Home Forums General Game Design Too Much Information Clutter on Wargame Tables?

Viewing 23 posts - 1 through 23 (of 23 total)
  • Author
  • #52412
    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    Has the attempt to make wargaming a visual feast actually wrecked the overall look of the thing?

    We have diorama quality bases as standard implied in many rule sets. One of the selling points is big bases with no figure removal required. People paint figures, in a bewildering variety of poses, to exquisite standards and use them to create vignettes of moments in battle for each stand of figures representing companies, battalions and brigades. Such representative art demands a backdrop and gone are green painted plywood war boards, polystyrene step hills and bits of felt woods. In has come terrain that has moved from impressionistic functionalism to attempts at 3D photorealism .

    And yet amidst all that unified visual model we cheerfully accept figures dragging around cardboard counters and plastic markers and dice and/or clouds of stones and gems and treasure markers often accompanied by platoons of walking dead casualty figures cluttering up the scene.

    One of the great virtues of being a little less twee about the production values on bases was you could actually use the figures as something meaningful in the game. They could represent strength by the numbers in a unit and losses by removal and morale/cohesion/fighting power states by how neatly their lines/bases were ordered.  Now they fulfil no actual purpose. You could just as easily (and perhaps more practically) use the base itself as a marker, and with a wipe clean surface and washable markers, carry some useful information on that footprint rather than in a cloud of swarming dross.

    Paddy Griffith, many years ago now, fell out with the idea of using toy soldiers in wargames, feeling they skewed the game away from any pretence of representing real military events. I wouldn’t want to go that far myself. I like toy soldiers. But I want to play games with them, not make dioramas. My hobby is games based on combat, not simply chess with dice and toys, nor simply collecting and painting figures. So what?

    Well I’ve enjoyed having a moan, but I want to start converting games with markers to either less intrusive markers, or roster based recording or, better, using the figures themselves to record some of the states used to work the game engines in rules.

    So any cunning ideas? Or am I doomed to lumbering dioramas stomping about the table with casualty dice, initiative dice, cohesion markers and morale state chits following them round?

    Avatar photoAngel Barracks

    we cheerfully accept figures dragging around cardboard counters and plastic markers and dice and/or clouds of stones and gems and treasure markers

    Not me man.
    I keep the table as ‘real’ looking as possible.
    The only counters I use are tiddly winks that I have flocked to match the table top.
    My markers for smoke are litko cut smoke clouds and my markers for burning vehicles are litko cut flames and smoke.

    And no cans of coke either.


    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    That’s great – how do you do it?!

    Is the scale of the rules such that individual figures are the information carriers themselves (on the table and okay to fight or dead/severely wounded/mentally incapacitated by fear/shock etc and removed?)

    Or – other?

    Enquiring minds….?

    Avatar photoRhoderic

    I choose to believe that with inspiration and enough effort, counters can be made to look good and fairly unobtrusive. A counter system that hasn’t been well thought-out can indeed ruin the look of a game. In these situations I look at the counters in question and think “How can I make these fewer, smaller and less of an eyesore?”. I don’t necessarily need them to blend in with the shrubbery, but some combination of sparsity, smallness and stylistically “keeping with the atmosphere” of the game’s setting will do.

    Roster-based or datacard-based recording can be a solution, but it requires additional table space and can also make it more difficult to maintain a good overview of the game at all times. If my only way of informing myself of the status of my opponent’s units is to continually look over at his unit datacards, I may miss or neglect important details or mistake the status of one enemy unit for that of another.

    Generally I think the onus is on rules designers to anticipate and preclude these problems. I expect rules designers to have put a lot of thought into them, and to have come up with intuitive solutions. If the look of a game is ruined by too many counters on the battlefield, or if the game becomes confusing because players keep needing to correlate status changes on rosters or datacards with their respective units on the table, then it’s ultimately a shortcoming of the ruleset. That’s a heavy burden on rules designers, I know, but no one said it’s easy designing rules.

    Oh, and if a game marketed as having an “intuitive” record-keeping system requires me to purchase special dice, counters or other information-bearing items/contraptions to that end, then it had better be very intuitive indeed, not just some marketing gimmick.

    Avatar photoBandit

    Generally I think the onus is on rules designers to anticipate and preclude these problems.

    Completely agree. In the original edition of ESR we used a fair number of counters: casualty markers, order markers, fatigue markers, etc…

    But once ESR Original Edition was released and “out amongst the people”, we realized what we should have known before, that players would accept a little bit more abstraction (like not tracking per battalion casualties in a grand tactical game) in order to get a cleaner and prettier looking game.

    So with ESR Second Edition we moved to a system where no markers were necessary and those few optional markers could be with miniatures if the players desired.

    The result is very clean looking tabletops, provided the players don’t roll their dice everywhere :-p

    ESR Second Edition encourages players to track divisional level fatigue either on a roster or with on-table casualty figures or dice. Routed units are identified by their placement next to their division’s rear area marker, aka Reformation Area, typically a supply wagon, caisson, or the like. Orders can be indicated with a single letter, such as [A] for attack, on a roster or with an on or off-table marker marker as the player chooses.

    These are highly flexible solutions, easy to implement, don’t require purchase of special game play aids, and could be used in nearly any game design to prevent the heavy use of cardboard chits or the like.


    The Bandit

    Avatar photoNorm S

    Balance in all things I think. form over function is going too much in one way, the two need to be in some equilibrium. For my own part, my eye tends to ignore markers, but I don’t want refreshment items, books, cameras etc on the table.

    I use dice for casualty markers, but go for the smaller ones – some are encased in a nice base and I use wooden markers for the more temporary things like pins or disorder etc.

    Having said all of that, there are gamers happy to play with unpainted figures on a creased (to hell) cloth and fairly representative terrain – and from what I have seen, they are getting really good games and having lots of fun, so hoorah for that. I can go back several decades to my own beginnings in gaming and my terrain and forces were very basic (such as dyed cotton wool balls for trees) with a very certain naivety, but the gaming was very honest and inspirational to the point that it has given me a life-long passion, so I think with our modern sophisticated and often well resourced lives, we can sometime dismiss what is really important and also forget that this is a very global hobby (thank you internet) and there are many parts of the world that have very different levels of economy and access to ‘posh battlefields’.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    Several inconsistencies prompted me:

    1. It seems odd to try and suspend disbelief through railway model terrain and diorama bases and then having scale 3foot to 20ft dice etc traipsing about the troops on the lovingly crafted terrain.
    2. The terrain itself and diorama bases seem to be missing the point of warGAMING to me (but that’s a side issue here)
    3. Toy soldiers in this format give too little information and the other stuff gives too much information to the enemy generals. Figure numbers and removal methods do as well of course but at least it confines the clutter. Using markers (figures) that convey nothing but prettiness has merit in concealing strength, morale and damage but then placing all this information on table misses an opportunity for representing the fog of war.

    So I have sympathy with Norm Smith’s points and whilst I can appreciate a well turned out field and army, where there is a choice between an elegant game model and pretty modelling I’ll take the first. Putting all the info on the table seems to give the worst of both worlds.

    Avatar photoJohn D Salt

    The point about giving too much information to the enemy generas is a especially good one. While keeping an off-table record is a bit of a PITA, it is much less so in these days of ubiquitous printers than it was when John Tunstill’s “Miniature Warfare” (a term used to distinguish from mere wargaming by the use of accurate time, ground and force scales) required a roster sheet for each side. Off-table displays make it possible to issue simultaneous orders relatively easily, and to conceal things about unit status that should not be readily visible to the other side, especially morale state (unless of course it is fleeing in panic). For AFV warfare, I would actually favour recording vehicle kills only on the off-table record, unless the target is actually burning; it’s remarkable how much AP ammunition is expended on things that are not live targets.

    All the best,


    Avatar photoRhoderic

    It seems odd to try and suspend disbelief through railway model terrain and diorama bases and then having scale 3foot to 20ft dice etc traipsing about the troops on the lovingly crafted terrain.

