I'm a lifelong Lord of the Rings fan, to the point that (for better or for worse) my name is even in the credits of some of the movies. I've yet to read the Silmarillion, I can name the individuals in the Fellowship but I couldn't tell you all the stops they make along the way, and I don't love that so much canon is derived from Tolkien's letters and posthumous works. But I grew up with the books and its lore is firmly implanted within my brain, one way or another. I recently purchased the rulebook for Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game by Games Workshop, and this is my review of it as a book and a game.
I'd known that Games Workshop maintained a Middle Earth wargame, but I somehow thought it was sort of an obligatory thing they did, sort of as a way to keep Lord of the Rings (LOTR) safely in British hands. I guess because they don't own the IP, they don't exactly have the proliferation of related content the way they have for 40k and Sigmar (and Fantasy before it), so it also doesn't feel like they do much to promote the game. Recently, I read a positive review of one of the LOTR roleplaying games, and then I saw a battle report for a really fun scenario for Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game (MESBG), and then Games Workshop decided to promote their boxed game Battle in Balin's Tomb direct to my email inbox. Third time's a charm, because I purchased the boxed game because I enjoy Blackstone Fortress and Cursed City, and I had to admit that Balin's Tomb looked really good. While I was at the store, I picked up the [mostly unrelated, but more on that later] rulebook for Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game because I was getting miniatures in the boxed game and, who knows, maybe I'd like to use them for the wargame too.
Well, I may as well get the unpleasant part out of the way first.
There's no indication of this anywhere on the rulebook's back cover, and the book comes shrink-wrapped so it's inaccessible even if you go to the store to see it in person before you buy, but you can't play the game with just the rulebook. To players of Warhammer and even Pathinder and D&D, this is probably not surprising. Are there even games where you only have to buy one book to start playing? Don't all games require bestiaries or something?
Well, no. There are lots of RPG and wargame systems that bundle everything you need into one volume. Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game is not one of them. You need the rulebook and the Armies of Lord of the Rings (if you bought LOTR miniatures) or Armies of The Hobbit (if you bought The Hobbit miniatures) book.
Buying the rulebook and a box of miniatures is not sufficient. You must have an army book.
The back of the book suggests otherwise by explicitly stating:
This rules manual contains all the information you need to begin your journey into Middle-earth and to unleash your forces on the tabletop.
That's patently not true, unless you interpret "to begin your journey" to mean "up to the point of, but not including, unleashing your forces on the tabletop". The rules manual does not contain the stats (called "Profiles") for the miniatures you're meant to use in the game, so you can own a miniature but have no idea what values to use for its Movement, Fight, Strength, Defence, Attacks, Wounds, Courage,and so on. Without those values, you simply cannot play the game.
So be aware of that. If you're going to start playing Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game, you must purchase:
Optionally, there are expansions and campaign books. These aren't required. Confusingly, though, some of these books have more Profiles for yet more miniatures. I have no idea how you're supposed to know which book to buy, and I've been wholly paralyzed from purchasing a box of miniatures for fear of buying soldiers devoid of Profiles without an additional additional purchase.
My score for onboarding: Poorly executed. Half a star. Would not wish upon even the Sackville-Bagginses.
After you're all setup, though, Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game is really good! The rules are clearly explained and clearly laid out. The examples in the book are some of the best and most direct example's I've seen in a rulebook. There were several times when I was able to skim just the text of an example and comprehend the rule perfectl, without having to read the rest of the text.
The rules are also suprisingly rich and cinematic, and yet still intuitive. For instance, there are rules for fighting over barriers (like a crumbled wall), or for defending a doorway. There are rules for cavalry, which include how a soldier might be dismounted, and how you can treat the mount and the soldier as two separate targets in attacks. There are rules for seige engines and monsters.
You might think that rules getting that specific must be pretty complex, but there's consistency to how conflict is resolved in the game so you're just learning the same thing over again in a slightly different context. Instead of adding complexity, these hyper-specific rules give you flashbacks to specific scenes in the movies and books, and make you want to start playing as soon as possible. It's honestly exhilarating (the excitement is only undone by the corporate-boardroom writing style).
I hate to complain again, but I can't help but notice that the rulebook is invariably more verbose than it needs to be, in all the wrong places. The authors constantly say "we" ("we do it this way because...") as if the reader is an outsider, looking in. They use future tense and pluperfect (no action is ever done in this book, everything "will be" or "will have been"), passive voice (nobody ever does anything in this rulebook, everything "is done").
Luckily, the rules are simple enough that you don't get the usual confusion that normally comes from indirect, seemingly accidental, writing. But really, cut out all the "weasel words" in this book, and there'd have been room for some army data sheets!
OK, back to the good stuff.
More than anything, I think Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game demonstrates how powerful it can be to deal with known factors.
