War of the Ring is a beast of a game. Yes, it’s rewarding, and fun, and challenging, and it gets better the more you play it, but it’s also complicated and difficult. For experienced, savvy players, it takes at least two hours to complete and it has some very finickity rules. It’s the game that distinguishes between a region that is free and one that is free (for the purpose of movement). Lords of Middle Earth takes that game and makes it longer and even more complicated.
The question is, does this expansion make it better?
What’s It Got In Its Pocketses?
Well, first off, this expansion would not fit in your pocket. While not a huge box, you do get quite a lot, including eight new miniatures, five dice, new event cards and alternative versions of most of the Companions (all of them, in fact, except for the Ring Bearers). There are also new ring powers and Smeagol. Yes, Smeagol (not to be confused with Gollum) who automatically becomes the guide if he turns up, meaning you cannot use the guiding power of another Companion. Which can be annoying, not to mention bizarre, especially if he joins the Fellowship as soon as it leaves Rivendell, which happened in one of my games.
It also comes with a rulebook that is thirty-two pages long. Just like the main game, there’s a lot to learn and it will probably take a couple of plays before these rules start to make some sort of sense in the mind of an average mortal. That said, not all the rules have to be introduced at once.
And there are some pretty cool things here as well as a range of clever game mechanics. The extra miniatures could have been more exciting but the new artwork of the Mouth of Sauron card is the stuff of nightmares.
One of the major changes in Lords of Middle-Earth is the Fellowship. There are now alternative character cards for the Companions, giving them different powers, which can be useful in surprising the forces of darkness. Merry and Pippin, for example, still function as leaders in battles but can reappear if the army they are with is defeated, making them practically immortal. There’s also the option of starting characters in different places, allowing the Free Peoples to move to war more quickly.
Gandalf gets a special Keeper die to roll from the start and in any subsequent rounds if Fellowship moved in the previous one. This means there’s a greater incentive to keep him there, and to keep the Fellowship moving. However, one of the die symbols shows an eye, which aids the Dark Lord in searching for the One Ring. This is a pretty neat addition: each elven rings is powerful but their use could endanger the Fellowship by drawing the Eye of Sauron towards it.
The Rings, Elrond & Galadriel
The Elven Rings also have additional powers which can be used instead of changing a result on one of the action dice. The best one is Gandalf’s which can be used along with any action dice to move a nation directly to ‘At War’. For the Free Peoples, this is brilliant but, of course, Gandalf must leave the Fellowship to use it, meaning that you’ll lose his special Keeper die. However, you can now recruit Galadriel and Elrond, as long as either Sauron or the elves are at war. Galadriel gets to recruit forces even under siege and Elrond allows any elite force to act as leaders. They also come with their own Keeper dice. All recruited dice ar rolled but only one can be used each turn. If an eye symbol is rolled, that has to be used. In addition, if Gandalf the White is in play when a symbol with a star is rolled, one of the dice will be lost.
Like I said, there’s a lot of new rules here.
The Minions Of Sauron
There are also extra minions for Sauron, including Gothmog and the Balrog, who both come with their own die. Gothmog is actually pretty awesome because he can recruit forces away from settlements. This is fantastic for the Dark Lord as it allows him to strengthen armies that may have been weakened by a protracted siege. Sauron hates nothing more than spending numerous action dice to move an army to attack a stronghold, only to see it batter itself into uselessness against the walls of said fortress. The Balrog is a formidable opponent who can be destroyed by a Will of the West if it leaves Moria. There are also alternative versions of the Mouth of Sauron and the Witch-King, adding greater variety to the game, although certain conditions determine when they enter the fray. There’s also the chance of losing any Minion dice if the Witch-King has been recruited.
Is It Worth It?
Well, that depends on what you’re after. If you want something that’ll protract the war then yes, go for it! This expansion is all about giving players greater choice over how to conduct their campaign. War of the Ring is very satisfying to win and playing it for another hour or two just increases that feeling of smugness for the victor. There may be a lot of rules but it really helps if you play against your teenage son who has spent far too much time studying the rulebook and not enough time preparing for his English Literature GCSE.
Lords of Middle-Earth may also tip the scales very slightly in favour of the Free Peoples and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having played War of the Ring a dozen or so times, it seemed that the forces of darkness won nearly all of the time. This expansion appears to redress that issue and make gameplay more balanced, although that could be down to experience. There is also greater incentive to keep Gandalf in the Fellowship rather than making him leave and turning him into Gandalf the White to get an extra Action Die.
All in all, the expansion allows you to change the entire course of the conflict. What if Boromir immediately roused Gondor to war? What if the Mouth of Sauron entered the fray long before the Fellowship was anywhere near Mordor? What if the Balrog left Moria and besieged Rivendell? And all of this adds unpredictability. You can never quite work out what your opponent is going to do. The mixture of dice rolls, cards and the special abilities of the Companions and Minions can be used to surprise your opponents, crush their forces and fill their hearts with despair.
If you enjoy playing War of the Ring and you want to add more flavour to the game and don’t mind giving up the extra hour or two, then the Lords of Middle Earth expansion will make you into one happy bunny.
Unless Smeagol turns up the very moment you set foot outside Rivendell.