So I went and got a copy of the second edition game from Ares Games; the game materials are dated both 2011 and 2015. Before we get to all the good stuff, I want to get my major complaints with the physical game out of the way. The box is huge and comes with a massive pile of figures; 205 of them, to be exact. They're made out of a soft plastic that bends rather than breaks, which is a good thing. However, Ares Games has made the deeply unfortunate decision to ship the figures in two massive piles, each in a flimsy plastic bag. This pretty much guarantees that at least some of your figures will literally be bent out of shape by the time you get them. Spears and banners are the worst affected, although a couple of figures in my set are almost bent over double. Here's a few examples:
It's a real shame, too, because the figures are actually quite nice. John Howe is responsible for most of the art in the game and also participated in designing the figures, so they show his signature combination of very high quality and an occasionally relaxed relationship to the source material: the mounted Elven elite figures look great - but the horses have saddles. One thing the figures have been criticized for is that excepting the unique characters, they only come in three colors: grey for leaders, blue for Free Peoples and red for the Shadow. The trouble with this is that in the game, even though one player does control the Free Peoples and the other the Shadow, each side is made up of various nations, and for several gameplay purposes, it matters which nation which units are from. At a distance, it can be really hard to tell one blue plastic horseman from another. To fix this, before we got started I decided to paint the Free Peoples figures' bases and color-code them according to nation. Also, my paintbrush slipped and I painted the bases of all the characters and non-Sauron Shadow units as well.
The other major problem is that while the box itself is large and sturdy, the interior is completely inadequate. If you want to protect your figures from further damage, you can't store them in the game box. Similarly, if you sleeve the cards, they'll no longer fit in the space provided. So you end up having to remove the plastic inside frame of the box and create your own storage solutions. So not only is the game massive, but you also end up having to put in a lot of work yourself. This is more like buying a Warhammer army than a board game.
With all this done, it was time to start approaching the idea of actually playing the game. A word of warning first. Officially, a game takes what, three hours to play? In reality, the first time we tried setting up the game, that alone took us over an hour. In addition to the two hundred figures, there are also four decks of cards, the character cards for the members of the Fellowship and the minions of the Shadow, and literally one million cardboard counters (actually 76). Also, have I mentioned that the board is massive? It comes in two pieces, each of which is the size of a regular large game board. It's also quite lovely to look at.
Each cardboard counter is also a piece of John Howe art, and they're absolutely beautiful. There are also, like I said, several of them. Here's what the game looks like fully set up:
There's quite a bit to take in here, so maybe a general introduction first. There are two players, one controlling the Free Peoples (blue) and the other the Shadow (red). Both have action dice, units and cards with which to do stuff. Basically, there are two games here. One is a strategy battle game, in which the Free Peoples try to fight off the Shadow onslaught. Capturing cities and strongholds nets you victory points; if the Shadow gets ten, it wins, and if the Free Peoples manage to fight back and grab four victory points, they win. An additional wrinkle is provided by what's called the political track:
The Free Peoples are made up of five nations: the elves, dwarves, Gondor, Rohan and the North. In order to join the war, each nation needs to be activated and moved up the political track by the players until they reach the At War state. For the Free Peoples, only the elves start out active, and everyone starts toward the low end of the scale. On the other hand, all three Shadow nations (Sauron, Isengard and the Southrons & Easterlings) start out active and high on the scale, compounding their advantage.
The wargame part, then, consists of players working to activate their various nations, muster their armies and defeat their enemies. This is quite heavily biased in favor of the Shadow. In parallel with the military confrontation is a second game, where the Fellowship of the Ring is trying to make its way to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the One Ring, while Sauron tries to hunt them down and corrupt them. If he succeeds, the Shadow wins; if the Ringbearers make it to Mount Doom, the Free Peoples win. Both players get a certain number of actions each turn from their action dice, and have to split these between moving or hunting for the Fellowship, and fighting the war. The two "games" interact in various ways; Sauron's armies can make it harder for the Fellowship to move, but friendly strongholds offer a chance to heal corruption - if they can be defended from the Shadow. The Fellowship can also activate friendly nations, and companions can leave it to mobilize and lead armies.
I think that's pretty much it! To be honest, at first this is a bewilderingly complex game. I don't know what anyone who isn't familiar with the Lord of the Rings would make of it, as it's hard enough even when you have a pretty solid idea of what's supposed to be going on. Now, though, it's finally time to start playing. For our first game, I decided to control the Shadow, and my brother led the Free Peoples.
