Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book of War: Unit Setup

The Book of War Basic Rules start play like this (text between rules is indicated as Open Game Content, per the OGL):

Initially, units are selected for each player. Initiative is rolled by 2d6 for each player (high roller acts first in each stage of setup; re-roll any ties). Terrain is set up on the playing surface, units are placed in formation, and then the first turn begins.

The way I've got it written in the book, terrain is determined by random method, and goes back-and-forth between the players, as they roll and place each piece of terrain. After that, I can think of perhaps 3 different ways to handle placement of each player's army:
  1. All At Once: One player sets up the entirety of their army on one side of the table, then the other player does the same. This is actually what's intended in the book.
  2. Screen In Middle: A screen could be temporarily set up in the middle of the table, blocking the view from either side; then players setup simultaneously and unseen.
  3. Piecewise Placement: One player places a single unit; then the opposing player places one unit; and so forth until all units have been placed.

Sometimes experienced wargamers are a bit surprised that what I'm officially suggesting is go with method #1, All At Once. For example: to my understanding, Warhammer usually uses a method like #3 -- and in fact that's what I originally started doing in early drafts and playtests for the Book of War game.

But that was found to have several drawbacks. First and foremost, it creates a delay in starting the game that I personally found quite aggravating; as each unit is placed, a lot of chess-like thought and time can possibly be spent as each player analyzes the evolving setup and decides on their next placement (by instead doing it "all at once", each player does a single step of board analysis, and then deploys one coherent setup strategy). Secondly, you basically need another side table to stage the miniature figures of each army beforehand, so that you can keep track of what has and what hasn't been officially placed yet (we found that trying to do it all on one table was confusing and error-prone; whereas with the "all at once" method a player can just move all their units to the desired start locations and then announce "I'm done"). Third, if you were to go in unit-by-unit sequence, then that requires advance specification of exactly what "unit" groupings will be used, which is a further complication and delay (as opposed to method #1, in which a player can just take a pile of figures, setting them in units and location as desired in the single step).

Obviously, the intent behind the Warhammer-style method like #3 would be to smooth out and balance army setup, such that neither side gets a big advantage (especially, by seeing how the first side deploys, and the second responding to it); but as I say, when we playtested it, we got really impatient, because that phase of setup took so much longer than any other (like on the order of the actual gameplay itself!). So then I suppose you could do what I suggest for #2 above; use a screen for simultaneous setup, which is certainly a balanced method, but requires some kind of large screen, and is perhaps logistically not very practical.

So the final thing about using method #1 is that any advantage to the second-deployer (and surely, there is one) is inherently counter-balanced in that the other person then gets first move, which presents its own significant benefits in Book of War play (as I've written before, getting first strike is very desirable, and sometimes even the very first move-attack sequence will serve to rout units of the opponent). In fact, to date, I certainly don't have any strong evidence that one is significantly better than the other. Granted, most of the games I play are on a relatively small table (3×3 feet), and thus it's sometimes possible for missile attacks to reach a target on the very first turn -- but I presume that a longer table would wind up reducing the benefit from both first move and second setup (not able to attack on first turn; but each being able to change configurations before contact the enemy).

In any case, all of methods #1, #2, and #3 seem completely reasonable depending on different players' tastes, and should certainly be accepted as possible variants for Book of War play. Me, I like to get to the action as soon as possible, and the "all at once" method even has its own balancing benefit, as we've found. Can you think of any good alternatives that I missed?


  1. Hordes of the Things uses method 1, and it works pretty well. The historical game it's based on, De Bellis Antiquitatis, also uses method 1 with a twist: After the second player sets up, the first player to set up can take up to two units and have them trade positions with any other units.

    This represents the fog of war and results in the second player not having perfect knowledge of where all the enemy units are set up.

  2. My (perhaps incorrect) recollection of how DBA works is this: The army lists all have a home terrain type and an aggression rating. Both sides roll a d6 and add their aggression with the higher being the attacker. The defender sets up terrain from his terrain type subject to certain limits, then sets up his own army. The attacker then sets up his army and goes first.

    Setting up all of the terrain is a big advantage, and setting up last is a big advantage too, so that more or less balances out. One downside is it means you should take a flexible high aggression army or a specialized low aggression army. High aggression specialized armies don't work out very well: African vandals were 100% heavy cavalry, which may have worked in Tunisia, but not so much when fighting the Cham in southeast Asia. Aztecs (no horses ergo no cav, no metal ergo no heavy infantry) may have been great at dominating their neighbors in central America, but not so much when fighting on a ping pong table.

    Some other options might be: Set up your army by thirds rather than by unit. Or, sketch the terrain on a piece of paper and note your approximate placement. There would be less analysis paralysis when it came time to actually place figures, and it might be more practical than a screen.

    Word verification: "antelate" Isn't that a contradiction?

  3. FWIW, in DBA, moving first never seemed like a big deal to me. You start pretty far apart.

  4. If you get a chance, could you give us an overview of how you handle castle based battles?

    e.g. The forces of chaos attack the moathouse held by the forces of good, or something along those lines.

  5. Alex -- Very interesting! That seems pretty involved by my (now very minimalist) standards, but some intriguing ideas there.

    Alan -- Good idea, I'll make a note to definitely do that when I get a chance. I'm actually working on some further expansions to that in the next month or two.