[Meta Gaming] A Battlefield Is Love

The starting point for this was a question on Classichammer.com about how many terrain pieces people use and how they’re generated.

I don’t actually have a say in my terrain setup very often. I’m usually booking tables at one of those large wargaming venues that have sprung up on industrial estates around the UK within the last decade, and the boards are set up by staff members in the morning before either player arrives.

We generally tweak positions (to create lanes through which units can actually move) or angles (to create opportunities for dynamic play, or rather to eliminate borehammer by forcing choices).
For example:

The first Battle of Point Lestroud. This table was set up for us by the boys at Atlantic Games in Stroud, before I’d figured out how to hide the venue names in the report titles quite so well or learned that horizontal photos are best for blogs.

For the second Battle of Point Lestroud we nudged all the walls to 45 degree angles instead of parallel with the deployment zone.

This is something I picked up from Warmachine, where there are game-changing defensive bonuses to be achieved from being on hills and behind walls (as in “you may literally not be able to hit or hurt certain models if they stack DEF or ARM bonuses high enough, good luck if that’s their ‘caster or they’re on an objective!”).

A wall parallel to the deployment area creates a safe zone for whatever’s behind it, discouraging dynamic play, a wall at 45 degrees to it is more interesting as units can take cover in one direction but have to expose a flank in another. It’s really apparent in rank and flank games where the angle of approach matters so much, and the second game was so much spicier as a consequence.

This isn’t to say that weird “fight at an angle across the field” battles are always Good and solid defences are always Bad. This one’s the grand battle at Caerwysg, the big 6000 point game I played back in 2019. I got to set this one up but it had to be with the limited collection of fantasy/historical scenery that had been brought to the venue by attendees.

Here, the terrain has been deliberately arranged so that the Dogs of War army has something to stand behind – defended obstacles across almost the whole zone. We did this on purpose so that they wouldn’t be swept away by 6000 points of oncoming vampire filth before their Bretonnian reinforcements arrived (it was a mashup Flank Attack/Capture scenario because neither of us wanted to count Victory Points in a game this big).

Those obstacles were a huge factor in the Dogs holding out for as long as they did (although we did misplay the extended rounds of combat across them). It took me five turns to get my elite units across them and I lost most of said units doing it. That led to a wonderfully tense end turn where the Bretonnians could sweep the field but only the Green Knight could actually reach the Capture objective and kill Mannfred von Carstein – with Mannfred dead there’d be more Bretonnian than Vampire points on the mark and it’d be game for the good guys.

This is what I want out of my Warhammer – a game that goes the distance and is worth playing right to the end – and where possible I tweak the terrain I’m given to enable it.

Sometimes opportunities are missed due to a lack of communication. This table was set for me at Firestorm Games in Cardiff for the battles at Tor Caerdydd: I came up with the “ruined city” narrative entirely based on walking in and finding this monstrosity already set up.

If I’d know about this in advance I’d have advocated for a scenario from the General’s Compendium – the one that’s basically about fighting in the Emyn Muil from Middle Earth – because you don’t often get a battlefield that’s this busy with one feature type without setting it up on purpose.

In theory we could ask for something specific from the venues but a) most of them have way, way more 40K terrain than anything suitable for WFB and b) I’m still getting other players on board with my “curate as much of the experience as possible” shtick.

It’s one of the reasons I like the Warhammer: Resurrection events so much, because Alex is on my wavelength and sets up tables that represent areas of the campaign map and puts thought into the kind of engagement that should happen there.

One day I will get back onto the deep forest table…

Is there a “takehome” from all this? I think it’s that “how many pieces?” is less important than “what kind of game experience are you trying to create here?” – answering that question will give you an idea of what to do with what’s available. If it’s just a pick-up game between pals then “what the venue’s left us with” is fine, but as ever I aspire to something a bit more shared and controlled.

17 thoughts on “[Meta Gaming] A Battlefield Is Love

  1. Ive very much come into the mindset of a themed board with lots of terrain looks better. This is probably driven by my enjoyment of the 3rd Ed Perry dioramas in WD (this helped when setting up the show game for our club). I think the ruleset can also impact on terrain. As much as I dislike a lot of the 8th Ed fantasy terrain rules (or perhaps the true LOS), the removal of a lot of the movement penalties did mean that you could happily place woods etc in the middle of the board without really impeding the game and allowed nicer boards in general.


    1. This might be an unpopular opinion but I think terrain in the middle of the board should “impede” – or rather shape and direct – the play going on in and around it.

      That was the point of the wall tweaking at Point LeStroud, and it’s also why I remember Wrong Turn on the Road to Zavastra (yes, I’m going to namedrop as many of my own battle reports as I can here!) – because that was a street fight with a large cavalry army involved. One could argue that the concentration of buildings there was an impediment to Niklaus’ fast-but-fragile Kislevites, but I should like to note that I’m the one who had to make a dodgy wheel around a building and ended up showing a flank that copped a bad charge, so we both felt the pain there.

