War of the Ring Second Edition Review

I recently promised to deliver a review on a Tolkien classic, which will come as little surprise to discover that this is a Lord of the Rings-themed game.  However, this is where guessing the title of the game does get difficult, as far as the Lord of the Rings is concerned, there are literally hundreds of games in all the major categories of our hobby, including board games, card games and tabletop miniatures etc. Despite sharing the same theme, not all of these games can claim to be one of the leading contenders in their particular genre. Today’s review focuses on exactly one of them, not only is it possibly one of the best ranked Lord of the Rings games created so far, but it is also one of the most fancied board games in circulation right now, despite a release date of 2012.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is Ares Games’ very own War of the Ring Second Edition. Let’s find out if it will be ‘precious to me’ or require throwing into ‘The Crack of Doom.’

In War of the Ring, one player will take on the role of the Free People which include the Elves, Dwarves, the North, Rohan and Gondor, as well as the Fellowship. The second player controls the forces of Isengard, Sauron, Southrons & Easterlings, as well as Sauron’s Minions. Collectively, these are known as the Shadow. You will note that I refer to War of the Ring as a two player game despite Ares stating it is 2-4 players, and I will explain why later. Both players will be able to achieve victory in one of two ways: For the Free People to win, they must either get the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it or gain four victory points through a military campaign. The Shadow player must either find and corrupt the Ring-bearers or gain ten victory points through their considerable military might. Ares Games advertised this as a 120+ minute game: In reality, if you complete a full game in less than three hours, then you’ve done well; my longest game to date was nearly six hours.

The game progresses through six phases of play per round and uses event cards, action dice, area control/movement, unit recruitment and dice combat. So, thematically, why is War of the Ring different from a lot of its Tolkien cousins?  This begins with the art work, and it is something that I at first was disappointed in, but the more I thought about it and played the game, the more that I realised that I was wrong. The art is not simply a lift from the Lord of the Rings films.  You will not recognise the characters as the actors who played them on screen, but thanks to artists John Howe and Fabio Maiorana, players will certainly relate to each character, which haven’t been finished in a bright, vibrant, colourful manner, a route that many would have travelled. Focusing on the members of the Fellowship in particular, each character appears very serious, forsaken and lonely with the huge weight of responsibility clearly heavy upon them. Gandalf the Grey and Gimli are two of my personal favourites, as both fit the above description perfectly. Gandalf’s frown looks like he is trying to make the best of a really bad situation, whereas Gimli is stood, hands on axe with a solemn gaze, knowing that tough battles lie ahead. As for the evil Shadow characters, also known as minions, they have been made to look dark and foreboding with an almost unbeatable quality to them. The Witch-king in particular looks cold and unyielding. When his character card is brought into play, the Free People player knows bad things are going to happen, for an artist, knowing you can instil that level of emotion in the players must be priceless.

The art work on the box is just as dramatic and definitely sets the mood for gameplay, depicting what I presume to be the Battle of Pelennor Fields, shows the Rohirrim riding against the fell beast-mounted Witch-king supported by the Southrons & Easterlings. On the reverse side are a brief description and pictures of the board and many of the components.

The rule book is a 47 page master class on how to write and assemble a document that will offer players a clear and concise understanding of the game.  As you will probably be aware, I love a game that offers a background story at the beginning of the book such as War of the Ring provides. Despite knowing the story well, it’s still nice to refresh and immerse oneself in what in effect was the dawn of fantasy as we know it, prior to each game.

The rule book then takes you step by step through everything that players will need to know prior to playing, such as a list of components, how the game board is designed, and specific icons on the board, as well as a step by step set up guide. All this is prior to learning the core rules, which some of you may think that it’s kind of obvious that this is how a rule book should be laid out, but I can assure you that this is not always the case.

I won’t go page by page right through the rest of the rule book, but I will state that the use of diagrams and pictures are excellent, which provides players with a less taxing way to learn and absorb that vast array of rules and accompanying information.

Along with the rule book, players are also provided with player aids that are a single sheet of A4 cards with all the relevant information that a player will require for their turn. This includes the turn process, resolving battles, the political situation, as well as a dice reference chart on the reverse. Having played the game on innumerable occasions, I can tell you that these player aids are an absolute necessity and make the game run so much smoother and quicker rather than having to refer to the rule book several times per round.

The game board itself is epic, in fact it’s two separate boards that are pushed together to create one giant 70x100cm playing surface and depicts the lands of Middle-earth, such as the regions of Gondor, the Shire and Mordor etc. Some of these regions may contain Strongholds, Cities, Towns or Fortifications which may give players victory points or extra defence when under attack.

Around the outside of the map are numerous boxes showing players where components are placed, such as event cards, the Fellowship, Elven rings, army boxes, stronghold boxes, the political track and various others. This makes the board really easy to set up and use, as it minimises ambiguity and allows for components to be within arm’s reach. It is also well made and printed on good quality board, which is yet to show signs of deterioration despite high levels of abuse.

