While there are plenty of resources out there for getting started in the game, most people play Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game/Hobbit Strategy Battle Game/Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game for points matches and to play in tournaments. As you probably already noticed if you’ve poked around on this site at all, there is another way of playing called Narrative games. These are scenarios and even campaigns made up of many scenarios to re-enact scenes from the books and movies that we love. Games Workshop have also created scenarios that speculate on key events that happened “off-camera” in the books and movies like battles in the War of the Ring which are literally a footnote in the appendices to LOTR but I still consider those narrative games because the idea is to explore and tell a story within Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit. If that sounds fun to you, then this is a way of playing the game that is well worth considering!
Why play Narrative Gaming? – The most obvious draw of narrative games is the ability to play out your favorite moments from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Want to recreate Helm’s Deep, you can do that! You can even try some “What If?” scenarios where you tweak things from the books/movies. Want to see what it might have been like if the Fellowship had Saruman instead of Gandalf in Moria (or perhaps even throughout the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, if you’re really ambitious)? That is achievable in narrative play.
The way you play the game is often different in narrative scenarios versus points matches. You still have good and evil sides for almost all scenarios but one side may be more powerful than the other or one side might have to play a specific way to win the scenario. Some people might find this frustrating to be restricted or to feel like they’re playing at a disadvantage but if you want to play in the spirit of the books or movies, this is the way to play the game without a doubt.
For me personally, there is nothing more fun than having miniatures painted to the best of my ability on terrain that captures the feeling of a scenario and seeing what happens in my own personal version of the books. Sometimes it plays out exactly like in the books or movies and other times it can be very different. What is consistent is that in a well-written scenario, it is fun and interesting to see what happens. The best scenarios are ones that are unpredictable and tense the entire way through.
The Realities of Narrative Gaming – There are a few things you may want to consider before you embark on your narrative gaming journey. While you can definitely play solo like I do, if you want to play with an opponent, I would make sure they are in it for the long haul and are ready to undertake a hobby that you ideally will enjoy for years. As I mentioned before, many people prefer to play competitively and so it is worth being sure that you have people who also want to play narratively with you before you jump in. I mention this because I often see new players who say they want to start MESBG but can’t find an opponent near them. If that is important to you, then I’d make sure you have someone or consider the possibility of playing solo.
Even more importantly, make sure that you are willing to commit the money and time into the hobby to get out of it what you want. What I mean is that scenarios can often take months or even a year’s worth of work to play (if it is a big battle like Helm’s Deep). Painting up an army is not really much different in many respects and indeed, smaller scenarios will require fewer models than what an army requires. What does increase your workload is that you will generally want terrain that suits each scenario you play whereas if you play points matches, you might not need terrain because you can use whatever a store or your friends have. If you enjoy painting and terrain-making then this is not a problem at all. For me personally, I find this to be almost as gratifying as playing. Being able to model scenes either from the movies or from my own mind is a lot of fun and one of my favorite parts of the hobby. If I didn’t enjoy these things, then I probably wouldn’t be involved in the narrative side of the game as I am however so that is why it is worth considering before you decide to undertake this type of gaming. If you’re lucky enough to have some friends who also enjoy hobbying, then that can make the cost and time spent much more reasonable and allow you to play scenarios more quickly as well.
What do I need to play? – There are a few things you will need to get started. If you’ve ever played a wargame before, this is won’t be too surprising. You’re going to need miniatures and terrain as previously mentioned. You’ll also need dice and a ruler. There are three main versions of the rules depending on which of the iterations of LOTRSBG/HobbitSBG/MESBG you’re going to play. Near the end of this article, I will talk in more detail about specific paths you might take to get into the game. Here is a breakdown of the rulebooks with accompanying images:
LOTR Strategy Battle Game – This is the first version of the game so the rules are not as polished or developed. LOTR SBG had a version of the rules that came out with each of the three Lord of the Rings movies. The rules became more detailed and covered more things (like Siege rules were added after The Fellowship of the Ring since the big battles started in Two Towers). While I include pictures of them below to help you understand what they are, they are not ideal for playing scenarios because of their age. Most of the scenarios you would find in the movie rulebooks were improved later on so there isn’t any need to get the books. That is partially why the rulebooks are usually very cheap on eBay. If you want to play LOTRSBG, what you will want to get is the One Rulebook. It is the most comprehensive ruleset and many of the Lord of the Rings supplements which contain scenarios are compatible with this version of the rules. It is also the last version of the LOTR SBG rules to come out so it is the most polished and developed.
Hobbit Strategy Battle Game – If you’re interested in playing Hobbit era scenarios specifically, then you may want to consider purchasing the rules from this era. The Hobbit rules were released after the One Rulebook shown above so they are an even more developed version of the rules. Fortunately, it is a bit simpler in terms of what you need to get too. There is a hardcover and softcover version of the rules that came out when An Unexpected Journey was released. Unless you’re buying the Escape From Goblin Town Starter Set, I would recommend the hardcover version because it has quite a bit more content in it (including a host of scenarios for the first Hobbit movie and some LOTR ones too). It also contains statistics for all of the minis released at the time which is handy to have.
Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game – This is the latest version of the game and is the most polished it has ever been. If you want to play the version that is currently supported by Games Workshop with new releases, this is the way to go. For this iteration of the game, you will need the rulebook and you will need one or both of the Armies of Lord of the Rings or Armies of the Hobbit depending on which era of Middle-Earth you want to game in. The Armies book have some iconic scenarios but also provide the statistics for all of the different characters and armies from both eras. You will need to have that to play any MESBG scenarios.
