Lord of the Rings: Nazgul Autopsy

Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is Wizkids’ latest boardgame foray into licensed property, after last year’s excellent but badly produced Star Trek: Expeditions. In Lord of the Rings: Nazgul, the players play Sauron’s most notorious servants, fighting the Free Peoples and killing their heroes, all the while angling to become the Top Nazgul. The box says the game is “semi-cooperative”, but make no mistake – like Republic of Rome, there can be only one winner, whether it be one of the players or the game system. All of which sounds intriguing, but the game is an epic fail. It’s not clear what exactly the game is trying to say, it executes badly on its murky vision, it’s not faithful to its source material, it’s boring, and it’s ugly.

In games everything flows from system design, so that’s the easiest thing to look at first. The game takes the view that from the Dark Lord’s perspective, everything is a battle. So far it’s a promising premise. There are three simultaneous series of campaigns: against the Rohirrim, against Gondor, and against the Ringbearer (where the metaphor starts to break down, but never mind). In pursuit of these goals, it turns out that Ringwraiths are the striving middle managers of Middle Earth, building up their departmental fiefdoms with teams of Orcs, Trolls, Mumaks, and other various and sundry resources which they then decide how they wish to commit to the Gantt charts of conquest in service of their personal promotion opportunities.

This brings us to the one clever bit in the game, the battle cup. Once a Ringwraith has chosen which battle to commit himself to, he decides how many of his resources he wishes to risk. They throw a cube in the cup for each (red for Mumak, green for Trolls, and black for Orcs, plus a special Nazgul cube to represent themselves). The game system decides how many Free Peoples to throw in – blue for soldiers and white for heroes. Additionally, the hero cubes are assigned an identity from a deck of 60 named heroes. Sometimes you get the vaunted Aragorn or Gandalf which will mean dizzying special powers, pain, and continued undeath for your troubles; sometimes you get the decidedly less fearsome Gondorian Captain. There doesn’t seem to be much thematic rhyme or reason to how this happens, and the systems are very confusing, so let’s not dwell on it and move on. Once the forces are arrayed, the contents of the cup is settled and fixed. Each Nazgul can then in turn pick cubes (usually 2-4) from the mix based on his tactics rating. Picked cubes do damage to the other side (so if you pick a blue Gondorian foot soldier cube, the Nazgul forces suffer one point of damage; if you pick a special Nazgul cube, you do damage to the good guys equal to your current attack rating). Sometimes you can redraw if you have the right power card. Then, you throw the cubes back in and the next player repeats the process.

While there is a truly unwieldy amount of chrome welded on top of it, this is the core idea of the game, and the only real resolution mechanism it has. So what kinds of player decisions does it drive? Since Lord of the Rings: Nazgul is a “semi-cooperative” game, the game system itself is a player. At the level of each battle, the Nazgul players want to win the battle (which grants some VPs to everyone and serves to defeat the game system) and want to kill heroes (which are a more significant source of personal VPs, and your only lever against the other Nazgul present). So, you win the battle by drawing enough friendly cubes to inflict enough damage to wipe out all the defending heroes and soldiers. That damage is absorbed in strict priority order: first the walls, second the soldiers, lastly the heroes from weakest to strongest. So the only real opportunity you have is to be the person who inflicts the right damage at exactly the right time to wipe out heroes. Too early, and you kill soldier blocks, which personally gets you nothing. Too late, and there is nothing left, or only heroes too powerful to kill. Given the inherently chaotic way in which heroes appear and cubes are drawn, this is an extremely tenuous and oblique idea on which to base a game.

