Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, The Lord of the Rings is among my favorite series of books and I read The Hobbit to my daughter when she was four. Also, had the movies not come out when they did, my daughter would have very likely been named Éowyn. I also have mixed feelings about Peter Jackson's movies about LotR, as they are visually spectacular and while I understand some of the plot changes, I felt that the nobility of so many of the characters was missing.


The Overview:


The box cover. 


Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl is a semi-cooperative game which essentially plays as a cooperative strategy and bidding game, but ultimately either everyone loses, or the Nazgûl succeed, but one player is declared the winner by having the most Victory Points. The players control the Nazgûl, trying to subvert the armies and heroes of the Free Peoples and control Middle Earth.

The game is for 3-5 players. Gameplay is about 2-3 hours depending on the number of players, although the first couple of games with new players will take significantly longer. I suggest for a first play, going through a couple of turns open and explaining the moves and mechanics as you go, and then "resetting" the game and starting over as this will help both the new player get accustomed to their options as well as familiarizing them with the turn and hopefully making the "real" gameplay quicker.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

The game is actually relatively simple, but hidden in a complex shell. Each Turn has two phases, The Favor Phase and the Campaign Phase (this is lumping Combat and Combat Resolution as part of the Campaign Phase). However, each of these phases are broken into steps.

The Favor Phase is broken into four steps.

1. Gain Favor and Hero Information: First, the players each gain Favor, which is the currency that they will spend on their bids later in this phase. They then also receive a Hero card which depicts one of those willing to fight for the Free People. It seems strange at first that you will be given a Free People's Hero card that you can play into a battle, but it simply represents you knowing of the location of the hero through your network of spies; so it lets you decide if the Hero is actually at a location or not.

2. Reveal Quests: A number of side quests are drawn and placed out. These will usually strengthen the areas on the main board that need to be conquered for the Nazgûl to win. However, addressing them takes away resources from the main board, which sets up a few decisions that must be made as a group. Normally, most quests add a few more armies or heroes to a main board area, but sometimes they can either simply benefit the Nazgûl or hinder them. Some give a benefit of favor for a Nazgûl who go there, but it will mean they will not be able to help in the battles on the main board.

3. Bid Favor: Here, each player "spends" his Favor by placing it on a bid sheet hidden behind a player screen. There are six different items to bid on:


The Bidding Track. 

*Cards of Power: Whoever has the highest bid on this draws three cards and keeps two of them. Players who bid less still get cards, but a lesser amount. Cards of Power are cards that can (usually) be played at any time and give strong bonuses to the Nazgûl player. Often a good card can sway and alter the tide of a combat that could have otherwise been disastrous for the players.
*Sauron's Favor: Here players bid for whatever Favor is on the Sauron's Favor location. Whoever wins it also gets to set the Player Order, which is useful in the sense that player order is often important to reap the best rewards in battles. Finally, the winner may draw a new Secret Quest card, then discard one. Secret Quests are a hidden means of gaining extra Victory Points at the game's end.
*The Witch-King: Players bid here to control the Witch-King for the turn, essentially giving them an additional Nazgûl to place for the turn. While powerful, he does have drawbacks as he does not command armies like the regular Nazgûl players.
*Saruman's Aid: Winning this bid allows the player to draw three Hero Cards as Saruman's spies have given information on the Free People's champions. The player may take one card to use later in the round and puts the other two either on top of or on the bottom of the deck.
*Gain Clix: Since it is a Hero Clix game, your Nazgûl get stronger by clicking their bases forward steps. Each step increases their power (though at the end of the clix, some abilities start to diminish as others rise). The highest bidder clicks forward two spaces while everyone else that bid, clicks forward one.
*Gain Forces: This is the only space that is not a direct bid. Instead, whatever is placed on this space is used to increase the armies under your Nazgûl's influence. There are three types of units for the armies: Orcs (the weakest), Trolls (who are only useful against fortifications that are walled) and the Mûmakil (which are only useful against non-walled, open battlefields). Increasing the unit count for your armies has a specific price per unit type and get more expensive the more you have. However, armies are very important since the more you can bring into a battle, the more chances you have of hitting and avoiding damage. Plus, the armies can take damage before your Nazgûl does.