      With Warhammer the movement penalties are so strict and the rules for buildings so exploitable that people just stay out of the terrain for the sake of a quiet life, but I think that’s a call to reintroduce Loose Order from the Lustria book or something similar. The game needs a little more depth in terms of battlefield discipline anyway. If I could be bothered to make one big sweeping house ruled change to post-Kirby Warhammer it would be to introduce a split Courage / Discipline stat instead of Leadership, with Discipline tied to things like “swift reform” and “not be march blocked” and “break formation to move through terrain”.

      It’s telling that I play Wood Elves and Vampire Counts, with units that enjoy freer than average movement on all or some units, though. I do need to factor that in to my stance on terrain. And also that the River of Light was the last straw in my ability to give a toss about eighth edition: “oh, you rolled a thing that makes everything in my army implode if they touch it, that’s quality gameplay that is.” I don’t even mind the rule, it’s that it sprung out of nowhere instead of (all together now!) being curated by players aware of what they’re doing and why.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also like terrain that is more meaningful (and I’m not talking about the terrible magic terrain rules in 8th – I may really like that Ed but I could not stand that magical garbage. Why can a river not be just a river. I could probably write a full discourse on this. In an edition that general tried to streamline areas, they really screwed that area up. I think my major dislike might be showing here 😁). I did like that woods impeded movement in prev editions. Half movement might be too much but perhaps the inability to march. Definitely that it should block line of sight. I actually prefer how Kings of War deal with line of sight with unit types and terrain having set heights and that dictates what can see over each. But I digress.

        I was also a fan of when they had the 4 stats pre-4th, though it’s stretching my memory at the minute to remember them all. I was chatting a few weeks back with one of my regular opponents about how we’d also like leadership split out in TOW. Here’s hoping 🤞


      2. The fourth “personal characteristic” was Fellowship, largely irrelevant on a Fantasy Battlefield but pretty integral to Fantasy Roleplaying.

        “You can’t march in a wood” has always felt like an acceptable compromise to me, too.

        Kings of War taking a rigorous and mechanistic “pure game” approach to something Warhammer hedges and fudges its way through due to mixed motivations? You’ll be telling me next it’s Christmas.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One of these days, I’ll play some games with some form of narrative. One day.

    In the meantime, I have, for as long as I can remember, tried to tell some sort of story with the scenery in my games. Mostly ‘this is a settlement, with roads and fenced off gardens’, or ‘this is the ruins of a temple’, or something like that.

    (I really want to do something set at a brewery now. The McDeath scenario with Nessie and the cart of booze is in my head…)


    1. If was playing at a store, and there’s scenery out, and it’s just been plonked out randomly, then I’m going to rearrange it to tell some sort of story. (Or say what I’m thinking, and invite the opponent to do the organising of it, so as to not consciously or subconsciously optimise it for my army.)


    2. Even that beats the “grab whatever off the shelf” method, or the sort of thing random generation can wreak.

      Battlefields with implied context can be all it takes. I don’t want to suggest that, for instance, the saga of Lord Ruthven is painstakingly worked out in novelistic detail – it’s every pick up game that I a) remember and b) can massage into some sort of coherent order, and that’s all there is to it. Scenarios and contextual boards help me do that but I don’t want to pretend for a moment that I’m engineering something here. My guiding principle – and it applies to my RPG characters as well – is to keep things open so new incidents and details can emerge organically and be added retroactively as play develops. Backstory, as observed before, is playing with yourself.

      The Deadwood Covenant are the first army I’ve had with a story built in at the start, and Resurrection is the first time I’ve actually set out to advance that with consequences that stick. As I send more and more Asrai to their deaths with every engagement, this is becoming an issue. You can’t get away with the same suspension of disbelief when you’re not playing Undead, and when casualties actually matter.


      1. I’ve been fiddling around with RPG characters in recent years. In D&D in particular, having a lot of backstory for a character just makes me feel “so why is this obviously experienced dude only level 1?”

        Something like Shadowrun, you can start with a lot of skills already developed, which feels better for building a bit of backstory. Pick A for skills, E for cash, “character has a history and skills, but has fallen on hard times and/or foul of someone/thing powerful, and is in the shadows out of desperation”.


      2. I think with the elfs, you can say that your dudes were rendered combat ineffective rather than killed. Or they ran away. You could dice for it. You could decree that your characters are only at risk of permanent death if it’s a sufficiently epic death on table. Poked by spearmen? He’s wounded, combat ineffective, and was pulled away to safety. Run down after routing with a unit? He’s going to need undergarments, but got away and is still alive. Smashed to paste and soul claimed by Archeron? He’s dead, and his twin brother is coming looking for (probably ineffectual) revenge!


