Sunday, January 17

Two Tolkien Games Part Two: War of the Ring

The other day I blogged about Lord of the Rings, a co-operative board game that was a failure of both theme and gameplay. Cait and I have recently played another Middle Earth board game, War of the Ring, and—contrastingly—it immediately became a favorite.

War of the Ring succeeds everywhere that Lord of the Rings fails:
  • It’s thematic. War of the Ring evokes Middle Earth with an intensity. Elements of the game tie directly to points in the story: if Merry or Pippen get attacked and have to leave the Fellowship, they survive because the orcs were told to take hobbits alive; if Gandalf the Gray dies he can come back in Fangorn as Gandalf the White; if Minas Tirith is under siege, Sauron can coerce Denethor into weakening its defenses.
  • It allows for choices. In the last post I lamented that, by sticking to a linear re-“telling” of the books’ events, Lord of the Rings denied the gamers the agency to explore other possibilities within the setting. While War of the Ring still matches specifics from the books (Gandalf the White can only pop up in Fangorn or an Elven stronghold, not just anywhere in Middle Earth), it nevertheless offers players a great deal of freedom to chart their own course: avoid Moria by taking the pass through the mountains? Ignore Rohan and hit Gondor directly? Keep the Fellowship together right up to the Black Gates?
  • It’s fun. Cait and I are both fans of Risk-like games such as this, where you pit forces against each other in battle and roll dice to see who dies. The game mechanics are concrete—move armies, move the Fellowship—and are therefore substantially more satisfying than the abstract discarding of cards in the co-op Lord of the Rings.
In War of the Ring, one player plays as the Free Peoples (Gondor, Rohan, Elves, Dwarves, and Men of the North) and the other as the Shadow (Mordor, but also Isengard, the Easterlings, and the Southrons). The Free Peoples have to either destroy the ring in Mount Doom or capture a small handful of Sauron’s cities and strongholds. Sauron must either corrupt the ring bearers or capture a bunch of the Free Peoples’ cities and strongholds.

The military side of War of the Rings plays out like a more advanced Risk: armies move from region to region and fight with dice when they meet. Of course, there are a few more rules to add depth. My favorite is that units in a stronghold (such as Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, Moria, etc.) can retreat inside, turning an attack into a siege. The besieged army then gets extra defenses at the cost of being unable to reinforce itself with new units.

Meanwhile, the Free Peoples player can devote some of his effort to moving the Ring towards Mordor. As in the books, this is the best chance for victory, as Mordor’s armies are essentially limitless (in contrast, when Free Peoples units are dead, they’re gone for good). Sauron’s ability to stop the Ring is actually somewhat limited, but there’s nevertheless a balance to be struck: if the Fellowship is moved too quickly, it is more likely to be hunted successfully and have to suffer the Ring’s corruption to escape. If the Fellowship is moved too slowly, though, the free cities and strongholds will fall against Sauron’s insurmountable might before the Ring event gets close to Mordor.

Cait and I have played four games of War of the Ring: one with the provided “quick start” rules to get our feet wet, another to gauge just how much the quick start rules are biased towards Sauron (answer: exceedingly), another with the real rules that was mostly spent getting them right, and finally a full and correct game that was perhaps the most intense and memoriable board game session I’ve ever experienced.

War of the Ring made my heart pound. Is it possible for me to give it a stronger endorsement than that?

I’ll describe the game briefly in story terms, since that’s how it felt. I was playing as the Free Peoples, while Cait was Sauron.

The Fellowship rushed out of Rivendell, with a haste that exposed them to the Ringwraiths’ hunt. To keep the rest of them alive, Gandalf the Gray ended up eating it in Moria. Saruman took Helm’s Deep without much trouble, and his Uruk-hai and warg riders kicked their feet back inside and presumably took turns playing with the horn of Helm Hammerhand. This left Orthanc basically empty, though, so when Gandalf the White showed up in Fangorn and mustered the Ents, they marched on Isengard, dispatched the token guard, and sent Sauruman back to his makers. Rohan, summoning reinforcements with a red arrow, was later able to re-take its stronghold in a comical reverse–Battle of Helm’s Deep.

