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Subject: Review: Sauron (SPI, 1977) rss

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Edwin Nealley

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Sauron is a stand-alone wargame that was published both as a stand-alone SPI flat-pack and also as part of the three-game set, Middle Earth, which also contained the games Gondor & War of the Ring.

Sauron is a simulation of the Battle of Dagorlad from the 2nd Age of Middle Earth (a battle referred to briefly at the start of Jackson’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ movie, but occurring earlier than the actual battle scenes shown in the film). The battle took place when the Armies of the Free Peoples won passage of the Black Gate into Mordor, and was the battle in which the casualties occurred that haunt the Dead Marshes in the course of the novel.

The Designer, Rob Mosca, had an interesting challenge- to recreate a historic fantasy battle from multiple side-references in the novel, but otherwise with very little of Tolkien’s generally detailed historical notations to support the design work. As a result, there are some admittedly non-canonical additions to the game, (e.g., the Beast of Mordor, Sauron’s specific spells, Sauron’s lieutenants Gorgol and Ringwraith, Dwarven-leader Baldrim), and some approximations made as to how many and what kind of forces were involved, what kind of battle it was, etc. This led to the game having some critical balance issues in its design.

The game itself has a small number of counters (100), but this seems plenty because of the no-stacking rules, except with leaders and special formations. The artwork is mostly drab, and features very little terrain variation; hexes are either impassible, slopes or plains, with one main road leading to the gates. While this matches the book’s descriptions of the battle plain, it makes for a fairly flat and uninteresting map, even by the standards of 1970’s wargames, and certainly much plainer than Gondor or War of the Ring. The counters are basic blue for the Westernesse player (the Last Alliance of Free Peoples) and red for the forces of Sauron.

Units have separate attack and defense ratings, as well as morale ratings. Movement is very simplified (Infantry 4mp, Cavalry 6mp). Combat is also very simplified, occurring only between adjacent forces unless the units are archers, which have a Missile range of two. Combat results are generated by two 6-sided dice using the Casualty Probability and Casualty Results tables. Units can be forced to retreat (automatically disrupting them and any units displaced), flipped to half-strength or eliminated outright. Sauron uses fairly standard ZOC rules.

Leaders are primarily used for rallying adjacent disrupted units, unless they are Magical Leaders or possess a Magic Weapon (Elendil’s sword Narsil or Gil-Galad’s spear Aiglos). Leaders with a Magic Weapon also increase the Attack strength of units they lead. Leaders typically move at the same time as their forces, but Magical Leaders (only Sauron himself in Sauron) have two action phases, in each of which they can either move (once or twice per turn) or cast spells (once per game turn). In addition Leaders can also attack other leaders after movement.

In practice the Combat system works pretty well and gives the desired flavor of heroic fantasy battles, without being too cluttered up with chrome or special cases. Turns play quickly, and the game flows well.

The 8pp. of rules are laid out somewhat strangely, because of the co-packaged games in the Middle Earth set. A 4pp. set of standard rules for both Gondor & Sauron are provided for the common rule sets between the two games (Equipment, Movement/Terrain, Stacking, Combat, Demoralization, etc.;) game-specific rules for Sauron are contained in a separate 4pp. rule set. This leads to a little flipping between the different rules, looking for the special cases that change the basic rule set. Because both sets of rules are fairly short this isn’t too difficult, but it is easy at times to miss a special case which would affect game play. Some important Sauron rules errata have been posted on grognards.com by William Sariego (http://www.grognard.com/errata1/sauron.txt) and reposted in a thread here on BGG by GROGnads (this also contains some suggestions to adjust the play balance.)

The overall design of the battle is a meeting engagement between the forces. The initial balance issues arise quickly- Sauron army units tend to have lower average attack and defense values, making combat costly to the Sauron player more often than for the Westernesse player. Also, the Westernesse player has a much larger chunk of their forces immediately available at the start of the game; the Sauron player must wait for several rounds of reinforcements to even the forces available.


Sauron’s Last Gasp...
(Picture used with permission of mitservices)

This tends to leave the Sauron player bringing in reinforcements every few turns, having lost 90% of the previous forces to the hungry and soon reinforced Westernesse player. Almost every game I have played using the standard rules has eventually looked something like this appropriately titled session picture. In fact the game designer even suggests adjusting the reinforcement schedule as needed with house rules to tweak the balance of forces.

