Every day my love for this game grows stronger. Easily one of Games Workshop’s best ideas in quite some time, the revamp and relaunch of their LORD OF THE RINGS line as a new Miniature wargame titled WAR OF THE RING was a complete masterstroke. Incorporating everything of the company’s new focus upon FUN tactical gaming, they’ve shied away from their more complicated rule sets and ever changing environments in order to create an elegantly simple, entirely self contained game that offers all the complexities of tactical wargaming, but plays quick, bloody and with all the absurdities of epic level fantasy heroes. It is the kind of game that isn’t just fun to play. It is really fun to watch as well.
The basic idea of the game is Lord of the Rings combat at battlefield level. You can play very small games with this ruleset, with as little as two or three formations (units), in 15 to 20 minutes. You can play 3000 point games encompassing a dozen or so formations in under 2 hours. And you can play something like a manageably scaled down version of THE BATTLE OF PELENNOR FIELDS (that awesome battle midway through RETURN OF THE KING outside the gates of Minas Tirith) in an evening. Most importantly, this isn’t a game that shies away from the inclusion of major heroes. In fact, the heroes and villains of Lord of the Rings are of the utmost import to winning. And they are every bit as incredible in the game as they appear on the page or onscreen.
I’ve played half a dozen games of this so far and have used the book as bedtime reading for a week now. And I love the hell out of it. I can’t get enough of the minis – I’ve got over 5500+ points of evil forces (most of which belongs to Mordor) with more on the way. And I’ve been using the slow, WATCHMEN centric week to stay up all night furiously painting up forces so I can field a fully painted army by the time the book drops April 4th. So here’s a rundown of what I LOVE about the game and what I don’t – which will hopefully give you an idea as to whether or not it will be up your alley.
-Completely uses the pre-existing range. For starters, there’s already a complete line of units for the game. There’s only twenty-two formations in the books that don’t have specific figures for sale, although about 75% of those have more than adequate substitutions. While there are no Cave Drake or Stone Giant sets yet, the difference between a Mordor Battering Ram (not available) and an Isenguard Battering Ram is most likely the paintjob (if not the armor on the Uruk Hai carrying it.) Everything unavailable is a higher end and wholly unnecessary unit or a named hero that didn’t appear in the film (all of the film’s characters already exist.) I’ll probably end up making a Stone Giant and a Cave Drake out of Warhammer Fantasy equivalents, but the Werewolf pack is giving me fits. Those I’ll probably have to draw from other places until a kit comes out (hopefully later this year.)
-It’s QUICK. Combat works differently from Warhammer Fantasy and 40K. The chief difference is the elimination of the armor save and the combination of the to-hit rolls and the to-wound rolls into one mechanic. Combat works like this. You get a certain amount of attacks per Formation (unit) depending on the formation itself and a whole slew of potential modifiers. You then compare the DEFENSE of the formation you are attacking to your own formation’s STRENTH and then compare on the chart to see what you need on d6’s to wound. A formation hitting with the same strength as the opponents defense will hit on a four. It goes up and down by 1 for every two points difference. Every success is a wound, and you simply divide the number of wounds by the formations RESILIENCE (usually either 1 or 2, with odd exceptions being 3 or 4) to get the number of casualties it suffers. Those casualties are immediately removed. It sounds more complicated than it is. Most infantry have a resilience of 1 while cavalry and most monsters have a resilience of 2. 8 Wounds to infantry will kill 8 guys, while the same wounds to cavalry will kill 4. This plays out VERY QUICKLY, the fight resolution phase often being one of the quicker phases in the game.
-There isn’t a lot of futzing around. Heroes have the ability to let their formation move twice (called “At the Double!”) You can be in combat within the first turn. While movement and position are as important as in Warhammer Fantasy, you’ll likely never have a game in which nothing ever comes into contact. If you want to get somewhere quickly, you usually can. This mechanic, along with speed of combat, are the chief rules that allow this game to be played so quickly.
