War of the Ring: The Card Game is a spin-off from Ares Games’ epic War of the Ring tabletop game. Whilst game times for the parent game run too many hours, this card version brings it down to about an hour, once you know what you are doing. War of the Ring: The Card Game is a card game (surprise, surprise) for two to 4 players that perfectly encapsulates the essence of the Lord of the Rings. It is fun to play yet still offers some tricky tactical decisions. For all these reasons I am extremely happy to consider it GeekDad Approved!
War of the Ring: The Card Game is GeekDad Approved!
What Is War of the Ring: The Card Game?
While there are two and three-player variations, this game plays best as a 4 player game: 2v2 – with players teaming up to represent the Free Peoples and Shadow forces.
Each player is given a deck of cards that represent their armies and characters and takes turns to each influence events at particular locations made famous by the trilogy. The story begins in The Shire and moves round by round towards Mordor and Mount Doom.
War of the Ring: The Card Game was designed by Ian Brody and published by Ares Games, with illustrations from various artists, most notably John Howe, conceptual artist to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, as well as the Rings of Power TV series.
What’s in the Box?
Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and will not reflect the final component quality. For example, the final game won’t have “Demo” written over everything!
The components are almost entirely card based although there are some cardboard tokens too. These help keep track of some lingering effects of cards played and the outcomes of having played them.
In the box you’ll find:
120 Factions cards – 60 Free Peoples and 60 Shadow cards.
41 Location Cards – 14 Battle Cards and 27 “Path” Cards.
1 Starting Player token.
4 Ring Tokens.
20 Combat Tokens.
16 Corruption Tokens.
1 Turn Order Marker.
1 Turn Order Tracker.
4 Player Aids.
1 Rule Book.
How to Play War of the Ring: The Card Game
The goal of the game is to score more victory points than your opponents. The Free Peoples play against the Shadow Players.
Set up of the game is straightforward. Assuming you are playing the full trilogy scenario for 4 players the game is set up as follows.
Prepare Decks: Each player is given their decks. There are 10 card types in the game. 6 Free Peoples and 4 for Shadow.
The player decks are distributed as follows. Whilst each deck has been designated with a Lord of the Rings character name, this name doesn’t have any bearing on how they work during the game.
Frodo – Free Peoples: Dwarf, Hobbit, Rohan, and Wizard cards (Sidenote: “Dwarf” is just Gimli and his axe!)
The Witch King – Shadow: Mordor
Aragorn – Free Peoples: Dùnedain and Elf
Saruman – Shadow: Isengard, Monstrous, and Southron
Each deck has 30 cards in it.
The decks are well-shuffled before play begins.
Each player is given a ring token and a player aid. (The ring token can be used to give you a one-off extra card draw during the game or can be cashed in for a victory point at the end.)
The Frodo player takes the starting player token.
Two battleground piles are prepared. There is one pile for the Free People players and one for the Shadow players.
The “Path” deck is assembled. These are marked with round numbers 1-9. Each round of the game will (normally) use one card. There are three cards per round and one will be drawn randomly at the start of a new round.
Draw Cards. Each player draws 7 cards. 2 of these must be cycled. This in essence means discarding them. They go into the cycle deck, a discard pile by another name. Cards that are in the cycle pile might (will) renter the game later.
Place the first player token next to the Frodo space on the turn order tracker.
Games are broken into 9 rounds (as given by the 9 sets of Path cards). Each round is broken down into 5 steps.
Step 1 – Location Step
In this step, new battlegrounds and paths are chosen.
For battlegrounds, one card is taken from the starting player’s deck. (There are only two decks, one for Free Peoples and one for The Shadow player.) This will be the active battleground this round.
For Paths, one of the cards that have the current round number on it is chosen at random. There are 3 possible choices for each round. They have subtly different effects on them, allowing variation between games.
Both Battlegrounds and Paths may have some text that tells players immediately to carry out an action. Usually directing players of certain affinities to draw or discard cards. Both types of cards also have a number of victory points associated with them. In each round, the cards are fought over, with the victor taking the spoils. The person with the most victory points at the end of the game is the winner.
The Path and Battleground cards depict key locations in Middle Earth. The path cards feature significant places that feature in the Lord of the Rings narrative, like Bag End, Moria, or The Dead Marshes. Battlegrounds depict the places fought over in the War of the Ring, for example, Minas Tirith, Morannon, or Isengard. The locations in the game very much give War of the Ring players the sense of being immersed in the saga.
Step 2 – The Action Step
In the action step, players will play cards from their hand to either the battleground and/or path, in order to try to maintain control of them. Players take turns to make actions, starting with the starting player. You can usually only make one action before play passes to the next player, but play rotates around the four players any number of times until everybody has said pass. Note: If you say “pass” but play continues, there is nothing preventing you from jumping back into the action later as long somebody else has been keeping play going by taking actions.
Note: It is not possible to pass until your hand is below your “carryover limit.” This means that sometimes you are forced to play cards before you would ideally like not to.
There are a number of actions you can take. Mostly you’ll be playing cards.
