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 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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