War of the Ring and Lords of Middle Earth Expansion – Boardgame Review
War of the Ring boardgame and Lords of Middle Earth expansion set review. Publisher, Ares Games. Designers, Roberto Di Megglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello. Base game $79.95; Lords of Middle Earth expansion $24.95
Passed Muster: beautiful artwork and sculpts, faithful to the novels and notes of Tolkien, excellent level of strategy
Failed Basic: late game tends to military blitzkrieg by Shadow
Big and beautiful; expensive; full of plastic. Apt descriptions of Los Angeles, sure, but also easily applied to the games produced by European-based Ares Games. Their War Of The Ring, along with its expansion set Lords Of Middle Earth, provides players an outstanding opportunity to wargame in Middle Earth.
This game is big; the large 27 x 40–inch map (actually a mapboard in two sections, east and west) covers the whole of Middle Earth from the Northern Heath and Angmar to the southern coast of Far Harad. The edges of the mapboard also contain a variety of tracks including the important Political Track and various play aids.
Over 200 plastic miniatures in about three dozen different sculpts are included. Red miniatures are for the forces of Shadow (broken into the armies of Isengard, Sauron, and Men), blue miniatures (broken into Dwarves, Elves, Rohan, Gondor, and The North) for the Free Peoples forces. The army figures represent either a regular unit or an elite unit, with elite units being mounted (or a hulking troll for Sauron’s army). The Free Peoples in addition get a few Leader figures, but be careful because they resemble the elite units.
Along with the military units, miniatures also represent all of the major characters; the Fellowship of the Ring characters (including Gollum), the Nazgul, Saruman, and The Mouth Of Sauron all get handsomely sculpted miniatures. Frodo and Sam are a single figure and represent the Fellowship as it moves The One Ring from Rivendell to Mordor. The other Fellowship characters are placed on the board only if they leave the group.
The game—truly, a burst of colors and fine artwork in game form—also includes 76 colorful counters for various game functions, 110 beautifully illustrated cards (Event and Character cards—big shout-out to artists Jon Hodgson and John Howe), and 21 dice consisting of five regular d6, and sixteen d6 with special symbols on their faces. The game is designed for two players (Shadow vs. Free Peoples), but three or four can play with one or both sides working as cooperative teams: Sauron and Isengard / Men against Gondor / Elves and Rohan / Dwarves / North.
Playing War of the Ring
At set up, the armies of each nation are placed as indicated on a two-page set-up map, which makes it easy to start the game. The Ringbearers (Frodo and Sam) miniature is placed in Rivendell; the rest of the Fellowship figures are kept off the board until they break away from the Ringbearer. The figures for The Witch-King (a/k/a Lord Of The Nazgul), Saruman, and Mouth Of Sauron are not placed initially; these powerful beings enter play through Event Cards or Muster actions. Likewise, the character cards for Aragorn Heir To Isildur and Gandalf The White are not put into play yet; these “upgrade” characters also enter play through Events enacted during the game.
The heart of the game system revolves around the roll of Action Dice, which determine what actions each player can perform. (This is similar to the Fate Dice system of the Age of Conan boardgame from the same designers; please see the review of that game.) The Dark Powers begin with seven red dice; the Free Peoples begin with four blue dice. Extra dice are gained by activating the special characters (Witch-King, Saruman, Mouth Of Sauron, Gandalf The White, and Aragorn Heir To Isiidur). So the forces of Shadow have more dice, and thus can take more actions, than the Free Peoples throughout the game.
The actions permitted by the dice are Character, Army, Event, Muster, Muster / Army, and Special. The symbols are artistically similar for Shadow and Free dice, so the Character Action symbol is a sword (Free Peoples) or scimitar (Shadow). At the start of the turn, both players roll their dice, then they alternate choosing one die and using it for the action shown, then removing that die temporarily from their pool of available actions. A player does not re-roll his Action Dice until both players have used them all up, so the actions available to each side continues to dwindle during the turn. Once both players’ dice pools are empty, a new turn begins and both players re-roll their Action Dice.
(It is also important to know that the Free Peoples dice contain two Character Action symbols and no Army Action symbol; the only Army action possible for them is with a Muster / Army symbol, or using a character or leader to command an army as part of a Character Action. Hence, you already begin to see that the Shadow’s strength is in its military power, while the Free Peoples rely on their characters for victory.)
Character Actions are used to move and / or use a special ability for the character. Characters and Leaders (which include the Nazgul) can be used to lead armies for movement and attacks with a Character Action as well. An Army Action allows a player to move and attack with an Army even if there is no leader or character that is part of the army (an army is any number of friendly units that share the same space at the start of the action, so you can use a Character Action to use a Leader and some troops in one attack, then an Army Action to use the rest of the troops in that space in a second attack).
