Gaming in the World of J.R.R. Tolkien – An Overview from Middle Earth
GAMING IN MIDDLE EARTH
An Abbreviated History Of Games Set in the World of J.R.R. Tolkien
With the success of the current Hobbit film, the latest Peter Jackson hit based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories, Armchair General asked former game-store owner and frequent ACG game reviewer Sean Stevenson to look back over the gaming history of Bilbo, Frodo, and friends. Since some games are based on The Hobbit and others on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’ll use the term “Tolkien games” for simplicity, Most of these games are out of print, but used (and sometimes unopened) copies often can be found in local hobby shops, toy stores, and (of course) online through places such as eBay and Amazon. The games discussed in this article may not include every game that’s ever been set in Middle Earth, but it provides an extensive history of, shall we say, the Fellowship of the Games.
The First Age, 1975–1982
The early history of Tolkien games is unfortunately a history of unlicensed products. Due to odd copyright laws between the UK and US at the time, the Tolkien books were technically public domain in this country! Add in the fact that some members of Tolkien’s family encouraged creation of games based on their father’s works and you had a legal limbo that morphed into a Mordorian mess until court decisions of the late 70s settled the matter once and for all.
The first true Tolkien game was the 1975 release The Ringbearer, a miniatures wargame published originally by Little Soldier Games and later by Gamescience. Using generic fantasy miniatures that were becoming popular at the time thanks to games such as Dungeons & Dragons and its precursor Chainmail the game allowed four to ten players and a referee to re-enact the quest by the Fellowship to travel from The Shire to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. It was mainly a combat game with search rules (the ringwraiths and orcs had to find the Fellowship before attacking them) and was printed in three editions (yellow cover, dark green cover, and olive green cover).
Also in 1975 were the first three true Tolkien wargames. Battle Of Helm’s Deep (published by Fact And Fantasy Games) covered the attack by Saruman’s forces of orcs and Dunlending hillmen against the outnumbered Rohan forces and was the only gaming simulation ever produced covering this battle. It was a small (11 x 17 inch map and less than a hundred counters), basic, old-school wargame; counters had two numbers, combat and movement rate. By the same company and using the same base rules was Siege Of Minas Tirith. A much larger game with more units, as befits the battle, its rules were also slightly more complex and included morale and wall breaches. Included with Minas Tirith was a smaller wargame, Battle Of The Slag Hills, officially the last battle of the War Of The Ring, when the Mordor troops under The Mouth Of Sauron confronted the Gondor army that was marched by Aragorn to the gates of Mordor; Slag Hills used most of the same units as Minas Tirith. Both games were old school ziplock games, with counters printed on thin cardboard that had to be cut apart with scissors.
Fantasy Games in 1975 produced The Two Towers, a strategic game of the entire War Of The Ring. It had a large, black-and-white, 24 x 24-inch map with hexes, short (6 page) rulesbook, and 200 simple counters—black for Sauron, white for Free Peoples, with combat and movement factors at the bottom and marked with descriptors such as ORC or ROH (for Rohan).
For the collectors amongst you, there were technically two other wargames published in 1975, both as part of wargame magazines. Panzerfaust magazine #66 published Siege Of Gondor about the attack on Minas Tirith, but it wasn’t a game in and of itself; rather the magazine included a hand-drawn map and lists of units which can be used with any miniatures system or wargame rules, kind of a “build your own wargame” kit. One of the holy grails of game (and Tolkien) collectors is Siege Of Barad-dur included in the magazine Jagdpanther; less than 200 copies of the magazine were printed, so figure about 60 or fewer copies of this game are still around nearly 40 years later. Focusing on the battle of the Last Alliance Of Men And Elves that led to Sauron’s losing the One Ring, this was a small map and rulesbook stapled into the center of the magazine. Another 1970s–style wargame, its counters were a single color, with Avalon Hill–like unit symbols (a square for infantry, square with a slash for cavalry, etc.), that were printed on paper and had to be cut apart.