-Heroes are HEROIC. The biggest and most important thing about heroes is their ability to duel one another. When their formations end up in contact after charging, one can challenge the other and they roll off adding a d6 to their FIGHT score. The winner rolls a number of d6s equal to the amount they succeeded by on a heroic duel table and discover how much damage they do to the opposing hero, and how many casualties the formation accrues as the hero cuts his way through to his opponent. There are, of course, a slew of special powers and abilities that each hero can possess to affect the outcome of such a duel making this one of the deadliest and potentially most important phases in a game. I once watched Elrond cut his way through 20 orcs to kill the Orc shaman leading the formation – and just last night my Gothmog killed both Theoden and Aragorn in duals during the same turn, crippling my opponent. Moments like this add quite a bit to the “woah” factor both while playing and when watching.
-Easy, fluid, and forgiving army construction rules. One of the best elements of the game is that it allows you to build most any kind of force that you want, to do virtually everything that you’ve seen in the movies or read in the books. 25% of your army can come from any other army in your alliance (Good or Evil) but don’t need to come from just one army. So you can play 1500 points of Gondor, but add in two Ents (100pts a piece), Legolas (200pt Elf hero) and Drar’s Hunters (95pt Dwarf Ranger formation) to strengthen some of your armies weaknesses in a 2000pt game. This allows you to play with some strange bedfellows, allowing dwarves to fight alongside Rohan or letting Isengard field a Balrog or Harad War Mumak’s.
-Interesting rules for types of units make them all equally worthwhile. There’s almost a paper-rock-scissors approach to how the units interact with one another. ALMOST. In the fight phase monsters attack first. All monsters hit at the same time and their casualties are removed. Then Cavalry strike. Then Infantry. But Cavalry get the biggest charge bonus increasing the number of attacks they make if they charge rather than get charged. Infantry have a lot more wounds. But when it comes to controlling objectives Infantry will hold them over cavalry and monsters can’t contest them at all.
-Fairly cheap buy in. Almost every single one of the core units are available in plastic, with most infantry units coming in boxes of 24 for $25 (24 guys is 3 companies). Cavalry come in boxes of 6 (also 3 companies) for the same price. The ability to add captains, standard bearers, musicians and spellcasters to these core units allows you to bulk up the point cost (as well as effectiveness) enabling you to field a decent army without spending tons of money. Splitting a $60 MINES OF MORIA box set with a friend will get one of you 24 Goblins and a Cave Troll (120pts off the rack, or 345pts if you do some minor conversions to add a Goblin Drummer, shaman and captain) and a complete set of the plastic FELOWSHIP – all nine heroes that can be fielded individually or as a number of different combination units, including all nine for 500pts. Add a Balrog ($40) and another Box of Goblins ($25) and you have the makings of a solid 1000pt Misty Mountain Army. A few Boxes of Gondor (which has three of the fellowship in their list: Aragorn, Boramir and Peragrin Took) and bring over Gandalf the Grey, Legolas or Gimli and you’ve got the beginnings of a solid Gondor army.
-The rules are written with FUN in mind. The most important thing about the game and its ruleset is its focus on fudging the rules when it matters. When you are making a charge (moving one unit towards another unit in order to engage) and you fall a few millimeters short of your target, the rules say just to make contact anyway. Why? Because this is an EPIC battle and the heroes just barely make it. And while many heroes come both mounted and on foot (because they can freely detach from one unit and join another) the rules SUGGEST using the proper model, but states rather flatly that it is not required. Afterall, if Legolas cannot find a horse, he will simply run faster. They’re heroes. They do that. Whenever possible, the rules suggest leaning towards playing for FUN, not for KEEPS.
