Thursday 30 July 2015

Game Design #48: Wargames and "Setup" - a Neglected Topic?

Setup - a Necessary Evil or Gaming Opportunity?
This is an area, along with morale, that I often don't emphasize much in my reviews.
Basically, it's always the same.
1. Roll for initiative. One side gets to choose the table edge or to deploy his troops first.
2. Deploy troops 12" from your table edge

Now, sometimes the rules are a bit frisky.  They have you alternate placing units.
But the closest they come to "depth" or a "metagame"  is sometimes you take turns placing terrain pieces.  Admittedly in some mass battle games placing your units opposite the best matchup of the enemy is the game, but that's because you're playing a game where battle lines stretch across the table and maneuver is not important. In that case you've got worse problems than setup - the game sucks anyway*. (*Napoleonics' red horse-foot-guns vs identical blue blue horse-foot-guns facing each other in two straight lines is the only genre more boring than Space Marine-on-Space-Marine 40K).

But wait! There are different starting positions in "scenarios" you say.

Ah yes. The obligatory 5 scenarios tacked hastily onto the back of the book.  Let me guess, there will be an "ambush" scenario where one side starts in the middle of the board and the other can start along opposite edges of something like that.  Deep, very deep.

While everyone (except Games Workshop) is finally moving away from IGOUGO and investigating different activation methods/sequences, no one has really done much to revolutionize the setup phase. 

Except Too Fat Lardies, who may take a bow. 

Chain of Command has a minigame which determines setup - the "Patrol Phase."
Basically sides start with 3-4 patrol markers. They take turns moving the patrol markers 12".  Each patrol marker must be within 12" of another friendly marker - forming a "chain" across the table.  Once a patrol marker gets within 12" of an enemy patrol marker, both are now locked in place.  Once one side has all its patrol markers locked in place, this phase ends.

Now players place "Jumping Off Points" - in a triangle formed by the two closest enemy markers and one of their own.  They must be placed 6"+ back from their own marker, in cover. As I feel my words are failing me, I'll include a diagram:

The Patrol Markers are now 12" from enemy markers and are "locked" in position. The "grey" zones show where you can place "jumping off" or deployment points. You can see the small crosses are the German "jumping off"/deployment points "A" and "B".

Players then dice to see which troops can deploy.  Better troops can deploy farther from the jumping off point.  You use your "orders" to bring on more units or move the ones you already have on the table.

*The setup is not "paper scissors rock" - i.e. the usual laying out units opposite enemies they best counter.
*There is less "waiting period" to engage enemies i.e. no trundling across the table for several turns before things get "interesting."
*There is uncertainty, and fog-of-war in deployment (i.e. some games you can tell who has won by the time you have placed your last unit, before the game even starts)
*The setup itself is tactical and gives many "decision points" as you manuever your markers to get the best deployment spots.

You can even see how you could fiddle with this patrol phase further to get more depth i.e. units with a scout squad get an extra Patrol Marker or can move the marker 16" or similar.

Another game that does setup quite well is Dropzone Commander. Whilst the mechanics of the game itself are rather boring, it does a great job of integrating a combined arms approach (i.e. dropships+infantry+mechs/tanks+air attack).  It also has scenarios strongly integrated into its play (i.e. I feel scenarios have been considered/designed from the outset to impact playstyle, not "tacked on" later).  Troops start as "directly deployed" on the table, in "readiness" - they can enter any time from indicated table edges; and "in reserve" - they must dice to see when they can enter.  Admittedly this is nothing new either.  But Dropzone Commander, which doesn't have a revolutionary "patrol phase" also does quite well in the setup stakes due to how it integrates its setup with its combined arms games philosophy, and its scenarios which fit with the gameplay style.  In fact I think scenarios and setup are linked - besides that both are somewhat ignored topics.

The Setup - TL:DR
My argument - "setup" is a neglected area in wargames.
*In a "historical" sense you'll know that often a battle was often won by what preceded it
*In a "gaming" sense we are missing out on more tactical choices and "metagaming" potential

Setup can be more than just 'chuck your minis on the table 12" from your board edge.' or 'make sure your pike unit is placed opposite their cavalry.'


