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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Terrain for Tournaments

A few years ago, I played in a tournament where the table was a tan bed sheet with some pillows underneath it to simulate large, gently sloping sand dunes. Not only was it difficult to decide what units were out of line-of-sight, but almost impossible to determine which ones were concealed by being hull down.  Players spent much of the game, bent over like two angry Quasimodos arguing about which units were visible and which had "sanctuary". To make matters worse, the heavier Battlefront metal and resin models actually sank down into the terrain, allowing their hull-down position to follow them around the board, while lighter plastic models sat fully exposed. (Brand loyalty does have its rewards.) As the futility of playing on this table continued, we started debating if the heavier models needed a bog check to move, as they were constantly moving out of deep holes.  After a few hours of players' complaints, the table was removed from play.

I spend far too much time carefully painting and basing my figs so they will look nice (hence the huge painting queue), so I want to have a table that looks as good as the armies that fight over it. This means making the terrain looking both good and realistic is important to me. Unfortunately, natural terrain does not always fall into the game categories defined in Flames of War, so it becomes necessary to diverge from realism when it begins to interfere with playability.

We also have to accept that Flames of War is not a realistic simulation of World War 2 combat, but is a game that compromises realism for smooth gameplay. During tournaments in particular, we see these historical compromises all the time, such as blue-on-blue matchups, armies clashing in environments that they never fought over (Finns and Soviets in the desert), attackers and defenders always being evenly matched, and attackers or defenders operating in terrain that they would almost always avoid. We accept these fictions as they make the game more playable, so strict adherence to "realistic" terrain actually runs counter to the nature of the game.

For scenarios and historical scenarios the layout of the terrain can already be determined, but for random games and tournaments the requirements can be quite different, so this article will attempt to deal with creating tables for general tournament play. Tournaments that have themes that require extreme or unusual terrain can ignore a lot of this, as the terrain can have as much of an impact on the battle as the armies themselves. A Cassino tournament without sheer cliffs, rugged ridges and nearly uncrossable rivers would not have the elements that defined the battle, and players will build their lists to contend with these challenges.

A tournament should be an even match between players, and not one player fighting an opponent and the table. This not only requires making the terrain fair for the attacker and defender, but also for the various types of lists that players are going to field.  

Like most things in life, this becomes a balancing act -- providing adequate cover for infantry but also lanes of fire for tanks and other long-ranged weapons, some barriers to movement and areas where vehicles can exploit their speed. On top of that, games are fought, side-to-side, end to end, and corner-to-corner across the table, so making terrain work in all directions is important if you don’t want to place one player or the other at a huge disadvantage before the first dice is thrown.

For example, a narrow forest running the entire width of the table on the edge of the defender's deployment zone...

This doesn’t mean that all quarters of the table need to be identical, but each quarter of the table should offer some terrain that benefits each type of list, but should provide this in different proportions. Deciding where a player decides to deploy should not be a completely obvious choice, but each section of the table should present them with a different set of choices about how they will attempt to win the game.

So, with that said, what does a good tournament table need to have?

Make sure that the various terrain features are very easy to understand and have clear borders. Roads, walls and buildings are easy to determine where they begin and end, so determining line of sight, and how they affect movement should be simple. But when building a woods,  just placing a group of trees in a loose clump can look good and realistic, but can often make it hard to figure out where the edge of the woods actually begins. Hills with gentle slopes can be tricky in the same way, as determining what can and cannot be seen often devolves into arguments with both players crouching down (progressively less fun as I get older) and arguing about how much of the tank or infantry stand is actually visible, and debating if the stand where all the figs are standing can be hit, while the stand where they are all lying down cannot.  

The table actually needs to allow the armies to fight. Placing multiple rows of hedges that are slow going and skill checks, unbroken rows of buildings and rubble, rivers that require skill checks to cross, and uncrossable hills will make the players fight the terrain as much as each other, or force all the action into a very tiny portion of a relatively large table. Again, for historical games, certain themed tournaments and specific scenarios, this can be fun, but in a tournament where the table shouldn’t strongly favor either army -- or force the game to be six hours long -- it can be a bad idea.  

When a tournament is themed so that such a table is appropriate, consider adjusting the parameters of the game or terrain accordingly. It might make sense to start the armies closer together or allowing extra time to play, (and providing the players with extra “Bogged Down” markers). Be sure to announce that such tables will be used so players can build lists that can actually fight on that terrain. After that, if a player runs an conscript armored car list on a heavy snow table, it is their own fault when their entire army is bogged by turn three. Still, be sure to provide a number of avenues for players to quickly move into contact with each other.

