Unlike most people I suspect, what ultimately enabled me to pull the trigger on buying the new War of the Ring expansion was not to get at the new bits for the main War of the Ring game, but the new "operational" game they included using many of the same bits as the core game. Sure, I'm glad to have the upgrades for the core game, but since I wasn't a huge War of the Ring fan I figured the maximum upside for me was modest: it would get War of the Ring onto the table for a few more plays. If there was any way the expansion was going to justify its non-trivial price tag for me, it was with the operational game.
First, let me say that anyone out there who was hoping that Nexus might have learned from the many graphic design foul-ups in War of the Ring (indistinguishable sculpts, ridiculously tiny font sizes, indistinct icons) will be disappointed. The design here is every bit as breathtaking in its blithe disregard for functionality or reason. Icons are tinier, less illuminating, and even more indistinguishable. For reasons that defy all logic recruitment counters specific to good guys and bad guys are all the same color. Relevant terrain on the board is still indistinct. The rulebook manages to make a game of just modest complexity almost completely incoherent. It all really is an amazing sight to behold, especially since the actual look of the board and many of the illustrations is so well-done. All that can be said is that the board itself is much more useable than War of the Ring's, with spaces that are large enough for the units that will occupy them.
Anyway, enough with that already, how does the game play?
With possibly one big honking exception*, I rather like the core system of the Battles of the Third age game. In the main, the game plays very similarly to the core War of the Ring game (and for that reason if no other I think fans of the base game will find something to like here): you roll dice to see what actions are available to you (move, muster, draw cards, attack, etc.), combat involves rolling up to 5 dice with leader re-rolls, you've got some flavor provided by various dual-use event cards, you've got characters, armies, and so on. A number of complexities of the full game (Diplomacy, mainly) are gone, replaced by some more tactical concerns: the different types of units now have different flavors (finally!), damage in battle is more nuanced and can be repaired through rallying before units are actually lost, and the Shadow Player can select his "attitude", from build-up (which allows recruitment and slows the pace of the "fate" clock which times the game) to a neutral position through all-out-offensive (which enables more troop movement but accelerates the clock).
Sounds interesting, right? Sure! Unfortunately, in actual play, this mix of stuff turns out to be bewildering, because there is almost no way for you to get any intuitive sense of what you should be doing. Should I be building up? Attacking right away? Trying to mix recruitment and offense? Who is going to be more effective, the Isengarders, Dunlendings, or Mordor Orcs? What is going on here, exactly? So much of the landscape of the game is hidden by the decks of event and action cards, the mix in the muster chits, and the expected mix of die rolls and fate tile draws, that it's impossible to formulate a reasonable approach to the game without knowing the exact mix of cards and having a detailed knowledge of complex probabilities.
As a result, our games saw the Shadow Player soundly thrashed. These were not just garden-variety beatings, but total stuffings. Not just once, but back-to-back. Imagine ending a game of Settlers of Catan with 3 points, and that showing would feel more emotionally satisfying than what the Shadow Player has gone through in our games. The problem with a beating that bad is that it often leaves you with no comprehension of what has gone wrong, and that was the case here.
In the end, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age felt like a lot of American-style games: while there are lot of different options presented to the player, there is really only one way to play the game.** You need to figure out what that one way to play it is. Then it boils down to who can execute the pat strategies the most efficiently. The War of the Ring base game had similar issues, but it seemed less extreme: if you pursued some avenue other than what the game designer intended (or what the game design demanded) you would lose, but it at least it wouldn't be the humiliating experience we have here.
As a result, this is one of the most incomprehensible and opaque games I've played in some time. I don't think it's exactly a bad game – I find many of the individual elements interesting in and of themselves, and many of the tactical decisions have some tension when viewed in isolation – but when taken as a whole the game is simply far too confusing for what you're likely to get out of it. For what should be a fun roll-the-dice and mix-it-up game with obviously limited replayability, I don't want to have to spend my first 3 games (at 3 hours or so each) just figuring out what the heck is going on. To me, it's just not that interesting.
Now, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age may be incomprehensible and opaque, but designing such a game is child's play when you're willing to use 24+ pages of rules not written in the designer's first language, a hundred cards, and one metric ton of plastic. Designing an incomprehensible and opaque game with one page of rules, a small board, and a simple deck of cards with no text is the work of a true master.
I admit to having no idea of what's going on, game-wise, with Reiner Knizia's Times Square. The basic idea is that you have various figures on the board: Sue and her two Bodyguards, Hal, and Deb. The pieces all have a matching suit of cards which move them in different ways and with different restrictions and have various effects on the other pieces. You're trying to get them into your (sort of sleazy-looking) bar. You play through the deck twice, some stuff happens, and the game ends.
I can only imagine it's Reiner's further experiments in theories of game theme, as demonstrated dramatically by Beowulf. These characters actually have slightly more descriptive names, and they sort of behave in appropriate ways: Sauced, er, Saucy Sue staggers back and forth between the two bars, always surrounded by her bodyguards; Dancin' Deb flits back and forth and allows the player who's bar she is closest to to influence the motions of all the other pieces; and Handsome Hal moves in a more leisurely manner, and can attract other individual pieces to him. It all sort of makes sense in a thematic way that is sort of interesting, if still a little bit too abstract to be actually engaging.
The underlying game-play itself though is very strange, and I have yet to determine if there is any tension, any resource management, or any tactics. I've played about half-a-dozen times and I am suspicious that there is not – you just play whatever cards you've got and pick up some new ones. But, I say to myself, this is Reiner Knizia, not Michael Schacht. There must be something there. It's rated as a "12 and up" game, for heaven's sake!
As I say, bewildering.
* So what is that exception anyway? I've come to the conclusion that the real weak link in War of the Ring (and, by extension, the Battles of the Third Age expansion) is the action dice system itself. It is a fairly clever in concept, and I usually like dice, but when viewed in a holistic way I think they are ineffective here. They serve to constrain rather than enable. You have some idea of a strategy you want to pursue, but tactically you are too straightjacketed by what you end up rolling. Combinations of dice don't suddenly open up interesting options that weren't available before, although many combinations will prevent you from doing what you want. If they enabled uncertainty or excitement or an ability to bluff, that might be something – but they don't, all dice rolls are open and can be seen by both players, so your opponent knows exactly when you have a lousy roll and how to hammer you for it. The Fellowship knows how dangerous it is to move, and can calculate the odds exactly, which seems very, very wrong.
In a large part because of this core system, both War of the Ring and Battles of the Third Age end up feeling to me like you're wrestling with the game system, not with your opponent, which for me is not a good thing.
** For the record, the way to win as Saruman in the Rohan scenario appears to be the hyper-aggressive one. Use the "buildup" attitude for one turn, maybe two if you want to push things, then go all-out. locking into the "attack" attitude and never shifting. Any other approach appears to be dead on arrival, as we discovered.
*** Sorry for stealing your gimmick, Joe.