4. Resolve Bids: The screens are removed and players each resolve their bids. Ties can be broken by a player "spending" his Hero Card and placing it in a "Hero Pool" where any player can pull that card into a battle instead of just the card they drew at the start of the turn. I mention this primarily because finding out what the Hero Pool was in the game was rather annoyingly described just once in a strange location for looking up later, but is referred to frequently in the rules and the game cards.

The Campaign Phase consists of two steps.

1. Deployment: In player order, each player commits his Nazgûl to one of the Locations on the main board or to one of the Quests drawn for the turn. Multiple Nazgûl can go to one location to aid one another and, in fact, will need to do so repeatedly to conquer some of the Free People's locations. This is especially true in the earlier game, where the Nazgûl begin weaker and have yet to get large, spanning armies.

2. Resolution: In player order, the Nazgûl resolve the actions of the Locations and Quests that they are at. Some quests may simply award a Nazgûl with something for being there. But the Locations on the main board as well as many quests require combat to resolve them.

Battles are broken into two steps and make for an interesting take on resolving combat in the game. Every setting for a battle will list how many Free People's Armies and how many Heroes are in a Location (or on a Quest card). Many times if a Quest is not defeated, it will be added to reinforce a Location on the main board. So, if a location has 3 white cubes and 5 blue cubes, then it means that there 3 Heroes and 5 Armies for the Nazgûl to contend with.



Éomer can only be played in Gondor or Rohan Locations.

1. Preparation: Battle preparation comes first. Heroes are assigned for each Hero cube in a location. If any of the players at the battle have a Hero Card that matches the Location type (Gondor, Rhohan or Ringbearer) that they are at, they may play the card to be one of the Heroes. In this way, their spies have told them ahead of time who is there. Or, by deciding not to play Aragorn to the location, their spies have told them that Aragorn is occupied elsewhere. For every Hero Cube left that is not assigned a card, a card must be drawn for the deck until each Hero Cube is represented by a Hero Card that matches the location type. Some Heroes are much more difficult than others and many have special abilities that must be resolved. Some Hero Cards have a "Heroic Call" ability, that makes you add additional Heroes to the battle. If multiple Heroes have this ability, only the first one added to the Battle is resolved.

Next, the Nazgûl commit their forces in player order. Depending on your Nazgûl's current "click", it shows how many forces you may add to a Battle. The player may add as many units as he wishes, provided the number neither exceeds his Click rating or the number of units he has purchased in previous bids on his sheet. For example, if through previous bidding turns, the Nazgûl has 4 Orcs, 2 Trolls and 1 Mûmakil units on his sheet but has a Army Rating click of 4, he may add up to four of his forces. So he may add 2 Orcs and 2 Trolls, or 4 Orcs or whatever combination he desires of up to four--provided that he remembers that Trolls can only fight at walled Locations and Mûmakil can only fight at locations without walls.

Each involved player in turn commits their troops to the battle. Now, depending on how powerful and therefore fearsome your Nazgûl are, some armies may be paralyzed in fear, but depending on how powerful the Heroes at the location are, some or all of this might be circumvented as they rally the troops to battle anyhow.

Cubes are added to the Combat Cup based on the number of Armies committed, as well as the number of Free Peoples Armies not paralyzed in fear and Heroes. A cube is also added for each Nazgûl present as well.



Two pointy Nazgûl lead a battle in Helm's Deep. 
2. Combat: In player order, each Nazgûl present at the battle may draw up to a number of cubes equal to their Clix strength rating. So you might be able to draw three cubes from the cup. You draw blindly and each cube that you draw will deal damage to the opposing side. So, each Orc, Troll, Mûumakil or Nazgûl cube drawn deals damage to the Free Peoples. Damage is done to a Wall (if present) first, then to Free People's Armies and then to Heroes, starting with the weakest Heroes first. Hilling Heroes gives the player who dealt the killing blow Victory Points, so player order can be important in battles with valuable Heroes.

