Monday, January 26, 2015

Gaming the Battle of the Five Armies

Years before companies preemptively exploited transmedia opportunities, before computers made games a primary part of any media strategy, it was up to the fans to make game versions of their favorite stories. Stories could move from novels to the big screen, but commercial tie-in games, when they appeared at all, invariably recycled the play of familiar children's boardgames. Yet great war stories demanded wargames, and the boldest fans brought their wargame designs to the market heedless of the consequences. Here in the tussle between fans and rights holders, between hobbies and commercialization, with a hint of corporate intrigue thrown in the mix, lies the story of gaming the Battle of the Five Armies.

Tolkien's Middle-earth has always inspired its fans to participate in a way that goes beyond just reading. Early fanzines burgeoned with Tolkien theatrical renditions: as radio plays, as stage plays, as film scripts. Even before 1960, the pioneering British gamer Tony Bath had begun experimenting with a world of Tolkia as a fantastic setting for his games. Unsurprisingly, the Battle of the Five Armies stands among the earliest fantasy scenarios to inspire a wargame adaptation: the venerable War Game Inventors Guild of the 1960s, a group which Gygax briefly ran, drove development of a Five Armies game before the end of the decade but never produced a finished version. While Tolkien resurfaced in Diplomacy variants, in one-off games at conventions, and the like, these remained non-commercial fan activities in the 1960s.

The first commercial wargame product to include Tolkien's setting explicitly was the seminal fantasy wargame Chainmail (1971) by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. The text identifies itself as enabling players to "refight the epic struggles related by J.R.R. Tolkien" among other authors, and accordingly it includes balrogs, hobbits, ents, and various other inventions unique to Tolkien's work. It is thus unsurprising that Gygax wrote up a scenario for the Battle of the Five Armies using Chainmail rules. It appeared in the fall of 1973, only a few months before the release of Dungeons & Dragons, in an issue of the popular fanzine Panzerfaust (#60). 

Gary complains that "Tolkien, being neither a military historian nor a wargamer," usually left us fictional battle accounts "without sufficient hard data--so to speak--to allow duplication in miniature." But he sees in the Battle of the Five Armies an exception: "Knowing the number of dwarves to be 500, and that there were two waves of 1000 elves which attacked, the other forces can be approximated with fair credibility." He reckons that around 5,000 goblins assaulted the gates of Erebor under Lonely Mountain. In Gygax's version of the battle, Beorn arrives on the eighth turn, and the eagles on the twelfth, both after the second wave of goblins creeps up on the sixth turn.

However, Gygax would not have the final say on adapting this battle. Just as Dungeons & Dragons was released, a notice in the fanzine El Conquistador identified a gamer named Larry Smith as "organizing a 'Lord of the Rings' wargaming club to re-create the 'Odyssey of the Ring.'" A more detailed account in that fanzine two months later announced the foundation of Smith's LORE, the "Lord of the Rings Experimenters," a group for "those who are interested in recreating what the Middle-earth probably was like." Its charter included creating a "highly-detailed map" of Middle-earth and then distributing "countries and commands" to the members "for a form of miniatures and board game that will take place. When the game has been finished the game will be analyzed and made into a board game that will be published for the wargame market."

The game Smith self-published around a year later under his LORE imprint was the Battle of the Five Armies. Smith divides Tolkien's forces into two camps, which for convenience he calls the Axis and Allies. The former is the goblins and wargs led by a hero unit for Bolg; the latter compromises elves, dwarves, men, and eagles, along with the six hero units for Gandalf, Thorin, Dain, Beorn, Bard and the Elvenking (as Thranduil is called in The Hobbit). The armies contend on a hexmap which, like virtually all of the game components, prominently features a copyright notice assigning the work to Larry Smith.

Smith sold his game by mail for $4.50. An early review in Supernova #25 is largely negative, criticizing the game as a botched attempt to translate miniature wargame rules into a board game. His game might be little known today had it not attracted the interest of an unexpected champion: TSR. To expand its business in 1975, TSR began reselling miniatures and games produced by third parties. Naturally, they identified fantasy wargames as a core interest of their customers, and thus fall issue of the Strategic Review that year lists the availability through TSR of the Fact & Fantasy Games products Siege of Minas Tirith and Battle of Helm's Deep as well as Smith's game. But of those titles, they only brought one in-house, to reissue in 1976 as a TSR zip-lock bag product: the Battle of the Fives Armies.

