Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game is a tabletop wargame by Games Workshop, based on the fantasy world of Middle-Earth described by legendary fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien in his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books as it appears in the screen adaptations of these books by director Peter Jackson.
In the game, the forces of Good face off against the forces of Evil in epic battles full of villains and heroes you know and love from the films and books, played with plastic, metal and resin miniatures that represent your generals, monsters and warriors.
The rules for the game are complex and full of detail to simulate the richness of Middle-Earth lore, but they also make for a cinematic and very dynamic play experience with very little downtime and lots to do for each player in every phase of the game.
In this Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game Guide, we walk you through what the game is about, how to get started playing it, and all the rules you need to understand to build an army that’s fun to play in the game.
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Lore of Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game
Most fantasy and science fiction settings today pride themselves on being morally complex: Everyone in Warhammer 40,000 is a terrible person in one way or another, only a Sith deals in absolutes, and in Westeros, everything comes down to politics and survival. The first thing you need to know about the lore of Middle-Earth is that it is not like that at all.
Arda, the Earth itself in the setting, was created by the father god, Eru Ilùvatar, who is Good with a capital G in the same way as monotheistic gods in our world are perceived by their worshippers: He is good because he is the Creator, so everything, goodness included, is measured by his standards. The lesser gods, the Ainur, helped him shape and create the world, but one of them, Morgoth, wove his own designs into the song of creation and turned against Ilùvatar. From then, the history of Arda is a history of captil G Good versus capital E Evil.
Under the always looming storm of this manichean struggle, the Elves, Dwarves, Men (collective term for humans in this setting) and all sorts of fantastic creatures lived their lives for millenia. The Elves are closest to the Ainur, and for a long time, many of them lived away from the continent of Middle-Earth in the Heaven-like lands of Valinor, until they also ran into conflict with Morgoth and ended up going back to Middle-Earth to fight him and finally defeat him, aided by Men and Dwarves (we’re summarising literally books full of lore here, so please bear with the simplifications).
One of Morgoths lieutenants, however, kept Evil alive in the world: Sauron, a great sorcerer and smith, deceived and fought Elves and Men alike for centuries, and finally rose to almost invincible power due to the crafting of his One Ring, a powerful object that bound all power in Middle-Earth to him.
It was only because Men and Elves finally managed to keep an alliance together and drive Sauron and his armies of corrupted and deformed Elves called Orcs into the desolate lands of Mordor that they were able to defeat the Dark Lord and take his One Ring. Tragically, the human king Isildur fell to temptation and kept the Ring to himself, so that Evil wasn’t properly destroyed. Sauron’s power was broken, but Evil kept festering, and from his ethereal form, Sauron started gathering his forces and searching for the source of his power so that he could rise to finally defeat the forces of Good.
– And that’s where, thousands of years deep into the lore of the setting, the lore of the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game begins.
The game takes place in two distinct eras, based on the two different Peter Jackson adaptations of Tolkien’s books: The Hobbit chronicles the story of how, during a quest to liberate a dwarven ancestral stronghold from the gold-hoarding dragon Smaug, a small hobbit called Bilbo Baggins (a diminutive humanoid species that’s very central to the setting) stumbled upon the One Ring deep in the caves of an ancient mountain, and how it helped him and his dwarven employers (as well as the powerful wizard Gandalf) to defeat the dragon.
The Lord of the Rings takes place 60 years later, when the forces of Evil are rising again, and the agents of Sauron set out to find the Ring. The wizard Gandalf gathers the forces of Good to aid Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, in taking the One Ring into the heart of Sauron’s realm Mordor itself to destroy it once and for all, as swarms of Orcs descend upon the last bastions of Man in a truly apocalyptic showdown.
The two settings are very different in tone – The Hobbit is a pretty light-hearted adventure story, while still being full of epic battles and snippest of the deep lore of Tolkien’s world, while The Lord of the Rings is a very epic fantasy novel of great despair and greater hope, where the forces of Good are overwhelmed by the forces of Evil with only a very small chance of prevailing against them.
Both are perfect settings for a miniature battle game. Each faction in the game has a deep history as well as notable characters to lead your armies, and the stakes are always high, because your battles are never just about territorial disputes or politics – they’re about survival. If Evil wins, all that is Good will wither and vanish.
This is very evident all the time in The Lord of the Rings, but also in The Hobbit, just on a smaller scale: If the forces of Evil win in The Hobbit, the Dwarves or the Men of Laketown will lose their home forever, and whole cultures will be lost, and if you’re looking at the conflict through the eyes of wiser characters such as the wizard Gandalf, the fight between Smaug and the Dwarves is just one of the opening moves on the great chess board of Sauron’s machinations to return to power.
