Over the River and Through the Woods – Table Top Terrain

One subject I’ve thought about (even agonized about) for a long time is terrain and how to best model tabletop terrain and its influence on the rules, combat, visibility, movement and morale. It’s my observation that most wargame tables have far too little terrain. The world is not a billiard table. Yet, if we attempt to model every little irregularity, the table becomes cluttered. The solution is not simple.

First, allow me to digress a little. My initial insight into terrain happened at Gettysburg a long time ago. I had done a college term paper on the battle, and thought I knew a little about the battle. The key word here is ‘little,’ but that’s for another day. Roaming around the battlefield, I was like a kid in candy land; after a while I started to put some of the pieces together and was very proud of myself. A thought came into my mind: I needed to find Cemetery Hill. Having looked at dozens of sketch maps and played both Avalon Hill games, I knew I was looking for a dominant hill. But I looked left and right and saw no dominant hill. Then, noticing some markers where units were deployed, it struck me. I’m standing on Cemetery Hill! Well, I certainly felt foolish. Mister big-shot-scholar didn’t know what Cemetery Hill looked like.

I stood there staring at the fields that Pickett’s men crossed and wondered what was so special about this all-so-gentle rise? Slowly, it came to me. These men would have to cross a very long distance across open fields with nowhere to take cover. Also, if I walked back several paces, I would disappear to the men out in the field. I started to figure out how to model this. Part of the solution was kind of easy, the other part I haven’t figured out a good solution to.

Because of this experience, I developed what I called ‘rises.’ In wargame terms, rises are terrain that blocks line of sight on the same level. They usually give no defensive bonus other than blocking line of sight. Unless you are on higher ground, there is no line of sight across them. Along the same lines, I developed ‘depressions.’ The troops inside a depression are hidden to anyone on the outside unless they are on the edge of the depression or on significantly higher ground.

The second part of this open field dilemma is field of fire. To this day I haven’t figured out a playable rule. The longer you are in the open within the range of guns and cannons, the more hits you’ll take, but like I said, my solutions are so far not acceptable.

Perhaps I digress too much, so let me get back to the main point. In dealing with table-top terrain, I see two related problems: how do you model the physical beauty of the terrain and how do you model its effects? To model the physical beauty is a tradeoff between aesthetics and playability. For some terrain, like steep hill or jungle, as the terrain piece approaches its real world inspiration it becomes harder to use. The model soldiers either will not fit in or fall off the side. Therefore, there is usually a tradeoff between the aesthetics and usability. For me, I try an impressionistic approach. If it reminds you of a jungle then I did my job. but if it looks like a clump of trees maybe I need to work on my jungle a little more.

Great war-game terrain

Great war-game terrain

I like to assume the terrain pieces that we have on the tabletop are the major terrain features that might have an impact on the battle. Other terrain might be assumed to exist but not be shown on the table top. For example, most roads will either be raised or have drainage ditches. If we lined our road with these ditches they might be out of scale and perhaps not look very pleasing. Lately, I just make a rule that, even if not shown, the ditch is there and personnel can get some cover. This certainly doesn’t cover all the problems. I’m sure you have other examples. The rises (as discussed above) in Command Decision: Test of Battle are an example of minor terrain. They block line of sight but give no other benefit.

By biggest terrain gripe is that we allow length-of-the-table fields of fire. In most parts of the real world, unless you are on a hill, it’s pretty difficult to have a line of sight for 3,000 yards. Even in a flat area, there is usually dead ground somewhere within the 3,000 yards. In many of my games, I use 30 inches for maximum line of sight and give 10 or 15 inches for a rise and 20 or 30 inches for a hill.

Now the second part of this terrain dilemma is often more difficult than making the terrain piece. How does the terrain affect the rules? I see four issues: 1. its affect on combat, 2. its affect on visibility, 3. its affect on morale and 4. its affect on movement. Terrain’s affect on combat can be further broken down into hand-to-hand, direct missile or gun fire and indirect fire. Many games combine one or more of these items. This is done for ease of play, brevity and/or simplicity. I don’t want to dive into the minutia of game design and I try never to second guess a designer on how he combines these elements. What works for one approach doesn’t necessarily work for others. In Command Decision: Test of Battle, Frank Chadwick and I included fairly substantial terrain effect rules, but also included is a disclaimer on how not all terrain types are covered and on how not all similar terrain types are the same.

