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WAR OF THE RING

Reviewed by Eric Brosius

WAR OF THE RING: SECOND EDITION (Ares Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 180 minutes; $89.99)

 

As a boardgame fan, I am especially interested in games that represent historical situations in ways that link the game mechanisms to the historical subject matter effectively.  Many games use historical settings mainly as inspiration for the graphics, but some tie their settings to the game play in noteworthy ways.

War of the Ring represents not a historical setting, but a fictional one: the world created by author J.R.R. Tolkien in his story The Lord of the Rings.  In the story, as the evil overlord Sauron and his Shadow armies pursue military victory to cement their world dominance, a few brave individuals from the Free Peoples carry the One Ring through hostile territory to Mount Doom, where it is destroyed, ruining Sauron’s plans.  I enjoy the story, and have played various games that use it as a setting, but there are significant design challenges.  How does one represent the progress of the ring toward destruction while keeping its location hidden from the Shadow player, as it was in the story?  How does one maintain a design balance between a military struggle that involves countless thousands of soldiers and the efforts of a few characters to destroy (or prevent the destruction of) the One Ring?

In War of the Ring, designers Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello combine elements of a military-based game with elements of a character-based game to create a game that represents both aspects of this epic conflict.  They do this in a number of ways.

Each side starts the game with armies of miniatures of various types (including Oliphaunts,) and can recruit more as the game progresses.  In keeping with the Shadow’s overwhelming military superiority, their numbers are far greater.  Armies move from area to area on a large, attractive map, and they fight by throwing handfuls of dice, seeking hits.  In a thematic touch, Shadow losses return to the supply, whence they can be recruited again, while Free Peoples’ losses are removed from the game; time is not on their side!  The Free Peoples have Strongholds, like Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep, that give defensive benefits and slow the Shadow onslaught, but it is only a matter of time before the Shadow will capture the 10 points of Free Peoples locations it needs to achieve military victory.

Usually, then, the characters in the Fellowship must take The Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it before the Shadow wins militarily.  This gives each side offensive and defensive goals.  The Shadow seek military victory while trying to hinder the Fellowship’s progress .  The Free Peoples defend against the Shadow armies, while hastening the One Ring toward destruction.

The designers use Action Dice to govern play and create interaction between the military game and the Ring game.  Each turn, the sides roll custom dice that determine what actions they can take.  The two sides’ dice are different, but both include faces like “Character”, “Muster”, and “Army”.  And, again in keeping with the theme, the Shadow player has more dice than the Free Peoples.  An important action for the Free Peoples player is to Move the Fellowship; this requires a Character die, and causes dice to be rolled to determine whether the Fellowship is revealed in the attempt.  If the Fellowship is not revealed, nothing moves on the map; rather, the fact that the Fellowship has moved 1 space is recorded with no indication of where it has gone.  The Fellowship player need not secretly record a space to which the Fellowship moves; rather, when the Fellowship is either revealed or voluntarily chooses to declare itself (ideally in a safe location like a Free Peoples stronghold,) the Fellowship player moves it instantly to the desired location.  The ability to decide where the Fellowship has been moving over (potentially) the past several turns is an important counterweight to the Shadow’s advantages, and it represents the stealth of the Fellowship nicely.

The dice create trade-offs between the military game and the Ring game, because die faces may be used in various ways.  For example, the Shadow player may assign some dice to the “Hunt Box” before rolling; these dice are not used to take actions, but to inflict damage and corruption upon the Fellowship.  A Shadow player who puts more dice into the Hunt Box slows the Fellowship down , but achieves less military progress.  This leads to a longer game.  A Shadow player who minimizes Hunt efforts has more dice for the military game, but must win quickly.  This reflects the situation described in the book, where Sauron did not divide his attention effectively between military leadership and the hunt for the Ring.

Much of the flavor in War of the Ring arises from cards each player may draw and play.  The cards tie to the story; if you recall memorable scenes from Tolkien’s books, you will find corresponding cards in the game.  But there are trade-offs here too: A card has an event that may be played by spending a die, and a Combat card effect.  Do you use it for the event, or do you save it for a battle?  Many of the Combat card effects hinge on the presence of characters, since heroic or horrific leaders often swung the outcomes of battles; do you use Strider to help the Fellowship move toward Mount Doom, or to command a key army?

The game does a great job portraying the world of The Lord of the Rings, but it need not follow the story in the book; the players have something to say about it too (along with the dice and the cards!)  The Free Peoples can achieve a military victory, against all odds, if the Shadow armies take too many chances.  What a story that makes when it happens!  More commonly, the Fellowship can succumb to corruption on the way to Mount Doom, handing the One Ring and victory to Sauron (this is more likely to happen if the Free Peoples player rushes the Fellowship because a Shadow military victory seems imminent.)

The game originally came out in 2004, but it has since been released in a second edition in several formats, including more elaborate editions with pre-painted miniatures.  A few changes and clarifications were made in the second edition, but it is fundamentally the same game, no matter what edition you have.  Also, though the game is billed as accommodating 2 to 4 players, it is fundamentally a 2-player game; if you have more than 2 players, one or both sides are played by teams.

I enjoy both the core game play and the flavor in this game.  If you know nothing about Tolkien’s books, it is still a tense and challenging game, but if you’re a fan like me, the game also creates narrative that ties to the story.  What happens in your game may not be what happened in the story, but it always feels as though it could have happened in the story!  For this reason, I especially recommend it for fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Eric Brosius


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