Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game – Rules Manual – Review

Due to painting hundreds of (2001 era) LOTR minis I bought years ago for literal cents, I felt it might be OK to splurge on an updated rulebook. At $98AUD it’s definitely a luxury purchase. I’d rate the original 2001 rules as some of the best and most clean and elegant GW has ever produced – along with the OOP spin offs Legends of the Old West (cowboys) and Legends of the High Seas (pirates). I always thought a d10 version of this could have been a better way forward for 40K. So how resistant have the original 2001 rules been to GW’s tendency to complication and meddling?

A: While there’s more special rules, it’s still pretty good. It’s the same core game.

LOTR would rival Blood Bowl and Battlefleet Gothic as my most played GW game. Here’s a shot from 10 years ago, where I discovered the underrated goblin ability to scale vertical surfaces….

The Shiny

The rulebook is very nice. Having just spent $35 on an incomplete pdf (cough Killwager cough) your $98 (or cheaper if you don’t pay the magical Australia penalty rates) buys you 200+ pages of some very nice production values in a glossy hardcover. There are lots of lovely photos of minis for reference and the rules are easy to read. Each gameplay phase has its own chapter. There’s an index, but no quick reference (you need to pay GW $55 for that) and the army stats are in separate books – for Armies of LOTR or Armies of the Hobbit. Not codexes at least – the books have all the relevant armies from each film, but it was an extra $98 I was unwilling to pay. Given I also liked Battle Companies (LOTR’s Necromunda/Mordhiem equivalent) – yep an extra $84 – and the 3 necessary rulebooks alone could have cost me $280AUD (aka $200 freedumbucks). Which would be fking ridiculous.  While the book itself is great, and is probably a fair price if you don’t live in Australia, the overall ‘buy in’ is crazy. No wonder people pirate pdfs off the net. I’m not saying you can get everything ever printed by GW about LOTR if you google in the right places *cough cough* and of course it is wrong…  …almost as wrong as charging people $200+ for the rules to your game which many competitors do for free)

Overhead

Besides the insane rulebook+army book buy in ($200-280AUD) the rest is pretty reasonable. While the minis are smaller and less impressive (I personally prefer the more realistic, less potato-faced proportions) they are cheaper than 40K – you usually get twice as many models for the cost.  And the rules scale brilliantly – it handles 5 v 5 or 50 v 50 with equal aplomb. You could get started with a single unit box. Mentally, it’s dead easy to learn – (it’s similar to 40K yet simpler and has more naunce) and you’d rarely need to refer to the rulebook except ME:SBG has way more ‘special rules’ than the 2001 LOTR:SBG version. A tape with inches and a d6 and you’re set.

Model stats are “Move, Fight, Shoot, Strength, Defence, Attacks, Wounds, Courage – all self explanatory. Heroes additionally have a finite amount of 1-3 Might, Will and Fate they can use to influence dice rolls, cheat death, perform magic, interrupt the initiative etc.

Basically, if you can cope with the initial rulebook sticker shock, the minis and armies are (relative to GW) cheap, easy to paint and the core game itself is easy to grasp.

I’ve continued to sporadically paint and play LOTR over the years – the sole GW game that has held my interest over time.. The red-headed stepchild of GW, LOTR has never been well appreciated…

Initiative, Activation & Movement

LOTR:SBG moved away from IGOUGO back in 2001 (back in 40K – 5th ed?) and broke up the turns into phases, which makes the game flow more. Sides roll d6 each, winner chooses who has “Priority.” Roughly, it is P1 move, P2 move, P1 shoot, P2 shoot, P1 choose melee sequence. Sometimes not having priority is good (it means you can react to their move) and your heroes (and nearby troops) can act out of sequence; giving them actual command/control rather than just being tanks/dps monsters.

Models have a 1″ AoE ‘control zone’ which enemies cannot move through, allowing you to make formations and shieldwalls and making the fight sequence (who fights who first) and ‘pushback’ melee results very relevant.

There are rules for climbing, defending obstacles, crawling, climbing, jumping etc and all tend to consistently use a simple method – roll d6, 1=great, 2-5=average, 6=disaster.

Combat

Shooting is just rolling a number or higher on a d6. Targets can roll a cover save if appropriate. Then you need to consult the ’to wound’ chart. I’m not a fan of having to consult a chart for something so often used in the game, but you’ll probably quickly memorize the most common combinations. 

Fight (melee) is just rolling a dice for each Attack. The Fight stat itself is just relevant for winning ties. I’ve never liked this method as I always feel more Attacks >>> Fight skill. It’s quick to resolve, though.

The loser backs away 1″ (which opens up gaps in formations due to the ‘control zone’ rule) then the winner rolls for wounds according to the same damage chart as Shooting. Models trapped by terrain or friendlies who cannot move aside, must roll for double wounds. 

Courage is tested when armies lose 50% – annoyingly this is every model in your force, for the remainder of the game – or when faced with a Terror-inducing opponent. Heroes not in melee can automatically rally nearby friendlies if they pass their Courage roll.