Any Free People's cubes drawn deal damage to the Nazgûl players. The current drawer decides who takes the damage. But for each point of damage dealt, the Nazgûl must lose a combination of that army strength in units and clicks back until the damage is satisfied. For every Hero cube pulled, the Hero who deals the most damage is resolved.

After this, all of the cubes are put back in the Combat Cup and the next player draws.

If all of the Heroes and Free People's Armies are destroyed, the Nazgûl conquer the location. If any survive, then the Free Peoples still hold it, but hopefully with much less in the way of troops and Heroes there.

After all of this is completed for every player, the players get ready for the next turn. All Quests are removed and any failed quest results are applied. And any unused Hero Cards are shuffled back into the deck. The Turn Marker is moved forward one space.

If the Marker reaches the end (after nine turns), the Nazgûl lose. If the Nazgûl complete all three campaigns (defeating Rohan, Gondor and the Ring Bearer), then the Nazgûl win and each player counts their Victory Points, adding in any bonus points from their Secret Missions and then determines the final winner.


The Theme:

Theme is an important element to me in a game. Great mechanics are ones that make sense and tell a narrative while employing them. Pasted on theme over abstract mechanics there just to make a game "work" turn me off greatly.

So, that being said, do I think that Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl works as a thematic game? The answer is both a very emphatic yes as well as a resounding no. Let me explain.

First of all, the mechanics and cards work well to build the narrative of the battles. Éowyn will appear with Théoden to protect him if he is threatened by the Witch-King, Boromir does his very best to be a casualty of war and King of the Dead bring their Armies forth to aid the Free Peoples, but then leave the game having fulfilled their oath. It helps as well that the Heroes are associated with a track, so that Arwen does not appear to save the peoples of Gondor. The one card that bothers me a bit is Haldir who can appear in Rohan, as it follows the narrative of Jackson's movies where the Elves aided at Helm's Deep instead of Tolkein's books where Helm's Deep where the humans were left to their own, abandoned by the other races in what was thought to be a hopeless battle. But it is understandable, as the game follows the movie narrative instead of simply the books.

Sample Quest: If it is not defeated, one Hero and two Armies are added to the location. 

Second, I strongly disagree with people who claim that the Nazgûl campaigning in Rohan is anti-thematic because they did not do so in the books (or movies). It is true that the Nazgûl did not in the stories, but it is feasible that they could. To claim otherwise and hold this at issue with the game for being inconsistent in its storytelling would be rather silly because then you should argue that anything other than the Free People's victory is anti-thematic because it differs from the book. It is a strategy campaign. Different choices should be able to be made. And, granted, here the Nazgûl must interfere with Rohan, but I still do not find it any more problematic then seeing Sauron's forces win Lothlórien in War of the Ring. You are the generals choosing obviously non-cannon actions.

I think the Cards of Power generally give a good thematic use of abilities that aid the Nazgûl in the game. There is nothing remarkable about them, but also nothing too detracting among them.

The fact that the Nazgûl begin weaker and must work together more consistently in the early game works for me as well. And as they rise in power and strength, they may separate to handle individual campaigns, but still need to rally together to take memorable strongholds such as Gondor's Final Stand. This works for me as a good, strong cooperative element which the Nazgûl should have.

However, where the thematic sense falls apart for me is in the "semi" portion of the semi-cooperative game. An unnecessary element of backstabbing is added throughout the game. Part of the ideal of the Nazgûl is that they were enslaved and beholden to Sauron through their corruption. The idea that they were really infighting gloryhounds whose value boiled down to heroic headcounts is just rather... anti-thematic. I don't see one of Tolkien's (or Jackson's) Nazgûls screwing over the others strategically to manipulate the number of Heroes killed.

The game would have worked much better thematically as a pure co-op with a higher difficulty. Now, to be fair, there is a pure co-op variant in the rules, but it takes some of the most flavorful elements out of the game (there is no bidding with Favor, everyone simply chooses their reward during the Favor Phase).

