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Lords of Middle Earth : War of the Ring Extraveganza

War of the RingLicensed games based on well-known films or books are nothing new, and while of variable quality. generally rather better than their digital counterparts. But since its publication, the love for War of the Ring has been little short of astonishing.

It’s not hard to see why. The biggest achievement of the game is to allow players to re-tell a plausible version of The Lord of the Rings on each play through whilst still enabling plenty of strategy and freedom of choice while doing so. When you consider how difficult that balance is to maintain, and how venerated the source material is, the astonishing scale of that achievement becomes clear.

But the game is not without its detractors. It’s fiddly to set up and time-consuming to play. It was clear to even neophyte players that the original edition was tilted in favour of the Sauron player, an imbalance that actually got worse as players became more familiar with the tactics. There was also a degree of railroading, scripted strategies that could be followed to improve the chances of victory.

An expansion helped those issues but in a heavy-handed way. Handed the opportunity to re-release the game in a new edition, the design team sought lighter routes to the same goal. Aside from some minor rules tweaks, their answer lay in the characters and card deck. There were significant changes, making it harder for Sauron to bring powerful pieces into play and work the scripted strategies. The Free People in turn were given attractive alternatives to their common tactics, offering more choice, and some of their best cards were made easier to play.

War of the Ring cards

For the most part it worked like a charm. But for first edition owners to benefit they needed to invest in an upgrade kit, a nicely produced tin holding copies of the new card deck and a pack of custom card sleeves. The new cards are lovely things, their larger size used to display quality art as well as improving the horribly cramped text of the originals. But the sleeves are a bit pointless and the price for this kit, even allowing for the design work that went into it, seemed excessive, being higher than many stand-alone card games.

Now there is a small expansion to the basic game available. Lords of Middle Earth focusses, as its name suggests, on characters from Tolkien’s world, adding minor but significant players like Elrond, Galadriel and The Balrog while introducing alternative versions of almost all the characters from the basic game which can be used to replace the originals if you so wish.

The new material can be divided into two groups. We’ll deal with the more minor change first, the Council of Elrond option which allows the Free People’s player to tinker with the makeup of the fellowship, sending altered versions of some companions back to their homelands as part of setup, even allowing Strider to lead the fellowship, at the cost of some free actions for the Shadow player.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth close up

I get the feeling this isn’t going to get used very often, simply because it adds to the overburdened setup time and will confuse everyone’s tried and tested strategies. Which is a shame, because it’s a flavourful addition that addresses one of my key irritations with the base game, namely the tendency for companions to be used as Nazgul-fodder, protecting the ring-bearer at all costs rather than leaving the fellowship for adventures elsewhere.

The bigger change is the addition of Shadow minions and Free People’s keepers of the elven rings. Each of these adds a weaker version of the action dice that provide the engine underpinning the base game, a player’s’ potential choices each round being determined by rolls of these dice. They also offer unique powers for the use of each ring rather than the generic re-roll of the base game.

For the free people’s player, the keepers and their dice represent a choice over whether or not to use the powerful elven rings to further their cause. In the novel, this was discussed but set aside as likely to attract the attention of the Dark Lord and therefore too risky. Mechanically this is represented in a delightfully simple manner: keeper dice can backfire, sometimes being removed from the game and others being added to Sauron’s “Hunt” tally, which is used to find the ringbearer.

The Shadow equivalents work similarly, except that while their dice can be removed from play, they never backfire. Gothmog adds a military-themed dice while the Balrog is more capricious, sometimes enabling extra actions, others the opportunity to leave Moria and go stamping round the countryside thereabouts. I was pleased to see that he goes on foot, being correctly classified as a non-flying minion.

What this brings to the game is a wealth of subtle and nuanced strategic choices for both sides without either adding much in the way of additional rules overhead or breaking the basic theme of the game.

