This game was played at Fall In in November 2000. I include pictures and game design notes so that other players can try it out for themselves.
I love running large games using huge numbers of miniatures from my (and my friendís) collections. In the past weíve run these using various releases of the Warhammer rules as well other commercial sets. In all cases the games have been laborious to play and didnít reach conclusions in the time available. The release of Warmaster offers a set of fantasy rules that allow fast resolution of combat and retain a great deal of fantasy flavour.
The pleasant surprise was that due to the command/movement system they also make for a game that allows fluid movement and can create tactical surprises, unlike the meat grinder syndrome that most other games feature.
It is also a ďlow magicĒ system game and that suits Tolkeinís universe, one of my favorite sources of inspiration for large games.
We decided to play the Battle of the 5 Armies from the Hobbit. Tolkein is unfortunately a better creator of mythoi than a military historian and he doesnít give too many details of exact troop types and numbers, 500 dwarves at one point and thousands of elven spearmen at another. His drawings suggest a technology level prior to even the medieval, but his writings suggest Knights in shining armour (late Gothic surely). I was trying to use my collection of Warhammer figures as far as possible and so decided to use a mixture of High and Wood Elves for the elves (mainly to have enough!) and Brettonians for the humans. Except for Gandalf, no wizards were allowed and, in order to simplify play, only a few magic items were used, often in ďillegalĒ combinations to make a specifically hard unit. No gunpowder being allowed, the dwarves left their artillery at home, but brought plenty of beer.
We divided the commands up into 8 groups to allow 8 players to play, although extra players were incorporated on the day. These were Dwarves, Elven Cavalry, Elven Infantry and Laketown Men for the Alliance. Bolgís troops were divided into Chariots and Heavy Cavalry, Light Cavalry (plus Bats and Wolves), Orcs infantry and Goblin infantry. I acted as Gamesmaster trying to keep things moving.
On the Alliance side, each armyís commanders were only allowed to command their own troops, except for Gandalf. Gandalf could command any Alliance unit, but could only command units before the Army Generals failed commands, once they had failed commands, then nobody could move units of †that army.
On the Goblin side, Orcs were allowed to command anybody, Goblins, The Bat King and Great Warg were only allowed to command their own contingents. Orcs need a lot of command help so Bolg was given the Crown and Helm and a lesser Orc General (ďBarakĒ) was invented to allow the Goblins more command.
Warmaster with 28mm figures.
I said that I like big games, didnít I? Well I have several thousand painted figures (the DOW, Dark Elves and Undead didnít come along for this game) and really donít want to paint a very large number of Warmaster figures (yet), so when the game was released I tried playing the game using 28mm WHFB figures. To my pleasant surprise, it not only worked, it worked well.
I used the standard GW small movement tray (50x100mm) as the stand size. All my models are magnetically based, so with a magnetic tray, itís easy to do, I just needed a couple of hundred of them. I base 4 cavalry on a stand (like Warmaster), 8 25mm or 10 20mm square bases. I have found that itís often easier to put 1 less figure in the rear ranks of infantry stands, especially with spears or archers, and it doesnít spoil the appearance. Brettonian knights are arranged in ďlancesĒ, with 1 in front and 2 behind. I found that it makes them look right and stops the tails getting in the way! I also mount Ogres (and Trolls) in 3s on a 120mm wide stand, rather than in 2s on a 100mm stand, so that they look more massive. As all my chariots and artillery are on 60mm frontage bases, I also adopted that as my standard for my games. We use a WYSIWG rule, the stand size is the stand size, so we donít correct for oversized stands.
All Warmaster standard distances are doubled. We did originally try just using inches instead of centimeters, but that makes the table very small, very quickly. We play on the widest table that we can get (or the floor), and have found that 6ft is the most practical width, although 6.5 or 7 can be managed.
What do you miss from the Warmaster game? The joy of transporting an army in a box, and assuming that you play with an large open table, some of the joys of wide sweeping flank marches. But the game retains its fluidity and sense of massed armies.
Now just get a few folks together at the club with all their WHFB troops and you have a great game!
All terrain except the mountain spurs was treated as passable. There were three levels to the table with an escarpment at each level. These slopes were treated as defendable. A road ran from the Lonely Mountain to the far corner of the table. It was originally intended to treat the ruins of Dale as impassable to chariots, but after the chariots were set up opposite the ruins, it was decided to ignore them as terrain in order to make it playable as is.
Most of the terrain was built or provided by James Humphries. The Lonely Mountain, Dale ruins and first river, were Orclord's work. The road is High Rubbery from the UK.
Tolkein does mention several events during the battle and it was decided to model some of them into the game:
1) Elves and Humans are encamped before Erebor's front gate, which Thorin has fortified.
