Monday, 11 February 2013

Lessons from Hel Fenn

A massive game of Warhammer like this, with several players and huge armies, takes a lot of effort to put together. 

Well the battle is over, the report is written, and it's finally time to step back and take stock after the Battle of Hel Fenn (actually, I started writing this article weeks ago, so by now it is well past time for us to take a look back). This was the most ambitious thing our gaming group has ever tried to do, and to be honest it's resulted in the largest (at the very least, the longest) battle report I've ever seen. I'm delighted with how it all worked out in the end, and as a whole I would say the project was a success. However, there are always things to be learnt from an exercise like this, so I thought I'd take a look at what went right, and what could be done better in the future.

What worked (more or less)

Anyone who has ever tried to get a group of gamers together to play a very large game will know that there is a lot of preparation involved. Making sure everyone can be there at the same time and that there will be enough time to play the game can be difficult enough. We managed this reasonably well, but there were other considerations in this case. I actually wrote both of the lists to be used on the day, working from rough inventories of the various painted armies we had available. The lists had to be worked out in advance, or we would have wasted half a day with that before we could even look at starting to deploy.

Also, by controlling both lists I was able to try to curb any serious excesses that might have destroyed the balance of the game, and tweak as I felt necessary. For instance, the Empire and Dwarfs ended up with minor characters scattered throughout the army, largely so that they could carry magical weapons as a counter to the dangers posed by Ethereal units on the other side. I'll talk later about whether that paid off, but it was a serious consideration.

With the lists and scenario all drawn up beforehand, it kept things reasonably simple on the day. People got there, pulled out their models, setup, and played. Well, it wasn't quite that simple. We had to lay out a large battlefield (in this case 12x6', or 3 normal 6x4' tables side by side) and distribute the terrain. Owen actually spent a fair bit of time repainting some of the damaged sections on our hills so that they would look OK for the photos.

The attitude of all of the players involved was great, and was one of the keys to the game's success. Everyone turned up wanting the game to work, and for a decent story to unfold. To that end we had things like me not aiming cannons at Mannfred from turn 1, and people helping each other out to make sure the game flowed OK. The Dwarf flank was controlled by Aaron, who had probably only played a dozen games of 8th edition Warhammer, whilst the Empire right flank was under the command of Dene, who had played none at all! Whilst this probably meant neither flank was controlled as well as it might have been, there were impartial observers and even opponents lending a hand to ensure the knowledge gaps were covered and the game could go on.

The whole player attitude thing is probably one of the biggest keys to success for a major undertaking like this. It's far too easy to organise a big game, get everyone there, and then have a blow-out as difference in playing ability or army composition (or even luck) destroys the game balance and results in the battle itself being a complete fizzer. In this case, it was clear that nobody really cared who won – everyone was more interested in it all working. I think this made a huge difference to how things worked out.

The effort afterward
Once the game had been completed, there was a lot of effort involved in preparing the report and getting it online. I confess, I found it hard going at times. It would have been easy just to pour lots of photos onto the net (and if I felt generous, to add captions to try to give the game shape), but I wanted a proper battle report, and that was always going to take more effort. The day after the big game, a few of us connected the PC to a TV and wasted a few hours going through renaming half the photos, dismissing some and cropping or tweaking others. I did the rest on my own later, once I got them from the other camera. Then there was the hours I spent putting together all the maps, which was partly to ensure that I knew what was going on, and would be able to write about it for the report proper. The 17,000 words of report took me a few days to write, but at least by that point I had something to show for it as I was posting the report up turn-by-turn online. I'm very happy with the final product and I feel like we achieved what we set out to, so in all it's a success. But it did feel like a hard slog for a while, and it felt like it took me far longer than just over a week to start posting the turns. This can probably be partly attributed to people asking me how it was going.
Maps like these are essential to understanding what's going on, but they take time to prepare. 
The other thing that probably had me feeling the pinch was that during the game itself, a number of photos were put online by observers and they generated a fair bit of interest. The updates included some of the events of the game, but the final results were deliberately withheld. I think this was a good idea, but it meant I felt like I needed to get things up quickly, or people would either get impatient, or forget about it and cease to care. I would probably try to avoid this situation in future.

The size of the game
I have always said that 8th edition felt like it was made to encourage larger games of Warhammer, and I think this game reinforces it, to a point. The large regiments worked well, and the game flowed pretty smoothly. We never really got bogged down by anything, once we had pulled all the models out and were ready to set up. One of the things people ask when they see something like this is, “oh man, how long did the game take?” The game itself probably took around 10 hours, if you don't count the time taken to get it ready and pack up, and the breaks for lunch and dinner. At times I think some people felt like we were playing at a pretty rapid pace, but to be honest I was fairly comfortable throughout. We had nominally set aside time the following day, in case things dragged on and needed to be carried over. We hadn't really decided when we were going to stop playing on the first day, and figured we'd wing it a bit. In the end as the evening wore on, it became apparent that we could get it done by about midnight, so we pushed on through. Of course, that meant we were packing up until 2am. But it left the following day free, so I think everyone was happy with that approach.
I like to move it, move it: Just a few of the movement trays that were pulled out for the game. 
It's rather impressive that it's possible to set up, play and pack up a 20,000 point game in a single day, but it does make for a very, very long day. Anything larger will doubtless be spread over 2 days. We know what to expect now.

