Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game: The Best Game Games Workshop Ever Produced?

June 21, 2022 by brennon

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A while back as part of Cult Of Games XLBS, I talked about how the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game (previously known as The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit) is my warm and comforting "go-to" when it comes to painting and wargaming. After thinking more on this, I wanted to try and extoll the virtues of the game and why, for me, it's the best game Games Workshop ever produced.

MESBG - Best Games Workshop Game - Featured Image - COPY1

There are some great games in the Games Workshop back catalogue. A lot of folks would consider Mordheim or maybe even Warhammer Quest to be right up there. Maybe one of the many editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles or Warhammer 40,000 is where you plant your flag? The takeaway there here is that I am in no way discrediting anyone's favourites but simply writing a little bit of a love letter to a game that I love.

Humble Beginnings

First up, a bit of background. I absolutely love Middle-earth. I grew up with my Mum talking about The Hobbit and my Dad extolling how awesome The Lord Of The Rings was. I read my parent's copies of Tolkien's work over and over, almost to death, until they were finally returned and I got to get my hands on my own versions of the text.

Lord of the Rings BBC

I remember car journeys with my Dad's version of The Lord Of The Rings by the BBC playing out over the speakers and drawing me deeper still into Tolkien's world. It might have been recorded off the radio (continuity announcers included) but it was absolutely fantastic. I still have those tapes somewhere.

Then came the Peter Jackson movies. I still remember sitting in front of my Dad's Apple Macintosh and watching a very pixellated screensaver of one of the Ringwraiths watching over a foggy road in the depths of The Shire and being enraptured. Then came the films themselves and it was absolutely amazing seeing Tolkien's world brought to life in a different way. I even grit my teeth and sat through being terribly sick in order to go to the cinema to see The Two Towers!

fellowship of the ring boxed set

Being someone who had already played a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40,000, it then seemed apt that I would end up buying into the miniature wargame when it was announced by Games Workshop. My first boxed set was the old green The Fellowship Of The Ring boxed game featuring Warriors of Númenor, Elves and a band of Goblins. I'd played a few practise games at my local Games Workshop store and absolutely loved it. So, it was there for Christmas!

fellowship of the ring boxed set back

It was a slippery slope from there. More metal miniatures, new plastics, The Two Towers boxed set, a brief hiatus and then a return to The Hobbit with Escape From Goblin Town and then of course the game we have no, the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game. This game has been a constant in my hobby life since it first hit the tabletop.

Why did I start with this? Because whilst it's fun to see rules in action and hear about the mechanics of a game, it's also important to know how a game makes you feel. Games Workshop had given me another outlet for my love of Tolkien and it was one that married up perfectly with a hobby I already indulged in and with friends who loved it too.

The Rules

But, we can't get too far into things without talking rules. I still believe that the core rules by Rick Priestly and Alessio Cavatore plus many others on the design team are some of the best rules I've played with across pretty much any game.

Amon Hen Fellowship

The core of the game revolves around d6 (as you'd have guessed from Games Workshop). When in melee combat, the players roll dice equal to the attacks on a model's profile and very simply the highest score wins. If there is a tie, the model with the highest Fight value takes it. So, Aragorn might have rolled a five, the same as a marauding Orc, but Aragorn's still with a blade carries the day.

Shooting is similarly easy to learn. Most profiles have another number next to their Fight value. This is their Shoot. You simply roll that number and above and the shot hits its target. Again, simple. Damage is done using an old-fashioned matrix that matches the Strength of the individual or a weapon against the opponent's Defence and Wounds are suffered for each that gets through.

Most regular troops in the game have one Wound so they'll go down easily. Heroes and Villains however and some unnamed leaders will some or all of the following three statistics on their profiles. Might is used to alter die rolls and call actions like Heroic Combats and Moves. Will is used to cast Spells and resist the powers of your enemies. Fate is there to save Wounds from taking you out of action, a little bit like Armour Saves but with a limited pool rather than continuous.

Ringwraiths

The simple-to-learn mechanics and the added twist that comes with Might, Will and Fate meant that it was very easy to get your head around the flow of games of the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game. It was easy enough for newcomers to grasp whilst also being similar enough to the way Warhammer played for those converting over or joining from within your gaming group.

What made the mechanics all the more fun is that they were versatile enough to be used for small narrative clashes between a handful of troops and full-blown mass battles. War Of The Ring would eventually slot into that gap but I've seen people play the game using five models per side and having just as much fun with hundreds of miniatures, recreating epic moments like Helm's Deep or the siege of Minas Tirith.

I always found myself gravitating towards the smaller scale engagements and here, the game really shines for me. There are rules for climbing over obstacles, leaping gaps, ganging up on your foes and more. All of this made the game feel more like a roleplaying game than it did a wargame and that was perfect! I wanted to chart the course of The Fellowship or my band of plucky adventurers in the wilderlands of Middle-earth and the game certainly allowed me to do that.

