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GrogHeads Reviews Table Battles

Hollandspiele’s new ‘abstract’ wargame hits the table ~

Doug Miller, 25 September 2017

I’m a hardcore grog. I like my games with hexes and chits. Fifty-page rule books don’t scare me, in fact they often appeal to me. I’m a lot more interested in the simulation value of most games than I am their playability. I’m interested in narrative and historical accuracy. I like maps. A lot.

All of which are reasons that I’m something of an odd choice as reviewer for Hollandspiel’s latest, Tom Russell’s Table Battles.

Table Battles bills itself as “a thinky filler, a light dice game that nevertheless will have you scratching your chin and agonizing over your decisions.” Tom himself posted in a Facebook discussion something to the effect that it might not be a wargame. There is no map. There isn’t any movement of pieces.

I’ll admit I was skeptical, though not as skeptical as I would have been a couple of years ago. Some recent games like W1815 by U&P Games have demonstrated that it’s possible to make an engaging and historically accurate wargame that plays in fifteen or twenty minutes and eschews nearly all the traditional wargame mechanics. But even W1815 has a map.

But I’m a sucker though for any game that uses rectangular red and blue blocks and resembles a period battle sketch. Make the battles predominantly from the late Renaissance up through the Napoleonic era and I’m going to have trouble resisting. Include battles fought by Turenne and Marlborough and I must have it. So, despite misgivings (did I mention that it doesn’t have any maps?) I took myself and my credit card to Hollandspiel’s website and paid my $35.

A few days later the package arrived and I rushed to open it and get a look. The game comes in a nice, slim box with an attractive photo of those red and blue blocks prominently displayed. Inside, I found a plastic bag containing 80 blocks in four colors, ten wooden cubes, 12 dice, a deck of 50 cards, and a four-page rule book.

The blocks were smaller than I expected them to be. Being a regular player of Pub Battles by Command Post Games I’m used to those blocks. The blocks for Table Battles are close to the same length but otherwise about one quarter the size, almost as if I’d taken a Pub Battles block and split it into four. The blocks are closer in size to those used in W1815, though perhaps a bit slimmer. They are painted in two shades of blue and two of red. One could charitably claim that one shade is “light red” but I expect across the contested field opponents will be quick to point out that their opposites have troops outfitted in pink.

All the components are high-quality and durable. The cards are large and are printed with scenario information on both sides. Even the dice are nice and large, the kind I’d expect to purchase from Chessex. Despite the lack of maps or a large rule book, $35 seems like a fair price for the game.

The game includes eight scenarios: the battles of Bosworth, Ivry, White Mountain, Marston Moor, The Dunes, Malplaquet, the Plains of Abraham, and Brooklyn Heights. These battles are in my “sweet spot” in terms of the periods I prefer to play, and I’m knowledgeable about all of them. In the rules Tom indicates that many of these are tough to simulate with other systems since as battles they are static contests. I’m not sure that I agree with that assertion, since I have, and have played, other games covering most of these battles. Nonetheless these are all interesting if in some cases one-sided fights. Unfortunately, Table Battles provides no historical commentary about any of the battles at all. The game is perfectly playable without it, but I think it’s a shame, because as I’ll discuss below this amazingly simple game does as stunning job of capturing the essence of each one of the included battles. Without some knowledge of what happened during the battles, players are unlikely to appreciate how well each scenario really represents the historical capabilities of the armies and commanders involved.

I set up the Battle of the Dunes scenario Saturday night after reading the rules. This was probably Turenne’s greatest victory and as a Turenne fan, I wanted to see how it would play.

Each scenario comes with a single scenario card. The scenario card lists the name and date of the battle, the two sides involved, which side goes first, and the starting morale for each side, measured in wooden cubes. One method of winning the game is to reduce your opponent’s morale to zero by executing actions that remove these cubes.

The scenario cards also list the range of formation cards each side receives. The magic of this game is in these formation cards. Each formation card provides a little bit of chrome through the name of the formation. Additionally, each card indicates how may wooden blocks the formation receives, a number that specifies what dice can be placed on the card (more on this in a minute), what action the formation can take and what enemy or friendly units are effected by that action. The card may also contain a reaction, something that the formation can or must do in response to an enemy action.

The game is played in two phases per player. Each player first has an action phase, where he takes an action with a card that has sufficient dice allocated to it. The non-phasing player, if she has cards with sufficient dice on them to take an appropriate reaction, must take that reaction. For example, the phasing player may have a card that he can place dice with fives or sixes on them on the card. His action may be to “attack” a specific formation or formations. The result of this action is to cause one of his opponent’s “sticks” to be remove per die allocated, and to take one “hit” (unit removal) himself for the action. Any formation that has lost all its units is routed, which causes the owning player to lose a morale block.

His opponent, however, may have a card that requires dice on it to take an action, but also has a reaction that can prevent the attack or even cause losses to the attacking force. If this card has sufficient dice allocated to it to perform the reaction the non-phasing player must perform the reaction. In the case of the “screen” reaction for example, this cancels the attack by the phasing player, and all allocated dice for both players from the activated cards/formations are returned to the player’s dice pools.

