The Battle Of The Five Armies
Players: 2; ages 13+
One of the things I’ve always admired about armies in fantasy films is how efficient their time management is.
I mean, we’ve seen in countless shows, from Star Wars and Game Of Thrones to The Lord Of The Rings: The heroes have put up a terrific fight but they’ve been overwhelmed by the villains; just as they are about to be massacred, another army appears, having arrived at PRECISELY the right moment to save our heroes, not a second wasted! What amazing planning!
You never have a scene where a glorious army arrives to find a field full of their friend’s corpses, having arrived 15 minutes too late. (“I told you we should have turned LEFT at that ford, Gandalf!”)
In the board game The Battle Of The Five Armies (Botfa) players can experience these dramatic appearances for themselves.
During this two-player game, based on the climax of J.R.R. Tolkien’s bestselling novel The Hobbit, one player plays the forces of the Shadow Army and must orc-hestrate (sorry, couldn’t resist!) an army of orcs and goblins to conquer the lands of Middle-earth. The other controls the Dwarves, Men and Elves of the Free Peoples army. They must hold on long enough for their more powerful friends to appear and turn the tide of battle in their favour.
Botfa is published by Ares Games and designed by Roberto Di Meglio, Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello. It’s a sequel to the much acclaimed War Of The Ring that was developed and published by the same people, and so features many similar game mechanics.
The game is set up in a specific layout, which is demonstrated in Botfa’s instruction manual: both the Shadow and Free player place their armies (represented by miniature figures) in pre-determined places all over the board. The Shadow army is mostly concentrated in the board’s north-eastern region. The Free Peoples army is scattered all over but control many strategic areas, such as the Fords, Settlements and Fortifications.
Botfa is divided into turns, which have a select order to them. Every turn, each player rolls a number of dice (five for the Free player, six for the Shadow player) and their results determine what actions they can take. These actions include creating new armies, attacking with your armies, and drawing special cards – known as Event and Story cards – which have their own effects on the game.
Also playing a role in gameplay is a mechanism called the Fate Track, which effectively measures how long the game takes. Every turn moves a marker on the Fate Track forward a few spots; at certain spots, certain characters enter the game, thus creating the dramatic appearances so beloved of fantasy films. These include famous Hobbit characters such as Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield and Beorn the Skin-changer.
All the characters that appear on the Fate Track are allied with the Free Peoples; that player thus has the motivation to wait it out for as long as she can, to get more powerful allies. Indeed, the Free Player wins if the Fate Track marker reaches 15. She is also victorious if she manages to kill Bolg, one of the Shadow player’s most powerful commanders, or if she can summon Beorn at a specific point in the game.
The Shadow player, on the other hand, wins by conquering Settlements and Fortifications. Each of these is worth a certain number of points (Fortifications are worth more because they are more heavily defended) and the moment he reaches 10 points, he wins the game.
If all of this seems very complex … well, yes it is. This is definitely not a game for beginners. Botfa features very detailed mechanics and just learning them can easily eat up much of your playing time. There is a lot going on all the time and it is very easy to become overwhelmed by the game’s action.
Fortunately, the game’s instruction manual is very helpful, and comes with a handy guide to what exactly to do during each very lengthy turn.
(I also recommend watching Ricky Royal’s gameplay videos on YouTube, which are very useful! Episode 1 is at tinyurl.com/zfrkrhn.)
What’s most commendable about Botfa is how balanced it is: Despite having completely different characters, units and powers, both the Free player and the Shadow player are quite evenly matched. Just like the book, the Shadow player’s strength comes in overwhelming numbers; a good strategy is to build up a large force of goblins and orcs and go conquering. Shadow players only have two special Characters, the mighty Bolg and the Giant Bats of Mirkwood, both of whom are very helpful additions.
The Free player has fewer forces but make up for it by having many Characters with powerful abilities that can definitely mess up the Shadow player.
Bilbo, for instance, can use the One Ring to remove damage, while Gandalf and Thranduil have long-range abilities that allow them to attack unscathed. And Beorn is a powerhouse that can “bear” a lot of damage!
(Note that this game seems to be based on The Hobbit book rather than the movie, so no, Legolas and Tauriel do not make appearances.)
The game plays very well and is very challenging; plotting and strategizing is genuinely exciting, and its combat system is challenging but fun.
It follows the themes of The Hobbit very well – all of the units have abilities that match their characters – and the art on its cards and boards is magnificent.
Perhaps the game’s main flaw is its complexity. Its super-detailed rules take a while to truly understand, and will probably turn casual and impatient players off.
It can also drag: Botfa’s estimated playtime is supposed to be 90 minutes. Time must pass very differently in Middle-earth, however, as my experience ended up taking over three hours, with me and my opponent drained and glad to be finished with the game at the end.
Despite this, Bofta is a fun if extremely complex game that really captures the epic feel of Tolkien’s universe. Just make sure you have time and energy to spare when playing this!
Novel Games is a monthly column in which we review board games inspired by books, reading and storytelling.