 Heroes, Monsters & Wargear

Heroes are done better here than in many other games.  They have a finite supply (1-3) of Might, Will and Fate. Once used they are gone. 

Might – the most interesting – allows you to modify dice rolls by +1 or perform Heroic Actions (basically moving and shooting/fighting out of sequence with yourself or nearby allies). A new addition is specialized heroic actions for particular heroes – such as double movement, shooting re-rolls, ‘overboost’ spells, and huge fight and defence boosts. These special rules are new to MESBG and while they add flavour and character they are something else to remember. Will is for casting spells and resisting magic. Fate allows you an extra ‘save’ throw to block a wound. So someone like Boromir might logically have lots of Might, probably no Will and and not much Fate.

I often borrow elements of this idea for my games, as it has simple resource management, and allows heroes to actually ‘command’ by acting out of sequence with nearby friendlies, making organic ‘squads’ happen naturally rather than being constrained by artificial “stay within 3″ cohesion of each other.”

Monsters also have some cinematic power attacks allowing them to hurl, barge or rend. These can be used to break through formations, rip apart well armoured foes, and fling enemies into foes or obstacles, or off a cliff. 

Weapons have simple, subtle rules that differentiate them. Spears allow the second rank to add +1 attack to the frontline. Elven weapons are more likely to win tied Fight rolls. Two-handed weapons are unwieldy to fight with but do more damage.  The weapons may also (circa 2018) do special strikes like feint+stab, piercing strike, stun and whirl which have unique benefits. 

The LOTR rules served as the base of many other games – here’s French and Indian wars scouts fighting dinosaurs which were easily adapted from the core rules with surprisingly few tweaks…

Magic & Special Rules

Magic can be cast in the movement phase. The magician sgets 1d6 each Will spent and if it passes the spell’s casting value the spell succeeds. Targets can use Will to resist the sorcery – if they pass the casting value they negate the spell. There are some 36 spells, which is probably reasonable ME:SBG is a collection of all prior rules. There are also 37 special rules for both characters (swift movement, terror, expert shot, stalk unseen) and gear (poisoned weapons, blades of dead, bane) which again is pretty restrained. 

There are also advanced rules for shallow/deep water, carrying objects, swimming, passengers on mounts, sentries etc – which are useful for specific scenarios. There are also rules for sieges and siege weapons for recreating particular battles.

There are rules for competitive play. I always appreciate a points system – while inevitably flawed, they are a good rule of thumb to balance forces even in fun games with kids. Different heroes allow more rank-and-file to be brought; Aragon allows 18 troops to be brought, but a minor hero might only allow 6. There are 12 scenarios which is a bit above average.

The remaining 100 pages of the book are army photos (aka wargaming pr0n) of all the Hobbit and LOTR armies which is a useful reference – but I’d rather they included the stats and didn’t charge me $98 for an extra book! There are also 4 example armies showing their points value and explaining the thought process behind it.

TL:DR 

A very well laid out book on it’s own, but when you need 1-2 extra books the price quickly becomes excessive. The rules are familiar and straightforward, and although quite a few special rules (especially around heroes) have been added it retains the ‘clean’ core of 2001. It’s one of the rare few games that scales from 5v5 to 50v50, and you can start with relatively few models which are also cheaper than GW’s main lines.

While initiative/activation is simple it’s still broken up into 4-5 phases, allowing tactical interplay and reaction beyond IGOUGO. I like how heroes actually can form organic squads without restrictive cohesion rules. This is rare. Might/Will/Fate add a simple layer of resource management and also allows heroes to ‘lead’ aka meddle with the initiative sequence – they aren’t just ‘dps’ or ’tanks.’

ME:SBG does unfortunately use quite a few different resolution mechanics, and the extra rules creep plus the damage chart means it isn’t quite the rulebook-free experience it could be. Nonetheless, I contend it’s still one of the best rulesets GW ever produced. It’s also been remarkably resilient to meddling – except for extra bolt on fluff, 20 years later it’s still pretty much the same as it was in 2001 – a testament to it’s original design. While I remember Mordhiem and Blood Bowl with nostalgia, they are really dated and clunky.  LOTR has really held up well over time. If only the rulebooks were cheaper.

You can use LOTR  for War of the Roses with pretty much 0 adaption. 
 Other folk have already done some work such as the Age of the Trebuchet adapotion.

Recommended: If you’ve got the coin, yeah. If you like LOTR, absolutely. Apart from the rulebooks themselves(!), building an army is relatively cheap – for GW.  Even if you don’t like fantasy – I often use it as a reference, and it adapts well for historical battles – you could play ancients/dark ages/medieval skirmishes with almost 0 adjustment*, and GW even published cowboy and pirate versions

If you just want the core rules and don’t need the latest and greatest: an Ebay copy of the old rules – maybe the old small softcover blue book which even has the unit profiles? – would be 1/4 of the price. It would certainly be an easy way to introduce a player into historical gaming.

*I remember a fanmade viking game called Age of Blood v2 which I’m actually looking for (freewargaming link is broken) to play with my kids who have found and appropriated some of my PSC/Gripping Beast minis…

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