Taking part in this battle for Middle-earth are eight armies, as well as special characters, including those in the Fellowship, and these are represented on the board by 205 plastic miniatures. An army is made up of Leaders, Elites and Regulars, with each having their own mould, usually the leader and elite unit will be mounted with the regular being on foot, but there are a couple of exceptions, such as the forces of the Dwarves and Sauron.

The minis aren’t the biggest, but they are very well detailed, especially the individual characters, which include Frodo & Sam, Gollum, the other seven members of the Fellowship, as well as Sauron’s minions: Saruman, the Witch-king and the Mouth of Sauron. It’s these last three minis in particular that really stand out for me, along with the eight Ringwraiths riding on the back of their fearsome fell beasts.

The engine to War of the Ring is powered by action & combat dice, so it should come as no surprise that these components have had much thought put into them, the action dice that is, as the combat dice are standard d6s. The Free People player receives six gorgeous blue custom dice with the face symbols inlayed with gold. The Shadow player’s ten custom dice are a dark, not quite blood red color with a black inlay. Also included are 76 cardboard tokens which act as Elven Rings, Hunt tiles and a variety of others, so I will not go through them all, as it is now time to talk about the important bit, the gameplay.

Before going through set up, I will quickly explain the political track and the Fellowship track and why they are important. The political track reflects the inner struggles that each nation has over the threat of Sauron, this division makes it slow for any Free People nations to mobilize and ultimately go to war.

All Free People political markers with the exception of the Elves begin the game as ‘passive’, meaning they have restrictions placed upon them when it comes to moving troops or attacking the enemy, and the Elves begin ‘active’ on the track.

The objective for the Free People player is to get their nations active whilst also moving down the track ultimately into the ‘at war’ box, which is when all restrictions are lifted. Players can use action dice to achieve this, but there are also some automatic triggers that will help, such as the Shadow player attacking that nation or companions from the Fellowship entering their territories and so on. There are advantages to not having nations ‘at war’, but I won’t go into strategy and ruin the surprise.

For the Shadow player, reaching the ‘at war’ box is a lot simpler. Firstly, all three of their nations are ‘active’, and secondly, they are lower down the track, meaning fewer actions are required to reach it. For the Shadow player, it’s a case of ‘when’ rather than if they mobilize for war.

The Fellowship track directly affects the Ring-bearers and acts, through corruption, as the strain or burden placed upon their small shoulders. The track numbers 0-12 and has two tokens, the first being a corruption token that will move up the track via the hunt box and event cards, and if it ever reaches 12, then the game is won by the Shadow player.

The second token is the Fellowship progress counter and has two sides, the front indicates that the Ring is hidden from Sauron, the back denotes that the Ring is revealed, and the Free People player must declare the position of the ring. This is also when vast amounts of corruption can be dealt by the Shadow player.

A cool mechanic in this game is hidden movement; this takes place in the form of moving the Ring-bearers without actually moving their miniature. If the Ring-bearers are successfully moved and remain hidden, then the Fellowship progress counter is moved up one space; do this several times and the Shadow player will have no idea as to the Ring-bearers’ location, meaning they could be knocking on the door of Mordor before he has a chance to react.

Two points that are worth making now is that setup of the game can be a chore and take at least twenty minutes, arranging eight different nations minis, as well as sorting tokens, dice and cards is never quick. Also, to play War of the Ring, you will need space, as not only is the board big, but players will need plenty of surface area around it for cards, token & minis etc.

Once set up, it quickly becomes apparent to the Free People player of what an uphill task they have before them due to the board literally being swamped by Shadow armies.

The Ring-bearers obviously begin their journey in Rivendell, the Fellowship is gathered and will be lead initially by Gandalf the Grey, although this will change throughout play due to the Fellowship breaking up and entering the game directly.

Phase 1 is for players to gather their action dice, an initial seven for the Shadow and four for the Free People. Players will then draw two event cards, one from the character deck and one from the strategy deck, and the game will now begin. Phase 2 is the Fellowship phase and will allow the Free People player to declare the location of the Ring-bearers if they are in a friendly stronghold or city. In round one, this will be inconsequential but may become important later on, as doing this will allow the Free People player to ‘activate’ that nation and heal some of the corruption that the Ring-bearers may have suffered during their journey. Phase 3 is Hunt Allocation, meaning that the Shadow player can place a number of action dice into the hunt box. Sometimes this may be mandatory depending on if the Free People player attempted to move the Ring during the previous round. The amount of Shadow action dice in the hunt box will determine how many dice are rolled during the hunt, which will occur the majority of times when the Ring is moved by the Free People player. A successful hunt allows the Shadow player to draw a tile from the ‘hunt pool’ which could add corruption and/or reveal the Ring-bearers’ location. Phase 4 is the Action Dice roll, which doesn’t really need an explanation, other than if the Shadow player rolls any ‘eye’ results, they are immediately placed into the hunt box and can’t be used during the next phase. Phase 5 is the Action Resolution and makes up the bulk of the gameplay. It’s during this phase that players (starting with the Free People then alternating) will spend their action dice to perform a number of actions.

