War of the Ring: The Card Game is a complex card game for 2 to 4 players. It presents in game form the story of Lord of the Rings. Although also called War of the Ring, I would say the only similarity to the boardgame version is it is divided into two aspects – the story of the hobbits attempting to destroy the ring and the military campaigns in Middle-Earth. The card game is very different from the boardgame.
You have two factions in the game, the Free People and the Shadow. Within each faction there are two groups. In a four player game, each player will play one group. Normally all four groups will be in play, even if there are fewer than 4 players, for the sake of completeness of the story. Some players will control two groups. The four groups operate fully independently, having their own draw decks, discard piles and hand cards.
The game is played over 9 rounds. Every round represents one stage in the story of Lord of the Rings. The Free People and the Shadow compete and score points. By the end of the game, the faction with more points win. During the game, sudden death victory is possible if one faction outscores the other by a large enough margin.
This is one of the path cards. Path cards are numbered at the bottom right. The number at the top left is the victory point value. Characters who can be assigned to path cards have a number range specified. For each number there are three path cards and you will only use one per game. This creates some variability.
We used dice to keep track of our strengths. In each faction (Free People and Shadow) there are two groups. Each group is further divided into nations, e.g. Rohan, the Hobbits, the Wizards, Isengard, Mordor. Each nation has its own emblem. Battleground cards (left) specify which nations may participate in the battle. You can’t just send anyone you want.
A character card on the left, and a matching item card on the right. Items can only be attached to specified wielders. From the storytelling perspective, this is nice and thematic. From the gameplay perspective, this is an additional challenge for the players. When you do manage to get a character to wield their item, whether it is by sheer luck or by good hand management, it is satisfying.
War of the Ring: The Card Game is a highly thematic and story-rich experience. Every card covers some aspect of the Lord of the Rings lore. The core of the game is hand management. How do you make the most of your cards? How do you control the thinning of your deck? How do you decide which cards to use and which to sacrifice? You need to plan ahead and prepare your cards for upcoming battles and stories. You will draw cards at unsuitable times. Your task is to make the best out of the predicament you are put in.
One key theme that keeps coming up in this game is sacrifice. You regularly sacrifice your cards, removing them permanently from the game. You lose cards in battle, even in the ones that you win. When you get desperate to play your one last card but you no longer have another card in hand to use as payment, you can choose to permanently remove the top card from your deck. It is risky, because it may turn out to be a powerful card. So how desperate are you? The game is full of difficult decisions.
There is a sense of escalation for each battleground card and path card. Sometimes when both factions commit many cards to the same fight because both are adamant on winning it, it can become a very costly contest. This is also a game of deciding when to fight and when to concede. Resources are scarce.
It is important to be familiar with your deck. One unique thing about the Hobbits is they don’t die easily. Often when they are supposed to be removed from the game, they go to the discard pile instead. They will come back after the next reshuffle. That is nice, and that is something you want to make good use of. Knowing your decks will help you in strategic planning.
The face-up cards in front of the players are the cards in reserve. I played the Free People and Han the Shadow. You can see I only had two cards in reserve (bottom of photo), while he had a ton (top of photo). We had a huge difference in power. I feel I didn’t conserve my resources well. I didn’t fully utilise my cards. In the early game I had some lucky wins because Han’s card draws were atrocious. However he did better hand management and planning. Moreover, the natural tendency of the game is the Shadow faction becomes more powerful towards late game. In our game eventually I could not keep up and lost by sudden death.
This was one of my groups. That huge face-up stack on the left are the cards permanently removed. The face-down card is actually my draw deck. The card at the top right the discard pile, and at the bottom right the only card left in reserve. I was running out of cards. I didn’t have any more resources to continue fighting.
War of the Ring: The Card Game is without a doubt a gamer’s game. There is a lot of text and many card powers to digest. The core game mechanism is not too complex, but there is a fair bit of rules to handle. It will take some time to get familiar with the decks. If you like Lord of the Rings, you will enjoy the details you find in the game.
The game feels a little like a deck-building game, but you are removing cards from your deck, not adding to it. This reminds me of Lincoln from Martin Wallace, but in Lincoln the cards are more generic and have much less text and fewer special rules. The main impression I get from playing War of the Ring: The Card Game is the pain of making sacrifices. You are constantly forced to sacrifice some cards in order to play other cards. The life of every soldier fighting for you is precious. As a general, who are you going to send to their deaths, and for what strategic purpose? How do you make their sacrifices most worthwhile?
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