Friday 7 July 2023

Middle Earth/Lord of the Rings SBG - Great Entry Point for New Wargamers/Kids?

 Anyone who reads my blog will notice a heavy ME:SBG influence in my painting and playing the last year or so. This is mostly due to painting and playing with my kids. I spent a while deliberating what games I would choose to introduce my kids to wargaming, and LotR was my choice*. Bear in mind I'm not a pro LoTR player and merely approach this from the point of view of someone who is introducing kids to wargames.

Here is why I think Lord of the Rings is an ideal entry point to a new wargamer:

Media Recognition, Strong Background & Lore. Given it's based on the #1 fantasy book of all time, and it's probably second only to Star Wars as a movie trilogy, there is instant recognition and interest. As a bonus, models in the game act like they do in the movie. I watched the movies with my 7-year-old and he would joke 'that orc beserker has at least 2 wounds' as he takes a few arrows in the movie. "I bet Legolas has a 2+ shoot score" as he snipes a Moria goblin or "Aragon must have lots of melee dice attacks" as he carves up half a dozen orcs in seconds as Amon Hen. "Gimli must have only a 4 or 5" move" as he pants chasing Uruk Hai. There is a very strong background and lore and the rules lean into this very well. The minis act like you'd expect.

There is also a wealth of material to work from for modelling and terrain. The later Hobbit/ME:SBG version has added excessive special rules (bad) but it was done to make it even more thematic and cinematic than the original (nice idea). While ME:SBG is GW's unloved redheaded stepchild and is inexplicably (to me at least!) much less popular 40K/AoS, you'd at least have a chance of finding others nearby who are interested in playing with you in Tolkien's world. While GW puts 1% of the effort into LoTR as it does to 40K/AoS, there is still a slow trickle of releases.

Simple, Clean, Familiar Core Mechanics. Easy to learn.  Easy to explain. Only real aid you need is a wound chart. And there are plenty of great free printable rule summaries online - you barely have to touch the rulebook.

Roll a dice to see who has priority (Side A). Side A moves, Side B moves, Side A shoots, Side B shoots. Most move 6" unless you are short.  Shooting? Roll a 4+ to hit, 3+ if a good shot or 5+ if a bad shot. For melee roll a dice each (duel). Best Fight stat wins ties. Loser is pushed back 1". Once hit look at the wound chart Strength vs Defence (usually 4+ or 5+ to wound). Any unusual situations roll d6 - '1' bad, 2-5 normal, '6' good. Heroes have Might/Will/Fate which add extra re-rolls/moves/interrupts, magic or wound rolls respectively.

Boom. You now pretty much know all you need to start playing. My 7-year-old easily grasped them, and even could predict them i.e. "Dad, I want my archer to jump down off this ledge - so I roll a dice, and if it's a '1' I splat, '2-5' I land, '6' I can run off fine?" as most climb/jump/fall/dismount/special action rules followed a similar procedure.

The GW rules have been relatively unchanged for 20 years, testament to its design. The 2018 MESBG improves the game in some ways but generally adds unnecessary special rules and fluff. While I see it attempts to add cinematic flavour, I'm generally not a huge fan of new extra special attacks/monster attacks/heroic actions/special rules. The new 'Legendary Legions' - armies with bonuses - sail a bit close to the wind a la 40K 'meta.'  The game, like the movies, has aged well. I used to enjoy Mordhiem and Blood Bowl back in the day but they are jarringly clunky when I retried them.

In contrast, LoTR rules I did not originally like years ago have since grown on me.  The duel - "Roll a d6 each, best wins ties" seemed too 'rough' . The most attack dice had a bigger difference than the Fight stat. I originally house ruled this with variations of "d6/d10/d20+stat" but the original way is just so fast. Roll dice. Highest wins. Tie? You know without looking if a weedy goblin or noble high elf is going to win. Hero or monster? Get extra dice. It resolves combat in seconds with no mental effort - useful if you are using 40 or so troops. 

The movement order was also something I messed with but reverted (I tend to like elaborate activation mechanics) but the default breaks the turn up into 4 phases (move/move, shoot/shoot allowing a modicum of  'reaction' to foes) which is further interrupted by heroic actions (which can add extra phases). I haven't found anything that handles large amounts of individual minis so well with so little mental effort and no need to have tokens etc, yet retain a modicum of 'reaction' to enemies.

I've used LoTR for the French-Indian-Dinosaur War, merely noting muskets are 18" range, Str 4 and take must skip moving to reload. (I place a cotton wool ball next to them to show they have fired). Dinosaurs were 'statted' based on size vs various LotR beasts like cave trolls, giant spiders or mumaks.

Homebrew/Houserule Friendly. It's a good template for melee-centric games - GW's now-defunct historical arm did wild west, pirate and gladiator versions back in the day. While easy to adapt, it could be used for almost any medieval/dark age/ancient/early gunpowder skirmish with little or no change. You can 'stat up' models in your head - for example offhand I can tell you e.g. human defence 3. +1 if shield, +1/2 for light/heavy armour, +1 if especially tough or elite soldier - you don't even need the rules, it's so consistent. So making a viking version, a pirate version or 100 Years War version would be easy - if people hadn't done this already. With ME:SBG you are getting a toolbox to easily play most melee-centric eras. 

It's also the best and cleanest of the many '40K-a-like' rules - including Flames of War, Bolt Action - major historical games. So its mechanics and style makes it a 'gateway game' to worse other popular games. The familiar mechanics make it an ideal gateway game. If you are just interested in experimenting with the rules - then I suggest the A3 "Blue Book" of the original LoTR:SBG (2005ish) as the cleanest, has plenty of LoTR profiles built in and is about $10 secondhand. I have used LoTR variants for cowboys and pirates and am currently making warbands of samurai, vikings and English Civil War pike/shot.

Macro AND Micro Strategy.  Besides the overall strategy moving bands of troops there is kinda a mini-game in positioning/order melee of individual match-ups and pushbacks as well as managing heroic actions (you can move out of sequence/bonus move by spending the "might" resource of heroes). The models are all moved and fight individually like a small skirmish game yet can form larger formations such as double rows of pike/spears and it is sensible for form 'battle lines' with no artificial enforced unit coherency making models into hitpoints. Notable heroes/monsters have a resource of 1-3 each of 'might' 'will' and 'fate' - kinda corresponding to stamina/power, magic and health bar in a RPG. They can 'spend' this to boost dice and more interestingly, interrupt the move/fight order or lead groups of allies in range.

(Relatively) Cheap entry - a A3 softcover 'blue book' from 2005ish is about $10 from ebay.  More pricey if you want official latest MESBG- two books are $90AUD each. It is, however much better than 40K's constant codex creep, and an army book pretty much gives you ALL armies from a movie. So you can move from collecting Gondor to Mordor without buying a new book.  

There is also strong support from 3D printed models which certainly 'fit' thematically with official models (and in most cases are far superior to the 20-year-old sculpts).

(Relatively) Cheap and plentiful minis. Unfortunately, many official GW sculpts are 20y/o and show their age, but secondhand stuff is relatively plentiful and cheap (especially if you aren't in Australia!)  

But you don't need official minis. You can use cheap plastic boxes from other manufacturers (Fireforge, Wargames Atlantic, Victrix, Warlord - and Perry Historical are original GW sculptors) where you will pay only a few dollars a mini max. Also there is a huge range of 3D prints which fit well with official sculpts and recasters as well. Tolkien's books were very 'Dark Age' so many historical minis work well. In addition, you don't need many to start - and the game itself caters well to small-sided games: 30-40 models seems a good spot for a normal force and Battle Companies maxes out at 15 minis.

Competitive, Scenario, Narrative Campaign. The game was designed for 3 levels of play. Can't speak for competitive, but seems more balanced that my average expectation of GW. I'd also suspect you are more likely to get LotR nerds with thematic 'cool' armies than sweaty meta try-hards. There are many and plentiful scenarios from books and movies and 'what ifs' - there are extra books full of battles and scenarios. As mentioned above, the minis tend to match their movie counterparts well - if you've seen the movies you probably have a rough idea how good the unit is. Finally, there is Battle Companies - LoTR Mordhiem which appears to be far from balanced but gives you rules and narrative campaign mechanics for a quasi-RPG where warbands of up to 15 minis 'level up' gain XP  skills and stats, get injured/die, swap gear etc.

Scales 10v10 or 50v50. The game is very impressive in how well it scales. You move each model individually (like skirmish games), but due to each model having a 1" control zone (blocks enemies) and a 1" pushback rule, you can (and usually should) create workable shieldwalls. The game makes you take a hero for every handful of mooks and heroes can buff/activate allies within 6" so you can organically form 'squads'  yet it avoids silly 2" forced coherency rules. So you can use the rules for 10v10 skirmishes or 50v50, or the 9 Fellowship heroes vs dozens of goblins. It kinda covers two levels of battle (squad, platoon+) that you'd normally need two different rulesets for. I'm sure from a competitive standpoint many models are over/undercosted, but having the points system is very handy for balancing random one-off battles.

So...'ve turned into a Games Workshop shill in your old age?

Far from it.  I think their prices are insane (I have a suspicion I would really like Titanicus but it's $240AUD for a box to try the game), and I dislike how the all-pervading presence of 40K actually stifles a lot of other more creative wargaming content especially those reliant on Youtube clicks. 90% of my LotR minis are secondhand, and I'm mostly switched to 3D resin prints and converted plastic Dark Age historicals in LotR going forward (Victrix vikings=Dunlendings, Perry Agincourt infantry=fiefdoms are my next buys). You'll never catch me at a GW tournament and I'm mostly playing 'what if' scenarios with my kids....   ...our next game is Deep Rock Galactic Moria where a scout party of dwarves have to explore post-Balrog Moria and maybe grab some loot before goblins swarm them.

But the official rules themselves are simple, familiar, and despite all minis acting individually can scale up to large battles: it hits a sweet spot of just enough depth and just enough simplicity. They've stood the test of time and have remained relatively consistent, clean and unchanged; aging well over 20 years. LoTR is Monicca Bellucci to 40K's Pamela Anderson. Not only does it have a very strong background and lore of its own (Tolkien's universe is arguably THE fantasy benchmark to the wider world) but you can use the rules as a toolbox for everything from gladiators to musketeers with very little adjustment (and most times someone has done the hard work already). While it shines best in scenarios and narrative battles, it's also got that GW aspect where finding opponents isn't impossible, and if a new player wanted to go 'competitive' and find tournaments you could.

*For those interested - some generic 'finalists' rulesets I tested with the kids were the Goalsystem method (varying amounts d6, count successes of 4+) and also the multiple dice of  Savage Worlds (TN of 4+, use different dice d4-d12 depending on stats) which I initially preferred for more consistent mechanics, but the very strong LotR lore, ability to handle large groups of 50 as well as small warbands, and ability to easily adapt to settings such as pirates, vikings, samurai and cowboys anyway meant ME:SBG won out...

But for me, Lord of the Rings is a great entry point to wargaming. Read the books, watch the movies and then roll the dice...


  1. GW SHILL! Click bait! Sell-out! /S

    Middle Earth was probably a better starting point then what I used. My kid and I started out with Gorkamorka! It doesn't get much more table heavy and random than that! Not a good starter game at all.

    As the little Grot got older, they tended to play whatever I put on the table. They weren't picky and helped playtest a lot of my games with me. However, the "Flick" series was popular with them and other family members of all ages. Now as a HS graduate they mostly are into RPGs.

    No matter the game, it is always fun to play with your spawn and bloodlines.

    1. My first entry points were
      (a) Star Fleet Battles (!)
      (b) Battletech (!)
      (c) WRG moderns
      (d) DBA
      (e) Some WW2 game sounds like Crossfire ("Rate of Fire" maybe?)

      The first three were NOT beginner friendly. I spent more time photocopying play aides/data sheets rather than playing. I was determined my spawn would have an easier entry!

      Played most of Blood Bowl and BFG from GW games as a kid;