The thing is, the Nazgûl do need to work together in order to win. Particularly player-aggressive players could sabotage the group to lose if he does not feel like his winning is likely. Now, with Secret Missions, it is possible to have a surprise winner at the end of the game, but if one Nazgûl is sitting on a stack of dead Heroes, the conclusion could be forgone. This leaves the other players with the option: do they continue on and try to defeat the Free Peoples and lose to their brethren, or do they sabotage Sauron's machinations and let the Free Peoples win and lose to them instead. The mere fact that you have to potentially make this choice breaks the theme of playing a slave to Sauron in my opinion.

That being said, I don't think that this is too big of a threat to gameplay. The game is still challenging enough that most players will still get some sense of victory and accomplishment by beating the Free Peoples even if they don't have the most Victory Points at the end. There is no challenge or sense of accomplishment gained by throwing the game. That's easy. Hell, I can sabotage the easiest setting of Forbidden Island in my sleep, so this game is even easier to lose if you want to.

So this problem is essentially that of the players you are with. I think it is challenging enough to drive most players to the satisfaction of victory against the Free Peoples. But some people will feel otherwise. And this is the biggest issue that I have with the theme of the game, especially since when you play Tolkien's "bad guys" players feel more free to act like dicks to other players. The fact that you are the baddies frees players to act against each other with more justification than if they were controlling Aragorn or Gimli.


Learning the Game:

The rules aren't horribly written, but like a couple of other Wiz Kids games, they suffer from a coherent summary and glossary to reference to. There is a summary of the game turn written out on the screens for the game to reference, but honestly, it should also have been laid out in the written rules as well. Instead, you need to read through somewhat daunting written out framework of the game without knowing all of the steps until you get to the end. It is not really that complex, but reading it in this manner without an outline beforehand of the steps, I believe, makes it more likely to miss or forget a step along the way (such as having to figure out what the hell the "Hero Pool" is if you missed its brief explanation in the overly wordy tie-break's description.

That being said, gameplay picks up after a turn or two and everything becomes more intuitive. So I suggest that, if at least one player is familiar with the game, to teach new players with one or two turns of play with the screen down and explaining the steps as you go and then resetting the game. Since it is competitively cooperative, you would otherwise hurt new players in their decision making process unless they are somewhat familiar in what each bid means.

Analysis paralysis can be a factor in this game, but I would say that familiarity of the game reduces this except for players who are typically over-analytical in their play style.


The Components:


A sufficient, if not drab, dull and ugly game board. 


Here is my love/hate relationship with just about every Wiz Kids title.

As with just about every release that they've done, their minis are beautiful. They are well-sculpted and thematic. They look great and imposing. In this game, there are just sculpts of five of the Nazgûl, but each holds a separate dynamic and threatening pose.

My only complaints about the minis is that each of them is only distinguishable by their pose. So if you have multiple Nazgûl in a battle, you need to remember that you are the "one that is pointing threateningly with his sword up" and that player two is the "one that is pointing threateningly with his sword to the side" and player three is the "one pointing threateningly with his sword lower than the others". This could have easily been circumvented with colored bases. I think I still have some Heroscape color dot stickers and I might apply them to the figures to help with this confusion.

I also feel that the Witch-King warranted his own mini. As it stands, he is merely a cardboard token, but he could have been (and is deserving of) his own sculpted mini with his stats set on his base.

The cubes for the battles are fine and their colors range distinct enough that you know what you've drawn as soon as you pull it. The cubes are also a hard plastic instead of the usual wooden cubes found in most games.

The board is sufficient, if a bit ugly. The paths of each of the campaigns should have been laid out better and easier to follow, but it is useable. The locations of the campaigns are actually close enough to their locations on the Middle-Earth map so that if you either really know the source material, or have played any other LotR game, finding the tracks is actually somewhat intuitive. Though it does bring up the point that Middle-Earth is probably the most specifically and detailed mapped non-existent place that I can think of.

