Wednesday, 2 July 2014

In Which I Say Nice Things About a Games Workshop Ruleset

..actually, it isn't as remarkable as you might think.  Blood Bowl, Epic and Battlefleet Gothic all have rule mechanics I admire. But they are all Specialist Games that got swept under the rug. We kinda expect GW to deep-six any interesting rules, rather like Fox cancels good TV shows, so they don't count.

Actually, it's (surprisingly) one of their current Big Three. Specifically, Lord of the Rings. The Strategy Battle Game, of course. Not the mass-battle War of the Ring they pushed on us to sell more miniatures. I'm talking old school LoTR, (not the "Hobbit" reboot as I consider paying $90+ for a rulebook...   ...well let's just say "more money than brains" doesn't even come close.)

My dwarf warband - normal dwarf warriors and Khazad guard upgrades for Battle Companies

"Clean" Rules
I remember reading somewhere one of the LoTR authors was proud of how "clean" LoTR:SBG had remained through dozens of sourcebooks and expansions and I have to say I agree.   In contrast to the convoluted bloat of, say, Warhammer Fantasy this is even more evident.  The stat line is descriptive, familiar and simple and "special rules" are kept to a minimum. So you won't be losing due to forgetting an obscure rules combo *cough* Warmachine *cough.*

Whilst you can min-max in any points-based wargame, LoTR has more a focus on playing the game rather than winning by building the "uber army" list like, say, 40K.  This suits me as I don't think pre-game decisions should be the ultimate factor in winning the game. I want the best general to win, not the best army builder/recruiting officer.  Whilst LoTR does have powerful units and heroes, and indeed gameplay revolves around them, there aren't really any "must have" inclusions that will singlehandedly steamroller the enemy force, and a hero can usually be reliably bought down by equivalent points worth of grunts, due to the limited nature of his heroic "might." 

Your in-game decisions tend to determine if you win or lose, rather than how you deployed your armies at the start. Rather than being decided in 4-6 turns like most GW games, LoTR games can often go to 20+ turns, giving more time for the battle to ebb and flow. 

The rule mechanics are simple - you can pick them up in the first few turns of a game - and thereafter you would almost never need to refer to a rulebook. 

Solid Mechanics
Whilst not boasting anything as revolutionary as Infinity's ARO system, the initiative system (side A moves, side B moves, side A shoots, side B shoots) is more adaptive and organic than usual IGOUGO fare. There are far more player reactions and decision points within a turn. In addition, spending Might Points allows you to activate units and act out of sequence, adding a layer of both gameplay and resource management, and making the game more fluid and less predictable.  It's a lot harder to cheesily halt a unit 1" out of enemy charge range. 

There are rules for all sorts of skirmish-game things like climbing, jumping and falling but they all use the same simple, consistent mechanic - roll a d6 and "1" = a bad result, "2-5" = is an expected result and "6" = is a great result.   In addition, different races move at different speeds - which does have an impact on the game.

With only a dozen spells, magic is simple and apart from the usual offensive spells ("transfix" an opponent in place, or blast them with missile-like sorcery) most revolve around buffs/debuffs such as raising the courage of allies and causing terror amongst foes, hampering missile fire or the like.  It's powerful, but not overpowering.

I like how the winners of a fight "push back" the loser which means losers who cannot retreat are more likely to die (realistic in that they are hemmed in by a crush of bodies and don't have room to fight) but this also can open gaps in enemy formations. The 1:1 modelling means you can form realistic formations like wedges, hollow squares, double/single lines - pretty much anything you can imagine.

My painting style emphasizes speed over elegance. But I never ever field unpainted miniatures, so I count myself amongst the righteous
Resource Management
My favourite part of the game is how heroes use of "Might," "Will" and "Fate". These stats have a finite supply, adding a layer of resource management and more "decision points" to the game.  Heroes ARE powerful, but they impact your game in more ways than simply being close-combat killing machines with huge stats.

Do you use your Might to re-roll dice and slaughter your foes in close combat? Or do you use it to move your allies into combat or fire off a volley of arrows before your opponent?  Do you use Will to cast spells or resist your enemies' magic?  Get bogged down in a fight for too long, and eventually your heroes' Fate will be depleted, leaving him more vulnerable to wounds.

Might is especially useful and I like using it to meddle with the initiative sequence and set up advantageous combats for my warband.  However spending my Might thus leaves me vulnerable to 1v1 combat with an enemy hero who has conserved his Might for his own combats.  Heroes are powerful and can have game-changing effects, but they get tired as the game goes on and their stats are drained.  

 The OOP Khazad Guard ($5ea!) I bought drove the price of my Battle Company up to $30 - most of my other forces cost $10 to $15. That's a very low entry point for a GW product. 

Campaign Games: Mordhiem/Necromunda Fan? Meet Battle Companies Redux
Found in White Dwarf #311 and #312 (and also free online here) this is a LoTR skirmish campaign with ~12 models a side.  You can recruit new soldiers, level up your heroes, and buy equipment. Think Mordhiem with better gameplay, less cheesy warbands and simpler/less complex advancement and equipment (and less superpowered heroes/wargear combinations).  You can play a game in 30-40 minutes - a campaign in an evening. When I review fantasy skirmish rules, people often ask me "is this the new Mordhiem?"   I wonder if they have heard of "Battle Companies."  It's a concept so good (and cheap to play) Games Workshop quietly shelved it. That's a pretty good recommendation by my book!

Considering LoTR:SBG also spawned historical skirmish campaign games "Legends of High Seas" (pirates) and "Legends of the Old West" (cowboys) as well as numerous derivative works ranging from steampunk to samurai, it has pretty good "skirmish campaign" pedigree. you're recommending a GW game - wait what?
Actually, yes I am. Whilst evolutionary not revolutionary, it represents a positive step forward from 40K and WHFB. It's a clean, simple rule set with familiar stats and mechanics yet some surprisingly subtle naunces, in particular the initiative sequence and the use of Might, Will and Fate. Your battles will more likely be won or lost by your in-game decisions, not in the list building or deployment stages.

The commonsense mechanics are used in a range of other rule sets for many different eras and the game scales well - from 10 minis to about 50 (after which it starts to bog down).  Furthermore, if you're seeking a way to get your Mordhiem fix, but don't love the complexity or cheesiness of certain wargear/hero builds, then Battle Companies offers a legitimate, affordable* alternative.

I know a lot of people who played LoTR briefly and tossed it aside as too "simple" or "bland."  I'd encourage you to dig it out and look at it with fresh eyes.  

*Although you WOULD be mad to pay the actual GW prices (it's $35+ for 12 plastics by the same Perry brothers sculptors who sell their own similar medieval models at $30 for 40+ plastics) - there is a thriving secondhand market.   A dozen secondhand plastics and some metals for a Battle Companies army would set you back $20 or less from eBay.  The softback A5 rules booklet from the Mines of Moria boxset (secondhand ~$10) and a Battle Companies pdf (free) and "voila!"


  1. I've heard a lot of good things about this rule set, but I've never really had the time or opponents to try it out yet. One day...

    1. I'd recommend the 2ndhand little A5 rulebook from the Mines of Moria set.About $10 on ebay and seems to have 99% of the rules and profiles.

      I'd get into it now, as GW will definitely phase this game out once the hype from the last "Hobbit" fades. Already stuff is going OOP, and eBay prices are rising, especially on metals.

  2. This was the first wargame i played, and reading your post i feel like playing again. It's been a while!

  3. I bought Mines of Moria when it was released, but didn't do anything with it. I have no idea where it is, and it would require a Moria-like expedition to find it. At least I have the incentive now, though. As this may take some time, do you have any idea whether the rules can be downloaded?

    1. Sorry - my google-fu only yields a ScribD site but the Mines of Moria rules are usually only $10-15 on eBay at worst.

      Since the new Hobbit rules came out GW has probably been cracking down on the old download sites to force them to buy their new $90 (I kid you not) rulebook... which is 99% the same rules...

      If you are eBaying, Legends of the Old West/Legends of the High Seas might be of interest (pirates/Wild West) as they can be adapted rather easily.

  4. Thanks. I have seen the Hobbit rule book, and thought, "Perhaps not", particularly as I've not felt remotely inclined to buy the new miniatures. I've not heard much about the rules, though.

    I have occasionally searched on eBay for some of the Warhammer Historical rules, including High Seas, which seems to be particularly sought after, but found prices had become prohibitive. I've not looked recently, though.

    1. There's been a few semi professional "Legends of" such as "Legends of the Rising Sun" and "Age of the Trebuchet" - medieval - which are free to google and download, and showcase the versatile and clean nature of the LOTR rules.

  5. I noticed your earlier references to these, and attempted to download them, but in the cast of Rising Son only got something called Ganglists. I may have erred, but so far I haven't found the variant rules themselves.

    1. I got them off the WI site, but no longer can find it. I think they had their genesis in this yahoo group which may be of wider interest

    2. I think the ganglists are all you need - i.e. special rules etc - as having LOTR or any other Legends of game would give you the rest.

  6. OK, thanks. I suppose I'll have to create a Yahoo account to join the group you mentioned, and try to avoid the temptation to join every group in existence, as I did before.

  7. I actually picked up what looks like the this game's book (it says "A strategy battle game" with a copyright of 2001. I saw it at a goodwill and got it for $1! I've been reading it and it looks interesting and I'd like to see if I can find someone to play it once I find good proxies from the Reaper minitures line.

    1. My 10c: get the free variant "Age of the Trebuchet" and some of the awesome (and cheap) Perry medieval miniatures. Their war of the roses stuff are the best plastics I own and work fine for fantasy.

      There's also a free "points system" program online somewhere that allows you to stat up random models and create your own.