Manufacturer Fantasy Flight Games
Year 2004
Designer Francesco Nepitello
Marco Maggi
Roberto Di Meglio
War of the Ring Cover Art

War of the Ring

The epic struggle of the Free Peoples against the Dark Lord Sauron.


Since J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings began to get popular, game designers have endeavored to make a game of it. Some have been hex and counter wargamey, (SPI's War of the Ring), others range the gamut from roll and move nothingness, to numerous LOTR-themed spin offs, (LOTR Risk. Monopoly, etc). In the Eurogame mold there was the excellent cooperative Reiner Knizia game, Lord of the Rings, (review coming soon, can't believe I forgot to do one for this great game), and the also excellent Knizia designed Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation.. Few of these, however, really captured the breadth of the struggle for Middle Earth in a satisfactory way. Enter Fantasy Flight's War of the Ring, (note that the game was designed by Italian designers and published in various languages by Phalanx Games, Tilsit, Nexus and Devir, Fantasy Flight is the English language distributor). While War of the Ring is NOT a Euro-game by any stretch of the definition, (owing far more to the Gamemaster series by Milton Bradly than any Eurogames), it does portray the events in Tolkien's work in a very comprehensive and epic manner.

Before I begin, I have to issue a caveat. I'm breaking my general rules for reviews in that I am writing this review after only one play of the game. Normally I won't do that, as one can get a distorted impression about a game due to lack of experience with it. Generally this goes in the other direction, (where you play a game and hate it and think it's terrible), but even that one play has stuck in my head so much, I felt I could write this review in spite of my lack of experience with the game.So if the game turns out to be broken, with little or no replayability, then I apologize for giving you the wrong impression. On with the review!

Jump to my opinions

The Gameplay

The first thing one notices when opening the box is the components. Wow! The board is huge, showing all of Middle earth, divided into irregularly shaped regions, and the box is stuffed with miniatures, representing the forces of Sauron, Saruman, the Easterlings and Southrorns, the Elves, Gondor, Rohan, the Dwarves, the Men of the North, and the Companions of the ringbearer. War of the Ring board

The forces are placed in their starting locations, and the game begins. The game is asymmetrical, as the victory conditions differ between the two sides. The Free People win if either the Ring is destroyed in Mt. Doom or if the FP can take over 4 VPs worth of Shadow Army cities/strongholds. The Shadow Army player wins if either the ringbearers get too much corruption, or if they can capture 10 VPs worth of Free Peoples cities/strongholds.

Each turn follows a set turn sequence. The first segment is the Event phase, where both players draw a card from each of their two event card decks. Each side has two decks of event cards: Character events and Army/Muster events. These cards are used to perform special actions or to effect combats. Much more on the cards later. After this is the Fellowship phase, where the FP (Free Peoples) player can make decisions about the Fellowship, (FSP). The FP player can choose to split off companions from the FSP, or can decide to declare the FSP. Declaring means that the FP player moves the Fellowship figure from wherever they last declared, (or Rivendell if this is the first declaration), a number of regions equal to or less than the number of moves the FSP has made.

Next comes the Hunt phase, where the Shadow Army (SA) player decides how much effort will be spent searching for the FSP. The game is driven by a set of action dice, which show the activities each side can perform on each turn. The SA player has an advantage in numbers of dice at the start of the game, (7-4), and both sides can add more dice to their pool as the game progresses. In the hunt phase the SA player can place dice into the "Hunt box" with the Eye symbol on them before rolling their dice. The SA player may always place at least one die, and can place a maximum number of dice into the hunt equal to the number of companions still traveling with the FSP.

Then both sides roll their action dice. The FP player now gets to begin using their dice. The dice show various symbols on them, and the players alternate "using" one of their dice to perform an action. If a player has fewer unused dice than their opponent, (generally this is the FP player), they can pass, and wait to see what their opponent is going to commit to. The symbols on the dice are:

Eyes-(Shadow player only): Any Eyes that are rolled are immediately placed into the hunt box.

Character-(Both players): Allows the player to either play a character Event card OR move Companions/Minions/Nazgul OR hide the FSP OR move the FSP OR move an army that has a leader or Companion/Nazgul in it.

Muster-(Both players): Allows the player to recruit new troops in a friendly Settlement in a country that is at war OR play a muster Event card OR to move a country that isn't at war closer to being at war.

Palantir-(Both players): Allows the player to either draw an Event card from either of their decks OR play an Event card of any type.

Army-(Both players): Allows the player to either move two armies one region OR play an army Event card OR make an attack with one army on an adjacent region.

Will of the West- (FP player only): A wild symbol that can be changed into any other type of die, and that is required for certain FP Event cards.

The FP player can only move the FSP if they are hidden, and when they do so, a marker is advanced a space and Sauron then gets to hunt the FSP. For each die in the hunt box, the SA player rolls one die. If the last known location of the FSP is occupied by a Nazgul or by enemy troops, one is added to the die rolls. If the SA player rolls a 6 then the hunt was successful and a hunt tile is drawn. These show various numbers and/or symbols representing corruption the FSP must take, and whether or not the FSP has been revealed. If the FSP is revealed, then their marker on the track is flipped from its "hidden" side, and the FSP figure on the board must be placed in a region equal to or less than the number of regions they have moved from their last known location which cannot contain a FP stronghold. Once revealed, the FP player must use a character die or event card to hide the FSP before they can move again, and a revealed FSP is much more vulnerable to SA event cards. If corruption damage was taken, the FP player can either move the corruption marker up, or they can have one of the Fellowship's companions take the damage, killing off that companion.

Once the FSP declares in Morannon or Minus Morgul, their moves move move on a different track, any special tiles that the FP or SA player got throughout the game are added to the hunt tile pool, and they are just a few steps away from the cracks of doom.

