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THE LORD OF THE RINGS:  JOURNEYS IN MIDDLE-EARTH from FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES A new all-time favourite! There have been many gam...


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!


A new all-time favourite!
There have been many games that I have been enthusiastic about both in the 43 years I've been playing board wargames and in the more recent period that I've been reviewing for A Wargamers Needful Things.  But this is something special.

I have rarely spent in the past so much time playing any one game, as I have in the few weeks since receiving my review copy from Asmodee to whom I can only say a massive thanks.  This is a system I am going to be totally hooked into.  

First of all I want to make clear that this is not a game attempting to get you to play out or recreate specific scenes from either The Lord of The Rings or The Hobbit [whether you're thinking of Tolkien's original novels or Peter Jackson's films].   Nor is it a game that allows you to play out individual adventures as stand alone episodes.  This is a campaign formulated in a sequence of adventures pure and simple. The other absolutely crucial factor is that it is specifically an app-driven game that cannot be played in any other way, but before exploring that core part of the game, you need to have a good idea of the more traditional materials that you will be playing with.

Like many fantasy games involving exploration, your map board will mainly be made up of a series of tiles of different shapes and sizes that will be laid out as you travel the land.

Just a few of the many terrain tiles, plus our six heroes

Occasionally, your adventure will play out on a more conventional set of one or two boards described as Battle Map tiles [seen in the image below].  On these, terrain pieces will be set out such as bushes, boulders, tables, barrels, fire pits, statues, the walls of buildings or streams.  Such moments in your campaign tend to be the major confrontations.

Critical though these episodes are and often involving one or more powerful figures, I enjoy just as much and sometimes more the exploratory adventures where the map grows and your mission develops and branches.

Some have expressed their wish that the game had used tiles that represent specific locations drawn from the Tolkien oeuvre, such as the Prancing Pony or the Barrow Downs.  To achieve this would frankly be impossible, as it would need a mammoth set of tiles that would probably fill several boxes! To me this seems both illogical and highly constraining. To conjure up the multiple locations that emerge over the course of the campaign would be impossible except by using just such a generic set of double-sided tiles as the game does provide.

There is a wide variety of different sizes and configurations that build up to create an evocative landscape, such as the one below.
While we're discussing the terrain, I'd strongly recommend that you sort the tiles according to their numeric order at the beginning of each adventure for ease of finding and to maintain the smooth flow of the narrative.  

Here the app provides one of its best roles.  Each adventure - called a Chapter -  begins with you being instructed on the placing of a limited landscape, created from usually one to three tiles with a slight mist encompassing the direction(s) in which the land will develop as you explore it.  Text and voice describe what you can see and also you're shown where to place such things as exploration/ encounter/threat tokens and the minions of evil themselves.  A banner headline will also state your current objective.

Now you have an idea of how the land lies and what it looks like, I'll  move on to the figures in the landscape.  Surprisingly, the six heroes that you can choose from seem the weaker element in the physical casting of the models.  All tend to have broader, solider plains, as seen with Legolas and Aragorn here.

On the other hand, this did make them much quicker and easier to paint.

By contrast the enemies that they encounter are substantially more detailed as even a quick black undercoat and light brushing of white demonstrates.

Though I shall be going on to a complete paint job, even with such a basic preliminary coat the figures are beginning to take on more identity.  Though the range of enemies is relatively limited, which has raised some queries, I've been more than satisfied with all I've got in the core box.  The one thing that you can be sure of is that there will be more, much more to come in expansions. 

Nonetheless, there's plenty to engage with as illustrated on the contents page below.
In addition to the components I've already considered is a substantial range of cards that cover identical sets of Basic Skills for each character, plus each Hero's own personal set and a set of Role skill cards.  At the moment there are six roles offered, just as there are six heroes.  Very oddly, the one obvious missing role is that of wizard, just as the one missing Hero is Gandalf.  Definitely some complaints have been vociferously forthcoming about that omission! 