War of the Ring Lords of Middle Earth

Every possibility that’s enabled by the expansion is something that’s been kicked around in Tolkien fan circles for years. What if the Balrog was under Sauron’s command? Or one of the elf-lords had used their ring? Or Gollum had been tamed by Frodo’s kindness and not rebuked by Faramir? All these are delicately explored by the expansion, without invalidating older possibilities. Characters and situations leap off into life, the expansion fleshing out the bare-bones narrative of the base game with colour and detail.

It’s arguable that the exploration is almost too nuanced. The price for the rules-light way in which the new elements are introduced is that nothing, with the possible exception of the Balrog, feel substantially different to the base game. The new dice are still basically action dice. Making sensible choices as to when to use alternative characters rather than the originals requires a considerable appreciation of the strategic options in the game.

It’s also a gambler’s delight. Pretty much everything on offer outside the Council of Elrond option has a heavy random element. Dice can be very useful – or backfire badly. Smeagol can come into play if the right hunt tiles get drawn, and then might be useful depending on what cards come out. Whether this detracts from strategy is debatable, since each option needs to be chosen before being brought into play, and is therefore a calculated risk. But once picked the consequences can vary wildly on factors beyond the player’s control.

In many ways Lords of Middle Earth is the sort of expansion I’d want every game to have. It adds interesting new possibilities for experienced players without substantially altering the rules or the feel of the base game. But in being so delicately balanced it renders itself largely inessential for casual players. There are many hours of excitement and interest in the base game before you’re likely to become jaded by its possibilities, and familiar enough with its intricacies, to require this.

Where it scores though is with players who’ve done just that with the first edition game. The second edition isn’t different enough to warrant new attention from those people, but this expansion makes it so. Unfortunately to do that, they’re going to be pitching in for both the upgrade kit and the expansion, both of which look overpriced for the contents. War of the Ring is an exceptionally good and wonderfully creative game, but elements of its publishing are beginning to smell a little like a cash cow.

Cracked LCD- Re-reading Knizia’s Lord of the Rings

With The Hobbit soon to hit the theaters and a pretty great Lord of the Rings-themed MOBA just released on the consoles (review forthcoming) it looks like Tolkien’s in the charts again, so to speak. I’ve had a touch of Hobbit Fever myself and I’ve been slaking my thirst for all things Middle-Earth chiefly by playing the decade-and-change old Reiner Knizia Lord of the Rings board game. I’ve had an unusual history with this game. I bought it when it first came out, one of the very earliest Fantasy Flight Games releases published under license from Hasbro. It comes from a time before the Jacksonian epic, before Viggo and Magneto would become a part of the Lord of the Rings story. The artwork is vintage John Howe, the components look old-fashioned by today’s standards, and it falls somewhere in the middle of Knizia’s greatest era of design work. And it was also co-op when co-op wasn’t cool.

I have something of an up-and-down history with the game. I bought it when first came out, and it was during a period when Eurogames were still much closer to that classic German family style than the style that titles like Princes of Florence ushered in. I liked it but didn’t love it and the folks I was playing games with at the time really didn’t like it because it was co-op. They didn’t want to “play against the board”. As time went on and more baroque, elaborate games like War of the Ring showed up a couple of years later, Knizia’s LOTR lost favor with me altogether. It didn’t seem as thematic, narrative, or compelling. I fell into the idiot trap of assuming that playing Friendship cards couldn’t be thematic. Like many gamers tired of Eurogames in the mid-2000s, I bought into the lie of flavor text and superficial theme.

Around 2006, I came back around to the game. I actually wrote an apology to it at the old Fortress: Ameritrash blog. I was declared a “hypocrite” by some dogmatic Ameritrash types for changing my opinion on the game. I had played it a few times with a more receptive, fun group and with the great expansions, Friends and Foes and Sauron. I loved getting beat down and annihilated by the game. But then the Battlefields addition came out, and after playing it and being disappointed with it because it really was too abstract and I didn’t care for the Battle of Helm’s Deep depicted literally as a flowchart, the game was shelved again until just a couple of weeks ago.

