In addition to my infrequent posts on fantasy movies and strange roleplaying games, I’m also going to start delving into the world of fantasy board- and wargames, hopefully paying attention to forgotten or neglected gems of the genre. In our first installment I’m reaching back into the distant and misty past, to the era of Jimmy Carter, disco and stag-flation when my best friend and I were just discovering the wide world of fantasy fiction and gaming.
Most people don’t remember Simulations Publications Inc. (aka SPI), and that’s a pity. In the glory days of the 1970s they and their larger rival Avalon Hill pretty much ruled the roost when it came to wargames. Under the leadership of the late James Dunnigan, SPI produced a wealth of map-and-counter games in a wide range of historical periods and topics, from ancient battles like Kadesh and Raphia to the far-flung future in games such as Starforce and Battlefleet Mars and everything (and I do mean everything) in between. I have no idea how many actual games the company produced — if forced to estimate I would say several hundred, ranging from poly-bagged folio games to monstrous simulations like Campaign for North Africa, which took (I’m not kidding here) over 1,000 hours to play to completion (in the words of the advertising copy “not including set-up time, which is considerable.”).
At their height in the late 70s, SPI was producing dozens of games a year as well as publishing two quarterly “full game in an issue” magazines — Strategy and Tactics and its F&SF cousin Ares, and a regular gaming magazine called Moves, as well as moving tentatively into the world roleplaying and even a conventional family game based on the TV series Dallas. There was, it seemed, no game or genre that SPI would not publish. And unfortunately, there lay the seeds of its eventual destruction.
Simply put, SPI produced too many games, and of those too many were simply bad. The massive publishing schedule forced games onto shelves with minimal playtesting (for example, staff getting together on a weekend and playing a few turns, then figuring “Eh. Good enough.”) or no playtesting at all — a huge no-no in today’s high-value gaming world. Economics also shot SPI in the foot — a series of low-priced “capsule” games sold well, but their retail price was so badly miscalculated that the company lost money on each sale.
Games also grew in complexity and price — the aforementioned Campaign for North Africa was originally intended as a mid-level game of moderate complexity and grew into a massive 10 player (divided into two teams of five each) “logistical simulation” that retailed for the then-unheard-of price of $44 (somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 in 2015 dollars, which even today is pretty damned steep). The high prices and complexity turned off many casual gamers who now had other choices for their games.
Unlike many SPI games, CNA was actually extensively playtested and despite bitter complaints about the amount of bookkeeping and the sheer unadulterated boredom of managing logistics for two entire armies (to the point of managing individual tanks, pilots and aircraft), it is indeed a playable game. Other games were not so lucky. On a visit to SPI offices in 1979, my friend Dale Smith and I were advised by a staffer not to purchase the game Invasion: America (kind of an early take on Red Dawn), and told “It’s a dog.”
Unfortunately for SPI too many dogs bring too many fleas and by 1982 the company was all but bankrupt and forced to turn to now-industry leader TSR for assistance, obtaining a $400,000 loan which (infamously) TSR then demanded be paid in full mere days after it was given. SPI was then handed — lock, stock and barrel — over to TSR.
In retrospect some observers now believe that the entire affair was an elaborate dance between SPI and TSR, a sort of back-door effort to allow one company to purchase the other without taking on its crushing load of debt. At first the ploy seemed successful, as TSR claimed that it had purchased SPI’s “assets and not liabilities”, cancelling even lifetime subscriptions to SPI magazines and losing far more good will and support from veteran gamers than they ever gained. Widely despised, TSR was never able to duplicate SPI’s success and its wargames division languished. SPI’s catalog is today in the capable hands of Decision Games, who seem determined to return many classics to print, including a new and more playable version of CNA.
That’s all tangential to the story I’m going to tell however. In 1977 SPI was riding high and though many of the warning signs that would bring the enterprise crashing down just four years later were there, they were largely ignored. Into this happy time came the news that SPI intended to produce the definitive Tolkien tie-in, a wargame based on the epic War of the Ring.
