I thought I'd honour the first outing of my new game by a little game review. I have played WotR for a number of years now, ever since Simon got it in the "secret Santa" over on BGG.
When I first heard about a collectors edition I - cue "Gollum like" precious comment - I thought I'd have to get it. Actually, the prestige and desirability of the game were not my biggest draws. The game developers had fixed many of the little niggles I had with the original version, oh and yeah they had crafted a beautiful case and hand painted all the pieces, to a good standard for volume production. They had increased the already monstrous board to one that now if you look closely you can detect the curvature of "middle" earth! Plus the cards are big enough for the failing eyesight of many of my aged friends to read.
So who to play? Simon, Eric or Graeme? I contacted all three to see who could be the "enemy" to experience this new game with me for the first time. Simon had unfortunately been sent to India by his employer to - er - drink beer, eat curry and watch cricket it would seem, so was unavailable. I took the opportunity to call him and discuss the missed opportunity and plan tactics for my eventual enemy. Graeme "Grima" answered the call first but was unfortunately delayed in London and so passed unwillingly. Thankfully Eric, who had played for the first time the day before against Grima with the old version, was up for the challenge. I'll take this opportunity to mention the Eric had beaten Grima in Eric's first game, primarily to pitch his credentials as a worthy combatant but also to rub Grima's nose in it ;-) nice win Eric. So, as ever with WotR, there was a brief discussion as to who would play the Free peoples.
As a balanced two-player game you are required to apply a different approach to playing each of the two warring factions. The mechanic for the shadow forces allows an infinite number of replacement units in reserve, additionally the primary win criterion for the shadow forces is 10 victory point based on the capture of free-peoples strongholds. There are myriad strategic options within this major option, such as divert effort to finding the fellowship and destroying them, or to harrying the Free-Peoples until they collapse, amongst others but in the main it is military might that wins the day for the shadow forces. Conversely, there are many more subtleties to playing the Free-Peoples, not that it is any more difficult, its just slightly more unwieldy until to rules are clearer. The finite reserves, the reluctance of the many races to join the war, and the significantly reduced actions along with the intricacies of the moving the fellowship makes the Free-Peoples awkward for the new-comer. It was decided then, Eric would wield the mighty sword of Sauron and I would guide the Free-Peoples of middle earth out of the third age.
By now it was around 9pm and this game takes an optimistic 3 hours under perfect conditions. It was going to be a long evening.
My preference for a guiding principal for the Free-Peoples is to focus on sneaking the hobbitses into Mordor and winning by destroying the one ring - The primary victory condition. The military victory for the Free-Peoples is to achieve just 4VPs but with finite resources and a game mechanic that mimics a reluctance to move to war, this is only really possible with an unobservant novice at the helm of Sauron's forces. Not being one to underestimate an enemy I avoided this obvious folly. My military stance is best described as proactively defensive - I looked at where Eric seemed to be gathering and I bolstered the defences at this point. Unfortunately, Eric had taken the "Might is right" mantra to heart and used the strategic element of his cards to devastating effect and poured out of Orthanc tower through the Fords of Isen and within a few turns had so devastated Rohan that this whole faction had been largely annihilated and what I have left is incapable of being mustered (past tense of recruiting military forces, not a misspelt condiment).
Meanwhile, I succumbed to deploying many of my cards in their less beneficial tactical capability in a desperate bid to aid my harassed troops - rather than reserving them for their more powerful but longer term strategic option. Accordingly having failed to stop the crimson tide in Rohan I now had very little support to stop it swarming though Gondor. I continued to try and progress the fellowship but took increasing risk, losing Legolas just outside Rivendell on the High Pass and Gimili took a bullet on the way into the relative safe haven of Lorien. If things weren't bad enough, The Southrons and Easterlings, massed on the southern boarders of Gondor waiting to pick the bones after the Mordor hordes had swarmed over Minas Tirith. Thankfully, Eric had an uncharacteristic poor play here and played Denethor's Folly, a card that significantly damages any Gondorian's besieged in Minas Tirith but allowed me an extra turn and I managed to ride Gandalf into the besieged city and destroy the cards effect. By now several hours had passed and we decided to pause. Competitus-interuptus. Eric has gained 4VPs and is currently besieging 2 strongholds in Gondor (a possible 4 more VPs). I have managed to get the fellowship to 1 space beyond Lorien with very little corruption (damage). Both of us are approximately halfway to victory and its anyones game still. The game is set to continue on Monday evening, watch twitter for updates on the score.
What always fascinates me about playing this game is the rich depth, the choices that are presented and the broad scale implications of the apparently simplest decision. Each card having bot a longterm strategic component and a shorter tactical usage presents the most fascinating game dilemmas. I feel I am really beginning to understand the rules of engagement and to explore various strategic options to beneficial effect - whilst developing my ability to engage tactically with elements of the game. The collectors edition has added some much appreciated gild but underneath this game is a pristine white lilly.