Game Name: War of the Ring Second Edition
Publisher: Ares Games
Designer: Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello
Artist: John Howe
Players: Two to four players
Playing Time: 2-4 Hours
Genre: Lord of the Rings themed wargame
I played the first War of the Ring game back in the 80’s. It was the version released from SPI, and featured a hex map and could actually be broken by the shadow player so that the Fellowship player would almost certainly lose.
In 2004 we saw the release of a new War of the Ring from NG International (Nexus) and published in the USA by Fantasy Flight Games. It was a beautiful game, complex, and had victory conditions achievable by either side.
Fast forward to 2011, Ares games received the rights from defunct NG International and decided to publish the game in the United States on their own. The FFG version has long been considered one of the best adaptations of the struggle between the shadow and the inhabitants of Middle Earth ever made. So how can you improve on that?
What Ares did was to keep the changes to a minimum. Improve the areas that fans and critics didn’t like, and leave the rest intact. After all, the game has been out of print for a few years now, so there is a whole new segment of Tolkien fans that do not have copies of the game.
War of the Ring isn’t a wargame, it is more in the line of Risk or Axis and Allies. The battle part of the game involves plastic figures representing regular, elite, leader, and character members of either side rolling dice to attack or defend. The bigger the attacking force, the better your chances of success.
What we are talking about here is the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of books by JRR Tolkien, transferred into a boardgame. As a Free Peoples player your goal is to either have Sam and Frodo throw the ring into the fires of Mount Doom, or for the armies of the peoples to overcome the Shadow on the field of battle by amassing 4 victory points. As the Shadow player your goal is to either corrupt the Ring Bearers to the point where they turn to the Shadow, or to defeat the armies of the Free Peoples by amassing 10 victory points. It takes more victory points for the Shadow, but they have the benefit of unlimited reinforcements. Once a Free Peoples unit is destroyed, it is gone forever.
Beyond the military conflict side is the quest of the Fellowship of the Ring to get to Mount Doom and throw the ring into the fires, destroying the power of the dark lord forever. The Fellowship consists of all of the characters from the books and movies, at least in the beginning. You may lose companions along the way, or they could be forced to leave to try to save another part of Middle Earth from the unrelenting march of the Shadow’s armies.
All this is the same in both editions of the game. Let’s discuss a few of the differences. First and foremost, the rulebook has changed. The 23 page Fantasy Flight rulebook has been replaced with a 47 page Ares games version. Many of the sections are the same, word for word, but there have also been many clarifications, revisions and improvements to the readability. The FFG book featured a font so tiny to be only readable by sharp eyed elves. The new version has a larger font, many more examples, and a full two page spread of the board with all of the starting army locations clearly marked. The rulebook is a vast improvement. It isn’t perfect, there are a lot of rules to remember and 47 pages is a lot to digest, so don’t think it will be a walk in the park. There is a lot of meat to the game that you just have to bite the bullet and learn, this version just makes it a bit easier.
Along with the bigger is better motif, the cards are much larger. They are at least twice the size of the FFG cards, more like the size of Tarot cards, if you know what those are like. They are also much more readable, and have room to make everything bigger, so that you can see all of the icons without a magnifying glass. Some cards have been modified to improve their usefulness, and the abilities of the characters themselves have been changed as well. Pippen and Merri might actually be useful for something more than just fodder to prevent corruption to the ring bearers.
The artwork is the same, it is just bigger so that you can see it better, the figures are the same for the most part, the Nazgul have changed so that they don’t fall over all the time like they tended to do in the FFG version, and a few others are different, but not many. The dwarves setup has been changed a wee bit (ha! wee bit). The combat sequence has been modified to be easier to follow, and so has the hunt sequence. Plus the fellowship can enter Mordor now even if it is not hidden.
The board, although it looks similar, has been completely redrawn. It is far easier to see the borders of the nations than in the FFG version, and somehow the regions look bigger despite the fact that they cover the same Middle Earth. I did spy a few changes to the regions; the one I can think of off the bat is the addition of the “Old Forest Road” region. I’m sure there are more; I just haven’t compared them section by section. The new map also has a victory point track, so that you don’t need to keep counting them up on the board. Like everything else, I found the board much easier to read.
Remember all those times that you had no space to fit a whole army in one region? Ares has added three boxes and some counters so that you can replace all your figures from one army with a single counter, and then place the army in the box on the board. You can swap them out at any time; they are there to help you when you just don’t have enough space.
It has been awhile since I’ve played the FFG version, so I had to go through and relearn the specifics for this one all over again. As I mentioned, it is not a simple game. There are many rules and little things to remember. There are two player aids, but you will still find yourself paging through the rules for the first few games. You can rely on common sense for the most part. For example, you can’t recruit troops into a stronghold that is under siege, duh!
WOTR is as thematic a game you will find based on the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf the Grey can become Gandalf the White, Strider can become King Aragorn. The cards do much to add events from the books, but you always have the difficult decision whether or not to use the event on the card, or the combat bonus on the card. Once they are used, they are out of the game.
For me, this version is an improvement to the original. It tries to help you learn the game rather than fight you as the FFG version seemed to do at times. If you already have the FFG version, you can purchase an upgrade kit that has all of the new cards in a nice tin for about $30, and then download the new version of the rules from the Ares Games website, that might be enough for you. I personally like the new board a lot. There is less topography than on the FFG version, but it is easier to read and use. If you have been waiting to try this game out, I recommend getting the Ares Games version while it is in print.