Being a fan of Lord of the Rings and a gamer, a War of the Ring game that captures the drama of the epic battles of the late Third Age is something of a holy grail. Of late, though, I’ve come to believe it can’t be done. I’ve long been convinced that despite several attempts, the Pellanor Fields is ungameable at the grand tactical level, except in the sense that you can make a game that simply follows the events of the book, if you wanted to – but whether or not that’s really a game is arguable. You just can’t game the dramatic arrival of the Rohirrim or the facedown between Eowyn and the Witch-King.
The entire War of the Ring has similar problems. The book is a novel, in which things happen for reasons of story and drama, not probability or logic. So at every level you have huge problems. How do you get the Sauron player into the right mindset, how do you put the fear and uncertainty of the Ring into his mind? How do you convey the task of the Fellowship as being appropriately desperate? How to you impart the drama of the climactic events without scripting them into the game, and thus depriving them of the drama you are attempting to capture? How do you incorporate elements of the book without railroading the game down the course of the book? Is it even appropriate to talk about game balance – do you think that when Aragorn, Gandalf, and Elrond embarked on this task, they felt that they had about a 50-50 chance of success?
I’ve seen a number of attempts to do this, from ICE’s facinating but grievously flawed Fellowship of the Ring to SPI’s borderline War of the Ring to the new modestly promising but not groundbreaking War of the Ring from Nexus. None of them has been great – although obviously the jury is still out on Nexus’ effort from the game perspective, as far as conveying the real drama of War of the Ring I’m pretty confident in saying that while it’ll do better than any previous effort, it still isn’t quite there. But who knows, maybe I’ll have to eat my words on that. We’ll find out in a month or two.
One of my friends has been tempted by the challenge, and we do agree on one thing – if there is a system that could possibly serve as the baseline for such a game, Wizard Kings is it. It’s got flexibility, it’s got built-in uncertainty, it’s quite simple, and it’s got the capacity to deliver great flavor. The above-mentioned fundamental obstacles of porting the underlying logic of a novel to the logic of a game still have to be overcome, however. And they aren’t insignificant.