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HOW TO DESIGN A TABLE BATTLE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

In mid-January, a fellow named Mark popped up in a Table Battles thread on BGG and asked, Is there a place online where the design process behind these games is exposed? I'd love to get an insight into how you approached assigning unit strengths, dice and actions, as they really dictate the game play.

And now, a little later in January, being in need of a blogpost for the first Friday in February, here I am endeavoring to explain how I go about taking a battle and translating it to the very particular and peculiar language of Table Battles.

It begins, as these things always do, with research. The amount and depth of research depends on the scope and depth of the game. Table Battles is not the sort of in-depth hex-and-counter simulation where I need to go through several books on each engagement, or where I need to immerse myself fully in the era. This is not only because it's a game that's interested in capturing the broad strokes, but also because it's a game that's focused on universal aspects of warfare that are entirely divorced from infantry tactics, weaponry, or doctrine.

So mostly I'm looking for a general understanding of what happened where, and beyond that, I'm looking for the bits of flavor and chrome that can translate into interesting card effects. With that in mind, I determine the general scale of the scenario. Sometimes this is easy: if there were five divisions on this side and five on that side, probably I have five cards to a side. Sometimes the decision isn't so obvious: if I have two divisions on this side, do I have two cards, or do I go for a regimental scale and get four or six?

The deciding factor, beyond how much information is available to me, is how many formations each side will have relative to the other side, and how that plays to my plans for the scenario. If I feel it's important that there is rough parity between the two sides, then I want them to have the same number of cards. If I feel it's important for there to be a severe difference between the two sides to reflect some historical or gameplay prerogative, I might play around with the scale to reach the desired effect.

Now it's time to figure out what those Formations can actually do. Things get slightly more "scientific" at that point, at least in theory; as I've talked about many times before, my approach is more instinctual than analytical, and often consists of trying things that feel right and scrambling to course-correct and revise when things go agley. But generally speaking:

The number of wood bits for each Formation and side depends on how I envision the length of the scenario, and the number of cards that are being used. If the scenario is longer and more elastic - that is, with more opportunities to recover from errors - there are going to be more sticks in play. Most Formations have four or six sticks in the game. I'll distort beyond that as needed for effect: if someone is meant to be a sort of unstoppable juggernaut, I'll give them eight sticks. I'll give them fewer - even just two sticks - if they folded right away, or if they're meant to represent a desperate last stand or forlorn hope. In that case, I'll give them some kind of way to mitigate or reduce the number of hits suffered.

The type and number of dice the cards can accept depends on several factors. Forces that were well-led tend to have more flexibility - there's more that you can do with any given roll and fewer rolls that might be wasted. Bad leaders result in less flexibility and more flubbed rolls. If the units are attacking a fortified position or have some kind of morale difficulty, I'm likely to enclose their dice numbers in brackets.

The standard Attack action for most units is 1 hit per die, 1 self per action, which encourages the piling up of dice in preparation for an attack. Cards with fewer sticks might omit the 1 self per action, and cards that are less likely to be reacted to might be restricted to 1 hit, period, regardless of the number of dice. The same might go for cards that have extremely powerful reactions.

More finesse is often required for the reactions, which are in many ways the heart of the game. I'm more likely to give cavalry and artillery Screen reactions, and to give infantry Counterattacks. For elite units, counterattacks might reduce the number of hits they suffer - one less hit, and never more than one hit is particularly daunting, because an attacker who's doing one hit per die, one self per action is going to need to expend two dice to inflict one hit, and will be taking two hits in exchange!

Morale cubes for each side: partially, this depends on the historical performance of the armies, but it's also closely tied to more purely ludic motivations. The scenarios for Wars of the Roses have fewer Morale Cubes than in the base game, and this is because I wanted the battles to be decided more quickly, and because I wanted to "protect" the game experience against the weird situations that can arise with bad play. A bigger, longer battle will have more cubes for each side on the other hand. If one side has a bombard action, I'll usually give the other an additional cube.

I sometimes will even "script" the battle out in historical terms to make sure the exchange of cubes results in the loser have zero remaining. Let's say, for example, red's left routed, but then their reserves turned the flank on blue's right and blue's center broke, and that loss had a deleterious effect that broke the whole blue army. I might then give red two cubes, so that they can survive the loss of one flank. I could give blue one cube - so they must be aggressive and rout that first red division early on to stay in the game. Or I could give blue two cubes, but make that center a double-morale formation - it all depends on how important I think that center is, and how much I think blue might resist an early setback.

Whatever my initial instincts are about this or that, invariably I'll get something absolutely dead wrong and will have to revise heavily before the thing works as intended. This was the case with almost all the scenarios in the base game, and about half the scenarios in Roses. It all comes out in, and down to, the testing.

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