While this was going on, to the south, Gondor was taking it on the chin. Reinforced by Southrons, the Mordor army smashed the fortifications at Osgiliath, overrode both the city of Pelargir and the stronghold of Dol Amroth, and had the few remaining Gondorians pinned down in a siege of Minas Tirith. Though Strider detached from the Fellowship a bit past Lorien to travel down to Rohan to awaken the dead men of Dunharrow, this had little effect. Their attempt to supernaturally reclaim Lamedon caused a mere single casualty in the shadow army, so Strider’s foolish return was quickly squished. Denethor lived on, however, to fuck up the defenses of Minas Tirith in its inevitable doom.

Meanwhile, Isengard troops joined with orcs and trolls from around Moria, easily pillaged the Shire and surrounding regions, then moved further west to besiege the Grey Havens. Easterlings conquered the northern city of Dale before advancing on the dwarven stronghold of Erebor. Agents of the late Saruman successfully meddled in elven politics, keeping them from declaring open war. Though the Merry, Sam, and Frodo (with Gollum close behind) were nearly to Mordor, they were running out of time: by taking one more Free stronghold, Sauron would conquer Middle Earth forever, regardless of what the ring-bearers could do.

The dwarves predictably fell, but the men of the North successfully rallied out of Bree to free the Shire. Against terrible odds, the Grey Havens held, giving the elves of the Woodland Realm the chance to renew their alliance with men and re-take Dale, before moving on to challenge the Easterlings who occupied Erebor. This bravery bought the hobbits a shot at Mount Doom, but a slim one: Sauron’s armies, led by the Witch-King, were gathering near Mirkwood to strike against the elves.

Halfway up Mount Doom, Merry died defending the Ring. Gollum, taking over as guide, was able to stay hidden at a crucial moment, saving Frodo and Sam from a debilitating exposure.

As the Witch-King charged towards Dale to seal Middle Earth’s fate, Frodo, in his last breath, found strength in the phial Galadriel had given him and cast the Ring into Mount Doom. So, even though the Shire was burned and Gondor was annihilated, the Free Peoples claimed victory.

All that above? Board game. I used my last action on my last turn to destroy the ring. Cait had a few more actions after mine, enough to move the Witch-King’s army to Dale and claim her ten points for victory. Moving the ring causes a random tile to be drawn, which is usually bad. Though I could have re-drawn once by using Sting and the Mithril Coat (theme!), there was a very real chance that, even after that, the attempt to destroy the ring would have failed and Cait would have won.

I was a military loss away from failure for much of the end of the game, so it was only through little victories in the Shire and Dale that I was able to hold out just a bit longer. I eventually figured that I could destroy the Ring if the dice came up my way, if the Fellowship were not found and the Grey Havens stood, so for the last half-hour of this game, I sat on the edge of the seat with my heart racing. Even after it was all over, I had to spend an hour calming down before I could get to sleep.

I’ve never had such an intense experience playing a board game. The asymmetry of the win conditions creates impressive tension: the Fellowship has a really good chance of avoiding corruption and destroying the Ring, if only the Free Peoples’ armies can hang on long enough against the Shadow’s overwhelming forces. Unlike Risk, where when you lose territory you spiral into impotence, the Free Peoples player always has that chance in the Fellowship until the very last. There’s no question that Sauron’s might is enough to subjugate all of Middle Earth given enough time. The Free Peoples can only fight or retreat—in the right balance—to give the ring-bearers the opportunity they need.

The game is long, between one and a half and two and a half hours, and the rules are on the somewhat-complex side. Nevertheless, if you have the time to play and the will to learn how, I cannot recommend this game highly enough. War of the Ring is epic. How can you refuse that?