The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic, genre defining series. Although the property has been licensed to many other products (including board games), they always fall short of the books. Not just because the written word may be the best medium for the story, but because too often they don’t faithfully adapt the core struggle to the new system. But there is one prominent exception: War of the Ring.
War of the Ring is a fantastic, engaging title that faithfully brings the entire trilogy to the board game world. Players will find that it stresses the same themes and while putting them in control of the books’ events. The game begins with the Fellowship fully constituted in Lothlorien and ready to set out for Mount Doom. The armies of the Free Peoples are scattered and reluctant to war. Most don’t even recognize the threat that Sauron presents. Meanwhile, the Shadow forces are already amassed for battle and are committed to conquering Middle Earth.
Each turn, the players get to roll a number of special action dice. Depending on the results, the players will be able to use them to take specified actions. Typically, the Shadow will have more and the players simply alternate back and forth using a die to take an action. When all the dice are used up, the next round starts.
The main goals of the game tie in nicely with the books. The Shadow player can win either by corrupting the ring-bearer and regaining the One Ring, or by simple military might as it conquers the Free Peoples’ nations. Meanwhile, the main path to victory for the Free Peoples is the destruction of the Ring. Although the game does allow them a military victory, it is quite difficult to achieve and really only feasible if the Shadow player is reckless.
As in the books, the Free Peoples player can separate out the companions of the Fellowship to aid the various armies of elves and men. Meanwhile, each time Sam and Frodo move closer to Mount Doom, the Shadow searches for the hobbits. If found, a companion may die or Frodo might be forced to use the Ring to escape, gaining corruption in the process.
Layered on top of this is a fantastic, card driven system of events. Players draw cards and play them by using their action dice. They represent various events from the book, like the Ents Awakening, the Dead Men of Dunharrow, or the Corsairs of Umbar and provide specific effects. Some of them even represent close-calls or “what ifs” that fit in nicely to the larger narrative.
Nearly all aspects of the novels are represented in some way in the game. Elven rings of power can be used, the trek up Mount Doom is a contest of wills and preparation, and Gollum arrives when the ring-bearers are otherwise without companions.
If you put all of this together, you get to see The Lord of the Rings play out on your table. But it isn’t as scripted as the movies. Perhaps Gandalf falls to the Balrog and is restored as Gandalf the White. Or, maybe you think it better for him to personally guide the hobbits to the crack of Mount Doom. The Shadow might engage the Free Peoples in battle, or it might focus more of its efforts in corrupting the ring-bearers.
And this is where War of the Ring really shines. While firmly rooted in the source material, and with nearly every event hearkening back to events in the stories, the game still allows the players wide latitude to complete favored strategies. The Shadow will continually crash into and eventually destroy the cities and strongholds of the Free Peoples. The question, then, is can the Shadow do so before the ring-bearers reach their destination? Or, asked another way, can the Free Peoples hold off the Shadow long enough to give Frodo and Sam time to get there?
Despite the wonderfully asymmetric nature, War of the Ring is well balanced. In the first edition, the prevalent opinion was that the Shadow side was slightly stronger. There were even tournament rules about “Dwarven Rings” to make up for it. But the second edition does not suffer from that problem and you’ll be able to get in many, many unique and interesting plays–assuming you have the time.
War of the Ring takes two or three hours to complete. Still, it is hugely entertaining and even rewarding the whole way through. You essentially get to relive the epic battles of Middle Earth and the terrible struggle of the One Ring. Perhaps Minas Tirith falls in your version, or maybe the Ents awaken early and avoid the tragedy at Helm’s Deep. But the main themes of the game stay true to those in the books. Any Tolkien fan should feel right at home in this adaptation.
Have you played War of the Ring? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
Featured Image: Ares Games