Games Workshop is big. There´s no doubt about it. They have created their own market, and keep on top of it with a talent for quality. GW´s figures are just splendid. The style may not suit everyone´s tastes, specially when you are getting old and want to see new, different stuff, but noone can say they are not quality product.
Their rulesets, however, are always a matter of discussion. They have a commercial plan that´s not really good for rulesets. Granted, some stuff gets better, like the subtle changes between 4th and 5th edition 40K. But the codexes get changed also, and the only logic is to sell more models. It´s a good plan I´m sure, but it doesn´t suit my style of play. That´s a non-tournament style of play.
I don´t need nor want to stay up to date with everything just to play a friendly game. But most people do, and it gets harder and harder for me to enjoy a casual game unless I know the other player well. I have noticed that from leaving Fantasy alltogether, and trying to get into 40k.
However, I have found that the Lord of the Rings rules are the exception to the rule. I have the Fellowship rulebook and was marveled by it´s elengance. Then I bought the Two Towers set, many years after the first, and the very tiny rules tweaks made it more enjoyable.
Now I´m getting back at LotR and have read the actual “definitive” rulebook. I was sceptic, of course, having already two other rulebooks. And for my surprise, there is stuff there that I myself implemented in my games!! I was shocked to see in the rulebook two rules I used to use on the table as “house-rules”. First, the elimination of the Courage check for isolated models. Too complicated, too out of place in a game that naturally lead itself to battles with small units, rather than individual figures. Yes, it´s a skirmish game, but there are many rules that make the small units a very enjoyable way to play, and a lot nicer to the eye and “feel” of the game. Second, the way archers can shoot from behind a friend if touching base to base. I used this rule inspired by the elegant way the system handles spears and pikes. It was amazing to see it in print, since I am not one to go around forums talking about rules.
There are other subtle things, and the system seems as solid as it is elegant. It´s obvious the reasons for the development of the LotR SBG rules is very very different from the reasons for the other two core games. Granted, the small line of supplements were made to sell models, but they were almost like games on their own. They are actually the rules needed to play with new models as they came out, and they all include scenarios and very theme centric stuff. You can ignore any or all of them and play the game. In fact you can download every and any unit profile, from every supplement, from GW´s site, and play with their special rules and such.
I am very pleased with this. The ruleset is basically the same it was in that first Fellowship rulebook, only slightly tighter and clearer (as if it was ever complex). The Legions of Middle-Earth book is a beautiful and fun guide to create your own army, springing into mind infinite scenarios. And now you´ll be able to play big big battles with the War of the Ring rules.
That one is another story. They could easily go the Fantasy route and release a new rulebook every 3 or 4 years, but it´s difficult to think about that with a property like LotR. How much can you change the rules for an Isengard army before it turns into something completely different?
I think if you are one of those that don´t quite hate GW but don´t quite like them either, you should try the LotR SBG or just wait for the WotR rules with lots of plastic boxed sets (cheap, by the way). They have the best figures and rules, and by far the best setting! You´ll see how GW sometimes do things the right way.