A periodic blog about Games, Books, Movies, Pop culture, Technology and whatever else I happen to feel like writing about...

Monday, November 01, 2004

War of the Ring

Thursday, I walked into Fandom II, my FLGS, looking for some paint for a Halloween costume. Unfortunately, they did not have gun metal grey in spray cans, but they did have the new War of the Ring. Much like Gollum, I could feel the precious calling to me. It would be mine!

And so, I got the game home, resisting the urge to open it until I was at the table. I opened the box, and marvelled at the multitude of figures, cards and tokens. I punched the tokens carefully, appreciating their finish and heft. Some poor soldiers arrived already scarred from previous battles, with bent lances and bows, but I am confident that the brave Free Peoples will soldier on against the vile hordes of the Lidless Eye.

One thing that should be noted, when assembled the two boards representing Middle Earth take up a lot of room, and this might affect your ability to play the game. You must also have room for sorted armies of figures, cards, extra tokens, etc, so plan accordingly.

While the rulebook might seem daunting, the rules are actually fairly simple while covering a wide range of possible situations. If you keep the rule book handy, and consult it as you play your first games, you should be able to get through, though it will take much longer the first few times.

I have now managed two full two player games, and I am just starting to see the possibilities in the system. One word, though, if you are looking for a heavy war game, War of the Ring (WOTR) is not for you. Yes, it has elements of strategy, but it is more Euro than War, and, in many ways, it is more like an area control game than a classic war game. I say this as while the Free Peoples' (FP) player can achieve a military victory by capturing Sauron Player (SP) settlements and fortifications worth 4 VP, it is most likely that the best use of the FP forces will be to delay the SP long enough for the Fellowship to reach the Cracks of Doom to destroy the One Ring.

The central mechanic of the game is the Action dice. The SP starts with 7 dice, and can add 1 die each for activating Saruman, the Mouth of Sauron and the Witch King, and the FP has 5, and can add one each for promoting Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White and Strider to Aragorn. Each die has faces allowing character actions, card actions, army actions and muster actions. The FP dice also have a Will of the West, or wild side, and the SP dice are marked with the Lidless Eye, signifying Sauron's obsession for finding the Ring.

At the beginning of a game turn, the SP declares how many dice will be added to the Hunt for the Ring, up to a maximum of 5 or the number of companions accompanying Sam and Frodo. These dice are placed in the Hunt box, and the remaining dice are rolled. The results of this roll indicate which actions can be accomplished, and the players alternate choosing which of their unused dice to use. Muster dice can be used to advance nations closer to war on the political track, or can be used to generate new troops for nations at war. Character actions can be used to hide or move the Fellowship, to play character cards or to move or attack with an army containing a character or Leader, army actions can be used to move two armies or to attack with one, special card actions can be used to play any special card, the Will of the West can be used by the FP as any symbol and the Eye of Sauron is immediately added to the hunt pool, sacrificing an SP action.

There is a very neat mechanic for handling the hidden movement of the Fellowship, where the Fellowship figure on the game board only indicates the last known position of the fellowship, and the track shows how many spaces away the Fellowship has moved. The figure is only moved to the Fellowship's actual location when the Fellowship is declared in a particular region by the FP, usually to heal the Fellowship or activate a passive nation, or when it is revealed by a successful hunt by the SP.

The Hunt is most reminiscent of the Event tiles in Reiner Knizia's excellent Lord of the Rings game. Each time the Fellowship is moved, the SP rolls a number of six sided dice equal to the number of dice in the hunt box. Each 6 counts as a successful hunt, and with one or more successes, the SP draws a hunt tile from an opaque cup or bag. The hunt tiles show a number from zero to three, and/or an eye symbol or a Fellowship Revealed Symbol. If the Fellowship is revealed, the figure must be moved to the Fellowship's location, and in this case it can never be in an FP stronghold. Any number shown inflicts corruption damage on the Fellowship, tracked by a counter on the same 0-12 track, and should corruption ever reach 12, the ring has corrupted the brave hobbits and the game is lost for the FP. Damage can be avoided or reduced by certain cards or by sacrificing members of the Fellowship, and corruption can be healed when the Fellowship rests in FP strongholds or by playing certain cards. If the tile shows an eye, then the damage is the number of sixes rolled.