For the most part, the entire story of Lord of the Rings already exists. Sure, maybe there's a faction (who the heck are the Easterlings? seriously, where did that come from?) somebody found in a footnote of a letter Tolkien wrote, and maybe that faction is worth a line of miniatures all of a sudden. But basically everybody reading this rulebook knows the story of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Everybody knows the main characters. Everybody knows the big battles, and who was there, and who wins. The magic is pretty limited, all the weapons have been defined.
You might even accuse the setting of being sparse.
And all of this shows. The rulebook (and the add-on scenario books) predictably cover exactly what you expect them to cover. You already know the battles that are going to be fought. You already know which hero is going to square off with which villain. There's no original content happening here. That's not a criticism, but praise! This is the comfort of familiarity.
You can do whatever you want to in Middle Earth, just so long as it's in Middle Earth.
You want to teleport to another plane of existence? You can't do that, that's not in Middle Earth.
You want to play a vampire? You can't do that, that's not a thing in Middle Earth.
You want the hobbits to kill a ringwraith with one of Farmer Maggot's mushrooms? You can do that. Set up the battlefield, deploy your miniatures, roll some dice.
The "limitations" of the setting works to the game's advantage. The rulebook knows the edges of the game world. It knows everything that can possibly happen. The rules don't need to account for a Trojan Horse or a steampunk mech or time travel or demons. It doesn't have to anticipate elemental magic or religion or zombies or how a pocket dimension reacts to being placed inside another pocket dimension. Everything possible has already been written, and that's all the game needs to provide rules for.
If you want to play through scenes from the movies, then you have rules for every major story beat you saw on screen. And there's room for imagination yet! You can remix the Fellowship so it contains Faramir instead of Boromir, or Elrond instead of Gandalf, or Sam as the ring-bearer, or whatever. You can send armies that never actually fought one another into combat. The rules are there, providing support. You get to remix people and places and events, but you're still speaking the limited "language" of the LOTR universe. I don't think you can do that with other properties, although I think some of the rules around Lovecraft's universe are pretty close.
I was surprised at how well it worked. In fact, the main reason I've always been hesitant to explore LOTR in games is its limited scope. I complain a lot about how Star Wars insists that it's a tiny galaxy, with every event pointing back to the same three or four people, but surely LOTR is even worse with only one or two stories to tell (or at least, one or two stories anybody wants to hear). But somehow, this game makes LOTR feel fresh and yet malleable. You can play the stuff you know, or you can play stuff happening around what you know, or you can play alternate universe versions of what you know.
Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game isn't Warhammer or Sigmar set in Middle Earth. It is its own game in both obvious and subtle ways. One of my favourite rules is the "dueling" rule (MESBG calls melee fighting "dueling").
When a miniature enters melee engagement with another miniature, both players roll one d6 for each attack (some miniatures can take 2 or 3 attacks at once, so you may be rolling 2d6 or 3d6), and the player with the highest value on any dice wins.
Yes, melee combat in MESBG is decided with an unmodified dice roll. Each miniature also has a Fight value, which is used in the event of a tie. It's so ostentatious that I had to read it several times to believe it. You do a roll-off, the loser moves 1 inch away from the victor, and then the victor rolls to determine whether damage was done.
That's it. That's close combat.
It's so simple, it almost feels too simple. But I really like it. It feels fast and immediate and brutal, like the frantic fights in the movies. But what about the fights that go on a while? What about the cinematic moments (Legolas climbing up falling stairs notwithstanding)? Well, a miniature may be designated as a Hero on its Profile (which you won't have if you only bought the rulebook, sorry!), and this grants you some points to spend on special Heroic actions. Using these, you can elevate fights that might otherwise be a quick roll-off to a series of modified rolls and extra moves.
It's a great blend of efficiency and gratuitously playful moments.
Aside from the tone of writing and poor job the rulebook does at explaining how miniature wargames work, this is an excellent rulebook for a fun game. I'm playing with a few different, and mostly custom, armies at the moment. I didn't know to get the army book, and the guy at the Warhammer store didn't bother telling me, so I'm using my own custom Profiles. It works well enough. Using the sample Profiles from the rulebook, it's pretty easy to drum up values for any miniature you own.
Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game is a pretty stable set of rules. There have been revisions here and there, but not like you see with Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar. I know part of that is probably down to the number of players, but I do think some of it has to do with the static nature of the LOTR setting, and the relative simplicity of the rules. A new psyker ability isn't going to break the game because there are no psykers in this game and the magic system isn't evolving. A new even-worse villain isn't going to suddenly appear with a Defence of 15 and force all the Profiles to require a boost, because the biggest and baddest villains already exist. It feels like a stable platform for fantasy wargaming, and it's for a familiar and comforting setting.