These cards form the heart of each Hero's play deck that provide the key mechanic for all the different tests that will have to be made during the course of a turn as well as an ever changing tableau of abilities that will help and augment your Hero's actions.  These sets of cards will slowly evolve over the course of the Chapters, partly through potential purchases and upgrades bought with Experience Points and Lore during the interim between Chapters and partly through Items awarded in the course of a Chapter.  

In addition at the beginning of the whole Campaign, each Hero draws a random Weakness card which serves as a minor encumbrance to clog up his/her play deck and more of these will be added occasionally, mainly as the result of unsuccessful tests.

On the opposite side will be found the Damage and Fear cards that will also build up; this time from such things as enemy attacks or a Hero finding themselves in darkness during the Shadow Phase which can best be considered as the time for evil to strike back.  These do not go into the play decks but are positioned near each Hero's character card.  Reaching your assigned capacity for Damage or Fear leads to a Hero testing for a Last Stand.  Failure in this dire situation will bring doom on the whole party unless they can accomplish the Chapter's objective before the next Shadow Phase.

The final items in the box are two superb booklets.  The first is the slim Learn To Play booklet.  Abundantly illustrated, it is one of the clearest and easiest set of rules that I've read.
A quick read through and you really have all the basics you need to play the game.  Backing it up is a much more substantial booklet - titled the Rules Reference.
Again this works perfectly to give you an alphabetic explanation of all the terms you might come across, primarily on the many cards, but also through the app.  Though the booklet does have an excellent index, it is really unnecessary as it is so quick and easy to find whatever word you want. 
Above you can see a typical extract from the extensively well-illustrated basic rules, while below is one of the excellent examples, in this case of the all-important use of testing.

So, eventually we come to the APP.   This vital part of the game has been developed to perfection.  First of all it is a very easy interface to work with - far easier to navigate than many another computer interface I've experienced.    Here is that all-competent games master you always wanted when in the past you were forced to draft in either the least reluctant player or the most easily lent on or, dare I say it, the megalomaniac member of your group who just loves cackling evilly!  

At last we have one who narrates the narrative text in suitable tones, doesn't make mistakes[very few glitches have so far been encountered] and handles so many of the mechanics of the three-phases of the sequence of play.

A typical screenshot on my ipad

Many games have sought to overcome that very problem of the neutral games master by turning the role into the highly aggressive one of being the evil overlord.  In Journeys in Middle-Earth, the app virtually drives everything.

This has led to two interlinked complaints.  The first is the amount of inputting, the second is that all you do as the active player is shuffle your card deck and turn over cards making the game dull and repetitive.  Both criticisms neither do any justice to the game nor relate to the amount of excitement and enjoyment I've experienced while playing the game.  

First of all, the interaction with the app is very positive.  It provides plentiful atmospheric text, which whether playing solo or as a group, can be enjoyed aurally.  The on-screen visuals complement what you see physically in front of you in the form of all the components I've described.  

Legolas encounters two marauding orcs 

However, more than anything, consider what it replaces at its very simplest: namely,  a multitude of charts that would have to be referenced, endless modifiers and their accompanying rules learnt and then dice rolled, followed by more rules for the outcomes.  By comparison, the inputting you have to do becomes a quick and easy part of the whole experience.  

You, the player, have the pleasure of physically building the map, placing the items to be explored and interacted with, the characters to be met and spoken to and, not least, the enemies to be targeted and fought with or evaded, deciding what paths you will take through the land and which Heroes will undertake what task.  All the while drafting your deck to make best use of the skills that your card draw allows you to prepare.  
Legolas confronts a goblin hunter

Your whole focus is on what's happening instead of having your head buried in rules and endless charts.  Hence the swift and smooth flow of the experience.  Having played and enjoyed in the past solitaire games like the much praised and revered Ambush with their sleeves of written events to be checked as you moved from hex to hex, there is no way that such methods could be used to achieve the complexity of plot lines in each Chapter of  Journeys in Middle-Earth.