The game and licensing went through a long development process, though in the end I think that most of this was legal hassles, as the game itself shows telltale signs of SPI’s infamous lackadaisical design and playtesting process. Dale and I of course ordered our copies and waited, waited, waited, desperate for our final crack at the Dark Lord.
When the game finally arrived, along with several other hotly-anticipated titles such as the complex but still-playable modern aerial combat game Air War, we were stoked. In addition to the massive strategic game, War of the Ring came with two smaller battle games — Gondor: The Siege of Minas Tirith and Sauron: Battle for the Ring, a game based on the Battle of Dagorlad, where the last alliance of men and elves faced the hordes of Mordor. Ironically, the two battle games, added almost as an afterthought, ended up being better than the massive strategic game we’d so anticipated. Mind you, they weren’t great games either, but they were still far more enjoyable.
In the end Dale and I played all the games solo several times and even played competitively once or twice. Even the teenaged me could see the big game’s flaws, and the fact that the good guys couldn’t lose the Gondor mini-game seriously limited its replayability. Of the three only Sauron proved to be an actual competitive and fully enjoyable game, a very small profit for our (then) massive $20 investment (keep in mind that I made $2.50 an hour at a part-time job, so this was pretty steep).
With these memories in mind, Dale and I recently got together with my now-vintage copy of War of the Ring to play a quick game and see if we could recapture any of that old enthusiasm. Regrettably, we failed, though the game’s flaws make an interesting study for would-be game designers.
My god this game was pretty. SPI’s graphics wizard Redmond A. Simonson had brought color and modern artwork to what had been a drab and unexciting hobby, and WotR is a prime example of his technique. Spread over two sheets, the maps are huge and lavishly portray the world of Middle Earth in considerable detail, at what I’d estimate at 25 miles per hex. On the downside, about 90% of the map is never, ever used. Though it extends all the way west to the Grey Havens, almost all of the game’s action takes place in the southeast, around Mordor, Rohan and Gondor, with some side-action in Lorien and the Mirkwood/Misty Mountains region. Though Hobbiton is indeed on the map, the game itself begins at the Council of Elrond, with the Fellowship already together at Rivendell (a big mistake I think, which we’ll discuss later).
The unit pieces are typical of the era — ⅝” die-cut cardboard squares — black for Mordor, blue for Rohan, white for Gondor, green for elves, etc. with printing so small as to be almost unreadable, including the unit name, combat strength, movement, a symbol for military units or a printed name for characters (the character pieces are especially dull-looking and would have benefitted from small portraits or other unique identifiers, but unfortunately the counters are so damned small that they would have still been indistinguishable).
The rule books were a marked improvement on SPI’s original folded roadmap rules that were used in the early 70s — staple bound booklets with attractive covers, nonetheless filled with tiny type and dryly-written rules that are about as interesting as an accounting textbook. Example: Individual Combat always consists of one or more Duels between opposing sets of characters. A Duel is fought in Rounds. Each player adds the Combat Value and Morale Value of his Character together and then subtracts from that sum the number of wounds (if any) marked for that Character on the Endurance Level Chart (see Section E.3, How to Use the Endurance Level Chart). The resulting totals for each Character are compared: each Player subtracts the total of the other Player’s Character from his own Character’s total to obtain a Combat Differential. Players should note that a Characters total can be zero… each player rolls the die, and cross-references the rsult with the column corresponding to the Combat Differential. The Players record any resulting wounds on the Endurance Level Chart. That, dear readers, was state-of-the art wargame rule writing in 1977. Phil Barker would have been proud.
WotR broke some new ground in that it provided individual cards to portray characters, monsters and magical items, as well as unillustrated random events. This is where the game really shines, as the cards feature magnificent black and white art by one of the day’s leading fantasy artists, the legendary Tim Kirk. His portrayals of the various members of the Fellowship, the leaders of Middle Earth’s military forces, and the servants of the Enemy are nothing short of magnificent, and certainly put the images in the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (both released about the same time) to shame.
