I’ve played tons of games, but very few fully cooperative ones. They don’t seem to be the most popular style of board game – although I have no actual data to back that up; I’m just going off of personal experience (anecdata!). I used to be hesitant to play cooperative games, but Shadows Over Camelot won me over (even though it has a traitor mechanic, there’s no guarantee of a traitor, thus resulting in some completely cooperative play). However, I’ve also played the Lord of the Rings co-op game, and I didn’t much care for it (the source of my earlier misgivings about such games). So I wasn’t sure how to feel about Nazgûl, another LoTR themed cooperative game.
You get to be a Nazgûl. That’s pretty awesome. And you get to kill pointless hobbits and annoying vagabonds with delusions of grandeur. And the wife wanted to play, so there’s that. Also, you get to be a Nazgûl!
With that careful analysis in mind, I went out and picked up a copy of the game, and we played it that night, using the complete cooperative starter rules with an easy difficulty level, … and got it all wrong.
Rules: Therein lies the first problem I had with this game – the rules are extraordinarily poorly written, with unclear language throughout. How does the Hero Pool work? I don’t know. We weren’t even exactly sure what the rules meant when they referred to the Hero Pool at first. Does the phrase ‘Nazgûl forces’ also refer to the Ringwraiths themselves, or not? The rules are poorly organized, with few clear examples, and no glossary or FAQ or anything remotely resembling something helpful. The example battle is useful, however, and made me wonder why more such fine examples hadn’t been included.
This is a shame, really, because once you get a grasp on it (I think, I’m still not sure about some things) the game isn’t all that complicated, especially in the cooperative play mode. You use favor to buy armies, and then you go out and crush good. It’s a surprising amount of fun, albeit fun with little replay value. We played the game twice cooperatively, with one loss (first game) and one win. After the second play, I was pretty much ready to write the game off, but we hadn’t tried the full ruleset, or what we called “Fighting for Big Papa Sauron’s Love” (hereafter referred to as BPS).
Despite the pricetag on this game, I wasn’t all that interested in playing the BPS rules because to me, they seemed thematically suspect. The Nazgûl are instruments of Sauron’s will, nothing more, and no decent emotion is to be found in any of those withered hearts. I couldn’t even really buy the jockeying for position angle; the Witch King always seemed to be pretty much the favorite to me. But the wife really wanted to try, and the others seemed game, so I set it up again, and we played with the full ruleset on medium, and we won.
This game was more interesting in that it does highlight the tension between playing as a team (which you absolutely must do if you don’t want to lose) and those few crucial decision points where you have to let someone else do a little bit more for just a little bit less reward. There are also Power Cards in the deck that are basically pointless if you’re not playing for Sauron’s affections. We kept the backstabbing to an acceptable amount and finished with a win, bringing in the second major issue with the game.
My friend sitting to my left was never going to win. Too much bad luck, lousy cards, and a snowball effect that helps the leaders stay in the lead all contributed to keeping him firmly at the bottom rank. He’s the kind of guy who sees things through, so there was no worry that he’d throw the game or not contribute. After the final turn, however, he played a card that let him steal two points from another player, and correctly chose the player with the most points, thus throwing the game from that player (Mohr, ahahahaha) to me. There was no benefit for him; he came in dead last anyway. We didn’t really stop to count VPs before he played the card (and I’m not sure if VPs are supposed to be open knowledge…), so it wasn’t a spiteful or malicious move, just a move against the leading player. But it does bring up the specter of bad sportsmanship. If you’re going to lose, why play at all, especially when the game could really drag on for a while? How does one deal with such things at tournaments? It’s not something I worry too much about with my own group, but the worry (and negative incentives) are there. Because most of the points available are gained from whacking ‘heroes’, it’s quite possible to have a game sewn up pretty early in play, while simultaneously having no clue if the leader will actually win because the game has to be beaten completely before an individual champion can emerge. Because there’s no traitor mechanic, the board is always a foe to all players in addition to the internecine squabbling, and the board doesn’t fuck around with trying to kill you; it just plays a waiting game.
So, to sum up: time, each other, bad luck, and the Heroes deck are all stacked against you, which gives quite a different feel than in the novels or movies. We all know that the forces of good will triumph, but we want to know the cost, and for most of the narrative Team Sauron is doing decidedly better in the polling. I didn’t get that feeling while playing Nazgûl; rather than feeling like an immortal, undead monstrosity crushing the Free People’s Armies underneath my iron-shod heels, I felt like an abused Igor begging for scraps from the master’s table and resources to go kill the Dark Lord’s enemies; I felt like someone who should quit my thankless job and find something better.
Presentation: And there’s my problem with the game right there, I didn’t feel like a Nazgûl, not even a little bit. I didn’t like the mood of the game, and I didn’t think that squabbling, conniving Nazgûl are thematically correct, or all that fun to play. I wanted to feel like an undying extension of tyranny, crushing all in my path, and less like a general with not enough troops asked to fight superior forces with uncertain allies. Others at the table felt differently, but combining poorly written, hard to understand rules with less than exciting gameplay is, to me, not something that I can give much of a recommendation to. The production values of the game itself are quite lovely, with good cardstock and quality pieces, and all of the art is taken right from the movies (for what that’s worth, I liked it). The Clix miniatures used for the Ringwraiths are durable and attractive. All of these components deserve a better game.
Style: 2 out of 5 stars
Substance: 3 out of 5 stars
For a longer, more thorough review with an different take, go here.