Either player can use a Character result (sword) to move an army with a leader or attack the enemy or play a character event card. The Free People players can use it to move or hide the Ring, separate companions from the Fellowship or move companions up to their movement value. The Shadow player can move all Nazguls, including the Witch-king and the Mouth of Sauron.

An Army (flag) result can be used to move up to two armies to an adjacent region, attack an enemy, conduct a siege or sortie and/or to play a strategy event card.

A Muster (helmet) result allows you to perform a diplomatic action on the political track, as explained above. If your nation is at war, you may choose to recruit reinforcements either choosing the amount from a table on the reference chart or by playing an event card that allows you to muster troops. Playing any event card with the muster symbol on it is also an option.

An Event (Palantir) result allows you to draw an event card from either deck or play any event card from your hand, regardless of type.

The last results are classed as special symbols and are different for both players.  For the Shadow player, it’s the Eye which when rolled must go straight in to the hunt box. For the Free People player it’s the Will of the West symbol, which allows the player to change it to any other symbol on the dice or bring Gandalf the White and Aragorn – Heir of Isildur into play, assuming certain conditions are already met.

Once all the recruiting and moving and fighting and politics are finished, we move into phase 6 which is the Victory Check, details of which I have already explained. If victory is not achieved, then players begin from phase 1, and the game continues.

Combat in War of the Ring is settled by dice event cards and characters’ special abilities. A player’s army can never exceed ten units, although leaders and characters do not count towards this number. Despite the number of units taking part in the battle, a maximum of five combat dice will be rolled and will begin to reduce in number once casualties are taken and army size shrinks. So, when a battle is about to take place, this is how it plays out:

Players may, if they wish, play a combat card. If they do, after selecting a card to play (usually only affects the first round of combat), they are revealed simultaneously. Combat cards can modify dice or limit the amount of dice that your opponent can use etc.

Players will then roll combat dice equal to their army strength (maximum of five), a result of a five or six counts as a hit. If a player has leaders in the battle, they can re-roll the number of missed combat dice equal to the number of leaders participating. Modifiers are added and casualties removed. A regular unit requires just one hit, whereas an elite unit requires two for it to be removed, although elite units can take just one hit and be replaced on the board with a regular.

The attacking player will now decide to attack again or cease; if he chooses to attack, then the defending player may have an option to retreat, either to an adjacent region or if in a region with a stronghold, then retreat behind its walls resulting in a siege, which I will explain shortly. If both players want to fight on, then combat continues in the same manner until one player has no further units with which to fight, and this can take several rounds of combat.

The defending player can receive automatic dice modifiers should they be in a region with a fortification, and the attacking player will now need a six for a successful hit, although this only applies during the first round of combat.

If the defending side voluntarily goes into siege, then the battle is over and the attacking player must wait until they can spend another action to attack the stronghold. Attacking a stronghold will always require an unmodified dice roll of six and will only last for one round of combat; this can be extended if the attacking player forfeits an elite unit, changing it down to a regular unit. The siege will continue until all defending units are destroyed or the attacking player simply gives up and moves away.

Voluntarily going into siege can be a very sound tactic, especially for the Free People player as it forces their opponent to use a lot of troops and action dice to successfully take the stronghold which also provides two precious victory points.

The longer the game goes on and the more battles that take place, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the Free People player will win through a military campaign. The main reason for this is that if a Shadow unit is defeated and removed from the board, it is simply put back into its unit pool and can be re-recruited at a later time. If a Free People unit is defeated, it is removed from the game completely and can never enter play again, meaning that a battle of attrition is never a good strategy for the Free People.

The Free People player begins the game with three Elven Rings, which at any time they may use to change the result of an unused action die to any symbol they wish other than a Will of the West. This, however, comes at a cost; once an Elven Ring is used, it is passed to the Shadow player who may now keep it to use later in the game before discarding it completely from the game. Those are most of the basic rules and mechanics in War of the Ring. In a game of this size there is a ton of stuff that I have not mentioned, but I hope to have given you an idea on how the game operates.

Ares Games describes this as a ‘grand strategy board game that allows players to immerse themselves in The Lord of the Rings’, and there is nothing for me to argue with regarding this statement. The only issue that I have with this game is that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 2-4 player game. It is a 2 player game that plays perfectly with two players, as if it were designed for two players.  Playing with a third or fourth player just means that actions are shared amongst one another; it’s like playing 2v2 chess and just alternating turns. Ares aren’t alone in trying to pass two player games off as more so as to appeal to a wider audience, Fantasy Flight, I’m looking at you!

Publisher: Ares Games

Designer: Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi & Francesco Nepitello

Artist: John Howe

Release year: 2012

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