Saturday 15 December 2012

Terrain and Rules

I have written a fair bit about terrain, and how I can try to make the terrain items on my table match both the figure scale and the ground scale of the rules. Sitting making and painting the said terrain items has given me a bit of time to ponder the importance of the terrain for the wargame. In short, the question is ‘what is the impact on the game of the terrain?’

Now, as I noted before, terrain items work at various different levels within a wargame. In a historical setting (or, I suppose, a pseudo-historical setting, like Fuzigore) the items are added to lend some verisimilitude to the wargame. The buildings are expected to look like the ‘real thing’, and so I have been painting roundhouses and granaries rather than getting on with figure painting. Of course, the problem of the scale and size of the buildings rears its head here, but there are work around to it.

In a purely historical battle, of course, the terrain needs to match, as closely as possible, the original battle terrain. At a show a few years ago there was a demonstration game of the battle of Lutzen. The features of the battlefield of Lutzen included the town and castle of Lutzen itself, on the Swedish left, and a hill crowned by windmills, facing the Swedish left.  The demonstration had a good number of nicely painted 25 mm (or so) figures, but of towns and windmills I could see no sign.

To what extent, then, was this demonstration game a depiction of the battle of Lutzen? I do not want to pick on it specifically, but the terrain did not, in my view, reflect the original battlefield. I suppose that seven windmills in 25 mm might well have over-dominated the landscape, but one or two, even scaled down mills would have made it more like Lutzen than not. I confess that, without the display panels giving the history of the battle, I would have assumed that it was just some English Civil War skirmish.

The next thing the terrain is supposed to do is, of course, add some aesthetic value to the battlefield. This is actually rather hard to achieve within the limits of what we use wargame terrain for, because, with the exception of demonstration game terrain, we want our terrain items to be flexible.

One of the hallmarks of most wargaming, I think, is that it does not consist purely of model railway type terrain, beautifully done and hand crafted for individual battles. In Fuzigore, for example, I hope that there will be many wargames, and those terrain objects I am slaving over at the moment will be reused many times. Therefore, they have to have an inherent flexibility to allow for that reuse.  

To give an example, I could create (at least in theory, my artistic abilities are sadly limited) for the next battle, two carefully crafted Celtic settlements with additional trees, fields and whatnot. This would be fine for this particular battlefield, which is set in rolling agricultural countryside. But what about the next battle, which could be in hill country where the fields may not exist because the agriculture is pastoral?

In short, most items of wargame terrain need to have a trade-off between specificity, by which I mean that I want roundhouses for my Celts, and generalizability, by which I mean I do not want to have to buy and paint more roundhouses every time the battle is in a slightly different terrain.

Aside from all that, the terrain also has to be governed by the rule set. By this I mean that the items of terrain used on the table have to conform, in some way, to the way the rules say they need to. For example, in at least some of the Polemos rule sets, the size of terrain items is (in principle) governed by the base size adopted for the troops. A village has to be 30 mm by 60 mm if the basing of the units is so. This, of course, makes thing easy in judging whether a unit can hide in the village, but actually imposes a set of limitations on the terrain item itself.

Of course, the usual route to overcome this is to have the terrain mounted on a base and the base placed within a holder, so the whole thing can be modelled without irritating straight edges. In this way the visual aspect of the terrain item and the instrumental use of it within the rules are, in some way, both met.

However, the rules are imposing the constraints on the modelling. In many cases, this is not a problem. After all, in Fuzigore I can simply decree that all villages, fields, woods and so on are a certain size, due to, say, ritual requirements.  In modelling real life battlefields this may not be so easy. To return to my Lutzen example, how many troops, in terms of bases, could hide in 300 houses and a castle? The answer, I guess, is a fair number, although in the battle itself they did not do so.

The upshot of this, I think, is that our wargame terrain has to cover two bases. The first is the aesthetic. It has to look right, in other words. The second is the functional. For example, to make line of sight rules work, we need woods with a sharp cut off. Real woods do not necessarily come to a stop at a defined edge, but our wargame ones must.

