Even before Peter Jackson’s excellent movie adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, there has been no shortage of board and card games based on the fictional world of Hobbits and elves. With the full backing of a movie license however, few of these are as epic and impressive as the Middle Earth Strategy Battle miniatures game from Games Workshop. The most recent boxed game to grace the line-up of this elaborately named group of products is The Lord of the Rings: Battle of Pelennor Fields.
Featuring an incredible eighty-four miniatures (two of which are very large monsters,) Pelennor Fields is one of the most expansive starter packs that I’ve seen in miniatures gaming. That’s not the end of what it offers, however. Whilst there is a brief instruction booklet featuring four specific scenarios and some specific unit information, Games Workshop have also bundled in a beautiful 200-page book that features a huge array of images, tables and detailed rules for expanding the game further.
There are probably a few ways to look at whether Pelennor Fields is a product that will appeal to you. Firstly, as a pure value proposition, the eighty-four miniatures include The Witch King of Angmar (in two poses) on a Fell Beast, as well as Theoden, both on his horse and on foot. There are twelve mounted Riders of Rohan and twelve on foot, as well as twenty Warriors of the Dead. Fighting in support of The Witch King, you’ll find a Mordor troll (with several poses possible) and thirty-six Morannon orcs, split half and half with swords and spears.
Players who simply wish to collect and paint the exceptional models that Games Workshop produce would do well to invest in a set like this if only for the sheer value for money. Likewise, anyone who is serious about setting themselves up with one or more armies in the world of Middle Earth Strategy Battles will also feel that the best value can be found with Pelennor Fields. Personally, I think it’s also an excellent one versus one boxed game that doesn’t necessarily required expansion, having already far more in the box than the likes of Rune Wars or Star Wars: Legion.
Before I talk more about that boxed game experience however, I should mention that the expandability of Pelennor Fields is already absolutely certain. That 200-page book I mentioned is already filled with hundreds of other possible units — from elves, dwarves and the many armies of men to The Fellowship of the Nine and the many armies of Sauron, Saruman and the other dark forces.
Armies in Middle Earth Strategy Battles are always modular and based on a points system that depends on what units are in play, how they are equipped and what spells or abilities they bring. Standard battles weigh in at about 750 points per side, whilst the battles in the Pelennor Fields boxed game will be fought by armies that are a little over half that size, depending on the specific composition.
Since Middle Earth Strategy Battle has essentially replaced Warhammer as Games Workshop’s primary large-scale fantasy miniatures game, it shares some rules that will be familiar to players moving over from the now archived Warhammer universe. Rules such as what level of hero can lead a warband of soldiers, for example, or how combat is resolved, will feel immediately familiar. With that said, the cumbersome nature of Warhammer’s rank and file combat is long gone; replaced instead by freeform duelling that allows units to outnumber opponents and support each other very simply.
If you do decide to expand your army collections after purchasing Battle of Pelennor Fields, more and more intricate rules will obviously become apparent, thanks to the addition of hero abilities, spells and unusual units such as monsters and suchlike. Even in the base game however, Games Workshop has done a good job in preparing players for a wider challenge. Creatures (including humans) moving in to attack Nazgul, Warriors of the Dead or trolls, for example, must roll a courage check to see if they are brave enough to do so. The Witch King has spells such as mesmerize, which can be countered by spending Theoden’s might — which can alternatively be spent to enhance his attacking prowess. The different combinations of mounted and foot units (as well as their weapons) also allow for a number of rules to be learned.
In fact, the number of miniatures in the box and the various ways in which they can be configured (both individually and in terms of army composition) make for an awful lot of variation. The four scenarios included in the bundled pamphlet are a good example, with only the final battle (which is in itself titled The Battle of Pelennor Fields) featuring the full variety of miniatures. Even then, game balance dictates that not all Good units will appear on the battlefield, with the dismounted Rohan forces left aside.
All of the bundled scenarios are intended to both engage the player and to teach them the game by introducing new concepts with each battle. Once the final scenario is completed, players will be more than capable of setting up their own battles — and this is undoubtedly where I had the most fun with Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Introducing scenery such as buildings, fences, trees and rocky outcrops can dramatically change the game and may even make a smaller points game more interesting than a larger one on an open field. It’s worth noting that no such scenery is pictured because none is included in the box, but if Battle of the Pelennor Fields gives you the modelling bug, then you’ll find no shortage of scenery building FAQ’s online.
When battle is finally joined in Middle Earth Strategy Battles, the interplay between powerful, complex rules and fast, streamlined play is incredibly satisfying. Units move in inches measured on plastic rulers that are included in the box, with charging or marching allowing units to move further (with some potential consequences) and certain other rules such as when a unit can move and fire a bow, for example. Units are grouped loosely within range of their leader and can be moved relatively freely once one identical model has been measured out. There’s no shuffling of bristling trays as there is in some miniatures games and turn order is usually decided by an initiative roll, subject to possible modifiers.
When miniatures meet base to base, combat will be initiated (in a phase that follows movement and shooting.) Where possible, miniatures will separate as combat is resolved, with units that can’t move away being considered trapped, conferring a penalty that can lead to them being knocked prone. Players roll of for combat based on weapon skill, with the highest roll (after modifiers) winning the combat. Dice are then used to determine hits and armour rolls, with wounds then being dealt — most small base miniatures will die with a single wound.
There are lots of nuanced modifiers to this combat, but each and every one of them made sense to me immediately. Having a model of the same base size with a long weapon (such as a spearman) behind a friendly model will add a support die to the combat roll. The player will then pick the higher of these dice to determine their modified weapon skill. This makes fighting in an orderly manner highly beneficial, but not at all overpowered. Surprises can (and will) happen though, which adds to the feeling of battlefield chaos.
Whilst I am not overly familiar with the competitive scene for Middle Earth Strategy Battles, I understand that earlier versions of the rules allowed for a few slightly overpowered (and strange) possibilities. Eagles carrying hand axes (because the rules said they were equipped with one handed weapons and that meant any of the available options in that category, as long as it was glued to the model) were apparently a thing. The 2018 version of these rules that come bundled in Battle of the Pelennor Fields prevent such things, and I think it’s quite impressive that the ruleset is capable of catering for hardcore, competitive gamers and play-at-home hobbyists in equal measure.
As a boxed product then, Battle of Pelennor Fields is a superb value proposition and an excellent game in its own right, with the potential to delight newcomers and please hobbyists looking to expand their collection considerable in one fell swoop. The quality of the miniatures is exceptional, whilst the written material is literally second to none in either its clarity or attention to detail. The inclusion of dice, measuring rulers and tokens proves that Games Workshop continues to refine its boxed offerings with each step. Overall, Middle Earth Strategy Battles is a superb system and Battle of Pelennor Fields is the best way to take your first steps into it.
A copy of Battle of Pelennor Fields was provided by Goblin Gaming for review purposes. You can purchase a copy at a discounted rate here.