All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.  -J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings
(This is part two of a discussion of licenses in the gaming hobby.  For part one, click here.

Star Wars, Schmar Wars.  Let us now discuss the license that basically gave birth to this industry.  The Lord of the Rings.

A quick search on the web turned up no less than forty-four board and card games and about a half dozen RPGs connected to this property over the years.  Most of these have been real stinkers (slinkers?) but there have been some really glorious ones too.  One could argue that Reiner Knizia’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS cooperative game from 2000 started the boom of cooperative games currently on the market that most people like to credit to PANDEMIC (which wasn’t released until 2008).  Knizia’s design does what any good co-op should do, which is provide difficult prioritizing decisions for the play group.  What makes it feel especially LotR-y is the fact that the scope of the game covers the entire novel (from The Shire to Mount Doom) and it occasionally becomes necessary for one player to sacrifice themselves so that the others may continue.  Self-sacrifice is of course, one of the broad themes in Tolkien’s work.  Fantasy Flight Games has recently reissued a visually redesigned and more affordable version of this game as part of its Silver Line, so it is once again widely available.  And at less than forty bucks, it’s less expensive than a week’s worth of lembas bread.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE CONFRONTATION and THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE DUEL are also both simple, excellent games that manage to feel properly respectful of the source material without drowning in minutiae.  (The former is still available in an expanded “deluxe” edition.  I like to think of it as a Tolkien-fied STRATEGO for grown ups.)

On the other end of the spectrum, in my geeky Tolkien elitist opinion, is the new THE LORD OF THE RINGS CARD GAME from FFG, and just about anything that Games Workshop has done with the setting.  FFG’s new co-op card game has a solid design, if a bit mathy, but at the end of the day, it could have had any setting slapped onto that puppy.  It could have been “The Neverending Story” Living Card Game and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.  There is not a single mechanic that seems to have been designed with Middle Earth in mind.  Add up power levels of characters to overcome the current row of challenge cards, occasionally confront monsters head on, add a few variables, rinse, repeat.  It also doesn’t help matters that all story continuity goes out the window when you’ve got a viable deck built out of old Bilbo, a Gondorian noble, and Eowyn traveling together on a hunt for Gollum.  WTF?  I’m all for alternate takes on well-known events within a setting, but in this case, it seems like just so much number crunching without any supporting narrative.  Not that any of this stopped the game from becoming FFG’s fastest selling ever.
Games Workshop’s takes on Middle-Earth, are as you might expect, large miniatures combat games.  For me though, LotR has always been a tale about small struggles, personal conflicts to drive the greater good.  Huge fantasy armies massing for combat without the proper context is just WARHAMMER.  Which has its place and all, but is not what I expect out of a Tolkien game.  GW has the license for The Hobbit too, to tie in with the upcoming movies, although other than a BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES game (which they’ve already done, albeit special order only) I can’t imagine what this particular company will do with it.
The only way one could pull it off is…well, what  Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi, and Francesco Nepitello did with their board game called WAR OF THE RING.  (NOT to be confused with Games Workshop’s miniatures rules set by the same name.)  But if you read the previous installment of [Card.Board.Box] then you may recognize those names as the ones behind AGE OF CONAN.   Now, before we continue, let’s make one thing perfectly clear:  WAR OF THE RING is my favorite board game ever.  I did after all, drop four hundred big ones on the collector’s edition of the game.

As its name would suggest, it is, on its surface, a war game.  The narrative begins right after the Council of Elrond and continues until one of four things happens: The Ring is destroyed; Frodo becomes corrupted; the Shadow armies overwhelms the West; or the Free Peoples manage to pull off a very difficult military victory.  Yes, four different victory conditions, two for each of the very different sides.

And while for the Shadow player the game does play much like a war game, it is more subtle than that.  Each of the five Free Peoples nations must be convinced that trouble is on their doorstep, and the Free Peoples player cannot readily put any forces on the board until that happens.  The easiest way to do that is to break off members of the Fellowship to travel around and spread the word.  Think about it, poor confused Theoden is being deceived by Wormtongue, sitting on his throne in a fog, and it takes Gandalf the White and the Three Hunters to snap him out of it.  The trick for the Shadow player is that if he strikes too soon, he will speed up the political rousing of the Free nations and allow them to fight back in earnest.  It’s all about timing.  Bring out the Witch King too early, and the Free Nations will *know* something is up.  The flip side of this is that for the Free Peoples player, dunking the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom is the surest path to victory, so by breaking off too much of the Fellowship to prepare the West, you are leaving Frodo vulnerable.  Similarly, the Shadow player must manage his resources in such a way as to get a bunch of troops on the table, while keeping the progress of the Fellowship to a moderate to slow pace.  Will you send the Nazgul to support your armies of Orcs, or will you send them on a hunt for the Ring?

