August 1, 2006

Hands On: War of the Ring Battle For Rohan

BattlesThirdAge.3.2.06.gifA soggy thunderstorm swept through New England this weekend, and we thought it would be the perfect time to crack open War of the Ring's [Amazon, Funagain] new expansion The Battles of the Third Age [Funagain]to give it a go. We met at six in the evening to setup the Battle for Rohan (one of 3 new scenarios in the Expansion), and got to playing. Before long we were elbows deep in one of the most engrossing war game experiences we've ever had, and nobody in our group noticed (or cared) when the clock stuck ten, then 11, 12, and 1 am.

Now that the dust has settled from our wargaming marathon, we've collected our thoughts on the game experience. Read on for our criticisms and accolades over the expansion's revised combat system, the new pieces and boards, and how succesfully they all mesh together into the new War of the Ring gameplay experience.

General
Just so you know upfront - this is a very complicated game. LOTR enthusiast who don't have familiarity with complicated wargames should probably step aside. If you're looking for a Lord of the Rings game for family game night, or for the non wargammer, then we suggest that you pickup a copy of Lord of the Rings cooperative board game [Funagain]. If you've played and enjoyed other wargames in the past, then you should definitely check out War of the Ring, and then the Battles of Third Age expansion.

Estimating the placement of The War of the Ring and the Battles of the Third Age within the wargamming complexity food chain, it'd probably look something along these lines:

Risk < History of the World < Axis and Allies < War of the Ring < Battles of the Third Age Expansion < Hex Based Wargames

If we haven't scared you away -- good. This expansion is a rare treat of gaming goodness. We haven't been this excited over a game in a long, long time.

The Battles of the Third Age expansion is actually three games in one. The box contains rules and pieces that expand the original War of the Ring scenario, but also contains two new boards for the smaller fights "The Battle for Rohan" and "The Battle for Gondor". This article contains our thoughts from our first session of The Battle for Rohan. It assumes that you're familiar with a lot of the new features which we've already covered in our general preview / overview of the expansion .

Frustrations (the bad)

Number of Players
We were three men possessed by the end of the game, but the night definitely did not start that way. First off was a mistake by us, and this is just a heads-up in case you make the same assumption as we did. The original War of the RohanBord.8.1.06.JPGRing supports up to four players, and since the Expansion's box also says "2-4 players", we assumed that the Battle for Rohan would let us play in a similar fashion. This was just not the case - the expansion's Battles of Rohan and Gondor are limited to just 1 vs. 1. It turns out that "2-4" players only pertains to the expansion's Twilight of the Third Age, which is the expansion's rules and pieces for the original War of the Ring boardgame. We decided to stick with the Battle for Rohan anyway, and so we randomly split the group of three into a team of two players, and a team of one. Thankfully, in the end, this 2 vs. 1 division worked out quite well and didn't interfere with our play experience in the least bit.

Game Setup
Setup was the first true headache we encountered. The Rohan and Gondor battles ship with their own set of pieces, but also borrow units from the original War of the Ring game. If you've played the original, then you know just how similar a lot of the different pieces seem to one another. We spent about thirty minutes fishing through the gobs of pieces in original game's massive unit pool to find just a few extra pieces for each of the factions in Rohan. It would have been far more convenient if the expansion shipped with it's required unit pieces, or at least with a new unit tray to let us easily separate the pieces of the original factions. Ugh. Also on the confusing list - the new decks of cards. Which of the new decks were we suppose to use with the Battle for Rohan? Do we use any of the cards from the original game? It would have been nice if the instructions had a chart of what deck goes where. We finally found our answers buried within the game's ginormous rule book. More frustrations, more time wasted.

Documentation
Finally, there are a ton of well-documented new rules for the Battles of Rohan and Gondor. Some of the new rules add to the overall strategic portion of the game, but most pertain to game's massive overhaul of unit recruitment and combat. As we read through the instructions we had a difficult time applying the mechanics of the new rules over the basis of the game's older rules. In reality, it's because all of the old combat and recruitment rules are completely tossed out the window. It would have been nice if the instructions had told us this upfront - "forget all that you know about these portions of the game".

TreeBeard.8.1.06.JPGThis is the 'teach an old dog new tricks' syndrome. We understand that the game has a steep learning curve and a lot of rules, and we shouldn't expect to understand everything right away - but that's all the more reason to clearly summarize the changes.