Another difficulty is the Demoralization levels for the armies. In part because of the enslaved troops of Sauron, and in part because the battle simulated was a Westernesse major victory in the original, the designer intentionally gave the Sauron player a very much lower Demoralization level than the Westernesse player. Units lost in battle count their various Attack, Defense and Morale values towards the owning players’ Army Demoralization level. Because of the Sauron player’s low Demoralization level, it is almost inevitable that the Sauron player army becomes demoralized. Demoralization prevents units of the lowest morale from even engaging enemy troops, and also prevents rallying of disrupted units. It also is a part of the victory conditions- the best a demoralized army can hope for is to demoralize the opposing army and so claim a draw. (This is actually what happened in my last refresher game.)

The design does compensate for balance issues somewhat in the last (4) game turns, with the Beast of Mordor (only summonable on a Night Game Turn,) and with Orc units turning fanatical during Night Turns (automatically hitting opponents). Unfortunately, this is generally too little/too late for the Sauron player to do anything more than secure a draw because of demoralization.

One suggestion from William Sariego’s compiled errata was to move up each of Sauron’s reinforcements by 1 game turn, per the designer’s recommendation in order to help balance the strength of forces more quickly. Other users suggest allowing Sauron to summon the Beast of Mordor as early as possible, and to use the summoned Beast to offset some of the strategic disadvantages of the Sauron forces. A third option might be increasing the number of times Sauron can cast each of his spells, such as Sinister Visions (used above to disrupt low morale Westernesse units.)

As it stands in the published rules (even with the errata above), the game is unbalanced in favor of the Westernesse player. With house rules it can become a more even contest. But in either case it is still an enjoyable, 2-hour 70’s-era wargame that captures the historical feeling of the battle as described in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien fans in particular will enjoy it as a lighter wargame, and it plays quickly enough that playing a 2nd game with reversed roles is possible, even if you don’t use additional house rules to adjust the game balance.
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Eric Lai
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Not an easy game to get hold of. Is on my wish list but its pretty pricey every time I have seen it. There are a lot of Lord of the Ring fans out there with money to spare!

Nice review!
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Kim Meints
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Edwin

Very nice review. I still play this game every year.
Yes and I too seem to have the Western forces prevail everytime
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Kev.
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nice one. I love my copy of War of the Ring. I've had it for decades. One of the few games to survive my moves. "Those nasty 'lil hobitzs...."

I'be been looking for Gondor but was never really taken by this title. Thanks for the review.
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Tronia
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Nice review. I remember playing this back in the late 70s. Wish I still had my copy of the deluxe 3 game set (WotR, Gondor, Sauron). I have no idea what happened to it.

Now I feel old.
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Robert Taylor-Smith
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You've inspired me to take out and dust off my copy for a play.
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Edwin Nealley

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"Now I feel old."

I do too- so at least you've got company!
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Togu Oppusunggu
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I always liked this game. Just felt it needed some balancing. Thanks for the review and the list of house rule suggestions.
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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ObrGrp wrote:
Nice review. I remember playing this back in the late 70s. Wish I still had my copy of the deluxe 3 game set (WotR, Gondor, Sauron). I have no idea what happened to it.

I know what happened to mine - sold it in the '90s. It was something I always wanted to like, but it never quite worked for me. Now that I've got WotR:CE, I don't even get a twinge for the SPI game any more.
 
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Tony Watson
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A well written and interesting review. Thanks.

I remember "Sauron" and "Gondar" being side dishes to the "War of the Ring" entree. That was where it was at for my gaming group back then. And when repeated play revealed more and more of the flaws of WoTR (the silly individual combat rules and the way the ring quest was just broken) kinda ruined the whole set for us.

The battle games weren't bad. They didn't just slap a fantasy battle name on some medieval combat system; there was an attempt at some fantasy flavor with the inclusion of spells and magical weapons.

I'm gonna dig this puppy out of the closet thie weekend and give it a try.
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Russ Williams
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herendil66 wrote:
As it stands in the published rules (even with the errata above), the game is unbalanced in favor of the Westernesse player.

As far as I recall, Sauron could win a "tactical victory" rather cheesily by simply immediately withdrawing from the battlefield in the first turn and not fighting at all.
rules wrote:
[18.0] MORDOR
In Sauron the Land of Mordor is represented by the hex numbered 1331 and the area off the game-map that it leads to. Entrance into and Out of Mordor is through the Gates of Morannon (1331/1330). If Sauron is outside Mordor (On the Plains of Dagorlad), the gate is considered to be open at all times, and anyone may pass through it. If Sauron is inside Mordor (either in hex 1331 or off the game-map) the gates are closed to the Westernesse Player. Only Sauron units may then enter Mordor.

[21.24] If the Sauron Player simply avoids demoralization, he earns a Tactical Victory

So in that sense, it is actually unbalanced in favor of Sauron...
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