The Good, the Bad, and the War of the Ring: should a familiar story be retold through play?
Fundamentally War of the Ring (2012) by Ares Games is an excellent retelling of the Lord of the Rings story. The mechanics in the game are designed in a way that, for all the frustration and despair one might feel, captures the struggle of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth against the incredibly overwhelming forces of Sauron. It most certainly puts the story first, drawing out the relationship between good and evil in the design of components and how they occupy space on the board. However, the use of dice seem to remove degrees of one's agency adding to the question we are left with when all is said and done: is the game fun? And does it have to be?
J. R. R Tolkien’s saga of good versus evil is epic in proportion and tremendously rich in detail. Yet, if you have never heard of Lord of the Rings, never read the books or seen the movies, then playing this game is a good retelling for one to experience. It is quite easy to argue that the added level of interactivity unique to games is what makes this experience so different to the others, and, I believe, it cannot be undiscussed.
Fundamentally, this translation of the Lord of the Rings experience is captured in the mechanics of the game. Yet, as a game, it is very difficult to enjoy (specifically if you are the Free Peoples player struggling under the weight of the Evil forces of Sauron). The difficulty levels in regards to enjoying the game are vastly disparate and, through my second playthrough, it got me wondering about whether the balancing in the game is right and whether this was good or bad game design. This rumination bore a greater question: is the Lord of the Rings Saga a worthwhile story to interact with through this type of play?
[It is worth noting that the Lord of the Rings saga has been captured into many other tabletop games, including a miniatures game and a very popular card game. This piece specifically asks the questions of playing the story through War of the Ring (2012) a monster of a game.]
For anyone who has played the game you might know of this overbearing level of despair and stress I am alluding to. For those who don't, it is simply a spot on capturing of the struggle of good trying to overcome an impossible evil - for the mechanics and rules the of the game shape the play style of each side of the war, meaning there is a degree of asymmetric play going on here that is important to detail the difference between the agency of good and the agency of evil. Without explaining or reviewing the game in too much detail, it is worth mentioning I think I appreciate just how well the game uses its mechanics, and potential employable strategies, to tell that story. Regardless, I cannot muster the enthusiasm to play this game, beginning to look upon it, in the same manner as I observe household chores. Why is that?
Maybe our question is too simple, too broad. What if the question was more focused on the story of the Fellowship and their struggle through Middle Earth. Maybe, what we are really asking is whether the Tolkien’s story should be experienced as a game? To provide a worthwhile argument we should engage in a few accessible theories around the concept of transmedia storytelling. First of all, the notion of the narrative core is important to consider.
When adapting or retelling a story for a different medium one must consider the narrative core. This is usually made from the “story world’s” first form. In the case of Tolkien’s epic, the original books are the narrative core of Middle Earth. As players in War of the Ring we get to extend, enrich, and build on this and are provided a fundamentally different, but largely familiar, experience of that world. On a deeper level, this board game experience allows players to collaboratively retell the story without undermining the core. (Check out Carlos Scolari (2009) 'Transmedia Storytelling: Implicit Consumers, Narrative Worlds, and Branding in Contemporary Media Production' The International Journal of Communication vol 3 page 598).
Yet, the story is so entrenched in a challenge and struggle that maybe it isn’t a retelling we really want. After all, when we play the game we do not really know the end and we cannot really confirm the happy ending we so desperately want... if you're the good player anyway. The navigation of mechanics and strategies between both players is in essence the challenge and where the competition of the game lies. Being able to go in any direction shrouds the conclusion in mystery and uncertainty—obviously an important thing to have if you are competing with another player. Yet, this ambiguity looms quite far over your own strategies due to one component: The Dice.
Dice are a very important consideration during game design as often they mean a strong injection of chance into the story you're playing. Take Risk for example; you build a big army, you position them in place to annihilate a weak opponent, you roll the dice and you get all ones. Regardless of your efforts in building a big army, you are at the mercy of chance—a rhetoric that I don't think is very useful when attempting to simulate war (however abstract). A similar thing happens in the War of the Ring. The dice used for both parties are designed to give you options and there shouldn’t really be a bad outcome. However, this implies that your strategies are complex enough to have multiple routes to every possible outcome mitigating the wild chance of the dice roll. On top of this, you have your opponent who’s good luck simply translates to bad luck for you.
Dice are important in game design because of the narrative of chance they inject into a game. This means that they must be well-considered and true to the story. You could argue that luck plays a huge part in the Lord of the Rings narrative core for the Free Peoples. And, if you did, you would be justifying that maybe this is not the story we want to play as luck is never reliable. This same feeling of playing with a story we maybe shouldn’t is also noticeable in the sheer DNA of tabletop games; its physicality and touch.
Red vs. Blue: the evil forces of Sauron dominate the board in both numbers and colour. The stress of constant potential threat is too much for this board gamer!
Ritualistically played out around the table, board games rely on the connection of players to play through the sense of touch and space. Within this relationship play is defined and experienced. As you play through the Fellowship’s campaign the space is increasingly occupied by the forces of Sauron. The board is our stage upon which we play this story and the relationship between hope and despair is captured, quite impressively, in the occupation, navigation, and understanding of that space. The greater the number of Sauron's pieces that occupy the board space the less space available to move safely, the fewer the options to victory and the greater the sense of dread felt by the Free People’s player. To really drive this visual narrative home the forces of evil are easily identified by their angry red colour in complete contrast to the hopeful blue of the Free Peoples.
What we see here is that the design of the components is very well considered to enhance a visual narrative that does great justice to the narrative core. Ultimately, this, coupled with the pacing of how these pieces are recruited, captures the dwindling hope of the Free Peoples so well. This is, without question, a concrete example of how good game design can be employed to capture a feeling or narrative, regardless of a narrative core such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or completely original.
We can take this one step further by observing that the game mechanics require you to action your agency by touching, moving, and holding game pieces. These game pieces are the components to this particular story and by connecting them through touch you are physically able to co-write a new version. This new version is not written in words or captured in moving images; it is told between the intimate experience of two players and their gameplay.
Yet, it feels wholly unenjoyable to experience as a game. So, like any good exploration, we are left with more questions than when we started. But, maybe the biggest question of them all is: do games have to be fun?
All these design decisions help build a coherent visual narrative and retelling of the original narrative core of Tolkien’s trilogy. Employing an element of chance to draw out specific themes of hope and despair, use of colour to add a further dimension to the good versus evil narrative within the visual narrative, and using space and touch to bring the players in as authors in this version of the story, all work to capture the Lord of the Rings in a game. But, the feeling I (and many others) are left with when all the pieces are back in the box is one of frustration and the opposite to fun, simply exhausted from the struggle. So, in the final words of this article I will leave you with an echo of the musings throughout; should War of the Ring exist as a version of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy because it simply is more stress than enjoyment? And, for the more explorative amongst you, should tabletop games be enjoyable?
Narrative wears the crown! The story is the most essential tool when designing a game.
Dice are agents of chance and must be true to the story you want to tell if they are to be used.
Colour can really help to tell the story you want to tell? Think about the relationship between one colour and another.
Is your game fun? Does it have to be?