Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cramping your style

I mentioned in my Axemaster report that my first game was played upon an unusual table, constructed out of the modular cave sections we have at the club. The caves were built years ago, however their use in Warhammer has been limited for a couple of reasons. The first problem was that under 7th edition, the precise 12” squares made it extremely easy to gauge distances, effectively rendering that side of the game redundant. The second issue was that for all that we have at least 36 sections to choose from (giving us a bit to play with, given you only need 24 for a 6x4 table), we were still restricted in terms of the possible layouts. Our collection favours corridors and dead ends more than is ideal for a game of Warhammer. The ability to measure whatever you want under 8th edition effectively eliminated any concerns about the modular sections making estimation too easy, so the only problem that remains is the possible layouts. So we bit the bullet and decided to use the caves for a tournament.

A couple of us (with consultation from a few others) had good fun during the setup for the event, fiddling with the different sections in an attempt to produce a workable table. As I say, were better at walls than open spaces with our collection, so trying to create something that was open enough was a challenge. From memory, the layout we had to settle with in the end looked like this:
A rough layout of the caves as used in Axemaster. I deployed diagonally in the bottom left corner.
My sketch is very rough, however it gives you a general feel for how closed up areas were. The dark areas are solid rock walls, assumed to go all the way to the cave ceiling. Generally speaking, every gap was at least 5” wide, and we agreed that anyone playing on the table should ignore the 1” rule when it came to the walls. This meant units could fit through where they needed to go, but obviously things were a lot more restricted than your average table. We put a very small, low hill and a “forest” of mushrooms in the largest of the tables caverns, just to add a bit more interest.

The two of us who set the table up then agreed to fight a grudge match in the first round on it, to prove to others (and ourselves) that it would work. I did take a couple of photos at the start of the game, and although I showed them in the tournament report I will include them here again so you get a feel for what we were looking at.

I do not pretend that the table we setup was perfect. Even with gaps at least 5” wide, units can find it hard to wheel in tight spaces. If I had based my army around horde units, I probably would have been gnashing my teeth in frustration. However, it was still fun to be able to make use of the caves, and it made the game slightly more challenging. The real question now is: are tables like this appropriate for tournament play?

How much should terrain affect the battle?
I suspect this question will divide opinion a bit. Some players seem to feel that terrain should be seen and not heard. It is there to dress the game up and maybe go some way to dictating where forces will clash, but thats about it. Others want to be challenged by the terrain, and for it to give each game a distinct character. And then there are those that desperately want tall hills and convenient buildings behind which their large, cannon-fearing monsters can hide on their way into combat…

This is a slightly difficult question. Few players would actually put their hand up and say “I want the terrain to dictate the outcome of the battle”. This is distinct from “I want whoever makes best use of the terrain to win the battle” theyre two very different statements, but both are possible and both are based on the assumption that the terrain will (or at least can, when used correctly) have an impact. Unfortunately, the great variety in possible army builds in Warhammer mean that it is possible for a given army to thrive in certain terrain whilst the opposition drowns in a sea of obstacles. This makes the terrain dictating the outcome of the game (regardless of decisive action from either player) quite possible. 

The other way terrain is most likely to decide things is where both players feel obliged to sit back and play for a draw. If an army places itself in or around terrain that gives it a practically unassailable position, the opponent is highly likely to balk at trying to break through. This is an unfortunate situation that can lead to a stand-off, with the game being a non-event. Worse, it can come about without either player really doing anything wrong they are both playing a sound tactical game. In this case, the terrain has effectively killed the game. I find this a situation to be avoided if at all possible, as it can scar people and damage players love of the game.

Acknowledging that poorly considered terrain can have a dramatic effect on the games played on it, I still find it preferable for the table to present players with challenges. The player who draws his opponent into a forest, negating his steadfast, and breaks the regiment deserves to be rewarded. A table with a number of apparent choke points can make for a more interesting tussle than one where the terrain leaves a massive open area in the centre in which the game takes place in a vacuum. Obviously a balancing act is required.

