Roberto Di Meglio
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.