Middle Earth beyond the texts
A few weeks ago I shared the results of months of work to create a display/game board of Balin’s tomb for the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game produced by Games Workshop. I’ve decided to write a little about this branch of Tolkien licensing to discuss its merits as an extension of the source material that is so beloved.
This battle game started with the release of the original Lord of the Rings films back in 2001. Games Workshop (GW) obtained the license to make a skirmish war-game at 25mm scale for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This covered both books and films. They do not have any rights over The Silmarillion, however, part of their agreement includes some latitude to develop it’s own derivative IP to fill in gaps or extend the world portrayed in LotR and The Hobbit. THIS is where it all get particularly interesting from a Tolkien fan’s point of view.
The rights over Tolkien’s work have been defended strongly. There is a sense that lately the ties have been loosened a little, but traditionally if you had any rights, the terms were quite strict and you certainly had very little latitude to add to the source material. Nobody will ever be allowed to write original licensed stories within the mythology, for example. I’m sure plenty of fanfic exists, but as far as the Tolkien estate is concerned, it may as well not.
So here is a small corner of Tolkien fandom where a company has been given permission to ‘make up’ something new within Middle-Earth. I assume this has been tightly regulated, as GW certainly haven’t gone crazy with it. For the most part they have extended the peoples of Harad into various factions and armies to create greater variety. All things suggested in the texts, for sure, but never properly realised in any form.
The design of the miniatures takes its lead from the production design in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, as that was the launchpad for the game and range. It grew from strength to strength as the films were released, and during it’s legacy, more versions were added with the eventual Hobbit trilogy, but the ‘success’ of those films reflected the interest in those ranges and the game seemed to wane somewhat.
I jumped into the game when GW decided to give it a refresh and relaunch in 2018 with a new big ‘starter’ boxset. With news of the Amazon series and the enduring popularity of Tolkien’s work it seems the game is enjoying a resurgence, which is being supported by GW producing new models.
The rule-set has long been lauded as one of the best scalable skirmish games of it’s kind. Relatively simple to learn but with interesting nuances that are tricky to master.
As the range began closely linked to the films, GW eventually took advantage of the depth of their license to introduce characters that don’t appear in the films but do feature in the book. Characters like Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. This created interesting design challenges, they needed to feel part of the aesthetic that had been established in the films but still feel true to the source material. These kinds of tasks for the game modellers fascinate me. To interpret the text, take on board the film version all the while attempting to appease multiple audiences. On the whole I believe the range has been done very well. Especially as you have to take into account that you are allowing your customer to then customise and paint the sculpts in any way they desire. Which is wonderful, as we all imagine Middle Earth and it’s peoples in slightly different ways.
There are a number of ways to play the game, in a competitive way with matched ‘point armies’, where two forces of equal value (as defined by the rules) play out a scenario and battle for different objectives and criteria to define the winner. Or you can play narratively. Setting up situations from the books and films and using the ruleset to see if you can overcome… For example I’ll be working on my Balin’s tomb scenario, where I’ll play the fellowship battling hoardes of Goblins to escape to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm (and yes you can recreate the battle with the Balrog too).
Personally I like narrative play, you get to recreate scenes from the source and you get, in a way, to extend the world in a highly personal way that still FEELS cannon and licensed. And this is the allure of this particular license in my eyes. This is like creating your own fanfic with the closest thing you will get in terms of approval from the rights holders.
My next project is to use the latest ‘Battle Companies’ ruleset which is an interesting mix of skirmish war-game and RPG. You start with a small band of warriors (from all across Middle Earth, I’d like to make a band of battling hobbits at some point), you name them, they battle and through experience can develop, become more powerful, buy new gear and improve. Depending on your enemies and the settings available you can traverse the map exploring the whole thing encountering men and orcs alike.
As someone that loves this fictional world, it is a treat to get to play in it in some capacity, and by play I mean the game but also creatively. You get to make your own little corner of Middle Earth and have it come to life.
As with most licensing endeavours I wonder if the good Professor would have particularly approved of it? I wonder if he might see it as trivialising warfare, something he abhorred and used to portray evil as well as heroics. I would hope he might view it as a different way for legends to be recorded, for people to make their own oral histories of his creation.
What I love about this part of Tolkien licensing in particular is that it isn’t played to a passive audience. A film is consumed, a regular table top game is simply played… There is agency in this, there is creativity and I think that’s what keeps the mythology alive most of all.