers “the Hunt”, and Sauron rolls as many dice as he’s allocated in an earlier turn phase (doing so reduces the number of Action Dice he has available to move armies). If he gets a 6, the Hunt succeeds, and Something Bad (TM) happens to the Fellowship -- typically taking “corruption” (very similar to Knizia’s game), or sacrificing a member of the Fellowship, or revealing his location on the board.

The Fellowship wins primarily by dumping the Ring, but there’s also a military option that appears to be quite hard to pull off (and it’s supposed to be). In contrast, Sauron has two ways to win, either by capturing the ring (which really just means the Fellowship reaches 12 on the corruption track) or by capturing enough VPs worth of Fellowship strongholds.

Overall, the game was very fun to play. It’s looong, but I attribute some of that to us not being very familiar with the system. I liked it a lot, and look forward to playing again, but playing didn’t make me want to jettison my own LotR project. For anyone who’s interested on that, I’ll comment on the aspects of the books that I think the game misses, and explain why I think there’s still room for another LotR game in the world...

Books vs games

The main dilemma in translating the books into a game is that we already know what the Fellowship’s strategy is (toss the ring), whereas Sauron in the books did not, and that was precisely why the quest succeeded. “War” basically builds in an assumption that “Sauron doesn’t know what the Fellowship is attempting to do”, but of course the Sauron player does. And there’s even a track that represents movement across Mordor, so it’s pretty clear to Sauron where he stands with respect to his Ring getting tossed. The game gives the Fellowship a military victory scenario that is hard but possible, so this can inject some doubt into Sauron, but not really; it’s pretty obvious (I think) which way the Fellowship is attempting to win.

The crux of the uncertainty in the books is that Sauron thinks they’re going to use the Ring against him. So in that sense, the real question is: where is the ring going? He assumes, to Gondor. In that sense, I think a game that truly gives the “feel” of the books has to include a plausible scenario where the good guys can choose to use the Ring militarily. The obstacles in game terms are defining (a) how the Ring would “work” and (b) how that would affect the bearer. The books make it clear that using the Ring would turn the bearer into Sauron. But, Boromir and Denethor wanted to use it anyway. Probably, there would need to be an “enslavement” mechanic where a player becomes the puppet of the Ring in some sense or other.

Internal conflict

War, by being a 2-player game, loses some of the subtleties of the books. My main complaint of the recent LotR films was that they presented Sauron/Saruman as an “Axis of Evil” when in the books, they were really struggling with one another and that this was the chink in the armor through which the Fellowship succeeded. My game would have Sauron and Saruman as separate players, with incompatible goals. They may, for expedience, want to ally, but in the end, only one can wear the Ring!

Similarly, with the Fellowship, some nice tension game with respect to where the Ring should go; Boromir thought it should go to Gondor, and betrayed the Fellowship because of it. I think that by making the players’ goals asymmetric, this kind of tension will be created in the Fellowship side as well.

The Hunt

“War” does a decent job of modeling the idea that Sauron, by expending effort in the hunt, must allocate dice that he could instead be using to take war actions. There’s also a nice effect whereby the Hunt dice are rerolled if Nazgul are in the space that contains the “last known position” of the Fellowship, the idea being that the fellowship must stay on the move. But beyond that, the model is too passive; the Hunt only occurs when the Fellowship attempts to move. So, if Sauron has allocated five Hunt dice, maybe I won’t move this turn (although I assume that not moving the Fellowship often enough leads to a slam dunk Sauron win...). But the point is, the hunt should be an active process Sauron is engaging in, not a reactive process. Also, the Nazgul in the game are not modeled well. They have unlimited movement, which is good, but their only contribution to the hunt is to allow a hunt die to be rerolled if one or more is in the last position of the Fellowship. In combat, they function as a normal “leader” rather than as a terror that weakens the enemy forces.

I’ve been working on a mechanic for the hunt that would be more active, it would represent Sauron choosing either to hunt or to make war, but not both (which is borrowed from an old game also called “War of the Ring”) and would give an increased roll for the Nazgul, making their primary function hunting down the Ring.