The Good

Combat - Damage Counters
Oh boy. The good news is that the changes to combat work. Combat strategy is now a series of layers with simple yet tough decisions to make on every round.

The original War of the Ring sports a combat damage system similar to Axis and Allies - Dice are rolled, hits are tallied, and players asses damage and remove a certain number of units every round. The combat of Battles of the Third Age is slightly more complicated, but in a very rewarding way. Instead of removing units each round, damage markers are assigned to an army for every 'hit' an opponent rolls. Units don't start disappearing until the number of damage tokens exceeds the number of units in the army. So an army can soak up AT LEAST as many hits as its size. This extends combat, making things a bit more epic as armies last longer, and become more resilient to failed attacks. On top of that, players can tactically retreat a damaged army, spend part of their turn rallying the army (removing damage tokens), then attack again. In the end, armies have more of a lasting presence than ever before.

This adds quite a bit to gameplay. As before, a player's ability to act in the strategic portion of the game is still dictated by his turn dice (each die result represents an action a player can take). Players might not have enough rally dice in a given turn to immediately reform damaged armies. Or, players might attack late in a round, entering a battle blindly hoping to roll a rally die result in the next turn.

Combat - Unit Tactics
The expansion also adds special abilities to each of the unit types. Special abilities mostly revolve around the prevention of damage and the destruction of leadership (for the side of Light), or the application of added damage and allowing units to become damage sponges to save the entire army (side of Dark).

Here's how it works: Players secretly chose one from a series of tokens for each combat round. The tokens represents the various unit types in a battle. The units of the selected type are said to be "maneuvering". If the player successfully hits with those units, then that unit's special ability is activated.

Say, the dark player selects his half-orc's ability to soak up three damage counters on death (instead of the normal two damage counters). He has tree half-orcs in his army of five, so he'll roll three maneuver dice and two normal dice. Orc.8.1.06.jpg The side of light chooses his foot soldiers to form a shield wall (preventing one damage). He has only one foot soldier in an army of tree units, so he rolls one maneuver die and two standard dice.

Two of the half-orcs maneuver successfully with a hit (on a roll of 5+), but the rest of his forces miss. A successful maneuver also counts as a hit to the enemy army! The side of light hits will all three of his units. Now, since both of the sides' maneuvering forces have successfully maneuvered, their special abilities activate. The Dark side accumulates three damage counters, and decides to use the successful half-orc maneuver ability to remove all three of the counters at the cost of one half-orc. The side of Light takes two damage, but because of their successful maneuver, only get assigned a single damage counter for the round.

If the attacker presses, then the next round of combat starts. But this time the half-orc and foot soldier maneuver counters are spent, and cannot be reused. Instead, players must chose to maneuver the other forces in their armies, or select a token to regroup -- which allows them to recollect all of the combat tokens from prior rounds.

It's very simple, and yet adds a ton of depth to the gameplay. Each unit type has personality, and an army of mixed unit becomes useful. Plus, battles have more of a personality themselves, as the foot soldier's shield wall saves the day against an aggressive orc attack. Or mounted units maneuver to flank an army and destroy their leadership values in the first round, then follow up with a strong archer barrage in the next, etc.


Conclusion

G..G..Grima.. Wa. Wo.. WormtongueIt's these sort of small, focused player decisions (army makeup, tactics, attack or retreat?) which sit atop an already complex grand strategy game that made our Battle for Rohan fight such a delight to play. The story was epic, the battles were fierce, and the game's fate track made sure there was urgency around every move. The Entwood sliced through the forces of Dark numerous times, keeping the outcome balanced upon very fine fulcrum. The game ended with a slight-of-hand move from Grima Wormtounge which neutralized the leadership of the Light. And on on the last possible turn, with only two dice left in the turn pool, the fall of Helms Deep gave the prize of Rohan to the forces of the Shadow.

We can't wait to slap down the Gondor expansion and see how things settle out of that one. But even if that stinks, and even if the War of the Ring 'Twilight' expansion is foul (which we seriously doubt it is), then still the Battle of Rohan is easily worth the price of admission.

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Posted by Critical Gamers Staff at August 1, 2006 2:49 PM

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