In early 1976 there was a game produced by a company called Lore Games, Battle Of Five Armies. Covering the massive battle that occurs at the end of The Hobbit (and will be the climax of the third film in the current trilogy), this was played on a 19 x 25-inch map with nearly 200 counters. The art was underwhelming; the map was 90% white hexes, and the counters were squares with three numbers (attack, defense, and movement) and typewritten names such as Elf or Orc printed on them.
In 1976 TSR re-printed Battle Of Helm’s Deep and Battle Of Five Armies. The TSR editions included better printing and organization of the rules and charts, and the counters had artwork of soldiers on them. Both games were issued as ziplock bagged games; Battle Of Five Armies was also released as a boxed game in 1977 or 1978. The first issue of The Wargamer magazine published by World Wide Wargames (3W) in 1976 contained Battle Of The Ring, a Lord Of The Rings strategic wargame with a very simple map and counters. In 1977 a small company called West Coast Games produced a small game (8 x 10-inch map) called There And Back Again, a solitaire game based on The Hobbit novel in which players maneuvered Bilbo and Gandalf from Rivendell to Erebor and, well, back again, encountering orcs and spiders and other nasties along the way.
All through the ’70s era, with the surge in popularity of Tolkien’s works—those were the days of FRODO LIVES buttons, after all—many other games and magazines appropriated Tolkien’s creatures and characters with no concerns over copyright or licensing. Quest For The Magic Ring was produced by Land Of Legend games and was a very simple wargame based on Lord Of The Rings. The rules for Dungeons & Dragons included hobbits and ringwraiths. Fantasy Games Unlimited produced (crudely) a basic hex wargame called War Of The Ring in 1978. The wargame company Metagaming published a game called Melee that included a scenario of the battle at the Moria bridge between the Fellowship against the orcs with their Balrog.
That all came to a crashing end, beginning in 1977. Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass Productions both had purchased licenses from the Tolkien estate, now established as Tolkien Enterprises, to produce animated films. All three companies began to aggressively pursue everyone who infringed on their licenses. TSR was forced to suspend production of their re-issued games and to recall what they had distributed, and the Dungeons & Dragons rules had to be excised of all Tolkien references. The smaller companies had already closed up shop, so the unlicensed games faded into temporary oblivion as official games began hitting the market.
Milton Bradley produced The Lord Of The Rings boardgame based on the Ralph Bakshi film in 1978, an extremely rare game and a very good one as well, with players maneuvering full-color stand-up character tokens across a board that sort of resembled Middle Earth to gather equipment and ally cards on their way to Mount Doom. That game was short-lived (as was the Bakshi film it was based upon). Equally short-lived was 1978’s The Hobbit Game, based on the Rankin-Bass cartoon. A children’s boardgame in which you kept moving from Hobbit Hill to The Lonely Mountain collecting gold over and over and over again, it is of interest only because the artwork of the box and cards was taken from the cartoon and because it is remarkably rare. Another children’s game, Lord Of The Rings Recall, was a 1978 memory game using tiles that had character illustrations from the Bakshi movie on them.
The gaming company SPI was given the license to produce wargames, and they hit home runs with their three Tolkien games. War Of The Ring (1977) was a mammoth strategic game of warfare in the Third Age, with a beautiful, full-color, two-section map that reached from the coastal Grey Havens and the dragon-filled Northern Heath (Wastes) all the way to southern Far Harad and the lands beyond eastern Mordor. There were 400 counters with the game, over 200 cards, and a fully illustrated rules book. The game could be played with only characters (the Fellowship tries to reach Mordor with the Ring), or as a wargame with characters used only as military leaders, or in a magnificent combination of both into a grand strategy game of massive armies and individual combats. Add in the rules for Saruman to be a third player and you have one of the best fantasy wargames ever done, and a game remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s world. War Of The Ring was produced as both a flatbox and a “bookshelf box” edition; a Designer’s Edition, a boxed set with mounted maps, was also made available in 1980.