One thing I do like about “War” is that it handles the “secrecy” aspect in a decidely non-fiddly manner. My own solution was probably to use a system like Scotland yard, where the Fellowship would write its position down each turn in secret. “War”’s system for this is very clever.

Corruption

Both “War” and Knizia’s game have modeled “corruption” by the Ring as advancement along a track. It works well in both games, but I favor a model that is based more on "resistance", or "declining willpower”, that I guess would have to be checked against, “saving throw” style, in various circumstances.

Another aspect that neither game has satisfactorily treated, to my mind, is that in the books, the Quest actually failed -- Frodo couldn’t bring himself to toss the Ring. Luckily, Gollum happened to be handy to take the big dive. Both games have abstracted this aspect. I’m not sure how to handle it, quite honestly, but the reality is that the Ring doesn’t let its bearer give it up easily, and at the Cracks of Doom, it will be more difficult than ever, if not impossible. I hope to have some way to model this.

Anyway, that’s a quite long enough ramble for now, I think. Bottom line, after 1 playing, I’m very pleased and impressed with War of the Ring, and can’t wait to play again. But I also think that the things I want to see in a LotR game still don’t exist in board game form yet, so I’ll continue working on my own project, just for fun. Perhaps I’ll put it up in the GDW someday if it ever gets fleshed out!

-Jeff

fanaka66
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Joined: 11/18/2008
War of the Ring...and beyond

Jeff,

As your future opponent (hopefully), I have some more specific questions. How long exactly did your first game go? Which side were you, and how did you do?

How excited was your brother?

-mikep

jwarrend
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Joined: 08/03/2008
War of the Ring...and beyond

fanaka66 wrote:

As your future opponent (hopefully), I have some more specific questions. How long exactly did your first game go?

Actually, we didn't quite finish, but we had played for about 3 hours when we aborted. I think that the first game will always be slow because, despite a fairly simply turn structure, the rules are rather fiddly, so there's a lot to internalize. I don't see how the game could be played in under 2 hours, but I do think that we could have played faster than we did.

Quote:

Which side were you, and how did you do?

I was "good". We were getting pretty clobbered; Rohan had been completely destroyed and Gondor was on its way (I hadn't been able to "activate" Gondor so I couldn't yet muster troops). However, I was having some success in the north, and had Dol Guldur pretty well locked up (with a Nazgul bottled up inside). If I could have taken Moria or Orthanc, I would have won.

However, we had misunderstood an aspect of the rules and thought that our dice were misprinted. Specifically, the Free Peoples' action dice have 2 Character icons; we thought they should have had 1 Character and 1 Army. So, in practice, I was able to be a little more militaristic than I should have.

Quote:

How excited was your brother?

Pretty psyched! As I mentioned to Mike off group, this was a birthday gift for my brother. His birthday was in May, and I had believed at that time that the release date was going to be late May, early June, so we've been waiting for a while. The really good news is that he may have left his copy at my folks' place, so I may have a copy in town for our use. Drop me a note off-group if you want to break it out sometime!

-J

Scurra
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Joined: 09/11/2008
Re: War of the Ring...and beyond

jwarrend wrote:
Another aspect that neither game has satisfactorily treated, to my mind, is that in the books, the Quest actually failed -- Frodo couldn’t bring himself to toss the Ring. Luckily, Gollum happened to be handy to take the big dive. Both games have abstracted this aspect. I’m not sure how to handle it, quite honestly, but the reality is that the Ring doesn’t let its bearer give it up easily, and at the Cracks of Doom, it will be more difficult than ever, if not impossible. I hope to have some way to model this.

I'm glad someone else has noted this: it's the simple counter-argument as to why you couldn't just give the Ring to the Eagles to fly over and drop into the fire...
:-)
FWIW I suspect this will be a game that I shall buy and never get to play.

sedjtroll
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Joined: 07/21/2008
Re: War of the Ring...and beyond

Scurra wrote:
why you couldn't just give the Ring to the Eagles to fly over and drop into the fire...

Heh, I can picture a parody of that, where the eagle gets all corrupted and tries to take over the world, etc.

- Seth

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