Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The War of the Ring (SPI game)

So, New Year's Eve found us over at the Grubb House enjoying Jeff and Kate's Game Day, most of which I spent playing a game I'd long heard about but never had a chance to play before: SPI's THE WAR OF THE RING.

This is as old school as Old School gets: hex-based grids on maps, hundreds of tiny little chits, twenty-eight pages of detailed rules, and a recommended play-time of essentially all day.  I've never been one for wargames, preferring my boardgames simpler (for complexity, I turn to roleplaying games*). Apparently it'd been a favorite of Kate's back in the day, but she'd not had a chance to play it in years, given how time-consuming a single play-through is. And for my part, I'd long wanted to try this one out, largely out of curiosity over how well it reproduced the ambiance of the books.** Digging around, I found I do have three of the four maps that make up the gameboard (I'm missing the fourth, Mordor), having salvaged them when the TSR/WotC games library was cleaned out and drastically reduced in size in late 2005.

As for the game, we played the three-person variant: Kate played Sauron and the forces of Mordor, I played the Fellowship, and their friend Frank played Saruman -- who's something of a spoiler, with his own victory conditions. Frank particularly liked the part in the rulebook that advised that the Saruman player typically enjoys himself much more once he gives up trying to win. Despite a plethora of rules and special cases, the game went remarkably smoothly. Knowing nothing about the best strategies and probabilities of success of any particular action, I decided to embrace my naivete and just have the characters more or less reproduce their actions from the book. This strategy is not as gormless as it might sound: I've observed that many wargames reward following the general trend of history -- for example, World War II wargames tend to be set up so that the German player does much better if he attacks Poland on the first turn rather than, say France.

Be that as it may, I was certainly blessed with beginner's luck. The game starts with the Fellowship in Rivendell (whereas the game I'd played that one time with Rich began in Hobbiton, and I never did get all the Nine Walkers together -- I remember Gandalf got killed by a Nazgul trying to cross a river into Rivendell, at wh. point Rich advised me to just give up and concede the game, which I did). Unable to cross the Misty Mountains, we went through Moria -- where to Kate's disgust it turned out the balrog was away. A quick stay in Lorien provided me with boats which I used to whisk my way down the great river. Then came a few turns slipping thr Ithilien (filled with enemy forces that nonetheless failed to find us), past Minas Morgul, thr. Cirith Ungol, and finally into Mordor. We ended with a grand battle on Mt. Doom, where Pippin and Merry and Legolas died, then Gimli, then lastly Gandalf, and finally Aragorn (Boromir had been lost a little earlier, in Ithilien I think, and Sam captured and carried off to the Barad-dur). So Frodo killed the last of the Nazgul, threw the Ring into the fire, and won the day. A turn later Gandalf the White showed up, just in time to re-united Frodo with Sam, who'd escaped from Sauron (apparently it's not hard to capture halflings, but it's the v. dickens to keep hold of them; they're always escaping). Meanwhile, over in Saruman's world, he'd overrun Rohan, destroyed all the Rohirrim forces, killed Eomer and Theodred and Theoden, and carried Eowyn off as a captive to Orthance, which I can't imagine she enjoyed v. much. Had I known the game better, turns out I cd have dispersed the Rohirrim so that it took him a long time to hunt them all down, rather than collecting them into Helms Deep where he just pounded away on them until they were no more (a case where following the book's plot-line served me ill). Luckily for me, his victory conditions were so high that even this success was not enough to bring him victory (apparently he had to gain control of any surviving Nazgul too).

So, thanks to Kate's run of bad luck, and my own counter-run of undeserved good fortune, I won. Glad to have finally had a chance to play this, and I'll certainly pick up a copy if I ever get the chance and can afford it (I gather they go for a pretty stiff price these days, not surprising for a boardgame that's some thirty-five years old). Think I'll quit while I'm ahead -- though I am now itching to play FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (assuming my copy turns out to be complete enough for playability) and, prob. before that, STELLAR CONQUEST -- which again I played once, years ago, and liked but have never had (or made) the chance to play again. Some boardgame night sooner than later, I think.

--John R.

P.S.: And in the Above And Beyond department: when packing away the game, Kate found that in the bottom of the box they still had a flyer advertising this and other games of the era, along with a "Complaint Card" which you were to fill out and send in if you had any pieces missing. These she threw away, and I'd no sooner gotten home that evening than I was kicking myself for not having asked for them -- being particularly interested in gaming history (esp. of Tolkienian games). I mentioned my chagrin the next day to Jeff, who retrieved them from recycling before it was too late. So now, thanks to the kindness of friends, my file for this game includes three-fourths of the map, a photocopy of the rules book and some sheets with charts, this flyer, and this card. Still not playable without the cards and many, many little cardboard chits, but enough now to have a good idea of the game and how it plays and how faithful (or otherwise) it is to JRRT's original.***

*Speaking of which, we resumed our fifth edition playtest last night (M.1/7-13). Despite considerable yo-yoing between each iteration of the rules (think this is the fifth version so far), it's starting to feel like something distinct, neither 4th nor 3rd nor 2nd nor 1st (though ideally to me it'd harken back more to 1st ed). More on this if and when the Cone of Silence comes off.

**I thought I'd played it once with Rich Baker, towards the end of my last stint at WotC (not long before they moved to the new building), but once I saw the rules for this I realized that must have been another game, prob. ICE's FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, which postdates SPI's WAR OF THE RING by several years. That time I lost, spectacularly. I do remember the hidden movement rule fondly, though.

***pretty faithful, given its brief (a wargame is not a novel); they even include Druwaith Iaur on the map, which shows somebody was paying attention. Giving the second Nazgul the name "Morgoth" was a mis-step, though to be fair less a one than Ice Crown's faux pas of making one of their Nazgul female.

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