War of the Ring Card Game
- Designer: Ian Brody
- Publisher: Ares
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 12+
- Time: 90-120 mins
- Played with review copy provided by Ares Games at SPIEL 2022
Well, many of the gamers on this list have War of the Ring as one of their favorite games. I have enjoyed my few plays of it, but the base game tends to take a bit longer than I like… So, when presented with a card game, I was interested to try it out and see if it gave me the same sort of experience, but hopefully with a shorter game time.
In this game, players participate on 2 teams, the Free Peoples (Frodo and Aragorn) and the Shadow (Saruman and the WitchKing). Each player gets a unique deck representing the characteristics of their faction; taking the faction cards that correspond to each player’s chosen character. Each faction also has a separate battleground deck which is shuffled and set aside. Finally the path deck is created with the number 1 cards on top and in order until the number 9 cards are on bottom.
There are a number of different scenarios available in the rulebook, though I have only placed the basic scenario – which allows you to re-live the LotR trilogy. The players should sit so that the teams alternate seat positions. Each player will need a play area in front of them, with a deck on the table, a cycle pile to the right and an eliminated card pile to the left. The center of the table should be left free to hold path and battleground cards, and enough space for combats to occur around those cards.
The game is played in a number of rounds (max 9), each with 5 main phases
1] Location step – the current starting player first activates a battleground card, usually taken from that player’s Battleground deck. If a specific Battleground card is activated (mentioned by name on another card); it is found and put into play – whether from the deck or from the scoring area of either team. Resolve the text on the Battleground card. There is no limit to the number of Battleground cards in play. Next, a path is activated; take the next three cards from the deck (should all share the same Path number), and randomly choose one of them to put into play. Only one path can be in play at a time. Discard all others.
2] Action step – Players in order (Frodo, WitchKing, Aragorn, Saruman in the basic scenario) get a turn where they take a single action or pass. You might play a card from your hand, move a card in reserve to an active battleground or path, you might cycle a card or winnow your deck by eliminating 2 cards and drawing a single card to replace those. You might play a card from your hand, which requires you to cycle (that is, discard a different card from your hand into the cycle pile), and then enact the text on that card. This phase continues until all players have passed consecutively.
3] Combat step – For Path cards, the Free people are always the defenders. The number of skull icons on the Shadow cards played here are summed up, and then the Free people must try to eliminate all the skulls with shields, either on the path card itself or on cards played. If a Free people card eliminates one or more skulls, it is eliminated from the game. Any unused Free people cards are cycled. If all the skulls are eliminated, the Free People win, and they take the path card, scoring the points in the upper left corner. If there are skulls remaining, the Shadow win, they place corruption tokens equal to the number of unblocked skulls, and place the card facedown in their scoring pile – facedown because they do not score for the value printed on the card but rather for the corruption tokens placed on it. All Shadow cards in the combat are eliminated. For Battleground cards, the defender is determined by the type of card played; and crossed swords played by the attackers are canceled by shields of the defenders. As with Path battles, all defenders that eliminate crossed swords are eliminated, but all attacking cards are eliminated. The winning side takes the battleground card and puts it in their scoring pile.
4] Check for victory – The game can end immediately if one team has 10 points more than the other. Alternatively, if you play through the ninth path card, the team with the most points at the end of that round wins.
5] Draw step – each Free People player draws 3 cards, while each Shadow player draws 4 cards. The starting player token is passed to the next player in turn order.
Again, the game either ends after 9 rounds or at the end of any round where one team has 10 points more than the opponents.
My thoughts on the game
Well, to start out with, I think that this WotR card game shares much thematically with the boardgame of the same name – which should be obvious as both try to recapture the adventure and strife of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, past the theme, the games are not much like each other.
Here, players will try to cleverly play cards to the different areas of the table (Path battles, Battleground battles, reserve area) to win points. There is a subtle bit of hand management in the cycling of cards. Each time you play a card, you must cycle something else from your hand, and this means that you must always be making decisions on which cards you want to play now, and which ones you want to sacrifice their potential ability in order to play others.
The steps of each round are easy to grok – the action phase mostly involves playing cards (and cycling for that right) – either to a specific battle or to the reserve area. The main reason why you might want to play to the reserve area is that some cards grant special effects when in the reserve area. The other reason is one of timing; if you play to the reserve area, you will need to spend an action in the future moving that card to a battle – this could allow you to posture with a card, but delay its deployment until you get to see how the rest of the round is turning out.
The timing aspect is neat, and as an action phase goes until all players pass consecutively, this can lead to some swings in the action where one player might pass for the first few rounds, but then once the direction of play has been established, that player might then play a bunch of cards to drastically change the situation. Of course, this tactic might backfire because if everyone else unexpectedly passes, the waiting player could end up not being able to play any cards to the table for that round – and that likely does not bode well for their side in the battles.
So far, we have only played the basic scenario and always with four players. The rules do allow for 2 and 3 players to play; but it really feels like the game was designed for two partnerships to duke it out – and given the way the attendance has been at game night, this is the only way we have played. It works well for that number, and many of the other reviews I have read online also say that 4 players is the preferred number.
The rounds themselves can be slow, especially as you are learning the game. Some of the cards have a lot of text on them, and for people who are not extremely familiar with the source trilogy, the cards often have changing references that can slow things down – some cards refer to “Sam Gamgee”, others to just “Sam”. Not a big deal, but the inexactness can require some clarification while playing. Second, there are a few card actions that allow you to look through your deck or discard pile to choose cards. Until you’re pretty familiar with the whole card set, this means you might be sitting there reading ten cards and trying to understand how they all work while everyone else plays on their phone awaiting you to do something. However, once you have played a few times, you get the gist of what most of the cards do, or what potential actions there might be, and this process speeds up a bit.
The rules allow for communication between the partnerships, but only if out in the open. That is, you can discuss strategy and cards, but only if everyone in the game can hear it. This does allow for some interesting strategery, and sometimes outright bluffing; but it’s nice to be able to talk out a plan or ask your partner for advice when you’re not quite sure what to do.
The decks seem pretty well balanced for the basic scenario, and most of our games have come down to the wire. The game lets you make some interesting decisions with the hand management and with the timing of play, and it is one that I’d be happy to play again if asked. As I’m not a huge LotR guy, the theme doesn’t do it for me, but I know a few folks around here that this is an auto-buy because of it. Luckily, you don’t need to embrace your inner hobbit to enjoy this one; there is a neat strategic card game here even if you can’t tell your Legolas from your Isildur.
It’s hard to give a full rating as I’ve only played one of the scenarios in the game, but as of this point: I like it.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor