A great table can make the game.
When we talk about wargaming, it’s natural to focus on miniatures. We’re blown away by the detail on contemporary kits and dazzled by the paintjobs we see on social media. After spending several hours preparing our models we feel an attachment to them. We feel joy when they succeed in taking down a foe even though it’s an abstracted stat line and a lucky dice roll that did it, not the metal woman with the sniper rifle or the burly hero with the broadsword. It also hurts when those same models drop to an enemy arrow, fireball or laser blast.
But the story isn’t just told by the models, the dice and the rules. It’s also told by the terrain. A well-arranged table that has been specifically designed for the particular game being played adds so much to the experience. Along with the models it creates an atmosphere, evokes a world. It builds a space that we want to explore.
Sure, it's built on a burial ground. But you can't say it lacks atmosphere!
Some games rely on a certain type of table design. Warhammer 40,000 requires plenty of space, areas through which squads and large vehicles can move. It also requires cover, of course. When players were still getting used to 8th edition, some tournaments went so far as to declare that all ground floor windows were solid for the first turn to reduce the number of units that were blown to bits at the start of the game. With the introduction of a few large buildings, 8th edition becomes much more tactical, much less of an arcade shooter writ large. But it’s a game in which many things are meant to die in pretty large numbers. The table should serve the spectacle, and setting up a good battlefield is a real skill in itself (it’s also a joy).
Nobody was hurt today. I'm sure they're all fine.
Other games require much more terrain. Infinity tables are, by comparison, much more dense. There are streets strewn with abandoned cars, intricate interior spaces, walkways and crates. Lots of crates. That’s because of the game’s reactive system; when an enemy moves, and your troopers can see him, you can shoot him, regardless of whether or not it’s your turn. Play Infinity on a 40k table and you’ll be horrified at how quickly your troopers die. Play 40k on an Infinity table and you’ll struggle to get your 20 Ork Boyz through a building.
"'Ere, wots wiv all these bloody doors?!"
Somewhere in the middle of these two poles we have games like Necromunda, where scatter matters, and where you put those big LOS-blocking buildings can mean the difference between life and death for your gangers. Too sparse a table and you can lock down the entire battlefield with a champion and a long-rifle. Too dense and the close combat loadouts get easy kills.
So there’s certainly an art to table design. Get it right and the game mechanics really shine, and players can appreciate the balance or the spectacle that the designers were aiming for when they wrote their rules sets. Get it wrong and you might come away thinking that there’s something wrong with those rules, when in fact the problem was more to do with where you put your MDF or cardstock structures, or how many you chose to use.
We can be too careful, though. In trying to prepare a table that caters for the system we are about to play, we can err on the side of caution and fall into the trap of building identikit layouts. For Infinity, we can plonk a huge edifice in the middle of the table to break up fire lanes, spread the buildings carefully to make sure that both long range and short range weapons can be effective without being over-powered. But then, what happens when we go to a tournament and find ourselves on a table that’s straight out of left field? Which clearly favours long or short range weaponry? We can complain that it’s a bad table… but really, if our force is balanced, we should be able to cope with however the buildings are arranged. After all, the table isn’t just inviting our enemy’s shotguns to have a field day… the invitation is open to our shotguns, too.
Same with 40k. Imagine that you’re used to playing on a football field with a couple of ruins on it. You bring your big guns every week and pulverise the enemy line from afar. But then you go to another club and the table is dense, full of closely-packed and gigantic buildings. Suddenly your tanks and dreadnoughts are spending whole turns unable to shoot anything of note and you get beaten down by powerfists.
On some tables, you'll be glad you brought that blade!
That’s the subtle key of terrain setup, isn’t it? To make sure that the battlefield helps bring out the magic of the game system, without becoming staid. We want players to have to adapt to the terrain, not be able to plan for it because they know how it will be laid out. At the same time we want it to appear awesome, so we get lost in the experience and that passers-by can gawk at how amazing it all looks. But more than anything, we don’t want to be bored.
A table that makes you smirk, or scratch your head and wonder how the heck you’re going to deal with it, makes us feel all the more like a commander receiving last-minute intel about the battle to come, and trying not to look baffled in front of the soldiers. And let’s face it, when we’re going to war with our plastic, metal or resin heroes, that’s precisely the feeling we want to experience.
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