Counter Culture: Counters as Tools

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

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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Blogging Bowie: Winter Offensive 2009 Liveblog

MMP LogoAs he did last year, Keith Dalton of Multi-Man Publishing will be liveblogging Winter Offensive [link dead], MMP’s annual tournament, held in bucolic Bowie, Maryland. This year’s iteration runs from Thursday, January 15 through Sunday, January 18.

Keith did a nice job last year of allowing those of us unable to attend this Advanced Squad Leader tournament to vicariously participate, covering the release of new products and the general vibe of the tourney, and I look forward to following his reports this year.

And if you can make it in person, it’s worth the trip. In addition to ASL action, there’s limited open gaming during the day (mostly from MMP’s Gamer and International lines) and extensive Euro/multi-player gaming at night. Add to that a raffle, with proceeds benefiting Lou Gehrig’s disease research, a massive pizza feast on Saturday night, and designers and developers of MMP’s upcoming releases hawking their designs, and you’ve got one of the gaming highlights of the Metro DC area every year.

Counter Culture: Clipping Counters

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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Liveblogging Winter Offensive

Keith Dalton of Multi-Man Publishing is liveblogging Winter Offensive [link dead], MMP’s annual game convention currently underway in Bowie, Maryland.

Focusing mostly on Advanced Squad Leader, which MMP publishes, WO has expanded in recent years to include gamers playing games from the Gamers’ various series as well (say that five times fast). And there are always late-night sessions of Euros and multi-player games that in recent years I came to enjoy more than the ASL itself.

WO is always a great convention, and they’re getting the traditional WO snow, so I wish them luck up there. Looking forward to live updates from the spacious Comfort Inn!