What didn't really work

The deployment/army distribution
Depending upon which account of the Battle of Hel Fenn that you read, the allied forces of the Empire and Dwarfs were not necessarily all present at the start of the battle. Some accounts talk of the Empire centre trying to hold things up whilst the Dwarfs move into position to support, and some talk of the cavalry force (and in particular the Knights of the Divine Sword) arriving late and swinging the momentum of the struggle. Then there are versions that talk of Count Martin deliberately holding back some of his forces (including the cream of his cavalry) from the initial stages, which could again account for their late arrival.

After toying with a number of different approaches, I decided to ignore the reinforcement aspect of the battle and keep things simple. It also meant all the armies were on the table to start the battle, which helps reinforce the scale of the fight. Instead, I tried distributing the composition of the forces (in particular on the Empire and Dwarf side) in a representative manner. I put the Dwarfs on the left flank, which is generally where the different accounts have them, regardless of whether they arrived late or were there for the start. I put almost all of the cavalry on the right flank, trying to suggest that they had all arrived together immediately before hostilities commenced, without having time to properly coordinate themselves with the waiting infantry. I made a vague effort to respond to this with the Vampire Counts, in particular putting Gothard and his Black Knights opposite the Divine Sword, as I wanted a confrontation between them (although it didn't really happen). My main focus was in trying to spread the points and bulk of the undead relatively evenly between the players.

When it actually came time to deploy, we were not too strict on where things went. People generally obeyed the lists that I had written out, but there was a little swapping going on in terms of units moving about. The most obvious problem arose around the fort (actually a fortified farm in the stories) on the Empire side, which was meant to be anchoring the Empire right flank. However, with the cavalry all over there, the building would have been useless and empty. Instead, we put it toward the centre, anchoring the flank of the infantry element of the army. What this really did was cramp my deployment zone, quite a lot. In the end I started shoving units onto the flanks, because they simply would not fit in the centre. The redistribution of the infantry wasn't really important, but it was improvisation brought on by a slight lack of planning. I only saw the fort in the flesh for the first time on the day (Owen only finished it a few days beforehand), and I didn't really allow for its footprint during preparation.

The slightly frantic and not-so-carefully thought out deployment of the armies came back to bite the Empire and Dwarfs a bit during the game. The Steam Tanks being on the front line probably seemed like a good idea, but once they get bogged, they have real trouble getting moving again. This saw the Empire cavalry get choked without ever really getting a decent charge off, and I think this was slightly unfortunate. It would have looked much better having them hurl themselves across the field at the enemy. The Dwarfs wound up with their BSB almost hugging the table edge, meaning he was well away from the bulk of his forces. He was also leading 50 Longbeards (the most powerful regiment on that flank), and they ended up too close to the edge and had to reform deep and waste their time trying to wade through an endless tide of Zombies. These things were not actually a problem with the scenario or the game as a whole – they were just a legacy of less than perfect deployment, and a couple of rusty players with a whole lot to think about.

All along the allied lines, another problem made itself apparent. With so many large units in play, lines of sight can become a mess. It ended up being a real problem for the artillery and missile units in the centre. We had some big hills, but there were troops standing on the front who obscured the lines of sight for those trying to fire from behind. What we really needed was some multi-layered hills. No doubt players who don't use artillery would question why they should get an advantage such as this, but given that the Empire held a strong defensive position during the battle and it's a bit bizarre for some Cannons to spend half the game no firing for want of a target, I think it would have made sense.

The photos and notes (sort of)
Throughout the battle, we had several people taking photos (5 more more different people over the course of the game) and at least one dedicated scribe at any point in time. We ended up with 3 different cameras taking the shots, although none of them were anything fancy (2 8MP smartphone cameras and an iPad). Unfortunately, for all that this sounds like enough, we found ourselves stretched. The batteries of the phones we were using as cameras took a hiding, and rather than having multiple cameras on the go at once, we often had one doing the work whilst the other tried to recover on a charge cable. It meant we got fewer shots than planned, and when many of them didn't work out (due to blurriness, bad lighting, and a few cases of the photographer not realising that photos taken with the digital zoom on come out completely pants), we were left with some gaps.

Lighting is something we're still learning about as we do battle reports. We got our hands on a couple of basic lighting rigs before the game, but didn't really fiddle with them until the day itself. I don't think we used them to their best effect, and we will need more practice there. Some photos could have come out a lot better if we had better mastered the lighting. In the end we got some good photos, a lot of OK ones, and a hell of a lot of poor ones. We need to work on improving our success rate.