Once TSR picked up his game, Smith became something of a Tolkien authority for the company. This afforded Smith the unusual honor of having not just one, but two bylines in the very first issue of The Dragon magazine: the first for his version of the Battle of the Five Armies as a fantasy miniatures game, based on Chainmail with some few modifications; the second for a brief piece on the "Three Kindred of the Eldar," to be followed two issues later by a reconsideration of dwarf Fighting-men as their own Dungeons & Dragons character class.

In 1977, TSR reissued Smith's Battle of the Five Armies in a boxed set with new color artwork, of the same size and construction as the Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons released at roughly the same time. Clearly, this product was intended to reach the larger audience that TSR had now found for Dungeons & Dragons. This time, the box quite blatantly bore the legend, "from 'The Hobbit,'" and on its sides, a tagline reads, "True to THE HOBBIT, either side can win!" Moreover, beneath the title of the game is an indication that TSR had applied to register a trademark on the very name "Battle of the Five Armies." TSR had not however secured any licensing agreement with the rights holders of The Hobbit.

By this point, it was not just upstarts but also established game publishers who courted fantasy fans. SPI had entered this market with its Sorceror in October 1975, not long after reviewing the Siege of Minas Tirith in its house organ Strategic & Tactics (#51). That very issue, SPI inquired into reader interest in a prospective "War of the Rings" wargame from SPI which would cover the Battle of the Five Armies as well as Helm's Deep and the Siege of Minas Tirith. It wasn't until the second half of 1977, however, that SPI committed to proceed: "After several months of negotiations with lawyers in both England and the United States" including those "representing the Tolkien estate" as well as those associated with ongoing screen adaptations (S&T #64), SPI greenlit the project, which would appear very late in 1977 as War of the Ring.

The timing of SPI's rights acquisition is especially interesting as, during those several months of negotiation between SPI and the holders of Tolkien's intellectual property, TSR received a cease-and-desist order which took Battle of the Five Armies off the market. Could SPI's legal process have called attention to TSR's unlicensed Battle of the Five Armies? When the game first appeared under Smith's LORE imprint, Strategy & Tactics reviewed it (in #54, deeming it "quite simple," a severe lashing when coming from SPI), and SPI tracked the game's popularity in subsequent issues - so surely they were aware it existed. It is also telling that, despite the aspiration expressed in S&T #51 to cover the Battle of the Five Armies in the War of the Ring, that fight is conspicuously absent from SPI's 1977 game. If SPI did negotiate to put out their own version of that battle, they did not succeed - so why should TSR be allowed to proceed with its pirate version, then?

In the lead-up to the November 1977 release of the Rankin/Bass animated film of The Hobbit on prime time television, the holders of Tolkien's intellectual property were no doubt alert to its unlicensed exploitation. It is entirely possible that TSR's sudden interest in promoting its Battle of the Five Armies in a pretty box was a cynical attempt to ride those coattails. These questions loom large because the withdrawal of the Battle of the Five Armies was only one effect of the cease-and-desist TSR received: the other, more famous - and more controversial - consequence was the removal of Tolkien's fantastic creations (such as balrogs, hobbits, and ents) from Dungeons & Dragons and Chainmail.

Disputes over gamifying the Battle of The Five Armies serve as a worthy example of the ethical difficulties in commercializing a hobby. When does a hobbyist's prerogative to explore scenarios turn into an act of piracy? Did Smith's Battle of the Fives Armies cross a line that Gygax's fanzine-distributed Chainmail version of the Battle did not? Recently, a new film adaptation of The Hobbit has brought a vivid and lengthy realization of the Battle of the Five Armies to the screen, and with it there are new licensed commercial tabletop games of the Battle (like the Ares Games rendition). Hobbyists interested in fighting the Battle for themselves today might draw inspiration from the earliest versions covered here - sometimes the most authentic game adaptations lose the battle for legitimacy.


  1. Thanks for the article. I had wondered how this product tied into the Tolkien 'cleansing'. It's listed for sale in the first print Holmes Basic rulebook (mid-77) but gone by the second printing (Jan 78).

  2. NobleKnight has a copy of the 1975 TSR version up on eBay right now, asking almost $200 for it. It says it is a Ziplock copy.