In order for Frodo to have a chance of reaching the Crack of Doom he must be looked after and taken care of by those representative of the Free Peoples of the West who have chosen to accompany him on his perilous journey across Middle Earth. These heroes have many useful abilities, some that work when they are in the Fellowship and some that only work once they have been separated. In the following article I will take a closer look at the different Companions and try to discern their best uses in the effort to rid Middle Earth of the Dark Lord Sauron once and for all. After I have looked at the individual Companions I will try to give some good pointers as to how to manage your Fellowship as a unit.
Let us begin with the Guide of the Fellowship (at least he starts the game as it):
Gandalf the Grey.
Gandalf the Grey has the very potent power of letting you draw a new Character Event card if you play one with a Will of the West Action die or an Event die (the Palantir). This power should be used to its maximum in the beginning of the game to get a head start on the Shadow when it comes to the Event cards that allow you to put the special Hunt tile into play. Gandalf the Grey's other ability as a "Captain of the West" can be useful outside the Fellowship as it allows an army led by Gandalf to roll an extra attack die when in combat (up to the maximum of five dice). He also has the power to activate any Free Peoples nation and this can come in handy sometimes. Gandalf the Grey's best use however, is his ability to protect Frodo from a Hunt damage of up to three, and as the Guide he can be sacrificed to do this and still be brought back to life as his more potent incarnation, Gandalf the White, with a Will of the West Action die result.
Gandalf the White
Gandalf the White is your best Companion and even if he has lost his "Captain of the West" ability he now has the ability to negate all Nazgûl Leadership by forfeiting his own point of Leadership whenever he is in a combat with Nazgûl. This doesn't only negate the Leadership of those pesky flying wraiths; it also makes several of the Shadow's combat effects (e.g. Dread and Despair, They are Terrible and Foul Stench) unusable. Your opponent will most definitely try to stay away from Gandalf the White with his Nazgûl and the Witch-King.
Gandalf the White's other ability is actually his horse; with Shadowfax, Gandalf and a hobbit can move four Regions on the game board, making it possible to reach most hot spots fairly quickly. If you resurrect him in Lorien (or manage to get him there in another way) he can reach Carrock, the Fords of Isen, Helm's Deep, Edoras, Fangorn, Osgiliath and Minas Tirith in one move, but if you put him in Dimrill Dale he can in addition to those Regions listed above also reach the Woodland Realm and Dale. Remember that the Shadow cannot kill him if he is on his own, so placing Gandalf alone in a Region is sometimes the wise thing to do in order to avoid getting him killed with an army.
With Gandalf the White in play you also enable the Ents to come into play through the use of the three E(ve)nt cards (Treebeard, Entmoot and Huorns). For you to play these, Gandalf the White must be in any Rohan Region or in Fangorn forest; if he or any other Companion is in Fangorn, you can play them all in one action. Placing Gandalf the White in Fangorn will make the Shadow player uneasy and force him to garrison Orthanc in case of an Ent attack. From Fangorn Gandalf the White can reach Lorien, the Fords of Isen, Helm's Deep, Edoras, Osgiliath, Pelargir and Minas Tirith in one move, so if you need him somewhere fast that is still a possibility even if you have put him on Ent-rousing duty.
All these powers are very good but we have yet to look at Gandalf the White's greatest power, the fact that with him you get an additional Action die. With the extra die you get one more action per turn, and I cannot emphasize enough how important this is, since you need all the actions you can get in order to keep even steps with the Shadow. Just remember that you will lose the action die if the Shadow manages to kill Gandalf the White.
Strider is your second best Guide as he can hide a revealed Fellowship with any Action die, saving those precious Character dice for moving the Fellowship or your Companions on the map. If you end a turn with the Fellowship revealed it might be a good idea to replace Gandalf as Guide with Strider in the Fellowship phase to ensure that you can hide the Fellowship immediately at the start of the Action Resolution phase. This can save you from some of those nasty Event cards the Shadow can play on a revealed Fellowship.
Strider, like Gandalf the Grey, reduces a Hunt tile with three, but if Strider dies he is gone for good so this is generally not a good idea. Outside the Fellowship Strider can be used to strengthen any Free People army, both with his Leadership and with his "Captain of the West" ability. He can also be used to activate the North nation. These abilities can be useful in the right circumstance, but to put Strider to his best use I would suggest that you keep him as the Guide (once Gandalf the Grey is gone) and then when the Fellowship has moved far enough south, separate him and send him towards Gondor, or Rohan if you have the "Dead Men of Dunharrow" card.
Once Strider reaches Minas Tirith, Pelargir or Dol Amroth you can crown him as the heir to Isildur with a Will of the West action die. As Aragorn he retains his "Captain of the West" ability, his Leadership rises from one to two and the Leader re-rolls are very important, especially when defending in a siege. Remember that as soon as Strider becomes Aragorn he gains the ability to activate Gondor (and any other Free People's nation), so if Strider reaches an inactive Gondor he automatically activates them as he is turned into Aragorn, heir to Isildur. Just remember that in order to crown Strider you must reach the Gondor City or Strongholds before they fall to the Shadow.
As with Gandalf the White, Aragorn's greatest power is the extra Action die he provides. Just make sure he isn't killed.
Boromir's use in the Fellowship is limited to reducing Hunt damage by sacrificing himself or by using the Character Event card "Horn of Gondor." Outside of the Fellowship Boromir has a Leadership of one and can strengthen a Free People's army with his "Captain of the West" ability. I suggest that you use Boromir as protection for Frodo and if he is alive once you reach Gondor you can use him to activate Gondor if they are not already active (something that is highly unlikely at the stage in the game, when the Fellowship has gone so far south), or if you have the card "House of the Stewards" you might want to put him and the card to good use by reinforcing a Gondor army.