In 1977 SPI also produced two other games that shared a game system: Gondor was a simulation of the siege of Minas Tirith, and Sauron was a simulation of the attack on Barad-dur by the Last Alliance. These were smaller games (200 playing pieces for Sauron, 400 for Gondor), with duotone maps (brown and white) and an interesting combat system that used armor and morale to determine casualties. Both games were published as ziplock bagged games and folio (folder) games. SPI also produced, in 1978, the Middle Earth game which was a package containing all three of their Tolkien games; Middle Earth was produced as a flatbox and a boxed edition. In 1981, War Of The Ring was re-issued with boxcover artwork drawn from the Ralph Bakshi movie.
Unfortunately, SPI was on the ropes financially. In 1982 TSR bought the company and promptly suspended production of all games including the successful Tolkien games (A little revenge for the earlier defeat over the Tolkien license? Et tu, Brute?). So come 1982 there were no Tolkien boardgames, official or otherwise, on the market, although the issue of copyright had finally been settled. What was needed was a new player, if you’ll pardon the pun.
The Second Age, 1983–1999
In 1983, the ICE Age arrived. Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) was a small but solid gaming company well-known for their RoleMaster fantasy roleplaying game. Tolkien Enterprises granted them the license to produce games based on The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings, and in 1984 ICE released Middle Earth Role Playing—basically a re-packaged variation of their RoleMaster game system. Very detailed character generation and combat rules with such exhaustive details that it played like a gladiatorial game (indeed, players continue to use the RoleMaster system as a character-to-character combat game) married to the Tolkien license produced an immensely popular RPG, one of the most successful in the history of that gaming genre. They produced two editions in the US and one in the UK.
Although the roleplaying game was officially set after the War Of The Ring, ICE worked closely with the Tolkien family and was given access to many of Tolkien’s notes and maps; among the over one hundred books they released as supplements to the game were information on the lands to the east of Mordor, the histories of Harad and the other itsari, and a detailed look at the kingdom of Angmar which included biographies of the Nazgul. ICE used some of the best artists in the industry, including the Hildebrandt brothers and Angus McBride, for their supplements, and many of their maps were based on Tolkien’s own cartography. As a result, MERP game supplements are hard to find as they appeal to both gamers and non-gamer Tolkien afficianados.
ICE also produced several Tolkien boardgames. The Hobbit Adventure Boardgame (1997) was a European-style game of collecting and spending resources as players race each other to reach and defeat the dragon. The game looked appealing with its wonderful artwork, beautiful mapboard of northern Middle Earth, and the plastic Hobbit playing pieces, but play was a bit limited as player interactions were virtually nil, even with four players. This game was a collaboration between ICE and the European manufacturer Queen Games. ICE did better with their own in-house productions, Fellowship Of The Ring, The Lonely Mountain, and Battle Of Five Armies, all released in 1984, and Riddle Of The Ring in 1985.
Fellowship Of The Ring was a character-based game, with the Fellowship player maneuvering his characters from the Shire to Mordor as the Dark Powers player uses his characters and troops of orcs to search for the ringbearer. The game was based around hidden movement and used dozens of different colored d6 dice instead of counters to keep track of characters. It appeared to be a revised version of the character game presented in SPI’s War Of The Ring. The Lonely Mountain was a solitaire dungeon-delve game. Up to five players could take control of a generic character such as dwarf warrior or elf thief and enter Erebor, searching for Smaug’s horde. The game was not at all accurate to Tolkien’s world—Wandering monsters in Smaug’s lair?—and seemed to be a generic dungeon crawl shoe-horned into Middle Earth. But it was a good dungeon crawl; it won the Charles S. Roberts award for Best Fantasy Boardgame in 1985.
The other ICE game should have won the award. Battle Of Five Armies—which had nothing to do with the earlier games that share that title—was Iron Crown’s approach to the battle at the end of The Hobbit (which in many ways could be considered the first battle of The War Of The Ring). Like the rest of ICE’s Tolkien games, BoFA was a visual feast, with the beautiful boxcover and great map along with the high-quality counters. The game played exactly as the battle is described in The Hobbit: elves, dwarves, and men begin on spurs of The Lonely Mountain as orcs and wargs descend upon them through the ruins of Dale. Wave after wave of orcs arrive on the field (each tribe differently colored), while the Free Peoples gather small reinforcements, such as Thorin’s Company and the awesomely powerful Beorn. A fantastic combat system was married to the first chit-draw initiative system I know of. Every turn each player draws chits marked Fire, Combat, Move, and Fire / Combat from a cup; the chit you draw is the action you can take with your units. ICE’s Battle of Five Armies was a game of deep strategy and tactics, one of the best wargames ever designed and certainly one of the best Tolkien games.
The year 1985 saw ICE attempting to expand their audience. Riddle Of The Ring was a card-driven boardgame in which two to eight players (half playing Fellowship, half playing Ringwraiths) hunt each other across the board and fight each other for possession of the One Ring. ICE also produced a series of solitaire choose-your-own-adventure style books in a series called Middle Earth Quest, planning twelve books total. But Riddle Of The Ring was a bust, and the Middle Earth Quest books were deemed a violation of the license by Tolkien Enterprises because they were paperback books (And what exactly did the Tolkien people think all the roleplaying books were?), so only the first three were produced. A few years later, Tolkien Enterprises reversed itself and allowed ICE to begin publishing solitaire gamebooks again, but the next four books were numbered 1 through 4 as if the previous books never existed. Also, some of the books were published by ICE, some were published by Berkley. With this publication confusion, and because the market by that time was glutted with solo books, the series failed to catch on and ended with a whimper.
Iron Crown again tried to reach a wider audience in 1991 with the release of the Lord Of The Rings Adventure Game, which was a roleplaying game with much simplified rules (based on the then-canceled character and combat systems used in Middle Earth Quest gamebooks). But again, the audience for RPGs already had their game and the simpler variation died on the vine.
Heritage USA Models was licensed to manufacture Tolkien miniatures beginning in 1978 and produced several dozen individual figures, along with diorama scenes drawn from the novels (such as Bilbo’s Birthday Party) until their bankruptcy in 1982. The license eventually passed to the appropriately named Mithril Miniatures, a company in Dublin, Ireland. Mithril teamed with ICE and used characters and artwork from MERP products to manufacture their miniatures, along with producing characters and creatures from the books, all aimed at the gaming hobby for wargames and roleplaying games. Mithril Miniatures is still around and still producing Tolkien miniatures, including some awesome dioramas.
When the Magic: The Gathering phenomenon hit in 1994, ICE was among the first to jump on the collectible card game (CCG) bandwagon; they produced the Middle Earth Collectible Card Game (MECCG). Designed for two to five players (unofficial solitaire rules abound), each player took on the role of one of the wizards of Middle Earth. Cards represented characters, items, and events from the novels, mainly the Lord Of The Rings trilogy but also including The Hobbit (and there were even a few Silmarillion-inspired cards). Each player was trying to recruit characters and gather items and influence, while his opponents played hazards such as monsters or events to delay him or cause him to lose cards. The game ended when only one player’s wizard was left alive or had destroyed the One Ring. Expansions to the game allowed players to play balrogs, ringwraiths, and even a corrupted wizard like Saruman Of Many Colors.
The MECCG was a beautiful game, with fantastic full-color artwork (much of it taken from earlier ICE products) and a great map of Middle Earth that was used to track the players’ parties as they moved about. The game won several awards including Best Card Game Of 1995 at the Origins game convention and continues to be popular, though it was possible for players to win with minimal interaction with other players, and certain decks could be built to “pump up” a player to the point where he becomes impossible to stop. Like other CCGs, the Middle Earth CCG was sold both as decks and in baseball card–like “booster packs;” each pack contained one rare card, such as the Gandalf or the sword Narsil cards, while the randomized decks came with two or three rare cards. MECCG continued in print with expansions (new decks and booster packs containing all new cards) every year from 1995 through 1999.
