When I was a very young lad, about 8 or so, I saw a shiny red game box in the Roselands Mall store near where my grandmother (my Oma) lived. The game box captured my imagination, and I snuck back to it 2 or 3 times on the one shopping trip. I looked every time for years when I returned to the store, and when I was about 10 and had some money, I resolved I would buy that box if I ever saw it. That box changed my life, but it is not this box.
The shiny blue box caught my eye after returning to my home town from another Sydney trip that had failed to reproduce the shiny red one. This box looked similar (little did I know), and had the characters from one of my favourite books, The Hobbit, in it.
The red box made me interested in the idea that there might be exciting, adventurous games out there better than the Monopoly and Game of Life staples I'd been raised on. The blue box transformed my life, by sealing my love of board games. The game within that box was ICE's Battle Of Five Armies (affectionately known as BOFA).
As my first "real" game, I have a lot of affection for BOFA, and it therefore probably impossible for me to be subjective about a review of the game. As you can imagine, coming from Monopoly and other mass market games, a niche or gamer's game of any sort is going to seem amazing.
And it was.
I played it maybe 30 times over the next few years, always against my twin brother, who was quickly rather less fond of the game than I since he won about 3 of those games. I had to resort to bribing him (agreeing to do something he wanted that I didn't- see the game taught me negotiation) to get him to play.
I don't say this to brag (my brother is rather a good wargamer now, and would probably beat me 75% of the time in most war games, and he learnt to beat me at this too- see below), but to make two points.
First, after the first few games, my one and only opponent was never particularly keen, and I still loved the game.
Second, tactics and strategy had a large effect on the results, even though luck also played a disconcerting role in some games (also see below).
Brash young 10 year old lads as we were, we leapt straight into the more advanced rules with all the extra bits that gave the characters more individual powers. At 10, we never found it overly complicated.
We loved Bilbo being able to turn invisible, Gandalf being able to blast goblins away, and Eagles picking up Goblins and tossing them on the rocks like the vermin they were. The Goblin abilities (mostly combat bonuses and penalties and a few extra hit points for the generals) were a little more mundane, but the rules seemed to us to really convey the grand battle that we read about in our favourite book. The back ground material for the game, and its vast scope with so many pieces and a nice large map, actually made the board game seem more detailed than anything from the book.
The game is a fairly simple war game, where each unit has a move score and a combat score (and some have missile fire scores, and special rules applied to some). To attack, you compared strengths and rolled on a chart, and the results got better the higher your strength compared to your opponent's, and the lower you rolled. At the end of 12 turns, the winner was the side with the most specially marked territories.
Extra rules included the special powers of characters, as well as rules for the cool looking but not particularly effective tactic of rolling rocks down hill to crush opponents.
The components were bright and impressive to us, but standard paper map and simply printed and cut cardboard counters probably would not hold up to today's standards. But the game play was highly enjoyable, though with one point of frustration.
A core mechanic, that still fascinates me though it seems to have been superseded in modern war games, notably by card driven mechanics that seem similar but maybe less frustrating, was a chit pull system that determined what basic action your force could perform.
Each round swapped between the good and evil player as to who got to choose their first action, then the other player had to choose for their 2nd action. Each other action was randomly drawn (so the first player's second action, and the second player's first action). As the game progressed, a few extra chits are added and each turn allows for extra, randomly drawn player actions.
The chits were basically move, melee(and assault- a cool difference in the game was fighting units in your hex, a melee, was slightly different to fighting units in adjacent hexes, an assault), and fire. A wild chit allowed the player to choose their action (and couldn't be "chosen", only pulled at random).
This did mean that some turns were wasted (for example, the evil player rarely had enough ranged units to make firing very worthwhile, and if you just moved, you often didn't want to just move again). But it also meant that some hedging of bets in action choices, and in moving, had to be made to minimize risks, and I mostly enjoyed the mechanic.
As hinted above, the luck of this system did annoy me at one point. In a period when my brother beat me several times in a row, I shamefully blamed poor chit pulls and developed a sneaky system for cheating. I roughed up the valuable "wild" chit so that I could feel for it when needed. I then soundly beat my brother, but (thankfully) felt bad and confessed to cheating. He was understandably not impressed, and we didn't play again for a while (a valuable lesson for me).
But after I unfixed my fixed chit, and my brother forgave me and played again, I learned that he had learned how to win, and that the chit pulls had not had that large an effect. We both were a good match for each other on the rare occasion when we played again, and the chit pull system ceased to be an issue.
I suppose I should try to answer the title of this review, and removing my rose coloured lenses to assess a game that changed my gaming world is not easy to do.
The components are obviously not to modern standards. I would love to see this game with a card board map and buckets of plastic figures.
The game play was great at the time, but would it stand today?
I feel the combat chart and bonuses are a bit convoluted, but nothing good play aids couldn't fix. The chit pull system was interesting, but I suppose a card driven system would have a similar effect but with more variety and less luck. And combat resolution could then be part of the card system. And then the game would be quite different.
So I suppose the game is good fun, but compared to modern war games, probably needs updating.
But I will always love BOFA for the memories it gives me, and what else is gaming really about, but creating fond memories?
Which the little red box game gave me by the dungeon load when I found it again at about 14 and bought it (I started table top gaming with a war game and a role playing game, then was addicted to a trading card game, before having years of board gaming bliss- I wonder how many have a pattern like that- many of my gaming friends have similar tales).
I also have fond memories of that Basic Dungeons & Dragons box, and much like BOFA, would probably never play it again (but maybe I'll show both my beaten up, 40 year old copies to my son when he is 10).
I still break this old classic out every so often. Enjoy it now as much as I did then!
I'm happy to hear it still gives great value.
I would love to play again, but my brother lives far away and 2 player war games are not likely to get much play with anyone else I know. I will just have to train my son up to being a fierce war gamer! (might have a while to wait, he can't talk yet).
This game is worthy of being republished albeit with upgraded components and map.
This is still the #1 hexagonal game that I play to this date (and most of my old titles are historical games to boot).