Picking it up over a decade after publication and after playing countless other “thematic” games including several Tolkien-themed ones, I’m looking at the game with fresh eyes again. And what I’m seeing is a game that is a masterpiece of proper abstraction, conceptual theme, and player engagement.

Abstraction is a tricky thing because it’s where you can inadvertently disengage that bridge that connects the player’s imagination to both the subject matter and the process or structure of a game. There has to be adequate justification for that process and structure within the subject matter or you’re suddenly playing a mid-2000s Eurogame that is all mechanics with no actual game- or thematic meaning. But where Knizia gets this right in Lord of the Rings- even though you’re playing cards with friendship or travelling icons on them to move a pawn along a track that represents some facet of a particular section of the story and collecting shields to spend on Gandalf cards- is by connecting these mechanics very specifically to the major themes- not specific events, actions, or characters- of the novel.

Lord of the Rings is a supreme example of conceptual theme- the whole game is the journey from Bag End to Mount Doom, with the boards metering the specific, narrative details and providing some potential branches and alternative results based on outcomes. This is one of the key themes of Tolkien’s work- travelling. Travelling is more important in the stories than the martial action that most fans tend to favor when it comes to Tolkien gaming. But more than that, the cooperative nature of the game, the limited resources, and the crushing difficulty that inevitably requires players to sacrifice themselves to Corruption or face defeat illuminate the meanings and subtexts of the books far better than anything in War of the Ring, the LOTR LCG, or anything else. By the end of the game, whatever Hobbits are left to struggle through Mordor are going to feel exhausted, beaten, and facing impossible odds. But the game gives you plenty of opportunities for skin-of-the-teeth escapes and die-rolling uncertainty.

All of the above results in a fantastically engaging, emotional experience that transcends playing those Friendship cards to provide a higher gaming experience. This is a game about the same things that Lord of the Rings is about- it’s just occurring in a different medium. It attempts a retelling of the story, but allows plenty of player agency. Particularly in interacting and coordinating with other players to overcome adversity and make decisions. Sure, the game has that Alpha player problem. But that’s more a function of mammal nature than a flaw in the game’s design.

Decisions made early in the gamer end up as regrets later on. The gifts of Elrond may have been, in retrospect, squandered. A Hobbit may be facing down that glorious Eye of Sauron miniature, just a step away on the Corruption track, and really wishing that a Gandalf card or Hobbit ability wasn’t used before. This is a game where ideas like hope, faith, and shared responsibility can become factors. These are uncommon in board games.

I find it completely laughable when people argue that this game isn’t “thematic”, usually citing those darn Friendship cards or the linear sequencing of it all. Yet I fail to see how it’s any less thematic than anything occurring in War of the Ring or Middle-Earth Quest. And I fail to see how those enjoy so-called “thematic games” would not appreciate- and treasure- the intricate and very resonant ways in which this game describes the specific themes that Tolkien expressed in his work. There’s nothing particularly Tolkienian about rolling dice, drawing cards, or moving plastic miniatures around a map. But working together, making difficult choices, and overcoming the odds would fit that description at a thematic level.

But this is a different medium than fiction. The genius of Knizia’s work is that he is able to leverage the board game medium’s unique elements to tell the same (but possibly different) story with the same meanings and subtexts while using many of Tolkien’s proper-noun touch points and specific events from the books to define card and gameplay event functions while also providing the necessary settings. That it does all of this in a fairly slim set of standardized rules is amazing. That the game can bear two quite impactful expansions that manage to cram in more specific detail without becoming an overwrought burden is astonishing.

The bottom line is that there is no better adaptation of the Lord of the Rings to a gaming medium than Knizia’s adaptation. As far as the vaunted integration of theme and mechanics goes, it’s just as successful as Dune or Battlestar Galactica and in some finer, more subtle ways it is those great games’ better. It’s also far more thematic and narrative than many popular games that go to great lengths to prove to the player that they fit those descriptions, such as Arkham Horror. It is one of the world’s greatest stories made playable as one of the world’s greatest board games.