Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Roberto di Meglio, Marco Maggi, Francesco Nepitello


No. of Players:

G@mebox Star



Gamebox author Ralf Togler writes about the game:

The Battle of Five Armies by ARES GAMES focuses on the final battle of "The Hobbit" by J.R.R.R. Tolkien. As the final episode of the movie is currently screened in the cinemas, it was quite clever that the game was just released at the SPIEL 2014. As most of you will still remember, there was the great War of the Ring game that was published by ARES GAMES exactly ten years ago. This game was also published at the time when the final movie of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was screened in the cinemas, and again it is the same designer team that is responsible for the new production. War of the Ring is still one of my favourite games, and since I have heard that The Battle of Five Armies is based on some of the main mechanisms of the older game, I had my hopes high for another Tolkien-game of outstanding quality. So, let us see how the new game is played and what differences we can find:


The Battle of Five Armies is a pure two-player game in which one player takes the role of the Free People, commanding the Elves with the Elven King Thranduil, the Dwarves of Dáin Ironfoot and the Free Men with their leaders Bard the Bowman and Gandalf the Grey. The other player controls a pack of orcs and goblins under the leadership of Bolg, son of Azug. On the nicely illustrated board we can find the surroundings of the Lonely Mountain, divided into different regions. As in War of the Rings, there are special locations that play an important role and must be held by the Shadow player to win the game. The player of the Free People wins if eitherBolg is killed or if the Fate track - as explained later - has reached step 15. Finally the Free People also win the game if Beorn enters play and the Shadow player was not able to conquer enough settlements up to this point.

As the The Battle of Five Armies is based on the older War of the Ring, we can find more or less the same dice action system. Special six sided dice are rolled by each faction at the beginning of a turn, determining what actions the players can perform during the round. One by one the players choose one of these dice and carry out the corresponding action. Again, we can find character die results, army and mustering rolls as well as event die results and combined symbols. Also, there is a result similar to "Will of the West" as well as a "Lidless Eye" for the Shadow player. With the Lidless Eye the Shadow player recruits, moves and attacks with a special force, the goblins. These creatures begin their recruitment far up in the mountains behind a pass. They do not enter the battle zone before their strength has reached at least five units in a region. So - unreachable by other forces - they stay together in a closed off area and then - all of a sudden - ambush the Free People's forces. The exact moment for this event differs from game to game and is dependent on the results of the dice. In some of my games it happened very early in the game, whereas in others it was more in the mid-game. In any case, the charge of the goblins will dramatically change the strategy for the Free People player, because the goblins attack from behind the Free Peoples' lines. While the main force in most games is concentrated in the east, trying to prevent the orcs from reaching the ruins of Dale (a strategic place in the game), the goblins attack from the western or northern mountains. So, the Free People player has to adjust his strategy in every game to the actual situation in the mountains.


Next to the action dice system we also know the mechanism of the event and story cards, breaking the normal rules and giving the one or other player temporarily advantages. Here in The Battle of Five Armies there is a general event card deck from which both players draw a card each round. These event cards have a general effect and alternatively they can be used in combat, giving a special bonus for the fight. The story cards cannot be used as combat cards and are individual for both players. They normally have a stronger general and individual effect for the respective player.

New to all War of the Rings players is the concept of Fate. This element determines some very important events for the player of the Free People like the arrival of Bilbo, the Eagles and Beorn. Those are mighty leaders with a lot of special abilities. Now, how does the concept of Fate work? At the beginning of each round, after taking new event and story cards, the player of the Free People can choose up to three generals in play to assign activation markers, and so he will be able to use their special powers in the following phases. Besides, for every activated general he may place a leadership token next to a different army, enabling the army to use the leader re-rolls during combat. In the next phase the Shadow player may draw fate tiles, one after the other, from the fate pool. He must take at least one. and after drawing he must decide if he wants to apply the effects of this token or draw a new one (up to the number of generals the Free People player has activated). All tokens that were not applied are put back to the fate pool again. The one that was chosen is applied, which results in advancing the fate marker on the fate track by 0 to 3 steps. Besides - if the token indicates so - a fate card is drawn by the player of the Free People with its effect immediately carried out. The fate track enormously influences the further game, and so every game of The Battle of Five Armies will be different. The more often the player of the Free People activates his generals, the slower the fate marker will move forward, because the Shadow player can get rid of fate tokens he does not want. So, on the one hand the player of the Free People improves his current combat strength with the activated generals, but on the other hand he delays the arrival of the Eagles and Beorn.


