by Mark Nelson
There are essentially two approaches to designing a Diplomacy variant based on the works of Tolkien. The first approach is to design a traditional variant, basically purely a map variant. The second approach is to incorporate a body of rules which attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the books.
The first approach was the more popular one in the 1960’s and up into the mid 1970’s. In particular the Middle Earth series was a series of games set at varying time periods in which the nations of Middle Earth are simply represented as military powers, often including Angmar and Mordor as two separate powers.
The second approach began with Brian Libby’s Third Age (which has subsequently undergone three revisions) which dates from 1970/71. This included a ring piece, and tried to assign the different powers something of their historical strength. More importantly was Harley Patterson’s “Downfall” (first printed in 1973) which included a Gandalf piece and which was the first variant to try and recreate the events of the book.
The 1960’s belonged to two Tolkien series: “Middle Earth”, and “Mordor vs the Rest of the World”. The 1970’s was dominated by “Third Age”. The 1980’s have seen the rise of “Downfall”. Over 50 games of almost twelve different versions have been started. “Downfall” today offers the best Tolkien game for someone who wants to play a game involving Gandalf, the Fellowship, Aragon and the Ring. However for the variant which follows I have returned to the 1960’s for a militaristic approach to an earlier period of Middle Earth’s history. Middle Earth IX & X are set toward the end of the Northern Kingdoms.
Middle Earth I was one of the first diplomacy variants to be published appearing in 1965. Tolkien variants were very popular in the 1960’s and not only were there few variants around but most of the players in those days were Science Fiction fans who liked writing reams of press. Setting a game against Tolkiens own offered many new press possibilities and so many games were started. Additionally the mid 60’s saw the first wave of Tolkien fandom spreading across the States and many of these fans were interested in playing games set in Middle Earth.
The vast majority of Tolkien variants concentrate on providing simulation of events at the end of the Third Age. These games run into problems in playability in the sense that it isn’t possible to produce a balanced game. Because of Mordor’s strength the majority of the remaining players have to unite against him if they wish to survive. A number of powers have no real hope of winning – hardly a desired state of affairs in a diplomacy game. This is tolerated in Downfall/Third Age games because they have a charm of their own and if you’re willing to accept their limitations, they provide good games. Imagine what it would be like playing in a “realistic” First Age variant! After all, Sauron was a mere shadow compared to the might of Morgoth! The two First Age games that have been designed are unsatisfactory as one in unbalanced and one downgrades the power of Morgoth too much although perhaps producing a playable game).
This narrow balance between playability and realism was avoided in many of the early games because they were set away from the times when there was an all-powerful Dark Lord. By choosing a different historical period it was possible to set up a more playable game. Of course it does mean that press-writers can’t rewrite sagas based directly on The War of the Ring, but they have an equally good background to write on.
This was the main reasoning behind my design of Middle Earth IX and X. To produce a Tolkien variant that did not run into ‘playability’ vs ‘realism’ problems, a game which is, hopefully, interesting and worth playing for all the players in the game. The setting was relatively easy to find (for role players out there the ‘ICE’ Middle Earth book are great when it comes to finding details for new variants!).
There are a large number of possible variants still to be designed set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and I hope the more adventurous variant designers will devote their talents to these games rather than producing new Downfall games. As an example, it would be possible to design a game set around the KinStrive in Gondor when the ruling families fought for power.
Reprinted from Variant and Uncles Issue 22, July 1990