      3. I keep wanting to do something with a narrative, but need to play something consistently to get that happening.

        I did play in a small 7TV not-triffids-honest apocalypse a bit before lockdown. That was fun. Had a group of 80s detectives and (away from home) South Wales police trying to rescue royal family members and escape London to the Isle of Man, while other players ran their own survivor stories, and the GM ran the plant hordes. They had names and everything (senior officer was Julia Welldone).


      4. RPG backstory: But, even if you’re building an experienced character, yeah, it feels that backstory should be broad strokes so that it can be potentially explored in-game.

        One D&D character I was fiddling with, background was that he was a merchant, who’d been in charge of a family trading ship, which had sunk with just character and one other survivor. The other survivor blames the character for what happened, and the family have kicked him out in disgrace for wrecking their ship. And that’s most of the detail I’ve gone into. So, what happened, whether he’s actually to blame, the situation with the family, rectifying or escalation of the situation, a nemesis in the other survivor, all available to explore in-game. Or not.

        (Maybe one day I’ll actually get to play that character…)


      5. My brain’s going to dribble out of my nose replying to all of those…

        Re: backstory, it’s not even a question of how experienced the dude is; it’s about playing with yourself vs. playing with other people. If your character’s parents are dead and he’s already avenged his murdered wife and kidnapped daughter who turned out to be Well Evil now and pledged himself to the lonely life of the holy avenger and become an alcoholic, in a twenty page document you hand to the GM before you’ve even started playing, what the hell are you going to do during the game? There’s nothing there for people to interact with – everything cool about you has already happened before the other players even met you.

        What you’ve done with your Shadowrun example there is more reasonable. Backstory that fits in a Tweet, please. Current Vampire has a very good method focused on life events and profession and how you get your blood of an evening, which sadly doesn’t get used much because it’s not spelled out in the two page summary that people actually have time to read. I revamped a bunch of my characters that way and it’s really sorted them out as people.

        As a case in point, let’s talk about Alistair, my shameful shameful STPC (it’s fine the players wanted a Mentor). I can tell you a lot about him – how his parents died, where he went to school, what he’s been to jail for (both times), who was his master when he was a ghoul, what made him snap and how he grew a political conscience, where he retired to and why it took him so long to actually become An Vampire – and I can tell you that NOW because I’ve been playing as the old fart since 2017. But all that stuff has been made up as players have asked about it. He started out as “vampire Malcolm Tucker, that’s a laugh” and quickly evolved into “Guy Ritchie baddie as played by Peter Capaldi, high key loves his daughter, low key hates his work.”

        Re: combat ineffective, the Maven died in a challenge on her very first outing so I don’t know if “epic” is necessarily a good yardstick. I killed her in the Resurrection campaign because the dice said so and frankly after two complete stompings she deserved it. It’s more the line troops that I’m worried about – even accounting for injuries and retreats as alternative definitions of “casualty”, they’ve been BADLY mauled up. I think I should just start winning more.


  3. Having linear terrain running parallel to the table edge seems to work in Bolt Action and Konflikt 47. Infantry tends to get get murdered or pinned down and combat ineffective if in the open, so working up the table via linear obstacles tends to be useful. And the scenarios tend to encourage “get it done, regardless of the losses”, so staying put, unless you’re actually defending, loses you the game. (Also, you’ve got tools to remove infantry from cover, such as SMG assaults, mortars, flamethrowers, and whacking great howling things that will rip you limb from limb if you don’t displace at the right time.)

    But, that’s not Warhammer. :-)


    1. I wonder if that’s anything to do with the historical basis (for Bolt Action, anyway) – “we want to encourage historically viable tactics,” says the Writer of Rules, “so we should build rules that enable them.” Rather than, well, whatever the hell happened with Warmahordes that made “wall on a hill” the most powerful asset your army could hope for (I put it down to players getting smart and the increasing focus on area control scenarios over caster kills, myself).

      Interesting point of order, anyway.


      1. Yeah, you’re right, it’s going to be absolutely to try and encourage historically viable tactics.

        The wall on the hill should be the ultimate in (historically-based) defensive tech, surely. You build your fort on a hill to make it as difficult as possible to attack it, so, that that situation is reflected in the game rules does make sense. That also means that it should never happen on a ‘balanced’ Hordemachine table. (Unless someone has Rock Wall spell (Gorten, Gunnbjorn1, Baldur2, Cyrenia) to plonk one down on a bare hill anyway.)

        (I had it in my head that I could just say ‘Airburst’ or ‘Earth Spikes’ in Hordemachine, and ignore both wall and hill. However, now I’ve checked, both ignore cover, but neither of those ignores the elevation bonus.)


      2. Fair, but it’s not particularly fun looking at your dice and looking at DEF and ARM approaching 20 on a multiple wound target and thinking “even if I can land this hit it won’t do anything”. I get that’s how you win at wargames – leaving your opponent with no choices that actually affect the outcome – but it doesn’t *succeed* at wargames by making the game worth getting out of bed and putting on trousers for. If I wanted to be miserable about my lack of choices with viable outcomes I’d stay at home and apply for a mortgage.


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