    At the risk of habitually reaching for a go-to explanation that gets used to death in the hobby community these days, maybe this is yet another generational thing. I was an accustomed video/computer gamer by age 8-9 (this was in the time period of the NES, SNES, Amiga 500 and PCs with 386 and 486 processors). With video/computer games there’s nearly always some sort of information overlay on top of the player’s view of the “gameworld”. I suppose that subconsciously I’ve come to have a similar attitude to miniatures gaming: The table is a view of a gameworld (whether historical or fantastical), and counters/markers are like an information overlay (but before anyone says it, I don’t go so far as to consciously imagine that I’m looking at some sort of holographic computer game – that would be something entirely different). I just need that overlay to look good (ie not clash stylistically with the atmosphere of the game) and be effective and relatively unobtrusive. Dozens of bits of card strewn haphazardly along the battleline are never a welcome sight.

    I do have some aversions that may seem idiosyncratic to some; for instance, I don’t care for the Litko flame, blast and smoke markers that so many others seem to favour. They’re neither realistic enough to be realistic nor abstract enough to be abstract. Shiny, translucent 2.5d plastic strikes me as the worst of both worlds.

    Toy soldiers in this format give too little information and the other stuff gives too much information to the enemy generals. Figure numbers and removal methods do as well of course but at least it confines the clutter. Using markers (figures) that convey nothing but prettiness has merit in concealing strength, morale and damage but then placing all this information on table misses an opportunity for representing the fog of war.

    Here I must diverge completely. If a game is to represent fog of war, I need it to be more systematised, represented with proper rules mechanics. While I’ll play anything out of common decent politeness to a fellow gamer, I hate trying to keep a running tally of enemy unit statuses in my head – I’m not a card-counter at a blackjack table. Incidentally, for similar reasons I hate “guess range” game mechanics.

    We may have been talking over each others’ heads. In my earlier post in this thread, I’d assumed this discussion wasn’t taking into account the fog of war aspect. I have nothing against fog of war, but I also don’t have many qualms about playing miniatures games that eliminate it, allowing players to be fully informed at all times of all unit statuses, ranges and so on. I’m not so much a roleplaying/perspective-based simulationist as I am a story-crafting “god gamer” (I’d probably make a better gamemaster than I make a player, but I don’t move in circles where games are played with gamemasters). It takes all sorts.

    Avatar photoAngel Barracks

    I don’t care for the Litko flame, blast and smoke markers that so many others seem to favour. They’re neither realistic enough to be realistic nor abstract enough to be abstract.

    I use them now, but used to hate them as like you, I think they look totally unrealistic.
    I kept planning on making some realistic looking stuff but could never be bothered, so I plumped on letting someone else make them for me.
    Plus there is totally no confusion over what they are meant to be, it may not look like a real cloud of smoke (cos you know it is pretty two dimensional for one thing) but there is no denying that is what it represents.
    Which is important to me too.
    Counters and what not should be clear as to their intent, at least for me anywho.

    Avatar photoMike Headden

    I am immensely suspicious of any games table that doesn’t have coke cans, coffee cups, beer cans, tape measures, Quick Ref sheets, dice and highly visible markers scattered about.

    Markers that “blend in” seem to me to lose the point of markers in the first place. I want to be able to see at a glance information that the game system presumes is open.

    I have no desire to have figure bases that represent anything other than manoeuvre units. If the base can’t act independently it has no business being a separate base IMNSHO 🙂 Single figures for skirmish level, whole brigades for grand tactical stuff.

    YMMV … and rightly so.

    I am, no doubt, a very strange beast 😀

    There are 100 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who can work from incomplete data

    Avatar photoPiyan Glupak

    Of the games that I play, DBN uses ‘attrition markers’, and Corvus uses various markers to show the state of the vessels.

    With DBN, I use 6mm figures on a 60mm wide base.  One of the advantages is that I have enough room to add up to a couple of the casualty figures that I use as attrition markers.  Casualty figures are not perfect, but in 6mm they seem to be a reasonable compromise.  I think that most people play DBN using 15mm figures on 40mm wide bases, using little balls of cotton wool as attrition markers.  I think the attrition system works well for horse and musket periods.