I tested out the potential for diverging storylines by playing out the opening Chapter four times and was very pleased with what I discovered.  The first thing was that each time played the map differed in its development.  Next, though certain events did have to occur in order to complete a Chapter, the locations and order might change, incidental characters [what are often termed NPCs -i.e. Non-Player Characters] might change, along with many other elements.  

A dangerous place to be
More than anything, a factor I highly relished was that all tests are not a simple question of Pass or Fail, though some are.  Instead for many you input the number of successes and the app gives you the result which will change according to the degree of success.  The same will often be true of combat, as you input the number of hits. Both these lead to frequent agonising choices, as you decide whether to influence the outcomes by spending some of the cards that are  currently in your character's display or whether to spend some of your inspiration tokens to affect the  random cards that you draw from your play deck when testing. 

At other times you will be conversing and interacting with characters, trying to gauge which response might be the best choice in the circumstance: outright aggressiveness, helpfulness, simple kindness or a neutral tone.  This is especially true of the Chapter where your goal is to uncover a spy!!

Meanwhile as damage and fear mounts and one or more of your Heroes moves inexorably towards having to take a last stand test, the tension is screwed tighter.  This is augmented by the fact that each Chapter has a timing mechanism called the Threat level that increases each turn during the Shadow Phase [a few actions will even decrease the Threat level].  Reach the end of the Threat line before you've succeeded in your mission and you're defeated.

The painting begins!
Perhaps strangely, defeat does not mean your character is out of the game or that you have to return to the very start of the whole campaign.  Instead you will continue on to the next Chapter with your character restored to health.  This is a feature I've met with in both computer games and some fantasy board games.  I still remain uncertain as to my final response to this element in any game, but here I think it is essential [until when/if the game is developed for it to become possible to replay single episodes].

However, as I've already made clear, I've had so much in depth fun, excitement and absorbing adventure from this game purely from this first Campaign that the minute a second Campaign became available to buy, that's exactly what I've done, as well as buying the Middle-Earth game-mat to set everything out on.

So my next crucial decision will be whether I set out on this first Campaign again with a new combination of characters and new roles or plunge into the second Campaign.  Whichever I decide, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the first steps on that famous road that goes on for ever and get a copy of The Lord of The Rings: Journeys In Middle-Earth. 

Approx. cost £68.35

Antony and Cleopatra by Hollandspiele    "Hail, Antony's Legions". Thus began a fif...

Antony and Cleopatra by Hollandspiele Antony and Cleopatra by Hollandspiele

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Antony and Cleopatra



 "Hail, Antony's Legions". Thus began a fifty plus year love of Ancient Rome, and then all of Ancient History. It also started a love of brunettes, but I digress. Was Antony so besotted with love that he lost all of his strategic and tactical sense? Was Actium inevitable or just a fluke? Hollandspiele has allowed us to kick Octavian's butt (we don't use that other name, he is always Octavian). Enough about the history and brunettes, how is this new game?

 This is what comes with the game:

  • (1) 22" x 34" map
  • (88) 5/8" counters
  • 12-page rulebook
  • 4-page Player Aid
  • 2 Player Display Sheets
  • 20 Province Cards
  • 1 six-sided die

 If you have been following the blog you will know that I love Hollandspiele's games, especially ones designed by John Theissen. His games have a small footprint as far as counters go. However, even with a small amount of counters he is still able to give the player a multitude of choices, both strategic and tactical. This game is no exception to the rule. 

 The map is not overly colorful, but I really like it. It has large hexes to help with the amount of counters which could be in one of them. The counters are your standard Hollandspiele's fare. Not the prettiest, but totally useful? The cards are very well done and the most artistic of the components. The rulebook is in black and white. It is set up very well and is easy to read and understand. Setup is easy.

 This is the sequence of play:

Each side adds up their respective Resource Points. The higher total is the first player.

