War of the Ring, Second Edition Board Game Review


War of the Ring 2nd edition board game box cover

Year Published: 2011

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 150-180 Minutes

Approaches to Theme – War of the Ring 2e

War of the Ring (WotR) is one of the more thematic games you’ll ever play. But what does that mean?

I like to separate Setting from Theme, as a few other excellent reviewers, podcasters, etc. have done before me. The former (Setting) being what we usually think of when we talk about themes…zombies, space opera, Lovecraft, Victorian, various intellectual properties (IP), etc. That’s the setting. Theme is the motif or conceit the game is trying to elicit through its gameplay.

A classic example is Tigris & Euphrates. Almost entirely abstract in its setting (it could be in any period of history, for example), but the rise and fall of empires as brought to life through the mechanics can create a deeply thematic experience. The theme of a zombie game might be paranoia and fear of the unknown, and the success (or lack thereof) of the game in bringing that emotion to the fore in its players is how thematic it manages to be.

So when someone tells me a game has a Lovecraft theme, for example, I want to ask what they mean. Is it a fight for survival as you struggle to maintain sanity? Is it an all-out war on the Old Gods? Or is it a murder-mystery set in the backdrop of such horrors?

The answer matters, because it relates to VERY different design goals.

The “thematic” category on Board Game Geek tends to conflate these two ideas, and features games with a very obvious and specific setting that also bring their central conceit to life through mechanics.

Which brings us to War of the Ring.

In WotR, the Setting is Middle-Earth, Lord of the Rings, etc. It’s one of the more realized settings in all of fiction-dom, owing both to the strength of Tolkien’s vision and the fervor of its fanbase. The Theme of the game is the epic clash between two warring powers with wholly disparate ideologies. And these two halves are merged fantastically and wholly. We’ll come back to this later.

Beginning With Audience Caveats

It’s worth putting this upfront rather than at the tail end. Because this game will have a specific, often-narrow audience.

ONE: The game is long. Expect about 3 hours to play, and as long as 4 if it’s a protracted campaign. This does not include setup, teardown, and teaching (if necessary), which means your initial plays will probably need a 5-hour window to be safe.

TWO: It’s complicated. There’s a lot to take in. If you’re a traditional Ameritrash or Eurogamer, and not a wargamer, it might be the most complicated board game you’ve ever played (for me, it comes in at #2 or 3).

THREE: It is a wargame. You’ll receive brutal beats at the indifferent caprice of the dice, and will occasionally be outmaneuvered by a superior foe who leaves you with little hope.

FOUR: It is probably best experienced with the same play-partner, who is willing to learn and sink into its depths with you over numerous plays. It’s not best when sporadically pulled, or when teaching to a revolving door of newcomers, or when the skill discrepancy is vast. There’s plenty of luck here, but enough strategy that a veteran player will usually win over a new player.

FIVE: It can technically hold up to 4 players, but is really a 2P game. Those who play exclusively in group settings need not apply.

SIX: The game oozes Lord of the Rings flavor. If you’re not into the LotR IP, you likely won’t enjoy this.

SEVEN: It’s expensive and takes up a ton of shelf and table space.


I believe this is a great game, but I also think it’s a game with a specific audience. If you’re not in that intended audience, this game will be an easy pass.

Games aren’t made for everyone, though. Sorry, but they’re not, and any designer or publisher telling you otherwise is just trying to make some extra sales. Games are made to be played by a specific audience. Granted, some games have far broader intended audiences than others. But absolutely no one is the intended demographic for every game on the market. War of the Ring simply drives home that point more than most.

Editions and Experience

Given the fanbase of this game, it’s worth noting that this review is intended for a more casual audience. It represents a handful of plays as both factions, enough to absorb the game’s systems and basic strategies and analyze them based on gaming preferences. If you’re already a mega-fan of WotR, though, there’s nothing I’ll say here that you haven’t heard before.

Second, I’ve played with the second edition of the game and no other. There will be no comparisons between first and second edition here.

Lastly, I’ve played with the base game on its own, and with the Lords of Middle Earth expansion. This will not be a detailed analysis of expansions.

