Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary

A mirror of the diaries published on Aresgames.eu about the design and development of the War of the Ring Expansion, "Lords of Middle-earth".

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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 9 - "I am called Strider"

Roberto Di Meglio
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Strider is definitely one of the most important characters in War of the Ring.

In the Fellowship, he opens the way to one of the “extreme” strategies that the Free Peoples player may use, the “Strider Sprint”, which uses his power as a Guide (hiding the Fellowship with any die) to get the Ringbearer to move towards Mordor using almost all the Action Dice available.

At the same time, separating him is also of utmost importance. “Upgrading” Strider to Aragorn, Heir of Isildur, gives to the Free Peoples player an additional die, which can be precious to swing the balance to his favour if this happens in the first turns of the game.

And an early death of Strider as a random casualty - no sane Free Peoples player would willingly eliminate him! – is a blow not easy to recover from.

It soon became clear that creating an alternate version of such an important character was a big challenge. The design of the alternate versions of most of the other Companions worked fine almost since the beginning. The only real change they had during development was that, initially, there was a “hidden setup”, so that the Shadow did not know if they were in the Fellowship or in their homeland. But their specific abilities did not change that much during playtest and development.

Gandalf was more difficult, as we said before. But the “new” Strider proved to be the toughest to re-define properly. The first versions of Strider just used a stronger variant of the Guide ability of the other Companions: instead of eliminating him, you could separate Strider when he was the Guide of the Fellowship. A stronger effect than removing one Corruption? Cancel one tile… But this proved to be definitely TOO good!

After all, differently from most of the other Companions, the Free Peoples player really WANTS Strider to be separated, as soon as possible. The new ability meant that you could get an early separation, avoid wasting a die, canceling a Hunt Tile… Why should you bother with the “old" Strider? Even “toning down” the effect (reducing two Corruption rather than one) was not an improvement. It was still too much a boon for the Free Peoples to be able to separate Strider from the Fellowship using the Guide ability, instead of an Action Die.

It was clear we had to change the reasoning behind the re-design of Strider. We should not follow the same logic as the other Companions, and in fact, the logic should be reversed.

In the basic game, unless you’re doing a Strider Sprint (which in 2nd Edition is not as good an option as it was before), you want Aragorn in play as soon as possible. So, the new Strider should provide a greater incentive to keep him in the Fellowship, rather than hastily replacing him. However, the “old” Strider already had a good ability as a Guide. What could we do differently, to create an interesting new version?

The first idea was to have a new effect influencing the chances of the Fellowship being revealed. Rather than allowing you to hide a revealed Fellowship, it would prevent a Reveal on the Fellowship (only when provoked by a “normal” Hunt tile), by spending an Action die. However, such an effect was too similar to his "old" ability, and had the negative side-effect that was a perfect counter to the new Witch-king. The Chief of the Ringwraiths can only enter play, in practice, after the Fellowship is revealed for the first time. It looked a little pointless to add two new characters who cancel out each other. So we started looking for something different.

Of course, a Guide ability must influence the Hunt. What else could the new Strider do?

We realized that the Free Peoples player never has a chance to directly influence the strength of the Hunt roll. The Shadow player has ways to enhance his roll; and with the new Witch-king and his ability to relentlessly pursue the Fellowship, even more than before. The Free Peoples player cannot do anything to reduce the risk of the Hunt roll.

We realized that giving to the Free Peoples player this possibility could be a great new way to represent the efficacy of Strider as a ranger who leads the Fellowship to avoid dangers.

The ability we designed for Strider is that the first die used to move the Fellowship in a turn does not go into the Hunt box, if Strider is the Guide. As each time a Free Peoples Action die goes into the Hunt box, the Hunt roll improves by +1, this means that - with Strider guiding - the Fellowship can move twice in a turn, and the second movement is still only as dangerous as the first.

At the same time, however, if the Fellowship only moves once, there will be no Free People dice in the Hunt box at the end of the turn: This implies that, in the next turn, the Shadow player can decide to leave zero Eyes in the Hunt, and if Gandalf the Grey, Bearer of Narya, becomes the Guide, his ability does not work.

So, the new Strider introduces an interesting situation: the Fellowship can move faster without increasing the risk as much as before, but it is more difficult to stay hidden than with the "old" Strider, and the Shadow player draws a little benefit from a slow-moving Fellowship.

Sprinting against a lot of Eyes in the Hunt box remains risky, so Corruption strategies are not ruled out. With Strider in the Fellowship, the Shadow player may also play “Gandalf the White Denial” (that is, not playing Saruman or the Black Captain, to prevent the White to be mustered) and force the Free Peoples player to choose between playing with 4 dice, or separating Strider. A “Strider Sprint” strategy becomes indeed viable again, but the Shadow player has ways to counter it.

The ability is indeed very strong, but the trade off is that Strider in the Fellowship means one Action die less in the pool of the Free Peoples player, as Aragorn is not around. Is the trade off a good one? It’s a difficult choice… Exactly as it should be!

The new Strider worked well in the playtest. With this last character completely defined, the design of Lords of Middle-earth was finally complete… And so our series of Designer’s Diaries is finally close to the end.

In the next and final article… a few notes about Events, good-byes, and thanks!
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Tue Oct 9, 2012 6:00 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 8 - The COuncli of Rivendell

Roberto Di Meglio
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Since the very first draft of what was to become Lords of Middle-earth, we started to work around the idea of including alternate versions of the Companions. The idea of alternate versions of existing characters was already featured in Battles of the Third Age and we had already decided to revisit it in Lords - it is a good way to include personalities which are new from the point of view of game play, without straying too far away from the literary canon that is the foundation of the game.

