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ON THE CURIOUS ORIGINS OF TABLE BATTLES

Mary Russell

While Table Battles is a direct descendent of my earlier game Christmas at White Mountain, its existence can be better explained in the context of two apparently unrelated games: Richard Berg's multiplayer game Dynasty, and my two-player politics game Optimates et Populares.

When we were publishing Richard Berg's Dynasty, we needed to get quite a lot of wood bits. We needed large cubes for armies and little cubes to demarcate control, black cubes for warlords, and wooden discs for home provinces and the Emperor's winter palace. And on top of all that, we also needed some long gray rectangular wood bits to serve as our Great Wall of China, and some long blue rectangular wood bits to serve as our Grand Canal. All the other wood bits were standard products provided by our German wood bits manufacturer, whereas the "sticks" (Vierkantstabchen) were a specialty item that would be more expensive to produce in the quantity we needed for Dynasty. The only way to lower the price per unit would be to order lots and lots of sticks.

Now, we could have ordered just way more gray and blue Dynasty pieces than we thought we'd need in the immediate term. Or, alternatively, we could satisfy the quantitative requirement by ordering multicolored stick pieces for another, future game. We didn't have a "game that uses wooden sticks" in mind at the time that we were making the order, but before they had arrived, I had begun working on Table Battles. We ordered pieces for a game, so we might as well make a game to use the pieces.

Truth be told, I had already designed one-eighth of the game in 2016, when I designed our holiday freebie game Christmas at White Mountain. That game, as you may recall, was designed in reaction to Hanno Uusitalo and Kim Paqvalin's W1815. I get a little tetchy when folks say that the game was in the W1815 system or that it was some kind of unofficial sequel. There are some points of commonality, to be sure, but the core mechanisms, design goals, and feel of the two games are dramatically different.

"Schlacht am Weißen Berg", 1620, Pieters Snayers.

Here's a short recap of how the White Mountain game worked, from the blog article we published shortly before our holiday sale:

Each player has a pool of dice that he rolls each turn, and then he commits dice to a particular unit's box, according to the type and number of dice that can be placed in that box. For example, the Bohemian Right and his opponent's Catholic League Infantry both use sixes, but the latter can gain at most one die per turn. It's not that the Bohemians are more ferocious or better-led (they're not!), but rather that they are fighting (albeit poorly) from a strong defensive position, while mounting an attack on that position takes time and preparation. When a unit is activated, all the stored dice are removed, and losses are incurred depending on the number of dice.

Or not; one of the signal features of this particular design is the ability of cavalry and artillery to screen and discourage enemy attacks. If I have the right number of dice in my cavalry box when you attack an infantry unit under that cavalry's protection, I can expend those dice to cancel your attack. In fact, it's not just that I can do it, but that I'm required to, and so both the attacking unit and the screening unit have their dice cleared out. When I perform that Reaction, it robs me of the ability to make an Attack on my own turn immediately following. This means that there's a definite cat-and-mouse feel, with each side struggling for control of tempo. You don't want to just prevent your enemy from attacking, you also want to get the leverage you need to launch a successful attack yourself. You want to set up your cavalry so as to screen effectively, but if that's all you're doing, you won't have sufficient dice to press your advantage when it appears.

Between publishing Christmas at White Mountain and beginning work on Table Battles, I had finished work on Optimates et Populares, my game about politics in the late Roman Republic, which has more in common with the other two than even I realized at first. Because at its heart, Optimates et Populares is about deadlock. It's the game's default state when both players are playing well, as I try to counter every move you make, and you try to counter every move I make, and I make moves that I know you're going to have to counter, almost daring you not to counter it, until either someone blinks or something gives, and I get to do something or you get to do something. When that happens, sometimes the deadlock is broken only momentarily, and sometimes permanently, and in the latter case, the game can become a blowout. It's the threat of the blowout that enforces the deadlock, that challenges both players never to even think about giving an inch.

The mandatory Reaction mechanism in White Mountain works on the same principal, and while I was somewhat conscious of that, it took the completion of Optimates et Populares to really help me articulate it. And so when I started work on Table Battles, one of the things I decided to do was to emphasize and expand upon the idea with the addition of two new Reactions: counterattack and absorb.

A counterattack is where you flip over the table in a rage because you're losing and you declare that the game isn't a real wargame because there are no counters, while absorb is what your opponent's shirt does because they also had a glass of water on that table.

The counterattack reaction inflicts an extra hit on the enemy that is attacking you. Most attacks do some number of hits to the target, and one hit to the attacking unit, so this would make it two hits. Some attacks just do one hit without inflicting an attacker casualty, so a counterattack would make it an equal exchange. And in some cases, certain counterattacking units suffer one less casualty when they counterattack. So if I'm the guy attacking, in most circumstances I'm probably going to want to do more damage to you than you do to me, which means if you have counterattack dice sitting there, I'm going to spend more time building up my attack. And maybe my guy also has a reaction, but maybe that's a screen, so you'll attack my guy so that I'm forced to screen it, neutralizing the big pile of dice I've built up, so maybe I'll put those dice somewhere else in the first place.

The absorb reaction allows the absorbing unit to suffer the hits instead of the targeted unit (sometimes, they suffer only one hit, regardless of the strength of the enemy attack). Now, this particular reaction is unusual in that, unlike a screen or a counterattack, it's voluntary: you can choose when to use it and when not to.

Here's the thing, though: often, two or three of these Reactions are acting in concert, and overlap. So if my guy attacks your guy, you might have multiple options available as to how you react to that attack. So maybe you screen it with a nearby cavalry unit rather than having the targeted unit counterattack, so that the targeted unit still has those dice to launch an attack on a future turn. Or maybe you counterattack because you know on my next turn you're going to need that screen to handle the attack I've got percolating on another card. Or maybe I use a different attack that will trigger your screen, so on the next turn I can rob you of your counterattack dice. And all along, I'm enforcing a deadlock, and stealing your momentum, because every time you use a reaction, you don't get an action on your turn; I'm keeping you on the ropes, and dictating the terms, until either I make an attack you can't react to, or I roll some absolutely garbage dice that won't let me keep up this peculiar contest of nerves.

Now, some folks might be thinking, this is awfully gamey, and I suppose in a way it is; the system is not in any way, shape, or form a detailed simulation. But on the other hand, it's about the constant threat of an attack forcing a commander to be cautious and careful about his defenses. It's about threatening an attack here to force your opponent to move resources from there, leaving an opening. It's about both sides locking horns until, either through luck or skill, something somewhere gives and a blow is delivered. And doesn't that capture, even in a very abstract way, some of the realities of battlefield command across the ages, and perhaps, even more broadly, the human experience?

Or maybe that's a little too highfalutin, and it's just a simple historically-themed twenty minute dice game.

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