Middle-earth Battle Companies


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Most wargames are designed to be played as a single game event. You play a game, the game ends, and whatever story that game told is over. The game has no "memory", and the next time you field your army it's like you're fielding a brand new army, with no battle scars or past experience beyond what's defined in the profile for each miniature. For Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game (MESBG), that changes thanks to Battle Companies, a skirmish campaign mode for the game. This is my review of the book.

Battle Companies (Second Edition, to account for The Hobbit movies) is a 128-page expansion rulebook for Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game (MESBG) that creates a system for small skirmish-level warbands and persistent game states. When you win a battle, your warband gains Experience Points and Influence Points, and acquires new gear or gains new recruits or hires mercenaries. By playing through the scenarios in this book, or with just a little imagination playing through your own scenarios, your next game can be determined by the outcome of your previous one. Before you know it, you've got a warband shaped by the battlefield, and a series of games that together tell an epic adventure worthy of Tolkien himself.

Armies and skirmishes

Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game, like many Games Workshop products, is actually flexible enough to use as rules for either a full-scale army or a little warband. Squads are enforced by unit coherency rules, but when it comes to melee any illusion of a cohesive unit is lost, with a single miniature rolling off against another. If you want to play MEBSG as a skirmish game with just 4 or 8 or 10 miniatures, the rules quietly support that. You just ignore unit coherency and move miniatures as, essentially, many units of one miniature.

And sure enough, Battle Companies doesn't have to do any heavy lifting to get MEBSG fit for skirmishes. Its proposed system is to select 1 of the 38 warbands listed in the book, select just 1 miniature to be the Hero, and 2 to be sergeants (second-in-command, should your Hero die). Then you play.

That's it! MEBSG is a skirmish game in literally 1 page, and that makes sense because, lakcing a full army, I've been playing MEBSG as a skirmish game from the start and it never occurred to me that I was playing it "wrong". The real appeal of this book are all the options for leveling up.

Developing your warband

I've said before that every RPG or wargame has a game between games hidden in it. In an RPG, that's character development, and for wargames it's army maintenance. An expansion that promises to help you build up your warband is only as good as its army options, and Battle Companies has plenty to choose from.

After each game, you sit down with your battle report and the Battle Companies book to resolve injuries. Warriors removed from the board due Wounds during the game roll on an injury chart to find out whether they survive, gain a permanent injury, or make a full recovery. Your Hero rolls on a special Hero Injury chart.

Your warband also gains experience points from the recent battle. The better they performed, the more points they earn. When you gain enough experience, you can exchange points for a variety of benefits, including leveling-up your Hero. There are 8 "paths" your Hero's career can take, each one serving as a sort of abstract skill tree. There's the Path of the Warrior, Path of the Ranger, Path of the General, Path of the Sorceror, and so on, and each one grants a thematic upgrade.

You can spend Influence Points on new wargear, as listed in the Armoury section, or on special Equipment, which includes a Company Standard, torches, a whip, a Lucky Talisman, and even Dwarven Brew. For a little more Influence, you can hire Wanderers (mercenaries) to join your warband.

That's the first 30 pages of the book. If you're used to the options provided in an RPG like Pathfinder or Shadowrun, then just 30 pages of options might feel underwhelming at first. But if you think about the options in an RPG, it's likely to occur to you that a lot of items listed in source books are basically the same item with a unique illustration and backstory. Ultimately, a +1 sword is a +1 sword regardless of whether it comes from the land of the dead or from the fae wilds or from your heroic ancestor. In a miniature wargame, it saves you money and mental energy to be selective in the options listed in a book. When you hire a mercenary or creature for your warband, you need a miniature to represent it. And even when you already have a suitable miniature, that's 1 more rule you have to remember for your warband of 5 or 10 characters. The fewer choices you have, the easier it is for you to remember to use an option in the heat of a battle.

Example warbands

The next section of the book contains a bunch of example warbands, listing exactly which miniatures from the army books for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to include. Each warband also lists an advancement track for each miniature (for instance, a Warrior of Minas Tirith With A Shield eventually becomes a Knight of Minas Tirith With A Shield), and a random table for reinforcements.

There are 38 warbands. As long as you have a reasonable collection of fantasy miniatures or Citadel Middle-earth miniatures, you'll likely be able to find a warband you can use. If you're playing with a friend and not a random person at a game store, then it's equally easy to just throw some miniatures together, agree on profiles, and see what happens.

Scenarios and campaigns and hex crawls

The rest of the book is jam-packed with scenarios and campaign ideas, and even a sort of battle-driven hex crawl. The variety is a staggering in this section. There's a few pages about specific locations, each with a special environmental rule (dangerous walkways in goblintown, for instance). There are scenarios with battlefield maps and mission-spetific objectives. There are ideas on running a campaign, and 2 pages of optional game variants, and a few scenarios integrating your warband into a larger battle with a full ramy. Some of it admittedy comes across like the meeting notes of a brainstorm idea at Games Workshop, but sometimes all you need is a little inspiration for adding a rule to your game session just to shake things up a little.

I haven't played the hex map rules yet, so look for a future blog post about the hex map campaign system after I've tried it.

Game expansion achieved

I'd purchased this book because I'd heard that it contained exciting new rules for skirmish battles in Middle-earth. I'm not sure that's accurate, and honestly it hasn't changed my gameplay all that much. I'd already dropped a lot of Hero rules (playing with the Fellowship means a lot of heroic actions to worry about), which is in part what the warband rules do. But what Battle Companies has changed for me is the space between my games. Getting to update and maintain my warband is endless fun, and I love the new equipment and upgrade paths. My games in Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game have always been satisfying, but they've always been singular events. Now my games are satisfying and long-lasting. I don't look back fondly at my games now, I actively enjoy them for weeks at a time, because I have warband maintenance to ponder, and future skirmishes to plan for.

As expansions go, Battle Companies looks deceptively unassuming. On paper, the changes don't look that big. But when you use the rules for your game, it's a hugely improved experience (on a game that's already great, mind you). If you're enjoying Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game but want to focus in on a small warband, or you want to expand your games into a campaign, get Battle Companies.

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