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Monday, 22 December 2014

Review of The Battle of Five Armies

Monday, December 22, 2014

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As I mentioned earlier I wanted to start the Season of the Ring with a bang, so what could be better than a big boxed, extravagant board game like The Battle of Five Armies?! Ares Games were kind enough to send me a review copy of the game and here are my thoughts on it...

The game was released earlier this year by the guys at Ares Games who made War of the Ring and Age of Conan among others. You can immediately see that it shares a lot of things with its older sibling War of Ring, both mechanically and visually, however it is certainly a different more focused experience. In the wake of the success of War of the Ring Nexus Games released Battles of the Third Age back in 2006 which was both an expansion to the base game as well as a completely separate game where you could play out the sieges of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith in greater detail. It has been out of print since Nexus went under but The Battle of Five Armies is a kind of reboot of the latter sub-games. Of course, being its own game it has been expanded and improved upon with a lot of mechanics dedicated to the specific battle.

What You Get in the Box

I forgot to take a picture of the contents so borrowed this great image by Uthoroc at bgg. This is the German version mind.
Let's just take a quick look at what you get in the box. First off there's the very nice looking board. It's about half the size of the War of the Ring (WotR) board and features art similar to the second edition. That is to say, it doesn't feature the semi-parchment style of the map from the first edition of WotR, but rather the more naturalistic art of the second edition. The region border lines are also clearly drawn, but only in white. The different territories on the map are instead colour coded in the small terrain icon in the middle of each region. There's the Valley with the Ruins of Dale in the middle, the mountains and hills of the Southern Spur and Eastern Bank to the south and north and the Broken Lands to the east. Clearly marked are Mustering Points for the Shadow Armies, as well as fortifications and settlements for the Free People. At bottom right there's the Fate track that works as a timer for the game and also signifies when certain Free People characters enters play. All in all the map is both gorgeous to look at and very functional in play. I think it finds a nice balance between the boards of the first and second edition of WotR.

Then there's a bunch of cards. Some larger ones with stats for the different heroes of the game as well as the eagles and bats, and the rest regular board game sized cards making up a few different decks. There is a deck of event cards, two decks of story cards (Shadow and Free People's respectively), a thin deck of fate Cards and a bunch of maneuver cards. An assortment of tokens, using the same iconography as in WotR and The One Ring roleplaying game (also by Franceso Nepitelli of course) rounds out the cardstock portion of the game. Then there are some fate dice, some regular dice and two well made reference sheets.

Oh, and a mountain of plastic of course! Hehe! Most of the sculpts are being reused from WotR and Battles of the Third age with "only" the bats, eagles and characters being unique to The Battle of Five Armies. The characters in particular look great and are, in my opinion, a clear step up from the character minis in War of the Ring. I'm especially fond of Thranduil, Gandalf and Bolg! The regular army figures holds a decent standard and has a nice pre-movie vibe to them that in a paradoxical way feels fresh in this day of mass-marketed Tolkien. The painter in me really wants to take the brush to these minis as that can enhance their look even more. There's just so much other stuff to paint!


The rulebook is written in a clear and concise way which is a joy to read! It's certainly nice to see that Ares have learnt from their mistake with the original WotR rulebook that was a bit fuzzy in places and not very well organized. After a few turns you won't really have to consult the rulebook at all since all the pertinent information is included on the reference sheets.



The Rules

Like usual I will only provide a cursory glance at the rules as the actual rulebook is available online for those who really want to get down into the nitty-gritty.

A central part of the game is the Fate track in the lower right corner as that basically works as a timer. If it ever reaches 15 the Free People win the game and if the Shadow player manage to get 10 points or more by capturing settlements and fortifications she wins. The Free People can also win by killing the Shadow leader, Bolg, or if the Shadow player hasn't managed to get six points by the time Béorn enters play. Speaking of which, during setup you place a number Free People characters at different spaces on the Fate track and when the Fate marker reaches each respective number that characters becomes ready to play into the game. What all this means of course is that the Shadow player is working under pressure and really need to get to it before more reinforcements arrive for the Free Peoples. Bilbo, who is more of a utility character, doesn't seem to dangerous but when Béorn or the eagles turn up you wish you'd pressed the attack!

The first turn. The Shadow player is advancing and you can clearly see the facedown Recruitment tokens.