Random Events Phase
 A. Storm Check
 B. Invasion Check
First Player Turn
Second Player Turn

This is a Player Turn:
A. Reinforcement Phase
B. Defection Phase
C. Movement Phase
D. Combat Phase
E. Attrition Phase

 The Western Player also has a Phase called 'Troubles Phase'

The Combat Phase has these Phases:
1. Attacker Declaration
2. Retreat Before Combat
3. Odds Calculation
4. Combat Results Table
5. Losses, Retreats, And Advances

 The only rule that I have a problem with is this one. Both Antony and Octavian give a favorable shift in Land Combat. For Antony it's totally understandable. Octavian couldn't tell one end of a pilum from the other. If anything, troops commanded by him should get a minus shift. Agrippa gives a favorable shift for Naval Combat for the Western Player.

The Western (Octavian) starts with eight 'Experienced' legions, with three more as first turn reinforcement. The Eastern (Antony), starts with six 'Experienced' legions, with one as a first turn reinforcement. However, the Eastern player also has four regular legions at the start. The Western Player can also reinforce his troops with eight experienced legions from the Off-Map Garrisons. If the amount of legions Off-Map goes below eight, the Western Player has a 'Troubles' Phase. This represents invasions or rebellions that occur Off-Map. If either of this happens the Western Player cannot take any more Off-Map reinforcements until the Off-Map number of 'Experienced' legions reaches eight again. The naval might of the Eastern player is pretty daunting for the Western player. These are the separate naval forces:

Western Player

Light Squadrons - six

Transports - one

Eastern Player

Heavy Squadrons - six

Light Squadrons - two

Transports - three

 So you can see that the Eastern Player can effectively strike where he wants to. It takes two turns to build Squadron reinforcements, all other units only take one turn.

 The game plays and feels very historical. You do not feel that you are moving troops and ships from a generic point in time. The game is won by Prestige Points. You gain or lose points by losing/winning battles or if your capital is captured. If you or the other player has five or more points than the other player, the higher player can try to cause the lower players troops or a province of his. This is something that happened frequently in all of the Roman Civil Wars.

 I am very impressed with the game. The player is given so many choices in the game. Offense, defense, what do you choose? If you do play badly or are getting bad rolls, it is hard and takes a good player to pull your irons out of the fire. Thank you, Hollandspiele for letting me review a great game on one of my favorite subjects. Now, get to work on the Civil War between Sulla and Marius. Of course, I will take Pompey Magnus versus Caesar (it is so hard to write that name).


Underwater Cities gives players the opportunity to terraform the last ‘habitable’ spaces on Earth by building cities and their supportin...

Underwater Cities Underwater Cities

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

Underwater Cities gives players the opportunity to terraform the last ‘habitable’ spaces on Earth by building cities and their supporting infrastructure under the waves.  That’s the premise at least of Underwater Cities which is a hybrid tableau builder and worker placement game.  In the game, 1-4 players build tunnels, cities and other building on their own player boards by taking one of the available action slots on the main game board.  That sounds like a dozen other tableau builders out there but there are enough wrinkles and differences here, aside from the theme, which will keep this hitting the table for some time to come.


Each round of the game, every player will take three turns.  A turn starts off being a simple affair in which you choose a card to play from your hand of three cards and an action slot on the mainboard.  If the chosen card and action slot colours match, you can do the actions on both, if they don’t you’ll be limited to just performing the board space action.  This provides a significant amount of difficult decisions (this is a big plus), right from the beginning of the game.
The mainboard
However, the best part about choosing your turn actions is that at the beginning of your turn you must discard down to the hand size limit of three cards.  This doesn’t seem like it would have much of an impact of the game, but it allows for tactical thinking on other players turns, choosing which cards to discard and keep, and it means there is little-to-no downtime in between your turns.  This is no mean feat for a multi-player medium weight board game.

Like most worker placement games when a board action slot has been taken no other player can take that action.  The main game board is double-sided to accommodate 1-2 players and 3-4 on the other side.  When playing with 3 or 4 players, there are 15 actions slots on the board, 5 each in yellow, red and green which correspond to the card colours.  This means that a 3 player game will feel less congested than a 4-player game and your options to meddle, intentionally or not are limited.  In a 4-player game, however, you’re constantly re-evaluating your decision as invariably the action slot you want to take has been, probably 3 times, before it’s your turn again…thankfully this will often happen sooner than you’re ready.
2-player end game - player board
From the middle game onwards, because of the action cards that have been claimed into your tableau, there are often action combos that can be pulled off.  This is facilitated by the rule that you can resolve either the action card or board space action in the order you choose.  Where there are multiple actions within those areas, you can choose the order in which they’re resolved as well.  This means that you can often be a little a clever on your turn to maximise your benefits and doing something like this gives me at least, a great deal of satisfaction.

