Table Battles -a boardgame or miniatures game? Does it matter…is it both?
Table Battles by Hollandspiele is one of the most innovative small footprint wargames to come out for a while. It was first released in 2017 and has since had several expansions covering the English Civil War, War of the Roses, Age of Alexander and Gettysburg which the designer goes into discussion on his blog. The original game covers eight battles, from the Battle of White Mountain (1620, Thirty Years War) to the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (1776, American Revolution). In the second edition, just released, the battle of Pharsalus and Inkerman (1854) have been added.
The Hollandspeile blog is a repository of many thoughts of the designer who is quite active and it is well worth trawling through for background on the game design and reasons for the way things are presented. The game is extensively discussed and there are a number of thoughts by the designer on the game well worth a read.
The premise of Table Battles is that it replicates the formations and deployments of forces in historical battles which are somewhat ‘hard wired’ in their actions and responses based on their real performance in battle and position on the battlefield. It is aimed primarily at the larger engagements and ones that are linear in nature. Hence they work very well for portraying large scale encounters more or less up to the end of the 19th century.
As it was a friend of mine that put me onto them, I was initially sceptical as to how a wargame could be so wide reaching, not use a map and be driven by ‘command dice’ system, yet deliver a fair historical representation that emphasised the highest level of command on the battlefield. I like the way Chain of Command uses dice to drive friction and resource management and wondered wether Table Battles could do the same.
Doing a bit or internet searching I realised I wasn’t the only historical gamer who has had such trepidation. I found this blog post which echoed many of my initial thoughts and is worth a read. To be fair, Table Battles is in no way pretending to be the ‘be all and end all’ of historical simulation. It claims to be a ‘thinky filler’, which it certainly is, but I think it does a slightly better job than that.
The integral design philosophy is that it does not allow players to set up their battle as they choose but to manage the battle that their real life counterparts deployed for. They setup a battle according to the arrangement of forces on the day – not thier own arrangement. Whilst this doesn’t allow for alternate deployments it recognises that the game aims to portray the historical battle in an historical way. This is no different to any other historical refight, be it a boardgame or miniatures game – so I have no problem with that.
It places the player in the role of the commander as his forces are arrayed for battle in their formation (represented by each card) – and then allows him to manage his forces accordingly. This being done through a serious of attacks, the management of counter attacks, screening attacks, use of reserves and several other in game features. It does this at the highest level only – army commander.
When one considers many other ‘big battle’ games, once the troops are deployed, these same considerations are what the gamer is principally aiming to do. What he doesn’t get is the granularity of intricate command rules or message systems to reflect how those formations are set in motion or ‘controlled’. The dice do that. In this respect, it reflects the command simplicity of the DBx genre but in many more different ways.
One other element that traditional games do that Table Battles dispenses with is movement…yes movement! Formations do not move in this game. The movement is implied through the attack, counter attacks, screening (spoiling attacks) and so on.
This all leads to a seeming high level of abstraction…a wargame ‘simulation’ that has no movement or maps!
…when I first looked at Table Battles this high level of abstraction put me off…stick with me though, there is potential me thinks…
How was I going to overcome this high level of abstraction? The game itself comes with a succinct 3 pages of rules that are minimalist in the extreme, no map and rigid battle deployments. On the up side it uses dice for command and control, which is not beyond many other board and miniatures games, so no real problem there. This is not a bad thing and in fact is one of the game’s attractions. The game comes with no maps for battles, just cards and colored sticks, reminiscent of military map symbols or something you’d see in an Osprey title describing a battle or a book such as John Warry’s Warfare in the Classical World…it got me thinking.
The above pic of the box cover gives some idea of the way you can imagine each stick representing a formation arrayed on a field against an enemy so often seen on a battle map. However sticks and cards on a table was perhaps a little bit hard to make the mental jump, at least for the engagements that I was less familiar with.
Here we see the Battle of the Granicus River from the Age of Alexander expansion. Not quite what I had in mind for the launch of Alexander’s career!
Battle of Granicus River, 334BC Macedonians vs Persians.
What I was after was some way to remove the abstraction and make the battle portrayed seem more ‘realistic’. The game itself played well and has many subtle elements that give plausible historical results. The fixed formation attack/defense makes perfect sense when one considers the layout of large linear armies and the inability of these forces to change position was committed. Sure, there will be exceptions, but for the most part this design concept works.
I wanted the game to look more like the pic below than the one above.
In this map of the Granicus River we have the forces laid out and arrayed against one another. If you look at the formation cards above you can see, from the Macedonian left to right, Thessalian horse, left, center and right phalanx, hypaspist foot and Alexander’s Companions. The Persian host is arrayed in their respective positions opposite.
Note that not all troops are represented at this scale. Support troops that play a subsidiary role are subsumed into the respective formation card or, possibly, ignored, for the level of game portrayed. Each battle is ‘crafted’ to highlight the salient encounters of the action and does not pretend to reflect the minutiae of every element of the engagement. Where lesser troops did have an influence on the battle special rules are included to account for their effect….however it woudl be nice to have them somehow portrayed as well as they help ‘set the scene’.
Ok, so now I have an idea of how I want the game to look. If I can reproduce this effect with miniatures, on a big table, by rights I could represent the entire action through the play of the Table Battle system without any measuring sticks, movement or charts to consult! The entire battle can and will be over in an hour or less!!
….ahhh, but who has a couple of hundred Persian horse painted up to use for a Granicus miniatures battle?? You sure are not going to get that lot painted for a game over in an hour! However, if you do have a large collection of said figures then so much the better.
…too much of a snack and not enough of a meal? Maybe. But this substitution of sticks on a table for miniatures formations on a specific miniatures table certainly has an appeal in the way DBA has a ‘light game footprint’ appeal. The 1 hour or less play time would make for an excellent participation game or a nice few hours at the club with more minis, more chat and discussion and a light rules touch….maybe even enough time to fight it twice.
…yep, did I mention ‘real’ fast play.
But what if you don’t have that Persian horde or all those Macedonian pikes?…there is another way.
In part II we’ll discuss my reimagined Table Battles encounters and how we can play any Table Battles clash from history in an hour or less. Hope to see you then.