Gimli, son of Gloin, is somewhat more useful than Boromir; they have the same Leadership, the same "Captain of the West" ability and can reduce Corruption equally well. However, the protection card associated with Gimli, "Axe and Bow," is also associated with Legolas, which makes it more reliable. And Gimli can activate the Dwarven nation, which is easier to reach early in the game, especially if the Fellowship is taking the route through the Goblin Gate. Gimli is more often separated than Boromir.
Of the three level two Companions, Legolas is probably the least useful outside of the Fellowship. His nation, the Elves, is already active at the start of the game and his ability to use any action die to advance them in the political track is of marginal use, just as are Gimli's and Boromir's abilities to advance the Dwarves and Gondor respectively with any action die. Together with Gimli he can maintain the protection card "Axe and Bow" and put it to good use when protecting Frodo. Because of all this, I recommend that Legolas is chosen as the Guide, who can be sacrificed to protect Frodo, after Gandalf and Strider have left the Fellowship unless "Axe and Bow" is in play and Gimli already has parted.
Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took
Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took, with their level of one, have the Guide ability to separate to reduce Hunt damage with one instead of being sacrificed. Together they can both be separated to reduce the Hunt damage by two without any of them dying (unless in Mordor, where all Companions who separate become casualties). Outside The Fellowship they both can act as Leaders for the armies of the Free Peoples and have the very good Combat Effect "Blade of Westernesse" connected to them.
When all other Companions have left or died, Gollum shows himself and takes over the role as Guide of the Fellowship. His abilities to disregard any reveal icons unless they are on the Shadow's special tiles or the "Eye" tiles is very useful indeed, since those Character dice needed to move Frodo and Sam are very valuable. His other ability is just as good: being able to reduce Hunt damage by one by revealing the Fellowship when the tile did not can literally win you the game in the end.
To successfully manage your Fellowship you must assign different tasks to the different Companions: who are to act as shields for Frodo, and who are needed outside of the Fellowship to activate nations and to be promoted to more powerful characters?
Gandalf the Grey is best used to take a "two" or "three" Hunt damage by sacrificing himself early on, since he can then be brought back as Gandalf the White. This plan might not always work, since the Hunt tiles drawn might be "zeros" and "ones" and suddenly the Fellowship is halfway to Mordor before the opportunity to "heroically sacrifice" Gandalf arrives. Along with Gandalf, Strider is the only one of the Companions that you want to separate most of the time. Crowning him in Gondor to get that extra action die is definitely something you always should try to achieve. However, the situation where Pelargir, Dol Amroth and Gondor all have fallen to the Shadow can happen before Strider can reach these Settlements, and if that happens he is the best Guide available as the Fellowship approaches Mordor.
The rest of the Companions should be considered Corruption shields primarily and only if you have the right Event card or are in need of a nation becoming active should they separate from Frodo. The exception might be the hobbits; since they have the ability to activate any Free Peoples nation, one of them might be separated together with Strider if he is heading for an inactive Rohan. You must use your own wits when trying to discern if any of the Companions are better needed outside the Fellowship, but never ever separate anyone unless you have a proper plan for them.
Of course you might be forced to separate some Companions as the result of some Shadow Event card, like "The Breaking of the Fellowship," and then the separated Companion's role in the War of the Ring will change. Now you have the opportunity to move them to where you think they are most needed. Leaving them sitting in an empty Region is simply a waste of your precious resources.
There is a very different approach to the use of the Companions from the one I so far have been examining, and that is the strategy to separate all Companions and let Gollum take charge of the Fellowship quite early in the game to limit the number of Hunt dice the Shadow player can allocate to the Hunt Box. This tactic is known as the "Gollum Dash" or sometimes the "Fellowship Blitz." By limiting the Shadow player to one Hunt die (plus the ones he rolls during the Action roll) you can give your Fellowship the chance to move several times per turn without being revealed or damaged; Gollum's Guide ability can be extremely good outside of Mordor as the ratio of "normal" Hunt tiles is high in the Hunt pool. The drawback to this tactic is of course, that if the Fellowship is hit with Corruption there is no one to protect Frodo from it.
If you opt to try this strategy you must also have a plan for the separated Companions. You might want to separate them as early as in Rivendell, from where they can help the Elves and maybe even launch an attack against Moria and the northern Sauron Settlements. With the Companions in Rivendell, Legolas's ability allows for any Action die to advance the Elves on the Political track, and with some mustering in Rivendell the Elves will prove a nasty adversary since heavy Leadership and several Captains of the West boost them. Even if you separate the majority of the Companions in Rivendell you might want to keep Gandalf the Grey to take the first Corruption hit before trusting Gollum to pull Frodo through. Another possibility is to try the Gollum Dash from Lorien. By separating the Companions here you could launch an attack from the Golden Woods against either Moria or Dol Guldur.
All the Companions together with a few army units are a force to be reckoned with, but don't forget that taking one Shadow Stronghold will not accomplish anything if you cannot take another to claim a military victory. Perhaps the best strategy for the separated Companions is to spread to the different hot spots in an effort to slow down the Shadow's military campaign, as the Gollum Dash will inevitably trigger a Shadow Blitz, since the Shadow player will have so may Action dice to use on things other than the Hunt.