For much of my career, I was blinded by resolution mechanics and activation processes as the key to fun game play. This was a mistake. As I explore more games, design more games, and just think a lot more about games I realize that there are a lot of other places to look at that help make a game fun and interesting. For example, I have been rethinking how Movement can be more innovative, how to create tactical game play, and building balance into your games.
An area that very rarely gets looked at our discussed is board set-up and creation. As I playtest the rules for Wars of the Roman Republic I have again realized the importance of terrain placement, and the mechanics around how this is completed. Terrain is an X factor that helps make games much deeper and more interesting. It can restrict movement, add defensive benefits, and change where and how interactions occur.
Good board lay out can do the following to enhance game play:
- · Help balance a scenario
- · Add thematic elements
- · Restrict or shape movement
- · Provide tactical options
- · Force decision making on the player
Traditionally, I have seen Terrain Placement mechanics follow a wide range of styles. Here is a sample of some of the methods I have seen used in various games:
Follow the Map- This is a common approach in historical games. Players are given a specific scenario and a map. They are then supposed to lay out the board matching the map.
- Advantage: The designer can use the map to “balance” the scenario with a known terrain configuration. In addition, it can be used to match an actual historical scenario.
- Disadvantage: The Players need the right shape and type of terrain to play. In historicals, the scenario is often decided and the terrain made to fit before the game. That is not true for more pick-up and casual play games. There gamers tend to use what they have.
One Player Sets- In this situation, one player (often the host) gets to set-up the terrain anyway they want. Then the other player arrives and chooses the side to deploy on and/or the force they are using. This is a method that I use frequently in my home games.
- Advantage: Quick and easy. It allows you to get to playing quickly. Often, a player builds the game to a theme and lays out terrain accordingly with this method
- Disadvantage: The terrain is laid out purely at the players whim, often with no input from the opponent. Not ideal for a casual or pick-up game.
Randomized Terrain- In this method, the game typically has some sort of terrain chart that is rolled on to generate a specific piece of terrain. Placement can also be randomized using a scatter chart method or sections of the board.
- Advantages: No player has definitive control over the terrain placement. Where it goes and what it is is determined by an element of chance.
- Disadvantage: Boards can be disorganized and look randomized. Players may not have the specific terrain being called for.
Alternate Placement- The players have a certain number of terrain pieces that they can place. Each player takes turns putting the terrain on the board where they wish. They can combine terrain pieces to make bigger or larger areas if they wish.
- Advantage: Players take a role in placing terrain, which allows some tactical or game play opportunity in the set-up phase.
- Disadvantage: This can lead to terrain hampering game play. Players can either place it all where it does not matter, or in the direct center of the board. The board may look unfocused.
Fill the Grid- The board is divided into an arbitrary number of grid squares that all must have at least one piece of terrain in the grid space.
- Advantage: The terrain is placed “evenly” around the board.
- Disadvantage: This can lead to a very “symmetrical” placement that no longer looks natural.
Of course, these are just a flavor of possible ways to lay-out terrain. Many games will use variants or combinations of the methods listed above such as Alternate Placement via Grid Square with Random Charts, as an example. Of course, players can always choose to use whatever method they prefer despite what the rules say.
By adding Terrain placement rules to a game’s core rules the designer gives themselves yet another tool to help shape the game experience. They are a great tool for balancing scenarios or adding more decision making before a game even begins. Setting up your board can be just as important as deployment or in-game decisions to the flow of the game. Good general’s always use terrain to their advantage. Game designers should follow their lead.
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