A turn starts with the Free Peoples player activating up to three of his general characters, to ready their special abilities, and placing Leadership tokens on the board. After this the Shadow player draws one or more Fate tokens to see how far the Fate track advances. These two things are connected as the Shadow player get to draw as many tokens as the number of activated generals, but has to use the last one drawn. This makes for a neat push your luck mechanic (for both players) as the more generals activated the greater the chance the Shadow player has to draw a tile with a low number on it. After this it's time for the Leadership phase of the Shadow player who gets to add Leadership tokens to her armies as well as add Great Bats to the board.

After these preparations comes the Action Round which is the meat and potatoes of the game where both players get to roll their respective Action Dice and take turns using them to move their armies around. The dice are the same as in War of the Ring and anyone who has played that game will have a rough grasp on how they're used. Of course, with a much narrower focus comes a bunch of changes as well. Basically the dice can be used to move and attack with armies, move heroes or armies lead by a hero, muster new troops or play Event or Story cards. There are several nuances that differentiate how the different dice are used; for example, while both the Army and the Character symbol allow you to move and attack with armies the Character symbol allow you to move two regions first, instead of one. On the other hand, the Army symbol allow you to move two of your armies one region each (without attacking) or can be used for a devastating combined attack where you use two of your armies to attack a single enemy army.

The goblins break through the mountain pass and spill down the side of the mountain!
The Muster symbol is used to flip Recruitment tokens that are already on the board, or to Rally (heal) your armies. Recruitment tokens is another critical part of the game and come in three flavours: Dwarves & Men, Elves and Shadow. The board is seeded from the start with a number of tokens but during actual play the only way to get more out is to use certain character abilities or some Event/Story cards, meaning you can never count on a steady stream of reincorcements. The Shadow player has it a little easier in this regard as Bolg has a way of getting Recruitment tokens fairly reliably (still, he's going to need them!).

Besides normal Mustering the Shadow player can also use the Lidless Eye result to build up his goblin armies who are scaling and/or tunneling through the mountains. These mountain passes are closed when the game begins, but when there are five or more goblins in a pass it is broken through and they are free to start rampaging down into the valley! It's a very satisfying feeling when you suddenly can attack from almost within the midst of the enemy. Hehe!

Finally there's the Event symbol that you can use to draw or play cards. You can play any card with the Event symbol, but all cards also have at least one alternative symbol you can use to play that specific card. For example, if the card allow you to place Recruitment tokens it's a fair bet that it could be played with either the Event or the Muster symbol. Event cards, which are common to both players, usually have fairly generic effects like allowing a bit of extra movement or bonus to rallying while the faction specific Story cards often have more powerful effects. Of course, the Event cards can also be used during battle (more on that below).

After both players have used all of their Action dice you do a bit of board cleanup and start another turn.

Battles

Some men of the lake fire at the oncoming hordes using the great looking measuring tool! We saw this kind of measuring tools back when Android was released but I haven't seen it again until now. Love it though! Oh, and for those who know the game, yes this is an illegal move as the Lakemen aren't in hill or mountain terrain. :)
Since combat is a bit more involved in this game than the Risk-like style of War of the Ring I thought it warranted a section of its own. An army can consist of up to five miniatures plus eventual Characters and Leadership tokens. You move them around the board using your Action dice (and you can of course combine or split armies) and when adjacent to an enemy army you can attack it. Each of the different units in your army has their own specific Maneuver card with their stats, Favoured Terrain icon and Maneuver ability. At the start of a battle you check the terrain type in the defenders region and the side who has the most units with that as their Favoured Terrain get to draw an extra Event card. This is not a huge thing, but nonetheless a nice way to incorporate a feeling that terrain matters in the game.

After terrain superiority has been resolved you take all your Event cards (who, beside the Event text, have Maneuver effects in battle as well), the Maneuver card for each different participating unit and finally the Regroup card. Both players simultaneously reveal their chosen Maneuver card and then dice are rolled to determine winner. If you use an Event card as your Maneuver card it usually has some bonus like +1 to hit or roll two extra dice. Using a units Maneuver card on the other hand makes it possible to use that unit's Maneuver ability, if you manage to hit with them.

So both players roll a number of  dice according to their unit stats (normally it's one die per unit, except for Great Orcs and Dwarf Veterans who roll two) up to a maximum of five and each roll of 5+ is a hit. You also get to re-roll one die for each point of Leadership in your army, with Characters providing 0-3 and Leadership tokens 1. Of course, since it can be important to see which of your units actually hit there are both white and black dice provided with white being the regular and black the special Maneuver dice. If you roll a hit with a black die you have triggered the Maneuver ability of that unit.

