Wednesday, October 10, 2007

War of the Ring Strategy - Part II – The Expansion Game

In this article, I will discuss how the Twilight of the Third Age expansion affects the strategies and game-play of the standard game. I will discuss the added components and the value they bring to the game. Also, I will cover some of the issues that the expansion does not address effectively.


The Dunlendings are an interesting addition to the Isengard armies. Normally, Isengard was unable to conquer Rohan easily since the Isengard forces are generally split between Isengard and Dunland. Capturing Helm’s Deep is often easy but getting Edoras can be tricky and often an un-checked Rohan can develop quite a formidable army in Edoras. The Dunlendings allow the SP to Muster additional troops directly in Rohan and this “forward mustering” capability is offset by their relative weakness in combat. Clever maneuvering allows the SP to reduce this combat weakness by separating Dunlendings from each other so that each individual unit is like a Regular in combat. However, this takes some time to achieve. Finally, the Dunlendings provide a threat to bolster Dunland/Moria and strike Lorien/Rivendell/Shire. Overall, they are useful but not needed every game so I really like their design in the expansion.

Corsairs of Umbar
The Corsairs faction provides the SP with a more strategic method for attacking Dol Amroth. Now the SP can siege this Stronghold when needed without having to draw a particular card. This flexibility comes at a cost, since the time it takes to muster S&E to War and to muster/move the Corsairs takes quite a few actions. Also, the Corsairs do allow for an assault on the Gray Havens from the Sea and they provide the SP with an easy way to reinforce sieges via the ships. I personally think that they are a good addition, but I’m not a big fan of the Corsairs card or the fact that mustering the faction actually doesn’t provide any “military” units (only ships). They can be useful but often they are just not needed and unless SP rolls lots of early musters they often don’t see play.

Ents of Fangorn
This is the only faction for the FP. Now the Ents are not just a part of the Character deck for the FP and they can strike more than just Isengard. The Ents do require a character in Fangorn (often a Hobbit or GtW) and a valuable muster die. However, they now put an extra cost on Saruman’s Voice ability, which was a key method for Isengard to muster a quick and powerful army. The ability to have the Ents attack Isengard, or clear away units in Rohan, or even protect Lorien adds a lot of options to the FP. However, strategically placed Dunlendings can contain them and they often don’t roll enough hits to warrant the effort to bring them into the game. I think that the Ents are a neat addition to the game but I wish they were a little more effective (but not so good that you would always need to muster them).

Siege Engines
The siege engines (towers and trebuchets) add to the complexity of siege combat. They do help the SP utilize late game musters more effectively and they provide the FP with good use of muster dice for active nations (not at War). The superiority rules and combat effects are very tightly balanced and I’ve seen discussions that they favor both sides (which means that they are pretty useful). They can draw out sieges by allowing the FP to sacrifice them for superiority and then muster more or to end sieges when the SP can continue without having to reduce Elites. I personally like the rule that allows the active nations to muster Siege Engines since this was one point that I argued for heavily during playtesting. Originally, they were only for nations (at War) and this greatly hindered the FP’s use for them.

New Characters
The Balrog
The Balrog allows the SP to get an extra die with only 1 muster and to control when he shows up in Moria. Like the Corsairs, the Balrog is an improvement since he can now be mustered when strategically needed and is not dependent on drawing a card at the right time. Also, he comes along with an Elite so mustering him is even better. He can “kill” the FSP guide when an Eye is drawn (adding more flavor and theme to the game). His downside is that the Dwarves, Men, and especially Elves advance 1 step politically. This is a big help for the FP and keeps the Balrog from being a “no-brainer” decision. I really think that he was a good design element and wouldn’t change anything from the design.

Probably the change with the most impact was the addition of Galadriel. She provides the FP with a critical action die when mustered and allows Gandalf the Grey to truly shine as the guide of the Fellowship. Her abilities to remove Eye tiles with Elven Rings and to muster Elves even when under siege are both interesting and useful too. The requirements for obtaining Galadriel changed quite a bit in playtesting but I am happy with the final version that requires either the Elves or Sauron to be at War. This puts extra emphasis on mustering the Elves early (and the impact of the Balrog) and it delays Sauron (and the base game Witch King) from going to War until after the Elves are at War OR the SP is willing to allow Galadriel to enter play.
Galadriel addressed two of my concerns from the base game. Namely, she varies the possible FP strategies and SP opening moves while providing an action die without requiring a Will of the West dice result. This makes her the addition to the game critical and simply makes the game much better in multiple ways.

