Games Workshop

Helm's Deep Fortress

Tonight's guest review is from Lawrence Horsburgh, aka 'L' on the boards.  Take it away, L!

Some movies are so cool that all toy collectors want action figures for them.  Some also cry out for vehicles to be made, tanks or space ships or whatever.  And some just demand a playset, a whole environment.  Back in the 1980's, Kenner made some of the greatest play sets ever for the Star Wars line, but they failed, presumably because they chose a very small scale with non-poseable figures.

Watching the latest Lord of the Rings movie, it is difficult for a toy fan to avoid imagining all the great toys that could emerge from the Helm's Deep battle sequence.  Sure, Toy Biz gave us a great twin pack featuring an elven archer and a berserker Uruk, as well as the best Legolas possible and a few other gems.  But where is the fortress?  Enter Games Workshop.

Games Workshop is a company that specializes in fantasy gaming, and they dominate the industry in a way that few companies can rival.  They are the Microsoft of the miniatures gaming world - ubiquitous and frequently reviled.  ;)  They have the license to make Lord of the Rings (initially only the movie, but now expanded to include book-related material) miniatures and games, all in 25mm scale (about 1:72, see pic with Jesse enjoying his new toy to get a sense of scale).  Now, a little over a year since the line made its debut, it reaches a climax of sorts with the Helm's Deep piece, itself the center of the entire Two Towers line, at least as it now exists.  Just about every Two Towers item GW has made seems designed to work with this item.

The Helm's Deep set is a three-piece representation of the fortress, including the distinctive front gate, as well as two curved walls to be placed in any configuration you wish to simulate the front of the fort.  It does not include the massive tower, the inner walls and gates, the keep itself, or the ramp-like "bridge" to the gate, as all of these would be too cost-prohibitive (not to mention HUGE) to be realistic.  It comes fully painted and ready to use, minus figures and accessories.  It is, of course, designed for use with the Two Towers game, a game much like many of the Wizkids games (though GW predates WK by decades) involving rules for movement, battle, etc.  Helm's Deep is a scenery piece, a set for the battle game itself, though I will be reviewing it without discussing the game.

Packaging - ****
GW excels here.  Their in-house painting staff is supernaturally talented, and their photographers know how to highlight this.  The front of the box features a large photograph of Viggo as Aragorn, alongside a close-up shot of the front of the Helm's Deep gate in the middle of battle.  Every side of the box - all six sides - feature more close-up photos of different groups clashing, each designed to make you drool.  The back features a montage of shots, showing the various possible arrangements for the set, as well as the only pictures of the set in its entirety.  It is gorgeous.  But it is also practical, as the set comes in custom-formed styrofoam (yay!  80's flashback!) to keep the somewhat fragile set safe.  Keep the package, you'll need it if you ever plan on moving or storing this item.  All in all, the best possible packaging for such a set.

Sculpting - ****
It would be worthless if this score were low, as this piece is nothing but sculpt.  Individual cracks and bumps are all there, the seams in the mortar between the stones, the carved staircase, the grain of the wood in the shield at the top of the wall (for dropping boiling oil, dropping rocks, and making director cameos), the wood and iron in the gate itself, it all looks perfect.  The resin is perfectly designed to capture the "feel" of stone (if the wood is a bit smooth and "plastic-like" they can be forgiven), and you would swear, while looking at this set, that it was really made of ancient rock.  It may drive the price up (see below), but any other material would fall short.  This isn't just a plastic representation of a fort, this IS a fort.

Paint - ****
Anybody can just slap grey paint on something and call it a castle - the beautiful sculpt would be nothing if the paint did not highlight it perfectly, and this does.  Stones look weathered, they look old, they look battered by wind and rain, it feels just right.  If the set didn't come painted, it would be challenging to duplicate this.  At the same time, don't think you can throw away that brush. . . see Accessories, below.

Articulation/Features - ***
I'm going to group these, as obviously a fort doesn't have articulation. The set seemed interesting to me until I saw the back, at which point it instantly became "must own."  Why?  The stairs carved into one of the walls. The opening gate is nice, and the working flaps in the shield at the top are a cute touch.  But if this were just gate-and-walls, it'd be hard to get excited.  But the stairs carved into the wall capture the feel of the movie, give the set a gorgeous "center" for displaying figures, it is breathtaking. They look exactly as they should, and even though the moving parts qualify more as "features" than a stationary staircase, I still consider this the greatest feature of the set, and the biggest selling point.