In Lords of Middle-earth, as a logical extension of the inclusion of Elrond and Galadriel as Keepers of the Elven Rings of Power, we wanted to include an alternate version of Gandalf the Grey. Why not do the same for the other characters in the Fellowship?

In the beginning, we considered to include companions different from those appearing in the book – people like Glorfindel or Faramir. But “what-ifs” are a slippery ground, and the border between “interesting” and “unbelievable” is sometimes very thin. We decided that this was really too much of a departure from the books, and started to consider a different approach to this design challenge.

First of all – did the game really need alternate Companions? Or at least, could it have an improvement from such an addition?

Companions inWar of the Ring work in a very linear fashion, to avoid cluttering an already complex game with individual rules exception, which only come in the game once in a while. Except Strider and Gandalf on one end, and the Hobbits on the other, the companions are all similar: Gimli, Legolas, Boromir all share the same Leadership, Level, and abilities, and are only made different by Nationality and by the Event cards linked to them.

They were originally designed around the concept that, at every step of the quest of the Fellowship, the Free People player should be faced with the choice of keeping them to shield Frodo from harm, or send them out to help the fight of the Free People. However, in actual game play (especially when the game is played in a competitive, rather than narrative, way), this trade off is not as well balanced as we wanted it to be. Separating them from the Fellowship costs a Character action, and moving them around costs additional actions- actions that, most of the time, the Free People player prefers to spend to advance the Fellowship toward Mordor. Most of the time, Companions are separated only when certain Event cards that provide a “boost” to separation are used (for example, “There and Back Again”), or if he's forced to by “The Breaking of the Fellowship” Shadow Event. Too often, they just end up as “monster fodder” to save the Ringbearer from taking on more Corruption.

We considered that this was a loss in terms of the variety of strategies available to the Free People player, and also not “right” in the light of what Tolkien tells us about these characters.

“They are willing to go at least to the passes of the Mountains, and maybe beyond,” Elrond says of Legolas and Gimli.
And Aragorn says about himself and Boromir: “I am [going to Minas Tirith with Boromir]". “And the Sword-that-was-Broken shall be re-forged ere I set out to war. But your road and our road lie together for many hundreds of miles. Therefore Boromir will also be in the Company. He is a valiant man.”
And again Elrond, talking of Merry and Pippin, says: “The Shire, I forebode, is not free now from peril; and these two I had thought to send back there as messengers, to do what they could, according to the fashion of their country, to warn the people of their danger.”

The meaning is very clear: the Companions of the Ring are not meant necessarily to die bravely to defend Frodo, as the Council is convinced that a Hobbit that walks alone, or almost alone, straight into the maws of Mordor has more chances to succeed as a full host (strange but, in retrospect, true!). Granted that it’s useful that they travel with Frodo for a while, they have their own agendas (or possible alternative agendas, as Elrond says of Merry and Pippin). The only characters who clearly do not have a choice are Frodo and Sam, with their destiny to be the Ring-bearers.

So, it is definitely possible, within the boundaries set by the narrative, that some of the Companions could have departed Rivendell to get to their homelands – and considered that between the Council of Elrond and the day the “Ring goes south” there’s a wait lasting weeks and months, it is not impossible to think that they could have decided to depart sooner than the Ring did.

So, the solution we devised was to create what we consider an acceptable “what-if” about the role of each Companion in the story. The way Companions are described in War of the Ring becomes only one of the possible paths in the story – the possibility that they wish to remain with Frodo until the very end, or at least as long as possible. To reflect the other possibilities hinted at by the story, we decided to provide alternate designs to choose from.

First of all, the Companions were to be redesigned in a way that made them less powerful in some instances, but easier to separate – they would be less effective as “Corruption shields”, and less powerful as military Leaders, but as stalwart as before as defenders of their homeland. A new Guide ability was designed for Boromir, Legolas and Gimli, allowing them to separate from the Fellowship as an effect of the Hunt, rather than spending an Action die.

At the same time, we also considered that, in the long wait between the Council and the decision to send the Ring south, these characters could decide that their sword, bow and axe was needed elsewhere rather than in Rivendell, and that they would depart – reaching their homeland before the Fellowship leaves for the quest to Mount Doom. So, the Free People player may decide that they start play in their respective home region.

Similarly, we considered the possibility - clearly stated by Elrond - that Merry and Pippin could be sent to the Shire, to help defending their people. This version of the two Hobbit friends make them better than before to be involved in the military action – they have now the “Champion of the Shire” ability, similar to “Captain of the West” but only usable for battles in the North; and if eliminated in battle, they just vanish and reappear again in a neighboring region. They may start the game in The Shire, too. However, if used together, they are possibly even better than before inside the Fellowship - as their new Guide ability gives the possibility of canceling a Hunt tile by eliminating both of them. This gives to the Free People player an interesting choice about how to use them, and whether to prefer them, or not, to their previous version.

The presence of new abilities, and the choice to start with Companions set up in their home region, creates a lot of different options in an area of the game - the initial setup and the composition of the Fellowship - that until now did not offer any choice. Now, the Free People player must take some decisions before the game starts. Does he want to focus on the military defense of one or more Nations since the beginning? Does he want to use the "old" or "new" version of each character? If the new characters are used, should he place them in or out of the Fellowship?

