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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Better late than never? - Thoughts on WoTR and the subjective nature of the boardgaming experience

Hello all!

I too appreciate Tom inviting me to participate here. Writing about board games is sometimes more fun than playing them – at least some board games…

I, like Jason, am one of the detractors, but for entirely different reasons. Although I think I understand his reaction… let me explain.

One can catalog all the negative elements of WoTR play: long combined setup / tear down time, long playing time, single scenario, complicated rules, limited number of strategic options in play… or those of production: small type on the cards, difficult to distinguish minis, crowded board surface, difficult to differentiate board marking… but in my view this doesn’t get a the crux of the issue. The problem with War of the Ring (for those who have a problem with it) is that it is, in all ways meaningful: a war game! After all… the title is not “Euro of the Ring”…

A personal confession: I am a recovering grognard. I played my first AH war game in about 1975, played it again and then never looked back. I spent 20 years as a lifestyle SL/ASL player – at peak, competing in 3 tournaments per year and playing at least once per week. I loved war games, particularly tactical war games. Yes, I said “loved” (past tense). I realize now that I have “come to the light” (a reference for those who view euro-players turning wargamers as “turning to the dark side”). In the late 90s, I moved to an area of the country where I couldn’t find regular opponents. I got tired of teaching new players. I stopped playing.

Fast forward to 2002… on my way home for Christmas, I decided to pick up a game to bring home and share with the family… a euro game. I’m not even sure how I became aware that they existed. As they say, the rest is history. I now have a cabinet full of the darn things (they keep multiplying), I host a game club with an average attendance of over 20, and attend yet another game club. My wife and I have played games every night for the past 5 nights straight… a new low… or a new high, depending on how you look at it. I’ve converted a number of my friends to the hobby, or at least to an enjoyment of it when they are with us after dinner, or sitting at anchor in some quite cove of the Chesapeake with an evening to kill.

Another confession: In retrospect, I realize that WoTR was a watershed for me. Before the game came out, I got caught up in the hype. My wife and I had read the Hobbit and the three volumes of LoTR in the year before the first movie came out and have since seen all the films. So I guess you could say that we were “into” the theme. When the rules were posted, I downloaded them and set about to master them - before the game even came out. Remember, you are dealing with an ASL player here… one who can still recite the entire sequence of play in every detail from memory. Complication and convoluted-ness was not an issue. I wrote a rules summary. I posted it on the geek. I like writing rules summaries and making player aids… that’s part of the fun!

So, back to WoTR as a watershed… I bought the game; I played it. The first time was a “dry run” with my spouse during our annual Fall sailing trip. It was a rainy day in a slip on Tangier Island and we were down below in the cabin with the fireplace going, WoTR set up on the galley table, two mugs of hot chocolate and the sound of the wind in the rigging. We played a half-dozen turns or so, enough for me to get the feel and flow of the game. I considered it a success; but my wife was put-off. She doesn’t like that much complication in her games.

The next play was with Steve, my buddy at the Friday night game club. Steve and I are very fond of each other… we tend to have a really_good_time when we play. This playing of WoTR was no exception. By then I had the rules down pat, and had a plan for explaining them. Both of us were very impressed with the game (Steve ultimately ended up buying my copy from me…). The theme to mechanics-of-play link is ingenious and superb. I LIKE the interaction of the cards, action dice, and the board play. The way the key characters of the story are incorporated is spot-on. This is a moment of genius in game design.

Over the course of the next 5 plays, my enjoyment of the game continued, but diminished. I admit, that yes, I even enjoyed my 6th and final play with yet another Friday night game bud, Alex. We too had a delightful time… but we always do, regardless of the game. By then, I was bored. The game was too long and too repetitive. I was done. It was a fun ride and a good experience. Did I “waste” my $40 (plus all the cash and time I spent preparing and printing player aids)? Heck no! I had a grand old time. But in the process, I realized something…

I was no longer a war gamer. Euros had spoiled me. This was no longer my cup of tea.

As I said at the outset… WoTR is a war game. All of its “weaknesses” are the weaknesses of war games. If you like war games and you are interested in the LoTR theme, you will like WoTR. If you are a Eurogamer, be forewarned… this is not a Eurogame. It is not even a crossover game. It is a wargamer’s wargame.