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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

WOTR

I'm a playtester for the expansion, but I don't think that prevents me from chiming in...

I think the reason WOTR gets such positive/negative reviews is because of its theme. On the positive side, many people feel (as I do, and I think Tom does) that the game is a brilliant attempt to capture Tolkien's world and present it in a game which actually gives the players enough latitude to feel like they're playing a game, while always preserving the flavor of Middle Earth and feeling true to the source material. The game gets a significant boost to its enjoyment factor for me (and I'm sure for many others) because I relate so closely to the characters and events. If someone presented a similar quality game to me but it was based on a world I was less familiar with (the Eddings world? the Jordan world? Shannara?), I think I'd feel like it was a decent game but had nothing to grab me.

On the negative side, the theme drags people in who wouldn't otherwise be interested in a game of its kind, and some of them recoil in horror at the way the game plays (whether too fiddly, too slow, too simple a battle mechanic, etc.)--which is made ten times worse because it's JRRT's story which has been adapted in a way that they don't like. "They ruined my story!" Also, there are the people who want to emphasize that it's NOT that great a game at its core (i.e. not one of the best 5-10 games ever designed), denuded of its theme, and that the theme has unfairly pushed it among its betters as a pure game design.

The first group of people are just different from me, and luckily there's a huge variety of games out there for them to choose from, LotR and otherwise. The second group raise an interesting issue--is it fair to try and judge a game strictly on the quality of its mechanics apart from the overall gameplay experience?

I don't think there's much value to be gained there, because so much of the design is geared to the constraints of the fantasy world it is set in and the real world where it is sold. As a design accomplishment, is Go more impressive than WotR? I don't really know. Go is obviously an incredible game based on a very simple rule set. It could have been thought up in 10 minutes and had its more tangled issues (ko and so forth) resolved over several weeks of play. WotR was designed to fit very tight constraints--the game has to last X amount of time, replicate this story to a significant degree but still create strategic options for the players, etc. Go is like E=MC2 and WotR is like sending a man to the moon--the first is a brilliant flash of inspiration and the second is an amazing product of engineering. As an aside, I think perhaps the most impressive thing to me about WotR is that in a year of heavy playing and discussion on the internet there has been little consensus about the "best" strategy to employ in the game, with only the "early Aragorn" strategy being one that is well-regarded and wouldn't necessarily be intuitive to a first-time player.

Veering off-topic here. To get back on point, I think the probable source of the game's polarizing effect is not the Euro/wargame blend (does Wallenstein have similarly vocal advocates/detractors?), but the fact that the game treads on ground that is sacred to much of geekdom. It's easy to not have an opinion about the guy who moves in at the end of the street. It's a lot harder when he moves into your house.