Thursday, October 16, 2014

Studded Plate #2: Return of the Ring

[Originally written and posted to in August 2013]

Welcome to the long overdue second installment of “Studded Plate”! This column is devoted to combining two of my favorite things: role-playing games and LEGO toys. My first column gave a brief overview of my technique of using LEGO minifigures as RPG miniatures, then reviewed the initial seven LEGO The Lord of the Rings sets from the perspective of their usefulness as a source of gaming minis.

Since then, the LEGO Group has released five sets in the new Hobbit theme, and five new Lord of the Rings sets. So without further ado, let’s take a look at these sets, starting with the Hobbit sets (released December 2012), in order of increasing price.

Riddles for the Ring ($10) includes Bilbo and Gollum. It’s a good price for a pair of minifigures and a tiny model, but I passed it over because I already own Shelob Attacks (see my last column).

Escape from Mirkwood Spiders ($30) comes with Legolas, Tauriel (a new elf woman created for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and apparently the only significant female character from this new trilogy), two dwarves, two of the small, classic one-piece spiders, and two larger spiders built from bricks. The large spiders are well-made, and form a nice intermediate model between the tiny spiders and the larger monsters in older sets (Shelob and Aragog). It’s also worth pointing out here that all 13 dwarf characters are available, but are divided up between five sets. Because they’re based on the movie dwarves, who the production crew went to great lengths to differentiate, these minifigures provide a nicely diverse array of dwarf parts.

Barrel Escape ($40) includes Bilbo, two dwarves, and two elves. This set includes a bit more scenery, hence the higher price, but the props (barrels, weapons, stairs, etc.) are good ones for dungeon adventures.

Attack of the Wargs ($50) includes Thorin, Bifur, Yazneg (Thorin’s “white goblin” nemesis), two goblins, and two Wargs. I love the Wargs, which are modeled in a way that lets them serve equally well for the wolfish Hobbit Wargs and for the more hyena-like LOTR Wargs. This set also includes a very nicely designed, 7”-tall tree, with segments of the trunk that rotate to pose the boughs more naturally.

An Unexpected Gathering ($70) includes Gandalf, Bilbo, and four dwarves, and a very finely detailed model of Bag End. This set was so popular that the LEGO Group built a huge version of it, roughly 1/3-1/2 life size, for a touring exhibition.

The real showcase set is The Goblin King Battle ($100). This includes the Goblin King, three goblins (one with short legs), three dwarves, and Gandalf. One of the perks of working at the LEGO Store was that all the display models (other than the permanent installations) are built by the employees. I couldn’t really afford to buy any sets this size, but at least I got to enjoy building this one! The only Hobbit sets that I did buy were the Wargs and Spiders sets, pretty much entirely for the monsters.

Now we come to the new Lord of the Rings sets (released Summer 2013).

The Wizard Battle ($13) includes Saruman and Gandalf (naturally), with a small scene including Saruman’s throne and palantir. The latter is a transparent head piece, printed with Sauron’s eye, covered by a crystal ball piece. This and Saruman alone make the set worth the price!

The Council of Elrond ($30) includes Frodo, Elrond, Arwen, and Gimli. The scenery, while minimal, evokes Rivendell nicely, and the two elves are excellent minifigures. The set also includes one of the nifty glaive-like elf weapons that first appeared in Barrel Escape.

Battle at the Black Gate ($60) includes Aragorn, Gandalf, the Mouth of Sauron, two orcs, an eagle, and a horse. The eagle in his set (and Orthanc, below) is the perfect size for a D&D giant eagle. If you want an eagle that’s closer to the relative size of the movie eagles, I recommend the LEGO Creator set Fierce Flyer ($15), which fills approximately the space of a D&D 3.0/3.5 roc.

Pirate Ship Ambush ($100) includes Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, three Army of the Dead warriors, one corsair, and two orcs. This is LEGO’s first sailed ship since the Pirates of the Caribbean theme was retired, and it’s a pretty cool one. It has three triangular sails, two sizes of dragon wings in the railing details, and numerous shields, weapons, and other props. Once our finances recover from our very recent cross-country move, my wife and I plan to acquire this ship to add to our (admittedly small) fleet. (So far, the only new LOTR sets I own are the Wizards and Elrond sets.)

The Tower of Orthanc ($200) is the largest Middle-Earth set released to date, and it’s a lovely piece of work. The tower is over two feet tall and fully rendered on three sides. The back side is open to let you see the six highly-detailed levels inside, which include a dungeon, throne room, library, and trophy room. Except for one or two pieces, the lamps and throne are almost identical to the ones in The Wizards Battle, but the palantir here is a translucent ball with a light brick mounted beneath it. Orthanc comes with Saruman, Gandalf, Grima, an Uruk, an orc, and an eagle, as well as an Ent that stands 9” tall when built. Basically, this set is LEGO LOTR’s equivalent of the Death Star--a huge playset with numerous figures--but at half the price. Because of our impending move, I couldn’t justify buying this set, so I was ecstatic to be allowed to build it as my final display model before I had to leave the LEGO Store. Even better, the building instructions are available online at, so I can build my own Ent out of pieces I already have!

There is one other new set connected to Middle-Earth: a Hobbit boardgame ($35). As with other LEGO games, the board is constructed of bricks, and the pawns are microfigures. These pawns look like tiny, armless minifigures, but are a single piece; they have a 1x1 stud base and stand two bricks tall. The Hobbit game comes with Gandalf and three dwarves, but a wide variety of microfigures (and micro-scale monsters built with bricks) are available in other LEGO Games. These characters make useful miniatures for very small characters and creatures when put on a 2x2 jumper plate (plates with a single stud in the middle). In my next column, I will discuss microfigures and LEGO Games in more depth, with special attention given to the HEROICA series of fantasy adventures.

Until then, leg godt! That’s Danish for “play well,” and is the origin of the LEGO brand name. That sentiment applies equally well to role-playing games, don’t you think?

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