In 1999, Iron Crown Enterprises lost their license and had to stop producing any games based on Tolkien’s works. The company was so heavily invested in their Middle Earth lines that they immediately sought bankruptcy protection. Thus ended The Second Age, an age of golden innovation still remembered fondly.
The Third Age, 2000–Present
The Third Age begins with the Fellowship Of The Ring film. The Peter Jackson trilogy, released as one film per year from 2001 through 2003, (Has it really been that long?) was a series of blockbusters that caused an explosion of interest in items with themes drawn from Tolkien’s books and from the movies. There was Tolkien glassware, Tolkien action figures, Tolkien towels, tee-shirts, and trivets. And, of course, Tolkien games.
Games based on Tolkien’s stories not only became more common in mainstream stores but also reached a mass audience beyond any their predecessors enjoyed. Hasbro was given license to produce games drawn on the films, and these games used as their bases existing mass-market titles already familiar to consumers—so we had Tolkien-themed variations of Risk, Stratego, Monopoly, and Trivial Pursuit. In addition, there were as many as three versions of each game, as they were re-issued with each new film, e.g., Fellowship Of The Ring Risk, Two Towers Risk, and Lord Of The Rings Movie Trilogy Risk—all the same game but with different boxcovers (also, the Trilogy Risk edition map was larger in order to include more of Mordor and Gondor). Hasbro also produced at least two plastic chess sets based around the Lord Of The Rings, released for the Fellowship and Two Towers movies.
Unlike the prior three decades, where only two game companies (SPI and ICE) had licenses, Tolkien Enterprises allowed many companies to tie into the films. In addition to the Hasbro games and smaller licenses (such as playing cards and dominoes), many other gaming companies were able to jump in.
Just prior to the films, a German company named Kosmos produced a Lord Of The Rings boardgame, a cooperative Eurogame where players were all members of the Fellowship trying to get the ringbearer safely to Mordor. Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) picked up the English-language version, and then shared distribution with Hasbro. Designed by Reinier Knizia, the game has won many awards and is a well-done design with great art and pieces. Three expansions have been released, Friend And Foe, Sauron, and Battlefields. Kosmos also produced Tolkien-based games Confrontation (2002, re-issued in 2004 by FFG) and The Hobbit (2001, re-released 2004 by FFG). The Hobbit was an absolutely wonderful game with a 3D Lonely Mountain topped by Smaug in the center of the gameboard. The Duel (2002, re-issued by Rio Grande Games in 2005) was Kosmos’ game of the Gandalf-Balrog fight.
In 2002, Games Workshop, well-known for the WarHammer miniatures game, was licensed to produce a miniatures game based around Lord Of The Rings. The Lord Of The Rings Strategy Battle Game was released first as a big and heavy boxed set that allowed players to set up battles between Gondor and Mordor forces. Boxed sets (including one for each film) and individual models have been released over the years since, several per year, along with some terrain pieces. The game focuses on mass army combat although miniatures of the major characters from Lord Of The Rings have been produced. In 2005, Games Workshop released The Battle Of Five Armies, a huge battle box that had everything needed (including a rules book) to fight the battle from the end of The Hobbit.
Another miniatures set was released in 2003 by Sabertooth Games. The Lord Of The Rings Combat Hex Game was a set of painted plastic miniatures on special bases with numbered slots to keep track of damage and combat abilities; as a figure takes hits, it becomes less effective in a fight. This was an effort to tap into the popular Heroclix market. Although Sabertooth made a noble effort to expand beyond the hobby market with distribution through Toys R Us, the plan actually backfired when shipments of the starter box were shipped late and booster / expansion boxes were not shipped at all. The game continued, with expansions based on each film, until 2005 when Sabertooth went out of business. Their best miniature was a to-scale (which is to say HUGE) sculpt of battle-armored Sauron from the opening of the Fellowship Of The Ring movie.
