Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Terrain Is Stupid

Large Tourney Tables
A typical tournament table set up.

Ok, now that I have your attention I’d like to point out something I’ve noticed in 40k that sort of annoys me: Terrain is a non-issue for most players/armies during a game.  I say this because there are never any extreme or limiting cases of terrain… rarely does a player have to think about what terrain might occur in the next game.  Terrain seems to be so uniform from table-to-table and tournament-to-tournament that no one ever has to say to themselves “I normally wouldn’t take this jump infantry but if there is a cliff or a river, at least I can get passed it and capture the objective.”

What I mean by this is that a table is almost always 90% flat.  There are 4-8 areas that provide cover and 1-4 LOS blocking pieces.  Typically, there are no cliffs (or unscalable walls), choke points (bridges), and no roads (too big of an advantage to certain armies, like Orks/mech).  It’s always a level playing field, as it were.

River Table
The marines in the river are dead, alas.

For example, my first idea for a sponsored table for the BAO was split in half length-wise by an 11” wide river (above) that could only be crossed via a large bridge in the middle (or units that can swim/float/walk across the river) …  That bridge was a major choke point.  Further, there was a road perpendicular to the river that extended from about the middle of one long table edge, over the bridge, to about the middle of the other.  I created then played on this table a couple of times and it was a bunch of fun.  The choke point was a MOSH PIT!

When I presented it to the guys at Frontline, they decided that they couldn’t use it because it gave too big of an advantage to Orks/mech (due to the road) and shooty armies (due to them knowing exactly where the enemy troops were going to be).

Now, BAO is a tourney and they have to consider things like this, but my first reaction was “So what?”  In my opinion, if an experienced player knows every other codex and the rule book by heart, what other frontier is there other than terrain?  What good is a general that can only command effectively on one type of terrain?

The Blasted Planet table at the Bay Area Open.

The Blasted Planet table that I sponsored at BAO (above) generated hardly any negative comments.  One guy outright called it a POS without even playing on it, but another player who actually played on the table sought me out later and said something to the effect of “I love the table but all the hills should be stepped so every side is accessible.”  The two short table end hills were specifically designed to provide elevation but also act as LOS blocking walls… you could climb over them front to back but not stand on the side and shoot.  They also kept the short table end fire lanes obscured, which is something that hardly ever happens in a 40k game.  The major fire lanes were diagonal from the center of each table edge to the center of the adjacent table edge.

I want to see a tournament where every table is different.  Where one table is great for mech armies (like a salt flat) and another is horrible (sticky swamp).  Where one table has high mountains (Afghanistan) and the next is almost completely flat (the Great Plains).  What about one that is nothing but a chain of small islands with foot bridges between?  Or one that is a warren of tunnels beneath a planet?

I understand that tournaments kind of need a level playing field.  Also, terrain is not cheap.  Having to create 50+ unique tables for the BAO would have been near impossible for the guys at Frontline. 

But if evey table is different, shouldn't that level the playing field in a way?  The mech armies will get chewed on a swamp table but the foot armies will get chewed on a moslty open table.  Each player will need to consider what terrain they will be playing on and not only build a "tournament list" but an "all terrain" list.

What To Do?

If your games are getting stale, this is my suggestion: you and a buddy each write an army list then create a table (keep them both secret) that favors your army and play two games on each of your tables according to the Mission and Deployment rules in the MRB.

Big Table
An amazing table with elevated sections, choke points, and recessed sections.

And when I say create, I mean CREATE! Make something new and different. Don’t wuss out.  Creating a table layout can be just as much fun as building that shiny new model you just bought.  It will take time and money… but what part of this hobby doesn’t?

If your table needs special rules, agree on an unbiased 3rd party (who also plays 40k) beforehand and run your special rules by them.  Agree that if your judge thinks a rule is valid, then that rule is how the game is played on your table.  This way, you can write your special rules but still keep your table secret.

When that 4th game is over, if you have a tie (which you may), play the tiebreaker on a table laid out according to the MRB.  This 5th game is where you level the playing field, if necessary.

This should force you into situations where the standard army builds are just not viable.  You’ll have to consider leaving your mech parking lot behind and taking a foot or a drop-pod army.  The key is to keep your armies and tables secret from each other and try to defeat the other guy with the terrain rather than a typical tournament list and table.

I posit that one reason mech is king in 5th edition is that the MRB table layout favors mech. If you really want to change up your wargaming experience, change up what you play on. Change it with large set pieces like mountains, valleys, and large lakes. Or go the urban route and create a dense cityscape that is filled with difficult and dangerous terrain.  See how good you are by playing on an atypical table... I dare you!


  1. Skimmers ruin river type tables for most people. The advantges are't typically included in the cost. Mech has to choose which bridge to cross, but skimmers and jetbikes get to ignore it and fly to the other side. We have two boards that are almost never used at my FLGS. One has a river with a central island and about 6-7 bridges wide enough for land raiders, and the other has lava fissures throughout the board. I've played 2 games on the river board and my opponent complained the whole time. I've never seen the lava board used.

    I agree, I want to play a game where the terrain adds as much to the game as my enemies army build.

    My favorite expansion was cities of death.

    1. I've never played Cities. Sounds cool to me, but I'm not sure I could find anyone locally who would want to play. Thanks for the comment, Spyrle!

  2. You might want to look into http://www.astronomi-con.com/ I believe they have unique terrain and missions for table. The theme of the event becomes the tables rather than the armies. The hard part is creating & storing all of that terrain.

    1. Thanks for the comment, CTF! That tourney looks awesome! Unfortunately, I need to get a lot better before I start playing in those. But, I'd almost sign up just to play on some different tables!

      Do you guys have any links to pics of stuff you've done? I always like seeing a well built table.

  3. I concur wholeheartedly with the points you make in this post! Boring terrain is one of the few reasons I don't play in tourneys any longer.

    Aren't you in or near the SF bay area? I'd be happy to throw down a game of city fight sometime in June when I've got some free time. Since I will need to playtest the scenario for the narrative event I will be running at CelestiCon in September.


    1. Jim, that sounds awesome! I have a copy of Cities, too. I'm like 15 minutes from Frontline Gaming in Martinez, if that is anywhere near you. Feel free to email me at tentaclemaker(At)gmail(d0t)com.

  4. Dynamic terrain is fantastic. Build a 2000 pt army, then every game decide what 1500 pts to use on that table. Blind lists(opponent does not know what you have) also have advantages for assaulters. You can build a deck of cards that can determine extra effects.

    I love playing on those type of dynamic tables.


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