MESBG – Battle at Balin’s Tomb

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Today I’m looking at the Battle of Balin’s Tomb which was recently re-released by Games Workshop. This is a bit of a weird kit as it’s a bunch of Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game miniatures but doesn’t use any of those rules. It replays the scene out of the movie and has the Fellowship facing off against a bunch of Goblins and a Cave troll. The rule system is super simple with models able to move and fight or fight and move and that’s pretty much the game. 

I want to talk about this box today because I do think it is a great example of the kind of game we should aspire to make. It’s self enclosed, just a single encounter, although you could use it as a springboard to the larger middle earth game. It’s very recognisable, most people will have seen the scene play out and will know all the characters involved. It’s a nice little hobby project to get the models painted up, and the rule system is simple enough that anyone can play.

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It originally released in 2021 and this version is an exact copy of that. The sprues actually come from 2005 from the Mines of Moria box which was a starter for the full version of the Middle Earth game as it was at that time. So you lose the rulebook and the scenery, but get a nice board and cards for the variant ruleset.

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There are three sprues in this box, a blue one for all 9 of the fellowship, a red one which has 12 goblins split evenly between melee, spear, and bow, and a grey sprue that makes the troll. It is a bit of a shock to open a GW box and find so few sprues, but it is still a total of 22 models. The middle earth line is a smaller scale to Age of Sigmar and could be considered to be 25mm or even 28mm true scale compared to the heroic scale that AoS uses which is often closer to 32mm.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about how these aren’t great sculpts and that is true but I suspect that’s in comparison to newer versions in the line or just the larger scale AoS models. You can quite clearly make out the actors for each of the fellowship and I’ve found some amazing paint jobs that really bring them to life. The goblins are a bit rougher I have to admit, the mold lines across their face do smush things a bit, but they already have faces even a mother wouldn’t love.

So yes, the models aren’t amazing but they’re still good. Despite this box being a board game, these minis are a step above board game minis. 

Assembly is relatively straight forward, most models are a base and two pieces. The troll is the only one I really had problems with and ended up using sprue-gu to filly the gaps. These are all slotta bases, the fellowship mostly cover the full slot but I did find for most of the goblins I needed to add some masking tape to cover the gaps before I added some vallejo dark earth which is my go to basing material. 

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I did mention that this is from an old box that did have scenery. You can actually still buy that scenery from GW for relatively cheap. I did pick it up to go along with the box to give the board a little more character. A lot of the terrain is just clutter on the ground which matches the images on the board. You can drop them down and remove them if they end up blocking a model. The door, well, and tomb are a little more functional and look quite cool. The pillars are made up of two parts that join on the corners. This is a little annoying as it means getting the join right can be a pain. For mine, I did a minimal effort job and you can still see the join but I think it’s fine for background scenery. Weirdly, they are all the same design despite having different positions on the sprue, again a minor annoyance and not something I’m going to worry about. The board does have position for everything apart from the pillars. The board has space for smaller pillars and lots more of them. So I’ll be putting down this big ones in some corners but it does map every pillar. We could in theory pick up another set for 4 more pillars but I think we’re good for the time being.

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There’s also a weird thing with the board where the outside edges are the balconies that overlook the area. If you recall the hobbits fought the Troll from up there. There are stairs on the map but it’s not detailed in the rules. I think I’d play it out so you can jump down but have to use the stairs to get up.

The game itself is super straight forward. The fellowship has 12 turns to survive. There’s no army selection or deployment options. You have a square to put each of the heroes in mirroring the start of the movie. Then 9 out of the 12 goblins start at the entrance to the room.

After turn 1, Goblins are deployed based on random card draws and can appear from the door, well, or trapdoors with each card adding 1 to 4 goblins. So it’s all going to be a bit chaotic. From turn 2 to 5 one goblin card will be drawn, 6 to 10 will be 2 cards, while turn 11 and 12 get 3 cards. There are only 12 goblins in the box, so there can never be more than 12 active at anytime but it is a constant stream of them. The deck has 20 cards in total, and somewhere in the last 14 cards is the Cave Troll. So you definitely won’t see the cave troll before turn 7 but you’ve no idea what turn after that it will turn up.