Finally, we need to pick out those aspects of terrain which make a historical battle “this” battle. Can a reconstruction as a game of Lutzen be Lutzen without the town and the windmills? These items did not have any particular impact on the battle, although I think the windmills were set on fire, as was the town, which did cause the Swedes some difficulty. But if these items were not represented (we could, after all, just make Bernard’s command job more difficult) are we still refighting Lutzen?


  1. To my mind you have barely grazed upon the most important role or effect of terrain, its effect on the fighting.

    The town and windmill might be important landmarks for those who are at least somewhat familiar with the battle but if they had little effect on the fighting they would have no real significance for someone who had never heard of it, or, worse, if they had an effect under the particular rules in use might distort the battle in such a case. Compare this to Waterloo where Hugomont, Haye Sainte and Placenoit are not only landmarks but also played important parts in the fighting. If someone had not heard of the battle, they might still play an important role in a wargame and the battle would be unlikely to be the same without them as it would change the dynamics of the French attack. There are of course other buildings and villages on the field that did not play a role and could be left out.

    To take a more extreme example, could the Battle of the Crossing of the Medway make any sense as a wargame if there was no representation of the Medway River?

    btw I'm a little surprised to hear that wargames woods have to have a clearly defined edge though I have met a few gamers who get upset when they aren't clearly delineated on the table. When I look at the woods in the rural area where I live for example, the woods do have fairly distinct edges, occasional trees straggle but usually not far and from any distance the edge is fairly clear just almost never straight unless they border a road so my woods always have irregular edges, either a template for small woods or an undulating and irregular line of lichen, small bushes, rocks etc for larger areas.


  2. Hi,

    Good points; I guess I was taking the instrumental values of the terrain rather for granted in the above. On the other hand, the building at Waterloo which did not play a part could have done so if the battle had developed differently, so leaving them off could make a wargame difference, if if the effect they would have would mean that we were no longer playing a 'Waterloo' wargame but something that is vaguely parallel to Waterloo.

    As to the second point I think that, for many rule sets, terrain in general needs to have some sort of edge, so this bit is difficult going, this bit is good and so on, so you, at least, know how far to move the troops. So it does not just apply to woods.

    The edges of woods depend, I suppose, on how much they are cultivated and coppiced. Woods left to themselves will present much more difficult terrain to traverse, and have far more nebulous edges, that ones which are coppiced and kept in check scrubby bush wise.

  3. Interesting points as usual, David. The terrain can be important to define a particular battle, but the relationship of terrain types on a table is equally important, and can often be overlooked in wargames.
    OK, apologies if this isn't clear - I'm just back from the pub.

    Take Waterloo as an example. The allies have Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and la Haye/Smohain, etc in an irregular line on their ridge. Every wargame of the battle has them. But how many games have a 'Waterloo-shaped' table with little attention given to how far apart the terrain features are? The narrowness of the gap between Hougoumont and LHS had a huge effect on the actual battle, but I bet few wargames refights of Waterloo take the trouble to measure this empty space and make sure it's right on the table.

    And regards the 'edges' of terrain, certainly from mediaeval times onward in 'civilised' countries in Britain and Europe there would be a defined edge. That's because most terrain was 'worked'. Woodland and forest would often have a ditch and bank boundary. Forest was subject to different laws (it needn't necessarily have had trees). Pre-enclosure, there will have been an 'infield' and 'outfield' to most settlements, but there were definite boundaries, no matter how rough the outfield, as it involved someone's rights and privileges which they would be eager to defend, at law if necessary.

    The straight edges we see on wargames terrain aren't so incongruous after all.

  4. Hi,

    Yes, indeed, the relationship between terrain items is important, and it is quite difficult to show on a wargames table. The problem seems to be to do with the relationship between the inflexible basing we use, and the fact that real world units could, to some extent at least, flow through narrower gaps (albeit at some vulnerability cost). I have never seen rules that actually make this happen explicitly, nor usually can unit jostle each other and fall into disorder.

    I suppose with this, and terrain edges, the question is 'when is terrain terrain?'. How much of a feature is a feature. Does a 10 foot rise at 45 degrees count as a slope; does a 100 foot rise over half a mile?

    I'm not sure there are really specific answers to these questions, so wargame terrain remains an art form.