War of the Ring is about as close to getting the entire Lord of the Rings experience in a single board game. It’s a masterpiece of theme and well designed game play mechanics where there’s never a dull moment. For such an epic game, I’m dedicating an entire blog post to the first over-the-board play I’ve had with my friend Colin.
The game has two sides: the Shadow Player and the Free Peoples Player. The Free Peoples win by either conquering 4 points worth of enemy cities or by tossing the One Ring into Mt. Doom. The Shadow player wins by either conquering 10 points worth of enemy cities or by corrupting the ring-bearers to 12 points of damage.
I can’t really fit an entire “how to play” here without glossing over the report. Plus I think this tutorial playlist does a better job than I ever could anyway.
War of the Ring is also held in high esteem for tournament-level competitive play. Every year on Boardgamegeek.com, there’s a big tournament played with a free online client of the game. The game is slightly biased towards the Shadow Player, but typical tournament rules have ways to mitigate that. Here’s some interesting stats behind the tournaments that have been running since 2013:
On to the game session!
Game 1: Scott (FP) vs Colin (SP)
I had been looking forward to playing this for some time. I had even gone so far as to paint all 200 of the minis that came with it! More info on how I did the painting can be found from this handy guide on BGG.
To start, I wanted to try and get the fellowship through Moria and down to Fangorn as fast as I could. This being our first game, we were using this more as an opportunity to learn the rules and iron out any creases in our understanding. I think I could have put more effort into moving the fellowship, but I was also thinking about prepping Lorien for a big attack.
I had built up enough hidden movement points to safely make it to Lorien when my opponent played a card that immediately revealed me. This forces the fellowship to reveal their location but it can’t be inside a friendly stronghold. There goes my opportunity to drop Legolas off at home! I had taken some corruption damage and Colin was 4/12 points on his way to victory early on. I waffled for a while on whether or not to spend an action to move back in to Lorien and heal for a couple turns or to press on anyway. I pressed on.
As I moved the fellowship, orcs multiplied in Dol Guldur with their axes pointed right at Lorien. Part of me thought that I would be fine with either a defensive advantage in the stronghold, or by swinging in and re-capturing it if it did fall. A few turns later and the whole forest city was on fire with orcs running amok. Lorien fell fast, but Dol Guldur (2 points) and Moria (2 points) were quite undefended. A sneak attack with a few units could earn me a quick victory.
The bickering and politics of Middle-Earth are also well integrated into the game design, since my halfway decent Elf army in the Woodland Realm couldn’t swing in and attack the Shadow unit’s rear because the Men of The North’s borders surrounded the elves. You can’t move units through another nation’s borders unless they’re at war and the Woodland Realm could only watch as Lorien burned while the North asked for the Elves’ passports.
I knew ahead of time that a particular useful (and true to the stories) set of cards to play are when Gandalf and a fellowship companion are in Fangorn Forest. Playing these cards can cause massive damage to the units in Orthanc and have a good chance of taking the white wizard Saruman out of the game, thereby reducing Colin’s dice for the rest of the game. I had been sitting on these cards for a good chunk of the game and waited patiently for my chance to strike.
Colin played an early card of Wormtongue, basically immobilizing Rohan and keeping me from spending dice actions to reinforce with more troops. There were probably 6 or 7 warg riders on the map at this time all pointed at Helm’s Deep. An invasion was coming, but if I waited at the right time, I could severely hamper his attack. I unveiled Gandalf the White in Fangorn and left Pippin there for company (and to activate the card). Meanwhile another orc army was stomping at Rivendell’s front gate.
The siege of Rivendell went better, largely due to some good dice rolls in my favor and Colin possibly over-extending. Elrond’s doors held for the moment, but for how long? Since the North was nowhere near being at war on my side, I thought I could be clever and leave a unit or two in the orcs’ path. I couldn’t attack, but if I was attacked, that would push me towards war down the political track. I could use this to my advantage to open up some borders on my side and try to capture some less orc-infested Shadow strongholds.
