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Subject: Review of SPI's War of the Ring rss

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Richard Smith
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This is a brief review of the main game and not the two sub games. (Tho I am told that they were standard SPI-style war games.)

This is a huge game that sets out to simulate the Lord of the Ring books. On the surface this seems a strange fit for SPI, how did they do?


COMPONENTS:
This is a gorgeous game! The gigantic heavy mounted map (4 sections) would not look out of place hung from a wall as art. Each major character has a card with art showing that figure on the back and various statistics on the front. (Much like the SPI game Swords and Sorcery.) There are heavy cardboard chits for the armies of the various sides, and counters for every major figure in the stories. Additional cards represent monsters, and magic items of Middle Earth.

There is also a huge deck of event cards.

When I opened the heavy box the game components really impressed me.


GAME SUMMARY:
I will be quite brief here.

There are really two games in one, the military game with massive Orc armies smashing up against the west and the character game where the Fellowship tries to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom. At odd intervals the two games combine as when one of the fellowship leaders takes command of an army or does some diplomacy. But over all, there are two games running in parallel here.

There is also an unusual dynamic. The Fellowship player usually is losing the military game and winning the character game (and vise versa). So both players can enjoy winning and worry about their losing for most of the game.

The military game is pretty standard grand strategic military fare. Add up total forces, apply defensive bonuses, get an odds ratio and roll a die. The fellowship is hugely outnumbered. On the good side, leaders and magic have a huge influence on the battles so if you can get your fellowship leaders into Gondor, the orcs will have a much tougher time of it.

All of the Fellowship armies can move each turn. However, the Dark Lord must expend 'shadow points' each turn to do military operations and try to hunt down the Fellowship. Since there are never enough shadow points, Sauron's assault will sometimes grind to a halt for strange periods while the eye is busy elsewhere.

The character game has rules for moving, fighting, collecting magic items, searching for the fellowship, capturing hobbits, saving hobbits, etc. A key concept is that the dark player can capture hobbits but he does not know WHICH hobbit has been snagged.

Putting on the One Ring is hugely powerful, but has very large negative effects.

The first couple times you play the Fellowship player is sweating bullets every time the Dark Lord searches. But soon you learn that it is really hard to find the Fellowship and even if found it is not the end of the world. So the Fellowship player soon becomes more sanguine about this phase. The majority of the time the fellowship manages to walk in and drop the ring in the volcano which is a bit of a let down, IMHO.

The event cards have a huge effect and bring out special events in the books that wouldn't otherwise fit into the game. Don't want to have special rules for Ent military units? Make the Ents a one time event, playable if a hobbit ends up in Fangorn forest. How do you handle the strange relationship between Golumn and the hobbits? Add some event cards. This system actually works quite well with a lot of the cool events in the story making an appearance in the game this way.

There is a 3 player version where one player plays Sauruman. A key innovation is that the rule book cheerfully admits that Sauruman has 'little chance of winning'. But having him in the game does make it tougher for the Fellowship which is a good thing.


SO HOW DOES IT PLAY?
This is a fun, but slow game. It does a very nice job of simulating the events in the book. Despite the fact that the game takes about 5 hours to play, my friends and I played it to completion about 10 or 12 times.

However, the game does feel scripted. Usually the choices are fairly obvious and so you don't get a sense of wracking your brain for the best strategy. You do what you have to do, and roll many dice, and draw many cards to see how things turn out. Play of event cards is a bit of an exception: how the players manage their event hands does have some tricky trade offs.

My biggest grief is that you have this huge, gorgeous map, but don't use 90% of it. All of the magic items and events are oriented along the path the books took and so if you don't take that route, you miss out on the cool toys. I mean, if JRR Tolkien had the fellowship go north around the misty mountains to Long Lake in The Lord of the Rings, do you suspect that interesting dangers and useful stuff would be found up there as well?

Also, the Dark Lord is so limited in shadow points that the military campaign only occurs in the south. The game gives you the Easterling armies to fight the elves, humans and dwarves in the north, but that campaign never gets started.