When modeling terrain rules, it should fit the overall rule set. To further explain this, if you have detailed rules, with many modifiers for all types of troops and equipment, then the terrain rules should reflect this. And if you have highly abstract rules for troops and equipment, why have detailed rules for terrain?

One more digression. Many years ago, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a few times a year I would drive to Frank Chadwick’s house in Normal, Illinois. Once I got an hour or so north of Cincinnati, I was in the plains of the American Midwest, which are for the most part pretty flat. As I was driving and looking ahead, the ground seemed pretty flat, with only a few trees lines and farm buildings obstructed my view. But as I got closer, sometime less than a few hundred yards, I noticed folds in the ground that seemed pretty flat a few miles away. Most of these rises and depressions could have hidden men and vehicles, but some could have only hidden men and very low vehicles. By all these observations, I’m convinced that truly flat terrain is not as common as we believe. Yes, we wargamers are a strange breed, driving down a road and trying to figure out the best place to deploy our imaginary armies; at least I wasn’t texting.

Have you ever closely observed a woods? You’ll notice that not all woods or forests are created equal, and the season has a big effect on visibility. During the green seasons, there is usually a curtain of vegetation around most woods, but once inside you can often see further than most rules allow. When the season is not green, this effect is quite diminished. As I stated above, depending on the complexity of the terrain rules, this might be factored.

The Pacific War against the Japanese, especially Guadalcanal, holds a special interest for me. I’m still vexed about jungles and how best to model their effects. Right now, I use the dense forest rules, but I’m not convinced that this is the best way to go. I do have scenario-specific rules and it’s tolerable in game play, but I’m not completely satisfied.

Command Decision: Test of Battle

Command Decision: Test of Battle

Buildings can be an interesting problem, too. In skirmish games, modeling a building is fairly straight forward; however, in larger-scale games, a single model building can be bigger than the scale footprint of a small town or village. Command Decision: Test of Battle models buildings in a very abstract way. It groups buildings and calls these groups ‘built-up-areas’ (BUAs). A normal BUA has 5 sectors, one for each side and a center sector. The reasons for this are clarity, scaling and ease of play. Since the smallest unit in Command Decision: Test of Battle is a platoon, modeling individual buildings didn’t seem to work, and putting 40 or 50 soldiers in one building can be a stretch. But if you group several buildings into a BUA and have that area divided into sectors, there are far fewer arguments about where an individual stand might be. Sure, it’s an abstraction but isn’t that what all rules do? Command Decision: Test of Battle also allows for different sizes and different levels of protection. Some wooden building have just a little protection and hardened concrete or masonry buildings have much greater protection.

Just how easy is it to categorize terrain and then have generic rules that apply to a category regardless of where the terrain might be? It’s not always easy. For example, are all deserts equal? No they are not. Some deserts have rocky soil that is nearly concrete hard, while other deserts are sandy. Forests are different depending on the types of trees. Hills and mountains are different depending on their covering. Is it rocky, or is there soil above the rock? Rivers and streams have different banks depending on their location. Some rivers and streams have steep banks, and others not so much. These are just a few dilemmas in dealing with terrain. Also, the scale of your game might impact the terrain rules. In a skirmish game, the type of forest might matter. In a game at the operational level, this difference might not matter as much. For some scenarios, I’ll have special rules for the unique terrain encountered. This allows me some flexibility without permanently changing the existing rules.

I’ve discussed issues regarding the challenges and solutions to some terrain issues, but there is so much more to discuss and decide. Briefly, terrain should be organic to a game and be neither more or less complicated than the other rules within the game. Wherever possible, the terrain should be esthetically pleasing and be practical for the table top. The table top need not be crowded with terrain, neither should it be barren. When looking at the tabletop, if one has the urge to play the game simply from the look, then the terrain is probably ready. And if the players find the terrain rules compatible with the rest of the rules, that’s all you can hope for.

Posted in: Editorial, Rules, Terrain

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