Because the board is so large and complicated, it can look really tough to figure out what to do. Luckily, both the Free Peoples and the Shadow get event cards. These can be used for a whole bunch of things: boost your side in combat, recruit troops, activate nations and whatnot. Since you draw two event cards at the start of every turn and any Event results on the action dice can be used for more, quite often these will give you some direction for the early game. Because this was our first game, we didn't really know what we were doing. I decided that I wanted to go for a military victory and see if I could use my superior forces to steamroll the Free Peoples before they made it to the volcano. When I happened to get some useful muster cards, I was set: the armies of Mordor were coming.
To start with, I decided to strike north: the Black Gate was thrown open and a Nazgûl led the army of Mordor forth into the Dagorlad. Since Mordor wasn't at war yet, I assured the Free Peoples that these were simply ordinary, pre-scheduled summer maneuvers - exercise север-19 - and therefore nothing to worry about. Unsportingly, the imperialist Gondorians used our peaceful solidarity exercises as an excuse to raise their readiness level, and the Fellowship set off from Rivendell. In response, our comrades in Harad reorganized their defensive forces into a more secure posture, and we strengthened the defences of the legitimate people's administration of Minas Morgul against any possible revanchist provocations of the Denethorist clique. Tolkien did say that the idea of putting Mordor in the east was simply an accident of his fictional geography, and I realize that what I'm writing now might be interpreted as a commentary on that statement by uncultured readers, but let me assure you that any such analogies are phantasms of a bourgeois false consciousness; due to their class nature, analogies in general are only found in decadent imperialist literature.
Unseasonally bad weather forced the fellowship to divert to the Trollshaws, and a peaceful scientific Nazgûl was immediately dispatched to make meteorological observations in the region. Meanwhile, Sever-19 was proceeding according to plan. As part of our joint defensive readiness exercises, our brothers in Orthanc conducted a test of their civil defense infrastructure by raising their alert level, allowing comrade Saruman to join the exercise and continue his videotronic experiments with palantír technology. Despite these clear demonstrations of our peaceful intentions, the so-called "wisdom" of Elrond incited the misguided people of Gondor to mobilize against us, and the perfidious elves also began preparations for a war of aggression.
Even the peace-loving people of Mordor won't stand idly by as elven-imperialist forces create an aggressive combination against them, but were forced by recent developments to consider themselves at war. By great good fortune, the peaceful solidarity maneuver Sever-19 had purely by chance happened to position a strong defensive army in the Anduin valley. Reluctantly but decisively, the joint Mordor-Dol Guldur forces set aside their works of peace and turned to war, launching a devastating pre-emptive attack on the perfidious realm of Lórien. The elves withdrew into their accursed forest, but fortified by the righteousness of their defensive cause, the heroic soldiers of Mordor followed them inside to root the elven provocateurs out of their counter-revolutionary dens.
The peaceful realm of Mordor had acted just in time, as the imperialist plot was completed by the crowning of a northern vagrant as "king" in the usurper realm of Gondor. To counter this revanchist threat, the armies of Mordor extended their defensive perimeter to the elven offensive fortifications of Osgiliath and deployed one of their most competent leaders, the People's Commissar for Angmar, to personally direct the pre-emptive attack on Lórien. Inspired by his decisive leadership, the defensive forces of Mordor rooted out the last of the imperialist holdouts in the Golden Wood.
While the counter-revolution massed its forces in Gondor, the working people of the north rose in solidarity against the oppressors, and the People's Commissar of Angmar immediately moved north to direct the army of northern liberation in a glorious counterstroke against the elven masterminds of imperialism. The terrorist provocateurs known as the Dúnedain were dispersed, and the righteous vengeance of the proletariat descended on the decadent bourgeoisie of the Shire.
As the northern army marched on the Grey Havens, the people's supreme command set the rest of their defensive plans in motion. While our agents of influence convinced the dwarves to remain outside the conflict, our Easterling comrades liberated the Iron Hills and smashed the illegitimate Brandist regime in Dale. The liberation army of Lórien marched north to pacify Mirkwood, while the free men of Harad freed Pelargir from Gondorite oppression and the hosts of Minas Morgul marched forth to lay siege to Minas Tirith. Finally, the scientific forces of Isengard drove the Rohanite bandits threatening their borders into their mountain hideouts.