THE QUEST TO IMPROVE THIS GAME:
I sat down and tried to improve this game. I added more units, more characters, beefed up the search for the Dark Player, greatly expanded Sauruman (he could try to built his own weaker version of the One Ring), added neutrals that the characters could sway, added many more magic items and put them all over the map, etc. etc.

I to this day believe that every thing I added did indeed improve the game, adding realism, depth and play ballance. It also expanded the playing time and complexity of the game to the point where we stopped playing it. I learned a hard lesson about game design there.
cry


CONCLUSION:
Despite my negative comments above, I still like this game and prefer it to the modern version with the mini's. (Which is obviously a remake of this classic game.)
If my friends and I had more time I would love to pull this game out and play it again. (I would also have to take a hard look and streamline my rules some.)


SUGGESTED RULE CHANGES:
Here are a few rules changes that should help the game with minimal negative impact.

-- Dark Lord can get one extra event card each turn. If he chooses, he can not draw this card and instead get 3 extra shadow points during that phase.

-- The Dark Lord can spend one shadow point and move ALL armies in the north side of the map. Units that move south, finish their movement, but then need shadow points to move them thereafter. If units in the south move north, starting next turn, they can move, along with all other military units, for the one shadow point cost.

-- The fellowship can regain 1 health per turn (for each character) if they stay still in any of the three Elven havens. If they stay for 4 full turns, the ring bearer can reduce a level of ring fatigue. This rule is a nice double edge sword. It is really good to have a (non-magical) way to heal up wounds. But the time spent will allow the Dark Lord to really put the pressure on in the military game.

-- If the Sauruman character is within 3 hexes of Fellowhip character, twice per game he can make that character reroll a die roll result. Likewise, if in range, he can twice per game cause a reroll on a search attempt.

Warm regards, Rick.

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Dan Cavaliere
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Nice review Richard and you did it without making the review as long as the game can be

I agree with your comments about the board. A great board but some parts never get used, bummer. That goes for those allies too - I don't think we ever got the elves or dwarves involved in the 4 or 5 games we played.

We've yet to play the Gondor & Sauron games. I'm interested in seeing if they play a bit better.

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Richard Smith
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Hi Dan,
I read a review of Gondor and Sauron in The Space Gamer. They said that the games were basically a big slug fest with out much to distinguish them from other hex and counter games. The reviewer liked Gondor better, if I recall correctly, as the siege rules were fun.

I created a dozen or so more magic items and scattered hand drawn magic symbols around the map. It actually became worthwhile for the fellowship to break up and visit widely spaced areas of the map to round up the items. The new magic items were mixed in with the old ones so the really good items could be anywhere. The Fellowship generally didn't have time to round up ALL of the items but the game felt like you were playing on all of the board at least.

Warm regards, Rick.
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Edwin Tait
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Why do you prefer it to the new FF version? It does sound as if the SPI version was more like the new one (which is perhaps my favorite game) than I had realized.
 
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Darrell Hanning
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I think mention should be made that you are reviewing the bookcase version of the game. It originally came out as an SPI "flat box" - which I own - in which the map is not mounted, and the pieces are the standard thickness for SPI wargame counters of the time.

 
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Richard Smith
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Under the comments for the FF version of the game, I've listed what I don't like about the new game. (Basically a mini review.) But one thing that stands out is that I roll the dice and that decides my strategy for the turn instead of the other way around.
 
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Richard Smith
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DarrellKH wrote:
I think mention should be made that you are reviewing the bookcase version of the game. It originally came out as an SPI "flat box" - which I own - in which the map is not mounted, and the pieces are the standard thickness for SPI wargame counters of the time.


Thanks Darrell for pointing this out. I've never seen the flat version, the only two copies I've ever came across were the book case games with the heavy mounted maps.