Our main concern during the design of these characters, and their testing, was that they should be neither stronger nor weaker than their previous versions (else, we would only create the appearance of choice!). We also wanted be sure that the new versions could not contribute too much towards a Free People Military Victory, a strategy that we don’t want to see as dominant in the game, to avoid going too far from the original narrative.

With our goals clearly set, the redesign of all these characters proved to be quite straightforward, and we almost immediately settled on a version which was to be the one used in the published game. The two which proved to be the most difficult to redefine were Gandalf and Strider. We already discussed Gandalf in Part 3 and Part 5 of this series of articles, but what about Strider? More about him in the next article… The end is near!
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Sun Oct 7, 2012 6:00 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 7 - Sméagol

Roberto Di Meglio
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Gollum is one of the most fascinating characters in The Lord of the Rings. Many critics consider Tolkien’s mythology to be a world of black and white, where the good is always unshakable and evil is absolute evil.

Gollum, however, definitely proves that this is not really the case. This tormented figure, torn between his residual humanity (as shown by his feelings toward Frodo, the only person who had any consideration for him in centuries), and his terrible craving for the One Ring, makes many pages of the Trilogy impossible to forget.

The dual nature of Gollum/Sméagol is already featured in many ways in the main game, thanks to the subtle way Gollum's ability work (shielding him from the Eye, and allowing Frodo to reduce corruption, but at the same time revealing him), and to the presence of several Event cards that revolve around his presence as the Guide of the Fellowship.

When we designed the 1st Edition expansion, Battles of the Third Age, we thought that this interesting character could have an even greater role in the game. From a narrative point of view, with Sméagol we introduced a very interesting “what if” in the story. Gollum is following the tracks of the Fellowship since they go through Moria, and is only “tamed” after Frodo and Sam remain alone. However, it’s not hard to imagine that Gandalf or Aragorn (who captured him before) could have a chance to capture him again, and convince him somehow to guide the Fellowship through the darkest places of Middle-earth.

From the point of view of game mechanics, Sméagol provided a way to balance the game, as one of his abilities removed one of the most annoying (and unwanted) features of the First Edition, the “turn stall” (the possibility of the Shadow player to use Event cards to delay the Fellowship when entering Mordor by one full turn – ed.).

His main ability was (and is) his unusual “Level X”: Sméagol enters the game randomly, when a Sméagol tile is drawn from the Hunt pool, and he has the same level as the highest-level character in the Fellowship. He automatically becomes the Guide and adds several points of “corruption shield” to the Ringbearers; however, by doing so, he effectively “cancels” any other Guide ability that the Free Peoples player may want to use.

As an additional benefit, any other Sméagol tile later drawn from the Hunt Pool was a “0” tile.

Finally, if Sméagol was “sacrificed” to help the Fellowship, he became a liability for the Free Peoples player, as the “We Shall Get It” play-on-the-table card entered the game: a potentially very nasty ace up the sleeve of the Shadow player, as it allows to re-draw a Hunt tile.

Overall, Sméagol was a very interesting character already as defined by Battles of the Third Age. However, the new rules in 2nd Edition who prevent turn stalling in a “structural” way made his secondary ability, declaring the Fellowship in mid-turn, pointless.

There was another well-founded criticism on this character – differently from any other character in the game, his arrival was entirely random, and his presence and use could swing the balance in the game quite wildly in one direction or another.

Was it possible to redefine him, correcting these faults, and make him an even more interesting addition to the 2nd Edition?

Removing his secondary effect altogether was an easy choice. It made the complex rules of this character simpler, and the effect fortunately was un-necessary now. Cut!

How to deal with the randomness was a more difficult decision. We considered that his random arrival was really essential – he is a character, but his main effect is to influence the Hunt which, by design, is a part of the game which the players can influence, but not control fully.

We decided that, as it happens in other parts of the game, we should give to the players more chances to influence the randomness, trying to turn the odds to their favor. The key to this was the introduction of new Event cards: most notably, “Safe Paths in the Dark”, that adds 2 Sméagol tiles to the Hunt Pool. In this way, the Free Peoples player may increase the chances of Smeagol’s arrival, and at the same time he increases the number of potential “0” tiles in the pool.

However, new Events are also added to the Shadow deck, and if “We Won’t Go Back” enters the game, the Sméagol tiles ADD corruption to the Ringbearers. Now, the Free Peoples player has reasons to regret adding more of them to the Hunt Pool…

The additional interplay created by these Event cards gives to both players a way to influence the randomness of Smeagol’s arrival, and how much his presence helps or hurts the Fellowship – in a similar way to the “seeding” of the Hunt Pool with special tiles. The rest of Sméagol’s abilities did not really needed to be tweaked further, and were left essentially unchanged, with the notable exception that now Smeagol's tiles are not placed back in the pool when drawn.

The redesign of all the characters included in Battles of the Third Age was over; they were integrated by new characters making the new additions better-rounded and more balanced… What else could we do to make Lords of Middle-earth the most exciting character-base expansion to War of the Ring we could think of?
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Thu Oct 4, 2012 3:54 pm
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 6 - Preserving the Balance: The Dark Side

Roberto Di Meglio
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With the design of the Elven Keepers complete, the core of the Lords of Middle-earth expansion, for the Free Peoples player, was well defined: Elrond; Galadriel and Gandalf, Bearer of Narya; their new Keeper’s dice; and the extra abilities that the Elven Rings had when these characters entered play.

