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Game review: Battle of Five Armies brings 'The Hobbit' to the tabletop

Ares Games' The Battle of Five Armies is the board game tie-in with J.R.R. Tolkien's iconic work, "The Hobbit," and has been released just in time for Peter Jackson's movie of the same name. In this two-player game, one player takes on the roles of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, while the other player commands the evil Shadow Army as it attempts to capture settlements and the front gate to Lonely Mountain.

The board depicts four sections of territory around the front gate to Lonely Mountain, each divided up into smaller regions. The game boasts many plastic miniatures, blue for the Free Peoples, red for the Shadow Army and gray for the game's various characters. On a player's turn he or she must draw an event and story card, then the Free Peoples player must assign command tokens to his or her characters, granting them special abilities in the game.

Next, the Shadow Army player must remove a fate token from an opaque container, though they have the option to re-draw the same number of times as the Free Peoples player's assigned command tokens. The fate tokens will move a marker up the fate track, which will allow more powerful Free Peoples characters to enter the game, like Bilbo Baggins and Beorn the skin-changer. Both players may also assign leadership tokens to armies in the field, giving them advantages.

Both players then roll action dice, and alternate taking turns by spending a rolled dice on an action. An army symbol means that players can move or attack with an army; a muster symbol allows players to recruit more troops for their armies and a dagger symbol activates character abilities. There are several more symbols, and many symbols have several different options to choose from.

In combat, players check for terrain superiority, which allows the winning player to draw an extra card, then both players select an event or tactic card to play in battle, offering them advantages. Players then total up their strength and roll a number of dice to inflict damage. For every two points of damage, one unit must be removed. A new round of combat begins and continues until one side is eliminated or retreats.

When the Shadow Army player conquers settlements or strategic regions, he or she gains points. The Free Peoples win the game if the Shadow Army character Bolg is eliminated, if Beorn enters play and the Shadow Army has fewer than six victory points, or if the fate track reaches 15. The Shadow Army wins the game if it captures 10 points.

The Battle of Five Armies is an engaging light war game that really makes players consider their strategy, but also forces them to improvise effectively. The Free Peoples player is largely playing defense, and the hordes of the Shadow Army can be quite intimidating. The pressure, however, is really on the Shadow Army player to gain ground quickly. When the Free Peoples' characters enter play later in the game they can dramatically turn the tide. Players are also limited in their actions with the action dice, which forces tough decisions — a mark of any great game.

The Battle of Five Armies is a wonderful strategic game that succeeds in bringing the adventure of "The Hobbit" to your tabletop.

The Battle of Five Armies is recommended for ages 13 and up and plays in about 90 minutes.

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, from GMT Games, takes designer Richard Borg's familiar battle system and applies it to the historical engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. If you've played Memoir '44 (WWII), Battle Cry (Civil War), or Battlelore (Fantasy), C&C: Napoleonics will be very familiar to you.

This two-player game comes with 15 scenarios between the British (with their Portuguese allies) and French, mostly from the Peninsular War but also a few from the Waterloo campaign. The game board contains a number of hexes, and the scenario setup indicates what types of terrain need to be added — rivers, hills, forests, etc. The board is separated into three sections: center, left flank and right flank. The scenario setup also states which types of units are deployed, as they were historically.

Units are made up of wooden blocks (which you must attach stickers to before playing) that represent different types of infantry, cavalry, artillery and leaders. Several blocks make up one unit. For instance, most infantry units contain four blocks, while most artillery units contain three. The number of blocks in a unit indicate its hit points, but often also its strength in attack.

Each scenario indicates how many command cards each player will receive. On a player's turn he or she will play a card, which allows that army to move a number of units, usually on a specific section of the board. Players can then attack, or move and attack, depending upon the unit. Attacking units may fire from a distance or engage in melee attacks up close. The attacking player rolls a number of battle dice, and for each symbol that is rolled that matches the target unit, the defending player must remove one of its blocks. Also, for every flag rolled, that unit must retreat a space.

Every time an enemy's unit is completely eliminated, the attacking player receives a victory banner. Once a player has accrued the number of victory banners stated for the scenario, he or she wins the game.

C&C Napoleonics comes with several new options that really distinguish it from the earlier, similar games. For instance, when a player's infantry is attacked by cavalry, it may form a square which will dramatically help its defense, but he or she must temporarily lose a random card to do so. Also, this games offers specific types of infantry, cavalry and artillery, each with special advantages and disadvantages — making for some great variation on the battlefield.

In addition to the battle cards, some cards offer powerful effects like a bayonet charge, a rally to restore depleted units or a first strike allowing the defender to attack first on a melee attack, and more. This is a game of tough choices, and knowing how and when to play your cards is critical.

A great production and filled with fun and exciting game play, C&C Napoleonics belongs on the shelf of everyone who loves great historical war games. With its wooden blocks, the variation of its units and the wonderful historical scenarios, C&C Napoleonics may just be the best game from this system yet.

Commands & Colors Napoleonics is recommended for ages 14 and up and each scenario plays in about an hour, though generally there is a bit of setup time.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at Email: