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Thinking Out Loud

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

War of the Ring >> A Fighting Chance

After taking some flak from some fellow BGGers and my face-to-face gaming buddies on having panned War of the Ring after only two aborted playings, I agreed to play a complete game with an experienced player, hoping that having someone teaching the rules as we go, rather than struggling to teach the rules myself (as a newbie, to another newbie) would help things considerably. My previous two attempts bogged down after only 1 or 2 turns, as the dense rules, poor examples and exception-riddled conditions scared off potential opponents.

Michael Silbey (armadi) and I squared off for a game of War of the Ring, completing setup as Michael finished going over some last minute rules. I had read the rules several times and had myriad player aids and references, but felt that there was always something missing so it was worth the refresher.

I opted to be the Free People's player, as Michael had played the Free People in the last several games. My overall goal was to forsake military activation to push the fellowship along as quickly as possible before Sauron's forces could activate a large military presence or claim additional dice to allocate to the hunt.

After the second or third turn, I decided this strategy was not only unimportant, but that any long-term strategy or planning was largely irrelevant, as the dice strongly dictated what I could do during any given turn. My frustration grew into bitterness as I felt that fewer and fewer of my decisions mattered, and the incredibly high barrier to entry (and for me, enjoyment) of the game reared its head.

The overall feeling was one of frustration, detachment and boredom. Finally, after nine turns, we called the game, as the fellowship was taking a serious pounding and had 11 corruption as it stood, locked in place, at the outskirts of Mordor. Getting to that point took about 2.5 hours, which normally wouldn't be too bad a time investment for a good two player "wargame" experience. But the game felt like it had taken 4-5 hours, and not in a good way.

I also felt that my turns were incredibly limited by countless points of luck -- the roll of the action dice, the roll of the combat dice, which hunt tiles were drawn, which event cards I drew, and then the cascading luck effects from the various event card actions. Or that any real planning was far too easily undermined by good cards (and good card play) by my opponent.

Free People finally roll the one die type they need to move the Fellowship toward Mordor? Ok, let Sauron draw a Hunt tile. Great. Take 2 damage or lose the Fellowship leader... Oh, and on Sauron's turn, he's playing this card that moves you back a space. So effectively, you lost a turn, gained corruption and got moved to a worse location. Oh, and Sauron has 2 more dice left while you get to sit back and watch him move all over the place. Wheeeeee!

And people call this fun?

Previous Rating: 6.5
Revised Rating: 3.5

My Comments: A mish mosh of fairly good (production quality) and very bad (everything else). Very strong theme, excellent looking components (which don't fit on the board, by the way, and make identifying borders and regions nigh impossible). But the complex, arduous gameplay greatly detracts from the experience. I've never felt so uninvolved, bored and disinterested in my role in a game. Decisions are not very compelling, the exception-riddled rules are confounding, and the gameplay bogs down into a herky-jerky pace that really squeezes any enjoyment out of this. I never need (or want) to suffer through this again.


  • I thought limiting your options with the dice, yet giving you flexibility within those options was a stroke of brilliance. Even though dice are rolled you are not at the mercy of the dice as you would be in Risk.

    I liken it to a card-driven wargame where you can either play a card as a specific event or use the value of the card for a tactical maneuver.

    You roll all the dice at the same time, yet use them one at a time in the order of your choosing. Hence, you know what your options will be in advance, and you plan your order of play accordingly. Dice determine your options not your fate. This is a very similar mechanic to a card-driven wargame where you play a card from your hand each turn until you have no cards left, then draw a new hand.

    You have a couple options for each die rolled. Generally, you can play a card with a matching symbol, or move matching units, but that is not a complete list of options.

    The guy who first compared this game to Risk with a Knizia-esque corruption track needs his head examined. It is a much deeper game than that.

    Considering they were following a script that every game geek in the world is familiar with, I think the designers did a wonderful job of creating a game that is true to the story, keeps the ambiance of the story, yet is still a good game.

    The truth be told, I get a little bored by the time I get to the end of the game, but not because I see it as a dice-fest. I get bored because it lasts a little too long.

    By Blogger Coldfoot, at 1:26 AM  

  • I take your point about the awful rules. They really should do a complete rewrite, so the FAQ is unnecessary.

    Otherwise I think you're harsh. It does a great job of invoking the atmostphere of the LOTR. Did you enjoy the books?

    By Blogger Iain, at 2:09 AM  

  • I think that 'invoking the atmosphere' is overrated. Sure, the cards match events from the book, and both sides have different victory conditions... so what? Unless the mechanics are actually fun by themselves, I don't see what's the bid deal.

    Besides, I really don't see the game having any real epic feel: If anything, the game reminds me of a road trip movie. You walk around in the general direction of your goal, while you are exposed to a set of apparently random events, that in this case have Lord of the Rings themed names.

    I rate the game higher than Jay does, but I definitely see his points: You have to hope the dice let you do what you'd like to do, and facing someone with l33t die rolling skillz can be a quite horrible experience. Add to that the frustration element of being dealt cards with narrow uses that you simply cannot use, and you have the potential for very negative game sessions.

    By Blogger hibikir, at 8:38 AM  

  • while I have only played one partial game of WotR, I think that your initial strategy probably colored your experience in this playing. In a game with so many dice, you have to be open to advancing multiple strategies and not eschewing one aspect of the game. Not that playing differently would have improved your view of this game. Its okay not to like a game that other people really like. (That's me and La Citta, btw.) Overall, I would rather play something quicker than WotR. I want to feel like I can actually get good at a game and with my schedule being so full right now the only games I really feel like I understand and can play well are ones that I've played a lot: card games, a few abstracts and PR.

    By Blogger Jon, at 10:48 AM  

  • I'm confused, Jason. What do you really think?

    duck and run

    By Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra, at 11:22 AM  

  • Hey Seth... I'm still waffling on it... I'll get back to you in a bit! :)

    By Blogger Jason Little, at 11:34 AM  

  • I think you are a little harsh, there is more to it than that.

    I enjoyed the game for the first 3 or 4 plays and appreciated some of the qualities that you seem to have completely missed.

    Currently, I rate the game a "3", but not for the same reasons.

    If we combine our complaints into a single review, we would have the most harsh review ever written about any game, anytime. I shudder at the thought of the backlash from the fanboys.

    By Blogger fubar awol, at 12:41 PM  

  • Fubar, You'd love my review of Puerto Rico :)

    By Blogger hibikir, at 1:11 PM  

  • I just happened along your blog while skipping through blogs randomly, I see you are from Missouri also...I'm about an hour from St. Louis...anyway...cripes, why don't I just tell you my whole life history. I noticed you went to the GenCon--was this the one in Indiana? A friend of mine went...I'm still waiting to see his pics from it. Looks like it was a lot of fun. Anyway, awesome blog.

    By Blogger It's My Life, at 3:16 PM  

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