For the Shadow Player, we had an almost symmetrical extension. The alternate version of the Witch-king, who gave to the Shadow player a whole new path to victory, thanks to his ability of tormenting the Fellowship with nasty card draws from the Shadow Character Event deck.

The Balrog of Moria and Gothmog reinforced the action dice pool with their Lesser Minions dice, and also added new abilities to the arsenal of the Shadow. The Balrog has the possibility of raising out of Moria as a powerful leader of the Shadow Armies, striking a terrible blow against one Free Peoples stronghold, before being confined again to the darkness of the depths of the Earth through the Will of the West. Gothmog may lead a powerful assault against the southern lands, and use his ability to raise a siege almost impossible to break.

A key design concept in War of the Ring is that there must always be choices, and choices must always be important. So we gave a lot of thought to the way all the new characters should interact between themselves, and with the existing characters, in order to extend the amount of choices created by their presence, and make them meaningful.

The Balrog follows closely the original concept this character had in Battles of the Third Age: this demon of fire may come in play very early, and its presence in the game does not count as a requisite for the mustering of Gandalf the White. These characteristics are well suited to the role that the Balrog has in the book, and provides an interesting alternate opening for the Shadow player, that may decide to delay the arrival of Saruman or the Witch-king, while still receiving an action benefit from the Balrog’s die.

In Lords of Middle-earth, this possibility is further developed thanks to Gothmog and the new Witch-king, the Chief of the Ringwraiths: all these characters may come in the game, providing the Shadow with two Lesser Minions dice and a full Action die, and still Gandalf cannot don his white robes!

This means that the Shadow has effective access to a “Gandalf Denial” strategy, focusing on mustering the armies of Mordor and renouncing to the treachery of Saruman, or at least delaying the involvement of the Multi-colored Wizard until later in the war.

The military action of the Shadow in this case will not be as strong as a “typical” game with the Black Captain and Saruman coming in early, still the combination of the different character’s abilities and their action dice may bring a powerful combination of corruption and military, while slowing down the rise of the Free Peoples.

However, we realized, thanks to the playtest, that this was possibly not enough to keep the game balance under control. The Free Peoples player, thanks to the presence of Gandalf, Keeper of Narya, the help of the Keepers, and Aragorn, may reach an action total of 6 dice early in the game. When properly used, and focused towards a military victory, they could actually give an edge in attempting a Free Peoples Military Victory.

Let’s be clear: the Free Peoples Military victory IS a “legitimate” path to victory. However, we always wanted that the Free Peoples must be in a position to attempt such a strategy if the Shadow is not careful enough about defending his fortresses; else, it must be a VERY dangerous gamble.

It was acceptable that the design of Lords of Middle-earth made a Free Peoples Military Victory somewhat easier to pursue – just like the Shadow player has a better chance of a corruption victory. However, we realized that when such a strategy becomes as likely a path to victory as the destruction of the One Ring, the theme of the game is lost – it may be fun to have, once in a while, a game with the Fellowship in Rivendell, while the Free Peoples on the offensive assaulting Moria and Dol Guldur... but this cannot be the norm.

From a thematic point of view, it’s very logical that an assault of the Free Peoples brings a swift, brutal response from the Dark Lord. How could we represent this in the game?

From the books, we learn that Sauron had designated the Mouth of Sauron, a powerful Dark Númenórean sorcerer in his service, as the would-be tyrant of the vanquished Free Peoples. So, who better than him to stomp into the ground a bold attempt by his future subjects to storm the domains of the Dark Lord himself? Unfortunately, the Mouth of Sauron only enters the scene at the very end of the game – when the Fellowship enters Mordor, or when all the Free Peoples Nations are at war.

However, a solution was at hand – just like we did for the Witch-king, we could create an alternate version of the Mouth of Sauron, one whose purpose was to punish severely an attempt of Free Peoples Military Victory which did not come to fruition quickly enough.

So, the Mouth of Sauron, Black Númenórean was born. Differently from the version of the character included in the base game, he can enters play very early, if the Free Peoples player gains at least 1 Victory Point, and his arrival makes the battle much tougher for the Armies of the West. He can come in play as an alternative to his previous incarnation, and be mustered just where the Shadow needs him the most. He still brings an additional die, and has new abilities, different from those of his predecessor (but not really more powerful, so that both versions of the character remain viable).

With this addition, the lineup of Shadow characters was complete… During playtest, there was still a lot of tweaking the various abilities to make all the new characters balanced and interesting, while making sure that none of the “old” ones became outdated, but the overall structure of the expansion was now well defined.

Still, there was some more work to do...
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Thu Sep 27, 2012 5:35 pm
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 5 - Preserving the Balance

Roberto Di Meglio
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One of the greatest challenges in designing an expansion for War of the Ring is how to add new elements to the game without breaking the balance.

The action dice system is especially important. In War of the Ring, the Shadow has a significantly greater number of actions in a turn than the Free Peoples, starting with 7 dice against 4, and with the possibility of getting up to 10 actions when the Witch-king, Saruman and the Mouth of Sauron are in play. However, a part of these dice may end up, willingly or not, in the Hunt Box, and the mustering of these powerful Minions allows the Free Peoples player to get Gandalf the White in play.

The Free Peoples player only has 4 action dice in the beginning, and gains 2 more when Gandalf the White and Aragorn, Heir to Isildur are in play. The timing of these arrivals is not certain – both of them need a Will of the West roll, so if the Free Peoples player does not roll such a die, he may have a shortage of actions in the early turn and be at a disadvantage.

