DINNER PLATES (by Amabel Holland)

Mary Russell

Publishing historical board games involves a lot of writing, or more accurately, a lot of rewriting. With few exceptions - I can count 'em on two hands with fingers left over - everything we publish (rules, background material, et cetera) gets a style pass.

Now, this isn't a reflection on the quality of the writing done by the original designers. It's not about that. It's about how we as a publisher organize and present information to the reader, and about what we value in that presentation, what we want to emphasize.

A good example of this is the historical background material for the Horse & Musket series. Every game has at least twenty battles, and each battle gets a paragraph - ideally about 150-200 words long. That is not a lot of space! And you might wonder, why are we limiting ourselves to such a tight word count? Well, it comes down to the simple fact that our rulebooks max out at twenty-eight pages. Any more than that, and we won't be able to staple the darn thing. Each scenario has a page all on its own, so that's twenty; the cover is another page, and the front matter runs one or two pages. That leaves us five or six pages in which to cram all the summaries.

Designer Sean Chick is a professional historian and writer himself, and knows how to put words together. But his writing is more pitched to a specialist audience - to folks that know, for example, that Leopold I was called the Old Dessauer, or have heard of the Wild Geese. It's a perfect fit for that audience, who does make up a fairly large portion of the game's audience. But we also want to pitch it toward a more general one, who doesn't always have that context and that knowledge base. So, starting with Volume II, we've been doing the same sort of style pass we do for most of our games.

What are our goals for the rewrite? Well, firstly, we want to explain not only how the battle happened, but why - why it happened where it did, what was at stake, what were the two sides hoping to gain? Something I noticed when doing these style passes is like 80% of the European battles seemed to happen because if two enemy armies joined forces, they'd be unbeatable - so Freddy the Great or whoever would try to defeat one of them before that could happen. This is something that historians (armchair or otherwise) implicitly understand. Same thing goes for why you want to threaten someone's lines of communication, or prevent an army from marching to the relief of the city you're besieging. But neophytes don't necessarily have that context.

So, a lot of the style pass is about connecting the dots from the tactical to the operational, to giving you that context and to hammer home those points over and over. But while we're explaining why, we also need to leave room for how, for the subtitle, and the dinner plates.

The how is the narrative of the battle, who did what to who where, and what the result was. The subtitle is something Sean chooses for each battle - often a famous quote. Well, obviously we need to work that in there. But what do I mean by the dinner plates?

At the 1734 Battle of Quistello, the Austrians won a small victory over the French and Sardinians, seizing among other things (1) the Sardinian war chest, (2) the personal effects of French general Broglie, and (3) the King of Sardinia's dinner plates. It's that little detail that stays with you, that gives the whole thing some color. Often Sean provides these, sometimes we find them in our research while we're doing the fact-checking, but whenever there's a dinner plate, we try to fit it in if we can.

On top of all that, we need to make sure that we're on the same page with Sean - that we're not imposing a viewpoint on the history he doesn't agree with. As usual with these things, it's a push and a pull, a dance of collaboration. And, again, we need to try and convey all this in like 200 words max, building on what Sean has provided, in a narrative that flows well, is coherent and approachable, et cetera. The limitations of the format make this absurdly difficult, and these style passes are often the most technically demanding writing I do each year.

There are some tricks to get around it. First, you only really need to tell one side of the story. By this I mean, if you choose a "viewpoint character" or side to focus on, it gives it a greater sense of narrative cohesion, and helps you choose what to include and exclude. Whereas if you try to tell the story from multiple points of view within such a small space, it can feel disjointed, like you're ping-ponging between unrelated threads.

Second, these don't exist in isolation. In the newest boxed volume, Tides of Revolution, there are ten scenarios for example that cover the American War for Independence - which means that some of the larger context stuff we only need to touch on once. We can introduce "characters" in one scenario and not need to explain them again when they show up in the next. This brings its own challenge, of course, because essentially we're trying to string these little snapshots together into something that approaches a coherent overall story, constructed from vignettes. I still prefer that challenge to the alternative, though.

Which brings us to the annuals. The annuals are a grab-bag of extra scenarios taken from periods we've already covered in the boxed games, from a wide variety of designers. This generally means that each battle summary really does have to stand on its own: everything crammed into a single paragraph. The style pass for the annuals is definitely "all of the above, but on hard mode".

Let's dig into an example. One of the scenarios in last year's annual was the 1746 Battle of Piacenza, which has the subtitle "The Salvation of Habsburg Italy". Here's the description Sean gave us, adapted I believe from scenario designer Owen Edwards's own summary:

The Bourbons hoped to negotiate Savoy-Sardinia out of the War of the Austrian Succession, allowing them a free hand in Lombardy against the overmatched Austria. However, the Treaty of Dresden between Maria Theresa and Frederick II released Austrian forces for the Italian theatre. Marshal Jean-Baptiste de Maillebois abandoned his lines of communication and joined his forces with Jean de Gages's Spanish and Neapolitan troops in Lombardy. At Piacenza they struck at an Austrian-Savoyard army led by Joseph Wenzel. The plan required Maillebois to march around the Austrian flank, but he found his men facing a steep valley facing a defended canal. The French and Spanish attacked Maximilian Ulysses von Browne's force with vigor and achieved successes on their left flank, but the Austrian advantage in numbers and position told, and losses for the Bourbons were horrendous. Bourbon hopes in northern Italy were finally dashed, and Maria Theresa was jubilant. Austria would retain its possessions in Italy. French armies would not achieve success in the region until 1796, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded.