Witch King, Chief of the Ringwraiths
The new Witch King adds an interesting element to the game. He can be mustered when Sauron is not At War and therefore can come into play without brining Galadriel into the game directly. He allows for more Hunt Re-rolls with multiple Nazgul and he doesn’t activate all the FP nations when he enters play. He must, however, be mustered in the region with the Fellowship and so can only enter games where Rivendell has fallen or the FSP is revealed. His hunting abilities are useful but since he lacks the card drawing power of the original WK he is considerably weaker. Also, successful hunting is further weakened by Galadriel’s ability to remove Eyes and the addition of Smeagol (below). Finally, the new WK has no special abilities once the FSP is in Mordor, which further limits his effectiveness.
This character was the biggest disappointment for me as I tried to continually argue for him to be more interesting and comparable to the original WK. I wanted him to provide an interesting choice for the SP. The WK chosen should really impact the “feel” of the game and both should be viable with different strategies. Instead, I would never choose this version of the WK except for a casual game where I wanted to “explore” different options.

Smeagol was added to the expansion in order to do two things. First, the corruption damage was so tough in the base game that the Fellowship had to stay together just to absorb all the potential damage. This meant that there was little opportunity to explore separating companions to defend/activate the Free Peoples and the designers wanted more opportunity for this. Second, most if not all of the playtesters wanted the FP to have a way to avoid the turn stalls. Smeagol became the means to do just that. He went through many versions but the design to include him in the Hunt Pool (instead of as an FP action die choice) was very creative and meant that neither side could predict when he might show up (but they had some minor control over it).
I think that he adds a lot of interesting elements to the expansion and I was very pleased with the design when it was first given to us. However, over many games I think that he gives too much value to the FP and really limits the corruption opportunities unless they separate several companions.

Re-makes / New Cards
– These cards add nice value since they allow the FP to draw or play additional cards and don’t require Gandalf the White to be in Rohan/Fangorn to play.
Dunlendings – Okay effect.
Balrog – Often this is only used for combat but once in a while it allows the Balrog to venture forth and harass the FSP or lead a siege.
Corsairs – Strictly worse then the original surprise card. Would be much better if it actually helped the siege on Dol Amroth (95% of the time the target).
Wind from the West / Three Rings for Elven Kings / Rangers of the North – Great effects. Combat cards are okay but not used very often.
Threats to the Fiefs in the South – This card is useless unless Corsairs are in play and then only marginal.
Gates are Closed / Captain of Despair – Excellent event cards with great combat cards.
Deep Trenches and Great Engines – Very powerful card. Combat card is weak.
Shadow of Dol Goldur – Useful in some situations but weakest new SP event card.

To be continued in Part III House Rules / Variants.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

War of the Ring Strategy - Part 1 The Base Game

I will attempt to cover the basic strategy concepts and advanced strategies for the standard game of War of the Ring. Part 2 of this strategy series will cover the addition of the Expansion and its impact on strategies. Part 3 will cover my House Variants including why they were created and what strategic options they offer.
These articles will assume basic knowledge of the game mechanics and all of the various event/battle card effects. SP = Shadow Player and FP = Free People Player

Action Dice
The action dice are critical in the game for both sides. Getting additional action dice as quickly as possible is generally a good strategy.
SP Strategy: Getting Saruman and the Witch King into play quickly nets 2 more Action Dice for the rest of the game (barring some disaster). Usually the SP will spend his 1st Muster getting Isengard to War and 2nd Muster getting Saruman in play. The 3rd Muster gets Sauron to War and 4th Muster gets the Witch King (WK). There were some initial strategies that looked at holding back on bringing in the Minions (eliminating the possibility of Gandalf the White (GtW) coming into play) but serious players have dismissed them for a variety of reasons. Namely, the WK and Saruman have terrific abilities and leadership and drive key events plus giving up 2 Action dice to restrict the possibility of 1 Action dice is not worth the effort. Mouth of Sauron is usually only late in the game when the FSP is in Mordor so his benefits are limited to the end game.
FP Strategy: Getting GtW is very important but Strider/Aragorn is more of a dilemma. 4 Action Dice is usually not enough to give the FP a fighting chance. Gandalf the Grey is useful as Guide but GtW is powerful and gets a needed action die. The problem is getting GtG to “die” during the hunt and then get a Will of the West to bring out GtW. Timing is everything and sometimes Wills just won’t show up. Separating Strider early and getting Aragorn can cost several action dice and sometimes an Elven Ring (especially for 1st turn Aragorn). This is sometimes a good option against a Hunt Box loaded with Eyes since the FSP will not progress far on that turn anyway. Usually Strider will guide the fellowship for a while and then either fall in the hunt or separate to Gondor to become Aragorn (or sometimes to Rohan if Paths of the Dead is in-hand).

