War of the Ring

Here are some more random thoughts on War of the Ring, after one more play. As you will soon find out, my opinion is still not quite settled, so this takes the form of impressions rather than an actual (p)review.

After my Origins pre-release play, I had more or less decided not to acquire War of the Ring when it came out. I didn’t anticipate it being bad, but I thought I might let someone else step up for the risk this time. But it blindsided me. I wasn’t expecting it to be in, but there it was on the shelves at my local game shop. I had a discount coupon. And, apparently, less willpower than one might hope when it comes to games. With a rationalization along the lines of “get, there’ll be plenty of demand on the secondary market”, I brought it home. And had a chance to play the very next day.

So, which rules did the Origins demo guy screw up (there’s always something, usually major)? Turns out, only one. We had been playing that subsequent moves in a turn by the Fellowship grant the Shadow player an extra die roll when rolling to hunt, but the reality is that it is instead a +1 to all the dice. This does not alter the feel of the game that much (the Fellowship’s trek to Mordor is very abstract and little more than a clock, and with the usual small numbers of dice the statistics aren’t that different), but it does make moving more than once or twice in a turn rather difficult.

I played the Free Peoples, Carl played the Shadow. I took a “run straight for Mordor” strategy, with only Gandalf leaving the Fellowship for Edoras once Moria had been crossed – everyone else stayed with the Ringbearer as he barrelled towards Mount Doom. Sauron’s first army of Orcs was hacked up a bit on the gates of Minas Tirith, but the second wave cleaned out the defenders nicely. Saruman had a hard time getting going; the first Siege of Helm’s Deep was thrown back, but the Second Siege was more successful, overrunning the defenders. After Minas Tirith fell, the Mordorians were too mauled to take on Dol Amroth, so Carl had to spend a few actions bringing the Southrons into play and making the long, painful trek from Far Harad. They then crushed the Knights of the Prince in short order. While tidying up the conquest of Gondor and Rohan, forces were being built up in Moria and Dol Guldor for the final battle at Lothlorien.

Meanwhile, the Fellowship gets to the Dead Marshes more or less intact. Then, companions start falling. Boromir tries to sieze the Ring, so Aragorn slices him up. Aragorn then considers heading south to Dol Amroth to be crowned King (and receive an extra action die), but thinks better of it when he counts out the regions and the size of the Southron army investing the city. He then turns around and is killed thirty seconds later. Merry and Pippin get to Minas Morgul before thinking to themselves “you know, I think we made a mistake in leaving the Shire”, whereupon they set up camp there and refuse to enter Mordor. So Frodo, Sam, Legolas and Gimli embark upon the final trek. Gimli gets whacked first. Then Legolas buys it. As the battle for Lothlorien begins, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are crawling up the slopes of Mount Doom.

The force pool of the Galahdrim defenders is somewhat odd. All the armies have elite and regular units. Elite units, when hit, are degraded to regulars. However, there are counter limits, and alone among the significant powers, the Elves have a preponderance of elite units … which leaves them few regulars to replace a hit elite. I was defending Lothlorian with 5 elites, which should theoretically mean I could take 5 hits before losing a die in combat. However, there was only one regular available in the mix at the time (I had made the mistake of mustering a few regulars earlier in the game), so that meant every two hits lost me a die (I should say, the rules are silent on exactly what happens if a replacement regular is lacking in either the reserve or deadpile when one is required; we played the elite was simply eliminated). This felt rather awkward, but I guess once you realize it it’s just another part of the game.

So Lothlorien was overrun as on the last turn of the game, I rolled no character actions to push the Fellowship, and so could only watch helplessly as the Golden Wood acquired a new landlord. Hard luck, but a very closely-run affair – I likely would have won in the next two Free People’s impulses. I also felt I made a number of mistakes in the game. For the Fellowship player, spending actions on the Northerners or Dwarves (or even the Elves) seems a waste unless the Shadow Player is negligent, or unless you are really going to go for the good guy Military Victory. I also never got Aragorn’s bonus die into play, which is obviously a big deal – I think getting both bonus Free Peoples dice is critical to success. And the Shadow player had a card which allowed him to cycle event cards which I was much too slow in eliminating, as I had badly miscalculated how much longer the game would go; when Frodo got to Mordor, I was in excellent shape, but the final leg of the trek is fairly tough, and my character actions dried up.