2) Dain arrives with 500 dwarves around eastern spur
3) Dain attacks to drive to relieve Thorin
4) Bats appear in the valley, Gandalf raises the alarm and calls a Council of War
5) Men and Dwarves take Eastern spur, Elves Southern (with Ravenhill as their strongpoint)
6) Goblins on wargs arrive and attack.
7) "A thousand elf spears" drive into the goblins following a volley of arrows
8) The Dwarves attack as the Elf impetus peters out
9) The Goblins are on the point of breaking when their flankers gain the heights above the front gate and "recklessly" charge down onto the defenders on the spurs. Bolg and Bodyguard arrive in the valley.
10) The alliance is on the point of defeat when Thorin charges from the Front gate
††††††††††††††† a) He drops the wall closing the front gate
††††††††††††††† b) All the remaining dwarves form up with him
††††††††††††††† c) Some elves and some men join them
11) He drives back the goblins but cannot break the bodyguard of Bolg, alliance again at point of breaking
12) Eagles arrive and drive goblins from heights, remaining defenders on the spurs are now free to move into the valley to attack.
13) Beorn arrives and breaks bodyguard, crushes Bolg.
14) Goblins flee.
We used these four events:
††††††††††††††† a) Goblins gain heights. The Goblin nominates as many units as he wishes before the game to send on a flank march. At the start of turn 3 he rolls to see if they have appeared, requiring a 6 on turn 3, a 5 on turn 4 and so on, for them to appear. He then places half the goblin units on each spur. They may not move further that turn, but may fight or shoot normally. Bilbo becomes invisible and is knocked unconscious (remove his piece from the game).
††††††††††††††† b) Eagles arrive. Once the goblins arrive the Elf player rolls a dice at the start of his turn. On a 6, 5 etc the eagles appear and are placed on the spurs, one unit on each spur. Goblin Infantry units are terrified of the eagles.
††††††††††††††† b) Beorn arrives. Once the Bodyguard of Bolg reaches the second board section, Beorn arrives. He may be placed with any unengaged human unit. If there is no such unit he may be placed with any unengaged Elf unit. If Beorn is moved into contact with Bolg, or any unit with Bolg attached, Bolg is immediately slain. If Bolg is slain the lesser Orc General (Barak) assumes command, the Goblins do not automatically lose.
††††††††††††††† c) Thorin comes forth (on turn of the Dwarf players choice). When Thorin comes forth the alliance player may reform any alliance units on Thorin. Any alliance unit can be immediately moved back to the rear board section. That completes their turn, they may not shoot, but may fight. Any unit that does not move by this means may be commanded and shoot as normal.
1) The normal 50% units rule is suspended, either side can win by eliminating 75% of the other side. This reflects the bloody nature of the battle in the book.
2) The Goblins can win by killing any three of Dain, Thorin, Gandalf, Thranduil, Bilbo and Bard. Without them the Alliance is sunk anyway. Bilbo is impossible to kill, but donít tell the Goblins that.
3) The Alliance can win by killing Bolg and Barak.
4) The game will be played for the maximum number of rounds that can be played within 8 hours. The side that has slain the most points of the enemy at the end of the allocated time period will be the winner. If that side has slain more than 15% more points than their opponent they be gloriously victorious.
Tolkein mentions that Dain had 500 dwarves with him, all heavy armoured with Mattocks. Thorin had 12 in his party, not even a stands worth really. I decided to give the dwarves about a quarter of that number, but then added a couple more dwarf units when some Elves failed to materialize from a painter. Thorinís bodyguard started off the board with him inside Erebor. The dwarf player was allowed to set up anywhere along or on the eastern spur.
Thorin, Dain (Generals): 2 x 155 = 310 points
5 Units of 30 Dwarves (Dwarf Warriors): 5 x 110 + 150 = 700 points
Total about 1200 points, 7 units and 220 models
Elves (includes Eagles)
Warmaster only has a High Elf list and so I used that, it seems to fit Thranduilís army well enough anyway. Tolkein mentions Elven Spears and Archers and refers to a thousand elf spears at one point. He doesnít mention cavalry, but it seems reasonable to assume that Thranduil didnít walk from Mirkwood, and neither did the member s of his court. I felt that the bulk of his cavalry would have been horse archers from their hunting, but some of the lords would have had heavy armour. I used a couple units of Silver Helms and several of Reaver Knights. I then planned to have several units of spearmen/elven warriors and two or three units of Archers. But a painter let me down and so I used more dwarves, instead of the Spears. Bilbo has exactly no effect on the game!
After playtesting we found that we needed something to counterbalance the Ogres, so we added 2 units of Repeating Bolt Throwers.
Thranduil (General): 155 points
2 Units of 12 Silver Helms: 2 x 110 + 100 = 320 points
4 Units of 30 Elven Spears: 4 x 60 + 50 = 290 points
2 Units of 6 Eagles: 2 x 70 = 140 points
For the purposes of this game Goblins are terrified of the Eagles
Total about 1900 points, 16 units and 300 models
I based their game profiles on the Empire list. I used Brettonian knights for the Laketown cavalry, originally intending to only have a single unit, but adding another when the Elves didnít show up. I used Brettonians archers for their archers and Norse for the infantry.
