Kings of Middle-earth stands out as arguably one of our most highly anticipated release in 2023. This third expansion to the beloved War of the Ring boardgame has been a long time in the making. Initially announced in 2020, the release date underwent multiple postponements. However, the wait is over, as Kings is now arriving in stores.

Kings of Middle-earth: third expansion for War of the Ring Second Edition.

Why such an extended development period? There are several reasons, but the most significant one is that War of the Ring holds a fervent following among thousands of dedicated players. With each expansion, careful consideration is essential to elevate the gameplay. This is no small feat for a game that consistently ranks in the “Top 10” lists of various content creators and prominent gamers’ forums like Boardgamegeek. Thus, each expansion demands meticulous design, rigorous development, and extensive playtesting to ensure it achieves this ambitious goal.

War of the Ring provides a rich thematic experience, yet it could not delve into every detail of a Trilogy spanning over 1000 pages. Previous expansions further developed specific elements of the lore: Lords of Middle-earth explored the Keepers of the Elven Rings, while Warriors of Middle-earth introduced allied “factions” such as Ents, Eagles, Corsairs, and Dunlendings. In Kings, our aim was to cast a spotlight on the Sovereigns of the Free Peoples – Brand, Dáin, Denethor, Théoden, and Thranduil. Over centuries, Sauron strived to exert his influence over Middle-earth's rulers through the Rings of Power. Throughout the War of the Ring, he relentlessly employed his power and that of his minions to subjugate these five Sovereigns, or even lure them to his side. Meanwhile, Gandalf tirelessly worked to rekindle hope and resistance among them. Since we started the design of Kings of Middle-earth, we wanted the struggle for the hearts and minds of Middle-earth's rulers as the focal point of this expansion.

One of the core mechanics in War of the Ring is the “Hunt for the Ring”, symbolizing Sauron’s efforts to weaken and corrupt the Ring-bearer. Early in the design process, it became natural to extend this mechanic to depict attempts at “corrupting” the Sovereigns and turning them into pawns of the Shadow. Now, the Shadow player can opt to utilize the Action dice designated for the Hunt in a Sovereign “Corruption attempt”. This diversion redirects Sauron's focus away from the Hunt for the Ring or his military pursuits, instead aiming to weaken a Sovereign. This strategic choice is tricky, as removing a die from the Hunt box eases the Fellowship's journey. However, corrupting the sovereigns can yield substantial benefits, as their “weaknesses” (negative abilities) hinder the defense of their cities and strongholds. If, on the other hand, the Free Peoples player succeeds in “awakening” the Sovereigns, arousing their awareness of the urgency to confront the Dark Lord before succumbing to madness or despair, they enhance their people's morale and bolster the resistance against the Shadow hosts.

Cards and miniatures of the Sovereigns and the Dark Chieftains.

To comprehensively embody this mechanic, Kings introduces miniatures and cards representing the five Sovereigns in their awakened and corrupted states, a new type of Action dice (called “Ruler” dice) and 19 new Event cards.

While the Sovereign mechanic inherently balances itself – these new characters can confer advantages to both players based on the outcome of their control – we also aimed to furnish the Shadow player with novel elements – the Dark Chieftains. Three formidable minions of the Shadow are introduced, one for each of the three Shadow nations – Uglúk for Isengard, the Black Serpent for Southrons & Easterlings, and the Shadow of Mirkwood for Sauron. Not Nazgûl, but potent and determined military leaders, their presence introduces fresh strategic possibilities, further elevating War of the Ring's replayability. The arrival of a Dark Chieftain grants the Shadow a “Ruler” action die, too, alongside assorted benefits primarily linked to battles – except Uglúk, who, following events in the book, can also pose a threat to the Ring-bearers.

Kings of Middle-earth seamlessly integrates with War of the Ring and can also be combined with previous expansions, promising an unparalleled gaming experience and complete immersion into the lore of Middle-earth.

This article was originally published by Game Trade Magazine, issue 284 (October 2023).

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