One does not simply walk into Next of Ken--you run your Hobbit ass in, as this week I'm all about gushing over Lords of Middle-Earth, the new expansion for the 2nd edition of War of the Ring. I've just received my copy, and I'm going to share what my all-seeing eye, uh, sees. So join us, won't you precious?
So yeah, I just received the newest 2nd Edition War of the Ring expansion in the mail--Lords of Middle-Earth--and I'm as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. You guys and gals know I'm an unabashed fanboy for all things War of the Ring, so I'm not sure how objective my commentary can be at this point, but we'll give it a go.
First up, for those familiar with the 1st edition, note that this is a very small expansion as opposed to Battles of the Third Age. BotTA retailed for nearly as much as the base game did originally, while you can easily find Lords of Middle-Earth for less than 20 bucks online. True, you were getting two full battle games in addition to the expansion material, but I'm going to level with you...I played precious little of those battle games, always opting instead to play the main game if time permitted.
Even given that, with everything that Battles added to 1st edition, I felt like it was worth it even for just the expansion elements alone, which added a metric butt-load of cool stuff to the base game.
You're not getting nearly as much stuff here of course given not only the lower price, but because 2nd edition was not really in need of as much tweaking and balancing as 1st edition was. So again for those familiar with 1st edition's expansion, there are no Hillmen, no Corsairs, no Siege Engines, no Ents. So when you first open the box, don't expect that same pile of bits to come pouring out.
What do you get, though? Glad you asked. First up there are versions of characters that were added in Battles of the Third Age, including the Balrog and Galadriel. For experienced players that latter addition may raise some eyebrows, as Galadriel was insanely powerful in 1st edition, but she had to be to make up the imbalance between the two sides. Much to my surprise she did not receive a complete overhaul but instead had her power tempered a bit. The biggest thing is limiting her ability to nuke Eye tiles. Also, she's now been tied to a special action die that relates to her being a ringbearer. These "Keepers' Dice" are less powerful than a normal die and this alone brings her power level down somewhat (she was worth a 'full' action die before provided Gandalf the White wasn't already in play.)
The Keepers' die mechanic is great and is a very smart way to maintain balance while still providing powerful characters. In War of the Ring, action dice are paramount to success. The Free Peoples' start with fewer than the Shadow, and both sides should seek to increase the number of those available in any way possible. This often led to 'warped' styles of play in 1st edition where you would recklessly sacrifice Gandalf just to get him back into play as The White, and strategies for the Shadow that turbo'd their minions into play (regardless of "flavor.")
Speaking of Gandalf, he's received a whole new alternate version that is especially good at leading the Fellowship. He's tied to the Keepers' Die as he is the bearer of Narya, and this allows him to use his special die right from the outset...but only if the Fellowship keeps moving from turn to turn. I think in a lot of ways Roberto and company have always wanted to promote a "Gandalf Guides the Fellowship" strategy, and his 2nd edition version helped, but his action die as The White was always too valuable to leave him there for long. Here, you have the option of really using him as the guide and still benefitting from a weaker--but still available from the get-go--action die.
Other Free Peoples' goodies include Elrond and Smeagol. Smeagol was a big pain in the side of the Shadow player (enough so that some players began to complain about him), and while he received a bit of a nerf he's still very powerful at protecting Sam and Frodo. Woe unto the Free People's player though should you 'betray' Smeagol, though, as the treacherous "We Shall Get It" Shadow Event card will be in play should that happen.
There are six new alternate versions of Fellowship characters Strider, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin. These characters are unique in that you can choose to have them begin the game in their homeland rather than with the Fellowship, weakening the Fellowship itself but increasing military and reactive power on the board. If you do, though, watch out, as the Shadow will get special use action tokens that can move the Nazgul and Minions or advance a Shadow Nation's position on the Political track. Seeing as how often I liked to separate companions and send them off to epic battles, this option sounds right up my alley.
Last but not least, the three Elven Rings now have new counters depicting their bearers, and differentiating them is important because that particular character can trigger an alternate use for the ring. Elrond can use Vilya for example to allow you to keep one of your action dice just used (except a Will of the West), allowing you to get double mileage out of an action die's face.