The fact that the setting is all about Good vs. Evil doesn’t mean it’s not a complex setting at all. While Men, Dwarves and Elves (and Ents, and Hobbits, and so on) are all fighting to keep Evil at bay, there is a universal theme of temptation in the setting. Kings, wizards, heroes and even ordinary people are constantly tempted by the beguiling whispers of Evil to seize power and riches for themselves – often with the best of intentions! – and often fall to these temptations.
The existence of absolute Evil in the setting doesn’t mean the forces of Good are infallible or beyond criticism. Rather, it means that at the end of the table of the forces of Evil sits a power that’s completely, unquestionably, vile and beyond redemption, its designs solely set upon destroying everything that’s worth living for: At the end of the table of Evil in Middle-Earth sits Power itself, always taking away and never giving, only ever caring about itself.
This means that Good in Middle-Earth, as the neccessary opposite of this Evil, is all about renouncing Power – about setting the needs of others before your own, about duty and responsibility, and about believing in something worth dying for rather than killing for.
Taking this kind of view of Good and Evil and applying it to any real-world conflict is, of course, hugely problematic: That’s not how the world works, and there are two sides to most things in life. Tolkien’s stories are in no way a good blueprint for figuring out who’s good or bad in the world today.
As the basis of a fictional setting, though, it’s the stuff awesome epic storytelling is made of, and if you just need an escape from the endless gray-on-gray of the news cycle (or from the dark-on-dark of the Warhammer worlds), Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game might be just the game for you.
What do I need in order to play Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game?
Middle-Earth Battle Strategy Game is a game played with miniatures, rulebooks, 6-sided dice and a ruler that measures in inches. There are a couple of ways in which you can get started with the game, which we’ll go through in this section.
There are two ways in which you can get the fundamental rules needed to play the game.
The first one is free:
Games Workshop has made a Battlehost Quickstart Rules Guide freely available to download here, which functions as sort of an expanded cheat sheet that guides you through all the phases of the game and explains the most important rules. It’s really all you need if you’re planning on starting the game with buying a Battlehost box (more on those below), and we recommend using it as a quick reference during games even for more advanced players, but if you really want to get into the intricacies of the game’s systems, or you want to play an army that doesn’t use the few special rules and magical powers covered in the free pdf, it’s not going to be what you need.
The second option is the Rules Manual pictured above, which covers everything you need to know for the game, apart from the specific rules for each army.
It’s a huge book with more than 140 pages of rules, as well as some scenarios and a ton of photos of painted armies for almost every faction. If you’re a Tolkien fan coming to this game without prior wargaming experience, it’s going to seem a bit overwhelming, but by Games Workshop standards, the Rules Manual is an excellent rulebook full of images and numbered examples that explain almost every single rule in the game in a way that’s pretty easy to follow.
The book also uses keywords and colour codes to show different kinds of rules, so once you’ve grasped the basics of the game (something we hope this article will help you with), the rulebook becomes less of a challenge and more of a treasure trove of interesting rules that are easy to reference.
The rules for each faction in Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game can mainly be found in two rulebooks.
Armies of the Lord of the Rings covers all the factions you find in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and even a few armies only found in the Lord of the Rings books, such as Drûadan wild men and the Fiefdoms.
Armies of the Hobbit covers all the factions found in the The Hobbit film trilogy and in the The Hobbit book, including the humongous dragon Smaug and even the armies of the Dwarf king Thror from Thorin’s flashback in the films. If you’ve watched the movies or read the books, you might have a hard time imagining how you can make 20 different factions with full armies out of that story, but the book manages it with a bit more creativity and whimsy than the Lord of the Rings army book, and it’s pretty fun.
In addition to these two main sources for army building, the game also has a couple of campaign books with special narrative armies, such as Defence of the North pictured above, but as amazing as these books are, they’re not a great place to start if you just want to understand the basics of how the game works and get some games played quickly.
When choosing what miniatures you want for your army, you can consult the army books and then find the individual miniature kits for your army in a Warhammer store or most other stores that specialize in miniature wargames. If you want to buy a single box with a functional army, however, there are a couple of easy ways to go about this. There are two things to be aware of, before you pick your army:
The first is that Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game miniatures are pretty small – at least they’re modeled at a smaller scale than modern Warhammer miniatures, so not everything is going to look natural if you decide to build your army out of models from another game or something 3D printed, unless you can find something at the same scale.