Where it falls apart is with the cards and tokens, however. Wiz Kids seems to shoot their entire budget on license and sculpts and then afterwards realizes that they need to print cards and so they use the tissue paper that they have laying around in their back room.


Beautiful Nazgûl sculpt in a rare, non-pointing at something pose. 

Seriously, the cards are of a flimsy stock and get shuffled a lot. Expect wear, especially on the Hero Cards. They can be sleeved, of course, but I much prefer when this is an option to protect cards rather than a requirement.

Next are the cardboard tokens. There are, thankfully, not many of them needed. Markers for the conquered areas and turn order tokens are fine and sufficient. However, the tokens to track Victory Points gained through means other than slain Heroes are annoyingly and unnecessarily small. They are tiny little things with their values only printed on one side. It makes it annoying to search through to hand out what is needed. I think I may have accidentally inhaled a couple of them as well. Honestly, to track Victory Points, Wiz Kids might as well have painted a bunch of dust mites gold or green and dumped them into the box. I have a feeling this might become another game where I raid my Blood Bowl fan tracking counters to use.


Playing the Game:

Despite what seems like a daunting complexity and need to memorize what a lot of things mean and do, the game play is surprisingly intuitive half-way through your first play. While the bidding sheets attempt to be thematic by having pictures on the bidding spaces, they end up being muddy and dark and really don't explain anything and just evoke a sense that filtering out the magenta a bit was something that the designer wasn't capable of. However, flimsy and easy-knocked over too-tall screens have all of the reference material that is missing from the bid sheets.

The cooperative aspects of this game are great, and I enjoy the fact that as a turn begins, players need to talk out their plans and work together as a group to halt all of the fires spreading around the board. Non-cooperative play will quickly lead to a Free People's victory. Well, not quickly. All nine turns still need to be played, but it will soon become obvious.



The top track shows how large the Nazgûl's armies are. In this case, 3 Orcs, 1 Troll and 2 Mûmakil. 

That may prove to be a bit of an issue in the game. It may be start of Turn 8 and you realize that it is impossible to achieve a victory. There just are too many Locations remaining and too few Nazgûl to manage all of them. This, of course, leads to a decision of whether or not to continue to play or to end the game and try again or something else. It is disheartening to me when you reach a point in a cooperative game where quitting is mathematically the best option. Even though you know you lost, continuing it pointless, but quitting just feels... incomplete. This isn't just a flaw with Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl, but rather of the cooperative genre altogether. A simple card count in Pandemic may make it pointless to continue on for the next few turns or you can calculate that there is no way you can make enough money in the last turn of Wok Star to win.

This is where the Arkham Horror style co-ops work well. Even if it is evident that you cannot win, you are given a near-impossible showdown if you fail as a supplemental endgame. It at least gives a sliver of hope and makes finishing the game worthwhile to see how things end.


Scalability:
The game plays 3-5 players and at different difficulty levels. Fewer players is more challenging for the Nazgûl as they simply cannot hit as many locations in a 3 player game as they could with a 5 player game. However, with fewer players, the Nazgûl start out with a bit more in the way of resources and Favor to help give them a more solid start. But still, with the timer near the end of the track, it can become a race to conquer as many locations as quickly as possible and fewer players simply cannot hit as many. It simply results in a need to differing strategies and a little more cooperative play with fewer players.

The game also works fine with two players, each controlling two Nazgûl. However, sorting out the hand of cards for each is a little annoying, plus it eats into the competitive aspect a bit, because you know you can always support yourself in a Location with your other Nazgûl. You can house rule that you can only have two of your own Nazgûl in the same Location if at least one of the other player's Nazgûl is there as well. This forces you to work with the other player at least.

Last is the scalable difficulty. There is an easy, moderate and hard difficulty setting in the game and there is a definite difference in their difficulty. However, the downside of it is that on all but the Hard difficulty, three or more of the Locations are already conquered. It works in setting the difficulty, but it hurts in the sense of theme. I mean, starting the game with Edoras fallen just feels... weird. It's like making Pandemic easier by starting with the Blue disease already cured. Sure, it's easier, but it feels like you are taking a part of the printed game out of it and losing that experience instead of simply ratcheting the difficulty a bit.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she likes it. She's also a fan of the Lord of the Rings series and was fine with naming our daughter Éowyn if we had decided on it. She's also less of a fan of the "semi" portion of the semi-cooperative game as well. We both believe that it is a good game, but would have been much stronger as a more difficult cooperative game with all of its given elements, but a "sole victor" variant.


