From Games Workshop, Battle in Balin's Tomb is a skirmish wargame thinly disguised as a board game. One player controls the Followship of the Ring, and the other player controls goblins of Moria. Is this game meant for boardgamers as an easy introduction to wargames? Or is it meant for wargames who want to limit the scope of battle and focus in on just a few characters? The answer is a resounding "Yes!
I like to get the unpleasant stuff out of the way early. I really enjoy this game, but there's one little detail that's impossible to ignore.
To a tabletop gamer unaccustomed to wargaming, this boxed game might be a little intimidating. You have to cut the miniatures off of plastic sprues, and a few of them require some assembly. However, the miniatures that do require assemble are push-fit, so it doesn't take long to build them. Still, if you're used to opening a box and playing, this game may come as a shock.
Then again, realistically, if you're buying Battle in Balin's Tomb there's a high chance that you're already familiar with Games Workshop, and you know what to expect. That, in fact, is what puzzles me the most about this boxed game. It seems to me that the miniatures in the box are trying to solve a problem that may not actually exist. It tries to provide miniatures with minimal assembly required, just in case you buy the game because you're interested in Lord of the Rings and not because you want to collect miniatures. So the game makes it simple to assemble miniatures, but in the end up it delivers miniatures that are probably the worst Citadel miniatures I've purchased.
They're not wholly bad miniatures. The poses are good. The faces, even though they're maybe just 3mm big, are shockingly recognizable. If you're not sure which Hobbit is which, just look at the miniature's face. They look like the actors from the film. It's uncanny. But by molding most of them as complete figures, there's that ugly lack of separation between different elements of the sculpt. A sword blade blends in with the body of its wielder. The push-fit connection between the shield the goblins carry and their bodies is blatantly unsculpted.
There's just a big hunk of blank plastic holding the shield instead of a goblin hand or arm.
Goblin hair blends into their armour. The staff on Aragorn's back gets eaten up by his bed roll, and then restores itself later (no, the staff isn't going behind or through the bed roll, there's just a spot where the plastic didn't get sculpted right). The Cave Troll, arguably the star of the game, doesn't fit together without gaps, and his hand doesn't stay on his arm without glue.
Easily the worst Citadel miniatures I've purchased, and in fact they're so bad that it's making me think twice about buying more from the Middle-earth line.
That said, it's really satisfying to have the Fellowship of the Ring as miniatures. I'm genuinely excited about it, and they're so much fun to play with, and not just in Battle of Balin's Tomb. The Fellowship can obviously also be used in Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game and, well, any other wargame you decide they fit into. If you grew up with the Fellowship as iconic heroes, the way I did, then there's a comforting and inspiring familiarity to this specific collection of characters that makes them easy to incorporate into your games. I may be disappointed with the sculpts, but I'm head over heels to have the painted miniatures.
This is a fun game. It's a skirmish wargame, but you don't necessarily have to tell your opponent that if they aren't wargamers. This looks like a board game, and it's got just enough board game elements to possibly pose as one. Then again, maybe that's not the point. There are many advantages to disguising a wargame as a board game, and they go beyond tricking tabletop gamers into wandering away from Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride games (both of which are excellent games, but something different is also fun).
The game setup is essentially the same every time, which is very un-wargame and very board gamey. The Fellowship gets placed in the squares labelled for each member, and the first set of goblins always enter from the tomb entrance. There's no variation in starting position, and the board size and layout is always the same. One player controls the Fellowship, and the other player controls the goblins.
The goblins aren't particularly powerful or resilient. They deal 1 damage when they hit, and they only have 1 wound so they usually die in 1 hit. However, there are two secret weapons at the disposal of the goblin player.
First, there's the goblin card deck. Every card in the deck brings more goblins onto the board, at the tomb's entrance, at trap doors, out of the well. Secondly, one card adds a Cave Troll to the board. The Cave Troll is as powerful as you'd expect from a miniature four times the size of a goblin miniature, and has 5 wounds. The moment the Cave Troll enters the tomb is one of those moments in the board game, when the game stops being a game, at least for the Fellowship player.
To be fair, the Fellowship player has a few secret weapons, too. Frodo has the Ring, each member of the Fellowship has a special ability and are generally more powerful than goblins, and when you roll a Ring on the Fellowship's dice you get even more temporary ability boosts.
The game has 12 rounds. Each player moves all miniatures during a turn, but the other player remains engaged because there are defence rolls for any successful hit. Sometimes, rolling a Ring on the Fellowship dice has a special defence action, so there's not really any downtime in the game. You're always either attacking or defending.
Wargames and even RPG combat systems usually have a lot of rules. It can be discouraging if all you really want to do is set up some miniatures and pretend they're fighting each other like you used to when you were a kid playing with green army men or Lego figures, except with structure. Battle of Balin's Tomb may well be the answer.
As much as I dislike specialty die ("what happens if you lose them??"), I have to concede that they can make gameplay really smooth. In Balin's Tomb, you roll to attack. For each sword icon you get, you've potentially dealt one wound. Your foe rolls die to defend. One shield negates one wound. It's fast and instantly recognizable. You don't have to slow down to translate numbers into hit thresholds, or to add modifiers. It just happens.
Some miniatures can only attack from an adjacent square. Others can attack (the archers, mostly) from anywhere on the board. Miniatures with spears can attack from 2 squares away.
This is one of the quickest and easiest skirmish games I've come across, and appropriately its rulebook is only about 8 pages long, and there are more graphics than text. You learn the game fast.
The board is large, but it's confined, and that's one of the benefits to the format. Admittedly, this boxed game could have been sold as just a deck of cards to accompany a box of miniatures. Or maybe even as punch-out cards in an issue of White Dwarf. But the consistent and minimal setting helps focus the game to just a few simple rules. You don't have to worry about terrain (technically there are some pillars and obstructions, but they're on the game board so they're always in the same place). You don't have to think about vertical movement or a bunch of different optional weapons. The miniatures you get in the box are the miniatures you use in the game, and their character cards specify exactly what they can do.
The game play is, admittedly, basically the same every time. You move, you attack. You're attacked, you defend. You're not deck building or devising an engine or triggering combos. This is "just" a skirmish game: a wargame fought with individual warriors instead of whole troops. But because of the goblin deck, no two games are ever the same. Sometimes the Cave Troll comes out right away. Other times he's not brought out until round 10. Sometimes three or four goblins are added to the board every turn early in the game, other times they come later.
Randomness is forced upon the game by the cards, and obviously the dice too, but the more you play the more you find new ways to use your little battle company. Sometimes you lead with Aragorn, Boromir, Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas. Next time, maybe you focus on the ranged attacks of Merry and Pippin and Sam and Legolas. Then the next time you focus on movement. Or on Gandalf's ability to move goblins. It can be different every time. The goblin player has lots of strategic choice, too. There are three goblin types, each with specialties and unique abilities, and choosing your introductory battle company can be key to doing lots of damage early on.
And then there's a potential minigame around Frodo. If Frodo dies, then the best the Fellowship player can hope for is a Draw, so it's in the goblin player's interest (maybe) to go after Frodo. However, Frodo's tough to attack and he's got that Ring that lets him make quick getaways.
For such a focused and restrictive game, Battle in Balin's Tomb has lots of variety in some surprising places. On the back of the instruction booklet, there are bonus challenges to inspire you to play with alternate win conditions. It's a fun game, partly because YOU'RE PLAYING IN MIDDLE EARTH, partly because it's an efficient skirmish game, and partly because it's a well-designed, simple but engaging wargame.