Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Gaming Table

My wargame table is situated beside my study area.

Years ago Jennifer and I lived more modestly. An evolution was necessitated in my wargaming hobby while we occupied a very small basement apartment. We lived there about four years. This was when all my wargaming was board wargaming. The digital assistants and PC wargames didn’t exist yet. Typically, I placed my wargames under a thin sheet of Plexiglas to keep them steady and flat.

At the time we had two cats. Whenever I play any board wargame, it usually remains set up for several weeks, if not months. In our first house, I kept my games behind a shut door so the cats wouldn’t go waltzing across the game map(s) and mess up all of my carefully positioned pieces and markers. Cats being cats, that happened accidentally a couple of times anyway.

But, when we landed in the basement apartment, not only was it impossible to keep the cats away but we really didn’t have the space to accommodate my wargames. Bummer.

Out of necessity, Jennifer’s dad (who enjoys wood-working projects anyway) and I put together an anti-kitty cat wargame table top that could also double as a regular, serviceable table. I still use it today even though we have a lot more space and we haven’t owned a cat in about 15 years.

The table is square and made out of a sheet of three-quarter inch oak plywood cut in half, rough 4 feet by 4 feet in size. The bottom half is cut slightly smaller than the top half. The bottom is fortified with thick slats riveted at regular intervals to make it steady. The slats are set such that I can stack many game pieces on top of one another and it still will not touch the top when it is placed. The top is finished, edged, sanded several times. The whole thing is stained. It took Jennifer’s dad and myself two or three weekends to finish this table.

The table's edge was designed to allow for stacking of game pieces even when the top is placed over the map. Notice the decorative plug covering the hole we drilled to rivet the sides to the bottom piece of plywood. We also etched a line down the middle of each side piece for decorative purposes. Finally, I gave the table a dark stain.

The table’s anti-cat surface allows Jennifer to spread out paperwork from her business (home office a few feet away upstairs) now and then, or to serve us in other temporary table needs. I often fold laundry on it. We wrapped some Christmas presents on it this year. But, I can remove the two sturdy top panels and a complete wargame (up to two standard maps in size) is waiting to be played underneath.

Since last summer, I’ve been playing
Clash of Arms’ Monmouth game. This is a fairly complex rules system, but it affords a colorful and very realistic depiction of this battle from American Revolution (one of George Washington’s finest hours). Game play represents such things as formations, leadership, morale, terrain effects, firepower, melee, disorder, and casualties. Playing the game teaches me a great deal not only about the battle concerned but also about how wars were fought during time period depicted. This is true of any wargame I play, as I have posted before, be it a printed game or digital version or an actual PC game.

The general situation in my game. The British rearguard has driven the lesser organized Americans across the battle field and has most of them trying to form a line, though shaken at the moment, behind a hedgerow that offers favorable terrain advantages. American reinforcements are marching in column on the road toward the battleline.

Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis prepare to continue the British advance in the mid-afternoon, before the Americans can fully recover. Notice the green kilted Scottish regiment positioned at the bottom of the pic, awaiting orders. The green coated Queen's Rangers regiment rests from earlier combat in the safety of woods on the British right flank.

The Battle of Monmouth is not one of history’s better known affairs. But, being a small battle, it allows me to play this complex game system (originally designed for the much larger battles of the Seven Years’ War – of these I own Leuthen, Frederick the Great’s finest victory) with relative ease. There are fewer cavalry units, for example. The cavalry rules slow the game down, so having them come into play less often speeds things up. And fewer game pieces overall makes for faster play.

George Washington has arrived (he does not start the game on the map) and is rallying his troops with his good command ratings. Notice General marquis de LaFayette on the American left (photo's right). His small command is organized and ready to defend.

Not that speed has anything to do with my approach to my gaming hobby. As I said, I started Monmouth last summer. Most of my gaming takes place on my computer in the digital format of these printed games (that way I can have multiple games going simultaneously whereas I only have a table for one game at a time). But, I must admit, there’s no aesthetic substitute for setting up a wargame map (my table is designed for two such maps, my favorite board wargames are published with two or more maps) and playing it out on a table. It is the difference between computer chess and playing with a nicely crafted wooden chess set in your hands.

In the case of the Monmouth game, the aesthetics are of a superior nature. Most wargames are far better published today than they were when I first entered the hobby in my teens. The graphics and quality is noticeably distinctive in some games. Clash of Arms generally puts out some of the most colorful games available. So, not only do these games entertain in play and inform in terms of the history they simulate, but they can often be darn near works of art.

The Revolutionary Era is a great time to depict. There were standard uniforms, but many fighting units still sported their own colors. This was more common in the American army, of course, since it was the poorer equipped of the two. Notice the variations in General Nathanael Greene's division in the scan on the left. The British infantry are more or less carbon copies of each other. If nothing else this makes viewing the battlefield easier for commanders. But, still, the British Queen's Rangers are dressed in white and green, while the Scottish guys are wearing read coast with green kelts. In this way it makes the Battles in the Age of Reason Series and its forerunner, the La Bataille Age of Napoleon Series, a tad more difficult to play. Most wargames have common colors for each warring side to make it easier for the player to determine ally from foe.

Clash of Arms is committed to representing the historically accurate differences in uniform colors, even down to the strap and belt level. For me, this breaths a certain spirit into the game play that makes it more entertaining for me. Still, it’s sometimes a challenge to tell Continental blue from British blue (actually Hessian, the British haired a lot of mercenaries for the American Revolution).

I think such attention to historical detail in a wargame is a work of art, though few can appreciate it due to the weirdness of the geeky hobby. “So, you move little pieces around and roll dice and play general? Uh huh.” Yes, I am a nerd.

General Cornwallis's First Division of the British Army. He has good command ratings (on the flip side of his playing piece) to reflect the fact that, even though he later lost his army (and thus the war) at Yorktown, he was still a very competent commander. You can see the Scottish kilts along with the blue uniforms of some Hessian mercenaries. Cannon units are in standard blue coats as well.

My game table has been with us a long time now. I think it looks nice and manly, even worthy of a good wargame hiding underneath as the rest of my functional life entombs it there. I still use a 1/8 inch Plexiglas sheet to keep the maps flat, custom cut to the table, of course.

Manifest of the British Army.

Manifest of the American Army.

Please note: When I write “wargame” I mean “strategy simulation of actual history." This is obviously not first-person-shooter type computer games like Fallout 3 and Call to Duty. My daughter plays those games and I find them only mildly entertaining, often mindless, like meditation by surrendering your Being to game instincts. Strategy wargames, by contrast, are highly rational, only vaguely intuitive, with lots of mental calculations to weigh before game decisions are played.

1 comment:

FB Bill said...

Great summary of a beautiful game!