Play a card from your hand. Everything hinges on what you play from your hand. Tough choices lie ahead. Each time you play a card from your hand you must cycle another card in order to do so. Players start with only 5 cards in their hand, making them a precious resource. Every time you commit one card to the play area, you must consign another to the discard pile. It will return (when your draw pile is depleted you shuffle the cycle pile and start again), but often you find yourself paying for a card that you HAVE to play now, in order to compete, with a card that you know you’ll wish you had in hand further down the line.
There are a number of different types of cards:
Army Cards (Like Mordor Orcs or Riders of Rohan) are played to Battlegrounds. They must have a matching icon. i.e. Dùnedain cards can only be played to battleground cards that have Dùnedain icons on them. You can’t, for example, play Knight’s of Dol Amroth on Dol Guldor. If you are playing army cards to a Battleground card that belongs to your “team.” e.g. you’re a Free People player playing a card to a Free People Battleground, you will be the defender. If you’re playing to a Battleground that belongs to your opponents you are the attackers.
Character Cards (Like Aragorn or Saruman) can be played to Battlegrounds or Paths. Again they must have a matching icon. In the case of paths, there are no icons, but each character has a set of path numbers printed on them. This tells you which path you can play cards to. Not every character can be played to every path card. The Balrog can’t, for example, be played to Bag End and you can’t deploy Fatty Bolger to Khazad Dùm.
Item Cards are played onto characters that have already been played. They usually convey buffs or alter some of the game rules so that they don’t affect the character they are played to.
Event Cards are played to provide specific effects and are resolved immediately.
All cards apart from event cards can be played into reserve. This is often done to allow you to use a beneficial effect printed on the card, but can also be a way of holding useful cards for later rounds (using move actions).
Some cards have text on them that is actioned at the time of play. Wherever a card is played, including to the reserve, this is when you invoke that text. Cards played to Battlegrounds or Paths will be counted in the reckoning in the Combat Step. Reserve cards do not count towards combat but may have passive effects that aid play.
It is possible to play the last card in your hand, but in order to do so you must forsake a card.
There are a number of times in the game when you might be asked to forsake cards. When you do so, you remove the card for the rest of the game. It does not go back into your cycle pile. When asked to forsake a card you can choose whether to do it from your hand, from your cycle pile or blind from the top of your deck! This choice can be surprisingly hard.
Move a card from the reserve to a path or battleground. Note: Cards that have been played to the reserve in the current round may not be moved during the same round (though there are some card effects that can override this).
Some cards have actions printed on them that you can take instead of making a move or play action. These might enable you to draw more cards or force opponents to discard cards. They might enable you to boost your attack values on Battlegrounds or Paths. Arguably, the most useful thing they do is allow you to stall before you play another card.
Card economy is everything in War of the Ring. You can’t pass until you reach your “carryover limit,” usually just two cards, but you also want to avoid committing cards too early, if you can. There’s no need to bolster a defense that ultimately doesn’t need it. It’s often better to try to put cards into the reserve pile, so that later in the game, you have more control over when you bring them into play. However, because you can’t move a card from the reserve on the turn you placed it there, delaying the decision of where to send the card, whilst your opponent commits to their attacks/defense is tactically much better. Once your opponent is out of cards, you can gauge better what threat you’re dealing with and where you should attack and defend.
The reserve and carryover rules give the game a lot of its tactical nuance.
There are a few other minor actions you can take, but these are rare and don’t have much bearing on the core structure of the game.
Once everybody has passed, the action step is over and we move on to the combat step.
Step 3 – The Combat Step
In this step Battleground and the Path combats are resolved.
For Battlegrounds, it’s a straight comparison between the number of defensive shields and the number of attacking swords on the cards played to them. The defensive team has to “eliminate” cards with a number of shields equal to the number of attacking swords. If there are any defensive cards left on the battlefield after this, these are cycled. ALL attacking cards are eliminated.
Eliminate is a key concept in the game. Cards that are eliminated do not take any further part in the game (similar to forsaken cards).
If the defender canceled out all of the attacking sword icons, the defender wins. Otherwise, the attacker wins. The winning team keeps the battleground card and claims its victory points. Note: It is possible through certain card mechanics that a battleground can be “reactivated.” In this case, it is taken from the team that controls it and has to be battled over again. This can be extremely galling if you battled hard to win it in the first place, but it can give you a good points swing if you manage to pinch one away from your opponents!
Path combat works a little differently, though for the Free Peoples it is ostensibly the same. Free Peoples are always the defenders on path cards. Cards that can be played to path have slightly different shaped shields on them to the cards that are played to Battlegrounds. Many cards have only one type of shield, but some have both. Choose how you deploy them wisely!
Shadow cards that can be played to Paths have skull icons on them.
If the number of Free People’s shields can cancel out all of the skulls, they win and take the Path card into their victory pile.
If they cannot cancel them out, for every additional skull not canceled the Shadow players take a corruption token. Every corruption token counts as one victory point. The Shadow player controlling Mordor can add a lot of skulls to paths in rounds 8 and 9. This is a great way of symbolizing the overpowering strength and despair generated by Sauron and his minions. Shadow can really rack up some victory points late in the game!
