Friday, September 10, 2021

The Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game: A Long Expected Purchase

While I played what was then the Lord of the Rings game back in the early 2000s when the movies were coming out, it's been at least 16 years since I've taken a serious look at the game. Now my will has finally broken and I've decided to take the plunge yet again into Middle-Earth.

(Play the Lord of the Rings theme music)

Hopefully you took the musical cue above to give the transition from the intro of the article into the main body the appropriate gravitas it deserves. Like I said at the start, I played the game back in the early 2000s when the movies were first coming out, because let's be honest, who wasn't at the time? I remember liking it quite a bit, but also feeling like it was overshadowing 40k and Fantasy releases at times. This was probably partly due to me just being younger and wanting what I wanted, but I do believe there were honestly times where Lord of the Rings release kind of took over for months at a time. You have to remember, this was a different time when releases were much slower and you maybe got three army books or codexes a year. I got a lot of the boxed sets that came out alongside the Fellowship movie, and by the time Two Towers came out I was collecting a full Uruk-hai force.

A veteran of my last warband from 15+ years ago

The last time I remember playing the game would have been in 2005 when I worked at my local Games Workshop. All of the Michigan stores had an employee league using the skirmish warband rules for Lord of the Rings that had just come out. Whenever we would meet up for inter-store meetings we would play and of course just amongst each other at our own store. After that I went to college and I've just stuck to 40k and Fantasy/AoS since then.

When the game relaunched as the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game a few years ago I was intrigued again. It seemed like they had streamlined a few things, it was all glossy and new, and the new models coming out from GW and Forge World looked fantastic. I kept telling myself I would just buy one of the new models to paint, but never found the time. Back at the start of this year they did a Made to Order run on the Ambush at Amon Hen set, which had been one of my favorites back in the day. I promptly ordered it and set it aside when it arrived.

Well, recently I decided to glue it together. Then I decided it was time for a re-watch of the extended edition movies from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Well, one thing led to another and after pressing a few keys on my computer a shiny new Core Rules Book for the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game arrived at my doorstep. Looks like I was going on an adventure.

The New Rules

After I cracked open the book and started reading it it felt like riding an old familiar bike again. It all started coming back to me. Even though it had been well over a decade since I had played the game, enough of the rules were still the same or similar enough that it just felt intuitive to me. I have long heard proponents of the game says it's Games Workshop's best ruleset, and considering how little of the fundamentals have changed over the years I think they may be right.

Reading through the rules it all feels very logical, fun, fast paced, and easy to pick up. The armies are much smaller than in 40k or AoS (which is a bit of a selling point, especially when it's not your main game), and you don't have units, instead each model moves individually. You roll to see who goes first each turn, just like in AoS. The main difference though is that in the move phase the winner of the roll goes first, then the opponent, before moving onto the shooting phase, where you do the same thing. So it's not exactly alternating activations, since you move all of your models before them, but it's closer to it.

Nothing really feels too complicated either. There are different tests for Climbing, Jumping, etc, but they all follow a similar pattern. Roll a D6 and on a 1 you fail, on a 2-5 you succeed but can't do anything else that phase, and on a 6 you succeed and can keep moving. To shoot you just look at the characteristic on your model and roll equal to or above, but then you also need to do In The Way tests. These are again, fairly straight forward. A 1-3 you hit the thing in the way, on a 4-6 you hit your target. Then to wound is a handy old chart that veteran players will be familiar with. 

The fight phase has models paired off into combats, though you can gang up on models if you want to. What's really interesting, is that instead of rolling to hit you have a duel roll. Both players roll a number of dice equal to their attacks characteristic, and who ever rolls highest wins. If both players roll a 6 then it's a tie and you compare Fight values to see who wins, which is another characteristic on your profile. Once you've won a duel the opponent is pushed back and you roll to wound, comparing strength versus defense. There are no save rolls (for the most part, some models kind of have one as a special rule), but it's generally a bit harder to actually hit and wound a model than in 40k or AoS. Heroes also have something called Fate points, which they can spend to try and ignore a wound.

Heroes are actually a huge part of this, which makes sense for Middle Earth. The stories are all about heroes. Each hero, where they are a lowly orc captain or Aragorn himself, will have a number of Might, Will, and Fate points. Will is used to cast and ignore spells. Fate, as mentioned above is used to ignore wounds and give your heroes a better chance of surviving. Might is probably the biggest of the three though. At its simplest, you can use it to modify certain dice rolls, such as a duel, wound, or even Fate roll. You can also use it to call heroic actions, which let your hero move out of sequence, let models around your hero move out of sequence, or perform other suitably heroic actions.

Heroes are also how your army will be organized. Instead of having an overall army like in 40k or AoS, you instead have a collection of individual warbands each led by a hero. Each hero has a heroic level assigned to them, such as Hero of Valor or Minor Hero. This informs how many other warriors you can take in their warband. When you set up your models in a scenario you do it a warband at a time, and in the scenarios I looked at all of the members of a warband had to be set up within 6" of its hero. There doesn't seem to be any limit on the number of warbands you can take in your force, so depending on the points limit of the game you're playing you may have one large warband led by an important hero, or several smaller warbands all led by minor heroes.

There are much better overviews of the rules than this out there, but I was pretty impressed with them. They were easy to read and understand, with plenty of examples. It originally felt more complex than AoS, but in the end I'd say it's about the same, just different. The one thing that stood out to me at the start is all of the universal special rules and spells that are all in this main book. I'm sure you'll memorize the ones you use the most pretty quickly, but I always like how self contained warscrolls in AoS were, though with AoS3 it seems to be trending back towards universal rules a bit more.

All of the rules for the models and factions are in a separate book, either the Armies of the Lord of the Rings or the Armies of the Hobbit depending on which faction it is. Beyond just including the profiles and points for everything there are also some narrative scenarios as well as special army bonuses you get if your army is all from one faction. So, if all of my warbands are from Isengard then I get a few army wide bonuses. This is a nice way of encouraging themed collections without requiring it. They have since started releasing Legendary Legions in the supplement books such as Gondor at War, that reward you even more for taking forces that reflect pivotal scenes from the books and movies.

One of the things that drew me back to this game, besides my love for Middle Earth, is how welcoming and friendly the online community seems. From the interactions I've had with fans of the game online it genuinely seems like one of the best communities out there. There's also a big nostalgia factor for me with the models, since a lot of them are still the same sculpts that were released 20 years ago. The new models they have coming out are fantastic and definitely the best of the Middle Earth sculpts, but the old ones hold up surprisingly well and there's just something so satisfying about painting a model I last had when I was 12. Though, having painted a few again recently I can definitely say I do not miss working with metal models. Plastic is much, much easier.

I'm pretty excited to build up an Isengard force and also get some of the Fellowship painted. From what I can tell there doesn't seem to be as much of a "standard" points size for games. I've seen anything from 500 points to 800 points as a benchmark for Matched Play. Obviously, the more points you're using the longer the game will take. Beyond just Matched Play I'm interested to see if I can play any of the narrative scenarios. That new Amon Hen scenery coming out soon looks awesome and coincides with my Ambush at Amon Hen set I bought perfectly. I'm trying to temper my excitement a bit so I don't go out and buy everything at once. I really enjoyed the slow grow I did with my Necron force and I'm hoping to do something similar here. For now I have the contents of the Amon Hen set plus some older metal models I still have from back in the day to work through. Though I may pick up one of the Uruk-hai command sets soon...

What are your thoughts on the Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game? Do you currently play it? Did you play it back when the movies were coming out? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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