Muster Actions allow you to recruit new units or move a nation’s marker on the Political Track one step closer to the At War space. Only nations At War can move, attack, and recruit; the three Shadow powers (Mordor, Men, and Isengard) begin one space away from At War, ready to reveal themselves and begin executing their long term plans. For the Free Peoples, only Gondor is near ready for warfare (one space from the At War box), everyone else will take at least two Muster Actions to act. Furthermore, all but the Elves are inactive, not realizing or believing that Sauron has returned. Unless the Shadow player attacks them, the other Free Peoples (including Gondor) will never enter the At War box until roused by a Fellowship character or Event Card.
An Events Action can be used to draw or play Event Cards; some Event Cards can also be played with other Action Dice as well. Muster / Army Actions can be used to perform one Muster or one Army action, as the player chooses. For the Shadow player, all dice showing the Eye Of Sauron special symbol are placed into the Hunt Box and will be used to find the Ringbearer—more on that in a moment. The Free Peoples player has a Will Of The West (Gandalf’s rune) special symbol that can be used either to activate Gandalf The White or Aragorn Heir To Isildur, or to use the special die as ANY other Action Dice.
Movement is strategic, from region to region. Most characters can move a number of spaces equal to their Level (one to three); Nazgul on their winged mounts can move anywhere on the map except enemy strongholds, and Saruman cannot move. Armies can move one space only, with a stacking limit of ten units per territory. A stronghold (fortress or major city) within a territory is treated like a second territory, so it would take two movements to enter the stronghold.
The combat rules are simple but well designed. An army that attacks rolls a number of regular six-sided dice equal to the number of units it contains, up to a maximum of 5d6. Leaders (including Nazgul and most Fellowship characters) allow you to re-roll dice, one die per leader. Any roll of 5 or 6 is a hit and inflicts one casualty. A casualty removes one regular army unit OR replaces an elite army unit with a regular army unit (owning player’s choice). Event Cards and some character abilities will modify both the attack rolls and possibly the casualties taken. Another round of battle continues unless the attacker calls off the attack or the defender chooses to retreat.
Approaching Mordor—The Hunt
Character-to-character combat is subsumed as part of The Hunt, almost a game within a game. Like other simulations of the Lord Of The Rings, War of the Ring is both a stand-up military contest and the effort by the Fellowship to sneak into Mordor and destroy The One Ring. At the start of each turn, before rolling his Action Dice, the Shadow player chooses how many dice (if any) to set aside into the Hunt Box; this represents how actively he is searching for the Ringbearer. If the Free Peoples player placed any dice in the Hunt Box in the previous turn, the Shadow player must place at least one Action Die there. These dice are not available to the Shadow player for any other actions until the next re-roll of Action Dice.
The Free Peoples player can use a Character Action (or a Will Of The West special Action) to move the Fellowship closer towards Mordor, placing the action die into the Hunt Box. Doing so triggers a Hunt. For each Action Die in the Hunt Box, the Shadow player rolls one regular (combat) d6, up to a maximum of five dice. Each roll of 6 is a success, meaning the Fellowship is revealed and suffers damage. Each success allows the Shadow player to draw a Hunt tile to determine the combat damage, which will injure companion characters, add to the corruption level of the Ringbearer, and / or freeze the Fellowship in place. The Free Peoples must spend another Character Action to Hide the Fellowship again before moving.
The mechanism for moving the Fellowship is ingenious. The Ringbearer miniature is placed on the map and remains where it was placed until the Fellowship is found during a Hunt; however, a Ringbearer counter is moved along the Ringbearer Track to represent the Fellowship’s movement. Whenever the Fellowship is found during The Hunt, move the Ringbearer miniature from its current map location to any other space within the number of moves shown on the Ringbearer Track (e.g., if the Fellowship stayed hidden long enough for the Ringbearer counter to have moved five spaces on the track before the Shadow player finds the Ringbearer, the Free Peoples player can place the Ringbearer miniature anywhere on the map within five spaces of its current position.)
The entire Hunt sequence is a nice balancing mechanism, as the Shadow player would overwhelm the Free Peoples if not for the necessity of using Action Dice to search for the Ringbearer. Sometimes Sauron himself forces the player’s hand, as every Eye symbol rolled is one less action the Shadow player can choose to take, so relentless is Sauron’s search for his ring.