The second is that, while Games Workshop has done a great job making loads of plastic kits for the game in recent years, many if not most of the characters and special units for each army are still cast in resin, or even metal! There are even some armies, such as Iron Hills Dwarves, that are cast entirely in resin, so make sure to check our army guide for the game before you commit to an army if you’re not up for assembling and painting non-plastic miniatures.
Starter Sets for Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Osgiliath
The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Osgiliath starter set contains everything contains everything two players need to play games of Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game against each other. It contains the Rules Manual and a short tutorial campaign (that’s actually a lot of fun to play!) for getting to know the game while reliving the siege of Osgiliath from the Return of the King film.
It also contains two small armies – one Good army led by Faramir and his captains, with a band of Warriors of Minas Tirith and a band of Rangers of Gondor, and an Evil army led by Gothmog, with a large band of Morannon Orcs and a huge Troll. Finally, it contains a bunch of Osgiliath Ruins scenery and some dice and tokens.
It’s an excellent starter set, and while the two armies aren’t big enough for regular games of Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game, they are fun to play against each other: The Good army has a ton of archers while they Evil army has virtually none (the Troll throws rocks, and that’s it) , and the Evil army has the huge troll and the Warg-mounted Gothmog for tearing through the ranks of Good infantry. If you’re in any way into one of the two factions in the box, this starter set is a must-buy.
Battlehosts are a new way of getting started with Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game, where you buy a single box with a small army in it, which you can then play with the Quickstart rules PDF and a free pdf with rules for the army in the box.
There are currently 4 different Battlehosts available:
Minas Tirith Battlehost
This Battlehost for the Minas Tirith faction contains Gandalf and Peregrin Took (Pippin) both mounted and on foot, as well as 24 Warriors of Minas Tirith with a mix of bows, shields, swords and spears and 6 Knights of Minas Tirith. You can check out their Battlehost Quickstart Guide here.
This Battlehost for the Rohan faction contains Éomer mounted and on foot, as well as 24 Warriors of Rohan with swords, shields, bows, axes and spears, and 6 Riders of Rohan with the same weapon options. You can check out their Battlehost Quickstart Guide here.
This Battlehost for the Mordor faction contains the Witch-King of Angmar mounted and on foot, as well as 24 Mordor Orcs with spears, shields, swords, bows or two-handed melee weapons, and 6 Warg Riders with similar weapon options. Check out the Battlehost Quickstart Guide here.
This Battlehost for the Isengard faction contains Saruman Mounted and on foot, Grima Wormtongue, 24 Uruk-Hai Scouts with swords, shields and bows, and 20 Uruk-Hai Warriors with pikes, swords and shields. Check out their Battlehost Quickstart Guide here.
One of the best things about Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game from a hobbyist’s perspective is that the scenery available for the game is positively gorgeous, and really evokes the setting as it appears in the films.
Currently, the game has a fleshed-out scenery range for three locations:
Gondor is represented by building sets in various states of ruin, perfect for games set during the Siege of Osgiliath or the Battle of Pelennor Fields. If you have the starter set, these kits match the scenery from that set.
Lake-Town from The Hobbit is represented by a kit of buildings, walkways and boats that easily combines into a beautiful backdrop for small-scale fights.
Rohan from The Two Towers is represented by two kits – a kit of walls and palisades, and a kit with a Rohan house. This is great for staging Dunlending or Uruk-Hai raids against Rohan Lands leading up to the Batlle of Helm’s Deep.
In addition to these ranges, the game also has smaller kits available for Goblin-Town, the Mines of Moria, Dol-Guldur and generic ruins in plastic.
If you’re up for working with large models in resin, however, the range broadens : Games Workshop’s resin sister company Forge World has resin scenery kits available for specific scenarios, such as the insane model of Weathertop pictured above (which costs more than £300!), Amon Hen or even a Hobbit-hole!
Rules for Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game explained
In this section, we walk you through the rules and systems you need to know to understand how Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game plays. We don’t cover everything here – as is always the case in the guides here on Age of Miniatures, we cover the rules so that you’ll have an idea of whether or not the game suits the kind of play experience you want, and so that you’ll understand what’s good and bad when you start digging into the rules for the individual factions and units. Before we go into the specific rules, here’s a short list of characteristics that define the overall kind of game Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game is:
- Even though you can play Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game as big battles with lots and lots of miniatures, it is a skirmish game from a strict systems perspective: Unlike Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Warhammer 40,000 or the A Song of Ice and Fire miniature wargame, models move, shoot and attack individually, and not as part of a unit. This will feel very different to traditional wargamers, but immediately familiar to players of Necromunda, Kill Team, Marvel Crisis Protocol or Frostgrave.