Our notes ended up being patchy in places, because in a game this size, a lot is happening. Often there were effectively 3 battles happening at once (with all of the players doing things simultaneously). Tracking that is difficult. The final report was a combination of going through the notes and comparing them with the photos (including terrible ones that nobody else ever saw) to ensure I understood what really happened. In the end it worked OK, but failing to get the important details down was a danger and something we know to watch for next time.

Whilst the fact that I was writing all of the lists meant that silly broken combinations were avoided, there still ended up being some game balance problems. The ridiculous unit of Ghouls (led by a Stigoi Ghoul King) seemed like a funny idea on paper, but when it was lined up against the Dwarfs, I realised we had a problem (the problem was compounded by the unit growing from 120 models to 144 on the day due to a bit of undead reshuffling). The Dwarfs couldn't take that unit – it was going to smash them. The only thing that could slow them down was Empire Knights. I ended up putting Martin's unit over to the left of centre and on the front lines specifically to try to counter the Ghouls, although I never got through to them. The Ghouls didn't have the impact they could have because that flank ended up getting bogged behind its own piecemeal units, but there was a real danger that they would steam-roll the Dwarf army.
How many Ghouls? This unit was so massive that the Dwarfs really didn't have an answer for it... 
Perhaps the biggest problem however, was Ethereal units. I'd been worried about this going into the game and had liberally distributed magic weapons to try to counter their influence, and prevent small handfuls of Wraiths from bogging massive allied regiments for the whole game. We deliberately limited how many Ethereal units were on the table, and this helped. In the end however, the Dwarfs in particular found themselves stuck in fights they couldn't win, and were just buying time with their lives. There was only one unit of Wraiths on the other flank, and they accounted for the War Altar and 2 Steam Tanks all by themselves. Granted, a single Banishment from the Altar could have resolved the issue, but Dene couldn't get the spell through with 6 dice at every opportunity. Normally the Ethereals wouldn't be such a concern, but with the scenario blocking the Empire from fielding Wizards, the lack of attacking spells increased their threat. They didn't ruin the game, but they could easily have done so if we hadn't been wary of them.
Wraiths demonstrate the impotence of a Steam Tank against Ethereal opposition. 
The unity of the game
One of the reasons you arrange for more than one player on a given side in large games is to speed things up. On a huge table when an enormous number of units in play, many things can happen simultaneously without really affecting each other. In this respect, having 6 players worked well. There is no way that 2 people could have played the game itself in 10 hours. 

However, the speed comes at a price. As soon as players are doing things simultaneously, they become incapable of tracking what is happening elsewhere. The players at either end of the table rarely knew what was going on up the other end. This is somewhat inevitable, but it's not a desirable thing. Having players in charge of specific units on a particular section of the table also means that the battle can splinter into what is effectively several distinct games. It's difficult to avoid, and something I recall Jervis Johnson writing about in the past. His suggestion was to ensure you play on a table that emphasises depth as much as width, as this forces units to overlap and mixes things together. I think it's a sound policy, and we tried to put it into action a bit, but there are limits. It's not like players were not talking to each other, and everyone was watching during the climactic moments with Mannfred toward the end, but there were still limits in terms of how well the forces blended things into a single, unified game.

On the bright side, this all meant that the players themselves were discovering exactly what happened when they read the report for the first time. There is a novelty in that, and I guess it's one of the benefits of reporting the game thoroughly. There is also an element of realism in a general on one part of the field not necessarily knowing what's going on elsewhere, but that is not necessarily something players are looking for when playing a game of Warhammer.

The playing surface
Over the last month or so there has been a lot of positive feedback about the game from various quarters, in particular on the Warseer forums. One suggestion that we'll run with is that using simple painted boards really detracted from the overall presentation. Whilst this was largely a practicality thing, I still think we will make an effort to address this the next time we try something really big. That, combined with some backdrops and a better command of lighting (and better quality control with the pictures) would go a long way to lifting the final product.
Whilst practical for gaming, a shiny brown table is not the ideal surface from a presentation perspective. 

We'll be back

Overall, I think everyone who was involved in Hel Fenn felt a sense of achievement by the end, and is pretty happy with what we produced. That doesn't mean we can't do better next time we organise something huge. And it's fair to say that there will definitely be a next time.
Grinning fools: Not everyone who was involved in the game, but a large number of us. Many hands make light work, eh?
Thanks for reading, and if you're planning on trying something like this yourself, let me know. I definitely want to see it!


  1. I wish I could try something like this with friends, but I only have around 1500 points of models all told and am still working on convincing my friends to get armies.

    1. Never mind. Most people don't have armies the size of what you see here - even established players. Once they get to a normal sort of size (2000-3000 points), many prefer to branch out to another race rather than keep building their existing force.

      And remember, we all have to start somewhere.