The balance is very delicate, and the Second Edition improved it – by forcing the Shadow player to allocate one die to the Hunt Box if the Fellowship is moving, and by making more difficult an early arrival of the Witch King, the Black Chieftain. In the first edition, the Shadow player had the possibility of doing a military blitz, by recruiting both the Witch-king and Saruman very early in the game, and placing no dice in the Hunt Box. Such an “extreme strategy” became more difficult with the Second Edition rules, and the game became more balanced as a result.

In Battles of the Third Age, the solution that was used was a different one, but with unexpected “collateral effects”. The Free Peoples player had the possibility of playing Galadriel, and she provided the precious 5th action die normally gained from Gandalf the White. The die was lost if the White entered the game, but in this way the Free Peoples player was less subject to the whims of the roll of the dice. While in 1st Edition, a delayed Will of the West could spell the doom of the Free Peoples player, the presence of Galadriel prevented this risk. But this happened at the price of making the battle for Lórien much more important than it is in the books, because the Shadow had every reason to try to overcome the Elven Stronghold early in the game.

When designing Lords of Middle-earth, we realized that it was indeed desirable to give to the Free Peoples player multiple paths to improve his action capability with alternatives to Gandalf and Aragorn. In this way, the range of available strategy would grow: For example, we could have a game with Gandalf leading the Fellowship till Mt. Doom, or with Strider sacrificing himself to save the Ring-bearers, options which are not really viable with the basic game, except at great risk.

However, we had to balance this need with the changes to the 2nd Edition rules, and the necessity to keep the strategic importance of Lórien to a reasonable level.

The mechanic we developed for the Keepers’ dice was the key. Individually, each Keeper’s die is less powerful than a normal action die, as it does not have die faces with multiple actions, such as the Army/Muster or the Will of the West, and one of the die faces is actually negative for the Free Peoples. One of the faces is an “Eye” result that, when rolled, is added to the Hunt Box, giving an advantage to the Shadow.

Thematically, this represents the fact that Sauron may take advantage from the use of the Rings of Power, if that becomes less than subtle, and mechanically makes these dice less powerful than a normal action die. When multiple Keepers are in play, the Free Peoples player rolls all of them, and can choose the result he prefers, making them more powerful. But the risk is greater as well, because if any of the dice shows an Eye result, all of them are lost. This introduces a very interesting “push your luck” element in the use of the Keepers: using Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf, Keeper of Narya may be very interesting, but also very dangerous…

As a further way to balance the presence of these additional dice, we also developed an improved version of the mechanic used by Galadriel. In Battles of the Third Age, if the White enters the game, Galadriel loses her die, period. In Lords of Middle-earth, when Gandalf the White is in play, you don’t immediately lose Keeper’s dice; however, they go out of the game if the best actions they have are used, or if the “Eye” is rolled. This means that once the White is in play, the Keepers’ dice will “phase out”, but in a gradual way, providing a lot of different choices and difficult decisions to the Free Peoples player. Do you do the effort of mustering both Elrond and Galadriel, at the risk of seeing their powers diminished by the arrival of the White? Do you risk the gamble of multiple Keepers in play, and losing their dice to the power of the Eye? Or do you get a new Keeper in play only when another is lost? Do you use Elrond and Galadriel as a “replacement” to either Aragorn or Gandalf the White - to keep one or both of the two most powerful Companions inside the Fellowship - or do you go for a more “traditional” strategy, get Gandalf the White in play, and use Elrond and Galadriel mostly for their powerful character abilities?

An especially interesting new option is that the Free Peoples player may decide to use Gandalf, Keeper of Narya as an alternative to the Gray Wanderer/White combination. The new version of Gandalf, when guiding the Fellowship, gives to the Free Peoples player his Keeper’s die, so that instead of “killing” Gandalf the Grey as soon as possible, he can keep him as the Guide of the Fellowship. He does not get the 5th action die, but still has his “lesser” die, which can possibly be combined with Elrond’s and Galadriel’s dice as well.

One of the interesting things of the playtesting process is that our expert players find a lot of interesting ways to abuse of new abilities… the new Gandalf was again subject to the risk of becoming something very different from what we envisioned, a Wizard at the head of the Fellowship using Narya as a guiding light… With the initial version of his rules, the Free Peoples player could place him at the Guide of the Fellowship... but if the Fellowship did not leave Rivendell, and he still benefited from his additional die… of course, while trying to achieve a military victory! To prevent this unintended effect, now Gandalf, Keeper of Narya only gets his die if the Fellowship is going, further reinforcing the mechanic introduced by 2nd Edition rules that gives a small “advantage” to the Free Peoples if the Fellowship is moving.

With the new Keeper’s dice mechanic redesigned, and refined through the playtest process, new strategies for the Free Peoples were created… but what about the Shadow?
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Thu Sep 27, 2012 12:45 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 4 - Fling them into the fray!

Roberto Di Meglio
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Possibly one of the most controversial new characters in the 1st edition expansion, Battles of the Third Age, was the alternate version of the Witch-king, the Chief of the Ringwraiths.

The Chief of the Ringwraiths was originally designed to be an alternative to the “main” version of the Witch-king, the Black Captain. The Black Captain was supposed to be a powerful military leader, while the Chief of the Ringwraiths represented a “what-if” in the storyline – what if Sauron decided to use his most powerful servant to harass the Fellowship, rather than to lead his armies?