- While each model has a profile card with its rules written on it, many rules such as the power of a weapon, a magical power or a Special Rule are collected in the Rules Manual for the most part. This can be frustrating when you just want to quickly understand what your models can do, but it does help in streamlining the game and making it easier to grasp what your opponent is doing, because their spears always work the same way yours do. This is a dealbraker to some wargamers, particular people who play the more recent mainline Games Workshop games, but if you’re coming from Horus Heresy or you used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles, you’ll feel right at home.
- Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game uses a mixture of player turns and alternating activations. Unlike Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40,000, you don’t get to move, shoot and fight all in one go before your opponent gets to use her army. Instead, each phase of the game involves both players, so that one player moves all their models, and then the other player moves their models. Then, the first player shoots all their ranged weapons, and then the other player shoots with all their ranged weapons, and so on. It’s a very reactive system that, while not quite as dynamic as skirmish games where you take turns activating a model at a time, always ensures that both players gets to do something every 5 minutes or so.
The most important rules that show you the strengths and weaknesses of your army are found on the unit profile of your models. In this section, we take a quick look at the different statistics found on a unit profile, and what the keywords, weapon types and Special Rules on the profiles mean – and where to look them up.
Above here, you can see the unit profile for a Warrior of Minas Tirith, taken from the Minas Tirith Battlehost Quickstart Guide. It’s slightly simplified from what you get in the main army books, but it works as an example of the most basic building blocks of a unit profile:
- Name and Points: At the top, we have the name of the character/model and, on ordinary unit profiles, its points cost.
- Keywords and Heroic Tier: Below the name, we have a parenthesis with the relevant keywords for the model. These keywords are really important, since various rules only affect models with certain keywords, such as INFANTRY or CAVALRY. If a model is a Hero, its Heroic Tier is also stated here.
- Characteristics: The table of letters and numbers in the middle of the profile contains the most important part of the unit profile, its characteristics. The characteristics are as follows:
- Mv is for Movement: The number of inches this model can move each turn. The 6 inches the Warrior of Minas Tirith can move is what most other human infantry models can move.
- F is for Fight Value: The two characteristics under F define how good your model is at using weapons. The number before the slash is the Fight value, and is used in close combat. When two models fight in combat, they roll off with a dice each to see who wins the Duel. If the roll-off is tied (for example, if both players roll a 6), the model with the highest Fight value wins the combat. The number with a “+” after it on the other side of the slash is a model’s Shoot value, and it shows how high the model needs to roll to Hit with a ranged weapon – in the case of the Warrior of Minas Tirith, a 4 or higher, which gives it a 50% chance to Hit.
- S is for Strength: This characteristic determines how easy it is for your model to wound its target in combat. When figuring out if you wound a target, you take your Strength and the Defence of the target and compare them to a table in the rules, which then tells you what you have to roll to wound the target. For example, a Strength 3 model that tries to wound a Defence 5 model wounds on a roll of 5 or more – it takes a while to get used to if you haven’t played a game with this system before, but you learn most of the combinations by heart after a little while, and the table is easy to read.
- D is for Defence: This is the characteristic you measure Strength against to figure out if an attacker wounds a target. It can be affected by armour and shields.
- A is for Attacks: This one is pretty simple. Attacks tells you how many dice you can roll when attacking an enemy in combat. You use this twice in a combat: When making the roll to see who wins the Duel, and again when you try to wound the target.
- W is for Wounds: These are the hit points of your model – they show how many times the enemy can allocate a wound to your model before it dies. Most non-Hero infantry just has 1 Wound.
- C is for Courage: This is the number that shows how brave your model is, and it is used when figuring out the effects of Terror and whether a model flees the battlefield. In general, to take a Courage test, you roll two dice, add up their values and add the Courage characteristic of the model. If the result is 10 or higher, you pass the test. If it is 9 or lower, you fail, and bad stuff happens according to the rules of the effect that made you take the Courage test. For example, if your army loses more than half its models in a Matched Play game (see below), from then on, each of your models must take a Courage test before moving. If they fail, they’re removed from the game as they flee the battlefield.
- Finally, Heroes have 3 additional characteristics, Might, Will and Fate, which are resources they can spend to issue commands, make Heroic Actions or cast Magical Powers, but more on that below.
