Written by Doug Cundall
Skirmish games provide small scale, personal, and story driven battles. Deeper rules for things like cover and concealment mean terrain placement can make or break the scenario. Here are three universal concepts for creating fun and balanced casual skirmishes. Now I suppose we should lead with a disclaimer: These concepts are for CASUAL skirmish games, and should be taken with a grain of salt if playing competitive tournament style games such as Bushido and Kill Team.
There is a certain awe inspiring visual to full scale wargames. Watching hundreds of miniature soldiers and tanks crawling across fields of battle get cut down by handfuls of dice is probably what got most of us into the hobby. Skirmish games don’t have that same flair, but can provide something deeper. These small scale games tend to lean toward character development and story driven scenarios. Setting the stage enhances this personalization and makes the story believable.
When setting up the table we want to consider these 3 things:
- Variety of Textures
- Visual Storytelling
We will address each of these individually, and example pictures will be provided. All the following examples will be pulled from a recent game of Last Days: Zombie Apocalypse hosted by myself.
Setting the Scene
Our game of Last Days starts with two rival groups scavenging in the same neighborhood as they run across the scene of an accident, and a group of zombies carrying supplies that could help out back at home… if they can retrieve them. Lets see how we can set up the board to maximize immersion and facilitate interesting gameplay.
What we are trying to balance is ADVANTAGE and DISADVANTAGE, not necessarily specific terrain pieces.
One of the hardest things for game designers to get right is game balance. This concept seems easy in theory, but takes hours and hours of play testing to fine tune. You can’t have one team with a superior advantage over all the other teams and expect to have a rewarding gaming experience. Losing to rolling snake eyes is one thing; losing to bad game mechanics is another. Designers have complete control over the numbers and rules of the game, but zero control over how we build the world it’s played in.
In thinking about balance, we have to consider symmetry as well. Splitting the board in two zones, placing identical terrain on each side, and calling it good would provide a perfect balance in terms of board advantage. But is symmetry like this realistic? Unfortunately no. Not only is it unrealistic, it is less than compelling. What we are trying to balance is ADVANTAGE and DISADVANTAGE, not necessarily specific terrain pieces. More on that later.
When setting up a board, place your large, game changing terrain pieces first. These would include things like buildings, large hills, rivers, roads, etc. Anything that affects the way the game is played should be placed first. When using these features we need to consider the impact they will have on the game. A two story building (such as the Brown Family Farm House from Black Site pictured below) will provide long sight lines and fairly good cover. A river will provide difficulty of movement trying to cross it. A bridge could encourage movement into a choke point. Once we determine what advantages and disadvantages a piece provides, we can start to weigh the scales.
Perhaps we balance the side with the Brown Family Farm House (long sight lines) by decreasing lanes of travel and impeding movement. If a player wants to commit to the second story it will take a couple turns, costing time. We balance the side with the river (impeded movement) by providing more cover to bound to, making movement slightly safer.
Random Tip: When splitting the table with a road, river, hill, etc do it at an angle. Splitting down the middle makes the table appear simple and boring, where running corner to corner adds some interesting angles in fights and engagements.
- Variety of Textures
These differences break up the monotony of modern architecture.
Thankfully our world doesn’t exist in a small sampling of similar colors and textures. Imagine how drab and dull it would be if trees, grass, dirt, rock, concrete, brick, etc. were all the same colors; all the same shape. Architects and landscapers have used the concept of varied textures for years. This is why you see large concrete office buildings with trees and grass out front, colored sidewalks, and angular entrances. These differences break up the monotony of modern architecture.
We can use this to our advantage by providing a more believable and atmospheric table. By placing opposing textures near to each other we can create strong lines and contrast that draw the eye. Trees and grass are soft and natural. Concrete and brick are hard and unnatural. If playing in the city, use things like planters, or park areas, lawns or ponds. If playing in the forest use things like ruined buildings, an old well, broken walls, etc.
This is where scatter terrain comes into play. Scatter terrain can be used to break up long sight lines and provide much needed breaks in texture. Things like Black Site’s cable spools, barricades, industrial dumpsters, and shipping pallets, as well as trees, bushes, and vehicles work great at spicing up a fairly simple board set up.
Random Tip: Using a play mat to provide a base texture to build upon can add a level of detail that is hard to come by with terrain itself. It also adds a nice rolling surface.
- Visual Storytelling
I wanted the board itself to tell the story.
A technique that has long been employed by the entertainment industry is visual storytelling. Giving your audience the ability to perceive something for themselves rather than be told makes it carry a greater weight. When you allow the audience to infer what happened or is happening you force them to become invested.
In our example game we rolled Massacre Site as the scenario. It revolves around some horrific scene that left well equipped zombies to kill and loot. I wanted a center piece for the scene. I didn’t want my players to have to ask what happened. I wanted the board itself to tell the story.
lose to the center of the table was a large brick wall. A pickup truck was placed overturned on its side in an area of the wall that has been knocked down and a fire marker set on top. Near it sat an abandoned ambulance. Further down the road was a jack-knifed semi with the cargo strewn across the road. Blood piles littered the ground near the truck and semi.
It didn’t take long for the players to understand what had happened. By giving them something to grasp onto, a little visual cue of the scenario their characters would find themselves in, I immersed them into a believable world.
Random Tip: Giving things the appearance of disorder adds to believably. A few of these crates appear to have been stacked by a previous scavenger, while the others seem to have just fallen off the truck.
All the MDF terrain in the above photos can be purchased from Black Site Studios.
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