Saturday, September 26, 2009

Terrain Rant

How do you set up your terrain?

I’m not talking about how you make it, for this question that is markedly less important; but when you set up a table for a game, how do you go about it.

I ask because in my increasingly curmudgeonly old ways I find that terrain is often laid out in a way that is neither realistic, nor interesting. Even handedness on the wargames table looks rubbish, and makes games less than they should be.

It’s something that I encounter all too often in your everyday games. Particularly Games Workshop, and GW influenced, systems suffer from what I can only call the “aerial Bombardment” principal of terrain layout. It is placed on the table in an entirely random fashion with no regard for logic, looking like it was dropped in from space:

Ruins, sit out of context in a jumble across the room, clearly on most battlefields town planners were the first up against the wall. Woods and forests grow in tiny isolated clumps of a half dozen trees, often in the middle of fields’ bounded by walls running sometimes as far as twenty feet. Roads and rivers are almost unheard of, or if present serve no purpose whatsoever.

I would point out that the rules for most games, GW included do not promote this sort of tosh. But most gamers are simply too lazy, or too keen on ‘competitive’ terrain to do much else.

Competition taken to extremes sees the sort of mathematically precise terrain that whilst less random looks terrible, seldom is very convincing and is really only there to produce an abstracted tactical problem. DBM and it’s successors are the most memorable of this genre for me, rules that also aim for some sort of geeky mathematical perfection and are very closely married to the concept of competition style play.

There are many other layouts that are engineered for completely equal play where the battlefield is completely neutral to the forces deployed. Here’s the best known type in the world:

A standardised size, lines of deployment are clearly marked on the play area for convenience, and in case any element is in someway unbalanced, the players are required to swap ends half way through. Now if only football was played with equally pointed forces (is £20 million each side a fair equivalent to 2000 points)…

Some games I’ve played, especially ancients dispensed with the inconvenience of scenery at all. Well at least there weren’t actually many roads or buildings around then. Hell of a lot of trees and rough ground though.

In short, it’s not very realistic. And if our games are to represent the reality of warfare in any respect, then terrain must be taken into consideration. Consider a handful of battles for example. The terrain at Cahrrae allowed an entire Roman army to be ambushed, trapped and destroyed. At Stamford Bridge, the Saxon army was held at bay by a token force defending the one bridge. At Agincourt the lie of the land, where the English deployed across a dry ridge which drained either side into land unsuitable for knights, funnelled the French attack into a suicidally narrow assault. And I’m only dealing with the ancient and medieval – empty table – periods there. Later it would be impossible to imagine any battlefield commander finding space for more than a couple of regiments without a ditch, wall, orchard, village or other human interference with nature getting in the way. By the twentieth century, the dimensions of battle and the closeness of the terrain were ever more extensive, and varied.

Not many blobs randomly strewn around though, not unless you are representing battles in an eighteenth century country estate.

Good terrain, doesn’t need to be the sort you see in the magazines, and drool over at shows, it simply has to represent the battlefields as they actually ‘are’. At least thematically, you don’t need to refight over historical ground, but it’s surely better to consider the scale of the game and the nature of the ground in the period, if applicable.

For example, in the dark ages battles were sometimes conducted in an enclosed field, a kind of duel. The scale of the forces being fairly small, you could easily represent this as a wargame by taking a small table and placing a boundary right around the edge. Then having no terrain in the field (save a tree or two) might be justified, as there would be no easy way to retreat.

Later the size of the armies gets much larger, after the agricultural revolution in the 1700’s fields in western Europe got smaller, and as a result you’d be lucky to get a battalion into a single field, the difficulty of crossing one and making an assault, adding to the woes of many an army under fire. The propensity of Armies to seek out moors to fight on aside, this has to be a consideration.

By the second world war, the fields of Normandy became veritable fortifications for the Germans slowing down the allied advance any way it could.

And that’s only farmland.

So in conclusion. The next time you lay out the terrain for a game, why not take a little more time laying out the table. Consider the background for the game, what sort of things would be commonplace? Take into account the scale (Ancient armies could line up on a single hill, later armies occupied high ground and ridges, but how often do you have a hill on table capable of holding more than one unit?). Why not set up a specific tactical challenge, like a river you can’t just tip-toe across, or make half the table a solid forest.

And for gods sake, make it at least look like it might make sense!


  1. I understand where you are coming from but....

    Often when I am out for a walk in the countryside, I find myself clicking into wargamer mode and imagining how I would deploy to attack or defend a certain position. And it is noticable that it is the wood with a clump of ten or twelve trees, or a brick walk that is a remnant of some forgotten farm, that I find offers a particular tactical challenge.

    But the one thing that you arguement really overlooks is that a wargame is an abstraction. The the battle that you are fighting is an episode in some wider campaign or conflict. But because the wider campiagn or conflict is not played out, it is in effect a duel between two players (or more) who have agreed that at this time, and in this place, they will pit their repsective forces in battle.

    Therefore the terrain is in effect incidental, because regardless of the merits or otherwise of the terrain they will fight.

    Which is complete nonsense.

    You quote Agincourt. Which in terms of military history is a strange battle because the French were provoked into a battle that they didn't need to fight at that time and in the way they did. They would have been well advised to bide their time, surround the weakened and diminished English and force the matter using strength of numbers and time.

    But how do you replicate this on a wargames table? In effect you are fighting a non battle.

  2. I always fight my games over realistically scaled terrain. My hills are big and my ground never flat. Whilst our games are abstract I think gamers tend to forget just how large terrain features could be in relation the their unit frontages.

    Its worth setting up some actual battlefields as they were to see this effect. ECW is a good period for this exercise. Roundway Down, Cherition and Landsdown spring to mind.

  3. I agree with much of your post. Terrain should be reflective and an attraction not an after thought. I'm lucky I belong to a club with huge amounts of terrain to choose from, but even then I lay the tabletop with a geographical frame of mind. hills are placed so as to give the impression they follow folds of the earth, woods are placed in logical positions, rivers and streams appear and flow in the right way. The table will not be symetrical but it will be balanced and fair.