Muster dice can be used to move a country to war, (or nearer to war), which is crucial, as at the start of the game, none of the countries are yet at war. All of the FP nations except the Elves aren't even active, requiring either an attack on their people by the SA player, or having certain companions or the FSP move to one of the nation's strongholds or cities to bring them out of a "passive" state. If Sauron activates the Witch King, this also brings all of the FP nations from passive to active. Each muster die spent moves the nation one step closer to being at war. If a country is at war, muster dice can be used to recruit new units. The SA player gets to reuse dead units, but the FP player does not. Once the FP take a casualty, that unit is gone forever, leading to an eventual diminishing of their ability to wage war.

When combat occurs, (either due to the use of a Character or Army die or via certain event cards), each side rolls the number of dice equal to the number of troops they have in a region, (up to a maximum of 5). In general a 5 or 6 is a hit. For each leader a side has in a battle, they may re-roll one die that missed. Casualties are removed, and the attacker can then attempt to continue the battle, and the defender can retreat out of the region. If the battle takes place in a region containing a stronghold, the defender can retreat into the stronghold before the first round of battle, in which case the attacker is considered to be besieging the stronghold. This ends the battle. On subsequent action dice, the attacker can attack the besieged city, with a 6 required for a hit, while the defender still can hit on a 5 or six. While this seems patently unfair, it is tempered by the fact that strongholds can only hold 5 troops, while a region can hold 10 units. Also, any companions involved are trapped in the besieged city.

The other big part of combat is the use of the event cards as combat cards. Each event card has an event at the top, and a combat effect at the bottom. Each side has the option of playing one combat card per round of battle, and many of these can dramatically alter the battle. So there is a great tension between needing to use a card for its combat card effect and needing to use it for its event effect. In some cases, the event is weak, or has become irrelevant, so the choice is easy, but this isn't always the case, leading to tough choices and delicious decisions.

After all of the dice have been used, the players check to see if either side has won. If they have, the game ends, else the game continues, and the phases repeat.

Why this game is so great

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the game really captures the epic scope of the War of the Ring. Can the FSP rush the Ring to the Cracks of Doom before the Shadow Army crushes their armies? Or will the Shadow take so long to mobilize and attack that the FSP can take a nice leisurely safe pace? Will the FP turn the tables and try to take over two Shadow strongholds for the win? Or can the Shadow, despite having suffered crushing military defeats, find a way to corrupt the ringbearer enough for him to claim "The Ring is Mine!", bringing his own doom upon himself and all the people of Middle Earth?

The event cards are dripping with theme, with all of the things reader's know and love about the books being represented in one way or another. The nature of the Mordor track means that even if one side or the other appears to be winning easily, things can change in a hurry, and games tend to come down to the wire.

Why others don't agree

It is interesting that this game probably will have the largest "Why others don't agree" section of any review I've done, as there are a ton of things people aren't happy about with this game. Let's start, as we did with the review, with the components. The board, while very nice to look at is horribly designed for the game. It's very hard to read, making it hard to see which regions are adjacent. The symbols for towns, cities and fortresses are very hard to distinguish. The miniatures, which do look cool, are very hard to distinguish, as they are all the same color for each side. While they are differentiated in their shapes, (Sauron elite units are trolls and Southron elites are Oliphants), when there's 10 of them in a space, it can be hard to tell what's what. This is especially true of the FP player's units, as they are much less differentiated. And  what was I saying about the board being hard to use? Oh yes, very few of the  regions on the board can actually hold 10 figures, leading to big blobs of units spilling over into other regions and obscuring the already hard to distinguish cities/towns/fortress symbols. And then there are the event cards. Can you say "5 point type"? I knew you could. Can you read 5 point type? You'd better hope so.

Next up, game length. This is a long game. Your first game will probably take 4 hours or more. With experience, I'd guess that the time will drop, but it's still likely to run over two hours.

How about luck? DO you like rolling dice? If not, steer clear. You roll a LOT of dice in this game. Hunt rolls, battles and every turn's action dice are all being rolled. Others have pointed to the event card decks as sources of luck, and this is somewhat accurate. There are a few cards that are really great in almost any situation, and if you get those, you are happy, and if you don't, you are bummed. Then there is the whole, "Fellowship in Mordor" deal. Because although there are things you can do ahead of time to prepare for Mordor, once it starts, you are kind of at the mercy of the tile flips. You can head into Mordor with no corruption, and still get taken out, or you can go in with high corruption, and still make it. Some folks feel like this makes the rest of the game somewhat pointless, as once it gets to that stage, it's all just a crap shoot.

Finally there are those who think there is little or no "strategy" in the game, and it's all just a series of tactical puzzles. While this is certainly the most obvious conclusion to come to, "how do I use these action dice I rolled to accomplish what I want" , I think there's a bit more going on. Certainly, given the power of the event cards, you need to base what you are doing around the cards you get, (another vote for the tactical side of things), but already there are discussions running about various strategies for both sides. Things like the decision to split off companions of the Fellowship or leave them together as a group. Whether to rush the FSP, ignoring all else. Whether or not a FP military victory is possible with competent play. On the SA side of things I've seen discussions of a "No Minions" or "Late Minions" strategy, forgoing Saruman and the Witch King's powers and extra dice to prevent Gandalf the White from appearing, and activating all of the FP nations for the Witch King. I've seen the "Ignore Gondor" strategy discussed, forcing the FP player to spend dice to activate and move Gondor to war. Then there is the strategy of the hunt. Hunt early or late? Hunt hard or just barely look? So I think there is enough strategy available to discredit this theory. Time will tell whether any of these strategies are workable. I for one, am looking forward to trying them out.


Strategy:  7
Complexity:  8
Fun:  8
Overall:  8

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