As the hordes of warg riders and goblins marched out of Orthanc on to Rohan, I played my Ent nukes. Colin’s face was nothing but shock, since if Saruman was eliminated, his whole army would not have any more leaders in it, which are crucial for big attacks. My first dice roll killed maybe 3 out of the 4 units left over in Orthanc. I rolled once more for the second Ent nuke and didn’t get a single hit. Saruman lived to further torment Middle Earth.
Being unable to save Helm’s Deep and subsequently Edoras, Rohan fell fast. I had a great card in my hand to reinforce Minas Tirith with units from Rohan, and I had a lot of them. With Rohan now out of the picture, the fate of men was looking quite grim.
Time to go all-in on the fellowship. I was maybe 6 regions away from getting on to the Mordor track, where it would be another 5 steps to victory, albeit very dangerous ones. I had pushed my movement up high enough to get to either Morannon or Minas Morgul, but Colin strategically played a bad weather card, pushing my movement back one, right into Dol Guldur, a Shadow stronghold. When I was inevitably revealed, having started my movement from a Shadow stronghold meant further damage. I had put out some passive cards to mitigate some of it and I sacrificed Boromir at this stage to keep going.
Minas Tirith was getting battered. I had Aragorn and an extra action dice, but not for much longer. With a million orcs outside the gate bashing it down and Rohan (or the green ghost men for that matter) nowhere in sight, there was only so much time I could buy to get the fellowship into the Crack of Doom for the victory. I thought for sure that Aragorn would provide enough leadership to rally the troops left, but Colin had a card which perfectly countered Aragorn turning him from the King of Men into Gritty the Phillies mascot.
With Minas Tirith and Aragorn dead, now giant orc and Easterling army moved on towards its final target of Dol Amroth, where Legolas was busy mustering reinforcements. An initial guard in Lamendon would act more or less as a speed bump to keep the shadow army at bay for at least a turn or two.
The fellowship of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Gimli finally made it to Mordor. Each step being deadlier than the last, some major corruption-dealing hits were blocked by Gimli’s axe and the mithril coat and sting cards. There was a really rough hunt tile drawn and I pushed my luck to have another one drawn in its place, only to have no damage done. I was now two steps away from victory.
The orc and Easterling army pushed on and brought down the walls of Dol Amroth, eliminating Legolas with it. That would be the final bell toll for the world of Men, as Colin crossed 10 military victory points (to my zero) and with it the victory.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
I was somewhat disappointed when the game ended. The experience was very engaging (despite the rule lookups and clarifications almost every turn) so much so that we both forgot to eat any food for the 5 hours and 15 minutes it took us to finish. It was almost like if we had enough physical stamina, we would want to play again but on different sides of the board. There was so much to see and explore there was no way we were going to get through all of it on the first try and I was disappointed that we had to put the game away for the day.
I’ve been playing a lot of Twilight Struggle both on Steam and on mobile, so I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with it and enjoy it like a fine wine. I feel like War of the Ring would be made considerably better for a first time play if we both knew better how the game played, I think. Even after watching hours of tutorial videos on my end, there were enough corner-cases with rules that we got a little fatigued. Perhaps a more interactive app than the free online Java client would help with that, who knows.
Colin made an interesting point about the difference here with Twilight Struggle. In Twilight Struggle, knowing the cards is key to victory and if someone knows them better than you, you’re very likely doomed. Here, there’s a lot more flexibility and each turn or action feels less analytically stressful than in Twilight Struggle. I’ve always been a big Lord of the Rings fan, so the theme here appealed to me greatly, whereas if someone wasn’t super big into Twilight Struggle, they may never experience its fabulous design and mechanics (doubly so if the apps hadn’t existed making play a lot easier to get at).
The design of the cards with half being used for event actions and the other half of the card being used for combat really provides a lot of great, tough decisions to make. “Do I keep this one here in case he attacks? Which one do I discard then? What if he does this instead?” This also makes for long-term decisions like holding on to my Ent nukes. It did seem like big chunks of the board in the west didn’t matter in the slightest, but perhaps in our evolution of play some strange meta will develop in the lesser-known lands of Middle-earth.