As I write this, I'm just finishing up work on the sixth Table Battles expansion, Great Battles of Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine. And upon encountering that title, I expect someone to have one of two reactions, either (a) who?, or (b), this is a joke right, please tell me this is a joke.
Charles Alexander of Lorraine is not a guy the general populace will have heard of, and among the military history enthusiasts who do recognize the name, he is… not well-regarded. Chosen to command the armies of Austria by his sister-in-law Maria Theresa, he's best known as the hapless failson that Frederick the Great ran absolute circles around. He just kept losing, and badly, and he just kinda stayed in charge anyway. He had a knack for falling into traps, and a special talent once he found himself in these desperate situations for either making exactly the wrong decision, or sitting on his hands while his subordinates and colleagues got walloped. At the Battle of Leuthen, his army was twice the size of Frederick's, and his casualties were nearly four times that of the smaller Prussian force. This at last was enough for Maria Theresa, who finally sacked him. He also served as governor of the Austrian Netherlands, a post for which by all accounts he was much better-suited.
So, that's the answer to who?, which leaves, this is a joke right, please tell me this is a joke. And, I mean, it was a joke at first. What happened was, I was chatting with my friend Doug Miller. Doug is the developer of Sean Chick's Horse & Musket series, and as you might imagine, he's extraordinarily knowledgeable of, and passionate about, that period. He's also a big fan of Table Battles, and he has a fairly extensive library of reference materials. When I was designing this year's expansion, The Grand Alliance, Doug was kind enough to send me some excerpts from both secondary and primary sources for the battles in question.
And one thing Doug and I have talked about over the years of working with Sean on Horse & Musket is the bizarre trainwreck that is the military career of Charles Lorraine. And so, trying to get a laugh, I said to him, "I think I've just had the dumbest idea possible for a Table Battles expansion: Great Battles of Charles Lorraine."
But Doug didn't laugh. Instead, he said, "I think that's a great idea. To spin it from that angle would be perfect Hollandspiele."
And I immediately realized that he was right. "Welp, guess I'm doing this then."
Starting with the second expansion, each new set has had exactly six scenarios; the first three use the "A" sides of each new card, and the second three use the "B" sides. Sometimes folks wonder how I'm able to design the six scenarios so that they fit neatly into this pattern, but it's not really very complicated: I design the first three scenarios, which tells me how many cards I'm going to have in total. All my A-sides, done. Then I do my fourth battle. Before I design my fifth and sixth – often, before I even know what those fifth and sixth battles are going to be – I look at how many B-sides I have left. As I look at the remaining scenarios from my shortlist and the situations involved, I'm looking at them with an eye as to how I want to split those remaining B-sides. Essentially I'm kinda half-designing two scenarios at once, shifting slots this way and that, sometimes abandoning scenario X because it doesn't pair well with scenario Y, until I get a sketch of a final two that's workable. That might sound like a lot of effort, but honestly, it's not; I've done this enough times by now that I know how to handle it. Easy-peasy.
This time around, it was even easier-peasier. Because before I even started work on the first battle, I knew exactly which six battles I was going to feature. That's because our boy Charles fought precisely six major battles in his lifetime – losing four to Freddy, one to Maurice de Saxe, and snagging one win over the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern. So, my shortlist in this case was extremely short, with no room for tossing this one out and bringing this one in. It had to be these six, the only six great battles in which our title character took part. So I ended up designing the first three (okay, I've got forty cards), then straight through the fourth and the fifth, which used twenty-seven B-sides between them. That left me with thirteen cards for the Battle of Leuthen. So my challenge in the home stretch wasn't, "figure out which pair of scenarios to finish this off with, and how to split the remaining cards between them" but rather, "here's thirteen cards, how would you do Leuthen"? Which is a more useful and concrete constraint to labor under.
As I was sketching out Leuthen – an order of battle on one browser tab, battle maps on two others, my copy of The Military Life of Frederick the Great resting open and dog-eared on one knee, an Osprey volume on the other, and a college-ruled notebook perched precipitously on the same TV tray as my laptop – I very easily saw ways I could pull it off with only ten cards, with eleven, or with twelve. None of these would be better or worse than the others, or better or worse than what's in the game, as each would have modeled the thing slightly differently, with slightly different points of emphasis. But thirteen is what I needed, so thirteen is what I did.
In a way, that's my approach to the series in a nutshell. Don't get me wrong, it lets me try out new ideas – remind me next week and I'll tell you about shifting and oblique attacks, not to mention unit illustrations – and there are cute little events and gimmicks that let me show off what a clever, clever gal I am, which is fun. But the thing is very workman-like, less art and more craft, less Athena-from-the-brow-of-Zeus inspiration and more workaday practicality.There's a comfort in that routine, in solving small and familiar problems instead of trying to wrestle new and wild ideas to the ground. I luxuriate in the simple pleasures of process, stimulated but not exhausted. I think that's why I'm unlikely to ever grow tired of designing new Table Battles expansions, and why in the back-half of every year, I look forward to doing it again.