Finding these synergistic combos isn’t that easy though.  During your ‘downtime’ you’ll be scrambling to choose which cards to keep and which to get rid of at the beginning of your turn, choosing a card to play for your action – assuming the action slot is still available and trying to find the most optimum combo.  I never had the chance to play with anyone that I hadn’t taught the game to, but I assume that experienced players will be able to do all this as well as minimise the remaining options to their opponents.  That was not me though, I found the size of the iconography too small to see clearly in your opponents’ area.
3-player middle game - mainboard
Underwater Cities also features a variable turn order track, although it is simple, this must be one of my favourite mechanisms because nearly all of my favourite board games feature them, e.g. Brass, Dominant Species, Age of Empires etc.  However, one of the underlying rules in this game is that whenever you cover an icon up you get that immediate bonus.  In this game, if you get into the 3rd space or higher of the turn order track you will also get a bonus, which on many occasions permitted additional actions to be taken.

There are a plethora of icons on your own player board to cover up as well, giving a specific bonus, which can – and often do permit additional actions to be taken.  Which brings me onto another aspect of ‘tight’ worker placements that I enjoy.  The Euro-gamers perennial struggle to ‘feed your people’.  Not so much an issue in this game but overall resources are very tight.  There are three production rounds separating the three eras of the game, after which you’ll feel like Croesus; this will be short-lived.  However, I’ve nearly always found a way to do something worthwhile for my progress on my turn.  I never felt like I was treading water (ba-dum tish), or as last player or out of the game.
Inside the rule book


There is a traditional bewilderment of icons in this game however after the first round or two of my first I found them all to be intuitive and easy to follow without referring to the rulebook.  There is also a fantastic Player Info card which details the cost of each build and what they produce and how to conduct Production rounds.  However, as mentioned earlier when those icons are in your opponents' area across the table, their size makes it difficult to see what they are, but this can be levied against most tableau builders.
Good looking cards
Most of the other components: the cards, mainboard, metropolis tiles, player markers, city domes etc. are completely unremarkable considering modern game publishing i.e. they’re of excellent quality and just what I would expect.  However, there are a few component issues that are worth mentioning.  The player boards and player info cards are really thin card stock, almost a heavy bond paper.  The resource and money tokens seem a little odd in their design choices.  The money comes in 1s (small size), 5s and 10s which share the same size…I don’t understand why they’re not consistent and make the 10s bigger or keep them all the same size.
A random assortment of bits
However, probably the biggest issue with the components is with the 3 resource markers.  They look just like a pile of singles with a 3 in the middle.  This is better than earlier printings of the game, which didn’t have a 3 on these tokens, but it’s still not great.  Unless you keep the stacks of singles and 3s separate you can’t really tell how many you’ve got.


Aside from my component criticisms, my quibbles with this game are all fairly minor and I can easily overlook them.  The first is one of scalability.  I have not tried this solo, but the 2 and 3 player game feel quite different from a 4 player game.  I prefer the 4 player game, as long as you’re not teaching the rules, otherwise, it can drag on.  This goes against the bgg consensus that suggests 2 players is the sweet spot.
After my initial sorting
I would normally comment on the box insert in Components, but here they haven’t bothered with anything.  No cardboard trench, no ill-fitted plastic tray.  You just get all the bits thrown into a few bags and card decks and a box.  Unless that box is jammed with counter sheets and rules, like many wargames are, then this is poor practice.  Especially considering that this version comes from Rio Grande Games, one of the bigger players in the board game world.  I think my 3d-printed insert will work out just fine.
Much better, - still don't like those 3s
The vast majority of the scoring will be done in the end game, there is no way to see who is ahead or behind up until you start counting up your final scores.  This, alongside the difficulty in seeing your opponents' tableau to allow you to choose the action slots your opponents want, turn this into not much more than multi-player solitaire - not necessarily a bad thing.