Hunt Dice
SP Strategy: A big decision for the SP is how many dice to allocate to the hunt each turn. Look at the 3 tables below they show the % of Hunt success based on the number of dice allocated and the number or re-rolls available.

This shows that with only 1 die in the hunt box (and No re-roll) the FSP can move twice with relative ease and only has a 50% chance of being hunted on a 3rd move. However, against 3 dice the first move gets hunted successfully 42% of the time and the 2nd move over 70%.
Another factor to keep in mind is that the Fellowship will only have about ½ of his total action dice available for moving/hiding the Fellowship (if he uses Wills as Character dice) unless he resorts to Elven Rings. This means that the first turn the FSP is going to average 2 moves and until the FP gets more Action dice this will be a constraint on the FSP’s progress.
As the SP you must always keep in mind that your primary goal (in most games) is to win a Military Victory before the Fellowship can reach Mt Doom. This means that you don’t have to corrupt the Fellowship entirely just delay their progress. At the same time, if you put too much effort into the Hunt then you won’t have Action Dice available to take further actions.
Taking all of this into account, the general consensus is 0-2 Hunt dice should be allocated each turn to the Hunt. More than 2 is overkill since you might roll even more Eyes and end up with a turn in which you can do very little with your Military. Let’s look at each option and when to use them.
2 Hunt Dice: This is a sound strategy for keeping a focus on the Hunt. First turn you are likely to roll 1 more Eye and have 3 in the Hunt, which will deter the FSP from going more than 2 spaces max (which means they won’t get to Moria). This is also useful when Strider is the guide since it reduces his ability to hide the Fellowship and move it quickly.
1 Hunt Die: This should be the norm for most SP players. It generally results in 2 Eyes and is safer than 0 Eyes but if the FP has 5-6 Action Dice then they can sometimes move quite effectively against only 1 Eye (assuming you don’t roll any more).
0 Hunt Dice: This should only be used in specific situations unless you are playing a Shadow Blitz strategy (like DEW North) and aren’t concerned about the Ring game. Other situations where 0 dice are good are in Turn Stall situations (discussed later) and when Strider is not the guide and the FSP is revealed (and the FP have 4 Action dice). In this case the FSP will progress 1 region on average so it isn’t a huge risk (plus you might roll a lot of Eyes). Finally, this strategy can work if you have the Lidless Eye event card too.
First Turn the SP needs Muster dice to get his Minions and more action dice so usually 1 Hunt Die is the preferred choice.
FP Strategy: The FP must decide how much to move against the dice in the Hunt Box. The Hunt Box is going to have 1-4 Eyes in most cases. The FP will only be able to move with Character Dice and WotW (Will of the West) dice unless he uses Elven Rings.
Against 1 die the FP should maximize the Fellowship’s movement and against 4 only 1 move is relatively safe (but there are times to double move against 4 Eyes also). The difficult decisions will be to move again against 2 or 3 Eyes in the Hunt box.
Let’s take a 1st turn example where the FP rolls 3 Character dice and the Hunt box has 2 Eyes. The first move has almost a 70% chance of success so they move. The 2nd move has just under 45% chance of success so the Shadow is likely to get at least one hit on either the 1st or 2nd move. If they do get a hit on the 2nd move then reveals become very important since 2 moves from Rivendell will determine which path the FSP is going to take (there are only 2 viable paths thru the Mtns – Moria or Goblin’s Gate). If for some reason the FSP avoids the first two hunts (or isn’t revealed) then a 3rd move is very dangerous since it has only 12.5% chance of success and a hunt tile could reveal them in Moria. Generally, a double move would be the best strategy in this situation but this can vary depending on the flow of the game.

