I’m now 5 months into my expedition to play and review every game in the BGG Top 100, and am over 20% of the way there. It has been a challenge to write a new 1,000 word review each week, but it has also been a really enjoyable creative outlet. My experiences learning and reviewing Twilight Struggle and Go stand out among my most rewarding so far. Up to this point though, I really haven’t had to exit my comfort zone much. If I was Frodo Baggins carrying the One Ring, I’d have barely left the Shire at this point. That’s well and good — but it doesn’t quench my thirst for an adventure.
It’s fitting, then, that the real adventure begins with War of the Ring, the epic re-telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in board game form. This 3-4 hour saga pits two players in a highly asymmetric struggle between good and evil. The Free Peoples must quickly organize themselves to mount a brave resistance against the oncoming hordes of the Shadow Armies. Vastly outnumbered, their greatest hope rests with a band of nine travelers known as the Fellowship of the Ring. Can they survive and distract Sauron’s evil forces long enough for Frodo to reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring, or will darkness prevail over Middle Earth?
For those acquainted with the Lord of the Rings books or movies, this is a familiar narrative. However, it plays out much more like a choose-your-own-adventure, with the outcome dependent entirely upon the actions of the two opposing players. Everything, from the fate of individual characters and cities to the ultimate resolution of the war itself, hangs in the balance.
Perhaps now you see why I’ve had this game circled on the list since I first established this blog, wondering how and when I might track down a copy. As it happened, a friend of mine recently mentioned my blog to her coworker, Darris, who has an interest in board games. Around that time, I had posted a ‘Most Wanted’ list of the ten games I’m most interested in finding, including titles that are out of print or in short supply. Darris reached out letting me know that he had access to a number of the games on that list, including a not-yet-played copy of War of the Ring, second edition.
So of course I jumped at the opportunity to invite a relative stranger over to my house on a weeknight to play a 4 hour game that neither of us had ever played before, featuring two gigantic boards, a 45 page rule book, over 100 unique cards, and countless miniatures. This was sure to go smoothly, right?
Well, actually yes, despite some initial obstacles. We had both studied up on the rules beforehand, but we had glossed over the setup portion, which turned out to be an absolute beast. The miniatures come in just 3 different colors, and with different units for each of the 8 nations, the sorting process was cumbersome. Compounding that problem was the fact that some unit types did not look particularly distinct from one another. Each nation’s territory has its own color on the game boards — I think it would have been worth the added cost to apply these same colors to the miniatures. I realize that many people may wish to paint their own miniatures, but at the very least Ares Games could have color-coded the bases.
That issue aside, the layout looked vast and impressive when setup was complete. I chose the Free Peoples, Darris took the Shadow Armies, and we dove headfirst into the opening turn. The action started off at a tentative pace, as there was a lot of initial double-checking of rules (this quick reference guide from BoardGameGeek, which we each had open in front of us, proved indispensable).
While I can’t possibly cover all the rules here, I’ll attempt to provide a general idea of how the gameplay works. Players roll a number of action dice that can be spent on various actions depending on which results come up. There are army and muster results, which allow players to recruit and move troops, and push nations toward war readiness on the political track. There are event results, which allow players to draw or play event cards. These cards each have unique effects, but many of them involve mustering units in a certain city, initiating an attack on a certain army, or influencing Sauron’s hunt for the Fellowship (more on that topic in a bit).
There is also the character result, which allows a player to move special characters, including the Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship moves across the map, starting at Rivendell and trekking towards the land of Mordor. Frodo and company cannot enter battle like normal armies — they must stick to the shadows and hope to avoid detection. Yet every time they move, the Shadow player has a chance to hunt them, hoping to expose and injure them.
To do so, the Shadow player rolls a number of normal six-sided dice equal to his ‘Eye’ results from that round’s action dice (including any Eyes set aside from the Shadow player’s dice pool before rolling – this rule lets the Shadow player decide how much to focus on hunting versus military). If any sixes are rolled, then the Fellowship has been found, and bad things happen. The Shadow player draws a tile from a bag to show the level of damage and any other ill effects.
Of course, Frodo cannot hope to defeat the Naz’gul in combat, so he must be protected in one of two ways. He could slip on the Ring and avoid detection, at the cost of becoming more corrupted by its power (+1 corruption per point of damage avoided). If Frodo ever reaches a corruption of twelve, then Sauron has succeeded in luring him into darkness, and the Shadow Armies’ victory is assured.
To shield Frodo from this corruption, companions of the Fellowship may lay down their lives. It comes at a heavy cost though, as these Companions can help to shepherd the Fellowship along their path, or can separate from the group to rally and lead armies of Free People.
While the Shadow dice have the Eye result, the Free Peoples also have a unique result: the ‘Will of the West’. This is the most favorable result– it’s a wildcard that can be used for any other type of action, as well as a few special ones. But before you start getting too excited, Free Peoples, I should mention that you start out with three fewer dice than your opponents — just four opposed to seven.
Even once the Fellowship reaches Mordor, they must move five more times to reach the Crack of Doom and destroy the Ring, with the Shadow player drawing a hunt tile for each of those agonizing final steps. Even in the best case scenario, it’s a brutal gauntlet to endure. All the while, the Shadow player is throwing bodies at the gates of Free Peoples’ strongholds, rushing to gain 10 victory points before the Ring can be destroyed.
Thematically, it’s right on point. From a gameplay perspective, you’re all but assured of a heart-pounding finale each time you play. The designers managed to balance the game in such a way that while it’s fairly easy to reach Mordor, it’s quite hard to ascend Mount Doom, and everything done by both players influences those final odds in what could be the deciding battle or hunt.
Frazer McKenzie’s video review of War of the Ring (which is nothing short of a masterpiece) talks about the “stand-up feeling” that War of the Ring gives you – and he couldn’t be more right. Darris and I were both standing up for what seemed like the entire second half of the game because it was so tense.
In the end, I won by getting Frodo to the Crack of Doom. The pivotal moment proved to be a turn when Darris rolled no Eyes and I got a very lucky roll, allowing me to move the Fellowship four spaces safely in a single round. This allowed me to reach Mordor quicker than expected, putting heavy pressure on him to go all-in on a military victory. Hordes of Shadow Armies were knocking down my doors and he only needed to take one or two more territories, but he had left some of his own strongholds undefended. I quickly snuck in and took one, and sent an impromptu force to threaten a second, which would have given me a rare and improbable Free Peoples’ military victory. Darris quickly snuffed out my offensive, but in the process I bought precious time for Frodo to complete his mission. It still wasn’t easy – Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli all had to give their lives for the cause.
War of the Ring certainly isn’t for everyone — it requires a significant time investment to learn the rules and set everything up properly, let alone play it. However, the best things often don’t come easy. If you crave an epic board gaming experience, War of the Ring does it about as well as any game I’ve ever played. I’m happy to have tried it and made a new friend in the process. With many more epic games on the Top 100 list, I’m looking forward to the continued journey ahead.
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