First Edition Designer Interview

On the twentieth of May 2004 I asked Francesco Nepitello, one of the designers (together with Marco Maggi and Roberto Di Meglio) of War of the Ring, to answer some questions about how this great game came into being. He was in the middle of putting the final touches to the design but gladly agreed to answer (with the aid of his co-designers) any of my questions when an opening made it possible in his busy schedule.

On to the interview...

Kristofer: When and why did the idea to make a War of the Ring game take form?

Francesco: We've been fans of the book for ever, and dedicated gamers. The two things combined naturally some years ago, when I, Marco and Roberto started pondering about the viability of a wargame playable in a relatively short time that could capture the 'feel' of the book. The recent diffusion of 'card-driven' games seemed to indicate a way, and we decided to try.

Kristofer: How long did it take to come up with the initial design (The dice, the way the Fellowship moved etc.)?

Francesco: We've been very lucky. Almost everything that's in the box was in the first proposal, and most concepts came together very very early. Probably that's due to our almost life-long passion with the books.

Kristofer: Can you please describe in as much detail as possible how you came up with the idea behind the Fellowship's movement system?

Francesco: The idea came during the first 'real' brainstorming session. The idea was to give the impression that the Fellowship's movement was hidden to everybody, even the Free People player himself! If you know how it works, you know that the mechanism can be described in this way, since the precise location of the Fellowship is going to be certain (chosen) only when revealed/declared, so they can be anywhere within a certain range.

Roberto: While most of the mechanics are a direct inheritance of the first prototype, the Fellowship movement initially was conceived under a more traditional 'hidden' approach, something we were not very happy with for the lack of originality we were showing. When the idea of the "out of the board" movement came up, it was immediately enthusiastically embraced and used in the first playtest session. After that playtest session, we also decided that we wanted to have unique mechanics to represent the difficult struggle of the Ringbearers inside Mordor. Initially the mechanics inside and outside Mordor were completely different; in the end we managed to make them very similar while at the same time still keeping the same feeling.

Kristofer: Can you please describe in as much detail as possible how you came up with the idea behind the action dice system?

Francesco: We all tinkered with card-driven games mechanics first, and then action dice seemed to be a good way to limit/randomize the resources of the players. Me and Marco were already familiar with iconic dice restricting/indicating your movement choices (our game X-bugs has 'action dice') but Roberto was the one to offer the option, and we of course loved it immediately.

Kristofer: How much inspiration/ideas did the old SPI 'War of the Ring' game provide?

Francesco: Being familiar with the game (we all played and loved/hated it passionately many years ago) we decided to shy away from it as we could, to avoid any parallels (out of respect, naturally). As previous 'literature', it was a precedent to be considered, of course, and its existence certainly indicated us which way to go (or not to) in many instances.

Kristofer: Developing the combat system, did you try many different approaches and if so can you give some examples of some versions you opted not to use?

Francesco: Well, not exactly. As you know, our combat system is fairly straightforward. It was more a matter of balancing it and streamlining it for a smoother result. We went immediately for a system that could allow for a great number of individual battles to be fought, without them needing multiple evenings to complete. We think that the use of Leaders, Companions/Minions and Combat cards make for exciting and diversified results, without the need for charts, multiple unit stats and so on.

Roberto: The single element of the Combat System over which we struggled the most to find a good solution is the Siege system. We know from the beginning this would have to be kept simple, consistent with the rest, and without the need for a long attrition-like mechanism as such battles in LOTR are a matter of days and not months. I believe that the current system is very nice because it put Elite units in a very important role in the game, both offensively and defensively.

Kristofer: When creating the Characters (Companions & Minions) did you try to create more characteristics (Movement, Strength, Leadership etc.) than just what level and what abilities they had before deciding on the final version?

Francesco: No, actually it is the other way around. Characters spring from the Fellowship subset of rules, the one that can be considered the more abstract or 'Euro' , if you want. So, characters came out simple, but were enriched with details somewhat to satisfy first our need for them to 'come out' of the game as alive as possible, within our needs for simplicity and smoothness. Their characteristics, combined with event cards do satisfy our expectations in play. I hope you will share our opinion.

Kristofer: The idea behind the Cards, that they act as both Combat bonuses and Events, did this exist from the beginning or did it grow through the creation process?

Francesco: The card decks were three per player, in the beginning (strategy, character, combat). We actually commissioned the icons for the combat card backs (now featured in the combat portion of the card), but then decided to combine them in only 2 decks per player. We're very glad of the final result, that we feel is very much in line with the card-driven game philosophy that first inspired us in designing the game (if you choose one event, you forfeit a good combat effect).

Kristofer: Can you give a short account of when you presented your idea/protype in order to get the license?

Francesco: I'm not sure I can... I'll leave this to Roberto.

Roberto: After working for a couple of months on an early version of WAR OF THE RING mostly for my own enjoyment (I had a bad pneumonia and lots of time to spend, very unusually), I remembered that, to my best knowledge, the licensee for Tolkien boardgames, Sophisticated Games, was not interested in a "wargame" about the subject. The idea for such a game was a subject I casually discussed with Robert Hyde, Sophisticated Games's director, in the past couple of years, and apparently this was not something which was considered much. So, I tried to contact Tolkien Enterprises directly, but to my surprise Tolkien Enterprises got me in touch with Sophisticated instead. Their license also covered a game like the one I described. The "surprise" part was because in the meantime Sophisticated Games had become interested in licensing such a game - as three other companies (Nexus was the fourth one) had expressed an interest to do such a game, including some of the best ones on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. We were then asked to prepare a proposal with our project and ideas, which I did, without much hope but with as much zeal as I could put together: given the love we had for The Lord of the Rings, we did not want to lose the chance of being involved in the "ultimate" game translation of the Trilogy. Apparently both the way we envisioned the game and the game itself were given instead , beyond our wildest hopes, very high consideration from Sophisticated Games and we were chosen to sub-license and develop the War of the Ring.

Kristofer: Thank you very much Francesco and Roberto for taking the time from your busy schedules to answer these questions.

Please note that some of the images on this website are a preview of Art by John Howe from "War of the Ring"
a game published by Ares Games under license from Sophisticated Games and Middle-earth Enterprises.