Basic Shadow Tactical Objectives
The SP has a primary victory condition of 10 VPs of FP settlements and with a secondary objective of slowing the FSP progress in the ‘Ring’ portion of the game. There are 20 VPs available: 5 in Gondor, 5 in DEW (Dale, Erebor, Woodland Realm), 6 in other Elven strongholds, 3 in Rohan, and 1 in the Shire. The SP should attack areas that are not heavily defended and before FP nations get To War where they can muster troops to defend. Let’s look at each area from the SP’s perspective.
Gondor: Gondor is the closest FP nation to war at the start of the game. They also have the Osgiliath Fortification to help resist SP invaders and Dol Amroth takes time to reach and place under siege. However, the SP has Mordor and the Haradrim (S&E) that can strike Gondor with 3 large armies without mustering additional units. Gondor is often a target of the SP during the game and at a minimum Pelagir is a quick VP in the late game.
DEW: The DEW line is more divided (3 different nations) and easier to take before the FP can get nations to war and muster a defense. The SP can send the Dol Goldur Troops, the Easterlings, and even the Morannon army from Mordor (or sometimes a Mt Gundabad army) here. Usually the SP will take out the Dwarves first and then take Dale and finally Woodland Realm since this utilizes the Political Track to its fullest.
Elves: There are 8 VPs in just Elven Strongholds and the Elves have the least amount of reinforcements of all the FP nations. This makes them a good target for the Shadow except that the Elven strongholds are spread out across the board. Lorien can be taken by an army from Moria or Dol Goldur. Rivendell can be attacked by Moria, Mt Gundabad, or by units mustered through SP event cards. Woodland Realm can be hit during a DEW attack. The Gray Havens is rarely a target but a consolidated force from Moria and Dunland can sometimes take the Shire and Gray Havens.
Rohan: Usually Isengard can focus on Rohan. Helm’s Deep is an easy target early but failure to conquer all of Rohan can often lead to a large Rohan army in Edoras that can strike in Gondor or take back Helm’s Deep later in the game. Rohan is tricky and takes practice to conquer. Sometimes even an army from Dol Goldur can support Isengard in vanquishing Rohan and then together they can assault Gondor or Lorien.
The Shire: see Elves above as the Shire is only a late VP target and often in conjunction with an attempt at the Gray Havens.

This means that the SP must carefully consider where to send his armies. The Morannon army can go North to DEW or West to Gondor, the Moria army can go East against Lorien or West against Rivendell, Dol Goldur can help invade DEW, attack Lorien, support Rohan invasion, or even finish off Minas Tirith.

Turn Stalling
SP Strategy: Turn Stalling is a valuable SP tool. The only way for the FP to enter Mordor is for the FSP to declare on either Minas Morgul or the Morannon. This can only be achieved if the FSP can reach one of those strongholds AND if the FSP is hidden during the Fellowship Phase of a turn. Turn Stalling occurs when the SP plays a card that prevents one of these two requirements. The strategy is for the SP to use his last action die (either a Palantir or Character die) to play one of the turn stall event cards just before the FSP would be able to declare on their next turn. Event cards that can perform turn stalls: Cruel Weather, Nazgul Search, Foul Thing from the Deep, Isildur’s Bane, and Orc Patrol. Cruel Weather and Nazgul Search are the strongest options since they don’t rely on drawing a Reveal Hunt Tile. The effect of a Turn Stall is to give the SP a full turn to attack and work toward Military Victory without having to allocate any Eyes to the Hunt and without worrying about the FP moving the Ring closer to Mt Doom. This can be a huge advantage and sometimes it is possible to perform turn stalls for more than 1 turn, which is devastating to the FP’s chances.
FP Strategy: The FP player can take certain tactics to avoid turn stalls. The first is to try and get revealed on one of the Mordor Strongholds. This will cause them to draw an extra tile but if they can hide again then many cards cannot be played on them since they will no longer be on step 1 or higher of the Fellowship track. Another strategy to avoid Cruel Weather is to move an additional region if possible but this is an extreme counter to a card the SP may or may not have in hand. The best way to avoid a turn stall is to not be revealed and declare in Mordor directly from Rivendell or Lorien. The SP cannot play most Shadow Character cards while the FSP is in a Free Stronghold. This requires a lot of luck in hunt rolls and can be countered if the SP decides to besiege the stronghold in question.

