In Battle of Five Armies, two players vie for control of the battlefield underneath the looming shadow of the Lonely Mountain. One player, leading the dark forces of the Shadow, feeds a raging torrent of units through the wasting lands from the East, led by a frenzied Bolg whose lust for the destruction of the Free Peoples mirrors that of his master. The other player takes command of a brave but less mighty force of Free Peoples, who while not stout in numbers are backed by heroes that with timing and luck can hold back the swarming tide of blackness to turn certain defeat into a weary and hopeful victory.
Brief GamePlay Summary:
The game takes place over a series of 'turns' matching a fate track, which is slotted from 1 to 15. If the marker ever reaches 15, the Free Peoples have survived the battle and are instantly victorious. If the Shadow player controls settlements/regions valued at 10 victory points, then they (at turns end) win the battle. Other victory conditions are noted in the rulebook, but these are the main ones.
The Shadow player will command Wargs, Orcs, Great Orcs, and Goblins. In addition, they have goblins, bats and one character, Bolg.
The Free Peoples command Lake Men, Elven units, Dwarf Units, and have at their disposal heroes like Gandalf the Gray, Bilbo, Dain, and others. Additionally, they can bring into play Eagles, who are effectively bombing sorties to whittle down the Shadow armies in the later stages of the battle.
The map itself is a snug battlefield with not a lot of room to hide. At the same time, choke points in the form of fords and impassable terrain assure the Free Peoples of much needed time to prepare defensive positions or posture to attack weak points.
What's to Like:
It's rather cliche to say "nearly everything", but it rings fairly true with BOTA. As with its predecessor War of the Ring, this game is an exquisite portrait melding both impressive visual components with thematic, sensible gameplay.
* Theme - Without a doubt, nearly every aspect of gameplay fully supports the feeling of being inside the Battle of Five Armies.
* Armies! - Each type of unit carries with it potential for a "maneuver" that is true to the spirit of its character. This isn't a guaranteed action, since the clever use of 'black die' gives a proportionate chance for a units level of inclusion into a battling army. It's both thoughtful and clever.
* Characters! - The heroes (Characters, technically) each come with their custom cards describing their abilities. Each contextually fits in with the flow of battle, and the timing of their entrance into the battle is variable but always within the general vicinity of when they arrived in the battle of the book.
* Game Board - The map itself lends towards steering the combatants towards the 'historical' map of the battle, but only so far. There's plenty of room to improvise or attempt to outsmart your opponent.
* Combat. Blissful, thoughtful combat. Where other games are content to make battles more or less a simple dice chucking "Bunco" moment in the game, Battle of Five Armies instead provides almost a "game within a game" level of battle choices that doesn't weigh down the game in hyper detail (*glares at Merchants and Marauders*), but still provides the most satisfying combat this side of Mordor.
Combat rewards combined forces by allowing more opportunities for custom maneuvers to occur. During the phases of combat, it's not just a matter of army size: in fact, it's not really even a primary consideration if the armies are not vastly different (as in, five units to one unit). What matters are the combat advantages one eeks out of their Event Cards, their unit's abilities, the abilities of heroes (Characters) attached to the army, and the position of the armies in battle. Honestly, it feels like a distillation of a ton of variables that most wargames provide into a compact, tense, challenging and cerebral experience, all wrapped up in a blanket of chance.
* Damage System - The damage system is also unique, in that you don't simply lose units. Instead, armies rack up damage that stays with the army as it travels or battles. At first, its presence makes you hesitate to enter battle situations, since damage could snowball into heavy losses quickly. Later, as damage accrues to match the size of the army (and then exceed it), units are lost forever and the decisions become even more painful.
* Give and Take Decisions - For the most part, the decisions taken in the battle (and the actions preceding each turn) have a benefit and a potential consequence. The Free Peoples player must decide how many characters to activate, knowing that the more he activates the more chances the Shadow player has to slow the movement of Fate. With no single front of battle, the Free Peoples must weigh movement to cover numerous possible attack vectors, without being sure which one will be leveraged with the higher strength of forces.
What to Improve:
* Game Time - Haven't yet been even close to the game time that has been suggested on the box. Maybe if we set a timer and rushed, but for the most part, we've had to nearly double the time. Is this bad? Not really. Every second of the game is a treat and a joy, but be warned nonetheless that you're in it for longer than the suggested time (though shorter than its predecessor War of the Ring).
* Shadow Pity - In our games, the Shadow Player has been behind the eight ball in nearly all games. Granted, that's not to say the game is imbalanced, but it's definitely been more advantageous for newer players to enjoy the Free Peoples side over the Shadow.
* Boundaries - Initially, it was rather difficult to see the marking between the regions/territories on the map. While there are symbols on each region with a colored circle to denote which of the four territories a given region belongs to, it was a head scratcher until we acclimated. If there is ever a deluxe edition, I wish the map was a relief map with the actual mountain edges marked out with elevation. Oh, if I only had artistic skill at all...
A place for everything, and everything in its place. Battle of Five Armies has no facet to it that hasn't been intentionally, intimately, and thematically incorporated to perfect purpose in relaying the feel and fury of the sweeping ebb and flow of combat in Middle Earth. Where Risk or games of the like will provide value unto their own for simple combat, Battle of Five Armies elevates the entire experience, simulating cerebrally and emotionally the breadth and depth of a true Lord of the Rings decisive battle.