In many ways, this request was like one I had back in the 90s when I was reviewing for the magazine, Games Monthly. That was to tackle the original basic Squad Leader many years after it had been published and a whole raft of expansions had rolled out too. I approached that with considerable trepidation expecting legions of devotees to be scrutinising in minute detail, looking for the slightest error or view contrary to their liking and with guns loaded and ready.
Still, I'm alive to tell the tale and ready to try my hand at WOTR. After all, what's to fear this time, except for the odd orc, neurotic necromancer, irate dwarf or The Eye of Sauron. [Cue sound of reverberating thunder and sinister, mocking laugh.]
So, here goes! Is there anyone other than babes in arms and very small children who do not have some good idea of the full story, if not from the real source Tolkien's classic trilogy, The Lord of The Rings, then at least from Peter Jackson's equally epic cinematic version? My first encounter was back in 1965 aged 15!
Packing that narrative into a single game has been an equally monumental achievement and I defy anyone to refute WOTR's success. [vicious, nail-studded, orc club narrowly misses my skull - alright there's always someone out there won't agree!]
So, it's dive in there with the playing board, a map of Middle-Earth. Why the map? Well, partly because I'm fascinated by 'em, even down to reproducing by hand a vast copy of the one from The Hobbit way back in my student days to hang on my wall! But mainly because it's fantastic and the 2nd edition has tweaked and improved the original edition's one. In fact, this board is in the main a scaled-down version of the Collector's Edition version.
I suspect that the map is the key aspect that will draw conflicting opinions between this second edition and the first edition. I say this because I am myself torn between aspects of the two. Though the original map's strong ochre colouring looks more like a Middle-Earth where Sauron has won, making me think of a post-apocalyptic desert, it does pack a strong, dramatic punch. On balance, I prefer the new map [you might just have spotted the word "improved" |I slipped in earlier].
The predominantly verdant land with its dark green woods and now much more strongly contrasting region of Mordor seems a more accurate depiction. The mountains stand out more and the various regions are better delineated and so easier to spot during game play. My only wish is that Mordor had been made even grimmer and louring in its shading!
A series of boxes run down the left edge providing useful placement areas for besieged armies and, next to them, three, larger, very helpful holding boxes to accommodate sizable forces on the map. This always tend to be a benefit in any game and especially WOTR with its huge supply of plastic figures, which grows even bigger with the expansion that I'll be reviewing soon!
The areas for holding the various key decks of cards are essentially identical to the original, but enlarged to take the new tarot-sized cards - love those. A victory point track has been added at the bottom - useful, but always a target I've found for stray elbows and sleeves. [Not to mention those dice throwers who must insist on rolling them on or towards the game board. Pet peeve of mine!]
On to those many, many plastic figures. I look with deep envy at the glorious painted ones in on-line images and with even more envy at the set a fellow gamer plays with at conventions I attend. I know it took him hours and nearly finished him off.
[a little evil has crept in too, spot Saruman,
the Witch-king & The Mouth of Sauron]
All the counters and markers are of very sturdy cardboard and I particularly like the new square Army markers [which replace the former, smaller round ones] inscribed with elven script that can be used to replace large numbers of units that are then placed in the Army Holding boxes on the map. Beside the few physical changes, overall there have been very limited minor changes and additions to the rules - why change what was very good in the first place?
Much to my surprise the one factor that has had some complaints are the Action dice - too light, not clear enough, being the main ones - and complaints about the ordinary six-sided dice too. As the latter past complaints seem to bear no relationship to the dice that came with my review copy, either they have been changed because of the complaints or I was just plain lucky. They are plain simple basic D6s! Should there be any problem with the ones you get in your game, most gamers usually have a huge stock of dice that they can swop in at the drop of a hat. Any issues with the Action dice seem purely to be a question of personal aesthetics, not a certifiable factual problem. To trot out one of my favourite French phrases : chacun a son gout!
With the rule book I do not intend to go into great detail discussing the actual rules, as there are so many forums and videos that take you through them in great detail. Safe to say, as a component the rules book itself, it is an all-round delight. The tactile quality of the substantial, smooth, glossy pages makes it a pleasure just to hold in your hand. Good sized print, well laid out on the page, effective use of bold for emphasis, additional artwork just for atmosphere and above all everything clearly and well explained.
Though at the end of the rules, there is a full-page of what is headed as a "Summary", this is a little misleading. It is not a summary as such, but simply a sequential index of the rules. In other words, it's not an index where you can look up a rule in alphabetical order. To find what you want to look up, you need to know which section of the rule book to find it in or at the worst skim through the whole page to locate it. As WOTR has a substantial number of rules, for a gamer approaching these rules for the first time, it's not the most useful format.
As a lover of the Tolkien novels and, I've got to say the Peter Jackson films too, this is the game interpretation for me. I have tried a number of the card approximations of the game, but none achieves the all-encompassing nature of this game. Two reasons I suspect influence me - one I am first and foremost a board wargamer and second, a pure card version of a game, I fear, will never wholly satisfy me.
Above all I find that WOTR is the only game that successfully and smoothly integrates the combination of armies manoeuvring and fighting with the singularity of the quest to destroy the One Ring. Many years ago SPI attempted this with what was for its time an incredible product, but also a massive, unwieldy monster that was only partially successful.
It is a long game, but one that rewards the time you spend on it. Should you want a similar experience, but a shorter one there is always The Battle of Five Armies to fall back on. This is an excellent game using most of the elements found in WOTR, but just like reading The Hobbit is a lesser experience than reading the whole trilogy of The Lord of The Rings, so is The Battle of Five Armies in relation to playing WOTR a fine, but lesser challenge.