Still, at least it’s simple and not too hard to grasp. Throwing cubes into the cup alters the mix is a straightforward way with some subtle implications, and there are a few – not many, but a few – choices in how to go about it. The problem comes in the truly vast infrastructure that is built on top of this. Every turn there are 7 distinct secret-and-simultaneous bids in which your Nazgul fills out his department by adding troops, getting actions cards, calling on the aid of the Witch King, altering turn order, leveling himself up (this is a WizKids game, so it’s got clix figures in it whether it needs them or not – so your Nazgul’s capabilities change over the course of the game), and so on. Every turn a number of side quests pop up with various benefits and costs – often reinforcements that you have to intercept or they will add to the difficulty of a plot line. There are various mechanics for giving the players some control over committing Free Peoples Heroes to battle that are somewhat opaque. All this is far more chrome than the underlying game mechanisms can accept. At the end of the day we’re just choosing a quest to tackle, then adding cubes to a cup and drawing them out. The number of cubes and number of draws rarely gets that large – a truly gargantuan battle might see 25 cubes in the cup with 5 draws of 3 or 4 cubes, but the players have huge incentives to make sure that never happens. More normal, once the game picks up some tempo, is 8-12 cubes with 3 draws of 3. This just isn’t a very large canvas on which to paint. All the stuff on the table weighs the game down with baroque details – especially since the font sizes are again ridiculously small so you can’t actually see anything – without making it interesting or thematic. It’s just tediously repetitive.

The real killer though is that not only is the game boring, it does real violence to the story it is trying to tell, or at least the one it is theoretically based on. The Nazgul were Sauron’s executioners. They did his bidding, killing his enemies, leading his armies, even doing his diplomacy. They were slaves to his will. They didn’t try to undermine each other with inter-office petty politics. Roman senators, yes. American senators, yes. Nazgul, no. When Sauron wanted something done, he sent orcs. When he wanted it done right, he sent men. When he absolutely, positively, had to get something done, he sent his trustiest servants, the Nazgul.  You could perhaps buy that to the extent the Nazgul had free will, they strove to outdo each other – Beowulf style – in Sauron’s service. But the idea that they were constantly actively trying to sabotage each other is ludicrous.

This is just the beginning. Since this is a WizKids game, we get clicks. At the start of the game (pre-Weathertop), the Nazgul are puny, exuding no terror and unable to face down a Gondorian Captain and a couple companies of Soldiers. As the story goes on, they grown in power as they connive for favors from Sauron. I never realized Nazgul were all that interested in personal growth.

And then the details of the various game plotlines … The Nazgul in the game personally take charge of the assault on the Rohirrim, which of course they never did. They command Mumaks, which they never did.Worse than that, the game doesn’t even require them to deal with Minas Tirith at all. Even on the hardest levels, you can knock over Rohan, then hunt down the Ringbearer, and call it a day. Was not Sauron keenly focussed on Gondor, greatly fearing the One Ring might end up there? (UPDATE: it turns out we made a significant rules error. Even after you’ve re-aquired the One Ring, you need to complete all three quests – you just can’t do Mount Doom until you’ve finished off Rohan or Gondor. This still doesn’t make any sense, it just doesn’t make sense in a different way. It also makes the game a lot harder. Good luck. My recommendation: you might want to play 2-3 turns to get the feel for the game, then restart. Because of the oblique nature of the cup resolution system, it’s easy to get critically behind in beating the system in the first turn or two).

It is possible for a game to stray from the strict parameters of its source material if it can remain true to the story’s emotional content. We won’t get too worked up about quirky details if the big picture is clear. For example, we know from Tolkien’s description of Weathertop that Gandalf alone could hold off all 9 Ringwraiths, at least for a time, and that Glorfindel was terrifying enough to cause them to retreat into the flood. We would forgive the game if, in the interest of giving the players some hope to feed their desperation, it made Gandalf somewhat less fearsome. But Lord of the Rings: Nazgul can’t deliver the emotional punch, so we are left to look at this stuff.

Finally, I’ll just say a few words on presentation. The Nazgul’s sculpts are hard to distinguish (in the game’s one concession to theme that perhaps should have raised questions about the wisdom of this entire endeavor), which leads to both significant playability problems and an inability to form an emotional connection as everyone is constantly trying to figure out which piece is theirs. The clix serves to make game-critical information much to hard to see. Font sizes are too small. The cards are not of high quality and the image grabs seem oddly murky. The board is a mess, with the quest tracks hard to identify and follow in addition to being just plain physically unattractive. All it all, it’s not quite the disaster Star Trek: Expeditions was in the presentation department, but if that’s your standard, that’s bad.

As you may be able to tell, this game really bothered me. It’s complete amateur hour. It strikes me as a version of a game which might have just emerged from its first playable playtest. It’s nowhere near to being publication worthy. It needed more play testing just to figure out what it was trying to do – I don’t think it’s even ready to enter the phase of cleanup, polishing, and pruning.

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