July 28th, 2005


[REVIEW] War of the Ring by Maggi, Nepitello, and Di Meglio

One's first reaction on opening the big box containing Fantasy Flight Games' edition of Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello, and Roberto Di Meglio's War of the Ring is likely something along the lines of "Oh, kewl! Axis & Allies: Middle-Earth!" This is unfair, because it's not supposed to be A&A:M-E, but the sight of little plastic molded Rohirrim and Oliphaunts just does something on a primal level. What it does is it screws with your expectations, and makes appreciating War of the Ring much harder.

Admittedly, the game doesn't make it much easier; the various armies are poorly differentiated both in color (five Good nations, all cast in the same powder blue) and in modeling, the board is tricky and slow to navigate, and I can only presume that the rules read much, much better in the original Italian. Seriously, my group has played it three times and we still have to look things up -- and we still can't find them when we do, but we often find a little rule coyly tucked away in obscurity that seems to invalidate the last hour or so of play. They are neither clear nor intuitive nor elegant, which would seem to be the trifecta. Here, for example, is how they seem to work, although having only read the rules six or seven times I can't vouch for this summary:

The players take a card to fill out their hands, and may hint with wide longing eyes that their partner (usually Good and Evil each get two players -- Saruman, Sauron, the Dwarves-Rohirrim and Elves-Gondor) really wants to trade for their new card. Then each side tosses a handful of special Action Dice, and their options are constrained by the results. (A die might let you move a character, move two armies, muster an army, take or play a card out of turn, and so forth.) If Good moves the Fellowship, it allows Evil to Hunt for the Ring with a mechanic involving a (normal) dice pool and a counter-pull. (Once the Fellowship gets into Mordor, the rules change again.) The Fellowship might split under involved circumstances; this often makes it easier to move the Good nations toward war, which takes freaking forever even with Boromir on side. ("Orcs are besieging Minas Tirith." "It's not a war! Denethor lied, people died!") If there's combat, players play cards to affect the combat (or not) and then roll (normal) dice a la Risk to determine how many Easterlings have to die for Sauron, except you re-roll for leaders and Nazgul. Then you see if you accidentally won yet, and start over. I may have missed one or two steps here.

But, but, but. The components are nice and mostly attractive, if unclear. The rhythm of the game feels very much like the novels; the Fellowship and the Ring are central to the action, but the War cannot be ignored. The cards are obviously the result of high Tolkien scholarship and much Tolkien love; everything you could want shows up in them (potentially) from the Eagles to Faramir. The "quantum movement" of the Fellowship is genius fun. The game is superbly balanced, at least in our experience; I've won all three times, but as Evil twice and Good once, and in all three games the game came down to a single die roll over the Ring at the end, which built tension admirably. There's a "military victory" condition, which we got very close to once as Evil, and which Good threatened another time before the Witch-King showed up. (He gives Evil an extra Action Die. Good old Witch-King.) Once we've read the rules enough times in any given game session, we always have a great time playing, which argues that the rules aren't bad, just appallingly presented. They are baroque, but if you're going to try to get the Fellowship, its breaking, the minor races, Saruman, Gandalf's resurrection, the Eye, the three Elven rings, corruption and war and everything else but Tom Bombadil's stewpot into a game, you're going to wind up with a baroque ruleset.

The only real, repeated problem we've noticed is that the board is so broken up into territories that armies (which can move only one space per turn) take forever to move anywhere, even if you miraculously have Action Dice that let you move them. Hence, easily three quarters of the pieces you so laboriously set up at the beginning of the game may well never move. Also, the turn of a friendly card has real jolting effects on the game flow, which doesn't usually affect balance (both sides have their "screw you, elf-boy" cards in plenty) but does affect strategy. You can't plan a war if you can't move armies or count on their effectiveness. We've talked among ourselves about trying a variant with double movement for armies, and we can probably figure something out for the cards. Still, we're still talking about playing War of the Ring again, which is more than we're saying about Axis & Allies: D-Day. If you're at all interested in War of the Ring, give it a try. Maybe you can explain the rules to me some time.