After they’ve drawn their new goblins, the goblin player actives each of their models. For an activation, you can move and attack or attack and move. If you only want to move or just attack that’s fine, and if you don’t want to do either you just end your activation. Once all the Goblin’s have acted the heroes get to do the same. Each character has a card which makes it handy to reference things. Each has a move value in squares, an attack and defend which have coloured dice, and a number of wounds. They also have an ability which lets them break the rules slightly and the heroes have a bonus that triggers if they roll the one ring on either an attack or defend roll depending on the character. 

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Actually attacking just involves picking up the dice under attack and rolling them. Then you count the swords. The defender does the same with their defend dice and subtracts a sword for each shield. There are 3 kinds of dice, blue for the heroes, red for the bad guys, and a grey dice for the troll. The blue dice are slightly better having an extra sword where the red dice has a blank, so the heroes have a slight edge. Both the blue and red dice have a wild side which can count as either a sword or a shield as needed, the one ring or the eye of sauron respectively. The grey dice for the Troll has a 2 shield and a 2 damage side making it quite scary.

After you subtract the shields from the swords you do that much damage to the defender. The goblins all have 1 wound, as do most of the halflings. Frodo and Legolas have 2 wounds while the rest of the heroes have 3 wounds. Then the troll has a massive 5 wounds. Chances are you are going to see people die which is fun. The goblins do only have 1 attack dice, while out of the heroes all but pippin and merry have 2 or more defend dice. As the goblin player you can expect to whiff a lot of attacks, but there will be a lot of attacks to make and you have 12 turns to wear the fellowship down. It is technically a victory for the heroes if 3 or more of the fellowship survive and that includes Frodo, so the bar is a lot lower than in the movie which might give you some appreciation for how lucky they were.

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There is a lot of randomness here. You will eventually get through every one of the Goblin cards over the 12 turns, so the overall numbers will be the same but you might end up tons at the start which could be overwhelming. There’s also a big element of randomness with the dice, although it is a bounded randomness as the heroes are always rolling better dice and typicaly more dice than the goblins. I think a lot of the strategy for this game will involve having the stronger fellowship fighters screening the weaker ones, so the hobbits. If a model moves adjacent to an enemy, then the enemy can get a free attack with a single die with no defence rolled. So you should be able to screen but you will need to adjust when a goblin spawns in an unexpected spot. Honestly, I do feel like this has plenty of game play to keep things interesting and give a decent replay value. Yes you will be playing through the same scenario over and over but it will play out differently each time.

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If you do want to go further. The first step needs to be a rulebook. That could be as part of the big box Battle of Osgiliath or by itself. There is a quick start set of rules on Warhammer Community which does give you basics. Once you have the rules you need the profiles of your fighters. There are a few different ones but I believe the Armies of The Lord of the Rings is the best first port of call. This has all the profiles for the Fellowship and tons besides. Pretty much if you saw it in the main trilogy you’ll find it in this book. There is also a very interesting book called the Quest of the Ringbearer, this is packed with scenarios straight from the movies which includes Balin’s tomb. So you could switch over to the full rules rather than the board game version. This would involve getting another sprue of Goblins and 2 Goblin captains but it would mean you have the rules for other scenes like Weathertop or the Breaking of the Fellowship. Although I’ve yet to play it myself, I know the ruleset is very well regarded with many considering it the best skirmish game GW have.

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Overall, this box was relatively cheap even when I added the extra scenery. While I know it’s no longer on the GW store, you can currently get it from non-GW stores. I do think it would make a good gift for someone interested in Lord of the Rings just starting into miniatures or who has lots of minis but nothing for yet for the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game. It’s also something I’d recommend picking up for yourself. It makes a great self-enclosed experience that you can share with a friend or loved one and is simple enough to play with your kids. It’s pretty much the goal of of this channel, a nice neat game experience.

These are the ones I quickly got a base coat on for the video. I assembled them one evening, undercoated them another, and then got just some base colours down. I do intend to put a little more work into them, but honestly they already look enough like the movie that it would make for a pretty good experience. 

Please do comment if you’ve played this game yourself and especially if you’re a fan of the larger Middle Earth Strategy Battle game. As I’ve mentioned, I haven’t played it myself but with all the great things people are saying about it I’m definitely tempted to try.

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