- Wargear: Here, the weapons and armour of the model is listed, including any loadouts it can choose between. Remember that models aren’t part of units, so if you buy a box of Warriors of Minas Tirith, you can choose which loadout each of the models go to war with. If the model is a Hero with special weapons, their special characteristics are mentioned here as well. To a beginner, this part of the weapons profile can be tricky, because it looks like this is just pure description of the wargear of the model, while in fact, each noun in this section is actually also a keyword that you can look up in the equipment section of the Rules Manual. We’ll go into the different equipment rules below.
- Heroic Actions: The Warrior of Minas Tirith doesn’t have any of these, as they’re reserved for Heroes, but if he did, they would be listed, but not explained, right under the Wargear section. The Heroic Actions are special abilities of Heroes that also often function as buffs for your other warriors. We’ll cover the most common ones under Unit Types below.
- Options: If the model has any equipment options that would make it cost extra points, such as mounting a horse, there’ll also be a section for that on their unit profile.
- Special Rules: Special Rules are, well, special rules that apply to this model, in this case Shieldwall, which gives the Warrior of Minas Tirith a bonus to Defence if it is next to two other models with the same Special Rule. All the common Special Rules can be found in the Rules Manual, and if a model has a Special Rule that’s unique to the model, it is fully explained on the unit profile under this section.
- Magic Powers: Finally, if a model can cast any Magical Powers, they’re listed at the bottom of the unit profile.
While there are many keywords in Middle-Earth Battle Strategy Game, there are only three that have dedicated entire chapters of the Rules Manual to them: CAVALRY, HERO, and MONSTER. In this section, we go through the rules and abilities associated with each of them.
The first thing to know about Cavalry unit is that they’re sort of a hybrid: They consist of the Rider and the Mount, and derive different statistics from each of them. The rider swaps its own Move characteristic value for that of their mount, and the rider can also choose to use the mount’s Strength, Fight and Attacks (in any combination) when Fighting. The latter becomes especially handy for something like Orcs riding Wargs, where the mount is a terrifying fighter in its own right.
The other main utility of Cavalry is, of course, that they’re usually faster than Infantry. This comes with some caveats, however, since Cavalry are also worse than Infantry models at anything related to movement in more complex terrain situations such as Difficult Terrain, stuff you have to Leap over, stairs, and so on. Only Swimming stands out as something Cavalry is actually better at. So, Cavalry works as it is supposed to: as swift units that excel in open terrain.
Mounts and Riders aren’t inseparable. If you roll a 1 when trying to Leap over an obstacle, or if the mount dies, the rider has to roll a dice and consult the Thrown Rider Table. This can result in the rider getting hurt from the fall, suffering a penalty to which actions he can make for a turn, or that the rider emerges from the fall unscathed and becomes an Infantry model instead. Most newer mounted Heroes come with both a Mounted and Dismounted model for this purpose. Once a rider has dismounted, on purpose or due to the Thrown Rider Table, they can’t remount.
Mounts and Riders are also separate as targets in shooting and combat. If you hit a Cavalry model with a shooting attack, you roll a dice with a 50% chance to strike either the rider or the mount, and they’re both In The Way of each other, which affects your chance to hit them with a shooting attack. In melee combat, you can choose which of the two to strike.
Finally, Cavalry are great at charging – this is the game based on the setting that brought us the Charge of the Rohirrim, after all. When charging, Cavalry gets an extra attack in the following Fight, and if they win that Fight, any opponents in that Fight are knocked Prone.
All in all, Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game goes to great lengths to make Cavalry work in a distinct, lore-appropriate way, making mount-focused armies such as Rohan really feel the way they should according to the lore.
Apart from generally being stronger than other units, and their ability to lead warbands, Heroes as a unit type are most remarkable for having three additional characteristics called Might, Will and Fate, which are unique in the sense that they’re all pools of points you can spend on various things:
- Might can be used to modify dice rolls and for Heroic Actions. When used to modify almost any dice roll in the game, you can spend 1 Might Point to improve one of your dice rolls by 1. Heroic Challenges are special abilities that give your Hero or his warband an advantage, such as moving, fighting or shooting before other models, or even singling an enemy Hero out for a Heroic Challenge in the middle of a larger melee. There’s a long list of these in the Rules Manual, and while they can really make a difference in the game, the amount of Might you can spend is usually very limited (often around 3).
