The other day, the inestimable Robert Peter Bottos - he of BottosCon fame - commented on a Facebook post we had made about our upcoming release Plan 1919. Our post was as follows:
Many of our wargames give the player a lot of leeway in setting up their forces, and Plan 1919 is no exception. The Germans set up on one side of the line, and the Allies on the other, and a solid set-up is really crucial. Each side has well over a hundred units (155 for the Germans and 226 for the allies, to be precise) of different types and strengths, so there are lots of decisions to make right on the outset which have ripple effects across the entire game.
Mr. Bottos's comment was, "As much as I like free set ups, I am a strong proponent of having a fixed set up as a means of getting new players right into the game. I have gamed with people that get stuck in analysis paralysis and are so afraid of making a mistake with their set up that it takes away the enjoyment of the game and on at least one occasion lead to the person walking away from the game and leaving me scrambling to find an opponent."
And I thought he made some very good points that were worth responding to more fully, and worth exploring, and so here we are. To start with, let's look at the drawbacks to free set-up. Like the man said, this can lead to some serious analysis paralysis, and in a game of sufficient complexity, screwing up the set-up can mean screwing up the game.
I'm reminded of cyvasse, the complicated, chess-like board game that features in some of the later books in A Song of Ice and Fire. In that game, each player is not only tasked with setting up their pieces, but also secretly setting up their "home squares" - that is, it is a modular board with differing terrain types. A couple of passages indicate the importance of set-up in this fictional game's strategy. First, from A Feast for Crows (my favorite of the books, by-the-by):
"I understand you've fought some mighty battles too, Your Grace," said Drey in his most cheerful voice. "It is said you showed our brave Prince Trystane no mercy at the cyvasse table."
"He always sets his squares up the same way, with all the mountains in the front and his elephants in the passes," says Myrcella. "So I send my dragon through to eat his elephants."
In the next book, A Dance with Dragons, there's a passage recounting five games played between Tyrion Lannister and Brown Ben Plumm, a mercenary captain:
The sellsword was nearly as bad a player as the Yunkish lord had been, but his play was stolid and tenacious rather than bold. His opening arrays were different every time, yet all the same - conservative, defensive, passive. He does not play to win, Tyrion realized. He plays so as not to lose. It worked in their second game, when the little man overreached himself with an unsound assault. It did not work in the third game, nor the fourth, nor the fifth, which proved to be their last.
And I think this gets at the heart of set-up anxiety, and the resultant analysis paralysis: players who set-up poorly not only will have a bad time of it in playing the game, but they might lose face. I understand this anxiety, and I've felt it myself. I recently had the pleasure of playing one of my own games at a small local convention - Northern Pacific, in case you're curious - and I made a truly boneheaded move, to the point that one of the guys I was playing with looked at me like I was the world's biggest moron. Well, that was a great feeling.
But I think this anxiety is a highly situational occurrence. That is, that it's highly dependent on the game that you're playing. Not every game is cyvasse. My medieval design The Grunwald Swords, for example, has a free set-up - one side takes the hill, the other side sets up anywhere on one side of a dotted line - but I've never seen any serious analysis paralysis sink in. Each side only has a few dozen units, and generally they're going to be arrayed in a battle line of some description. With no real terrain challenges to take advantage of or to negate, it's really just a matter of not leaving any gaps. Further, with the game's emphasis on maneuver, mistakes at set-up are easily fixed during play, and rather negligible in the first place. The decision isn't trivial, per se, but it's not as critical.
Free set-up inspires a little more thought in Lou Coatney's Teutons games, and a mistake made during set-up can be a lot more serious. But as each player only has a handful of units in each of those designs - only ten units each, for example, in the 1870 game - it's not like you have a hundred decisions to make, either. So the scale of the game makes the challenge more manageable I think, and more palpable for a new wargamer. And in fact both The Grunwald Swords and Teutons, and most of our wargames generally, are intended to be good introductory games, with simple rules, smaller maps, and short playing times.
But Plan 1919 is a different animal. With hundreds of units splayed across a "full" 22" x 34" map, and a playing time that can run upwards of six hours, it's intended for the more experienced player. (Really, if you try to introduce someone to wargaming with a six hour game instead of a ninety minute game, you're doing it wrong.) And because it's intended for that more seasoned grognard (even though some of those gamers are going to scoff about how six hours makes for a short game!), the decision space is more complex, and the set-up more crucial and unforgiving than in the previous two titles I mentioned.
And, you know, for me, that's what is so exciting about free set-up. Not the idea that if I put a guy in this hex instead of that one, that I've doomed myself to a humiliating defeat (I don't think any single hex is going to be that important), but the idea that the set-up matters. That my decision matters, and has long-term effects, and can dictate not only how I play the game, but how my opponent does as well.
This reminds me of a circular, frustrating, and just plain weird argument I had with a publisher some years ago. It was concerning Von Moltke's Triumph, my game on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which was eventually published by the fine folks at White Dog. That game also used a free set-up, and the first publisher I had approached with it (a rather well-known gaming magazine) pretty much went into an apoplectic fit about how a free set-up, by definition, would not be an historical set-up, resulting in an "alternate history" game instead of the historical fare they were known for.
My argument was that the players, the French especially, were faced with the same choices as the historical commanders - how and where to defend a wide front with limited manpower. That in every wargame, as soon as players begin to make choices, those choices can and should have an impact on the outcome and the play of the game. If I am presenting the player with an historical problem, giving them historical resources with which to solve the problem, and positioning them within the historical decision space, then it is, by definition, an historical game.
The publisher persisted, stating that maybe free set-up could be a variant, but he wanted a strict "this unit in this hex" set-up for the "real" game. Maybe I should have backed down - I'm not really an argumentative sort! - but I felt that such a set-up would basically make the game unwinnable for the French side, and I'm strongly opposed toward forcing a player to make a dumb decision when the opportunity exists for them to make smart ones. That publisher ended up passing, which was fine - White Dog did a great job with it, and it's how I first made the digital acquaintance of Jose Faura, who we've worked with since. (I was a little sore about the first publisher for a while, because they required that I snail-mail two physical copies of the game across an international border, and he never actually got around to setting up the game, let alone playing it. We sometimes ask for physical copies of games ourselves, as they're easier to get on the table than print-and-play files, but we will actually play the game; designers, take note.)
But there's a larger point illustrated by this little anecdote, and that is that free set-up is, in many ways, more historical than a strict hex-by-hex set-up. A battle or war begins with the deployment of troops; Hannibal didn't march onto the fields of Cannae to find his forces already arrayed into a wedge. The decision he made mattered and dictated the course of the battle. Allowing players to make those kinds of decisions is more realistic, it makes those decisions more meaningful, and it ensures a higher level of replayability. The opportunities provided by free set-up can be immense and very fruitful. Yes, they can also be overwhelming, but I think the pluses far outweigh the minuses.