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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Counter Culture: Treehugging

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All used up? (Revolt in the East is an excellent, quick playing game, by the way.)

Once the counters of a wargame are punched and clipped, what does one do with the remaining tree, denuded of all its counters?

Now, before you answer, recall that we’re talking about wargamers here, people who willingly spend hours moving small pieces of cardboard from hex to hex or space to space according to rules both simple and arcane. Specifics matter to wargamers—it has to be la bonne pi├Ęce, no other will do. Completeness and accuracy in all regards are grails to wargamers.

So, the obvious answer, that one throws away the now-empty and useless counter tree, is not necessarily the correct answer, because the counter tree, whether laden or barren, is still a part of the game. On those occasions when a punched and played game is sold or bartered, can you honestly say it’s complete without including the counter trees?

Well, yes, you can, and I stopped hugging my trees a few years back, though I confess that when I sold my punched Star Fleet Battles collection about a decade ago, I included all the empty trees, some fifteen or so. And I bet the recipient appreciated them, even as he tossed them promptly into the trash.

I’ve never received an empty counter tree when I’ve purchased a punched game, so perhaps I’m an aberration in this regard. Am I the only wargamer who ever kept his trees?

Counter Culture: Clipping Counters

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Continuing our examination of the physical culture of wargaming, we turn to counter clipping, that near-ritual compulsion some gamers have with trimming the nibs and bits off the sides of their counters to create a semblance of neatness and uniformity.

Before and After

Even though die cutting has become much more precise in recent years, with sharp blades and clean cuts leading to some publishers shipping games that have counters literally falling off the trees before the game is even opened for the first time, almost all counters still have some connective material remaining after they are punched or cut from the countersheet. Removing this connective material is the goal of counter clipping.

Ideally, these “sprues” are situated on the counter corners, as in the example above, where they can be easily removed, and most publishers today use this method. Some publishers, though, still insist on diecutting in such a way that the sprues are located at counter centers, making for a difficult removal process. The late and lamented Avalon Hill’s countersheets were typically center mounted in this way—though they occasionally were sufficiently misaligned that the diecuts wound up on the corner anyway.

Given the costs associated with purchasing dies, or the need to use whatever the contract die cutter has on hand, I can understand why some publishers remain with a center cut, but I feel that such cuts detract from the finished product. You can always tell where a center cut nib once was, even if you do manage to remove it somehow.

And why do people clip counters?
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