However, in spite of all attempts to make the Chief of the Ringwraiths an interesting option, he always remained a pale shadow of the Black Captain: expert players of War of the Ring 1st Edition had found ways to make the Black Captain the ultimate weapon of destruction in the hands of the Shadow player. Thanks to his ability of drawing Event cards when initiating a battle, the Black Captain was mainly used not to fuel the military action of the Shadow armies (as we expected), but to draw intensively from the Character Event deck, to get all kinds of nasty effects to use against the Fellowship. This was actually an abuse of the original intention in the design, and such a powerful ability made the creation of an alternate version more suited to hunting the Fellowship almost impossible. Very few good players would consider mustering the 1st edition Chief of the Ringwraiths instead of the original version.

The Second Edition modified the rules for the Witch-king, in order to bring the Black Captain’s abilities closer to their intended use – leaving him and his armies still powerful in battle, but reducing his use to fuel a strategy focused on corrupting the Ring-bearers. This was already an important step in making the option of an alternate Witch-king, with a focus on the Hunt for the Ring, more interesting. We wanted to get the Chief of the Ringwraiths back, and at the same time, we wanted to be sure that we did not miss the chance to create an interesting new character for the Shadow for the second time.

The solution we found was nicely symmetrical to the powers of the Black Captain. The Black Captain draws cards when engaged in battle: the Chief of the Ringwraiths should have a similar ability, to draw cards when he is on top of the Fellowship. In this way, the Shadow player may use this character to create a focused Corruption strategy, getting him to relentlessly pursue the Ring, draw lot of Event cards, and use them to throw all kinds of nasty things against Frodo and his companions.

We realized that we had more than one way to make the new Witch-king more interesting. To give him a new ability was an option, of course – and we did! But we also started to consider, from the point of view of the narrative, the implications of the alternate storyline. What would happen to the Shadow armies if the Witch-king was hunting the Ring? Who would lead them? The answer lies in the pages of The Lord of the Rings. During the Siege of Minas Tirith, when the Witch-king is vanquished by Eowyn and Merry, it’s Gothmog, Lieutenant of Morgul, who steps forward to lead the Shadow armies and sends the Orcs and Southrons to the battle with a new energy. Based on this event, it’s very likely that, if the Witch-king were not leading hosts of the Shadow, Gothmog would be the Commander-in-Chief.

So, we decided to introduce Gothmog as a new character. Initially, we decided to limit his presence only to the games when the Black Captain does not come into the action. Later in development, we decided to open up more options to the Shadow player, and Gothmog can sometimes co-exist in the same game with the Black Captain – Gothmog must come into play before the Black Captain does, and he’s somewhat reduced in power when he’s in play together with him.

Gothmog is a powerful military leader, but he’s not a Nazgûl, so he is more limited in his movement to the area around Mordor – this worked well for our design goals, as made Gondor a more important military target than the far North of Middle-earth, or Lórien, as it should be.

Gothmog, Lieutenant of Morgul

Gothmog, character card

He has a terrific new ability, “Fling them into the fray”, which gives almost limitless power to a Shadow army, as he can bring new troops into an army no matter where it is on the board – a great ability, especially during sieges, where Gothmog can harass the Free Peoples defenders with multiple waves of troops.

Gothmog was definitely a big step in balancing the power of the Elven Ring Keepers… together with the return of the Balrog of Moria.

The Balrog as featured in War of the Ring is a limited presence: just one Event card, which can prove to be nasty when played at a proper time, but which is of limited use otherwise. And who would not like a Balrog figure in the game? We’ve always been convinced that this evil creature should be more “well rounded” than one card.

We already designed the Balrog as one of the characters in Battles of the Third Age. The Balrog was designed around the idea that he was more at ease in the depths of Moria, but that there was also a possibility that, as the Shadow spreads through Middle-earth, it could rise out of the Darkness to stomp the armies of the Free Peoples into the ground… But it’s a demon from the ancient world, and as such it should not be too easy to get him roaming around under the sunlight in the Third Age of Middle-earth. Getting the Balrog out of Moria was possible, but rare (the draw of an appropriate Event card was required), and dangerous (a Will of the West die result removed the Balrog from the game if it was outside Moria). When in Moria, it was still a great threat to the Fellowship, matching its role in the story.

We did not see any necessity of a radical re-design of the Balrog, as these concepts were still valid. The Balrog and Gothmog together provided a good counter-weight to the presence of Elrond and Galadriel… and added cool new characters and figures to the game! The next logical step was to consider that they should bring new action dice into the game, just like the Keepers did. With a specific “Balrog” action die, we could get the random effect of getting the Balrog more active on the scene of the War of the Ring less random than the draw of one card; at the same time, we could give to this powerful minion of the Shadow a higher possibility of entering the battle, while at the same time keeping the original concept that its participation in the war of the Dark Lord cannot be taken for granted.

Balancing the new Free Peoples characters with these two “Lesser” Minions, and using new, special action dice for each of them, soon became the cornerstone of the design of Lords of Middle-earth.

What else did Lords of Middle-earth need to become a complete expansion? And in detail, how should the new special action dice relate to the existing action dice system?

The core of the expansion was defined, but there was still a lot to do to flesh it out, and to make sure that the new elements added new and interesting strategies without breaking the delicate balance of the game…
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Wed Sep 26, 2012 12:50 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 3 - The lore of the Elven rings

Roberto Di Meglio
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Since the beginning of the development of Lords of Middle-earth, we realized how important to the new expansion the “Lords” featured in the title were going to be.

