Possible spoilers are ahead but I'm not going to discuss the overall story line much in this review. My focus will be on the fight sequences and elements that would be of interest to the gamer or someone interested in developing scenarios in existing game systems or perhaps developing their own game.
Many of my friends are not fond of Peter Jackson's treatment of Tolkien's book. However, I appreciate the attempt to bring a new interpretation of the story on film. I've already read the book and I don't feel the need to see the same story presented in a different medium. Many have said that Peter Jackson has taken too many liberties with the source material. But the question of whether a movie was better or worse than the book will always be a subjective one anyway. I feel like we have some wonderful new elements added to a familiar setting. Tolkien admitted before his death that he had intended to re-write "The Hobbit" in order to incorporate the material from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was written afterward. The published version of the book was probably never intended to be the definitive final draft anyway.
Admittedly, many of the movie elements I discuss here are purely the invention of Peter Jackson and his writing staff and most definitely "Not in the book". Nevertheless, some will be very upset by the alterations to the story and I will agree that the changes are numerous.
***SPOILERS after this point! You have been warned!****
The movie prologue begins with the big fight between Bard the Bowmen and the villainous Smaug the Dragon over Lake-Town. This is hardly a battle scene since Bard fights Smaug alone with support from Bard's son. The rest of the Lake-Town guards are busy evacuating the civilians or protecting the crooked Master of Lake-Town while he runs away in a barge carrying the public treasury. Bard slays the dragon with the the famous 'black arrow' but he doesn't use the Dwarvish Wind Lance introduced in the previous movie. Jackson changes the story a bit at this point probably to keep the audience in suspense just enough to make you think the dragon might not be slain after all.
Games Workshop - Strategy Battle Game (SBG): I've purchased the BoFA source book from Games Workshop. You will not find it available as it's own product. You must purchase White Dwarf Magazine issue #46. The source book is packaged together with the magazine as a free bonus. The term 'free' is used in assumption that you were going to purchase the magazine anyway. The source book includes all the stats for the latest GW figures and includes two scenarios: one to depict the battle vs. Smaug over Lake-Town and one to depict the last element of the grand battle which occurs at Ravenhill. The Lake-Town scenario includes Bard, Fili, Kili, Bofur, Oin, Tauriel, Master of Lake-Town, Alfred, Lake-Town Guard captain and 36 guards. All of these fight against Smaug. The rules for Smaug are such that he is the most powerful single unit in the entire game system, even better than the Balrog or a Mumakil. The figure for Smaug is huge and visually stunning, but the price at last I checked was $500 dollars! That's a lot of pesos for just one character. Anyway, the rules allow for him to endure hits from several attacks before he goes down rather than taking a single killing strike to a weak point on his hide. And that's got to be a much better game experience. And what of this unused Dwarvish Wind-Lance? It leaves me to wonder if it is a worthy weapon at all.
War of the Ring (WotR): This is not really a large scale battle and better simulated with the SBG skirmish level rules. But, a WotR scenario could involve civilians trying to esape the town. Assume that Smaug will be slain by Bard and his black arrow, but the scenario objective for the Good player is to evacuate as many civilians as possible. The Evil player objective is to wipe out the town folk.
Battle of Five Armies (BoFA): same as WotR but on a smaller scale. GW did produce a 10mm Smaug figure but it is difficult to find and expensive on E-Bay. In addition, the sculpt isn't very good and there are several alternative dragon sculpts for sale.
The opening credits roll and story continues at the fortress of Dol Guldor where Gandalf is being held captive. Galadriel, Elrond and Sauruman arrive to rescue Gandalf. Galadriel heals Gandalf while Sauruman and Elrond defend against the 9 ring-wraiths in some early spectral form. The heroes place several hits on the wraiths but they simply recover, float back into melee and continue fighting. Christopher Lee, playing the part of Sauruman, shows that he can still play the action hero role even though he is 92 years old! Obviously, the fight scenes are done with a stunt double, but Lee does not disappoint when given his camera time. The wraiths are defeated after receiving several hits. Sauron appears and demonstrates that he can re-animate the wraiths at his whim. Galadriel changes into her scary, elf-witch form, faces Sauron mano-a-mano and shoves him away, far past the distant horizon using her sheer force of will.
SBG: This was the most exciting fight scene in my opinion. GW has a supplement that describes this battle and one can collect the associated miniatures. The spectral ring-wraiths could be implemented as a weaker versions of the Nazgul maybe as the Spectre or Shade units from the Moria & Angmar book. Elrond and Sauruman's abilities are well described in the Hobbit rulebook. And how bad-ass is Galadriel! Her profile is found in the Free Peoples supplement. I presume she would use the Command spell to dispatch the Necromancer.
WotR: Again this is probably done best with a skirmish level game.
BoFA: Same as WotR.
The story continues with Gandalf returning to Erebor to meet with the Company of Thorin. Meanwhile, a reluctant Bard is chosen as leader of the refugees of Lake-Town. All the guardsmen of the city apparently have perished during the battle with Smaug. So, the first of the titular armies has been reduced to a hastily formed militia. The militia and surviving humans decide to make their winter camp in the ruined city of Dale.
In contrast, the elvish army is large, well equipped, well trained and flawlessly disciplined. The leader, Thranduil, casually rides through Dale mounted on his trademark Elk-steed. He brings with him a wagon filled with food and provisions for the humans. He doesn't do this out of kindness though. He trades it to ensure an alliance with Bard. Thus, we have the second army in place.
SBG: Oh, how I wish Games Workshop would produce a figure of Thranduil on a Elk-steed. But, the only figure I've seen is of Thranduil on a boring old horse. Most of the figures for the men and elves have been produced by GW. There are beautiful sculpts but a bit on the expensive side. All the characters and troop types have been produced and the profiles are in the source book mentioned above.
WotR: WotR uses the same 28mm figures of SBG, just more of them. So, if you have the means to assemble a large army then go for it! Post photos on your own blog or in social media. I would love to see them!
BoFA: BoFA is played in 10mm scale and the sculpts were made before the Hobbit movies so the men look like an organized fighting force. The movie replaces the professional army with a militia. Actually, I would not call it a militia, it's more like armed peasants with pitchforks. Their ability to perform battle field maneuvers would be limited if they could do it at all. Their best use would be to protect the city of Dale and cause wounds on any Orc formations assaulting the city. Bard would be a competent leader if he had a proper army to lead. The elvish army has cavalry but they are sold separate from the BoFA box set.
Thorin and Company start fortifying the walls of Erebor. They have the arsenal of Erebor available to them so each of the thirteen dwarves is equipped with a customized suit of armor and unique hand weapons. When Thranduil and Bard arrive at the front door to negotiate with Thorin, the dwarf warlord Dain arrives with a host of warriors and mounted on a... pig? Not a bristly boar with large tusks, just a garden variety pig. No matter, since Dain has waxed his dwarf mustache into the shape of large tusks instead. The third army has arrived.
SBG: Each Dwarf gets his own uniquely crafted armor and hand weapon. They all look great on screen and the individual figs from GW look awesome as well. They should be a joy to paint up.
WotR: It should be easy to find 28mm Dwarf figs for any large contingent.
BoFA: BoFA has an dwarf army unit but nothing to simulate the Company of Thorin. And there seems to be a debate among fantasy gamers as to whether Dwarves would have archer units or not. I'm in the pro-archer camp since no army is complete without some type of ranged attack units.
Well, this has turned into a huge post. Thanks for sticking with it so far. In the next post, I'll discuss Ram-riders and Troll special forces.