An interesting rule comes with the special actions of the generals Gandalf and Thranduil. While most other leaders only can recruit special forces in some regions of the board, Gandalf and Thranduil can activate a ranged combat (magic / archery), so that armies of the Shadow player within a certain range can be attacked. To check whether an army is within range, an arched ruler is used on the map. Notably the magic attack of Gandalf can have a dramatic effect on the enemy forces, especially if he spends another turn to concentrate (so he cannot attack immediately with the first dice that is chosen by the Free People player)

Quite interesting are also the changes in combat: First of all the different army units now all have their unique unit cards, indicating their favoured terrain, their combat strength and their maneuver ability. Both, the first and the last are unknown for players who know War of the Ring, so here is their explanation: different units have different favourite terrains adjudicating a terrain superiority at the beginning of a combat. The terrain superiority is checked at the beginning of each combat and the player with more units with the corresponding favourite terrain can draw an additional event card. Maneuver abilities on the other hand are activated if the unit scores a hit during combat. Activating maneuver abilities requires playing the corresponding unit card in the first step of a combat. This card is then out of play as long as the player had not played a regroup card in one of the following combat rounds. The remaining combat then follows similar rules as in the War of the Ring. First the combat strength is calculated to determine the number of dice a player may roll. Then a corresponding number of damage dice is rolled, with each 5 or 6 counting as a hit if there is no fortification, terrain specialities or an event or story card changing the rules. Also, we can find the well-known leader re-rolls in the game.

New is also the fact that units can take one damage token each before there are any casualties. And these damages to armies can be healed again by assigning a muster dice to them in one of the following rounds or by the effect of event or story cards. This results in much more tactical combats, as you can retreat your troops and heal them again.


Compared to the War of the Ring, the characters are much stronger in combat and it is extremely important to cleverly place and activate them. For the player of the Free People it is very important to bring the Eagles and Beorn into the play. The Shadow player on the other hand should use the powerful leader Bolg and the help of the Great Bats. Bolg is nearly unbeatable, but this is also the chance for the player of the Free People, because as a result the Shadow player will commit Bolg very soon to the front and so he can be attacked by a lot of units of the Free People. But without help from the strong characters, especially the Lord of the Eagles and Beorn it will be hard to withstand the mighty impact of Bolg.

In my opinion The Battle of Five Armies is really a great game. If it wasn't for War of the Ring it would definitely be my favourite complex tactical game. But as it is now, it is hard to decide which one is the better game. The Battle of Five Armies has some improvements towards the older game, like the limitation of the unit number for one territory. So you are not in need of the cardboard markers under the unit figures. The whole combat system also is more interesting from my point of view, considering the fact that the armies are assigned maneuvers which change each combat round. Also, in the The Battle of Five Armies you are confronting your enemy right from the start. In most games the skirmishes begin in the second, sometimes even in the first round. So, it is a much more compact, direct game. It can probably be played faster than War of the Ring, but up to now my games took me around 3 to 5 hours. War of the Ring on the other hand is more heroic because it comprises the Lord of the Rings to its full extent, and so fans will prefer to own both games and to decide from time to time which game to play.

As a final note, seasoned War of the Rings veterans will have noted that the playing system used in The Battle of Five Armies is nearly identical to the system found in War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age where the players could fight the battles of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith. In these games the Free People player was in control of the fate markers, and this system has been reversed in The Battle of Five Armies. For the sake of a better understanding of all essential differences, I have chosen to compare The Battle of Five Armies to the more widely know War of the Ring within the scope of this review. However, if The Battle of Five Armies turns out to be an interesting game for you, you should try to get hold of a copy of War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age as well in order to have even more variety. But beware: this item is getting more and more collectible, and so the prices are rising!!!

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Copyright © 2014 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany