Monday, 23 May 2011

The True Impact of True Line of Sight

Stormvermin and Ghouls duke it out for control of a multi-stepped hill and a commanding view of the battlefield.
I have always been very sceptical of True Line of Sight (TLOS) in wargaming. To a certain extent it is an obvious recourse (for instance, is the building in the way of the target?), however there have always been a number of situations where I did not subscribe to it.

There is something about using TLOS that makes the game feel more like a kids’ game. Stooping down to decide whether a model can see between 2 trees makes the game feel more like I am playing with toy soldiers and less like I am playing a wargame. This may be an imaginary distinction I am making here – my army does indeed consist of toy soldiers. Maybe I am just kidding myself.

My principal complaint regarding TLOS is not that it makes it feel like I am playing a game for small children, however. My main concern is what it means for the terrain that we use. In the past, it didn’t matter how tall a hill was, or how dense a forest was – the rules were definite and were irrespective of the construction of the terrain. However, TLOS changes all that. Now if a forest is sparsely populated by trees, models will most likely be able to see straight through.

I think the biggest problem with the TLOS rules is that it is unclear what effect terrain is meant to have on the game. It is clear enough how you handle the terrain you have, but it is not clear what your terrain is really meant to look like. Is a forest ever meant to be dense enough to block line of sight? If so, should we be adding undergrowth to block all the gaps under the trees Games Workshop themselves provide? What about hills? Is a hill meant to be tall enough to have a serious impact on line of sight, providing a commanding vantage point and blocking the view of units which sit behind it? Again, the hills GW themselves offer are small to say the least.

I realise it is possible to play with whatever terrain you have on hand, and that there may be no perfect ideal in terms of hills and forests, but it really doesn’t feel that way. The shift to TLOS makes a massive difference to the effects of terrain on your average gaming table. Was the change really meant to be that abrupt? If your forests are slightly larger and denser, and your hills are a bit taller, the rules for line of sight suddenly become a lot more like how they used to be. Is that coincidence?

Nowhere to hide...
This issue is near to the heart of most players who like to field large flying monsters. As the editions have gone by, it has become progressively harder to keep the big gribblies alive. In 4th and 5th edition, a player could deploy behind a hill, Fly High, then descend upon the hapless war machines in turn 2. In 6th and 7th edition, flyers had to slum it with the ground sloggers and flit between hiding places (where they could be found), behind hills and forests. Now, with an average array of terrain, the only hiding place the monster will find is probably behind a building (if there is one). There will be plenty of tables with no cover at all, resulting in the monster lining up front and centre, and covering his eyes with both talons.

Given the scope of changes we have seen in 8th edition, it is possible that these changes are intentional. Maybe the days of monsters finding a free pass into combat are behind us. It would be nice to know for sure, though. I have been a staunch defender of playing the 8th edition rules as written in the book, something I continue to stand by. However, this is a case where I don’t know exactly what I am defending. Should I be defending the rules, but telling everyone to make taller hills and thicker forests? Obviously this is an option, but should all tables look like that? I suspect not.

A question of aesthetics?
It is likely that, in the long run at least, the change to TLOS will affect people's terrain collections. Players are likely to get sick of hills that have little effect on the game, and forests that are really nothing more than dangerous open terrain. Where previously players could get by with any piece of cloth or paper to mark out the boundaries of the forest, there is more required now. It could be that GW have pushed this direction deliberately. A large part of our hobby is its visual appeal - the spectacle of 2 painted armies fighting it out over a miniature landscape. By forcing players to use 3-dimensional terrain, GW may be trying to prevent us from being lazy and cutting corners with our tables.

A classic "Hampton Hill", far larger than your average sane gamer would look to use. Accompanied here by other common terrain features, such as ginger beer and donuts.
Practical Difficulties
At our club, we have been using very large hills for the last decade or so. These hills are no mere GW grassy bumps - they are 2-3" high and often a couple of feet across. These hills have been the butt of many jokes over the years, however they have served us well and they do an excellent job under 8th edition (they were originally created to allow tanks to find somewhere to hide in 40K, which has been using TLOS for a lot longer than Fantasy). Stacking these hills can create some very impressive contours on the table, however there are practical concerns around these things. A unit half hanging off a hill a few inches tall can be a precarious balancing act, and clumping too many level changes closely together can make the task almost impossible (something we have learned to avoid).

We soon learned that our dice containers were much the same height as our hills...
For a number of years we have also been using forests where the trees "plug" into the base. This allows regiments to move through the forest without causing major headaches, as the trees in the path can be easily removed and replaced. This same approach has now been followed with the current GW plastic forests. However, removing trees has an immediate impact on TLOS. In addition, the trees in a given forest may be of varying shapes and sizes. Do you need to remember which tree was where?

With a mighty flap of its wings, the dragon blows the trees clean out of the forest.
Is it really that simple?
I suspect that, as with a lot of the changes that have been made to Warhammer 8th edition, GW's mantra with terrain and line of sight was KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). "Can you see the target? Then your model can too." This is indeed a simple method of doing things, however when you start putting it into practice, there are more grey areas than there were with the old approach. Where before a models' base would block line of sight, now it can depend on the bulk and pose of the model. I wouldn't be surprised if some players started deliberately posing or converting certain models to be as opaque as possible, in order to give things somewhere to hide. This shouldn't really be necessary, but the rules can make an issue out of something that was previously straightforward. I find it ironic that rules such as movement (and everything to do with measurement) have been cleared up under 8th edition so as to largely eliminate disputes, but line of sight has effectively gone the other way.

Regardless of my questions around the intent of the TLOS rules, I do not think the answer is to start using terrain in a “counts as” fashion, such as “all forests block line of sight”, or “no forests block line of sight”. In the same way, I do not subscribe to "infinitely high" hills, which feels like a rather silly concept and feels to me as though it's going further than just compensating for inadequate terrain - it feels like a deliberate contradiction of the intent of the rules. As I have stated earlier, I believe we should be embracing the rules as written and just accepting that not everything will be as we might wish it.

Wherever you go, not all terrain will be the same, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, not all battlefields are the same. Some people will stick with the stuff they already had and put up with the newly open tables this presents them with. Others may start to "upgrade", making higher hills and denser forests in order to close things up a bit and offer line of sight blockers and a bit more protection from ranged attacks. Ultimately, unless GW comes out and clearly states what they had in mind for our terrain, we will all be left to our own devices.
The Dwarfs struggle down a hill that is much too steep for their stumpy legs to handle.


  1. Im in the process of collecting some 25mm terrain so I guess im in a position to get the right stuff. On the subject of terrain GF9 stuff that is coming out is really nice.

  2. Ah, but what *is* the right stuff?

    I haven't seen the new GF9 stuff - I assume it's just new additions to their Battlefield in a Box range.

  3. yes but there is a elf tower and a elf ruins and nice little piece called the tree of woe, plan to do a product review tomorrow night on them.

    As to the right stuff always feel the trees look far to small, so woodland scenics trees will be the go, you can get some very nice large scale trees that look realistic as well. Got my dragon from maelstom yesterday so I have something to match the trees to :)

  4. With regards to forests we use the coasters on a larger base method too. We never want any discrepancies to detract from the pace of the game, so as a general rule we count the entire of the larger base underneath as a 'forest area', as obviously there would be thistles, bushes, logs, branches etc.

    We therefore simplify it to the level of if your in it, it's soft cover, if your on the other side of it, your out of sight.