Accessories - Bupkis
As a longtime gamer, I wouldn't have expected any.  But that doesn't mean I don't recognize a  need!  This set could easily have included a sprue of plastic figures, or some ladders, or SOMETHING.  It comes with nothing. That's a shame, because out-of-the-box it isn't really enough for a display, and that hurts its value score (see below).  As a collector (who has the
other items anyway) it does help that accessories EXIST, but you have to buy them separately.  Games Workshop does make just about everything you would want to see at Helm's Deep, though:  Uruk-hai with swords, with pikes,
berserker Uruks, Uruks holding banners, elves with swords, elves with bows, Rohan soldiers with spears, with bows, with axes, with swords, mounted Rohan soldiers, not to mention Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Haldir, Gamling, Theoden (in armor), Eowyn (from a cut sequence in the Caves), an elven standard bearer, and so forth.  They even make ladders, Saruman's "bombs," and the giant grappling-hook launching siege engine, not to mention a battering ram. To save the day, you can even buy a Gandalf the White, Eomer, and some horsemen to rush into the Uruk pikes (also available), all posed to recreate that iconic moment.  It's difficult to imagine a scene from the movie that cannot be recreated here (Aragorn sitting on the steps talking to Hama's son may be the only one!).

But here's the rub:  It's nice that the Helm's Deep set comes assembled and painted, but it looks threadbare without any figures fighting.  So you'll
have to buy some, at least, and that means painting.  GW makes some plastic sets that are somewhat cheap, but you must assemble the figures (usually it just means gluing an arm on, quite simple), glue them to bases, and paint
them.  If you really hate that idea, you're not gonna enjoy this set as much as the next guy or girl.  For most gamers, this is half the fun, but it does mean that the "fully painted" quality of Helm's Deep requires qualification. A good HD display is not going to be ready-made.

So from any standpoint, the accessories score hurts the set.  It doesn't come "complete," and a good display doesn't come assembled, or painted.

Value - * or ***1/2
As a longtime gamer, I consider this set a fantastic buy.  It's the center of a good LOTR display, it's wonderfully made and should store safely in the package, and it will last the ages nicely.  But I recognize that the casual toy fan is going to blanche at the price:  $75.  Many places will have it discounted for $60, but it's gonna be tough to find it for less.  With GW making so few, don't expect to see overstock on eBay for cheap, either. Unfortunately, the general consensus is that GW loses money on an item like this - the tooling and material is so expensive, they have to charge $75 to come close to making a profit, and they only made it because they are big fans themselves.  It's just not a cheap proposition to do something like this, and if you want it, you have to pay up.  To get a sense of why a gamer can consider this a value, though, consider this:  Fellowship also received resin treatment from GW.  Their sister company Forge World made a Weathertop piece that will reduce you to sobs.  It comes unpainted, and costs about $200.  See why the Helm's Deep set seems a bargain to me?

Some people can't imagine paying $7 for the new Justice League figures from Mattel, others can't fathom $50 for an imported Macross Valkyrie, or $30 for a giant talking tree.  Similarly, some people will never accept $75 for Helm's Deep.  But for those "in the hobby," used to the market, this is a good price.  It's a high end item, difficult to produce, made for the real die-hard collector.  And with all those qualifications, it's a reasonable price.  The only hit this score takes is from the fact that a good display requires more purchases, so the $75 is only the start.  You'll have to shell
out $15 for a regiment of soldiers if you want to man those gates, and another $10-15 if you want some attacking Uruks.  For those of us who already had them, not a problem - but still a factor for many.  Just like the "comes fully painted" needs an asterisk (but the figures don't!) so does the "costs $75!" (plus the cost of figures, ladders, siege engines, etc).

Overall - ****
I'm not going to bother to calculate a final score based on previous categories' scores, though I expect the end result would be the same.  The fact is, this is a four-star item.  It looks amazing, it turns a small tabletop pile of figures into an accurate representation of a fantastic movie, and it is precisely what playset-loving Lord of the Rings fans would wish for in their dreams.  Sure, I suppose one could wish for a more complete representation of the fortress, but this is already a large enough piece to make me more than happy, and I expect that die-hard LOTR fans (not
to mention gamers) are going to be very pleased with it.

Figure from the collection of Lawrence Horsburgh.

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