And the Ringbearer is the Free Peoples’ best chance for victory. The Shadow player will have twice as many Action Dice available to him by mid-game as the Free Peoples. Furthermore, army casualties for the Free Peoples are permanently removed from the game, while Shadow casualties just keep coming back as reinforcements. (The orcs are a fecund race.) The Free Peoples’ strength is in their characters, and their best strategy is to limit the actions available to the Shadow player by moving the Fellowship as much as possible. A good strategy is to avoid moving the Fellowship when the Shadow rolls three or more Eye Of Sauron Action Dice (which must be placed in the Hunt Box) since at that time the Shadow is fairly even with the Free Peoples in available actions. When he doesn’t place a lot of Action Dice in the Hunt Box, punish him and move the Fellowship as often as you can.
Event Cards are another aid to the cause of good. Not only are these cards beautifully painted, they are remarkably well designed. While the Shadow cards tend towards military style actions and events, the Free Peoples cards are those incredible events drawn from the novels that can tip the balance of power with a single cock’s crow. The game really plays with the feel and flavor of the novels due to the Events that are such a key part of play. The Free Peoples can win a military victory, but their best chance is holding off the onslaught of evil long enough to toss the ring into Mount Doom.
Lords of Middle Earth expansion
An already great game design gets boosted with the Lords Of Middle Earth expansion. Not only does this mini-set include eight new miniatures—new sculpts for Gandalf The White, Aragorn Heir To Isildur, The Mouth Of Sauron, and The Witch-King, and four new characters added to the game (Elrond, Galadriel, Gothmog, and The Balrog)—but also includes several new rules that improve on the original gaming experience.
The main feature of this expansion is in the extra dice. Three special Elven Rings Action Dice are now added to the Free Peoples’ dice pool so long as the holder of the ring is in play. All three of the Elven Rings dice have Muster, Event, a special Event Card Draw face, and a Sauron Eye symbol (which helps the Shadow player locate the Fellowship). There are also Army and Character Action symbols, with each Elven ring being unique in the faces it has. The Dark Forces, however, also get some assistance in their dice rolls. Gothmog’s special die has two Army, two Muster, an Event Card draw, and a Sauron Eye; the Balrog has Character, Event Card draw, Muster, Sauron Eye, and two special Use Balrog faces which allow for devastating attacks.
The second feature of the expansion is its “what if” take on the game. What if Gothmog was given a command independent of the Witch-King? What if Sméagol (not his corrupted Gollum form) had accompanied the Fellowship? What if the Council Of Elrond had chosen to send Galadriel to Mordor instead of Gandalf? New Event Cards and Character Cards (including updated cards for most of the Fellowship characters, the Witch-King, and Mouth Of Sauron) are included, new markers and Hunt tiles are also found, and it all adds a nice sauce to the delicious meal that is War of the Ring.
Upgrading War of the Ring first edition
The differences between the first and second editions are vast; Event Cards and Character statistics have been entirely re-done, so if you want to use the Lords Of Middle Earth expansion, you have to use the second edition game or buy the upgrade kit with all new events cards for your first edition set.
Blitzkrieg out of Mordor
Some players have complained that, with the Free Peoples’ inability to regenerate any of their lost army units, the late game breaks into an all-out Mordor Blitz. If you want to balance your game a little more and give the good guys a chance to win militarily, try this fix:
The Elves and Dwarves never get their lost units back. The North can use one Muster to regain two lost regular units or one lost elite unit per game. For the warrior nations of Gondor and Rohan, their elite units are removed from the game when destroyed, but their regular military units and leaders (not characters) are placed back in with their reinforcements.
The learning curve is a little steep—lots or referencing the rulebook for your first game (especially when handling the Hunt For The Ringbearer and the Mount Doom sequence), and you’ll have to play the game a few times to pick up on the nuances of when to play what Event Cards. But that’s a signature of a deep game design, the sort of game you’ll keep playing. Add in the Lords Of Middle Earth expansion and you’ve got a game that you can explore for years.
War of the Ring is the latest in a long line of Lords of the Rings simulations, and it can stand proudly with the best of its predecessors. WotR manages the finesse of staying honest to the source material without being slavish to the minutiae. Lords Of Middle Earth manages to expand on an already fantastic design and provides even more strategy, especially for multi-player games. Whether you are a wargamer looking for a solid new experience or a Middle Earth fanatic, you need to check this game out!
Armchair General rating: 92%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3 (the Action Dice limit a player’s omnipotence)
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson has been gaming since the SPI days of the late 70s. His gaming collection includes over 1700 games, and when not gaming he can be found catching up on reading all of the comic books that have piled up in his home. He previously wrote for Armchair General an overview of Middle Earth games published since 1975.