Counter Culture: Table Talk

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It’s been a long day at the game convention. You’ve been slinging dice (into an approved randomizing container, of course—no free rolling!) since the hotel opened the breakfast buffet and you grabbed a cup of weak, luke-warm coffee for sustenance. Fatigue sets in. You’ve barely even touched the fast food lunch begrudgingly procured hours earlier, because the front must be stabilized, the salient flattened, the hole in the line plugged. The game must go on!

But you’re beat. No, not on the table—because of it.

No examination of the physical culture of board wargaming could be complete without touching upon, well, that upon which said board rests: the table. Having the proper platform for your game makes a huge difference in the experience of that game. All other ergonomic considerations flow from the table being used.

Tables before the storm

Conventions in particular are notorious for poor tables, from a gaming perspective. The traditional conference center table runs narrow and long, and even pushing two together barely provides enough space while compounding problems by putting a seam in the middle. The better joints at least drape the double-tables with tablecloths to attempt to even out the surface. Throw in the straight-backed chairs typically provided and convention gaming, for all of its joys, can prove an exercise in endurance.

When the opportunity recently arose for me to get a new gaming table, then, I had to stop and ponder: what makes a good board wargaming table?

It all comes down to dimensions, enforced by the “standard” wargame map that runs 22″ x 34″ and has for decades, itself a multiple of the standard US Letter size and known in the trade as ANSI D.

A standard two map game with the maps arranged side-by-side would need 44″ in length and 34″ in width; or 68″ in length and 22″ in width running lengthwise. Throw in at least a few inches on either side and you need a table that’s, say 72″ x 36″, or 6 feet by 3 feet. Because it’s not just maps—you’ve got charts, counters in Planos, a dice tower, tweezers, rulebooks, a handy-dandy-counter-corner-rounder, plus a bit of personal space in front of you.

Sadly, though, tables don’t tend to come in similarly standardized sizes. Plenty of long enough but too narrow options—convention specials—can be found, and there are pricey options that run a fair bit wider with appropriate length. But reaching the middle of the map can be a problem if the table goes too wide. It’s the Goldilocks problem.

Escaped from the basement

Aesthetic considerations of course should apply. I’ve seen some hand-built tables that work wonderfully from a space perspective but have all the charm of an exploded sawmill, not to mention oddly sited under-table rods and bars and box stretchers and usually a skirt that will jam someone’s knee by the end of a gaming session. For a dedicated gaming basement (and those with them are deserving of our envy and praise), a rough-hewn table will work, but I prefer a bit more savoir faire (or at least fewer splinters).

Table height also plays a role, though a more personalized one. Being on the taller side, I wanted a desk high enough not to have to hunch over, which offers the additional benefit of being usable from a standing position. That different perspective helps sometimes in seeing the whole picture, plus it’s always good to stand.

Perfect for me

In the end, I didn’t quite find my dream table, at least not at a price not approaching a late-model used car. But I got close, finally choosing the IKEA Bjursta dining room table. The width is just a bit too narrow, coming in at a hair over 33 inches, but the length is extendable out to 86 inches, ample room for all the charts and rules I could ever need—and I say that as a devotee of Advanced Squad Leader.

I figure I can hold up the end of the map that runs over the back of the table with file folders tucked underneath, and it’s rare that designers use the very edges of the map anyway. A compromise, for sure, but given the adjustable length and the price, one I can live with, particularly since I plan on using the table mostly for solitaire gaming and don’t need to worry about someone sitting on the other side of the jury-rigged map that often.

The skirt comes down a tad far on the Bjursta, so I picked up some furniture risers to add about four inches, giving me plenty of leg room while sitting and putting the surface at a nice height for use while standing. In all, a pleasantly attractive workhorse of a table.

It is an IKEA table, so I expect it will show a bit of wear before too long, but I anticipate keeping it covered with wargame maps and plexiglass for the foreseeable future, hiding any blemishes caused by overeager dice rolling. Still, it’s the little things—or, in this case, the six-and-a-half foot long things—that make all the difference, and I think this new table will add more than a bit of enjoyment to an already enjoyable hobby.

Counter Culture: Rounding the Corner

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I’ve long been a proponent of the view that much of the pleasure derived from paper and chit wargaming comes from the physical culture of the games, from interacting with the games rather than actually playing the games themselves. Most wargames are not ready to play out of the box: they require some effort on the part of the players to prepare them, most often punching the die-cut counters out of their trees.

Unclipped Counter. The horror!

While some publishers have made great strides towards the “punchless” countersheet, notably Legion Wargames, whose “Easy Punch” counters pretty much fall out of the trees owing to some extreme die-cutting, the vast majority of counters come with a stubborn attachment to their sprues. Once the counters are punched (preferably, cut out via hobby knife), they still exhibit nibs and bits on the corners—or, in some egregious cases, along the counter sides—where they were held to the counter tree and to each other.

Take our Climb 2 counter here, from Avalon Hill/Multi-Man Publishing’s Advanced Squad Leader. These don’t come out of the Plano very often, so perhaps one could be excused for dropping this counter, with its ragged, uneven edges, onto a game board. And indeed, there is a minor schism in the hobby between those who tend to these nibs, the clippers, and those who do not. I’ve examined the reasons to clip or trim counter corners in the past, and I am unabashedly in the clipping camp, for aesthetic reasons as well as practical reasons.