Bard (General): 125 points
2 Units of 12 Knights: 2 x 110 = 220 points
2 Units of 30 Archers (Crossbowmen): 2 x 55 + 20 = 130 points
Total about 700 points, 6 units and 120 models
Goblins (and Wargs)
The Hobbit only mentions goblins, wolves and bats, but that doesnít make for much fun in a Warmaster game. I added Black Orcs, Orc Warriors and Boar Boys to give their side more impact. I like chariots visually and feel that they fit so I added them for additional punch. I wanted to make the Bodyguard of Bolg as nasty as they sounded in the book, so they became Ogres and Trolls. Initial playtesting had more Trolls, but these were too effective against elven infantry. (Tolkein Trolls sound more like WM Ogres anyway).
At the last moment, I also deleted a few extra units of standard Orcs and Goblins to reduce the number of stands to be moved, at 30 points apiece for Goblins they seemed to just be clutter. I should perhaps have left them in for the visual impact, but they were my oldest and most delicate pieces anyway. The same reasoning excluded a few older units of FTG boar cavalry.
The oldest unit that did make it was a stand of 4 Minifigs ME wargs from the mid 1970s!
The Goblin side had to set up the Bats and Cavalry first, as well as specify the number of Goblin (not Orcs or Cavalry) units on the flanking marches.
Bolg (General +3A)(Crown of Command & Helm of Dominion): 95+10+100+50=
Bodyguard of Bolg
3 Units of 9 Ogres (Ogres): 3 x 105 = 315 points
5 Units of 3 Goblin Chariots (some of them actually boar chariots): 5
x 80 = 400 points
4 Units of 24 Uruk Hai (Black Orcs): 4 x 110 = 440 points
Total about 4000 points, 43 units and 700 models
The game got under way at about 10.45, all commanders eventually having been briefed and troops deployed. The Goblins immediately started failing command tests, leaving their line very ragged. Their command rolls were only matched by pitiful Elven shooting. The Bats surged forward to engage the bolt throwers but then discovered that stand and shoot is nasty. A unit of Bats did destroy some stray knights, but the Goblin cavalry continued to arrive in manageable one unit chunks and were even repulsed by the Laketown Archers on one occasion! The Elven and Human line held the first slope!
Then a cry of dismay arose from the Alliance, Goblins had scaled the spurs of the Mountain and were behind them. The dwarves moved to defend the rear, something they did all game! But just as soon as the Goblins appeared, they disappeared driven from the heights in terror by the Eagles. Again the Alliance stood proud.
But numbers began to tell, a hole was punched in the Elven line and through poured the wolves, followed by the Uruks. Things looked bleak indeed for the Alliance
A trumpet sounded and Thorin came forth! The Dwarves rallied to his banner as did the ragged elements of Elves and Laketown men left standing. They reformed their line along the final slope up to the front gate, determined to sell every step dearly.
The Bodyguard of Bolg assaulted the Bolt Throwers in their strongpoint (the other side of the board James!) and eventually wore their way over the walls. All looked grim for the Alliance, although the Dwarves were still intact at the rear. But the Goblins were spent, they no longer had the forces to overwhelm the few remaining defenders and began to fall back into the valley. Then down came the grim dwarves of Dain, fresh and unbloodied and pursued them into oblivion. It was 5.30 and night was falling.
We didnít quite set up according to plan, the Bolt Throwers were allowed to set up in a ďunplannedĒ strongpoint on the board edge opposite the mountain, rather than on Ravenhill. This made them very tough to shut down, costing at least 2 units of Black Orcs and 1.5 of Ogres.
We probably should have kept the other 10 units of Orc and Goblin infantry, less than 500 points, but they would have made it a much closer run thing. The additional mass that they would have provided, would have been visually significant, but a traffic nightmare. Given that the Dwarves didnít ever commit their full strength, the Goblins were overmatched, although they did slaughter many fair folk of the Elves.
The Eagles (and Goblins) arrived very early, both arrived on the first possible turn. We should probably have decided (without telling the players) that the goblins would arrive on turn 3 or 4 and the eagles 2 turns laters. This would have allowed the Goblins to actually do something!
Tags for unit names/references. I originally intended to use self adhesive labels to create some tags to attach to the rear of each stand, so that they could be more easily referenced, especially in multi-unit combats. Time prevented this, but providing that I can find some decently coloured lables, it is a must-have for the next battle. I tried to create roster sheets that contained all the unit details for a single command, but I didn't have spare copies of these or the Army sheets from the book that contain the rules for each unit. Next time I will also have printed background and scenario sheets.
Thanks to James Humphries for the help and many of the photographs. Thanks also to Joel Cassell for helping run the event.