    With Corvus, there might be 60 ships on the table.  You need markers to show whether each ship is going forwards, backwards or is halted.  (You can’t ram from a halt, and get a reduced move.)  You also need markers to show whether a ship has oars sheered, has been captured, is on fire, or is currently attached to an enemy and the marines are banging it out bravely.  I don’t see any easy way to do without markers for a naval game with lots of ships.

    One idea that I started to explore the last time that I was considering knocking up some home-brew mass battle ancients rules was ‘breakpoints’.  A breakpoint is a bit like an attrition level except that it is for the whole army, not one base.  Instead of having 2 or 3 before the unit is destroyed or legs it off the battlefield, you have quite a lot (at least 20 for DBA sized armies).  When all your breakpoints are used, the whole army breaks.  A destroyed element (base of figures) means that you usually lose 4 breakpoints, a camp 10, and an element with general 12.  Nearly all recoils, and some combat results that don’t do much else lose 1 breakpoint.  An element fleeing temporarily, but remaining on the board loses you 2 breakpoints.

    One advantage is that the 2 little pots for breakpoint counters per army are off the board.  Another is that games do get resolved.  Although I am a big fan of DBA, it is possible to have two spear or blade based armies bashing away at each other if the flanks are protected, with no result in a reasonable time.  With breakpoints, you get a result sometime, although it might seem quite sudden if all you are watching is the table.  A expansion that I was going to explore was that very well trained armies (mid-Republican Roman or Marian Roman for instance) can have a few more breakpoints than a less well organised or lead army, perhaps 24 instead of 20.

    Breakpoints represent morale and exhaustion more than casualties.  I have the idea that pre-gunpowder battle casualties tended to be about 10% per side before the loser’s line broke.  (Then the casualties of the losing side would increase rapidly.)  If you see your comrades being knocked about the battlefield, then I imagine that it wouldn’t be good for your own morale.

    Avatar photoDeleted User


    I’m in the “it’s a game” camp”.  Markers etc are a compromise but *some* effort can be made to allow them to blend without losing their message.


    The ones above were made by us for Field of Glory.




    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    I guess it depends which direction you approach the hobby from. Some people are modellers first and foremost and spend far more time creating beautiful diorama-quality armies than they ever spend playing with them. Some are all about the game as game, so counters and markers and paraphernalia and custom boards get a lot of attention. Me, I start from a history / simulation angle but in recent years the aesthetic has become much more important to me than it used to be.

    Rosters: been there, done that, even wrote rules that relied on them. Nowadays I’m not keen on them and prefer all the info to be immediately accessible on the tabletop.

    Counters/markers: prioritizing function over form, for a long time I used brightly coloured plastic tiddlywinks to denote disordered, shaken, routed etc. But nowadays I use puffs of white, brown or black smoke made from wool roving. These do the job very well and don’t harsh the aesthetic so much.


    I wrote a couple of blog posts musing on “The appeal of miniature models” and on “Wargames: how much “War”, how much “Game”?” that are sort of relevant.




    Bloody Big BATTLES!


    Avatar photoPatrice

    I hate markers; not really for diorama reasons but because I have difficulty to believe in the events that happens on the table and to be immersed in the story when I see people dragging large bright plastic tokens behind them.

    But I like to see dead miniatures lying around where the fightings have been hard.


    Avatar photoSteve Johnson

    Small D6 work for most situations in our games, such as BKCII and Honours of War. Personally I like to easily be able to see the ‘status’ of my units etc as it helps speed up game play. For BBB simple ‘unit stats’ are printed out for each unit and work a treat for us. Again it speeds up games play and allows us to focus on the game, rather than constantly checking rosters etc. Not for everyone admittedly, but it works for us. On the other hand I’m really not into scenic bases with ‘dead or wounded’ models on them as they don’t work for me.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    Interesting territory we have wandered into!

    I don’t have a feeling that there is any right or wrong answer here (how very relativist of me). It depends what you want from your game. But I am still puzzled by some logical inconsistencies.

    My slight confusion, which prompted my original post, was around the juxtaposition of two apparently different concepts of  representation.

    The zeitgeist seems to be for very high polish terrain and basing for visual appeal (again I leave that up to the individual to define what is ‘good’ painting, basing or terrain but we seem to be in a particular zone of consensus at the moment). This product seems to aim at a very naturalistic representation of the landscape and the troops.

    Yet at the same time there appears to be a definite rules tendency to display many unit characteristics and states on the table using wholly unnatural objects.

    The result is less Constable and more Dali.

    If that’s what you are going for; great!

    I accept small dice following my Sword & Spear units about for their activation (thinking about ways around it) but keep hits on a roster. But I am also happy to use bits of green felt with sprayed horsehair blobs paced on them to represent woods, and painted cork tile as hills.

    I like the game mechanics to work elegantly more than I like pretty terrain (not a pejorative term , simply an observation about what I prefer (much more of an impressionist fan!) and am working on a couple of sets of rules (for home use) that have up/down combat effectiveness tracking but don’t use any extraneous markers (its all about figures, but I worry that gives away too much information!). We’ll see how that works!

    But then, that’s just me.

    (Like the triangle by the way, but I think the process/game corner doesn’t hold up for me – I know people who only have fun when confronted by intensely complicated rules that track many irrelevant pieces of minutiae, the process is far from clean and fast, but that’s not what they want from wargaming. They aren’t competition gamers, and they aren’t necessarily interested in historical refights; the correct game mechanism for representing the firing and loading sequence of late 18th French infantry is the thing. Fair enough, but its not about speed, and arguing is very much the order of the day! This isn’t  about winning its about being ‘certain’ that an IG37 firing APHE would never penetrate 47mm of armour whereas 46mm would be toast – or not!)

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Tim, Guy – thanks, glad you enjoyed the blog.

    Guy: I reckon your detail-obsessed friends belong firmly in the Historical corner since they’re prioritising the historical details that particularly interest them over “game qua game”.  Though their historical corner might be a different physical corner of the village hall from mine!


    Avatar photocraig cartmell

    When writing In Her Majesty’s Name one of the things we were aiming for was the removal of such clutter. Thus there is a roster sheet, or figure cards, that can be kept off table and nothing else required.
    However, many players found they liked having counters to indicate which individual figures had moved (and how far), shot or fought. Our friends at 4Ground produced a set of suitable counters which sell through North Star.
    I, and most of my playing comrades, find we can remember what our 5-12 figures have done in the last couple of minutes and do not use them. Thus, our gaming table looks as the Gods of War intended it, naked but for terrain and figures.

    Avatar photoDeleted User

    I have a personal dislike for the roster sheet. In my fantasy that I’m somehow a Napoleon (but taller & better looking) or a Hannibal (who hates the thought of using elephants, poor beasts, in battle), filling in minutiae on a sheaf of paper doesn’t fit. I’m a General, forsooth, not a general’s clerk!




    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    Maybe it’s CPX experience that makes me think filling in forms is more how it’s really done!

    Avatar photoDeleted User

    Maybe it’s CPX experience that makes me think filling in forms is more how it’s really done!


    Sir, please don’t bring reality into this. You’ll note, I used the word “fantasy”.


    …….and needless to say, however it works for you is the correct way.


    cheers, donald

    Avatar photoPhil Dutré

    Currently, I do not like figure removal. I want to have the figures on the table. At a very basic level, wargaming (for me) is about pushing toy soldiers around. So manipulating the toy soldiers is the key activity. Moreover, it’s a bit odd to spend time painting your soldiers, then NOT use them on the table.

    To avoid clutter – and depending on game and rules:

    • I use casualty figures, but also other figures to indicate status. E.g. a kneeling figure, or a running figure, etc.
    • I use dials flocked to match the terrain
    • I use pebbles with color codes or numbers

    But most importantly, to avoid clutter, you need some space to put your junk on – whether it’s a glass of beer, the dice, reference sheets. If you do not have little side table, or reserve part of the main table, of course people will put all their trapping on the battlefield.

Viewing 23 posts - 1 through 23 (of 23 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.