The final round in a battle where both armies ended up being decimated to the last man!
A good example of when it's better to retreat and fight another time.
For each hit a Damage token is placed next to the army and after the rolls have been completed you check for casualties. As long as the Damage tokens are equal to or less than the number of units in your army you're ok and don't have to take casualties. If you have more tokens than units you have to remove tokens and units on a two for one basis. This means that most fresh armies can take a bit of punishment but when the Damage tokens start mounting up things can get very bad very quickly.

After resolving casualties you have the option to retreat or rout. A retreat can only be done if you played the Regroup card as your Maneuver card (which also allows you to pick up all the spent unit Maneuver cards you might have used) otherwise it becomes a rout. In a retreat you take a little bit of extra damage and then get to move away, a rout on the other hand can be horribly bloody. However, something I've learnt while playing is the importance of knowing when to break off to fight another day. Just going at it, grinding your armies into the ground will most likely loose you the game.

Let's do a little example...
Say I'm attacking with an army made up of two Orcs, a Warg Rider, a Great Orc and one Leadership token. I start by checking the terrain and, joy of joys, it's a swamp! Orcs have swamps as their Favoured terrain and the Great Orc counts any terrain as favoured and since I'm fighting a bunch of puny humans who don't like swamps I get to draw an extra Event/Maneuver card. 
In the first round of combat I play the Orc's Maneuver card meaning I roll two white dice and two (one for each Orc) black. I roll two hits, one black and one white and after the Leader re-roll I manage to get another hit. Having succeded with at least one black die means that I trigger the Orc Maneuver ability which is to add another Leadership token to the army (for more re-roll goodness in the next round of combat).
So I inflict two hits on my opponent who, with the help of a nasty Maneuver card, inflict five hits on me! Since I only have four units in my army I need to take casualties. Removing one of the Orcs allow me to remove two Damage tokens which takes me down to three - which is equal to or less than the number of units I have left in the army. 
Hmm... things are looking grim for the next round as I will have to take casualties from any hits inflicted while the Free Peoples army only have three Damage tokens and five units. I put down the Regroup card in the hopes of making a tactical retreat before my troops are turned into pin-cushions...

Attention to Detail

Rallying his dwarf warriors Dáin Ironfoot rush to the ford to confront the goblins attacking from the western mountain pass.
So those are the main rules of the game. There are of course a number of neat details like fortifications and attacking uphill or across a ford. The different characters also provide a number of different gameplay options. From Gandalf's magic barrage to Bilbo's damage soaking ability to Thranduil's ability to order missile troops to fire on distant enemies. Then there's Béorn of course, who's pretty much an army in his own right. While the other Characters work as leaders to support your troops Béorn just walks out there and tears it up himself. You load him up with a bunch of Rage tokens as he enters the game (and more can be added through card play) that works both as health and action points to activate him.

The eagles and great bats also work a little differently from the rest of the units. The great bats are placed in a territory and can help the Shadow player move his armies or inflict extra damage in battle in the region with bats in it, by removing a bat each time they are used. The eagles on the other hand work basically as mobile artillery can can inflict quite brutal damage on the Shadow armies!

Thorin Oakenshield (see right) also bears some special mention. He enters the game when the Fate track reaches six and is placed at the Front Gate (of the Lonely Mountain). There are a number of Fate cards that buff Thorin and he can be a very powerful fighting force if paired with an army, problem is if you move him outside the Front Gate the fortification counts as broken which of course, is a bad thing. Still with the right cards and the right situation it might very well be worth it!



My Thoughts

Alright, so this is what you've actually been waiting for. The moment I share my inspired wisdom! Hehe! Well, as the long time readers of Fire Broadside might have noticed my board game preferences have shifted somewhat, in later years. It used to be either sci-fi or fantasy games with lots of plastic that took up most of my time, but these days I think I've appreciate board games from a more holistic perspective and embrace games with themes or components I would have shied away from five years ago.

However this does, of course, not mean that there isn't room for some bombastic plastic spectaculars! War of the Ring have long been a favourite of mine, as have Age of Conan, and The Battle of Five Armies feels like it's another game from the same designers to add to the list. Besides sharing the Action dice mechanic all three games also stand out as being extremely faithful to their respective setting and made by a bunch of guys who are really into it. Their grasp of the world and "feeling" of Tolkien is, perhaps more than the actual gameplay, the best part of the games as they are as far away you can get from cheap moneygrabs like Lord of the Rings Risk or (*shiver*) Monopoly. These games are made from the heart by fans for fans, and that is awesome.