- Will is used for three things: Casting Magical Powers, resisting them, and passing Courage Tests. Magical Powers are cast by spending x amount of Will to roll x amount of dice, and if the total value of the rolls exceed the casting value of the Magical Power in question, the Power is succesfully cast. Like Might points, Will points are pretty sparse, which suits Tolkien’s world well, as magic is somewhat rare and very powerful in Middle-Earth. There’s a big list of Magical Powers in the Rules Manual, and specific characters can have their own special Magical Powers as well. You can even cast Channelled versions of Magical Powers by also expending a Might point, which gives the Power better or even brand new effects. Resisting a Magical Power is just like casting one: you spend x Will to cast x amount of dice and try to match or beat the casting roll to cancel the effect of the Power. Finally, you can alter the roll value of a Courage Test by 1 by spending a Will point.
- Fate can be spent when your Hero suffers a wound, and then you can roll a dice for a 50% chance to ignore that wound. If the first roll fails, you can spend another point to roll again.
Again, Heroes are completely integral to how Tolkien’s universe works: The deeds of brave individuals can make all the difference. The three Hero-specific characteristic really help bringing that to life in the game, and the way army building works in the game, you often field a bunch of heroes in every game, giving everything a really epic feel.
Monsters are the big, supernatural or strange beasts and horrors of Middle-Earth, and they also come with a few special abilities of their own. Most notably, when they win a Fight, they can do Brutal Power Attacks instead of striking normally. They can choose between two Brutal Power Attacks:
- Hurl lets you throw an enemy model into other models, so that all of them suffer a hit with Strength 3 (the hurled model even suffers a hit for each model it passes through), which is really cool and thematic, especially for trolls and Ents.
- Barge forces all the opponents in the Fight to move away, and then the Monster can make a move, even a Charge, immediately, which means it potentially gets to fight again.
Warbeasts are a subtype of Monsters that are basically crewed tanks, such as the great Mumakil elephants of the Battle of Pelennor Fields. They can have room for transporting crew in a howdah on their backs, and they also have a Commander who controls them. They can trample through enemy models, causing Hits to everyone they ram into, and they have risk of stampeding and running amok if they fail Courage tests after suffering a Wound.
The whole Warbeast section of the Monster rules is basically a Mumakil simulator, but as you can see in our army overview (LINK), there are a few other Warbeast as well.
Weapon and Wargear Rules
The way weapon rules work in Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game is quite different from other Games Workshop games. Rather than having an entire profile for a weapon listed in its unit profile, most weapons simple cause 1 wound when they strike, and they also have 1 or 2 rules associated to their weapon type. This means that, unless a weapon is a named legendary weapon of some sort, a unit profile will simply state the types of weapons a unit can use, such as spear, sword or bow, and then it’s up to the player to remember what that weapon can do. This really, really limits how many different kinds of ways weapons can work, and even though it can seem very confusing for an Age of Sigmar player the first time they encounter it, its a system that makes it a lot easier to understand what your army, and that of your opponent, can do. This is, of course, how many games used to work, such as Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but in the current Games Workshop system, it’s pretty unique (games like Horus Heresy or Necromunda also list weapons separately from unit profiles, but weapons still have statlines and so on, which they don’t in Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game.
Weapons are sorted in a bunch of different categories. Close combat weapons are either single-handed, two-handed, or hand-and-a-half which means you can use them as either. Two-handed weapons add 1 to wound rolls at the cost of subtracting 1 form Duel rolls, which is a nice little risk-reward choice to take into account.
Spears, War Spears and Pikes can be used to support allies, so that when a model next to a model wielding any of these weapons attack, you can add a dice from the “spear”-wielding model as well, which really encourages fighting in tight formation.
Elven-made and Master-forged are prefixes that add bonuses to other weapon types, Lances are better when used by Cavalry to Charge, Staffs of Power gives the wielder an extra Will point to spend each turn (huge for casters), and Whips act as short-range thrown weapons.
Spears are pretty common, but otherwise, most of the weapons mentioned above are special weapons only carried by a few different units. The more common close combat weapons don’t all have unique rules, but they get Special Strikes you can choose to use before you start a Fight, grouped into the following categories:
- Hammers, Maces and Mauls can Bash, which lets them try to knock the target Prone
- Daggers and Swords (some of the most common weapons in the game) can Feint, which decreases their chance to win a Duel but lets them reroll Wound rolls of 1 if they do, or Stab, which improves their Wound roll if they win a Duel, but causes them to suffer a hit if they lose the Duel. Which one they can choose depends on their Fight value and the Fight value of the opponent.