I could write an entire article about this game alone, as many and varied are the nuances and strategies.  And with much of the action being supported by multiple card decks, fans of the novel will find just about every tiny detail possibly showing up in a given game.  Even some of the ones that Peter Jackson’s lovely adaptations failed to include.  Want to take over the Shire with Orcs and Wargs from Isengard?  It can happen.  Want Prince Imrahil to ride north from Dol Amroth to support the effort at Pelennor Fields?  You can do that too.  It might just mean the difference of a piece or two on the board, but knowing that those two pieces are Prince Imrahil’s men really contributes to the story that’s unfolding.

It should be noted however, that you are not railroaded into a particular chain of events.  While I complained about a lack of narrative structure in the LotR Living Card Game, in WAR OF THE RING events can unfold in very different ways from what we are used to, but the supporting mechanics give them all a place in the overall story.  In this manner I compare WAR OF THE RING to that other classic war game on a board, AXIS & ALLIES.  A&A is cleverly designed so that strategically, things are very likely to play out as expected in history.  For example, the easiest way for the Americans to get a foothold in Europe is by storming Normandy with amphibious assaults.  In WotR, the fastest (and most dangerous) way to get the Fellowship across the Misty Mountains is by cutting through Moria (and probably losing Gandalf in the process.)  But that’s not always the way it happens.  We’ve all certainly seen games of A&A in which the war was taken to American soil by the Japanese.  And I know I have played out games of WotR where crazy stuff happens.  Like Gandalf and Gimli leading an army of Mirkwood elves to successfully cleanse Moria of Orcs.  Or Aragorn dying at the Battle of Helm’s Deep and Boromir living to lead the forces at Minas Tirith.  Or Uruk-Hai laying siege to the Grey Havens.  Despite this, through it all, the game just feels right.  Attention to detail and tone go a long way.  The mechanics serve the story that we all know, and the story serves the mechanics.  RISK: THE LORD OF THE RINGS this is not.

It should be noted that just recently, it was announced that Nexus Games, the producer of this fine game (as well as AGE OF CONAN) had gone belly up.  It wasn’t a week later that a new publisher, ARES GAMES, announced that they had picked up the rights to WAR OF THE RING and would be releasing Nexus’s planned revised edition before the end of 2011.  This edition will be incorporating the larger, tarot-sized cards of the limited Collector’s Edition from a few years ago, plus a few other component upgrades and rules clarifications.  The planned expansion for AGE OF CONAN is now likely M.I.A. and I can’t imagine the game will be reprinted after the current batch has run out, although there are currently plenty of copies floating around out there.

Second Fiddle: The Role Playing Game
So a couple months ago, it was announced that Cubicle 7 had acquired the role-playing game rights for The Lord of the Rings.  My first thought was “Ugh, another Lord of the Rings RPG?  When will they learn?” Then I noticed that Francesco Nepitello was the name attached.  Yup, one of the guys behind both WAR OF THE RING and AGE OF CONAN.  That got my attention.

THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD is, by most counts, doing Tolkien role-playing right.  Why bother creating your own Dunedain Ranger to putter around Middle Earth when all the cool shit is happening with the Fellowship far away from you?  THE ONE RING is circumventing this problem by focusing the scope of the proceedings to the geographical area surrounding Mirkwood and the area East of the Misty Mountains, while setting the story in the time just following the destruction of Smaug.  Subsequent books will increase the area of influence and progress the timeline a bit, so that if you choose, you can run a long, multi-generational campaign which culminates right around the time that events of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING begin.  Or you can keep things a little more grounded and stick to smaller obstacles in the region.  At Origins this past June, I got a peek at the game as it went to press.  One of a Player Character’s attributes is hope.  HOPE.  Yeah, this is gonna be good.  Games and Stuff’s George got a chance to briefly talk to Francesco at Gen Con 2011 while reporting for MTV Geek:  You can check out his blog entry here.

THE ONE RING: ADVENTURES OVER THE EDGE OF THE WILD was released at Gen Con 2011 and should be on shelves early in September.  I can’t wait for what promises to be a very different sort of adventure in Middle Earth.  (Note: George was kind enough to lend me his copy of THE ONE RING that he picked up at Gen Con.  I have now read through most of it.  Not only is it good, it’s really good.  Easily the best Middle Earth RPG ever.  Yes, better than MERP.  Preview article coming soon.)

So.  Playing in the shadow of your favorite heroes has long been a challenge of most licensed RPGs.  We all know that the Death Star gets taken out by a young moisture farmer in an X-Wing, right?  So why bother?  Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) is tackling this problem head on with their new MARVEL RPG announced at Gen Con.  And they’re doing it in a manner that is the polar opposite of THE ONE RING.  How?  You don’t have to worry about playing in Wolverine’s shadow when you ARE Wolverine.