Shadow Strategies in Depth
There are two primary strategies that players have been using as the SP. They both try to use the WK card cycling combat ability to draw through the event decks and get key event cards. One is called DEW North and the other is a Corruption strategy. The Shadow often dictates the pace of the game by implementing one of these strategies. The FP can pressure the SP by getting the Fellowship toward Mordor quickly (or by winning a crucial siege) but generally the SP dictates the overall scope.

DEW North
This strategy involves taking a 10pt army in Morannon and moving it North against the DEW line. Muster Isengard and Saruman and then get Mordor to War. Get the Witch King in play before attacking DEW and use his combat ability to cycle through SP event cards. Then Muster S&E if needed. Draw Strategy Cards since they provide you more units and movement options while also providing some of the best combat cards. Usually place 0 or 1 Eye in the Hunt. This strategy wants to hit the FP before he can get any defense mustered and quickly attain a Shadow MV. It doesn’t account for the Ring game because it tries to outrace the Fellowship. The goal here is 5pts from DEW + 5 pts from wherever FP is weaker (Lorien, Pelagir, Rohan, etc).
The FP will often try to sprint with Strider as guide and this type of game will be over quickly (one way or the other). The FP will often separate companions (usually with a card on a Palantir die result since Character dice are needed to move the FSP). The goal is to get these companions at key FP strongholds to resist/delay the SP military engine. One stronghold that resists can be critical by allowing Strider and the ring-bearers to reach Mt Doom in time.

This strategy also leverages the Witch King’s card cycling ability. As before, get Isengard to War and Saruman followed by Mordor and the Witch King. Early attacks on Gondor are useful since they allow frequent use of the WK ability. The goal is to cycle for character cards and use them to turn stall and corrupt the Fellowship. Typically placing more Eyes in the Hunt and using both armies and Nazgul to get hunt re-rolls. Thic can delay (reveals, stalls) and corrupt the Fellowship and force them to move slowly or even to stop and heal. The SP should also be working toward Military Victory and the corruption delays should allow the SP time to effectively complete this strategy. Corruption makes for a longer game but it can be as effective or more effective than the DEW North strategy.
Against this strategy the FP needs to keep companions to soak up corruption damage and try to muster a defense at the same time. Sometimes getting Aragorn is helpful while other times having him prevent three damage can be pivotal.

Both of theses strategies should be able to draw from 7-13 additional cards with the Witch King’s ability. This is a HUGE advantage for the SP and allows him to get turn stalls, dominate most combats, and really hammer the Fellowship. This brings me to my final take on the base game overall.

Issues with the Base Game
First of all, the base game of War of the Ring is an excellent game and I have played many tense and enjoyable games with it. The game design, flow of play, and the unbalanced forces dynamic are all wonderful and well thought out. The action dice mechanism forces different tactical decisions and it still allows for strategic play. The same can be said of the event/combat cards. However, there are a few areas where the original game could improve in my opinion.

Action Dice: It is crucial for both sides to improve their initial action dice situation as soon as possible. For the SP this means using the first four Muster dice to get Isengard to War, then Saruman, then Mordor to War, and then the Witch King. For the FP this means getting Gandalf the Grey hit by a tile and brought back as Gandalf the White and sometimes getting Aragorn too. This critical goal results in two issues. (1) The SP opening moves are very routine and repetitive. This is not a bad thing inherently since certain moves in Chess are good openings and others are not as optimal. However, it is a problem when there is only one valid/optimal opening regardless of which SP strategy chosen. This is only an issue for me because I would like more variety and options available to allow players to pursue and explore different early tactical moves. (2) The FP can’t roll a Will of the West to get Gandalf/Aragorn when needed. This is a thematic element of the game and certainly puts some risk in sacrificing Gandalf early. However, it can end the game if the SP is rolling 9 dice while the FP has only 4 dice and can’t get a Will of the West.

Turn Stalls: I don’t think that the designers intended the SP character cards to be used to stop the FSP on the brink of Mordor. This tactic alone can give the SP one or more “free turns”. The FP can try to avoid this but it is usually at a high cost. This combined with the Witch King’s ability to draw through the character deck allows turn stalls to be a significant weapon for the SP.

Game Balance: The base game certainly favors the Shadow Player and this is not necessarily a problem as it is certainly more thematic to have the SP win more than the FP. The problem is that after players are very experienced, the FP strategic choices are very limited and the FP player can only win about 30% of the games (given equivalent player experience). I would like more options for both sides and in particular more interesting and relevant choices for the FP.

To be continued in Part II The Expansion Game