The Pros:

*Great theme and feel to the game (especially for how the Free People's operate).
*It is Lord of the Rings themed. Granted, this is a pro for any game themed as such. Even Rock-Paper-Scissors is vastly improved when you retheme it to Witch King-Théoden-Éowyn. (Witch King kills Théoden who sends away Éowyn who defeats Witch King)
*Interesting combat mechanic that is simple, but engaging.
*Beautifully sculpted minis for the Nazgûl.
*Challenging cooperative game that requires players to plan out their turns as a group and work together to complete the challenges presented.
*Thematic use of Heroes that make sense and don't result in having Elrond battling alongside Gondorian Soldiers at the battle of Helm's Deep.
*Despite the complaints, it is still a solid and fun game to play.


The Cons:

*Terrible theme and feel to the game (specifically the "semi" portion of the co-op and Nazgûl in-fighting, which is only addressed in the Introduction where is unthematically says that you as a Nazgûl have to prove yourself because there are rumors that the Witch-King can be killed. Though, if anything, the rumors were very much to the contrary. Plus, the Witch-King already had a second in command; the Nazgûl Khamûl, the "Shadow of the East". So this is just silly unthematic lore trying to justify a detrimental aspect of the game that mars an otherwise beautiful and challenging co-op).
*Rules could have been laid out a bit better and they could have at least friggin' bolded the definition of the term "Hero Pool".
*Card stock is thin, especially for the amount of card handling and shuffling.
*Cardboard Victory Point tokens are annoyingly small and easily lost in the pores of one's finger when they pick them up.
*Some scalability issues with difficulty for fewer players.
*It is easy to be left behind in the mid-game. Winning battles gives you more Favor, which is spent to increase your power and armies. A slew of bad Hero draws can leave a Nazgûl Favor-poor, which makes it more difficult to catch up to victory heavy players who have more riches to get even more powerful.
*The game is based off of the Peter Jackson version of LotR instead of a truer version of Tolkein's story.
*Hero Rank is a little confusing. Lower number = Higher rank. It's not too difficult to understand, but when you have a Hero of Rank 37 and one of Rank 5 and you have to damage the lowest ranking Hero, the impulse is to damage the Rank 5 Hero.
*Playing the "bad guys" justifies some players to do more backstabbing in the competitive aspect of the game.
*The strength of Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn as opponents in this game has done nothing to help me get over my dislike of Jackson's representation of these characters as now I curse whenever they appear at a battle.
*Kind of makes you wonder where the other three Nazgûl were during all of this. I suppose they were just unambitious and did the other Nazgûl's paperwork.


Overall:

Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl is a good game that is marred by some of its own attempts to make it stand out, which keep it from being a great game. It should have been a pure cooperative game with a semi-cooperative variant (such as, if the Witch-King dies, then there is a sole victor determined by Victory Points, allowing for sabotage and protection of the Witch-King). That being said, the game still offers a challenging enough cooperative play that makes it rewarding to beat, even if you were not the sole winner.

The theme and gameplay are there, but every game runs the risk of being lost by a player's attempt to sabotage, which just is not thematic for the Nine Mortal Men doomed to die. But despite these risks and the potential of threats of sabotage to manipulate actions, Lord of the Rings: Nazgûl still holds for some fun and good strategy to be held at the table. Ultimately the narrative is not as strong as the generically named Middle-Earth Quest, but it is strong enough to be evocative of a grand battle at Gondor for the fate of Man.


7.5/10


(Had a pure cooperative game be presented that doesn't take out some of the more interesting aspects of bidding and play, then I would have easily given it another full star. However, as presented and without altering the game through house rules, this is where I put it.)