This is pretty good! Already does a great job of tying the battle to the larger operational and strategic context, especially for folks who know who all the players are and can fill in any gaps. But for neophytes, the Savoy-Sardinia stuff might sound like a non-sequitur.

So, the first thing I want to do with this is emphasize that Savoy-Sardinia was an ally of Austria. You'll also note that it doesn't tell us what happened in those negotiations, though you can infer they didn't go anywhere via the "-Savoyard" in "Austrian-Savoyard army". In point of fact, "what happened" is that the King of Savoy-Sardinia pretended to be open to these negotiations, dragging them out and wringing out concessions as a show of good faith, to give the Austrians time to get their act together. After months of this, they resumed hostilities with a surprise attack, forcing the Bourbons to retreat to Piacenza. And that Austrian-Savoyard army is on its way. That's why the battle took place at Piacenza.

More specifically, it took place because the Bourbon King of Spain told his commander to hold his ground there, and then had his cousin the Bourbon King of France tell his guy, the one guarding the lines of communication, to go help. That's a detail we want to work in! Those lines of communication are super-important because they're on the backfoot in enemy territory. Abandoning them means that if they get trounced, they're completely hosed.

During the battle itself, something goes wrong with Maillebois's maneuver, but it's not quite as clear in the text as we'd like. So here we dig in and do some more research. Maillebois was supposed to go all the way around, to the Austrian rear, but got the turn wrong. The "steep valley facing a defended canal" formed a bottleneck they had to slog through while taking enemy fire. That's also something we want to emphasize here - it will give a clearer sense of what exactly went wrong.

My first attempt looked like this:

The War of the Austrian Succession was fought in multiple theaters, stretching the Austrians thin. By the end of 1745, the Bourbons had pushed Austria out of Lombardy and opened negotiations with Charles Emmanuel of Savoy-Sardinia. Charles feigned interest for months while waiting for Maria Theresa to redeploy troops from Silesia, which had recently been freed by her treaty with Prussia. In the spring, Charles launched a surprise attack that sent the Bourbons running. Spanish King Philip V ordered Jean de Gages to remain in Piacenza, and his nephew Louis XV ordered Marshal de Maillebois to join him, abandoning his lines of communication. Outnumbered by Joseph Wenzel's Austrian-Savoyard army, De Gages planned to concentrate his forces on the enemy's left, while Maillebois would march around the right, taking Wenzel in the rear. But he fell short, bottlenecked in a steep valley, making frontal assaults against a canal that was fiercely defended by von Browne. While De Gages found some success on the left flank, eventually numbers told. The Bourbons collapsed amid horrific losses, fleeing Lombardy for Genoa. Vienna was jubilant. The French would not see success in Italy again until Bonaparte.

Now, this isn't quite there yet. The start is pretty herky-jerky; it doesn't have the right flow to it. And it doesn't quite get across the desperate situation the Bourbons have found themselves in. There are too many names being thrown at the reader - especially too many names of monarchs. Better to make them feel far-off and imperious, so that we can center the schmucks out in the field trying to follow their dumb orders. I'm also not sure if "the Bourbons" really communicates "both France and Spain are ruled by members of the same family" to folks who aren't already intimately familiar with the period.

So I give it another style pass, where I want to (1) ensure the Prussia stuff doesn't interrupt the flow, (2) use fewer names, especially for monarchs, (3) emphasize how dire the situation is, and (4) introduce France & Spain separately, then unite them as "the Bourbons". And just generally punch it up a bit. So, here's that second pass, which is what ultimately made it into the book:

The Treaty of Dresden knocked Prussia out of the War of the Austrian Succession. This freed up badly-needed troops for Lombardy, where the Austrians had been pushed out by the French and Spanish, who had opened negotiations with Austria's ally Savoy-Sardinia. The latter feigned interest for months to give Austria time to concentrate forces, then launched a surprise attack that sent the Bourbon armies into a panicked retreat. The Spanish under Jean de Gages stopped at Piacenza, while French Marshal de Maillebois fell back to protect their fragile lines of communication. But orders came down from both Bourbon kings that Maillebois should abandon his position so that both armies might hold Piacenza against Joseph Wenzel's larger Austrian-Savoyard force. De Gages would focus on the Austrian left, while Maillebois would march around the right flank to surprise Wenzel in the rear. But his march fell short; bottlenecked by a narrow valley, he made spirited but costly frontal assaults across a canal held by von Browne. Numbers told; the Bourbon armies collapsed amid horrific losses and hightailed it to Genoa. Vienna was jubilant. Habsburg hegemony over Northern Italy would not be threatened again until the invasion of Bonaparte fifty years later.

It's stronger for sure. Can it still be improved? Of course.

For example, I wonder now about using "Vienna" as a metonym for Austria and its monarch Maria Theresa. And in turning "While de Gages found some success on the left flank, eventually numbers told" into the stark "Numbers told", I'm sacrificing some of the "how", and essentially eliding the entire left flank in our retelling. I miss that, but at the same time, "Numbers told" by itself has a much stronger impact (probably should've changed that semicolon into a period); it's more of a gut-punch, feels more inevitable, more terrible.

I'm sure in another pass or two I would have found a way to fold the left flank back in, but it would have been counterproductive for me to expend that much time and energy on one paragraph that most folks will maybe read once – especially with nineteen others waiting on my to-do list. Perfection isn't achievable, and isn't even a goal; I just have to get it to the point where it works, where it's good enough, and then move on.


  • Such a good read! Love it;))

    Mind Ju

  • Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné

    Charles Vasey

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