I try to avoid complicated and persnickety set-up procedures in my games. The last thing I want is a list of sixty or seventy units – this goes into hex 1011 and that one goes into hex 1012 – sprawled over the course of a couple pages. I’m much more likely to go “all your units set up on this side of this line, and all their units set up on that side” (cf. most of the Shields & Swords II games) or “this division sets up within two hexes of this hex” (cf. the Shot & Shell Battle Series).
When I was working on With It Or On It, it required greater specificity – this block of units had to occupy these specific squares – and used a series of “set-up lines” to guide the player. This group is centered on the center line, this group is on their left, that group on their right, et cetera. It got the job done well enough, though it could be hard for folks to visualize the battlefield before they put the counters on the map.
The sequel game, The Grass Crown, introduced terrain tiles into the mix, and I knew that having separate directions for terrain set-up and unit set-up would be, well, complicated and persnickety. And so I decided to use an actual visual diagram, like this one for the Battle of Heraclea:
Terrain placement, number of units and where they go, how many units have stars, and over in the right corners, all the other pieces of essential info: who goes first, who has initiative, who begins with the Fortuna marker, and each side’s skirmish ability and VP threshold. The only other information on the page will be the scenario-specific rules for each side.
More than just making set-up easy, it also makes it easier for someone “browsing” the battles. They can get a peek at the disposition and composition of forces, any asymmetries that may come into play, and they’ll get a sense of how long the battle might last – one with a twenty or thirty point victory threshold is going to go a lot quicker than one where you need forty or fifty.
Doing this got me thinking about one of our titles where the set-up can sometimes be complicated and persnickety: the Horse & Musket series. While there usually aren’t too many units, and they’re arranged on a fairly small grid, each unit (and sometimes each stack of units) needs to be in its specific hex, sometimes with specific and special Morale Point values and Leadership factors, all on top of what can sometimes be a large number of terrain tiles.
When we started working on the first game in the series, we made a conscious choice to use a set-up diagram for the terrain, while listing the unit set-up separately beneath the diagram. This caused some slight consternation with some players, who were accustomed to the “all-in-one” approach used by other hex-tile battle games like Commands and Colors. Of course, those other games only saw a single unit in each hex, whereas a Horse & Musket hex could accommodate two units of different types, sometimes of different nationalities and with non-standard starting Morale Point values, accompanied by one or more leaders with different leadership values, some of which have their own specific counters and some of which are generic. And sometimes multiple hexes are stacked in that manner, and we just couldn’t see a way to make that all legible at a glance without obscuring the terrain tile underneath.
But it resulted in making set-up a bit of a chore, especially for the larger battles. It also made the layout and proofreading particularly finnicky for Mary (although she has asked me to add here that she has never complained, so this is me adding that), which meant that each new Horse & Musket release resulted in a chokepoint in our production timeline.
Now, as we’re prepping the fourth main volume for publication, designer Sean Chick, developer Doug Miller, and myself have been looking at ways to make the game system more accessible. For example, the core rulebook is getting what we hope will be a final revision that, in addition to clearing up some edge cases, will give additional historical context to the design.
And I decided while we were at it that I should take a new approach to the set-up information. What I settled on was a hybrid approach; hexes containing single units would denote those units, while hexes containing leaders or multiple units would use a hex symbol, being careful in both cases not to obscure any underlying terrain tile. Below the diagram, the contents of each of those hex symbols would be listed in text. Here’s an example:
So the French Player knows, for example, that hex J7 contains an Artillery (AR), hex L7 a Line Infantry (LI), and between them, in hex K7, there is a stack, the contents of which are explained below the diagram. In this case there are eight such references, whereas previously the text would need to list out the contents of thirty-two separate hexes. This greatly reduces the set-up time on the player’s end, and should reduce the layout time on our end.
And, as is the case with The Grass Crown, this makes it easier to get a sense of the situation at a glance. This is especially important for a system like Horse & Musket. The twenty scenarios in each set are a mix of compelling, tense nail-biters and less-balanced historical curios. That’s part of the appeal – “it’s the only game that lets you recreate the Battle of X” – but it means that not every battle is going to appeal equally to every player. The scenario book isn’t so much a progressing narrative, but a menu, and the worst thing a player can do is try and tackle the battles in chronological order.
In fact, the very first battle, Vienna 1683, is a terrible introduction to the system, in that it doesn’t really show it off to the wide-eyed newbie wondering if the game is worth their investment; so much so, that we’re making a point in the new core rulebook to say, for the love of gosh don’t start with Vienna, try these instead. Which, like these new scenario diagrams, is probably something we should’ve done all along. But hey, you don’t learn from not making mistakes.