Review: War of the Ring

Copyright Nigel Buckle © 2004

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

English Edition Published by Fantasy Flight Games retailing at £39.99 ($59.99)

A big-box monster of a war-game. Check out the publisher's website for the rulebook:

In the box you get over 200 plastic miniatures, counters, dice and event cards and a big 2 part board, you will need a large gaming table to play this game. Be warned this is not a quick, simple, light-weight gaming experience, prepare to spend 3 to 4 hours playing this, but in my opinion it's time well spent.

The game is for 2-4 players, the 2 player version pits the Free People against the Shadow, one player taking each side -- the Free People win if either the ring is destroyed or their armies take 4 points worth of Shadow settlements; the Shadow wins if the ringbearer becomes corrupted or if their armies take 10 points of Free People settlements. The heart of the game are the action dice. Each turn the players roll the dice and the icons rolled determine the actions each player can take that turn. There is always more to do than the action dice allow -- the Free People need to prepare for the inevitable war, mustering forces and moving armies and characters on the map and most importantly moving the fellowship to Mordor, healing the ringbearer if possible. The Shadow player needs to prepare for war but must not neglect to hunt for the fellowship. The 3 and 4 player versions are more of a partnership game -- with 2 players playing the Shadow side (one player controls Saruman and the Southrons & Easterlings, the other the Orcs of Sauron), in a 3 player game the other player plays the Free people, and in a 4 player game the Free People are also split, one player controlling the Elves and Gondor, the other the Dwarves, the North and Rohan -- but with both moving the Fellowship. Victory is joint for the side, rather than for an individual.

Combat is simple, each unit in the army rolls a dice (to a maximum of 5) and each 5 or 6 is a hit. Terrain can increase the number needed to a 6 and event cards can also alter the combat. Leaders provide 're-rolls', so a well-led army has more chance of inflicting hits as some or all of the misses can be re-rolled.

A big difference between the two sides is the Shadow gets any eliminated units back as possible reinforcements, but Free People units removed are permanently out of the game -- this means that if the game were just about armies the Free Peoples are likely to lose the war of attrition. However this is not the case, as the ring and its journey to Mordor is centre stage. If the Shadow ignores the hunt for the ring, then the fellowship will easily reach Mordor and destroy the ring. If the Free People ignore the war and do nothing to resist the Shadow armies then the Free Peoples will be crushed giving the Shadow a military victory before the ring can be destroyed. It's this balance and tension that really makes the game shine.

Once you know how to play, there is little need to refer to the rulebook and the game moves along at a nice pace -- however there is a definite learning curve, which is not helped by the rulebook. To learn this game, you are probably going to have to play it a couple of times as a 'trial' to learn the game. Do not expect to open the box, punch out the counters and play immediately.

There is considerable detail and flavour added by the event cards, helping to strengthen the feeling that you are playing a game of the War of the Ring. The cards bring in the details of the book, such as the Balrog, Tom Bombadil and Shelob, allowing you to recreate the major events in the book, but with variety and many possibilities for 'what if'.

If you have been searching for the epic Lord of the Rings wargame, then this could be it. Playable in an evening (4 hours or so) with surprising replay potential, the game is not that scripted, even though it is simulating the Lord of the Rings. Yes, the Free Peoples probably need to get the Fellowship into Mordor to win, but the route is not preset and the event cards combined with the action dice mechanic mean each game is different. I've seen all 4 methods of victory, and each game has been different, sometimes the Fellowship race off at the expense of war preparations, in other games the development has been more balanced. In some games the Shadow concentrates the attack on Gondor, in others it is against Rohan or the Elves.

If you like Lord of the Rings, and want to play a war-game based on it, then this game is definitely worth the investment of time and money -- howeve,r if you are looking for a quick lightweight simple game then you should probably look elsewhere.