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?

The image above depicts three maps of the same traditional 22″ x 34″ size: at bottom, the paper map from The Gamers/MMP‘s Rock of the Marne; in the middle, the ultra-thick, or deluxe, map from GMT‘s Twilight Struggle; and at the top, the mounted map from Lock ‘n’ Load‘s World at War: Blood and Bridges.

Most contemporary publishers still rely on the classic paper map, printed directly on thick stock paper with some degree of gloss. Very few modern wargames are printed on matte paper. Paper maps take up very little volume when folded, allowing for games with multiple maps and for magazines with wargames in them, like ATO and the venerable S&T. Because paper maps are lightweight, some wargamers have gone so far as to hang them on the wall like a poster, in front of a thin sheet of metal. They then place the counters in magnet-backed counter holders and play the game on the wall, saving space, giving their homes that “command post” feeling, and preventing them from mating, most likely.

Paper maps don’t tend to lie flat, though, and need to be either smoothed out or held in place, most often with plexiglass. If you’re visiting someone and see random sheets of plexiglass in various sizes strewn about, you’ve found either a wargamer or perhaps just an amateur aquarium builder. Paper maps also suffer from wear at the fold corners and along the creases, and they are susceptible to liquid damage and tears from poor treatment.

The latest trend in wargame maps is the deluxe style, also known as Starter Kit style from the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits that they appear in. These maps are printed directly on a very thick stock of paper that verges on cardboard thickness. They retain most of the lightness that paper maps have while providing a bit more heft and an impression of value. The benefit seems mostly psychological to me, since, as the image above demonstrates, large deluxe style maps would still need to be placed under plexiglass to provide a flat playing surface. Smaller deluxe style maps like those currently being produced for ASL don’t really require plexiglass, but they still benefit from it.

I suppose that they wear a bit better than paper maps, and for games that see frequent use, like ASL or Twilight Struggle, this thicker style of map will pay long-term dividends. But for games that will need to be set up for longer periods of play under plexiglass and won’t be folded and unfolded frequently, I can’t see the benefit of a thicker map style.

As an aside, in the 1980’s, Mayfair Games began publishing wargames with maps printed on very thick cardboard, thicker than a normal deluxe map and almost as thick as most mounted maps. Most interestingly, these maps were quasi-geomorphic and could be connected to one another to form different map configurations like a very simple jigsaw puzzle, as in these maps from Hammer’s Slammers:

Tab A goes in Slot 4, unless you're playing Scenario 7, in which case flip over Board C until Tab 9 is facing east.

In the currently competitive wargame marketplace, declaring that you’re shipping your game with mounted maps is a selling point, a means of differentiating your game from all the other games out there, a way to get someone unfamiliar with your company to take a chance on your product. Mounted still has a cachet of quality, and there is a visceral pleasure in opening up a properly mounted map like the one pictured above from the newly released Blood and Bridges.

A mounted map’s biggest benefit is that it lies flat, obviating the need to stick it under plexiglass. Mounted maps also have cuts in them to allow them to fold compactly, and these cuts prevent the crease wear symptomatic of paper maps.

On the negative side, mounted maps are heavy, and on the ASL tournament circuit, many people have switched to laminated paper maps from the normal mounted ASL maps; given that there are more than fifty maps in the game, hauling a full kit of mounted maps to a tournament becomes a hobby for the young played by the not-so-young. When MMP made the decision to switch to deluxe maps for future geomorphic ASL maps, they were greeted by a fair hue and cry, though, as more than anything, gamers clamor for standardization, but most ASL’ers seem to have made their peace with the switch and many have ponied up the pre-order money for a complete set of deluxe, Starter Kit style geomorphic maps.

Also, mounted maps can warp if not properly stored, and it tends to take more than a thin sheet of translucent plastic to settle down a warped mounted map. Mounted maps, if not properly manufactured, can also have ridges at the fold lines, and the paper there can become torn if care is not taken.

While I appreciate a mounted map, they do add to the cost of an already expensive product, so I don’t know that the benefits outweigh the costs for me in most circumstances. I already have the gear needed to use a paper map—a sheet of plexiglass costs less than a mounted map adds to a wargame, I’d wager, and I can use the plexiglass for many games and for many years, until the tweezer scuffing gets to be distracting. Still, to see wargames being released again with mounted maps is a boon sign for the hobby, that publishers have to compete for our attention with quality products.

And, of course, there is a fourth type of map for wargamers, that on the computer screen, exerting a strong attraction with its ever-flat map and virtual weightlessness, but, as I’ve attempted to show, the physical aspect of wargaming should keep the hobby alive and well for some time to come. So invest in the stock of any company that makes or sells plexiglass and you should be fine.

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