During this glorious march to freedom, the people's committee for security in Minas Morgul intercepted a group of terrorist infiltrators. Several managed to escape, but the infamous spymaster and provocateur Gandalf was apprehended and killed while resisting arrest. This unexpected threat to the homeland served as a reminder to redouble military efforts against the elven conspiracy, and soon enough, the northern army of liberation completed the reduction of the Grey Havens. The campaign against the Rohanite bandits suffered a setback when the provocateur Gandalf made an inexplicable reappearance in Fangorn, inciting the demons of the forest to treacherously murder comrade Saruman. Deprived of his scientific leadership, the siege of the Rohanite hideouts continued indecisively.
With the puppet king of the Denethorite-elvish clique besieged in Minas Tirith and the counter-revolution in retreat everywhere, the final liberation of Middle-earth loomed on the horizon as the oppressive dictatorship of Thranduil fell. Tragically, even though the people's security forces of Mordor had succesfully neutralized several members of their so-called "fellowship", the hobbit terrorists Frodo, Samwise and Peregrin were able to carry out an unthinkable act of sabotage and plunge Middle-earth into an oppressive monarchist darkness. At the eleventh hour, the counter-revolution prevailed through the basest treachery.
That was our first game, and it was a damn near-run thing. I had nine victory points on my last turn, and had a decent chance of grabbing the tenth, if only those fucking hobbits didn't make it to the Cracks of Doom first. In the end, it hinged on whether the last hunt tile we drew had a stop symbol on it or not. It didn't, and the game was over. It really couldn't have been a much closer shave.
My military strategy was largely succesful: by the end of the game, I held Lórien, Dale, the Woodland Realm, the Grey Havens, the Shire and Pelargir, and it wasn't quite enough. One thing I really liked was how the game generated its own dynamic. In retrospect, one key moment for me was when the Free Peoples played the There and Back Again event card, which activated the dwarves and the north. At that point, I could easily bring the Witch-king into play; his arrival activates all free nations, but now this only meant Rohan, which I was going to attack anyway. Since I had several cards that I could use to mobilize in Eriador, the northern offensive worked out nicely, especially since my opponent was concentrating on building up his forces in Gondor. I had no intention of attacking Gondor, especially since Aragorn was there, and only sent the Morgul army out to contain him in Minas Tirith. I also delayed my attack on Rohan to maintain Saruman's army as a potential threat. This turned into another decisive moment, as I had the Fighting Uruk-hai card in my hand the very turn the ents destroyed Isengard; had I been able to play it, we'd have had a decent chance of taking Helm's Deep, but I couldn't play it after losing Saruman. So Gandalf not only got the fellowship into Mordor, but also made his way to Fangorn at exactly the right moment to save Rohan.
I only used a couple of character cards to harass the Fellowship, and they still sustained quite a tally of casualties: Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas and Merry all fell in Mordor. The game feels quite nicely balanced, though, because if I'd made more of an effort to stop the Fellowship, I wouldn't have been as succesful militarily. Again, which cards you draw will make a difference, and I like that strategy in the War of the Ring is a combination of a pre-conceived plan and succesfully making use of opportunities that arise.
In more general terms, I thought the mechanics worked very well. I especially liked the siege mechanics, which let a siege drag on considerably unless the attacker was willing to sacrifice their elite units to prolong the assault. All in all, this was a great experience. Since writing the above, I also got to try playing as the Free Peoples, and it was just as interesting and just as close. My opponent overcommitted himself, and I decided to leave Boromir and the hobbits to drink away their corruption in Thranduil's halls and go for a military victory. After an epic siege, a joint army of dwarves, elves, Beornings and men from Dale took Dol Guldur, and we very nearly succeeded in storming Isengard. In the end, though, the military superiority of the Shadow won out: Isengard held, and King Elessar fell in a massive battle over Pelargir. Again, it was a game that could have gone either way; a massively exhausting but thoroughly awesome experience. I like to think that when the Easterlings overran the Woodland Realm, Boromir and the hobbits escaped in floating barrels and eventually, somehow, made their way to Mount Doom...
Simply put, if you're at all into some combination of Tolkien and strategy gaming, you have got to try this game. I'm currently looking forward to not only rematches with both my opponents, but also an attempt at both the three- and four-player variants of the game; in the latter, there are two players on each side, while in the most interesting three-player setup, one player controls the Free Peoples, while the other two are effectively Sauron and Saruman. If any of these experiences are half as awesome as the two games we've managed to play so far, this game will have been worth every second of trouble and cent of money I've invested in it.