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SLUGFESTS

Mary Russell

One problem that became apparent after the release of Table Battles is that when players made poor decisions or did not properly work toward force preservation, the game would degenerate into an exhausted slugfest, a bunch of piddling little one- or two-stick formations limping along as the morale cubes passed back and forth, neither side achieving a definitive advantage. Over the course of the two expansions, I made the morale splits much more asymmetric and fragile as a way to "protect" the game against bad play. If losing just one formation would lose you the game, you'd be less likely to attack-attack-attack every turn, and more likely to keep forces in reserve and maneuver in search of a schwerpunkt.

This approach proved especially fruitful in designing the Age of Alexander expansion, because that Macedonian's victories were so often lopsided and decisive against seemingly impossible (and almost certainly inflated!) odds. The challenge for the Alexander player was often to rout a large number of enemy formations without suffering a single loss themselves. The minute you faltered - the minute your line was broken - that was it, all was lost. The tightrope tension of having a single morale cube made perfect thematic sense in this context.

But not every battle is like that. Some battles find two sides that are more-or-less equally matched. Some battles are a meatgrinder where one side manages to squeak out a victory before collapsing. Some battles don't even have winners at all, but end in a bloody and stubborn stalemate. And in trying to recreate those kinds of battles through the lens of Table Battles, the very things I've been "protecting" against in the first two expansions become thematically relevant: you want to pass those morale cubes back and forth while you watch your formations get whittled down into exhausted stumps, like two boxers that can barely stand trying to land increasingly desperate blows.

That's the feeling of the thing, and that feeling was very much at the forefront of my mind when I decided that the next expansion would take as its subject the second day of Gettysburg. And while some of these engagements were fairly desperate affairs - looking at you, Little Round Top - and used something more akin to the one-two or one-three morale cube splits, we also have things like the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, where the splits are closer to even. It's a little weird, to be designing scenarios that aren't meant to tip early and decisively, but to linger.

It's also more than a little challenging. Because Table Battles is still a twenty minute filler game, the battle should resolve itself in about twenty minutes and can't overstay its welcome. And while I want to get across the feeling of the carnage and the exhaustion, I only want the illusion of stalemate: the match has to have a winner, and that winner has to feel like they did something to achieve it. Sometimes that's because you took your opponent's last morale cube, and sometimes that's because you've denied your opponent's remaining formations any valid targets.

Getting there isn't just a matter of putting more morale cubes in the mix, but also about calibrating the cards. Attacking Formations generally have fewer targets than in other scenarios - thus, they're more likely to run out of gas. There are more Counterattack reactions, making each attack costlier and more likely to result in an even exchange. Many of the Formations have five or more sticks, and a few as many as eight, which gets across that feeling of grinding the enemy down, little by little. And constantly, throughout it all, there's trial and error, slight adjustments, trying to stumble accidentally into the perfect alchemy.

It's a little harder this time around simply because I want something that, on the surface, looks and feels similar to the degenerate game states that the base game could be prone to, without actually devolving into that. There's a thin line between the two, and it feels very much like trying to thread the needle. But that's also what makes it more exciting, and more fulfilling.

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