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Wednesday, April 13, 2005


War of the Rings, Extra Credit Assignment (Warning: If you read this, don't waste your leisure time, read it when you would otherwise be working).

(Subtitle: A textbook case of bloviation.)

I want to address the notion that War of the Ring boardgame is only a Risk variant with a corruption track taken from Knizia's Lord of the Rings. I have heard this argument since WotR first hit the market 9 months or so ago. I, myself, hesitated to buy the game because this accusation was being thrown around. Not only do I not see the resemblance to Risk, my contention is that WotR is much closer in play to a well-done, card-driven wargame, and furthermore I will argue that the action dice mechanic is a good idea that works well for this game.

I am not trying to make the case that WotR is the same as a card-driven game, just that the comparison is much more realistic. Comments implying that I say WotR is the same as a card driven game will be either ignored or mocked.

2 disclaimers

I don't hate Risk, it is an alright game to play with people who aren't familiar with good games, if you don't have to play it more than a couple times each year.

In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that I do not like Knizia's Lord of the Ring game. Furthermore, I dislike the Knizia game more with each expansion that is added. Furthermore, I won't make the case that the aspect of the game in question wasn't lifted from the Knizia game, it probably was. Knizia had a good idea. Keeping track of "corruption" works well for both games, it is a central theme of the story.

Don't reinvent the wheel, go with what works, and if you're going to steal an idea, steal a proven idea.

Common ground

For the purposes of this discussion, can we broadly agree that Axis and Allies, Samurai Swords, Attack! and similar games are generally considered to be a step up in complexity from Risk, as well as variants? Can we agree that card driven games are not Risk variants, despite the fact that they use a map, dice and have military units?

Can we agree that card driven games use cards to limit a player's options in order to make the game more realistic? Fog of war, political uncertainty, civil concerns, reluctant/lazy/incompetent underlings, even weather are elements addressed by the card system. Can we further agree that Risk makes no attempt to recreate history nor to follow a storyline, neither do the variants?

Lastly, Backgammon and Monopoly, Scrabble and Tigris & Euphrates, Bridge and Go Fish are 3 pairs of games that each have several elements in common. Can we agree that the first is not a variant of the second?

The similarities

The WotR board is divided into territories that are all equal. There is no terrain bonus, nor political bonus. Except for impassable terrain between mountains all spaces are equal (strongholds excepted, which are spaces within spaces, and afford only a small advantage), there is no forest, nor mountain defensive bonus. Holding the Shire has no more significance than holding Ukraine in Risk.

Armies have no special abilities. Easily distinguishable Risk armies could be substituted for the armies provided with WotR (which might be the kernel of a good idea). Armies don't get "flipped" if they are hit, they are simply removed from the game, the same as Risk. The "elite" units simply get reduced to a regular unit if hit, there is no attack bonus by using "elite" units.

Armies move one space at a time. Armies attack adjacent territories and only advance into the territory after the defender has been defeated.

That is about it. Add a comment if you think I am overlooking other similarities.

Both games use dice to resolve combat. However, combat is handled very differently. Most wargames do use dice. I will not accept this passing resemblance as a similarity unless you have a strong argument.

Are these 3 similarities enough to call the game a Risk clone? Perhaps, if that was about all the game consisted of. But War of the Ring is a much richer game than simply moving armies one space and attacking, even if you play the dark forces.

The differences

There are far too many differences to denote individually. So here are a couple, mostly based upon the way Risk works. To take the other track and describe the features of WotR that Risk doesn't have would take many pages.

In Risk you can (mostly) only move armies if you move into enemy territories, maneuver planning has to be done well in advance of the attack, because it is hard to rearrange units within your own territories. It is much easier to maneuver armies in War of the Ring.

Cards serve entirely different purposes in the two games. Risk cards are used to gain extra armies, and are based upon a "set collection" mechanic. WotR cards are used in a manner much more reminiscent of a card-driven war game even though they don't drive the game, the dice do.

Risk grants an advantage (extra units) to players who are able to control all the territories in a defined region. Nothing similar in WotR.

In Risk ownership of territory is all important. Armies must be left behind in every territory you control. This army serves mainly as a control token. New armies are based upon how much territory you control. There is nothing even close in WotR, except that control of a certain number of territories containing cities and strongholds will win you the game.

Unlimited units in Risk. (Remember using Legos to represent 50 and 100 armies? Those were the days... What were we thinking?) Available units are limited in WotR (very limited for the free peoples player), and there is a stacking limit of 10 units per territory.

Making the case

It should be pretty obvious to anyone reading this far where this is all going, and you are either already on board, or you aren't and won't be persuaded otherwise, so I won't add a lot of minutiae.

Most people are familiar with Risk. I will be brief describing play, not because most people are familiar with it, but because it is simplistic.

