Hex crawls with Middle-earth Battle Companies


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In the Battle Companies expansion for Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game, pages 104 to 111 provide a map-based campaign for the game. It's an elegantly simple and fun system for tracking the progress your army or warband is making through any given series of battles. The book suggests that a map-based campaign is ideal for 4 to 10 players, and I think the authors intend it to be a framework for a small gaming event, but I find it useful for even just 2 players or even a solo campaign. I'm a fan of Battle Companies, and the map-based campaign is surprisingly nuanced so this blog post is a review of just pages 104 to 111.

How it works

The map-based campaign system is essentially a hex crawl driven by winning and losing battles. The book provides a map of a key region of Middle-earth, with certain hexes marked as significant. Each player chooses a starting position on the map.

Before a game, each player expands its territory to 1 adjacent hex (as long as that hex is currently unoccupied). The game that follows decides which player may claim another hex after that. This doesn't always make sense, especially in the beginning, because one player might be expanding to hexes on the western edge of the map while the other player owns hexes in the southeast corner of the map, with a bunch of empty space between the players. How do their warbands encounter one another? Why are they even fighting? I don't think the intent of the system is that the warbands on the tabletop are physically fighting in the hexes being claimed. Instead, the tabletop represents a battle somewhere in Middle-earth that influences what resources for expansion are available to each player.

However you choose to justify the battles, the binary switch works well. If you win, then you get to take another ajacent hex (even a hex occupied by the player you defeated). If you lose, you don't get another hex.

The more you play, the more the hexes of Middle-earth get claimed, and eventually a dominant power emerges.

Special hexes

As a power tracker, the hex map works well enough. It's a pragmatic way of representing how a player's kingdom is expanding. But some hexes are special hexes, theoretically marked in blue (they're actually red, but the book calls them blue), and when you control a special hex your warband gets a thematic upgrade.

This has two effects on a game. First of all, it always feels good to get an upgrade. You move into a special hex, and suddenly all your soldiers get a bonus to swim checks, or you can swap out weapons at 0 cost, and so on. What a cool boost.

Given how good it feels to get a free upgrade, the second effect is that you just can't help but prioritise the special hexes. Your hex crawl path is influenced by key locations on the map, just like it would be if you were a Middle-earth king or warlord. Obviously you'd want to secure key locations, and as it turns out there's no better way to incentivise narrative than to reward players for thinking like an in-world general would.

It works a treat, and it feels good to secure important locations. There are 30 of them, so the pacing is good.

Map trouble

The only problem with the map-based system is that the map spans two pages of the book, so some of the hexes along the spine of the book are pretty much eaten by the binding. It's hard to scan or photocopy. While I appreciate the generous size, I do wish the map had been printed on just one page so it was easier to scan or copy.

There's no download on Warhammer-community.com for the map. I searched online and found a large copy of the map on a Steam forum, so that's the copy I use. I assume the OP extracted that copy from the PDF or EPUB version of the book, but I do wish Warhammer-community.com would provide it as an official download.

The other problem with the map is just a labeling issue. For some reason, the text of the book claims that special hexes are blue when they're clearly red. Obviously just a typo, but I only accepted it as a typo after I'd examined the map for several minutes, convinced my troublesome eyes just weren't seeing the blue. Trust me, the hexes are red.

A new game in 8 pages

As I said in my review of the book, Battle Companies is a little understated in what it brings to your table. The changes and improvements are simple, presented casually as a few extra fun ideas. Once you try them, though, you quickly fall in love with them. I'm glad these are expansion rules, because I think they would seem excessive for someone just learning the game, but I'm very happy that they're available. Once again, I strongly recommend Battle Companies for any Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game player interested in either skirmish battles or any kind of campaign.

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