Don’t link several terrain features together to create a continuous barrier in any direction. If you want to break up the lines of sight, have several layers of blocking terrain that can overlap in such a way to allow movement through the gaps. This still offers good concealment for defenders, but still allows the attackers to move forward with some speed, and not rolling dozens of skill and bog checks each turn.  If you do want these long, linear obstacles, make them run at angles to the deployment zones, so that it is both a challenge and a benefit to both players.

 This arrangement still block LOS, provides good concealment for the defender, and still allows the attacker to move forward without bogging.

 This doesn't really improve the defensive position much, but makes advancing harder as it will be two bog checks and slow going.

 Now the attacker has to make four bog checks just to cross the road, while the defenders don't gain much additional improvement for deployment.

Be sure your gaps between features are of a usable width.  A half-inch gap is rather ambiguous as to what can see, move or shoot through it, while a two-inch gap is not.  If you don’t want a vehicle to be able to pass through a certain gap, it is easier to simply place the terrain features so there is no gap to argue over.

When placing woods, consider placing a piece of fabric under the trees to clearly show where the edge of the woods are.  This should drastically reduce the number of arguments about who is concealed by the woods and who is not, and when you need to start rolling for bog checks.  Also it means that a player can move the trees around to facilitate moving or placing vehicles within the woods without changing the location of the woods.  Ents are the only woods that should move during the game.
So, do I roll bog checks or not?
Yes, you are clearly in the woods.

For playability don’t permanently affix trees to the the terrain, as it makes moving vehicles hard, and harder to use the artillery templates.  If you do want to have the trees affixed to the terrain, consider making them removable (with holes in the terrain base or magnets) so that players can move them when necessary, but can replace them afterwards.

City tables look great, and can make for fun and challenging games, but can be problematic in tournaments as many players might field lists not designed for fighting in urban areas, and infantry fights in lots of bulletproof cover can take many turns to resolve.   This is not to say that built up areas should be omitted, but they should be balanced out with parts of the table that offer freedom of movement and clear lines of sight, such as parks, wide boulevards and plazas, or that the city only covers a part of the table.  Large buildings can be tricky as they are often divided into several rooms and many floors, which can complicate lines of sight and movement.  Issues like spotting and shooting from the middle of -- or back of -- a building need to be determined as well as deciding how units fighting between different rooms and floors need to be handled.  If the TO wants players on a specific table to use the City Fight rules, it should be stated in the tournament description ahead of time, so players can review them before the day of the tournament.

With the objective in the church tower, only the mighty Jumbo was tall enough to contest.

Rivers present their own challenges as they can extend across the entire table, and really place the attacker and certain kinds of list at a severe disadvantage. As a general rule our gaming group has found that providing at least three crossing points (bridges or fords) that do not require a bog check give the attacker a good chance of success. Making the river itself slow going or slow going with a bog check, makes the river a piece of terrain that must be dealt with, but not such a challenge the it unbalances the game.

If you want to use non-standard terrain features, feel free to create a sheet showing how to play these features. Be sure to note if the feature blocks line of sight, provides concealment and provides bulletproof cover.  Dikes, olive groves, certain kinds of rubble and hills can be played many ways, so a sheet outlining how to play them on your table can simplify things for the players.

Terrain chart courtesy of Chris Fretts.
Remember that every table outside of a completely featureless plain will have terrain features that are open to different interpretations, so it is always up to the players to discuss how they want to handle the terrain before every game, or ask their opponent “Am I concealed here?” when it is not clearly defined. This is especially important as different clubs often treat the same terrain types in very different ways. I can think of at least three different ways I have played crop fields in just the past year.

Making a table fun is also the responsibility of the players using the table, as well as the person setting up the terrain, so some compromise on terrain that could unbalance the game might be necessary. I'm not suggesting that if the attacker is a tank list, that the buildings no longer require skill checks to enter -- but maybe not EVERY road is blocked by rubble. If a board has a broad river with only one bridge, the defender should consider making the river slow going and/or a bog check, instead of impassable or multiple skill checks to cross, in order to give the attacker a chance. The river will still present problems for the attacker, but it doesn't make the game unwinnable. If the table is a heavy snow table with no roads, it won’t be a fun game for the attacker when he can’t even reach the objectives by turn six. If the tournament is themed where such tables are expected, than play it as intended by the TO, but in an open tournament where any combination of lists and terrain is possible, be willing to compromise for a better gaming experience for both players.

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