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Darrell Hanning
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Rick Smith wrote:
Under the comments for the FF version of the game, I've listed what I don't like about the new game. (Basically a mini review.) But one thing that stands out is that I roll the dice and that decides my strategy for the turn instead of the other way around.


Both flavors have their flaws - FFG's version simply looks cuter on the outside.

Anytime you design a game to capture what is found in a work of fiction, you have to make a fundamental decision about how far you are going to let your design deviate from the original storyline. Deviate too little, and the players are simply re-enacting the story, which might be fun once, but offers virtually no replay value. Deviate too much, and the fans of the original work will feel disenchanted with how the game plays. Within that "happy spot" in between, you have to give the players significant options without complete control, and you have to provide some means of generating unanticipated turns of events, without an aggregate of such pulling the game outside your operating parameters.

It is probably the most difficult task of all, in game design, and I do not envy anyone who has attempted it.

This is why I do not think the game Dune is all that it is cracked up to be, on this site. For myself, allowing the possibility of, say, the Atreides and the Harkonnen to form an alliance is antithetical and unjustifiable, and thus the game deviates too far from its source material. But as a game only, it is still quite a good game.
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Brett Christensen
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thumbsup Thanks for the review.
 
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Mark Riley
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Thanks for the review Richard - in particular your idea on FP characters recovering health and ring fatigue at safe havens - hence giving them a reason to go there and making extra use of the board. Along the same lines, as posted already here, I find these two variants also help to spread the play away from the usual areas:

1.The Dark Power player should get +1 extra shadow point for each military objective he controls (beyond those he controlled at the start of the game) - this encourages the DP armies to move to other areas than just besiging Minas Tirith.

2.No DP characters in Mordor until the FP are spotted there or an FP character puts the ring on there - this encourages the DP player to do something with the Nazgul other than camping in Mordor and waiting for the FP to show up. In particular, if you use the FP hidden movement rules where the Nazgul have active search zones in addition to the standard Search Phase with cards, the Nazgul will be used all over the map trying to place those zones where the DP thinks the FP are each turn.

I also have the FFG version and I love it but, despite its great age, the SPI game has charm and with FP hidden movement is still a good game. The only thing that bugs me about it is the rather tortuous army combat system which unfortunately none of the variants I have seen really addresses. Even the FFG buckets of dice system is better than all the number crunching and army step fiddling - fine in a wargame but OTT in this one.
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Richard Smith
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goatleaf wrote:
Thanks for the review Richard ...

1.The Dark Power player should get +1 extra shadow point for each military objective he controls ...

2.No DP characters in Mordor until the FP are spotted there or an FP character puts the ring on there - this encourages the DP player to do something with the Nazgul other than camping in Mordor ...

... Even the FFG buckets of dice system is better than all the number crunching and army step fiddling - fine in a wargame but OTT in this one.


Hi Mark,
Thanks for the comments. I really like the idea of getting extra SP for military objectives. It helps the game balance, more tightly joins the two sub games and makes thematic sense. I'll definitely use it if I play again.

I will have to see about the other rule. We typically camped a bunch of armies around Mount Doom, but if I remember correctly we typically usually used most of the Nazgul elsewhere to reduce citadels. (I remember an occasional Nazgul in Mordor, but my group never seemed to hit on the strategy of parking them all in there.)

We never minded the SPI style war game. Of course back then - that is what game technology was. It was a wargame first, with the character game tacked on.

I've not played the game in years. Perhaps now the game would feel more clunky.

Thanks again for the reply.
Warm regards, Rick.
 
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The Stig

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Hey I just wanted to put out that I will be selling the master copy of the cover art to the original game. My dad's company did the printing for the original 1977 game. It is signed by Tim Kirk and is not a print, it is the painting.
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Lewis Goldberg
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TheStig1214 wrote:
Hey I just wanted to put out that I will be selling the master copy of the cover art to the original game. My dad's company did the printing for the original 1977 game. It is signed by Tim Kirk and is not a print, it is the painting.


Wow! Did it sell? How much?
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