So there might be an article on this if you really get me going on this topic. But basically, there’s a couple things going on with War of the Ring that really push my buttons.
First, it’s lightly asymmetric. It’s not that The Shadow forces are fighting an entirely different kind of war from the Free Peoples, but the implications of their means and objectives go in very different directions. The Shadow forces are endless. Their losses go back into the bag to be re-drafted as replacements at the next levy. Meanwhile, every fallen Gondor or Elvish miniature is out of the game. You can’t make good those losses. On the other hand, the Shadow has to basically conquer the entire world, capturing a huge number of Free strongholds. Meanwhile, if the Free People can just storm a couple of Sauron’s citadels, it’s game over. You’re playing with the same sets of rules, but the strategic implications of those rules are massively different depending on who you play.
Second, you’ve also got a separate, almost orthogonal game happening within this conflict: the quest of the Fellowship. It can be a resource-sink for both sides, but it also exists as this kind of hail-mary, last-ditch victory route for the Free Peoples. It imposes this secondary constraint and consideration on every single turn. If the Shadow player just decides to play a little fantasy wargame, the Fellowship is going to materialize at Mt. Doom and it’s game over. A lot of times, the endgame can be a drag race between advancing Shadow armies and a final push from Sam and Frodo.
Third, the rules of the game are pretty simple, but they can also all be changed in a lot of interesting ways by cards and characters. Perfect example: I was pretty much laying waste to Rohan and Lorien by using Uruk-hai armies based out of Isengard in this one game. Except I didn’t realize that with Gandalf the White on the board, and with Saruman pretty much alone at Isengard, I’d met the preconditions for the Entmoot event card, which triggers a high-probability attack on Isengard that can take Saruman out of the game. So even though my campaign was following a different course than the books, the books sort of “came to life” and kicked the crap out of me as they did in Two Towers. Stuff like that can happen on every turn or in every battle. Heroes do heroic stuff. Magic is real. And all of it can bend the probabilities pretty far from the mean and spin the game into really surprising directions.
Fourth, this all works because I identify with the theme and the game executes it brilliantly. War of the Ring is not wearing a skin over a bare-bones tabletop game. Tolkien is kind of woven into every facet of the game. It takes all the story elements and events and recombines them as stuff that can happen and stuff that you have to factor into your strategic calculations. The first time you play it it’s a surprise how these elements come to life. The tenth time you play it it’s a game of Texas Hold 'Em where you’re wondering if the person across from you is sitting on the Phial of Galadriel for a final push toward Mount Doom.
War of the Ring understands that while we do want to see the Tree of Gondor emblazoned on the shields of Gondor infantry miniatures, a game becomes so much more if it has really interrogated what makes a theme compelling and what the fantasy is that we want to explore. Few games come close to achieving this so well.