Having secured the western ford Dáin has moved back to camp but things are looking dire as Bolg is moving forward and reinforcements are on the way from the Broken Lands. Perhaps a dire gamble is the best chance the Free Peoples have...
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the gameplay is good! The Battle of Five Armies is very much a wargame so I was happy to read the rules and see how fighting battles was actually fairly detailed. With a more narrow focus than WotR this was a given, but even so I find the battle system immensely fun when we play. I've read some who think the battles are too long or too finicky, but I can't agree with that at all. In a given turn there usually aren't that many battles anyway so it makes sense to make them important events. In WotR the Risk-style combat resolution works (or is necessary) since there can be many different battles each round. Here each battle is given the attention it deserves!

Planning your battles and trying to figure out where to fight first and how to deplete your opponent's hand of Event cards is a fun exercise and the ever present risk of getting your army trounced in the first round forces you to consider potential retreats as well. Even though there is a lot of dice rolling involved, and you can run into some really bad luck in individual battles, my feelings is that this pretty much evens out over time. Besides with judicious use of Maneuver cards and Leadership you should be able to mitigate the worst of the bad luck.

Where I think luck might play a larger factor is the Action dice. While there are a number of different ways to get around a bad roll of the Action dice it can still hit you hard if you don't manage to roll reasonably balanced during a turn. Of course, rolling all Event symbols (to take an extreme example) will give you a killer hand of cards for next turn and there is always things you can do with the dice. However a bad roll might make you loose momentum. I don't have a problem with as this is a dice game where luck is a factor to begin with, and it's for the most part something you can manage or mitigate.

While Thorin Oakenshield is struck by Gold Sickness and refuse to leave the fortified Front Gate, Dáin rush head on into combat with the army lead by Bolg. In a series of brilliant maneuvers he manage to cut his way through the Orcs and Great Orcs surrounding the Goblin King and in a mighty blow crash his hammer down on his sneering face. The battle is over and it's time to let Crom count the dead. No wait, wrong game!
There is a great balance between the two sides as the Shadow has the brute force on her side while the Free Peoples have their many different characters that support their smaller forces. There is also the race aspect of the game the Shadow really needs to press on before the Fate track rise too high and scary stuff like the eagles and Béorn arrive. I think it's critical to get Bolg out early so he can start reinforcing the Shadow armies as soon as possible. While you can usually take a fortification and a couple of settlements with your starting forces plus goblins you start to run out of steam just as Thorin enters play and badly need the reinforcements that only Bolg can provide.

The Free Peoples player of course has the opposing role and want to delay the attacking hordes until hard hitting reinforcements can arrive. The first character that becomes available on the Fate track is Bilbo who is not a great fighter but can really help with the delay part of the Free Peoples plan. Using the Ring he can absorb a number of hits, although a limited number of times. He also has the ability to be in the right place at the right time. Militarily the Shadow is stronger, so the Free Peoples really have to make sure to utilize their characters to the fullest. The ranged attacks by Gandalf and Thranduil can really turn the tide when used at the right moment and the ability of Dain Ironfoot and Thranduil to place Reinforcement tokens is also critical to not become completely overrun early in the game.

Bottom line is that I really like The Battle of Five Armies. Being a great Tolkien fan certainly helps to get you interested, but there's a solid game engine running the thing that is a nice blend of strategy, tactics and a bit of luck. Just like the rest of the games by Ares The Battle of Five Armies is gorgeous to look at and the visuals are designed in a way to make it all blend in and fit together in a way that also speaks to the creator's familiarity with the theme. Of course, this is reflected in War of the Ring and The One Ring roleplaying game as well. Our games have yet to reach the 90 minutes stated on the box, as they have run 120-150 minutes, but with experience I could see this number shrink.

Is it a replacement for War of the Ring? No, this is a very different experience that nonetheless scratches a similar itch. Although I love WotR it can be hard to get to the table simply because the play time is quite long. The Battle of Five Armies is certainly different, but has enough common elements to fill you over until you have time for the full thing. That is not to say that it is the lesser game of the two, but it is quicker. The guys at Ares Games have hinted that we might very well see updated reprints of the original Battles of the Third Age so we have the sieges of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith to look forward to as well!

So... do you like Tolkien? Do you like wargames toward the lighter end of the spectrum? Do you feel the need to send giant eagles to rip poor little goblins to shreds? Then this is the game for you!

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