In 2003 Nexus Games from Europe developed the massive War Of The Ring, a big-box wargame using hundreds of miniatures for strategic Middle Earth warfare. The game was picked up by Fantasy Flight Games for English-language distribution, and an expansion, Battles Of The Third Age, was released. (Fantasy Flight also produced Middle Earth Quests in 2009, a game in which up to five players take on the role of heroes adventuring through Middle Earth, trying to defeat the Sauron player.) In 2011, Ares Games acquired the rights to publish the War of the Ring game and released a new edition in December of that year. Ares recently published an expansion, Lords Of Middle Earth (Both Ares products will be reviewed in the very near future here at Armchair General).
In 2002 the license for roleplaying games and collectible card games, which had been dormant since 1999, was given to Decipher Games. In 2003 they began production of Lord Of The Rings Roleplaying Game, which was a series of boxed introductory sets and hardcover roleplaying books. The game drew heavily from the films for photos but remained true to the novels and allowed players to have adventures in any period of Middle Earth history; the rules system won the Origins award for Best Roleplaying Game. Decipher also produced the Lord Of The Rings Trading Card Game, a new CCG similar to the previous ICE game (players were both Fellowship characters and Shadow minions who challenged the other players’ characters). The CCG, also reliant completely on the films for photos on the cards, had several expansions through its short life, including tie-ins with each film and special edition cards packed into DVD sets of the movies. However, by 2006, Decipher was out of business, and so the license went fallow again.
In 2011, The One Ring by Cubicle 7 Games was printed. This roleplaying game was set in the years immediately after The Hobbit, as the power of Sauron begins to grow and the events of the War Of The Ring are set into place. The game focuses on the northern environs of Middle Earth, particularly around The Misty Mountains and Mirkwood; future releases will cover other parts of Middle Earth and allow players to be Gondor warriors and Rohan horsemen. Also in 2011, Fantasy Flight released Lord Of The Rings Living Card Game, the latest of the CCG designs based around Tolkien (click link to see Armchair General’s review).
Honorable mention must be made of Play Along Toys and their Armies Of Middle Earth sets. Based on the films and released only in 2004, these were a series of sets of fully painted and poseable plastic miniatures modeled in 2.5-inch scale. The miniatures included military units, siege engines, and characters, and are highly prized by both miniatures gamers and roleplayers for use in their games.
Variations of the beloved Tolkien stories continue to find new gaming venues, such the console game LEGO Lord of the Rings, developed by Traveler’s Tales. LEGO also makes a great many playsets for building dioramas of Middle Earth.
There and Back Again
Tolkien gaming dates back to the 1970s. After the copyright confusion of that decade had been rectified, the next two decades saw relatively few—but highly praised—Tolkien games. Licenses became profuse at the beginning of the new millennium, thanks to the enormously successful Peter Jackson films, and we received literally dozens of new games both in the US and Europe. Things have since quieted down, with the current biggest publishers being Ares (War Of The Ring and its expansions), Cubicle 7 (The One Ring), and Fantasy Flight (Lord Of The Rings Living Card Game; Middle Earth Quest; The Hobbit boardgame—a new design by Reiner Knizia—and The Hobbit Card Game, a trick-taking game introduced in September 2012; and the Lord of the Rings boardgame). As The Hobbit movie trilogy gathers steam we are sure to see more games released, especially with the grand battles of the third film. You can be sure Armchair General will keep you up to date on the best and brightest of those games that focus on strategy and tactics.
(For the Tolkien games collector, the author recommends two great Websites that served as helpful references for this article. Kulkmann’s Game Box http://www.boardgame.de/tolkien.htm is a great English-language reference for loads of European games. The Website Toklien Boardgames can be found at http://www.freewebs.com/tolkienboardgamecollecting/ and is an excellent resource where I found information on some of the extremely rare games from the 1970s.)
About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he enjoyed the films, he is still holding out for a future filmmaker to produce a Lord of the Rings movie that is taken verbatim from the novels and with an eighteen-hour running time.