After the initial core rulebook release, MWP will be releasing a series of “events” that are tailored after all of those big Marvel cross-over events that the comics publisher is so fond of doing.  So first up, for example, will be “Civil War”.  The trick is, instead of the players taking the part of some third string super hero chumps, the adventures are designed so that the players take on pivotal roles such as Captain America or Iron Man.  Guidelines are included for the GM to manage events if things end up with radically different results than the original story went, and there’s nothing stopping the players from running those home-brewed characters in pivotal roles themselves if they really want to.

One final tidbit regarding licensed RPGs.  Just last week, Archaia Entertainment (publisher of the MOUSE GUARD RPG) announced a DARK CRYSTAL RPG due for release at Gen Con 2012.  The Dark Crystal is one of those licenses that I hold very near and dear to my heart, and initial reports of the game allowing players to create Gelfling characters to run around in the “world of the film” had me wanting to scratch out my eyes as if I had stared directly at the Great Conjunction.  Not only does it make any sense that there would even BE any Gelflings other than Jan and Kira, but what’s the point?  Crystal healed. UrSkeks reborn. The End. Gah.
But further evidence reveals that the publisher is printing a new comic series later this year that takes place in the thousand years leading up to the film, based on a story draft by none other than Brian Froud.  If THAT is the setting of the game, I’d be on board.  More than on board.  I would be as excited as a Podling at a gardening festival.  We shall see.  (If anybody is not convinced of the rich mythic potential of this setting, see if you can track down Froud’s The World of the Dark Crystal book.  Though it now demands a premium price from collectors.)

At the end of the day, licenses are important to gamers for a wide variety of reasons.  The ones that are important to us help to shape and mold our creative selves.  In many cases, they were our first introduction to imaginative fiction, and the very thing that lead us to gaming in the first place.  The opportunity to revisit those worlds and create our own stories within them is too powerful a prospect to ignore.  But these things must be handled with care.  One does not simply walk into Mordor. You can’t just stick a logo on a box lid and expect the game to evoke the setting.  It’s gotten to the point that any time a new game is announced based on a property that I love, my first response is “how are they gonna screw it up?”

Ya know what?  Let’s view this from a slightly different perspective.  It’s time to fire up the WayBackMachinetm again.  Now now, I don’t want to hear any complaining, it will be fun this time.  There ya go.  Strap on the helmet.  Yeah, bite down on that piece.  Hard.  It’s to make sure you don’t crack a tooth or bite your tongue off.  Hush.  All settled in?  OK.  *click!*

It’s early in the 21st century and you are a grown man.  You’re crying in your hands because you just heard that “Firefly” has been cancelled.  You have no idea what you’re going to do with your free time now.  Things are looking down.  You haven’t been this depressed since the stillbirth of the Babylon 5 spin-off “Crusade”.  Oops.  We’re not back far enough.  I really need to get that thing fixed.  Let’s try it again.  *click!*

It’s 1983 and you are a young boy.  Two of your favorite things are playing with your G.I. Joe figures and watching The A-Team every Tuesday night.  *click!*

It’s 2010, and the last year has seen both a G.I. Joe live-action movie, and an A-Team one as well.  Which one was better?  Haven’t seen them?  Go Redbox that shit.  I’ll wait…

Back?  OK, by now it should be obvious that the “A-Team” film, while far from a cinematic masterpiece, was a fun bit of diversionary entertainment.  There were some nice references to the TV show, and the new B.A. managed to somehow feel like B.A. and yet not be Mr. T.  They even slipped in a nice arc about why he was afraid to fly.  Perfect mindless action fun, just like the TV show.

“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”?  It hurts, doesn’t it?  I know, I know.  You can cry on my shoulder all you want.  It’s OK to show emotion, man!  Don’t be ashamed.  I know I moistened my Larry Hama -penned G.I. Joe comic books with tears of sadness after seeing that celluloid nightmare.  I mean, c’mon…  If not for the presence of Snake Eyes or The Baroness, would you have even recognized that movie as a Joe movie if it had been called something else?  What’s with the third tier characters?  What’s with Breaker being an Arab?  Liquid metal face Destro?  Futuristic body suits?  Marlon Wayans?  For the love of Serpentor, MARLON WAYANS?!?!?  Nothing looked right.  Nothing felt right.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, people.  Just nail the tone.

And that’s all I’m trying to say.  Tone first, people.  Get the tone right, and we can forgive most other mis-steps.  And speaking of G.I. Joe, will Hasbro PLEASE let Avalon Hill make some giant G.I. Joe adventure board game?  Money in the bank.  Just sayin’.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Tuesday Board Game Nights. [Card.Board.Box] is his monthly gaming column for GamesAndStuffOnline.com in which he writes about games. And stuff.   He is currently deep in the Wilderland outlining a planned epic-length campaign for THE ONE RING RPG.  When he comes up for air, he can be found hiding in the swamps of Louisiana making out with Zarana.

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