This aspect of the game is very tense, and very reminiscent of Knizia's LOTR. Do you risk moving again and drawing a tile that might put you over the top in corruption, or do you declare in an FP stronghold to heal? There are also rules allowing the SP to reroll up to three hunt dice if certain conditions are met, making the movement of the Fellowship riskier.

The movement of the Fellowship becomes even more difficult once the Fellowship reaches Mordor, and when all Companions have left or been killed, Gollum becomes the guide, and makes the Fellowship a bit harder to find. And if the Fellowship makes it to the Cracks of Doom with a corruption level of 11 or less, the game is over and the FP has won. If however the Fellowship falls to corruption at the last, as mine did last night, they instead give the ring back to nice Mr. Sauron.

As I have said, WOTR is an interesting blend of ideas from many other games. On the military side, the game uses a system similar to Chariot Lords or Britannia, where each unit involved in a battle rolls a die, normally scoring hits on 5's and 6's, which can be modified by playing certain cards for their combat effect and/or attcaking units in a stronghold or fortification. Leaders that are present at a battle allow missed dice to be rerolled, and all Fellowship Characters are also leaders. Boromir, Gimli and Strider also add 1 to the combat strength of an army that they are leading, so they really are the one man armies they seemed to be in the films.

Each hit eliminates one regular unit, or reduces an elite unit to a regular, and once all units are eliminated, all remaining characters and/or leaders are also eliminated. Eliminated SP units go back to the reinforcement pool where they may be remustered, while eliminated FP units are removed from the game. Cards, such as those used in card based wargames like Battle Cry play a central role, and indeed provide much of the atmosphere. When Saruman is at the height of power, it can be a great feeling to be the FP holding the three powerful Ents Attack cards, which are almost guaranteed to topple Orthanc. Of course, I have played two games and not drawn the cards, so it is also possible for important events not to happen. This is one of the things that makes the game so interesting, the possible what if situations.

As I was playing my second game with Cim yesterday (the first was with Mike the night before), the FP had managed to capture Dol Guldur with a small army of Elves and Gandalf the White. I had done this as I was holding a card called 'Til the Final Battle, which meant that dice I used to move the Fellowship would not be added to the hunt box. Outside of Mordor, each FP die in the Hunt box adds one to each hunt die rolled, so if you move once, the hunt is successful on each 6, the second move in the same turn is successful on a 5 or 6, the third on a 4-5-6. This card, which required that either Gandalf the White or Aragorn be with an army in one of certain Shadow regions seemed to be a good way to reduce the chance of successful hunts, as well as allow me as the FP to move the Fellowship multiple times in a turn with relative impunity. Indeed, I was able to reach the Cracks of Doom, but the Ring finally got the best of me at the end.

But Dol Guldur is worth 2 VP to the FP, and the FP only need 4 VP total to win a military victory. I advised Cim of this and he immediately reinforced a few SP strongholds that I conceivably could have taken to end the game. I foolishly let Gandalf be besieged in Dol Guldur, but he did hold out with the elves until the end of the game, so all was not lost.

I am already looking forward to the next game, which is a good sign. I think that WOTR is a very interesting blend of mechanics, and that it is strongly themed. It really does feel like you are trying to rally the Free Peoples, ready them for war, defend your strongholds against ravening hordes, all while two hobbits and their companions are trying to sneak into Mordor. While I do not view WOTR as a wargame, it has enough enjoyable elements of both the War and Euro genres to satisfy fans of either. If you are a fan of Tolkien's Books and a gamer, you owe it to yourself to try out WOTR. I think that you will find an interesting, thematic and exciting game that you will enjoy playing. And, after all, isn't that we are all looking for?


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