Elrond and Galadriel are two of the most important personalities in War of the Ring, and possibly the most stalwart opponents of Sauron in Middle-earth, together with Gandalf. It’s surely not a chance that the three of them wear the only three Rings of Power untouched by the Dark Lord…

In Battles of the Third Age, Galadriel was fundamental in the strategy of the Free Peoples. She was – apart from two base game companions, Gandalf the White and Aragorn, Heir to Isildur - the only character able to provide an additional action die to the Free Peoples. Her die was only available until Gandalf the White entered the fray. Even after that, she was still critical in reinforcing the defense of Lorién and protecting the Ring-bearers from afar, but it was definitely the addition of that precious 5th die early in the game which made her so important.

In War of the Ring, the Free Peoples player has less actions in each turn than the Shadow, and especially in the early game, this means that every decision is an agonizing choice, and there are never enough actions to fully counter the threats of the Shadow player. That additional action early in the game may prove to be game changing, as in 1st Edition a late arrival of both Gandalf the White and Aragorn sometimes means the end of any hope of victory for the Free Peoples.

Given the improved balance in War of the Ring 2nd Edition, however, such a powerful ability for Galadriel was very likely just too good for the Free Peoples. On top of that, we considered that the effect of gaining and losing an action die in this way was a bit too “coarse”, and that it gave too much importance to Galadriel and Lorién, bringing away the focus of the game from locations such as Rohan and Gondor, which in the books are of the greatest importance from a military point of view.

However, in War of the Ring there is a very strong connection between major characters and action dice – how to solve this conundrum, and to fit into the equation Elrond as well?

We found the solution by introducing a completely new concept, which is possibly the most important feature of Lords of Middle-earth. We would include in the expansion special action dice, different for each character. In this way, we could make each individual action die “tailored”, from a thematic point of view, to the related character. We could include drawbacks and new action icons, to get them perfectly balanced. These new “Keepers’ dice” where what we needed to replace the “old” Galadriel’s action die mechanic.

From the point of view of the hidden math engine of the game, the new concept allowed a more gradual growth of the Free Peoples player power, introducing intermediate steps in the increase from 4 to 6 action dice.

The idea became especially intriguing when applied to Gandalf. In spite of our best efforts, even the redesign of the character in 2nd Edition only marginally improves his chances of survival as “The Grey” - the temptation for the Free Peoples player to take him as a casualty in order to get his more powerful incarnation in play is still very strong!

If we designed a new Gandalf the Grey, featured as “Keeper of Narya”, that would add a Keeper’s die himself, then the Free Peoples player would have a new, interesting choice: rather than getting rid of Gandalf the Gray as soon as possible, he can keep him and his “lesser” die in play, and avoid the dangerous gamble of trying to swap the Grey for the White, at the risk of a late arrival. This concept was also a good fit for our idea of introducing alternate versions of the companions.

After these decisions, the first “Alpha” of Lords of Middle-earth was on its way to be ready for the first round of playtesting; but first, we had to decide what to add to the arsenal of the Shadow player to balance the power of the three Keepers of the Elven Rings…
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Tue Sep 25, 2012 12:50 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 2 - Where to start?

Roberto Di Meglio
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Where to start?

To begin with, we decided to go back and take an in-depth look at what we had done when developing Battles of the Third Age – or, to be more precise, Twilight of the Third Age, the strategic expansion included in that set [Battles of the Third Age also included a separate game system – ed.]

We started a poll on BGG to get some feedback about the “sentiment” our players had concerning the various elements of the expansion. Most of the feedback was very positive, or confirmed weaknesses which were well known – but we were surprised to find that even parts of the expansion, which were held in very low esteem at a tournament/expert level (such as the “hunting” Witch-king), overall received very positive comments.

Clearly, we should not remove any of the existing characters included in Twilight – Galadriel, Sméagol, The Balrog of Moria, the Witch-king-Chief of the Ringwraiths. Everybody wanted them back – and rightly so, because they are very important personalities in the story- so how could we improve them, and build up from this “foundation”?

Since our work on War of the Ring 2nd Edition, we had found a selected group of expert players, which helped us enormously. They’re a small group, and spread all across the world – but with the help of the WOTR Online Client developed by Sean McCarthy and continuously updated by Andrew Poulter, they manage to pack up an amazing number of playtesting games. We called them to arms again to help us playtest the expansion, and to get the ball rolling, we started to test how the existing elements of Twilight performed when added directly to War of the Ring 2nd Edition.

War of the Ring 2nd Edition is more balanced than the First Edition, and some of the components included in Twilight were designed to improve the balance and to give to the Free Peoples a better chance to resist the onslaught of the Shadow when playing First Edition. So, we were expecting to see that adding them to 2nd Edition would result in a game with a strongly bias in favor of the Free Peoples – this happened, but not in an overwhelming manner.

Looking at the individual characters, there were some problems they had in their Twilight version, that we wanted to solve with the new expansion. Sméagol was very interesting and thematic, but was considered a bit too random in his effect. Galadriel was a powerful addition to the Free Peoples arsenal – but possibly, too much so, and her presence made Lorién too “central” in the geography of the War. The Witch-king, Chief of the Ringwraiths was considered a pale shadow (pun intended  ) of the Black Chieftain, and while the comparison was somehow improved by the fact that the Black Chieftain was somewhat weaker in 2nd Edition than he was before, still we needed him to have a more powerful presence, to bring the possibility of Corruption-based strategies back into the game. The Balrog is a powerful presence, but too often very limited in purpose: this could not change too much, but trying to give him a better chance of raising out of the depths of Moria and more involved in the War was one of our goals.