In all the game is an outstanding example of late 1970s wargame design, though SPI’s unfortunate devotion to the ⅝” wargame counter ill serves the cooler aspects of the setting.
As noted, WotR’s rules are dry as hell, utilizing SPI’s case-system and written in the blandest, most mechanistic way possible. While this reduces the danger of ambiguousness, it makes actually reading the rules an exercise in frustration, usually ending in heavy drinking or (in extreme cases) attempted suicide. Before our game I did not reread the rules but depended instead on my four-decade old memories of the sequence of play, and in the end it worked reasonably well. Though the rules are indeed dull as dishwater, they are coherent, and once the game gets underway and players get used to the process, they flow much more easily.
Dale and I — older, wiser, less hormonal — got together a couple of weeks ago and set up the game on his kitchen table. To my surprise we managed, with some streamlining, to get through an entire game in an evening, in which WotR’s regrettable shortcomings were painfully obvious. I’m not going to chronicle the game turn-by-turn as I did not take extensive notes, but I’m going to provide an overview of play and some thoughts on the game’s strengths and weaknesses throughout.
Setup was quick, and all of the various components fit easily on the kitchen table. Within a few minutes the first turn was underway, and the Fellowship found itself at Rivendell in the aftermath of the Council of Elrond.
The Shadow of the Past
I was troubled even before the game began. While I can see SPI’s reasons for starting the game after the Council, this decision had a couple of bad consequences — first, it made most of the map essentially useless. Had the hobbits started the game in Hobbiton, and the other characters in their respective homelands, then there would at least be some use to those hundreds of wasted hexes where no one ever moves units. It also removes a lot of drama — had the game been better designed there might have been a sort of prolog period in which the hobbits were forced to escape from Black Riders, deal with monsters in the wilderness, get lost, etc., before the bulk of the game begins. The problem there is of course that elsewhere the huge stacks of army counters are simply sitting idle, waiting and waiting for the “real” game to start. In the end I think that’s not so bad, as Sauron doesn’t even mobilize until turn seven, by which time the game may be mostly over (see below).
The game begins before movement, with the players drawing event cards, and the Dark Powers player (Sauron and Saruman; a three-player option makes Saruman a separate entity, even though he can’t possibly win) then draws search cards in order to win an attempt to locate the ringbearer.
Here’s the problem with that system — the event card deck is relatively small, comprising 40 cards, some of which benefit the Free Folk (Aragorn Uses Palantir: Sauron Challenged!, Woses Ally With Free Peoples, Ents Vent Rage, Elven Boats, etc.), some that benefit the Dark Powers (Gollum Attempts to Seize the Ring, Wormtongue Bemuses Theoden, Denethor Peers in Palanteer and Sees Doom!, etc.) and some that can benefit either (Misty Passes Open, Fierce Storms, etc.). Each player draws a card and can hold up to four cards in his/her hand, discarding or playing excess. The issue as I see it is that each turn you have a significant chance of drawing a card that will help the other player, which you can then discard, removing it from play. Other cards that benefit you can only be used under certain circumstances (Elven Boats only allows Fellowship characters to travel from Lorien, Saruman Summons Gandalf works only if Saruman has not yet moved, and so on), meaning that most of the event cards are never played. Separate decks for the FF and DP players would have helped this problem considerably.
Then comes the search phase, which proves neither smooth nor especially useful. The DP player flips a search card, which reveals both a searching force (10 orcs, three Nazgul, etc.) and five provinces that the player may then search. If the FP have no characters in any of those provinces, the DP player cannot search.