Similar to Battlegrounds, any cards used in defense of a path that canceled out a skull icon are eliminated. The remaining cards are cycled and ALL attacking cards are eliminated too. A number of cards, notably the hobbits, have card text on them that prevent them from being eliminated. They are cycled instead, allowing them to resurface to fight again, somewhere further down the journey to Mordor. Again, this adds deeply to the thematic sense of the gameplay.
Some cards can activate a new Path in the middle of the Action Phase. In this case, you would pause the action phase and immediately work out the outcome of the path battle. When this is done you would then pick the next Path card. Depending on the card triggering the new Path activation this might be a path of the same number or possibly the next number. Triggering new paths can be a good way to sneakily win two Path combats in a turn, increasing your haul of victory points.
Step 4 – Victory Check
This is usually quick. You total up the points of the victory points on cards and/or corruption tokens each team has. If one team is 10 points ahead of another the game is over. This has never happened in all the games we’ve played. Games have always gone to the wire. After Path 9, the game is over. Total up victory points and the team with the most wins. In the case of a draw, the Shadow team wins.
Step 5 – Draw Step
Another quick one. Free Peoples players each draw 3 cards and the Shadow players 4. The starting player token is also moved to one space. As there is a lot of cat and mouse about when you use actions or put cards into play, the changing of the starting player adds a surprising amount of tactical nuance.
Play continues until all the Path cards have been drawn.
There are a few other game modes outlined in the manual. Including a cut-down beginner scenario for 2 players, that plays only up until the breaking of the Fellowship. I have played 3-player where I took the Free Peoples and played both hands. I wouldn’t recommend this for your first game, but it’s arguably a little easier for the Free Peoples’ player doing it this way, as you know exactly what to play into for each hand.
Why You Should Play War of the Ring: The Card Game.
I loved this game, but before I explain why, let me just point out the only reason I can see for not liking the game.
It is, to a degree, an asymmetric game. It feels hard to win if you’re Free Peoples. Much as in the book, the forces of Sauron are so strong as to be overwhelming. As the Free Peoples player, sadly, there is no Deus Ex Machina to see you through to the end. (Although there is an eagles card to get you out of a tight spot!) Nevertheless, every game has been very close, and more importantly an absolutely barnstorming Lord of the Rings experience.
War of the Ring: The Card Game has launched an interest in Tolkien in my kids that I’ve been quietly hoping would come along for about 15 years. (Admittedly, my oldest was 2 then, so I was perhaps being a little premature.) I played the game with my 3 boys, 17, 13, and 10. They were all very taken with it. My youngest in particular has now wanted to learn more about Middle Earth, its stories, and characters. I am in clover!
I have been amazed by how four decks of cards and some cardboard locations capture the feel of the books. It really does feel like you are playing the saga, in a way that Fantasy Flight’s co-op, Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game, doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong: the LCG is a good game, but it’s a game that takes place inside Tolkien’s world without you ever feeling like you’re in the Lord of the Rings. (Though there are Saga expansions that I haven’t played.) War of the Ring: The Card Game immerses you in Frodo and the Fellowship’s epic journey. Or, if you are playing the Shadow, invokes the overwhelming despair that Sauron brings.
Whilst I did mention the asymmetrical nature, all of our games have been close. The mechanisms within the game work very well. The path to success is to ensure you squeeze every ounce of benefit from a limited resource pool. The comparatively small pool of cards to choose from and because this small pool constitutes not only your way to improve your board state but also the means to pay for that improvement means that every decision for every card matters. Do you commit a card now to win a Path, or are you better off playing the character to reserve in order to maximize the use of its special ability? Once you know how to play, every decision feels like it matters.
It does take at least 3 games to start to form strategies. To work out the best way to be efficient with your cards, and even then, I’m sure there are many nuances I’ve yet to discover. The depth of the game is truly impressive. Many cards work well together, but which combination do you go for? Because your cards are also currency, you can’t ever play them all.
The Path mechanics are particularly clever. Being able to play certain characters and cards only at certain times greatly adds to their power to invoke the central story. After Rivendell, the Ringwraiths can’t be played on paths until later on in the game. There are few things better when Gandalf gets to head the Balrog off at Khazad-Dùm. An occurrence made all the sweeter by the fact it won’t happen in every game. There is also another clever mechanic concerning Gandalf and Aragorn. They start the game as Gandalf the Grey and Strider. You do have access to cards for Gandalf the White and Aragorn, but once they are played, the original incarnations are completely removed from the game.
War of the Ring: The Card Game is a game about choices. The Free Peoples players have less leeway to make sub-optimal decisions, so it suits the game best if you give the Shadow cards to the less experienced players. Because it’s semi-cooperative I found it possible to play with my youngest son, for whom the game would probably be a little too hard for him to play solo. His big brother could help to explain his options.
All in all, I think War of the Ring: The Card Game is an excellent gaming experience, especially for fans of the Lord of the Rings. The way it captures the essence of the saga whilst also delivering a tactical workout, all in under an hour, makes it more than worthy of being GeekDad Approved!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.