Following the action phase, the phasing player has a “Roll” phase. During this phase, any dice in the player’s dice pool are rolled, and then placed on one formation card in each of the player’s wings if possible. Players may have up to two wings, indicated by the colors of their blocks and cards. It’s entirely possible that no dice will meet the requirements of any of a player’s formation cards.

Play then passes to the other player, who executes her Action and then Roll phases. However, if she executed a reaction during the previous player’s Action Phase, she cannot execute any actions during her Action Phase.

It’s this mechanic that sets up the interesting decision-making for this game. Players only have six dice in their dice pool, making it difficult to plan an attack while still allocating resources (dice) for a meaningful defense. A player building up dice on a formation card for an attack can suddenly lose these as he is forced to spend them to screen an attack. Cavalry formations, though they typically only do one hit regardless of the number of dice placed on them, are ideal for this.

Special cards, such as artillery, usually require a significant investment in dice to activate but can perform both screen reactions and “bombard” actions, which strip an opponent of morale cubes. In some scenarios, they may also prohibit certain formation cards from playing certain reactions like “screen” and “counterattack” if they have resources allocated to them.

The result of the simple rules combined with very well thought out formation card action/reactions is an incredibly engaging game. Players are presented with interesting decisions every turn: what formations to allocate dice to, and how many dice for attack actions versus how many dice for defensive reactions. Players often need to use one formation to strip dice from an enemy formation by launching a spoiling attack to clear the way for the main attack by a different formation the next turn – all the while hoping that their opponent won’t roll the dice necessary to rebuild the defense during his Roll Phase. Or, a player may have to sacrifice accumulated dice before her main attack is ready to trigger artillery fire to avoid the effects of a bombardment. Most of the scenarios have at least mildly asymmetric victory conditions as well. This adds nicely to both the historical immersion of the game and the variability among the scenarios.

Formations have a variety of actions and reactions that add further depth and subtlety to the game. These are combined very differently in every scenario. Not only does this make each scenario play very differently, but the formation abilities are so structured as to allow for very a very historical narrative to emerge from each battle. Lockhart’s English proved instrumental in winning The Dunes for Turenne, both Wolfe and Montcalm became casualties at the Plains of Abraham. Cromwell’s Ironsides kept the Royalists off balance at Marston Moor and the Dutch formations paid a bloody butcher’s bill at Malplaquet before driving Villars from the field.

All of this emerged from a game that takes maybe two minutes to set up, and probably about twenty minutes to play once the players are familiar with the rules. My wife and I played four games in about two hours. My regular wargaming partner and I played two in about forty-five minutes during our bi-weekly Thursday night session, and that included me teaching him the game.

Table Battles is exactly what Hollanspiele claims it to be, a game that will engage new players and experienced grognards alike. More simulation- and historically- oriented players will enjoy the way the scenarios and formation card actions/reactions inject enough chrome and historical realism to make the battles feel reasonably true to their inspiration. I really could see the field and the formations maneuvering in my mind’s eye as I played. There is real narrative in this game; it isn’t just a simple system with some period paint slapped on it to make it look like it has something to do with the battles it claims to cover.

Newer players and players that are more game-oriented will appreciate the simple rules, the fast play, and the game mechanics that present interesting decision after interesting decision. There’s no requirement to know anything about the included battles to have a good time playing this game. The game is addictive, too. Everyone I’ve played it with hasn’t been able to stop at just one game. Fortunately, it’s a very portable game, too, so players can easily bring it to club game nights, family gatherings, or when they travel.

Table Battles, despite a superficial resemblance, is not Pub Battles. Both games use long wooden blocks but that’s really all that they have in common – except perhaps a clear reverence for short, simple rules. Both are excellent games and I hope to see more games in both series. I know that the appearance and similar sounding names have caused some speculation by some of my fellow players that these are similar or even competing games. Absolutely not! Pub Battles is a spiritual descendant of the Prussian Kriegsspiel, and probably has more in common with miniatures games than hex-and-counter wargames. Table Battles is clearly related to W1815.

Where both games are similar is in presenting two examples of how wargames can be designed to still provide a meaningful and interesting historical and tactical game without the attributes that are intimidating to many players. Both are examples of the kind of innovation that new designers and publishers are bringing to our hobby.

It’s clear that Table Battles is a game with a lot of opportunity for expansion. Once players have the basic game with the rules and blocks, scenario packs of additional cards could easily be sold to expand the set. The system clearly works for the Renaissance through Age of Reason, and I suspect it could easily be extended back to Ancients and forward as far as the American Civil War. I won’t be surprised to see scenario packs covering Napoleonics, Rome, and the ACW.

To sum up, despite my initial uncertainty, I’m a definite fan of Table Battles. This is a game that I can play with family and friends that aren’t traditional gamers but also play with my hardcore grog buddies. Component quality is good, and in keeping with the price. I can see room for expansion of the game that will keep it fresh. Even without new scenarios, there’s good replay value in the included scenarios. I never felt that there was only one way to win, or that only one side had a shot at winning. Further, while there might not be a map, and there might not be hexes, this is a wargame, and not just is the vague sense of “two opposed players engaging in a game with some conflict.” I expect to see more than one set of this game show up among my friends and colleagues at Origins next year, as something to play between the games we’re running.

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