And there is another rub. The cards are usually useless. The Fellowship characters’ counters are moved face down so that the DP player can’t tell where the ringbearer (who can be Frodo or another character; each has a “ring rating” to determine how resistant he/she is to the Ring’s influence) is located. FP players can either split the Fellowship up into small groups (harder to find but easier to capture when found), or keep them together in larger stacks (easier to find but more able to defend themselves). The DP player must decide which stack to search for if the Fellowship is split up, but usually the card specifies provinces that the Fellowship is not in, or have absolutely no chance of ever being in (such as The Shire, Breeland or Belfalas — provinces that no players in their right minds would ever enter). Other provinces such as Forodwaith and Arnor might be entered by a Fellowship player (see below) but no Search Cards list them, leaving the Fellowship safe while they are in those regions. So for the most part the search phase ends in more frustration for the Dark Powers. But wait — all is not lost… Sauron’s time is coming.
A Knife in the Dark
Before movement, the Fellowship has a chance to check out their current location for supplies — magical items like Sting, lembas, athelas plant, etc. These are represented by illustrated cards stacked up on the board, and Rivendell turned out to be quite a treasure trove, including Bilbo’s mithril mail, Anduril the Flame of the West and the near-gamebreaking card for Shadowfax, swiftest horse in the west. A single human-sized character and one hobbit can ride Shadowfax, who moves eight hexes a turn rather than the pokey five-hex movement of other individual characters.
As we weren’t playing the game competitively I told Dale that I had had great success by mounting Aragorn on Shadowfax, arming him with Anduril and having the Ringbearer ride bitch behind him. Dale took my constructive advice and sent Shadowfax and his riders on a massive sweep northwards, through Forodwaith and over the very northernmost edge of the Misty Mountains, intending to turn south and reach Mordor by way of Esgaroth and the Lonely Mountain. Meanwhile the remainder of the Fellowship turned south, making for the Mines of Moria. After all, what could possibly go wrong there?
So where is Gollum? He has a counter that represents him and a very nice card illustrated by Tim Kirk, but he never actually appears in the game despite his vital role in the story. Well that’s because, like certain other units and characters such as the Dead of Dunharrow, the Ents and the Woses, Gollum isn’t really a character so much as an event, triggered by the playing of one of those troublesome event cards. There is only one Gollum Attempts to Seize the Ring card, but as usual there’s a high possibility that the FP player will obtain it and either keep it in his/her hand or discard the damned thing, taking it entirely out of play. It’s not unusual for entire games to go by without Gollum showing up at all. Lame.
So for the first turn, the Fellowship moved while Sauron failed to flip the right card to allow him to search for the Ringbearer. We had to engage in a bit of what we used to call “multiconsciousness” (ie playing the game objectively from several different perspectives), since we knew which stack the Ringbearer was in, but this didn’t really prove much of a problem. In the south Saruman and the Rohirrim sat and glared at each other, as neither force had yet mobilized (a process that triggers reinforcements and allows a kingdom’s armies to actually move and engage in combat).
The Departure of Boromir
Over subsequent turns, Aragorn and Frodo made their way through the icy north, borne on the mighty Shadowfax’s broad back. Meanwhile the Fellowship entered the celebrated Mines of Moria to find what lurked there.
Monsters are located in several important choke-points on the map such as the Mines, Minas Morgul, The Misty Passes, etc. In general these are hexes that the Fellowship must move through and thus encounter the monster. However the monsters are distributed randomly, so Shelob could be lurking in Moria while the Balrog is in the middle of Mirkwood (where the Fellowship player probably will not go) — a bit of a jarring experience, to be sure, but again I can understand the underlying rationale. The DP player is likely to be disappointed when the monster turns out to be a “frightening rumor” and in this case, though the Balrog was not currently in Mordor, a nasty troll was, and combat with the Fellowship began.
It was nasty. Dale decided that Boromir was the most expendable member of the group (yeah, I know… poor guy), and sent him in, sword swinging, only to be cut down mercilessly. RIP Boromir… We hardly knew ye and you never even got a chance to seize the Ring.
Then Dale got serious and Gandalf the Grey entered the fray. Another unfortunate rule is that when G the G dies, he is on the following turn replaced by Gandalf the White — a far more powerful and capable character. So what interest does the unfortunate FP player have in keeping the luckless G the G alive at all? None, that’s how much.
