Thursday, August 04, 2005

War of the Ring – Battles of the Third Age

Hello everyone. Sometimes I am going to write about game strategy for games I find interesting, sometimes I am just going to talk abut games I like, and occasionally I might talk about non game related topics. I intend to post every Thursday, though whether it will end up being that I post late Wednesday night, or during Thursday evening, I don’t yet know.

First of all, yes this article is about the War of the Ring expansion, for which I am lucky enough to be a playtester, and no I cant tell you any details about it that haven’t already been revealed by the designers in their previews at: (You’ll want to click on the word English in the upper left, unless you can read Italian).

While the expansion won’t be out for awhile, I feel that for a game this good, it’s never too early to start hyping it. ;)

Without going into specifics, the expansion changes the base game is several important ways. First of all, the game is deeper, offering both more choices and in many cases more difficult choices, of what path to pursue and where to spend one’s resources. But perhaps even more importantly, it also improves game balance.

As someone who has played War of the Ring extensively (probably about sixty times), studied it, analyzed it, and discussed it, I eventually came to the conclusion that the game was imbalanced in favor of the Shadow side, probably to about a 60-40 ratio. This was due primarily to two factors:

1) The strength of the Shadow character deck, in terms of being able to corrupt the Fellowship.
2) The incredible ability of the Witch King, Black Captain to draw cards for the Shadow player, at almost no cost (he just had to be in a battle in which you played a combat card, which are things that you want to do anyway to try to win militarily, due to his extra action die, and 2 leadership, and the importance of combat cards in defeating the Free Peoples strongholds).

This strategy leads to the Fellowship having to pass two hurdles in order to win the game. They must both make it to Mount Doom before (or on the same turn as) the Shadow military victory, and secondly, they must do it without becoming corrupted. Achieving both in the face of a Shadow player that is simultaneously attacking well militarily AND drawing many character cards via the Witch King to hurt the Fellowship, is relatively difficult. As I estimated before, I believe that with expert play on both sides, the game would yield a Shadow win about 60% of the time, maybe even a little more.

In fact, I believe the strategy of using the Witch King to draw character cards is so fundamental to strong Shadow play, that the advice “Use the Witch King often to draw character cards” is as critical a piece of advice to knowing how to play the Shadow as “Move the Fellowship” is to the Free Peoples. Yes, it is possible to win as the Shadow without using the Witch King’s card drawing, or using it only occasionally and without focus, just as it is possible to win as the Free People without moving the Fellowship, but it’s certainly a much lower probability of success. My very first game, I was so distracted by the various battles going on all over the board, that the Fellowship never left Rivendell. I believe that the Shadow not using the Witch King is as big a mistake as this.

The expansion fixes this balance issue in several ways:

First of all, several new game elements aid the Fellowship, making it more likely that the Free Peoples will be able to bring the ring to Mount Doom without being corrupted, even in the face of heavy Shadow character card play. It’s certainly not automatic, but it seems much more fair and reasonable, and relegates the Shadow corruption victory back into the ‘backup win condition’ category, focusing attention back onto the progress of the Shadow military campaign, as it should be.

Secondly, several new game elements either increase the costs (drawbacks) of bringing out the Witch King, or give alternative choices/strategies that are much lower cost to the Shadow, because they avoid the drawbacks of the Witch King, but are still relatively effective. Thus, with more reasonable alternate strategies for the Shadow than just bringing out the Witch King and drawing cards, and a stronger drawback of bringing him into play, there is a lot more strategic depth in what to do with the Shadow, and which path to pursue. Many times, these choices will be guided by the events of the early game, and as responses to choices made by the other player.

This is not the only change that increases game depth and adds more difficult decisions. Another ‘automatic’ move, that in the base game would always happen very quickly, was the killing off of Gandalf the Grey and subsequent arrival of Gandalf the White, providing the Free Peoples with a critical extra action die. I found it kind of silly and unthematic to always be hoping to kill off Gandalf as soon as possible. Again, new expansion elements create more tradeoffs, making this strategy not always the best (or delaying the time of its occurrence). Indeed, many times Gandalf will lead the Fellowship well into the midgame (often only dying as a random casualty or to defend against a ‘3’ tile), and in several case I have had Gandalf the Grey still leading the Fellowship in Mordor, and in one game, to Mount Doom.

Finally, a bunch of random thoughts on more ways the expansion changes the game:

It increases both the offensive options of the Shadow and defensive options of the Free Peoples.

It causes every region of the board to be able to see combat (i.e. you can realistically go after the Grey Havens as the Shadow).

It helps make the possibility of a Free Peoples military victory a bit more likely.

It slightly increases the importance of separating companions from the Fellowship, and makes it a more reasonable course of action for the Free Peoples player to do so.

It gives the Free Peoples a possible means of being able to avoid a ‘turn stall’ due to Shadow character cards like Cruel Weather (which when used at the very end of a turn, can push the Fellowship back from a position where it could enter Mordor, to one where it cannot, without the possibility of moving again in response).

In conclusion, I love how the expansion doesn’t add merely ‘more stuff’ or ‘more power’ to the different sides, but rather adds more options (leading to difficult decisions and strategy choices), and more game balance. I believe that with the expansion pieces added to the base game, the game is at least very close to 50-50 balanced. So close that I cannot yet determine even after many plays, whether either side has an advantage (let alone which one).

Those who like War of the Ring should love the expansion. It has certainly exceeded my expectations, which were already very high to begin with.


GROGnads said...

Excellent! I'm sure that this will create ever MORE 'devoted fanatics', from those already familiar with it, as well as others that might have been 'holding back' on getting THIS! Good for YOU and THEM, since these 'upgrades' are always a welcome addition upon a popular 'Game', as this one certainly is. Great article all around as well, and "Welcome Alex"!

Melissa said...

I've not played WotR but now am tempted.


DWTripp said...

Okay Alex... I'll pull my copy out and give it another try. You pointed out several things that I missed entirely. Thanks!