An Expected Journey (Gen Con 2022) – Part 3: War of the Ring The Card Game

Bradly’s back with more of his pictorial journey through Gen Con 2022! If you missed the previous installments, start with his Top Five Lists (To Buy and To Try).

Board gaming, not unlike other forms of entertainment media, is awash with content based on popular intellectual properties.  Most of those games, at least in my experience, lean too heavily on the success of the source material and the willingness of fans to devour any content with a famous name.  This can lead to sacrificing good game mechanics and an overall enjoyable player experience.  So it is one of my joys in board gaming to find a game that breaks that trend and so thoroughly encapsulates the feeling, scope, or purpose of the source material while also being a genuinely good game.

War of the Ring, by Ares Games, is among that list of games that I feel both pays homage to the works of Tolkien while also being a fantastic game in its own right.  It is arguably the best representation of The Lord of the Rings in board gaming, and among games like Star Wars: Rebellion and Battlestar Galactica, captures the spirit of the source material through proper implementation of mechanics.  BSG so succinctly captures the feeling of paranoia and mistrust from the series it is based on, while War of the Ring and Star Wars: Rebellion have moments within them just as epic as the Battle for Helm’s Deep or Luke blowing up the Death Star.

So when Ares Games announced a card game based on a game I so thoroughly adore, it was a priority for me to try it.  Which isn’t to say it was easy, because it was popular.  I made a habit of going by the Ares booth more than a few times each day to catch a demo of the game and only managed to finally get a seat on Sunday.  Although only a limited demo, the experience was enough to convince me to pre-order the game, but it also showed me that War of the Ring: The Card Game is not the same game as War of the Ring.

For the purposes of this preview I won’t get too in-depth on the actual rules of the game.  Mostly this is because the rulebook for War of the Ring: The Card Game is available on the Ares Games website:

I also want to stress that this is very much a preview in every sense.  I played the game for less than a half hour and only experienced the 2v2 mode of play.  The full release will have methods of playing with 2 or 3 players, and specific scenarios you can set up that more closely follow the story of the source material.  I highly encourage anyone interested in the game to check out the rulebook, which contains the rules for many of these scenarios.

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The core loop of War of the Ring: The Card Game is fairly straightforward.  Each player in turn order will take a single action, with play passing to the next player in order, alternating between the Free Peoples and the Shadow.  

Playing a card is the most common action taken, with cards being assigned to either a player’s reserve, the current Path, or the current Battleground.  Paths and Battlegrounds score points for the side who wins them at the end of each round, but you can only play specific cards to them.  For instance, a battleground may only accept Dunedain, Dwarf, Monstrous, and Mordor cards being assigned to them. So that Elf army you’re holding onto can’t help in that fight, but that’s okay.  Because for each card you play, you also have to cycle a card.  

Cycling is essentially burning a card, which goes into a face down discard pile.  There are various ways to shuffle your cycle deck back into your main deck, while your eliminated cards in the other discard pile are typically gone for the rest of the game.

This limiting of the types of cards that can be played to individual zones actually feels pretty good.  There is, of course, the chance of drawing an unbeatable army worth of cards and assigning them all to a specific battleground, but you don’t get extra points for completely overwhelming a battle and those are fewer cards for you to use in later rounds.  Like in most card games, using just enough of your resources to win a fight without overcommitting is a fine line you’ll have to walk.  

Paths are a bit of a different story, because the Shadow side can absolutely amass a ton of victory points by overwhelming one of them.  While the Free Peoples will only score the printed amount of points on a Path when winning it, the Shadow scores points equal to the amount of power they have over the Free Peoples.  So if the Free Peoples have a strength of 3 and the Shadow a strength of 6, the Shadow will score 3 victory points for winning that Path, while the Path itself may only be worth a single victory point to the Free Peoples.  This mechanic is interesting as well, but also balanced by the fact that there are mechanics in the game that can get rid of the victory points that the Shadow earns in this way.

Other actions players can take on their turn include moving a character from their reserve onto a Path or Battleground, activating an ability on a card that requires an action, eliminating 2 cards from their hand to draw a single card, and passing.  If you have 2 or fewer cards in your hand, or fewer cards than all opponents, you can pass freely, but if not you have to cycle a card to pass.  Once all players have passed, you resolve the Battleground and Path and then move to the next round.

I like a lot of what War of the Ring: The Card Game is doing.  The idea of cycling a card each time you want to play one leads to engaging decisions on which cards are more important for you to play now, and which can go into your cycle discard to be seen later.  The Path and Battleground cards limiting which cards can be played to them is both thematically and mechanically interesting.  You won’t always know which Battleground is coming, but the Path cards always advance in number.  So while you may not have cards to play on Path 1, you know to hold a particularly powerful card that can be played on Path 2 for the next round.

While I enjoy the game and have already pre-ordered my copy, I don’t actually feel that it captures the same atmosphere that War of the Ring does.  It is a wholly separate game, one where the epicness of Tolkien’s works is condensed into a more direct experience.  

If War of the Ring is like reading Tolkien’s books, then War of the Ring: The Card Game is like watching the Peter Jackson movies. You lose a bit of the story and the tense buildup of character development, but it’s still a thrilling experience.

Click here for the next installment of Bradly’s visit to Gen Con 2022, with a recap of everything coming out from WizKids!

– Bradly

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