Well, Dale didn’t get his wish, and Gandalf dispatched the troll with magic without taking scratch. The Fellowship then gathered up the athelas and the Phial of Galadriel and moved on, out of the Mines toward Lothlorien.
The Muster of Rohan
Elsewhere in Middle Earth, Gondor and Mordor both sat and stewed, unmobilized and helpless as Saruman’s forces activated and a mass of man-orcs immediately marched on Helm’s Deep, held by Eomund and a handful of Rohan warriors. The attack was overwhelming and though they did not actually capture the citadel, it was clearly only a matter of time before Helm’s Deep fell. Mobilized by the attack, the Rohirrim began to gather troops, but never in sufficient numbers to successfully break the siege.
And what of poor King Theoden’s beguilement by Wormtongue, broken by Gandalf? Doesn’t happen — it’s another event card that basically prevents Rohirrim from moving. And of course it didn’t come up in the course of the game. And what of the Ents, infuriated by the destruction of their forest, who march against Orthanc? Nope. Another event, Ents Vent Rage which provides a +3 to two army combat die rolls within five hexes of Fangorn — relatively potent but also not all that exciting.
The Rohirrim are actually in a terrible position and really can’t win as they did in the novels. If the fellowship arrives they might get some magic and some decent leadership (army leaders like Aragorn and Boromir can add to die rolls in combat), but at that point they were just pulling into Lorien to get the stash of magic items that Queen Galadriel was holding for them.
A strategy we didn’t consider was sending the bulk of Rohirrim forces against Orthanc, leaving Eomund to hold out in Helm’s Deep, and hope for a quick victory over the wizard and his small garrison of wild men. I’m not sure whether this would have worked, as if the Rohirrim can’t win a quick victory (and the ubiquitous CRT — Combat Results Table — mostly only results in percentage losses, so only the most overwhelming assault can win in a single turn, almost never against a fortified position), Saruman and his horde will then abandon the siege, turn around and defeat the Riders of the Mark in detail, so good old Eowyn will never be able to fight the Lord of the Nazgul mano-a-mano.
Journey to the Cross-Roads
So at last, around turn five or so, Aragorn and his by-now saddlesore little companion have made it past Esgaroth and are riding across the vast plains of the Brown Lands. At last… At LONG last, the Dark Power search phase turns up the right province, and a squad of ten orcs is immediately dispatched to the location to try to find the fugitive Ringbearer.
Once the right card is at last revealed, things aren’t over yet — the search party now has to roll on a table to determine whether the characters are spotted, then attempt to capture. Well, the orcs did their jobs well, successfully spotting and capturing both Aragorn and the Ringbearer. Oops… All may be lost for the Fellowship, but…
No, wait… Everything’s fine. When captured by orcs, all the Ringbearer has to do is slip on the Ol’ One Ring and steal away into the night. There are no real bad consequences for this act — only after the ‘bearer has used it several times (equal to his/her Ring Rating) will there be trouble, transforming the character into a semi-ringwraith under the DP player’s control. Needless to say, you don’t want to put the ring on more than you have to, but in this case Frodo did it and escaped without any problems. Aragorn himself has a high escape rating and also got away, and the next turn they were back on their way to scenic Mordor.
The Black Gate is Closed
Well, this event did indeed break the game open, as now that the Ringbearer has been spotted, Mordor mobilizes, which in turn mobilizes Gondor. Of course, Mordor was going to automatically mobilize on turn seven anyway, but at least it moved the game to a conclusion much more quickly. Now that the armies and Ringwraiths can move freely, we immediately began preparing for the attack. In retrospect there was one thing we SHOULD have done that would have all but guaranteed a Dark Power victory, but more on that later.
Eventually Saruman captured Helm’s Deep, but a stalemate was developing. The bulk of the Rohirrim were now holed up in Edoras which provided a x2 combat bonus (rather than x3 for a citadel) and were not willing to move out, while despite his huge army, Saruman didn’t have sufficient forces to take the position without risk of disaster. So there they sat as the Fellowship made their way south.
