This will be a general overview of what you should expect from War of the Ring. The basic goal of the game as the Free Peoples player is to generally try to hold on until Frodo gets the ring to Mount Doom, while as a shadow player you try to crush the free peoples before that happens.
What sets this apart from other mid level wargames is the nice integration of the ringbearer's quest with the battles. As the free peoples, if you devote all your energy to sneaking frodo into mordor, you will be quickly overrun. While as the shadow player, if you completely ignore hunting the ring, the free peoples will probably destroy it before you can win. Your choices are governed by a set of dice rolled each turn (which could feel constrictive, but has worked well in my games).
Another nice plus are all the event and combat cards. While tough for a new player to wrap their heads around, they add a ton of flavor and options to the experience.
I mentioned the game was fairly complex, and there are a ton of options. Which heros to use, what countries to muster, when to play your cards, what tactics to use, these are all important questions you must ask yourself.
I would probably boil it down like this:
-incredibly flavorful and true to the books. This is a big one...you really feel like you are fighting all over middle earth while trying to aviod being captured by Nazgul
-tons of options. There are always choices to make (though a minor complaint would be that some choices are the same every game (ie "take Lorien" or something), but I think that is more a problem with playing against the same person than with the game.
-game doesn't get stale. The game never comes down to doing the same thing over and over. New situations are always arising that require thought and strategy to deal with.
-a good expansion is available. Battles of the third age addresses the slight balance issues and adds more options.
-Quite long (~4 hours, though one guy I play with is fairly slow and we seem to always take 6-7 hours).
-Rolling dice to see what options you have available often hurts your best laid plans. Bad rolls can kill you, but in most cases there is always something you can do as long as you try to make do with what you have.
-Very hard for newbies to get their heads around. With so many cards and options, this can be tough on a first timer. Of course once the game is learned this can be a bonus.
-Slightly favors the dark. This may or may not be true, but I'd believe it is. The expansion seems to help this.
-Some choices seem the same every game. As I said above, I think this is more a case of playing against the same person than a problem with the game, but some think this.
Overall I think this is a great game and worth the time. ESPECIALLY for a LOTR fan!
Old Ways Are Best!
Nice overview. There are certainly some nits to be picked here from the design of the map to the incredibly tiny font used on the cards. Some folks don't like the action dice for the reasons you mentioned among others. Some have attacked the unwieldy winged Nazgul. But, despite some legitimate criticisms and differences in design preferences, this game is still at the very top of my list.
The game is an incredibly faithful rendering of the Tolkein trilogy, full of thematic elements at every turn and all seamlessly meshed into a game system that gives you the epic feel of what is going on from the characters' struggle to get to Mt Doom to the deadly battles between the forces of good and evil. Even though the general path (grand strategy) is pretty well a given, the elements of chance in the dice and cards makes it a challenge to implement. Making do with what you are dealt to accomplish what you know you have to do is one of the delicious hooks in this game, for me.
I am eagerly awaiting my copy of the expansion partly for the tactical extension(s) and partly for the extra bits for the main game. I hope that the game balance has not been tilted too far toward the fellowship as I felt that the slight advantage to the shadow player to be very much in keeping with the spirit of the books. Some games give options for rules incorporation that tweak the game balance according to the level of experience of the players. I haven't seen the expansion yet to know if this approach is possible here. If it's bits to be added, then presumably adding them or not may accomplish what I've mentioned. In any event, if the expansion is in keeping with the base design, I'm sure to be happy with whatever they came up with.
A clever combination of a war-game and a character game, the achievement in design is absolutely wonderful. I love playing this and despite which side I'm on, or whether I win or lose, I am left feeling I have been involved in something important. And, it's only a game!?!
Excellent summary giving both pros and cons.
I have played the game several times and would play it more often but it does take 4+ hours to play (two or three sessions at my local games club). One good point in response is that it is easy to record the current positions and pack the game away temporarily.
I am currently playing it solo and when battles occur the other club members are fighting the battles using figures and Games Workshop's strategy battle rules for Lord of the Rings. The battle results transfer back into the game. So far it is working well.
Back to the boardgame, I despair at why the rules get so much bad press. I read the rules before the game arrived and felt that, whilst they were very wordy, they were complete and I could attempt the game straight away.
I would admit that they are poor as a quick reference. However, I wrote my own one page cheatsheet (I think version 1.3 is on BGG somewhere, my own copy is now v1.4) and can play the game after a few months break without re-reading the rules - there are not many so called 'complex' games that I can say that about (eg For the People would be in the complex class for me). The game may appear more difficult than it is simply because the dice mechanism and cards give so may options to a new player. After a game or two, both my recent opponents, who were new players, found the game easy.
The game does not rigidly stick to the books (what would be the point) but the variations from the original are not extreme. The game creates its own story each time but the theme remains the same. This makes the game a joy for any Tolkien fan.
Would I recommend the game to a non-Tolkien fan? Probably not as, whilst the game mechaism would still be ok, the pleasure of playing the game is seeing how the book-events events unfold each time.
The Sauron player has won the last three games I've played but there is one final benefit. The game is seldom over till the fat hobbit sings. In nearly all the games I've played both players have been close to victory.
I've not yet played the expansion campaign (as I'm in the middle of the figures game) but the Rohan 'extra game' is great and we expect the same from the Gondor game.