There are a lot of options! What should I play first? – The last thing I will cover is quite possibly the most important and fun decision you get to make. You will need to decide what part of Middle Earth you want to focus on in your narrative games. There are supplements for most of the important armies and events within Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. For example, if you love Gondor, there are multiple books with scenarios in them published for Lord of the Rings SBG and Gondor at War (which features updated versions of the LOTR scenarios) in them. While I may cover all of the supplements one day and share info on what they contain, I will simplify things by making some recommendations on what I think the easiest ways to start the game are.
Escape From Goblin Town Starter Set – If you want to play Hobbit era scenarios, this is the purchase you need to make. While the set has a large model count (50+ minis), the scenarios are wisely designed to get you playing quickly. The first couple scenarios require less than 20 minis be painted (which is lower than average) and a bit of the terrain that comes in the box will also need to be painted. The early scenarios help motivate you to get everything painted up and when you get everything done, it looks great. You can see how I got on with my Escape From Goblin Town set if you dig into this site’s archive. The downside to going down this path is that once you paint up the box set, the rest of the scenarios which are in the An Unexpected Journey hardcover rulebook require a lot of models and terrain. For example, the larger Goblin Town scenarios where you’d already have all of the models needed to play those scenarios painted up require a ton of terrain. So it is not a small amount of hobby work even once you paint up the box! It is also worth noting that this box set is no longer made or sold by Games Workshop. You can still find copies on Ebay and you can also buy the books that come with the set for cheap and then just buy the minis (except for Radagast who is only available in this box but you can live without him) directly from Games Workshop or on Ebay.
The Scouring of the Shire – This is one of the best places to start because many of the scenarios require around 20 models. You also have nearly 20 scenarios to play through (which will keep you busy for a long time!) and once you get a few things painted and some terrain made, it kind of snowballs and you’re not what feels like miles away from being able to play the next scenario (like what I described for Hobbit scenarios). Of course, these scenarios focus on Sharkey and the Ruffians attempt to takeover The Shire so if that part of LOTR does not appeal to you then by all means, try a different area of Middle-Earth to focus your gaming on.
Lord of the Rings SBG Journeybooks – Shortly after the One Rulebook was released, Games Workshop released a book for each Lord of the Rings movie that not only details scenarios that contain the major events from the books/movies but also have some decent guides for painting (the paints have changed since then so these aren’t that useful) and creating terrain (which are quite handy). Everything in the books is designed to slowly build up your collection and the terrain can be used across multiple scenarios. So this makes it easy to ramp things up without needing months or years to get everything completed to play a scenario. While The Two Towers and Return of the King feature scenarios with lots of models because they depict big battles, The Fellowship of the Ring has pretty reasonable model counts for the scenarios with many iconic scenes from the movie like Balin’s Tomb covered. So this is also one of the easier ways to get started, albeit with an older set of the rules. The downside to this path is that some of the miniatures featured in these scenarios are not easy to find on eBay and Games Workshop does not sell them any longer. If you’re a stickler like me for having the exact models needed for each scenario this is a pain. Hopefully, one day Games Workshop will redo these scenarios and collect them in a new book for Middle-Earth SBG as I think many people want to be able to play these scenarios. One other tip if you want to go down this road, is that the Mines of Moria Starter Set will get you ready to play Balin’s Tomb and you can paint up the Fellowship which is needed for many of the other scenarios so that is an option if you want to recreate that famous scene on your tabletop. I should add though that Mines of Moria has been long out of print so you’ll have to keep an eye on eBay to snag a copy.
Battle Games in Middle-Earth Magazine – An alternative to the Journeybooks is this series of magazines designed to both build up your collection of miniatures and terrain as you play through iconic moments in Lord of the Rings. In fact, the magazines would come with a metal miniature to help you build up collection slowly but surely! While these magazines were not as popular in the United States as they were in the rest of the world, many people got their start in LOTR SBG with these and remember them fondly as a result. I mention that because you may find it difficult to find a lot of these magazines for a good price on eBay in the US and you will certainly have to do some hunting for the individual minis, some of which may be out of production currently. If you want to see some of the scenarios you can play in these magazines, I’d recommend checking out Aiwendil.net, which is run by Gerowniko. He is a friend of this site and I can’t recommend his content highly enough!
These are currently the three easiest ways to ease yourself into LOTRSBG/Hobbit SBG/MESBG narrative gaming. If you like a particular army or are really interested in a certain part of Middle-Earth, like Harad or Khazad-Dum, for example, you could also try a supplement suited to that particular faction and play the relevant scenarios in there.
The one piece of advice I would pass on is to make sure you pick scenarios that have smaller model counts to start with. If you need to paint 75+ miniatures to play the game for the first time, chances are good that you will lose motivation before you get those done. That is a year or more’s worth of painting work and it is too easy to get burnt out without being able to get a game in. This is why I don’t necessarily recommend starting with the relatively new Rohan At War or Gondor At War which mostly have scenarios that require 50+ miniatures and a table full of terrain. Tackle those once you’ve built up your collection a bit more if you can as I think you’ll find it easier to accomplish once you’ve got some experience under your belt.
This is a lot of information but I see these questions asked a lot by new players and I personally would rather read through all this information and learn that way then have to ask people in a Facebook group or forum somewhere to get answers. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave them in the Comments section below and if you’re an experienced SBG player and see any info that I need to update or correct, please let me know that as well. I want this to be as helpful for new players as possible as I think Narrative gaming in MESBG is absolutely the best way to play and I encourage others to check it out!