Saturday, October 15, 2011

Understanding the Game: Creating the World of Middle-Earth

So, it would be so easy to simply play on a flat plane (say a kitchen table) with no rocks, hills, trees, or buildings. For some armies, this has definite advantages, but in reality, the world isn't like that. The same goes for Middle-Earth - its flavor is simply lost if you don't have hills, buildings, woods, and rivers in it. So, today we're going to learn some of the rules for terrain in the Lord of the Rings world, since that does shape the way units are used. We're going to focus in particular on the Wood Elves, since their life and death tends to rely on the presence of terrain.

1) Obstructing terrain

Obstructions can take the form of any object that gets between two objects, but some of the most frequent obstructions (besides people) are fences/walls, trees, rocks, and buildings. Whenever an obstruction prevents a unit from seeing another unit (remember that seeing is able to view clearly the torso and head of the target), the target cannot be shot at, targeted with magic, or charged by the aggressing unit. This is important, since it can allow units to surprise others and catch them off guard (or lose them).
At other times, an object will only cover part of a unit - perhaps a fence prevents you from seeing below the chest of a unit or a wall prevents you from seeing the right half of a unit. In this case, the unit can be shot at, targeted with magic, or charged, but he gains an "in-the-way roll" when there is an attempt to wound him. How this works is there is a 50% chance of the wall/object taking the blow instead of him (on the roll of a 1-3 on a 6-sided dice). When this is the case with a person blocking the view of another, the unit who is in the way will take the blow for the other unit.
Elves from Mirkwood can capitalize on obstructions if they purchase Elven cloaks. These items prevent a unit from being charged, shot at, or targeted by magic by any opponents further than 6" away if they are only partially obscured by an object. This means that they can turn what was an "in-the-way" opportunity into an inability to target. Since all Mirkwood Elves can be armed with ranged weapons of sorts (either bows or throwing daggers), this means that they can shoot at their foes with impunity and not be targeted back. In the case of throwing daggers, you're really flirting with the boundaries, so you may be able to be targeted in a later round, but for that round you'll be fine.
One last thing I need to say about obstructions: sometimes you'll want to be able to jump over a wall or climb a rock to get a better vantage point. To do this, you need to take a "climbing test" or a "jump test." This test essentially serves to see whether or not you are able to hoist yourself up on the rock or jump a fence. The chart works as shown below:
1: Unit stumbles and can't climb up/jump over - the unit cannot perform any other movements.
2-5: The unit manages to clamber up/over: place the unit on the object where he tried to climb up or on the other side of the object he sought to jump. No more movement is possible.
6: The unit exhibits great dexterity and leaps up/over the obstacle without difficult. Continue moving normally up to your maximum move distance.

2) Woodlands

Forests have many roots and rocks that make the ground uneven to walk on. This means that units who are not accustomed to the way the woods are need to watch their steps and thereby move slower than they would otherwise. To represent this in the game, the base of a wooded terrain piece is characterized as "difficult terrain" and reduces the movement distance of infantry in half and the movement of cavalry to a quarter (this essentially makes all units slug through a forest 2.5-3" at a time). This means that units that try to pass through woods are going to be bogged down by the terrain unless they can fly (or have a rule that says otherwise). All armies should capitalize on forcing their opponents to pass through difficult terrain if they can.
As it so happens, the Galadhrim Elves have lived all their lives in the forest of Lothlorien, and (like all Elves) are familiar with how to move in wooded areas. They benefit from the "Woodland Creature" special ability (which few other units benefit from), allowing them to move through wooded areas without penalty. This is an important bonus, because not only do they get to move a full 6" through the wooded game pieces, but since most units can only move 3" max through the wooded ground, archers who have hidden themselves in the woods can move 3" backwards, keeping the same distance between them and their attackers, and still be able to shoot in the upcoming Shoot phase. This can really bite when you're an army without archery or if your archers are really bad at hitting their targets (either by sheer lack of skill or because of a special rule that makes archers less effective).
3) Rivers

Rivers can be hard to cross (unless there are fords or bridges), and this is also simulated in the Middle-Earth tabletop game. A unit who "dives" into a river treats it as difficult terrain, but at the start of each Move phase when he is in the river, he must take a "swim test." This test essentially measures whether the unit drowns or not, as determined below:
1: Unit drowns and is removed as a casualty.
2-5: Unit may move as though in difficult terrain
6: Unit may move his full distance.

If the unit reaches the other side of the bank, he takes a "climbing test," as described above. If he rolls a 1 on the climbing test, he cannot climb out of the water and then will take a swim test on the following turn. A unit who is swimming cannot shoot, but he can fight if he comes in base contact with another unit who is also swimming.

There are also modifiers to the swim test chart, particularly based on the equipment that a unit bears (since a unit without armor is less likely to sink than a unit who is weighted down with heavy mail). To simulate this, we have the following bonuses or penalties based on equipment choices:

No armor: +1 to dice roll
Mithril armor: +1 to dice roll
Heavy armor: -1 to dice roll
Dwarf Heavy armor: -1 to dice roll
Shield: -1 to dice roll

Let me put this in perspective for the Elves and a few other armies I own. The Wood Elves pictured above have no armor and do not have the options for any other equipment. From all I can tell from the rules, this means they will never drown in a swim test. What it also means is that an Elven unit has a 1/3 chance of being able to move at top speed in the water. This is a huge advantage if there is a river that separates the two armies in combat, since the Elves will be able to trust to reaching the other side quickly, while the other army will need to work to cross the river. The Uruk army I am collecting, however, equips all of its Uruk units with heavy armor and most units have shields. This means that the units in this army are suffering a -1 or -2 penalty for all their units, which means that some of their units could risk being removed as casualties 50% of the time. YIKES! Stay away from the water...but imagine now how Mirkwood Elves can use this to their advantage when fighting an army that relies on shields and heavy armor (Warriors of Minas Tirith, Easterlings, Morannon Orcs, Uruk-Hai Warriors, Warriors of Arnor, etc.).
4) Rocky ground

Sometimes patches of rocks are sharp or rough or are otherwise uneven. This is simulate in the game with rocky terrain that is deemed to be "difficult terrain," just as woods are. Woodland creatures, however, do not get a free pass on this ground (very few units do), which means that these pieces of terrain tend to be excellent traps for large groups of warriors. Use these locations to hammer units with archery or to outmaneuver them and strike a more vulnerable part of their army.
The Elves don't have a pass on this piece of terrain I'm afraid, but if they ally a unit like Aragorn, Isildur's Heir in their army, any Elves within 6" of Aragorn can pass over this terrain without penalty. For 200 points, that's a great fighter and archer, but probably not worth the cost if you're just looking for the ability to cross over rocky terrain. The Elves, however, can benefit from the protection these rocks give (if any) and then rely on the difficult terrain to slow down their aggressors.

In summary, terrain is helpful for some units and greatly aids in keeping light units alive. They also tend to be devastatingly painful to armies that lack archery or that rely too much on cavalry. For armies like the Wood Elves of Mirkwood, such terrain is their forte and gives them a fighting chance against their foes. Other pieces of terrain can help armies of Goblins, Dwarves, and Uruk-Hai, as it can prevent the devastating archers of the Elves from making short work of their front lines (or vulnerable units).


  1. Isildur's Heir doesn't give a bonus to elves. it's a bonus to grey company members - rangers, dunedain, Elrond's twin sons and the three hunters (legolas & gimli)

  2. Indeed, you are appears then that rocky ground is just tedious then. :)