Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Reviewing collectible games from a wargamer's perspective: Lord of the Rings Tradeable Miniatures Game

Lord of the Rings: Tradeable Miniatures Game is a very wargamey skirmish level collectible miniatures game.

Each miniature represents a single combatant and, while undefined, each turn rather obviously represents just a few seconds of time.

The miniatures, themselves, are very impressive. Very well sculpted, humans are about 40 mm high, making them rather large by the standards of wargame-style miniatures. All the figures are based on the movie trilogy interpretation of the Lord of the Rings world, not directly on the books, so Tolkien fans may find things to quibble about. (Fantasy Flight's War of the Ring, in contrast, is based on the books, giving fans different things to quibble about). While not always faithful to the books, the LOTR:TNG is definitely faithful to the movie.

The key element of the game design are the Combat Hex bases, which use adjustable indicators to track the changing status of each fighting piece. In the first set these indicators took the form of sliding tabs, one on either side of the figure base, which kept track of the number of hits the unit could take and the number of "action points" available. The action points are used to activate various special powers, give units additional movement or allow some die rolls to be changed. In later sets the indicators were changed to dials with the same functions.

Other data on the base includes the name of the piece, its collector number, its point vale, attack strength, defense strength, movement allowance and, in the case of missile units, a range and combat strength for missile fire.

The combat strength number indicates how many dice the unit is entitled to roll when it attacks, with 4 or better being a hit and a 1 being a "glancing blow" that i eligible for conversion into a hit if action points are spent to do so. Once the number of potential hits is determined the dice are rolled again in a "damage roll" and the defense value indicates what die roll is needed to inflict a hit. For example, a Rohirrim Archer (BS73) rolls one die in a melee attack. If he rolls a 4 hit gets a potential hit. and rolls again. If fighting an Orc Spearman (BS16) whose defense value is a "3" any damage roll of a 3 or better will inflict a hit on the Orc.

Many characters, especially named heroes such a Aragorn, Gandalf or Frodo have special abilities which grant additional combat or mobility powers. Using these powers requires spending "action points" with the number of points varying on the character and the power. The point values of the characters reflect not just their raw combat values but also the number of their special abilities and how much they cost to activate.

Combat and movement are pretty standard skirmish level stuff, with the usual terrain effects and provisions for striking disengaging characters and the like. Each turn begins with a Strategy Phase where a die roil determines initiative and each player has the opportunity to spend action points to activate certain special abilities. The attacker then conducts an action phase for all his pieces, followed by the defender. During an Action Phase pieces can move, certain kinds of combat (such as shooting) can occur and some special abilities can be activated. After both sides have completed their action phases there is a general combat phase.

This combat phase is handled a little differently than most skirmish style games and is responsible for much of the unique feel of LOTR: TMG. In cases of single combat the two involved characters duel in the expected way, with each rolling their die or dice and inflicting potential hits as appropriate. Action points can also be spent to change a limited number of damage dice rolls to higher numbers as well. But in cases where there are multiple adjacent combatants players arrange their attacks in "chains' of engaged characters according to various common sense rules to group them. For example, two characters who happen to be adjacent but facing away from each other may no end up being in the same chain. All the attack dice from units in a chain are rolled at once and the number of potential hits determined. The damage roll is then made and the hits allocated to defending units in that chain by the attacker. Hits are resolved once both sides have had a chance to attack.

While resolving a large and complex chain can be time consuming, my sense is that it takes less time than resolving dozens or scores of individual combats as is the usual practice in similar games. It definitely creates a level of tactical cohesion that reflects melee combat well. There are real incentives to keep characters groups in an organized fashion appropriate to melee combat as seen in the movie and in real life. Some special abilities such as "bodyguard" can help keep the opponent from merely picking on the best heroes, who anyway tend to have a high number of hit points and high defense values. A hero such as the mounted Eomer (TT52) can take five hits to eliminate and those hits need to be a 5 or better so it can be difficult to take them out. On the other hand, a lowly Orc Warrior (BS19) only takes two hits and they only need to be a 3 or better so large swaths of Orc Warriors can disappear in short order from a large melee.

The overall effect is to capture rather well the large sweeping battles from the movie and make it possible to re-stage battles such as Helms Deep without being tedious.

On the other hand, the game is very tactical and military and I suspect that most LOTR fans were looking for something more narrative and even "heroic" in style and the game ended up being discontinued, although not before running through several expansions and providing a useful number of characters to stage most of the battles from the movie. All the major characters appear, with many appearing in several versions. Besides the normal human-scale figures such as Men, Orcs. Elves and Hobbits there were also a number of large pieces including Trolls, Fell Beasts, Treebeard, the Balrog and even Sauron himself.

From a wargamer's perspective LOTR:TMG is worthwhile, particularly for those who are also Tolkien fans. It provides some interesting tactical decisions in a unique but sensible skirmish-level wargame that allows staging fairly large man-to-man battles in a reasonable time. It's possible to stage battles involving a hundred or more figures and resolving them in a single sitting.

Some of the neater figures are hard to find now, as it doesn't appear that people owning the game are giving them up in large numbers, although when figures do appear on eBay they are generally priced reasonably. Starter kits are widely available, but of limited use because of the small figure selection. Players should always use the so-called "Tournament Rules" which are really a revised and clarified edition of the standard rules. There are still organized playing groups in some places, including an active group in the Midwest, but the game itself is officially discontinued and no longer supported with the official Web site take down (although still available elsewhere).

Because of the difficulty in acquiring a satisfying number of figures it's hard to recommend the game to new players, but if you get an opportunity to pick up someone's collection or find some boosters in the dusty corner of a game shop somewhere I would snap it up in a heartbeat.

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