When I wrote about this game before, I said it was somewhere between a 4 and an 8. I think we can now safely narrow it down to something in the neighborhood of a 7, with some potential to move up or down a point. It’s definitely an interesting game – you’ve got interesting choices, the cards are somewhat flavorful even if not terrific, and the dice are a neat twist. Credit where credit is due, I think this is a successful remix of the We The People format, made a bit more straightforward for a broader audience. Managing fairly powerful action cards and spending limited activations wisely is key to the game, so it gives a very similar feel, albeit without quite the depth of those serious-gamer classics. The action cards are not quite as varied, and many actions are usually fairly obvious, so it seems to never quite rises to the level of real nail-grinding tension you get in those games sometimes. But it’s still good.

As I noted in my Origins writeup, I still think it feels fundamentally a bit abstract, again in a sort of Paths of Glory kind of way. While the good guys are busy in the south, the Dwarves are glued to their chairs; the strategy dice which drive the game (like the cards in Paths of Glory) are not actually grounded in anything rational, they’re just a game device designed to force you into arguably somewhat arbitrary tough choices. The whole Fellowship track is a useful device, but the rules for it are somewhat klunky (the least successful aspect of the game, in my opinion), and it is very abstract, really little different from The Queen’s Gambit’s Anakin track. Otherwise, there is flavor in the game, it’s nice, but it’s more euro-style “themeing” than it is really visceral in classic American games like Dune, Repulic of Rome, Hannibal, or Rommel in the Desert. And I fear the game may be a little long for the content. You spend a bit more time than would seem ideal moving up reinforcing armies, fiddling the political track, and trekking towards the enemy – activities that just aren’t very interesting.

Ultimately, I think, this game has been done a disservice by the raving hype on BoardGameGeek. Why? Because War of the Ring is definitely a good game. It’s professional (with one huge, glaring, exception that I am coming to), it’s well-executed, it’s got decent balance and good turn angst, interesting decisions to make, and solid flavor even if the theme doesn’t run very deep. It’s comparatively simple enough to be exciting. But in my opinion it just never had a chance to live up to the excessive pre-release pumping it’s been getting from the playtesters. It’s not a game that generates a “wow, this is awesome!”. It’s more of a “that was fun, I’d definitely play it again” kind of game, but with significant nervousness about mid-to-long-term replayability. So a 7, that might flip up to an 8 (if it holds on well) or down to a 6 (if it doesn’t).

Ultimately, the bottom line is, I enjoyed the game. I’m not unhappy with my purchase.

I have, until now, glossed over War of the Ring’s one major weakness, because ultimately I don’t think it will be that big a purchasing decision point to most people. Except perhaps for those with poor eyesight, for whom War of the Ring may be unplayable. War of the Ring is an impressive-looking game. But …

Cities, towns, and forifications on the board are virtually indistinguishable, if they are visible at all through the crowd of units in an area. Since you are always packing huge armies into tiny areas – most critical areas can only hold maybe 3 small figures or one large one, out of the 10 or so the Shadow Player is usually pushing around – critical impassible terrain boundries are almost always completely obscured. Both Carl and I were hosed by mountains we couldn’t even see. The Nazgul pieces, while impressive-looking, are huge – especially given the tiny areas – and very hard to use. The choices of icons to use often seems questionable (the “stop movement” icon, for example, is a sword, circled and with a slash through it. What’s wrong with the universal “stop” sign? You end up thinking, “well, this colored splotch means one thing, …”). The font size on the action cards is tiny and difficult to read at any distance. In many cases, the game uses intricate designs that are very hard to distinguish until you know what you are looking for – the nation counters on the political track, the elite Free Peoples units (you almost have to get in there and check out the heraldry on their tiny shields).

While these are all problems of varying degrees of irritation, I think the killer is going to be the bit with the inadequate mountain terrain symbols, and the unusably small play areas in many areas of the map (like, Gondor and Rohan).

I don’t want to end on a sour note, because I think most people who are interested in this game will work around these problems adequately, and so I don’t judge them to be seriously compromising, and under them is a game that is pretty interesting. But they are nonetheless somewhat galling, and this sort of thing drives some people berserk, so you have been warned.

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