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One Game to Rule Them All: An Authentic Tolkien Middle-Earth Experience

by Michael Barnes (12/17/12).

Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” If you are looking for a board game that offers authentic Middle-Earth experience, the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition is it.

This Christmas season at the movies finds Middle-Earth returning to screens in the first installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 10 years since the Kiwi director showed us his vision for this beloved fantasy setting and another seven since the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy concluded in the Oscar-winning “Return of the King.” Of course, this being a games column written by a gamer, this means it’s time to take a look at some of the collectible board games out there with Hobbit-y themes.

Along with Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, Tolkien’s work in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are the foundations of modern fantasy, including the kinds of fantasy themes and concepts seen widely throughout hobby gaming. There are countless games that have politely borrowed, copied or outright stolen ideas from Tolkien’s work. But more importantly, there are lots of licensed games blessed by the Tolkien estate (and rights-holders) that can give you an authentic Middle-Earth experience with varying degrees of complexity—and expensiveness.

On the left, the beautifully carved and painted wooden box that the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition is packed in.

The giant and recyclable cardboard box the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition was shipped in to my good friend and noted Atlanta boardgamer, Will Kenyon

But in terms of collecting Tolkien board games, there is definitely One Game to Rule Them All, so to speak. Interestingly, it’s not some obscure out-of-print title from the 1970s. It’s only 2 years old and collector prices are already topping $2,000, up from a $400 retail offering in 2010. The item in question is a Collector’s Edition of War of the Ring, a very popular 2003 title created by a trio of Italian designers that depicts the larger, martial conflict that occurs during Frodo and the gang’s quest to toss the Ring into Mount Doom. It’s an epic-scale, Risk-descended wargame that’s gone through a couple of editions and has one hefty expansion. It’s also available in many languages and has been a worldwide success. It was also the first game I ever reviewed professionally for a now out-of-print games magazine. I gave it full marks.

War of the Ring was already a really nice game, with tons of plastic miniatures, great John Howe artwork, and a huge, double-sized map of Middle-Earth. Back in 2003, it was among the nicest-looking, most well-appointed games ever produced and at the time it was just $59.95 at retail. The Collector’s Edition upgrades pretty much every single element of the game and packs the contents into a huge, exquisitely detailed wooden chest styled like an ancient Elvish book. It includes painted miniatures, a much larger board, a faux-leather bound and embossed rulebook, and velvet-lined everything. The cards are larger, Tarot-sized, and like everything else in this amazing package, they feel hefty and timeless.

A close-up of the gameboard and miniatures.

Large-format cards with art by one of the great Tolkien illustrators, John Howe.

Despite its almost overwhelming physical presence and beautiful production—not to mention that it is a really good game—there were and still are some complaints. The box is apparently quite fragile and there were some printing errors. Not all of the expansion material was included. Many sets were damaged or dinged in transit. More significantly, Collector’s Edition owners weren’t too thrilled to see a second edition of the original (and much less-expensive) game published just a year later with its own expansions and new content. And every so often there’s talk of a revised reprint of the Collector’s Edition, which would likely reduce the aftermarket value of the first edition by quite a lot.

I’ve never owned a copy, but I’ve seen a couple of them in the flesh (or wood, as the case may be) and it is deluxe in every sense of the word. A friend showed off his copy at one of our game events and I thought that it was actually worth $400. But by the time I was considering a purchase, I was already too late. U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games sold through the first printing of 400 almost overnight with a second wave of 400 selling out almost as quickly. A total of 1,500 English copies were produced, with another 500 German language editions.

Pre-ordering the game was a must. On the left is part of a preorder form that was available at the German game fair Essen Spiel in 2009.

A sort of preorder confirmation certificate that was sent to those that plunked down their $400 in time.

The game almost immediately started escalating in value due to a number of factors, chiefly being that War of the Ring is such a well-regarded game and that it is a really, really nice edition of it that both game players and Tolkien fans were apparently willing to pay a premium for. It’s actually pretty rare to see these kinds of premium editions of games in the hobby, which makes this a very attractive centerpiece for collectors.

Surprisingly, a lot of owners actually do play with the sets, although there are of course still mint and sealed copies available at the higher end of the value scale. As for me, I’m holding out for a one-in-a-million shot at a thrift store or garage sale find.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.


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