How the Game Plays

I’m not doing a rules walkthrough. This review assumes a basic knowledge of how the game is played. If you need a tutorial (and I’d recommend watching one if you’re reading this with no prior knowledge of the game), here’s a concise one that will familiarize you with the basics of play:

Conceptually speaking, the density of the campaign you’re in translates to lots of both tactics and strategy. Tactics being the small scale, action-to-action decisions, and strategy being your long-term, overarching plans. Sometimes, you have to do the thing that makes sense right now. Other times, you’re slowly setting the stage for a victory that won’t come for another 2-3 hours.

Mercifully, the game avoids one major problem many such games have: downtime. See, this isn’t a 6P epic where some opponent actions will affect you directly, while others can be safely ignored. Everything matters to you here, always. No action taken by the opponent can be ignored.

The nature of action selection – wherein you have a quick back-and-forth allotting your dice to various actions and abilities – also means you’ll never have long between decision points. A lesser game might have one side taking ALL their actions at once, which could increase your downtime to 10-20 minutes between actions in every round. Here, though, you’ll always feel like you’re tied to the action.

So the game feels almost quick at times. You’ll be playing as The Shadow, for instance, and suddenly Frodo is in Mordor, and you’re wondering where the game got away from you, and how you can still manage a win. And for clarity, you may still have half the game to go once Frodo enters Mordor (his progress becomes more protracted at that point), but it’s indicative of how quickly-paced the game feels at times.

This is made more evident in the fact that in-game upkeep is minimal. “Collect your dice and draw 2 cards” will be the entirety of your “housekeeping” in many rounds. Granted, the setup and teardown time before and after the game is considerable. But mid-game, there’s not much that will break the flow of action.

This is excellent, of course. Few are the games that play in 3+ hours but manage to feel quicker than some that take half that time.

Complexity vs. Fiddle

I mentioned the complexity, and it remains here throughout. Not only is there a lot to learn, but the nuance inherent in the system, and learning how to apply various options strategically, gives the game staggering amounts of depth. There’s a serious tournament scene for this game, for example, and while suspect decisions can of course be made during a session, there’s nothing like a single strategy that is considered “best” even at the highest levels of play.

I’m going to step back from this intimidating picture, though, to offer some hope. When I played this for the first time, I watched a “how to play” tutorial and felt rather confident. While I had a number of questions for my opponent (who owned the game and was a veteran at it), every question I asked was simply to confirm what I suspected. In that first play, I only misinterpreted one Strategy Card, and even then only in a minor way.

Juxtapose that with…well…lots of games, including some I’ve owned for years, where I find myself returning to the rulebook multiple times per game to parse out the more granular rules and exceptions.

So there’s complexity here, but it’s not arbitrary, and learning a system in the game won’t require learning a lot of exceptions. You’ll misinterpret a card at some point too, of course; so this isn’t an absolute rule. But given the breadth of the game as a whole, these instances are remarkably rare.

I also suspect some who have played the game will feel differently here; the game won’t “click” for everyone in the same way. But personally, I do see less random complication here than in many complex games.

The distinction I landed on as a result of this observation is the difference between complexity and fiddle. Here, the complexity is justified, because it lends depth. Fiddle, those rules that seem out of place in the whole and/or exist simply to correct some mechanical imbalance, are minimal.

The Genius of Strategy and Character Cards

Ok, so let’s dive into some specifics of how theme and mechanics integrate so well here.

Strategy and Character cards have two potential uses: one is during a turn, with the activation cost of a particular dice type. The other is during combat, and requires no activation other than your decision to use it.

First off, mechanically this works very well, because rarely is a card not useful at all. Even if it’s non-combat, dice-activated ability is useless to you, there’s the combat utility to consider. It instantly provides a lot of flexibility in your strategic options, both in how you allot your action dice and how you decide to approach combats.

