Counter Culture: Table Talk

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.