Should all tables be the same?
Im sure your immediate answer to this question is “no”. Its a knee-jerk reaction thing. Of course we dont want all tables to be identical, that would be boring and silly. And yet, when you get right down to it, I wonder how many tournament players expect to rock up at a table and see 2-3 hills, maybe 2 forests, and perhaps a building, swamp or some other less easily identified piece of terrain to add some interest. To a certain extent I think its what were all mentally prepared for we expect a moderately open field with a few vantage points for artillery, and maybe the odd item of terrain that may cause us difficulty if we end up on the wrong table side or deploy poorly.

To a certain extent, these expectations are probably ingrained from attending events where the amount of terrain being spread across X number of tables would have dictated how sparse it was, even if the TO might have liked to set things up differently. Most tournaments are not run by people with infinite resources things may have to be stretched depending upon the number of players attending. Of course, this can also result in some tables being more difficult to play on than others, as terrain pieces that may have been considered less than desirable (such as long, winding rivers) get used because resources were being stretched to the limit.

The Warhammer rulebook contains guidelines in terms of setting up the table. The suggestion is “at least D6+4 pieces of terrain”, where a “piece of terrain” could be a hill, forest, or even a cluster of several buildings. Obviously this provides great scope for variation, even if you follow the guidelines to the word. Almost every tournament table I have seen would fall somewhere within the possible range provided by this.

If every table you played on was identical, would you not get bored? Most tournaments I have attended have gone to pains to ensure no player has had to play too many games on the same table, for this very reason. This may be because the player should not be advantaged or disadvantaged repeatedly by the same set of terrain when there are so many other tables around, but its also so the player doesnt get sick of repeatedly playing there.

I am firmly of the opinion that tables should be different, however I am not so certain about whether the terrain on different tables should all offer a similar experience. If all tables have a similar distribution of terrain in terms of numbers of different terrain types, and they are setup in a relatively even, separated manner, you will get varying setups that shouldnt unfairly advantage one player or another. I suspect this is the ideal that most TOs would go for. This does not necessarily mean it is right.

Mind the gap
As a general rule of thumb, I tend to leave enough room between terrain pieces for a unit 5 models wide to get through. This is particularly true for things like houses where the unit cannot simply stomp through and suffer any relevant penalties (such as might be the case for a hill or forest). I dont want to be responsible for creating a gap for a character to hide in where units cant get to him, or something similarly annoying. I stand by this as a practical consideration, and it was why we agreed the gaps in the cave were all at least 5” wide it kept areas from becoming impassable.

As has been well documented, the Horde rules in 8th edition have seen many units get a whole lot wider than 5”. This something you need to bear in mind when youre setting up terrain… Or is it? Just because a player prefers to run his unit in a particular formation, doesnt mean youre under any obligation to accommodate it. Its one thing to avoid forcing a unit to go so narrow to squeeze through that it cant maintain its rank bonus, and quite another to make allowances for a massive, unwieldy regiment trying to make the most of a rule that is most likely intended for fighting pitched battles across open terrain.

Before you take me for some Horde-hating, MSU-(minimum unit strength) loving, tree hugging hippy Wood Elf, I should point out that I really like the Horde rules. Ive talked them up before. However this does not mean that I think every table should be planned to accommodate massive units. If the player want to move through a narrow part of the table, he can bite the bullet and change formation. Otherwise he can steer clear of these areas and leave his Hordes to try to dominate the open regions elsewhere.

Doing things differently
I have attended some tournaments (admittedly all in previous editions) that required players to randomly scatter the terrain from the centre of the table prior to each game. This meant that even if you played on the same table twice, there was no way the layout of the terrain would be the same. It also meant the TOs could hardly be blamed if the scenery ended up in a configuration that players deemed to be silly or unsuitable for the game or their armies it was the dice!

I dont know if anyone still does this in 8th edition, however it was not my favourite way of doing things. You could get tables where all the scenery went the same direction, leaving one side of the table a mess that was impossible to navigate, whilst the other side was a barren wasteland. I prefer to approach a table knowing that it has been setup by a neutral party with the intent of players being able to have a game on it, rather than having things left to the fickle hand of fate.