With all that said, I do enjoy Underwater cities a lot.  It gives players an array of decisions to be made and there are some really smart design choices that make this gameplay quick and it is definitely on the crunchier end of the spectrum.  Discarding card(s) at the beginning of your turn makes so much sense.
3 player end game - player board
Many people have compared this to Terraforming Mars, and the main differences between the two, for me, are the board of Mars, in which players are able to have direct conflict with one another, which is a plus Terraforming Mars.  Underwater cities, pros compared to Mars, are the way in which you play and resolve cards and those synergistic combos, which I didn’t really find in Terraforming Mars.

If you like thinking games and finding optimisation strategies with a minimal amount of player interaction then I can easily recommend this game. 

I’d like to thank Asmodee for sending this review copy.  Many local game stores will still have this in stock and you can use this link to support your FLGS or use their online shopping web store.

Publisher: Rio Grande Games
BGG Page:
Players: 1-4
Designer: Vladimír Suchý

Playing time: 2 hours +

                                               Rifles in the Pacific                                                            by ...

Rifles in the Pacific by Tiny Battle Publishing Rifles in the Pacific by Tiny Battle Publishing

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

                                               Rifles in the Pacific


                                            Tiny Battle Publishing

 Tiny Battle is an apt name for the company that released this game. The game defies my attempts to pigeonhole it. It is a tactical game, but it is unlike any other tactical game I have played. It is a solitaire game of tactical warfare in the (surprise) Pacific. Let us first list what comes with the game:

Rule Booklet
Mission Briefing Booklet
Four Army Sheets (on two sides of 8 1/2" x 11" cards)
One Master Copy Unit Roster (on the back of the game's cover)
Three 8 1/2" x 11" Maps representing the varying terrain in the Pacific Theater
One Squad Examples Card (on the back of the Map Card)
39 1" Unit Counters
46 Administrative Counters
You will need to provide five six-sided die, and a container for random drawing counters

 The one inch counters are a godsend for these old eyes. The 'Map Cards' do not resemble any I have seen. They look much more like 'Battle Boards' I have seen in other games. So, you really cannot say if the 'Map' is an eyesore or a work of beauty. They are utilitarian looking, and do the job. The counters, on the other hand, are very well done, and did I mention that they are one inch. 

 The game sequence is pretty simple. This is what it looks like:
Mission Setup
Squad Selection
Mission Execution
End-Mission Briefing

 The Armies available are:
Japan - Both the Special Navy Landing Force, and Imperial Japanese Army
United States Marines


 The missions you can play are:
Jungle Patrol
Defend A River Bank
Capture A Bridge
'Wave Zero' - Amphibious Invasion
Demolition Squad
Destroy A Radio Station
Casualty Evacuation
'Line Of Fire' - Attack A Strong Position

 Other than the slightly weird (at least for me) setup of the game, in most ways it is a normal tactical game. Tanks, mines, close combat etc. are all here among all of the other usual rules. The tanks you get to use include Shermans, Cromwells, Stuarts, Type 96 (Ha-Go), and the Type 97 Medium Tank. The rule book is well set out, and is easy to read and understand. This is the second game in the 'Rifles' games from Tiny Battle. The first game is 'Rifles in the Ardennes'. 

 I have to be truthful and say it took a few games for me to get used to the game. It did begin to grow on me. If you are in the mood for a quick, easy playing game about tactical warfare in the Pacific then I can recommend 'Rifles' with no caveats. Thank you Tiny Battle Publishing for letting me review this interesting game.


Tiny Battle Publishing:

Rifles in the Pacific:

They are also publishing 'The Devil's To Pay' Hermann Luttmann's game on the first day of Gettysburg. I really like his games and especially the map look and style of his Gettyburg games. He designed 'Longstreet Attacks' about the second day.