The non-combat card abilities themselves are generally quite powerful, but also somewhat specific. Not only do you have to spend a die, but certain conditions usually need to be met. But the ability and conditions are linked thematically. So maybe you drew an “Ent” card, and if Saruman is in Orthanc and you have a member of the Fellowship in the proper location, you can trigger the card to oust Saruman from Orthanc permanently, without triggering a full combat. This is brutal, and also roughly thematic to events of the books. But if Saruman is well-fortified enough, he can thwart this attempt.

Character cards work similarly to Strategy cards, but are often tied to the presence of specific members of the Fellowship (or their dark counterparts, like the Lord of the Nazgul or Saruman). These will usually map to some event in the books while also providing an interesting, powerful strategic avenue to consider.

They also give you aspirational strategies. Maybe you’re just going to burn a card for its combat utility, but maybe it’s to your benefit to bring Saruman into the fray, for example, for the explicit purpose of playing a specific, powerful card that requires his presence. Again, it’s more nuance in an already-interesting system.

This also leads to wonderful session reports and stories. “Aragorn was crowned King, only to lord over the tragic fall of Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Gandalf was reborn and roused the northern peoples to war just in time to stave off annihilation as Easterling armies swept through the northern lands. Boromir split from the Fellowship to rouse the men of Rohan following Gondor’s fall, and oversaw the death of Saruman, in what initially seemed like a hopeless cause. Rohan still eventually fell, but it bought Frodo just enough time to carry the ring in Mt. Doom, saving Middle Earth!”

This is hypothetical, but is absolutely the type of outcome you can have. And you’re crafting it through the brilliant action mechanics and card abilities that support such outcomes.

Pressing Luck and Balancing Fronts

Broadly speaking, you’re fighting on two fronts. Not two military fronts (you can have multiple military fronts in the game), but two conceptual fronts. The first is the war, and the second is the quest of the Fellowship.

The player controlling Sauron’s forces has some interesting choices in how much to focus on Frodo and Co. Commit too little and they’ll sprint to Mordor. Commit too much and the war effort will be slow-moving, possibly to the point where the Free Peoples can consider aggressive military options themselves.

Similarly, how much scrutiny from Sauron is enough to be cautious in moving the Fellowship? When do you need to throw caution to the wind in order to make progress?

There aren’t definite answers here, and this delicious tension permeates the entire game. At some point you will second-guess your decision, and it’s a testament to how little certainty the game provides you with strategic options.

The Power of Narrative

I don’t need a strong Setting (as defined earlier) to sink deeply into the theme. But this game is Exhibit A for how a fully-realized setting and a strong theme can complement one another to create something transcendental.

The best thing I can say about WotR is that it creates a memorable story every time you play. Harrowing last stands, clever deployments and tactics, or a game coming down to the final tile draw at the Cracks of Doom, culminating in an epic victory or defeat either way. It’s a memory that will be worth 10 plays of most other games, and 100 plays of even more ephemeral gaming experiences. It’s why gamers will drop $400 dollars (or more, depending on edition) simply for the chance to get it to the table once a year.

The tournament scene offers a different angle on this, because many serious players are playing too often to be deep into the narrative in each game. Analysis becomes more mechanical and strategic. “A 2 Corruption Hunt Token got pulled early, so I killed Gandalf to be able to make Strider the Guide and play {X} Strategy Card, which will allow me to get {Y} by Turn 3…” And so on.

It’s less narrative, more mechanical. But it’s still a valid way to play, and the game rewards both approaches.

Criticisms and Their Validity

This isn’t comprehensive, but is a collection of some of the criticisms of the game I’ve seen echoed across reviews and comments.

ONE: The minis suffer from looking very same-ish, in a game that often asks you to distinguish between forces of different factions.
VALID? Yes, unfortunately. The solution seems to be to paint your minis, but very many gamers will not want this as a prerequisite for enjoying a smooth experience. Ironically, I’ve played with a partially-painted set, so it’s afforded me the opportunity to see both the problem and its solution in the same session. My own set has been “washed” so that each faction is a distinct color. This cost me extra, but it’s been worth it during play.

TWO: The game features too much luck, and outcomes are too random.
VALID? I’d say no. Not because there isn’t luck (there’s lots of it) but because this is a feature of the game. Unlucky also doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose, just because the game is so vast. Discussion on the game abounds with session reports of brutally unlucky combats or action rolls, that still end in a long-term victory for that player.