- Axes and Picks can use Piercing Strike, which improves their Strength if they win a Fight and reduces it if they lose.
- Clubs and Staffs can Stun, which lets you roll a dice for a chance to severly lower the statistics of a target for one turn.
- Flails, Scourges and Whips can Whirl, which reduces their Fight value to 1 but lets them Strike every enemy model in the Fight if they win.
Ranged weapons don’t have special abilities, but are characterised by how far they can shoot, how strong they are and when you’re allowed to use them. Since bows are pretty powerful in the sense that you need them to do any kind of damage in the Shoot Phase, there is a limit to how many bows you can take in an army. Basically, one in three models in an army can take a ranged weapon, with some exceptions. The main types of ranged weapons in the game are as follows:
- There are 10 types of Bow in the game, which can be fired in the Shoot Phase as long as the bearer didn’t move more than half their Move characteristic in the Move Phase. They generally have a range between 18 and 24 inches.
- Crossbows have high Strength and can be fired even if the bearer moved their full Move characteristic beforehand.
- Throwing weapons can be thrown when charging instead of only in the Shoot Phase.
- Blowpipes are Poisoned (a Special Rule) and don’t count towards the bow limit.
- Slingshots can shoot twice rather than once if the bearer didn’t move at all before shooting.
Finally, the game also has dedicated rules for Banners, Elven Cloaks, War Drums, War Horns, all the different kinds of armour and shields your models can wear (usually improving Defence) – and a full page of rules for The One Ring that the Lord of the Rings story is all about, of course.
In the same way weapons are separated from unit profiles, so are most of the rules that aren’t characteristics such as Move and Strength. These are called Special Rules, and they’re collected in the Rules Manual, which means you’ll have to look them up or memorize them. But, just like with weapon rules, this means that there are generally fewer of them, and you only have to check in one place to understand what your army, or that of your opponent, can do for the most part.
Special Rules are marked as either Active or Passive. Active Special Rules are tied to some form of action your model can do, which means they might improve a wound roll or let you Fly while moving, while Passive Special Rules are just ever-present traits of your model, such as causing fear in enemies or being immune to fear.
There are only 5 pages of Special Rules in the Rules Manual, and a select few models have unique Special Rules written in their unit profile, but they’re what truly gives units personality. For example, the hobbits of the Fellowship have just two Special Rules, Resistant to Magic and Throw Stones (Range 8″, Strength 1), but that really also tells you all you need to know about what a hobbit is in just a few rules.
…and so much more!
Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game has many more rules and systems than what we can cover here, from an entire Advanced Rules section to rules for Sieges! But for now, let’s move on to how to play through a battle in the game.
Building an army in Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game
If you’re playing Matched Play, which is the Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game mode that’s balanced via points values, and therefore the one you’ll play at tournaments, for example, armies are made up of Warbands, which consists of one Hero and the Warrior models (everything else) that Hero is allowed to lead. You set a specific maximum points value for the game – such as 700 points – and then build an army comprised of as many warbands as you have Heroes for.
Each Hero that leads a warband is called a Captain, but you also have a Leader of your entire army, which is just the most powerful hero you have. The power of a hero and the amount of Warriors he can lead in a warband is determined by his Heroic Tier. Heroes of Legend can lead 18 Warriors, Heroes of Valour can lead 15, and so on. Independent Heroes can’t lead anyone but can be included in the warbands of other Heroes.
If all the models in your army come from the same army list (faction), you get to use that army list’s army bonus (which you can check out in our Army Overview (LINK)), but you can also choose to build your army from a combination of army lists, by consulting the Allies Matrix Table in the Rules Manual, which shows you which armies can be fielded together. Some armies, such as Minas Tirith/Rohan or Mordor/Easterlings, can even be in the same army without losing their Army Bonus. Other armies can’t ally at all, mostly because they belong to different time periods in the setting.
Playing Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game
You can play Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game in either Narrative, Open or Matched Play, like most other Games Workshop games.
Narrative Play is where you play out specific stories from the setting, and for those games, armies and objectives will often be set from the beginning of the game.
The concept of Open Play is that you can use whichever models you want, and it’s designed to just make it really easy for you to try out the rules of the game without any restrictions.
Matched Play, as described in the army building section above, uses points values and specific list building restrictions to build a balanced experience for competitive play, but like in many other Games Workshop games, using the rules for this game mode often also makes narrative games more fun, so don’t rule it out just because you don’t want to play competitively.