-The rules ARE NOT written with tournaments in mind. Already my local store is mulling over their tournament FAQ and wondering which rules to keep and which to amend in a tournament setting. Because these rules aren’t altogether tournament friendly. I mean what the hell do they mean by a few millimeters short, anyway? What if I’m a centimeter short of a charge? Do I connect? And do you really not have to have mounted versions of your models to play? Also, the next downside will make things decidedly weirder come tourney time.
-Randomness rules the day. One of the great things about this game is that with a single die roll, incredible amounts of craziness can happen, turning the tide of the game. The downside to this is that a stroke of bad luck can devastate your army and foil the best laid plans. This is a great equalizer when it comes to play as it allows weaker opponents the chance to recover from mistakes against brilliant ones. But the more randomness a game has, the less reliance upon Strategy there is. A game like chess has zero randomness and is 100% dependent upon the experience of the player. A game like Candyland is 100% about the draw of a card and has no decision making at all (which is why it’s great for kids as it lets them beat their parents without their parents having to throw the game.) This is more along the lines of card game level of randomness: the superior player will most likely win, but can get screwed by a bad deal – even moreso than you can in the other two GW Warhammer games. Rather than a LOT of bad rolls to lose you the game, a few poor ones can swing the battle to the other player. Duels are the biggest contributor to this, although charging and spells are dice reliant with negative/hazardous results on a roll of a 1. A perfectly executed strategy can grind to a complete halt if you roll a 1 on the charge, stalling your formation in place. Most players will be fine with this, but tourney players (or any hard playing, ruthless strategist) intent on winning at all costs might find themselves quickly frustrated as weaker players remove the lynchpins of their carefully laid plans because of a few good rolls.
-MIGHT POINTS. My biggest beef with the game. The concept of Might points is solid, but it is a step in the wrong direction in terms of book keeping. Every hero, from the lowly captain on up to Sauron himself, has an allotment of Might points. This is how they fuel their incredible abilities as well as swing the balance of power by changing the results of die rolls they make. BUT each character has a limited supply, meaning that you have to keep track of who spent what. Wait, Does Aragorn have two Might left or just one? I can’t remember. Crafty players will quickly come up with their own bookkeeping methods (like beads or dice by the unit) but the fact that you have to keep track of a number of different floating pools of points is in itself more complication than the game needs. That said, it adds a level of resource management that lets you either blow your load early on something spectacular or forces you to hold back and wait for the right moment to spring a series of nasty surprises. I like overall how the mechanic affects play, I just hate the way it is executed.
I love the shit out of this game. After half a dozen games, I’ve met second round defeat and gone to 8 round knock down drag outs. I’m currently building a cavalry and monster heavy army with enough special Uruk Hai units to take objectives and Mordor Siege Bows for crowd control. And I’m having a great time with it. Not as rigid as GW’s other systems, you can’t necessarily tell who’s most likely to win just by looking at the army. It’s more about telling great stories and experiencing epic battles than it is about milking every last point you can from an army, and the easier to grasp, intuitive rules allow it to be a great gateway game for younger or inexperienced players. A few guys at our local club are teaching their wives how to play as they have an interest in the source material (because who doesn’t love Lord of the Rings) and it gets them involved in their spouses hobby.
Overall, if you’ve ever had an interest in LotR or you’re a fan of Miniature wargaming, this is a MUST PLAY. Fans of deeply complicated games might scoff at this – but I’m playing this against a group of nationally ranked, seasoned 40k and WHFB players who are as in love with it as I am. I am very eager for the beginning of our Austin escalation league next month. Very eager indeed. Hope to see a few of you there with me.
Still jonesing for more, well here are the quick start rules that give you a small overview of the game. Once you’ve got that, scope this companion scenario and army lists/stats so you can play a few sample games on your own. Nothing too complicated. Then, if you’re ready to start assembling your own collection, here is a cute little card that helps you track your growing collection as well as lets you know what else you need to fill out the army. The War of the Ring release is just under a month away. For more info, be sure to head to your local game store and check to see if they have their demo copy of the rulebook in.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.