My tool of choice for years was a trusty hobby knife with easily replaceable blade. I’m minimalist in my trimming, trying to strike a balance between uniform counters and taking off as little of the existing counter as possible. Some people swear by nail clippers (hence, “clipping” counters), but they’ve always taken a bit more off than I prefer, and they strike me as being a bit imprecise. And don’t even get me started on counter clipping jigs. Clipping counters should not be a mass production project, even when one has thousands of counters to process—I like to examine the counters as I clip, particularly for operational level games with much variation between units.

But, after a recent trimming extravaganza to get a game ready for a wargaming convention, I was about ready to join the non-clipping camp. Four hundred counters, four trims per counter. Blah. That’s a lot of knife work, I made some poor trims towards the end, and my fingers cramped all day thereafter. Surely a better method exists?

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Counter Culture: Cards Up My Sleeves

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Maps? Under plexiglass. Counters? Punched, neatly clipped, and sorted. Rules? Appended with the latest errata from online. Cards? Er, cards?

Cards in wargames are nothing new, of course. As far back as 1974, Avalon Hill released a pair of games, 1776 and Kingmaker, that used cards to control battle tactics or introduce variability and randomness. Our friends in Baltimore also brought us the first of the “card-driven” games, 1994’s We the People. The “card-driven” mechanic, whereby players select cards from a hand to enable actions or trigger events, has spawned hundreds of imitators and innovators. Still other wargames are more than just card-driven—they’re functionally card games, like Avalon Hill’s Up Front (1983) and Attack Sub (1991).

So what’s a gamer to do with all these cards? Why, sleeve them in plastic, of course.

All Sleeved Up

But why does one sleeve cards?

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Counter Culture: Counters as Tools

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In our continuing examination of the physical culture of wargaming, we should stop and consider the typical wargame counter:

Unit Counters

It is a representation, a stand-in. It denotes a particular kind of force or unit or grouping manipulable by the player. People argue all day, in places where such things matter, about using representational figures or NATO symbols or made-up icons to depict different types of units, about whether the first number on a counter should be attack value or armor thickness or movement points.

Or perhaps the counter is a status marker, a chit that provides information about the state of the game—broken, suppressed, mired, impassable, out of ammo, out of control. Here be there trenches, dug into the map:

Status Counters

Standard semiotics stuff. Counters are signifiers. This is not a half-inch square of cardboard—this is a platoon of T-64s that has suffered damage but remains battle-ready. Nothing new here.

But in some games, counters also serve as tools to enhance gameplay beyond merely standing in for some object or state that the game wishes to portray.

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Counter Culture: In the Kingdom of the Board

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Any ludological taxonomy that classifies games by physical features will contain an order, or perhaps a phylum, based on the presence of a pre-defined playing surface—a play mat, a tableaux, or, more simply, a board. Consider it Gamerus non-computericum meepleopile boardiferous. Indeed, boards give their name to this part of the gaming hobby as a whole, boardgaming, even when said games form their “boards” via tile or card placement.

For many people, particularly non-gamers, the board in a boardgame is literally a board, a thick piece of cardboard, usually with a single fold down the middle, with a paper playing surface glued or, less often, printed on top of it. The expectation when opening a boardgame is that you will find such a playing surface.

For wargamers, particularly contemporary wargamers—and wargaming is a genus within boardgaming—the opposite holds true: our boards tend to be printed directly onto heavy stock paper, not mounted to a board. (Wargamers tend to refer to boards as maps, as they most often depict terrain, either actual or abstract.)

Back in board wargaming’s first turn, though, Avalon Hill, the Standard Oil of wargaming, prided itself on producing wargames with mounted maps, only late in their existence switching to paper maps for some games. By contrast, their main competitors in the 1970’s and 1980’s, SPI and GDW, produced games almost exclusively with paper maps. Economically, paper maps are cheaper to print, lighter to ship, less bulky to package, and eliminate the tricky mounting process. As wargaming became more and more a niche market into the 1990’s, mounted wargame maps all but disappeared, showing up in the slow trickle of Advanced Squad Leader modules and not much else.

Modern printing methods and the much-debated resurgence of the wargaming hobby have seen contemporary wargamers spoiled for choice, with three types of maps available—paper, “deluxe,” and mounted:

Paper, deluxe, or mounted?

How do these three types of maps stack up?

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Counter Culture: Plucky Behavior

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Total invested time: fifty-two hours. You and your opponent have been meeting regularly for weeks, massing forces, maintaining supply lines, conducting feints and probes. The counters are stacked nine high on the front, a veritable skyline of towering units. Finally, the time for the attack arrives.

Up goes the balloon, out comes the calculator to figure the crucial odds. You reach in to examine a stack, making sure you have enough factors to turn the vital tide; and whether it’s the coffee or the lack thereof, the beer or the surplus therein, your hand shakes. And, in slow motion . . .

A different kind of disaster at Caporetto.

Stack tumbles stack tumbles stack. An errant jitter bugs out all that work. The front is in disarray, counters everywhere. Was the Italian 30th Rifle in 4508 or 4509? Did I have a trench line in that hex or the one over? Was Eugen close enough to influence the battle? A victory lost, indeed.

Tweezers, my friends, tweezers are the answer.
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