The work of J.R.R. Tolkien managed to produce one of my three favorite strategy games of all-time—1988’s War in Middle Earth (the other two are Fantasy Empires (1993) and Sword of the Samurai (1989)). I burned many, many hours playing this game as a kid. It is extraordinarily faithful to the books, but it is also a very fun (if far from difficult) game to play and compulsively replayable.
The game starts off just as the books do. Frodo is attempting to reach Rivendell. The Nazgûl are blanketing the Shire. The game actually auto-navigates for you at this point, often with deadly results as the Nazgûl catch you. I quickly learned it was smarter to control your own movements and to use the overhead view.
Once you get to Rivendell the auto-navigation turns off, something that confounded me for a bit the first time I played the game. The goal is the same as in the books: get the Ring to Mount Doom while defending Rohan and Gondor from attack from Isengard and Mordor. The game actually expands beyond the events of the books’ narrative. You can also control forces based in Lorien and the Lonely Mountain region (who will face attacks from Dol Guldur and the Easterlings).
As in the books, defending Rohan and Gondor is all about marshalling your forces as quickly as possible. Sending Gandalf to Fangorn Forest will unlock the Ents. You can’t control them, but they will make short work of Isengard for you. You can recover a sceptre from old Arnor to more quickly marshal the forced of Gondor. There is also a Red Arrow for Rohan, the Ring of Thrór for the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, and an (The Red Arrow makes it into the Rankin & Bass adaptation of The Return of the King but does not appear in Peter Jackson’s adaptation.) You find out about the sceptre and other useful artifacts by talking to folk you randomly encounter as you travel (including Radagast).
(That pic is the horizontal view, by the way, which is only useful for interacting with folk and laughing at the funny art. You can use it for combat, but frankly it works just as well from the overhead view.)
Just as my favorite part of Lord of the Rings was the battles, my favorite part of War in Middle Earth was, well, the war. (The war is also probably unnecessary. As I recall, the orcs stationed on Mount Doom move off at a set time.) The key is mobilizing the Rohirrim and Gondor’s forces as quickly as possible (the other forces aren’t really close enough to help). The actual battle mechanism is pretty lame. You just pick which character of set of forces you want to charge, engage, withdraw, or retreat. You even lose the horizontal view for the big battles. The battles are at least quick. The biggest tactical decision is who to sacrifice (at least one character must stay and not retreat) if you find yourself overmatched. (Run into a random Balrog while trying to sneak into Mordor with Boromir, Frodo, and Sam? Sorry, Sam.)
Forces are represented on the overhead view by shields. I loved the shields. The forces of Isengard use a Red Hand, Mordor the Eye of Sauron. Ents and elves use a green leaf, Rohan uses a horse on green, Gondor a tree on blue. You can certainly win in the normal way (and, yes, Gollum does make an appearance), but sometimes the Ring gets, for lack of a better word, lost. If that happens the only way to win is total war—sack Barad-dûr.
I love the writing. Bloods “flows on the stones,” allies are “cut down in a frenzied attack” or “stagger back from an insidious blow.” There are tons of nice touches like using Normal, Hasty, and Very Hasty for how quickly time passes.
One of the best touches is that the game quotes the paragraph below after you win.
Like I said, War in Middle Earth wasn’t a hard game once you figured things certain things out like where to go to avoid the Nazgûl on the way to Rivendell and how to most quickly mobilize Rohan and Gondor (and that, say, the Lonely Mountain was never going to be worth mobilizing). You could spend a lot of time playing around finding stuff from the books to “unlock” like the Ents. I didn’t know that Gollum was in the game for a long time because he only appears if you get near Moria, and going near Moria was a terrible idea. (If the ghosts that Aragorn enlists are in the game, by the way, I never figured out how to unlock them.) A lot of the replayability is in figuring these things out, and in the pure Lord of the Ringsessness of it. It doesn’t just get the details right, it feels right. The music is excellent too.
War in Middle Earth is available as abandonware. (In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t download it. I wrote this post entirely based on my memory. But I played this game A LOT.)
Does anyone else remember this game?
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.