More holistically, if this is a criticism, you’re simply playing the wrong game for you.

I’ll drive home this point a bit. As Frodo ascends Mount Doom, there’s often a corruption tile or two that will spell doom for his quest. Literally just a random tile draw. However, you’ve had the whole game to mitigate your corruption so that this eventuality is less scary (or to make it scarier as The Shadow), and to play cards that will add beneficial tiles that decrease your chance of this doom. So you can strategize to minimize the risk (which gives you some agency over your fate), but you’re still ultimately at the mercy of fate. And, for example, I won a game once by drawing the only tile that would win it for me (Free People would have won otherwise by destroying the Ring), and there was something like a 1-in-10 chance of that draw.

There will be players who revel in this tension and uncertainty, and those who hate it. Adjust your interest accordingly.

THREE: The game feels like it plays out similarly every time.
VALID? Sort of. Maybe. It depends on your perspective. This is by far the most complicated criticism to break down, so I’ve broken it into the paragraphs below.

Look, Frodo and Co. will be headed for Mount Doom in every game, and there are only so many viable paths there. Similarly, the Shadow forces need 10 military victory points, and there are only so many permutations on how you go about achieving those. Many games will feature the same broad strokes of strategy and approach.

And yes, there are Free People military victories, and Corruption victory for the Shadow, but The Shadow has to focus on military to remain viable, and Free Peoples military victory is something of an advanced challenge…you can play dozens of times without seeing it happen. Your usual focus is slowing the Shadow’s war machine and making steady progress with The Ring.

So on the surface, yes, I understand and to some extent even agree with this criticism. Is this just the Tolkien-ian version of Groundhog Day?

Not quite, thankfully. Keeping our view high-level ignores a lot going on beneath the surface that will change game-to-game, which can allow you to customize a strategic approach.

The output randomness of dice and card draws also comes into play here. If there were less luck, this criticism would likely be game-killing. But because the whims of dice rolls will dictate things like Fellowship progress and the length of stronghold sieges, much of the game forces you to adapt to these things. And adapt you certainly can, due to the flexible, intuitive action selection system, and how action dice rolls force you to adjust plans but rarely leave you without good options.

There’s still something to this critique, though. Maybe it’s good that the game is so hard to get played regularly, or I might feel more strongly. As it is, I suspect this criticism won’t be concerning for most.


I’ve only played with Lords of Middle Earth, which adds some extra nuance, mostly in the form of new or alternate versions of characters that can be brought into play.

For casual fans of the game, you’ll never need any expansions. For serious or regular players, they offer more options, more strategic considerations, and also smooth out certain potential imbalances. Those I’d recommend the expansions to almost certainly already own them.

I mentioned that the game is balanced, and that’s broadly true, particularly since your dice rolls can easily overcome any small advantages or disadvantages in design. But with thousands of games analyzed at high levels of play, trends do emerge, and the expansions have the potential to smooth over some of them. For most of us mortals, though, the base game is acceptably close to 50/50 that we’ll never need to worry about such granular balance.

War of the Ring 2e – Conclusions

I want the stories. I love the setting. I crave the drama. I even enjoy the horrible luck that will eventually befall you (or, more ideally, your opponent).

It’s a game that can be a roller coaster of emotion at the micro level, but also draws itself out slowly, as you craft a tale worthy of retelling at the macro level.

Those who know me as a gamer know how often complexity kills games for me. I abhor a lot of the fiddle we’ve grown accustomed to in much of modern gaming. I want streamlined games without arbitrary excess that gets in the way of the core experience a game delivers. But when that complexity justifies itself with strategic depth and added narrative heft, I am happy to absorb its intricacies.

War of the Ring justifies itself. For clarity, it justifies itself…for its intended audience, which remains smaller than with most IP-based games. This is not a general recommendation for hobby gamers, but rather an enthusiastic recommendation for a subset of those gamers who want the type of experience WotR will consistently, confidently deliver.

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