Uruk Hai

Whilst all of the mechanics I mentioned above might feel like they'd slow things down, they really don't. As I mentioned, I've seen people play massive games using these rules and have just as much fun with all the intricacies! This is where I think the strengths of the system really show themselves. They work at different game sizes and never feel like they get in the way. There never seems to be any rules bloat for the sake of doing something gimmicky and even now, editions on, the core rules have remained pretty much the same.

There is depth and yet nuance to the rules for this game and even now, with the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game, it feels like the rules writers get it. The "Specialist Product Studio" has done a solid job of understanding why the game works and simply tweaked and fine-tuned something that works rather than breaking it for the sake of it. Jay Clare and the rest of that team really know their stuff.

Fun Or Meta? Why Not Both?

Whilst I'm not a tournament wargamer by any stretch of the imagination, one of the things that sold me on the return of the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game is that the team behind it seem to be creating projects because they want to, rather than because they have to (well, I'm sure there is a bit of both...).

boromir death

The supplements for the game since the relaunch around the Battle of Pelennor Fields box have always looked towards creating interesting places and times for your games to take place. We've had books covering the War In Rohan, Gondor At War, the Scouring Of The Shire (yes, the bit they left out of the movies!) and more recently the Defence Of The North and the Quest Of The Ringbearer. The Defence Of The North fills in gaps for those wanting to play out the battles between the Dwarves, Men and Elves against Sauron around the foot of Erebor whilst the Quest Of The Ringbearer tells the tale of Frodo (or your own Fantasy Fellowship!) from Bag End all the way to Mount Doom.

ardacon

Sure, a lot of miniatures that accompanied those books came through Forge World but both they and the books themselves have all felt like labours of love. They have been written in such a way that it feels like the design team is having fun and they cater for all types of wargamer. There is a LOT in there for the fluffy narrative players like me and also the tournament players thanks to Legendary Legions and such. As I say, it feels like the space Middle-earth occupies is one that is generally awesome.

The Miniatures

It would also be remiss of me to not talk about how awesome the Middle-earth miniatures range is. Primarily sculpted by the Perry twins back during the launch of the game system, the miniatures by the creative team captured the likenesses of the actors from the films exceptionally well. They even did an amazing job of bringing to life characters that we never saw in the films.

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The miniatures might show their age a little now compared to more modern design techniques but there is a character and a charm to them. Even the more up-to-date miniatures in the range, albeit with a few hits and miss now and again, capture that essence of Middle-earth that Jackson brought to the screen and they make for a really fun painting experience. You have the films to guide you of course but also a wealth of artists from across the decades who have offered up interpretations as to how you could "colour" these characters.

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The one downside is that the miniatures, whilst broadly being available, are occasionally out of print. There are some amazing miniatures in the range but more often than not, you'll need to hunt through eBay to find them or be lucky and see Games Workshop launch a Made To Order of a week. It's a real shame looking through some of the books and realising you just can't find some of these miniatures anymore!

As a plus though, most of the eBay sellers seem to be getting rid of their miniatures at a decent cost, especially if you can find the old metals! Oh, and be aware that some of the miniatures still on the Games Workshop store are made of Finecast!

The Community

The last thing I want to touch on is the community. The Warhammer community has grown and changed over the years and whilst it has become generally accepting and open in the past decade, there are still plenty of folks that give us hobbyists a bad name. By comparison, the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game community is one of the most awesome and friendly that I have ever been able to delve into.

sbg magazine

There are dozens of groups and pages out there dedicated to the game and I think what has brought these wargamers together is that they were effectively playing a dying game for ages. Games Workshop had pretty much left Middle-earth by the wayside and a hardcore team of passionate creators kept the game going. They run tournaments, kept up the discourse surrounding the games, created fan-created content, wrote magazines and much, much more.

stf wargaming

For some reason, this means that those who are interested in the game tend to be really, darn swell. Like Hobbits themselves (although not like the Sackville-Baggins)! You dive into one of the groups like the Great British Hobby League or watch videos from STF Wargaming, Top Table Gaming or Battlestreams In Middle-earth and you're welcomed warmly. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the little nooks and crannies where wonderful hobbyists have made a home.

So, Is It The Best?

I've wittered on for a while now and feel like butter spread over too much bread. Maybe it's time for a conclusion? The rules are great and have stood the test of time. They work at a small scale with a handful of miniatures per side all the way up to massive armies. There is nuance and depth to them that doesn't bloat the game and adds enough to satisfy narrative fluffy gamers and those who enjoy the thrill of the meta.

The miniatures are superb and many years on, still stand up against more modern techniques. Supplements have been released that feel like meaningful additions to the collected rules rather than simply being there to push a product. And, the future seems bright with more being worked on by Games Workshop and Forge World.

To cap it all off, the community is wonderful. It's full of amazing people having fun with a game that nearly sailed into the west! I'm sure there are a few Gollums out there but they've all slinked away into the shadows by now.

Oh, and I didn't even get to mention Battle Companies. Ah well, maybe another time. Anyway, maybe you're new and fancy trying something a little different from the Warhammer games?

What do you think; is it time for another adventure?

Images From HVM Workbench, Games Workshop & ArdaCon

"This game has been a constant in my hobby life since it first hit the tabletop..."

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"What made the mechanics all the more fun is that they were versatile..."

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