Another suggestion I have heard recently (but am yet to see in action) is to set each table up with a particular scenario in mind, and to play every game on that table using that scenario. This is an interesting approach, as it guarantees that the scenario should work well with the layout of the table, and it retains a level of randomness similar to that of rolling each round to determine what game will be played. It also means that the table can be setup in a more creative manner than normal, when you know it only needs to accommodate a single game type for the entire tournament. The downside is that it makes the correct allocation of tables paramount, as it would get extremely old for the same player to land on the same table repeatedly, and having to play the same specific scenario. I look forward to playing in an event where this approach is used, and to seeing what is done with the terrain on each table.

Keeping them on their toes
Assuming you agree that the terrain should offer some degree of individuality to the game, the question then is how far to take it. You dont want to setup tables that will result in stand-offs where neither player is willing attack (although some players will attack regardless more power to them). Nor do you want tables that will unreasonably advantage particular army builds. What can you do within this brief?

At this point I feel a distinction needs to be made. There is a difference between giving a particular army build an unseemly advantage, and giving a specific build of army a disadvantage. If you set up a table in such a way that one army in ten will cackle with glee, you have probably done something wrong. This means the player who fielded a presumably unbalanced army is being rewarded with unusual terrain, and his opponent (who potentially did nothing wrong) is being punished. On the other hand, if you create a table that will mess up the game for one army in ten, resulting in his opponent with a “normal” army having an easy game, I see this as less of a problem. 

A player who takes an unusual or unbalanced force needs to accept the risk that this entails. If you take an all-cavalry army (as I have the last 2 tournaments), you know you cant occupy buildings and will have a hard time dealing with enemies who can. If you take a gun line, you must accept the possibility that some tables will not provide a good field of fire. By taking an army that doesnt cover all the bases, you are exposing yourself to being exploited when your strength doesnt work out as you might have liked.

Whoever is setting up terrain must bear in mind the possibility of it being exploited by unbalanced armies, however I dont feel they need to worry overly much about disadvantaging them. In fact, armies that are inflexible probably deserve to be punished by the terrain now and then. 

The same goes for players. If a player cannot adapt to a different sort of table (one that does not accommodate the regular plan he uses game after game), then perhaps that players weakness deserves to be exposed. This may seem like a harsh assessment, however a tournament should not simply be a question of whether you can arrive with a single workable plan and repeat it ad infinitum. 

In future I will consider deliberately including a number of tables not dissimilar to the caves we used at Axemaster tables with intentionally narrow sections, be they town streets or winding paths through a swamp. It is important that there are a number of ways through, and there should be open areas too, however players should not be able to guarantee a free reign for huge units with no fear of repercussion. If you want to field Hordes (or enormous Steadfast blocks with huge tails of trailing ranks) that is your choice, however a formation like that cant move everywhere with impunity.  

Part of the point of tables like this would be that players would know they were there probably before their lists had been submitted. If they then enter a unit of 100 Goblins or Skaven Slaves, or a Horde of Ogre Bulls, that is their choice but they will do so in the knowledge that its a gamble, and they may find themselves on tables where there are sections in which their big units they can barely move. They can then spend all tournament looking askance at those few tables they dread, knowing that if they get stuck on them, they will have dug their own graves.

Before you decide I am completely heartless, I should mention that we made a point of setting up an extra table for Axemaster, specifically for the situation where players had a cry about being allocated to the caves, either because they were freaked out by them, or because the table would not suit the scenario that had been rolled up (the unbroken wall of rock about 18” could have made a real mess of Battle for the Pass). I admit that having a backup table was the sensible course of action, however the TO was perhaps a little too accommodating to some of the whingers who arrived on the table (I only know of one other game that was actually played on it). But then, players had no warning of the table and so the lenient stance on his part may have been warranted. But in general…

Do players have a God-given right to play on open tables with little terrain? No. Should they live in fear of tables that will mess terribly with their inflexible plans? Perhaps they should.

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