The design of the new expansion should solve all these issues, and make them more interesting.

At the same time, we started to think about the most logical way to round up this assortment of characters. The first decision was that we should have Elrond – why the Lady of the Golden Wood was fully featured in the game, and the Lord of Imladris was missing? Including Elrond was a no-brainer, and we soon started to think if these two powerful characters could somehow be represented in a coherent manner in the game. Of course, both Elrond and Galadriel are important not just because they are powerful Elven Lords, but because they are the Keepers of two of the Three Elven Rings of Power. Galadriel’s "old" mechanics already hinted at this aspect, and we realized that this idea could be further developed.

We also realized that the Elven Rings are three, not two. As Lord of the Rings experts know well, the third Ring, Narya, is carried around by Gandalf, who got it from Cirdan of the Grey Havens. Ok, Gandalf is represented in the game, and from the story, we know that possibly the Ring of Fire held by Gandalf is somehow used by the Wizard. But this was not “visible” in the game, and we started to think that if the Keepers of the Elven Rings deserved a special mechanic, perhaps we should develop a new version of Gandalf, to fully represent him as “Bearer of Narya”. This was also nicely symmetrical with the presence of an alternate version of the Witch-king, so we immediately embraced the idea.

However, the decision to include a new version of Gandalf almost immediately brought with it a new train of thought – should not we also include alternate versions of the other Companions in the Fellowship? Possibly… but the idea took a backseat, as it seemed a bit too crazy at the moment, and we decided to start thinking about how we should deal with the Keepers first, and how to properly balance these three powerful characters with new characters for the Shadow.
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Mon Sep 24, 2012 12:15 am
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Lords of Middle-earth Design Diary - Part 1 - It was a dark and stormy night...

Roberto Di Meglio
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It was a dark and stormy night… Well, not really! The genesis of Lords of Middle-earth begins in a nice Autumn day during the latest Lucca Comics & Games show, in November 2011.

The design team – Francesco, Marco and Roberto – met in a nice little cafe which was unusually quiet, being so close to the bustling show.

Ares had just shipped out of China the first copies of War of the Ring Second Edition, and it was already clear to us that the game publisher wanted to go beyond the initial release, and had an interest in developing a full line of products based on War of the Ring.

The first of these products were on the same boat as the core game: the beautiful embossed Card Box, and the Upgrade Kit.

Now, the publisher was asking us about Expansions – and there a new design challenge was awaiting for us.

War of the Ring is not an easy game to expand. The game includes a lot of different elements which lock together, and they’ve been “hand crafted” in an almost perfect balance (improved further with the Second Edition). In a symmetrical game, if you start with a balanced game, normally you get a balanced game just by giving the same additional option to everybody. In an asymmetrical game, you cannot take anything for granted. Any elements that you add may break the delicate balance, and ruin the game experience. As we knew already from the experience of designing Battles of the Third Age (the expansion to the first edition), this was not going to be a cakewalk.

Still, there is a potential for expansions! The world created by J.R.R. Tolkien is so rich that we had to make choices about what to represent directly in the game. A lot of the protagonists of War of the Ring are just hinted at by a non-specific figure, or an event card. To make the game playable (and its production possible!) we had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, but some of the choices were painful indeed! With expansions, we could solve this problem, and gradually include in the game most of the key elements of the story in a “full” version – specific figures, cards, powers…

The first question was, should we just design a “second edition” of Battles of the Third Age? This was surely the easiest thing to do. Battles of the Third Age included important new Characters, like Galadriel and the Balrog of Moria; important factions, like the Ents of Fangorn and the Corsairs; new mechanics, like the Siege Engines… However, there was as much interesting stuff left out as it was included. We had Galadriel, but no Elrond; we had Ents, but no Eagles… How much better it could be to have more major Characters, more factions, more mechanics?

However, the sheer complexity of such a task (not to speak about the difficulties of production) was enough to make us understand immediately that this was not the right path to follow. On top of that, a lot of the specific mechanics of Battles of the Third Age were designed to improve the balance of the First Edition, and were not usable anymore, so we could use very little of the original design work to make the task easier.

As a final consideration, some of the design choices made for Battles of the Third Age made the game more narrow, and more distant from the source material. The importance of Galadriel and Lorién, for example, made an early fall of the Elven Stronghold foremost in importance in the strategy of the Shadow Player – which is an interesting “what if”, but not if it happens in every game!

There were still ideas in Battles of the Third Age which were very good to draw from, but not much that we could use without changes.

All things considered, the solution came quickly enough. We should not design one big, all-encompassing expansion, like Battles of the Third Age was, but a series of somewhat smaller thematic expansions. In each expansion, we could look at what we had done in Battles of the Third Age, but expand it further, so that we could include gradually all the protagonists that we missed in the original game.

Analyzing Battles of the Third Age, we saw clearly that what we designed then was three different set of elements – Characters, Factions, Siege Engines. The direction was now clear – we should design three expansions, and the first of them should revolve around characters.

So, the seed of Lords of Middle-earth was planted…
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Mon Sep 24, 2012 12:08 am
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