Friday 2 November 2018

‘The table is set, the pieces are moving…’ War of the Ring, the epic board game

Sometimes you have a hankering to play something big, really big… to spend a day, or maybe 2 in a huge board wargame, pushing the little men around, besieging strongholds with hordes of Orcs, Trolls and evil Southrons.

Enter the rather excellent War of the Ring board game by Ares Games. This is the game that, once, when I was about 11 years old, would have had me saving every penny to buy from Games of Liverpool. I did once try to buy the first ‘War of the Ring’ board game there in about 1983, they didn’t have it in stock… much disappointment followed on the bus trip to my grandmas. The scars remain. Now, things have come full circle and this big-beast of a board game is just a click away. It ain’t cheap, but you get what you pay for, and it is, well super cool (in my world).

 Early moves in WotR... cheesy Wotsits of ultimate power not included...

So far we have only played it once, and I loved it (but it could have been written for me). Having done the hard-graft on the rules reading, it became obvious that for first time players the forces of the Free Peoples were going to be the tougher ask. The game is asymmetrical, in that the forces are not evenly matched. The free forces will not match up against Sauron’s hordes of darkness and win in a straight military sense. Theirs is a struggle for time, to help get the Fellowship of the Ring (or whoever happens to left in it) into Mordor and then up Mount Doom. Heroic lasts stands play big here… all to the good. Those sacrifices are not in vain, which is satisfying.

The game has many great elements, the sub-routine mini-game which is the fellowship’s secret journey adds a lot, it’s a race, for them and for the Dark Lord, as he’s unlikely to stop them getting to Mordor (although he can delay them, perhaps fatally in the end). Sauron might well have to commit to war and battle before he has had the chance to sit-back, build-up overwhelming forces and unleash his legions to sweep to victory. This give the men of Gondor, Rohan, the Elves, Dwarves and the ‘Men of the North’ a fighting chance. These are the five factions of the Free People. But, in a war of attrition, they lose, because their troops are removed from the game altogether, whilst the enemy’s can be recycled endlessly, as long as he uses the Muster actions needed to recoup them. The forces of freedom and light get a few small advantages, like they have more leaders and more special characters (called companions in the game), like Gandalf, Aragorn, et al to help out (but only if they leave the Fellowship). This is a neat (and hard) choice. They can stay with Frodo and Sam and go to Mordor and assist in the final ascent of Mount Doom, usually by taking corruption damage instead of the Ringbearer, which will kill them off (hey, it’s a suicide mission, Elrond probably didn’t mention that back in Rivendell), or they can leave Frodo and Sam to it and get involved in fighting the battles and sieges, and much aid they are (and direly needed).

In our game, the Fellowship initially struggled to get to Loth Lorien (they start at Rivendell), through hunting Nazgul and bad weather and balking at an attempt through Moria (the Balrog special card is a bit scary). It took me far too long and I had to rest up in Loth Lorien to recover some corruption, which was already building up. The time lost here saw Rohan fall (with something of a whimper) to Saruman’s rampant forces (the siege of Helms Deep was a low point for me, it fell with not a casualty inflicted on the enemy). Then Gondor was assaulted by a huge Southron army and corsairs from the sea. They overran Dol Amroth and the Pelagir and only Minas Tirith stood, and that’s when the host of Orcs attacked through Ithilien from Mordor. Eek, things looked very grim for me then.

There was little hope for the White City and Gondor without aid in the form of Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir etc., so they headed south at speed, before the siege closed around Minas Tirith, whilst all the Hobbits headed for the Black Gate. Legolas and Gimli stayed in Lorien, to aid its defence, because armies from Dol Guldur and Moria severely threaten it. That proved a good decision, as Loth Lorien was attacked several times, but held out. Getting into Mordor cost Merry and Pippin their lives, and Gollum was now leading Frodo and Sam on the final leg of the quest. Meanwhile, Boromir aided his fellow Gondorians in a huge battle for Osgiliath, before retreating back into Minas Tirith with his few survivors (the Orcs paid dearly for the crossing of the river - satisfying),  there to be reunites with Gandalf (now the White) and Aragorn. That siege would last most of the game, but (with some aid from the Eagles routing the Ringwraiths), the city remained unbreached. Hurrah!

Meanwhile, in the far north, the Dwarves had roused themselves to war and, mustering an army in Erebor, they marched on Mt Gundabad, laid siege and eventually captured it (the Free-People’s only offensive triumph of the game). Back at home, the Easterlings now had Erebor besieged, but it too held out, in a close run fight, with no help from the Men of Dale (thanks), because as yet they had not reached the ‘at war’ status required to get stuck in. The ‘Men of the North’ faction never did… and sat this war out! That mechanic, whilst frustrating because forces you need can’t act, attack or eevn reinforce, is a nice addition. Not all a player’s factions are equally as committed to the war, and for some, if largely left alone, they don’t feel any requirement to get involved. The allied factions are divided ('scattered, divided, leaderless'). The Dwarves risk this fate most, and could easily sit the war out, unless you use actions early to move them along the political track towards war they will just hide out in their lonely mountain and refuse to come out. Investment early can pay dividends later, another element I like. Forward think, not just reacting to attacks and events.

Our game reached a tight and very tense finale, with much shouting and laughing. With Minas Tirith saved my last Gondorian army went on the offensive, led by the main characters, sweeping to the gates of Minas Morgul through Osgiliath and Ithilien. Besieged, one attack would see the dark stronghold fall and the Free Peoples win a unlikely military victory (thanks to the Dwarves earlier hard work at Mt Gundabad). But Frodo was on the last steps to Mt Doom too, and each step was costing him more corruption points. 12 breaks the poor Ringbearer, and I was now on 11, with 1 counter to draw to make it to the Crack of Doom. Here is the rub… if he stays still, he gains +1 corruption automatically, so I had to move, he just couldn’t wait for a turn for Minas Morgul to fall. Try as I might with event cards etc, 5+ hours came down to that last chit draw. And Sauron (my eldest) pulled a 3… even Gollum’s special ability couldn’t save Frodo and at the last he failed and broke – I’d like to see the end of the movie where Frodo turns, but Gollum doesn’t fall into Mt Doom with the ring. In our game, Frodo pushes Gollum and Sam in and heads for Barad-Dur instead…

The game has a good feel for Middle-Earth, unsurprising given the authors, and was close enough to events of the book, without being slavish to them. The war plays out like ‘a’ possible War of the Ring, pleasingly close to the book, but without feeling like it was locked into it. In our game, the war came to Rohan before any further aid or extra musters of troops were allowed. That resulted in it collapsing, as per Saruman’s original plan (I imagine), thwarted by Gandalf et al in the book. In our game, Saruman’s plan obviously worked and Gandalf was not about to save Theoden.

It all played rather well, but it all took time. 5+ hours running time (first time though), so not for the feint-hearted (or the too busy). But, it’s half-term, so when else is there time for such happy diversions? All that is left is to re-read the rulebook and find all the things we did wrong, so next time we can forget all about them and start from scratch again. That the problem with these big games, you don’t play often enough to remember the (not uncomplex) rules and exceptions. So, how many units can you stack in a besieged city?? (We got that wrong).

For LotR fans, with the time to invest, this is top fun. I’ll look forward to our next crack at it, maybe at Christmas.