You still have to give up the ring just as you do when you used it in the base game, but these new uses add even more variety, options, and flavor.
The Freeps' don't get all the new toys, though. The Shadow gets their share as well. There's the Balrog, who should also be familiar to 1st edition expansion fans. He's remained laregly unchanged, though he along with the other new Shadow minions are tied to their own new special dice, very much like the Keeper dice for the Free Peoples. The Balrog can be used to make Moria very dangerous for the Fellowship, or using one of his action die faces he can leave his lair and terrorize the countryside, only being able to be put down by the Free Peoples' burning a valuable Will of the West die (or Gandalf being at the Balrog's location and using a character die.)
There's a new version of the Witch King, too. In Battles of the Third Age this new Witch King was focused more on hunting the ring than military conquest (hence his common nickname "Hunty Witchking".) However, he was considerably less powerful than the Black Captain, and since using this alternate version precluded you using the other, he rarely saw play except for an advanced player looking to try new strategies against a weaker player.
The new Witch King solves both problems, though one of them mostly due to the nerfing the original Witch King received in 2nd edition. This new Witch King can follow the Fellowship around and whenever you play Character cards (these are the ones that most often corrupt or disrupt the Fellowship), you get to draw another Character card. This was a role that the Witch King's original version also served in 1st edition, proof positive how overpowered he was.
Now, if you're inclined to slow or disrupt the Fellowship, the new Chief of the Ringwraiths is your guy. Best of all though, is that once per game you can choose to replace the version of the Witch King with another, provided he is still in play.
This is awesome because you can commit to hounding the Fellowship early, but then shift to the Black Captain as Sauron's war effort increases and fly off to help break the cities of Men and Elves. Epic. Suddenly you can feel free to use him to slow down the Fellowship without crippling your military efforts for the rest of the game.
Deep breath....we're almost done here. It is surprising how much you're getting out of this little box.
New to any version of War of the Ring is an alternate version of The Mouth of Sauron. The Mouth was interesting to me largely because of his expanded role in Middle-Earth Quest. In War of the Ring, the Mouth was generally very late to the party and didn't often have the sort of impact on the game I'd like. The new Mouth of Sauron can be summoned if the Free People's have earned one or more VPs (through conquest.) The Mouth of Sauron is a great general, able to extend sieges one round for free. He also allows you to use Muster dice as a Character die, increasing his army's ability to mobilize and respond. Free Peoples' players looking for easy military victories will likely learn to fear the Mouth of Sauron, and quickly.
Last up for the Shadow is the addition of the powerful Gothmog, Liutenant of Morgul. This guy is a tank, bringing his own minion die. He also has the ability to Muster on the move, which seems incredibly useful and will provide a mobile military force for Sauron. To further shore up use of the new Witch King, you can only use Gothmog for as long as the Black Captain is not in play. However, it's entirely possible to let Gothmog lead the troops while the new Witch King houds the Fellowship's every step.
Is that it? Whew, yeah, I think it is. And this is just a *preview* of me fawning over the bits and pouring over the rulebook. I may not get the chance to slap this baby on the table until the winter break, but I am really excited to give all these new toys a try.
It's fascinating to me because 1st edition's expansion was something the players felt like it needed, whereas 2nd edition took great strides to keep things more balanced. I never minded the imbalance of the 1st edition as it was very thematic, but it was certainly punishing and unforgiving for the Freeps. Lords of Middle-Earth was an expansion we knew was coming primarily because of the fact that 1st edition had an expansion (that sounds weird, I know) but rather than feel needless, or feel like something developed solely to patch holes in the base game, this looks to really broaden the horizons of the long-time strategies for the game and shake things up. I like that a lot, and as long as they keep that design philosophy intact, I say keep 'em coming.
I'll say it again...if you're a reader of our website and you don't own or have never tried War of the Ring in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to try it. It's one of the titans of AT design from the past decade and is still a marvel to me to this day in its ability to tell a story. Lords of Middle-Earth may be there to whet the experienced players' whistles, but no reason at all that shouldn't be you someday. Find someone who has it, and give it a try. You very likely won't be sorry.