So by Turn Seven, Aragorn and Frodo stood before the Black Gate, but without the right event card the hex is impassible, so they moved south toward Minas Morgul. Why not Cirith Ungol, where Shelob or some other monster (or, if they’re lucky, “A Frightening Rumor”) lurks? Well, that requires an event card too, and once more it hasn’t come up in the FP player’s hand.
The War of the Ring has only just begun… The Rohirrim have fought Saruman to a bloody draw, the forces of Gondor are alert to the danger, and the Morgul Host is preparing to issue forth to slay and conquer. And now we enter what is basically the endgame.
The Land of Shadow
Aragorn and Frodo are at last close to their goal, and attempt to make their way through Minas Morgul, currently crawling with orcs and no fewer than three Nazgul. When a character moves through a hex with orcs or Nazgul however, the DP player can make an automatic search without using a card. And that is exactly what the DP player does.
Okay, here’s the thing — as butch as Aragorn is, he probably can’t defeat three Nazgul on his own, and Frodo is kind of a load, despite his mithril shirt. He also can’t use the Ring to escape from Nazgul, unlike orcs. So if he’s spotted and captured he’s probably toast. It all comes down to one die roll. And so…
The Nazgul spot Frodo and he is captured! Game over!
Mind you, it was getting late and we wanted to finish. We could have gone through a big melee and POSSIBLY Aragorn and Frodo might have heroically defeated the three Nazgul, opening the way to Mount Doom and victory, since throwing the Ring into the volcano is the ONLY way the Free People can win the game. However, we just decided to call it and award the game to Sauron. No fuss, no muss and almost no combat.
As I noted above, there was an even more foolproof tactic for the DP player to use — since his armies were pretty badass on their own and a military victory by the Free Folk is all but impossible, all Sauron has to do is stack all nine Ringwraiths to Mount Doom and wait for the Ringbearer to show up. That way, spotting him is a virtual certainty, and even if all nine Fellowship members are present (even Gandalf the White), they will probably be defeated. In any event, the game will inevitably degenerate into a grand melee at Mount Doom which, though exciting, entirely invalidates the rest of the game. It’s kind of like basketball — for the most part the only part that counts is the last two minutes, and the previous hour of play is largely dispensable.
We’d started around 7pm and wrapped up by 10. In all, SPI’s WotR was a pretty fast-playing game, but that didn’t really redeem it in my eyes. Its flaws are even more glaring now than they were almost 40 years ago — 90% of the beautiful map is superfluous and never used, the event cards are so few and so random that they rarely if ever affect play, the search system makes absolutely no sense and frustrates the DP player, the army game has no effect on the character game, the Free Folk can’t possibly win militarily, some truly fascinating aspects of the novels are reduced to mere event cards most of which never enter play, and the Dark Power player has an all but foolproof strategy for winning almost every game unless the Fellowship gets very, very lucky.
On the upside, it’s a beautiful game with awesome graphics, really nifty components and breathtaking artwork. But none of that really matters — it’s just lipstick on a pig, and WotR is quite the fat sow, showing every sign of sloppy design and minimal playtesting, rushed into production despite a painfully drawn-out development process.
I’m not going to say I hate this game — in many ways I love it in the way you love a sad puppy.
No, wait… I actually hate sad puppies and think rabid puppies should be painlessly put out of their misery. Let’s say a lost kitten instead.
Yes, I love this game like I love a lost kitten. It was a game effort by a company that didn’t see its own flaws rising up ahead like an iceberg in front of the Titanic, and despite the game’s shortcomings it and the two battle games that accompanied it, provided us with many hours of sometimes-frustrating fun. I keep it as a relic of a bygone era, and I’m very unlikely to ever want to sell it.
And so we close the curtain on this first installment of The Fantasy Wargamer. I’m hoping to do the same for a couple more of SPI’s more bizarre F&SF entries, so stay tuned.