Monday, 30 January 2012

Re-forging the Ring - Updated

After a period of rumours, the news is officially out that Games Workshop is re-releasing its Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game. With the Hobbit movies on the way that this would happen sooner or later is hardly surprising, though GW's rapid move suggests they want everything sorted out and in place well before the official Hobbit miniatures are due for release.

One interesting shift is that War of the Ring is, apparently, to be more or less dropped from sale. Shuffled off into the Specialist games hinterland with the focus on the old Strategy Battle Game. Presumably GW have concluded that it has run its course, whether that means it failed or simply that they had gotten as much out of it as they could is less certain.

The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game has actually been a remarkably stable rule set by wargaming standards, let alone GW's. Technically it is still on its First edition. Although three rule books were released in quick succession, one for each movie, these were really just expansions of the original rules rather than new editions. The current rulebook essentially consolidated the same rules with only a few small tweaks, has been around for seven years and is not due to be replaced now. As far as I am concerned this is very much a good thing as the essential rules work well at what they are designed to do and don't need re-writing for the sake of it.

That said, I am much less enamoured of the new that the current run of source books is due to be droppped, with the exception of the Lord of the Rings Journey books, and replaced with five "army books" covering the major forces of Middle Earth. I am sure some people will welcome the news, particularly Rohan or Isengard players who have been left without a dedicated supplement since the release of the new edition. And the existing books are hardly a coherent collection, some focus on regions, others on conflicts and some on armies or races.

However, the move to, what sounds like, a more Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 model of army books, albeit ones that cover more than one army list, is, I think, unfortunate and threatens to undermine some of the unique characteristics of Lord of the Rings as a game in contrast to its Warhammer counterparts.

As a relatively rare licensed war game, LOTR is set in a world that was not created to be a wargaming back drop. It is not a world of eternal warfare in which neatly defined races, each with their own distinct armies can be neatly picked out and pitted against one another. The story of Middle Earth is one of intermitant warfare, punctuated by conflicts between specific forces and nations. What that means is that certain combinations of armies never fought one another and others fought only briefly. The full army of Isengard, for example, was only ever employed in one battle, Helm's Deep.

Of course some players, quite reasonably, ignore this. They take their favourite armies and fight against one another without consideration for the background or history that inspired them. And their is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, others, including myself, prefer their games to be grounded in the setting, preferring to play games that recreate battles that Tolkein described, or ones consistent with the world he created.

In some senses LOTR is actually more like an historical wargame than a fantasy one. Like an historical game it attempts to reflect defined conflicts that were defined outside of the company producing the game without consideration for its use as a game. Both use a wide variety of army lists, many of which blur together, covering a long period of history. Also, as with some historical armies, some LOTR armies are drawn very firmly from the source material, while others are more speculative, based on only partial accounts.

The other feature that sets LOTR apart from Games Workshop's other games was that it was designed specifically to support scenario-based gaming with heavly unbalanced forces. The Hero rules were written so that namd characters would behave quite differently from regular troops and that the most powerful characters from the books, Gandalf, Aragorn etc, could fight single-handedly against a horde of nameless enemies. In that sense, LOTR is entirely unlike an historical game.

The three supplements that most supported this approach, and which are, thankfully, still being kept in print, are the three Journey books that cover the three volumes of the Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring supplement, in particular, is one of my favourite gaming supplements, because it combines rules, scenarios and scenery building workshops and presents them in the order that they are needed. This means it is possible to work your way through the book from start to finish preparing models and scenery as you need them for the scenarios. Of course some compromises have to be made to suit the narrative of the source material. So it is necessary to tackle the comples Weathertop project quite early on.

Sadly, Games Workshop quickly abandoned this approach with their supplements not based directly on the books. After Fall of the Necromancer scenery building ws dropped and scenarios became less and less important. By the time of the Mordor supplement, Games Workshop had even abandoned location or conflict based supplements, creating what was, in effect, an army book.

And sadly, that is where we find ourselves now. Five supplements books are to be released covering the different LOTR armies. These are themed not by conflict, narrative or location, but simply by sticking the armies that seem most similar together. So we have one for Men, one for Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits, one for Mordor, one for Moria and Angmar and one for all the other evil armies (or the fallen realms, as they are calling them). The design of these books is looking less than inspiring, with single stills from the Movies on standard blue covers. They will, at least, contain scenarios, but it is hard to escape the feeling that this is an attempt to produce Warhammer style army books to allow gamers to pick armies to agreed points values and with only a limited interest in the Middle-Earth back drop.

I can't help but feel that this is another  missed opportunity from a company unwilling to be creative or take risks any more. Despite War of the Ring not proving successful enough to keep going as a mainstream game, Games Workshop still seem determined to Warhmmer-ise LOTR. This requires them to play down all the elements that make it distinct from Warhammer, a setting not designed for Wargaming, unbalanced narrative scenarios, a strong role for heroic characters and a game that could be played very comfortably at a number of scales.

Time will tell whether this move proves to be a success or not, but, personally, far from rekindling an interest in the game, all they have managed to do is put me off it.


Since writing the above, Games Workshop have released some more information about the new books on their blog.

I'm not very reassured by this. The scenarios are welcome, but the examples they cite are either generic or essentially re-prints. The new army list format also seems to add an unneeded layer of complication to what was a very simple system. It is now a requirement to include one hero for every 0-12 regular fighters. It isn't a major restriction, but it does feel unnecessary. Why add a restriction where none is needed?

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