With Risk players have a few "either/or" options. First, either turn in a set of cards or not if you have a set. Next, place armies where you choose. Next, either attack or not. Lastly, either move one group of armies or not. If you attack, you attack as many times against as many territories as you choose within the rules.

Simple. No political events, no generals to give increased effectiveness in battle, no realistic movement limitations (an army can move from Iceland to Africa to South America to North America to Asia to Europe, for example, over the coarse of a single turn), all territories can manufacture unlimited units, no 10 army per territory stacking limits, no historical correctness to worry about, and no way to win other than controlling territory, ie. no ring to destroy as the primary goal.

Card-driven wargames deal with many of these issues in varying degrees and are much more suited to historical simulation, or to follow a story line such as "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings".

Cards give game designers the ability to give players options within the historical limitations. For example, a card when played may bring historically allied forces into the game. By playing the card the owner has used his turn to activate an ally at the expense of maneuvering his own units, thus re-creating political decisions made during the historical era. (Ie. spend time and energy to bring allies in, or spend that time on battle planning.) By not playing the card to activate the ally, or using it for other things the card is recycled, leaving uncertainty as to when he will get another chance to activate the ally. Again, political realities.

In one way cards limit a player's options, but in another way they expand a player's options by introducing politics and civil matters into the game in a very uncomplicated and workable manner.

By having a limited hand of cards from which to choose the game is further made realistic by forcing the player to choose what his priorities are among his available options and in what order they should be played out. (Ie. should he take the offensive or wait for the other player to make a move? Should he play the card for its primary effect or use it to activate a unit(s) to plug a hole in his formation, and take the chance it will be drawn again?)

Action dice comparison

The action dice create similar conundrums as card management for the controlling player. However, the dice dictate what the political/ weather/ civil/ leadership realities are and give players options to choose actions within those dictates. Cards give the player options of choosing whether various political/ weather/ civil/ leadership events occur. (Understand the difference? There will be a test at the end.)

Dice don't state, "The Maine was Sunk, move 3 spaces on the war track and discard this card or move one unit" as cards do. Dice essentially say "An event occurred, you have these options because of it". Because each die outcome has different options players can choose courses of actions within the dictates of the outcome.

Each die has 6 possible outcomes with a couple possible ways to use each outcome.

A. Move 2 armies or attack with one, or play a card with the same symbol on it.
B. Muster 2 units onto the board, move one political marker one space, or play a card with the same symbol on it.
C. Choose A or B.
D. Move all characters, move an army by activating a character in the same space, play a card with the same symbol on it, or (free people only) move the fellowship.
E. Play a card or draw a card.
F. Commit the die to the hunt box (Shadow player) or wild card (free people).

If the muster option doesn't come up, that represents the unwillingness of nations to go to war (a important theme of the books). If the muster option does come up, that represents a narrow opportunity for a player to take steps to influence one nation in a small way. Which nation should he take the opportunity to influence? That recreates the fact that players have limited resources and must choose wisely.

Other results represent other major themes of the book and choices that needed to be made by both the free and shadow sides.

By rolling several dice and using one at a time, prioritizing available options is addressed as discussed earlier with the card driven games.

Because each result can be used for a couple different actions, players still have options within the limitations of uncertainty as afforded by card-driven games.

But, as opposed to cards, by rolling dice the options available are revealed to his opponent. Does this make a difference? Yes, but not as much as it might seem. I would liken it to players who are familiar with a card-driven game knowing which cards are available in the opponent's deck, even if he doesn't know exactly when the opponent's card will be played.

So... A Risk variant? Or 2 different games that have three elements in common?

So... A Risk variant? Or 2 different games that have three elements in common?


I've never argued that War of the Ring is a Risk variant, but I have argued that War of the Ring is from the Axis & Allies family tree rather than from, say, Hammer of the Scots or We the People.

There is a fairly easy correlation between A&A and and War of the Ring. Maps are the same, combat is very similar (WotR adds the leadership tweak), the money has been replaced by the action dice. The Risk parallel gets thrown in because WotR's combat resolution is similar to both A&A and Risk, and because the units are all the same. But A&A and Risk are obviously strongly related games too.

The problem with the "card driven" argument is that the cards in War of the Ring rarely drive the action in the way they do in We the People or Hammer of the Scots or Rommel, where the cardplay is absolutely fundamental to the game. The cards in War of the Ring provide flavor. Nice flavor, but still. The occasionally provide you with options that you might not otherwise have, but it's fairly rare outside of the first couple turns for you to substantially change your approach to the game due to a card draw.

And while the dice perform some of the same functions as the cards in Hammer or We the People, their openness and inflexibility makes a fundamentally critical difference.
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