Phases in Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game
A game of Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game is made up of 5 phases. Keep in mind that in each phase, both players get to act, so it’s not like in Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40,000 where each player takes an entire turn before the opponent gets to react. The phases are:
- Priority Phase: In the Priority Phase, players roll a dice to see who gets to start each subsequent phase.
- Move Phase: In the Move Phase, the players take turns moving all their models, so for example, a Rohan player will move all of his models, and then the Isengard player will move theirs. Models can use Charge to move within 1 inch of enemy models, and when everyone has moved, models within 1 inch of each other are paired off into Fights to prepare for the Fight Phase. Pairing off into Fights is an unusual mechanic that helps a lot towards making the game feel cinematic: Close combat isn’t just big units clashing into each other, but a series of epic life or death duels between combatants.
- Shoot Phase: In the Shoot Phase, eligible models with ranged weapons can shoot. Shooting comes with a ton of restrictions: You get a -1 to hit if the model moved before shooting, and you use the Shoot value to see how high you have to roll, but in addition to that, you have to make an additional In The Way roll if your target is somewhat obscured to the eye of the shooting model, so a lot of the time, hitting something is really difficult. One of the coolest thematic rules of the game also applies to the Shoot Phase: models from Good armies can’t shoot into melee combat where a friendly model is engaged, because they wouldn’t want to hurt their friends, but Evil models totally can! They don’t care about their comrades as long as their targets are slain.
- Fight Phase: In the Fight Phase, all the models you paired off into Fights in the Move Phase get to make Duel rolls to see who wins their Fights – the player that won the Priority roll chooses the order in which to resolve the Fights. Winners of Fights then get to Strike their opponents with a Wound roll, and the losers also have to Back Away an inch from the fight. The backing away is really important, since it simulates the back and forth nature of close combat with hand weapons, and it means that melee front lines aren’t as static as they are in many other tabletop games. Any slain models are removed from the battlefield.
- End Phase: The End Phase is simply a cleanup step where some effects end and a new turn gets ready to begin.
This is the core loop of the game, but how you actually win a game depends on the Scenario you choose, which can have special terrain layouts, special rules and special objectives. You can make up your own Scenarios or find tons of them in the rulebooks released for the game.
Final Thoughts on Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game
Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game is, first of all, a completely wonderful bringing to life of the beloved worlds of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The miniature designs, the rules and the style of its rulebooks and lore writing is very, very loyal to aesthetics and ethos of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (at least in their film versions), and so much care has gone into simulating even the tiniest traits of the setting. If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to play tabletop games that allow you to relive the events of his stories, this game is the one for you.
Second, Middle-Earth Strategy Game is a pretty old-school tabletop game from a design perspective. “Hiding” weapon rules and special rules in the Rules Manual, rather than just printing them in the unit profiles will feel like an immediately frustrating design choice to tabletop gamers who have entered the hobby in the last 5 to 10 years, and it does take some time getting used to, and definitely also has its disadvantages.
But, from a narrative perspective, it also makes the game really modular: Since the profiles for units in the game are already built from a limited set of rules building blocks, it’s pretty easy for you to make up your own characters by picking a unit profile and adding new weapons, wargear or Special Rules to it. There’s really no limit to what kind of Middle-Earth stories you can tell with this ruleset, and it would only take a bit of home-brewing to start playing out battles from, say, the Silmarillion.
But then again, third: there are limits, they’re just not derived from the rules. Rather, the only real drawback of the game is that a very large part of the (vast) model range for the game are sculpted in materials that are old-school in a bad way: You might find the coolest army in one of the army books, only to find out that it’s made up of mostly ancient metal sculpts or super-fragile resin sculpts that bend and break, and which you can usually only get second hand or from the Games Workshop/Forge World webstore.
Newer resin kits are of much better quality, and new plastic versions of models are being rolled out every year, but the model range still has a long way to go to be properly accessible to new players. To find your way through this wilderness of model types, our Army Overview (LINK) lists what material models are made of, and how recent the sculpts are.
Fourth and finally, Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game might be old-school, but the way the rules are introduced in the rulebooks are anything but old and dusty: The rules are full of easy to understand visual examples, numbering and explanatory texts that really shows how the designers have written the rules with beginners and clarity in mind, which is a rare thing that many other rules writers should take note of.
The combination of an amazing setting, the best of old-school wargaming sensibilities, modularity and an expanding modern model range is what makes Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game a tabletop wargame we wholeheartedly recommend to Tolkienistas everywhere.