  1. Agreed and whats missing is the operational aspects of a campaign that setup the battle.

    We really enjoyed CoC's patrol phase BUT its not for the faint hearted or those with a shortage of time. It adds a lot to the game experience and is worth it though.

    On a completely different note have you taken a look at "Fireteam Andromeda"?
    I understand that is has a neat C2 system with a bit of a different spin on things.

    1. I think it uses "command points" - which is part of a post I'm working on.
      As usual, get out of my head! This ESP thing is getting annoying... :-P

    2. I think it uses "command points" - which is part of a post I'm working on.
      As usual, get out of my head! This ESP thing is getting annoying... :-P

    3. Something I like is all troops have a basic functionality, but leaders/good troop quality allow you to do "extra." A bit like the Robotech rules in my next post.

      Some rules often have you miss a turn/opportunity to fire. That may be realistic, but game-wise it is a bit meh.

    4. As the author of "Fireteam Andromeda" I'd first off just like to say that your blog has been a huge inspiration over the years and I really love what you're doing with your Game Design posts as well as your reviews.

      Speaking of which, if you do not already have it, then I'd be happy to send you a review copy of Fireteam Andromeda if that would be of interest for you? :) Just shoot me an email at:

    5. Sure! I've heard good things about it. I'll send you an email.

  2. Nice article.
    I agree that placement is the worst part of the game experience. While I love the TFL idea, it is taking a lot of time and most 40k influenced (or Bolt Action) players in HK don't like it.

    Another one that is interesting: Berlin or Burst (the born dead Westwind WW2 ruleset). They had a good idea on the airborne deployment and game designed.

    1. I remember looking for a set of rules on BoB a few years back.... so it never eventuated?

    2. It never eventuated and stays as a set of half cooked add on rules for SoTR. Their airborne drop rules would have airborne forces activating as reserve, with scatter placement over the whole board. So a unit could appear in the back of the enemy.

  3. I love the TFL deployment system for Chain of Command (still trying to decide if I like the game) they use it in their new Napoleonic game system (currently in play testing) and it works great there as well.

    1. TFL rules are very "british" i.e. chaotic and often poorly laid out. They often use 50 different mechanics where one would suffice (I think I used them as an example here)

      They also can get into a "rut" i.e. they have pet mechanics - chug lots dice, 5s and 6s hit etc, card activation, blinds - which they can overuse, just like any game designer.

      But they do approach the game design paradigm differently than most, i.e. it's not "how can we sell minis/get the most market share" but "how can we mimic warfare from this period" which gets a big +1 in my book

  4. Great article! Thanks for that.
    Is the 2FL-Minigame generic enough to transfer it to other game-systems (personally I like SoBH, GWs LotR and Savage Worlds most)?

    I totally agree that scouting and deploYment is very much underused. I remember Nick Lund trying something like a metagame in Fantasy Warriors. Very interesting approach: you diced off to deploy extra terrain and got boni for scouting units. Units which scouted, however, started the game disorganised which game them combat penalties.

    Never found this very original approach copied or elaborated in fantasy wargaming. And it would need some elaboration. As much as I liked the idea, the mechanics were too easily abused.

    1. It's pretty much exactly as described. There's no dice mechanics etc. Yes, from what I can see it would transfer to any system.

      I remember enjoying reading batreps of LOTR skirmishes which, if won, could have a major influence on a bigger WOTR mass battle game.

    2. Good news then!

      One of the greatest strengths of many of thr older GW systems was that you had rules for several scales of the same conflict: you could play a skirmish using the inquisitor/necromunda/mordheim rules which gave a bonus for the warhammer/40k battle which in turn was just a prequel to the final battle played in epic/warmaster!

      In LotR you could do the same either with the ssadly very flawed LorR mass combat game or the excellent Warmaster-clone Battle of the Five Armies.

      I think that is what I like about the approach you presented here: it gives you the feeling of another dimension of combat and therefore justifies a meta-game (while imo all those magick-metagames are just a nuissance).