Friday, July 18, 2008

ASL SK #1 -- Evidence wargamers don't care about mounted boards

On BoardGame Geek it's not uncommon to have some euro-background gamer express disappointment over the component quality of their first wargame compared to what they are used to.

When parsed, it usually comes down to the board, which is generally not mounted on stiff cardboard, but is paper or thick cardstock. The otter area of complaint is with rules, and often those complaints have some validity. Writing good rules is undoubtedly the biggest challenge for wargame publishers.

But long before they get to find the inadequacies of the rules, many of these new wargamers have a bad impression because the map is, to their eyes, flimsy and cheap.

Yet there's little evidence that veteran wargamers care much about whether the map is mounted or not and there's nothing to suggest a lot of agitation among consumers for mounted boards. Indeed. mounted boards have never been all that common for wargames.

Sure, Avalon Hill almost always used mounted mapboards, but that company was a special case. They published many family and adult games where having a mounted board was required, from a marketing standpoint and the company was owned by a printer, reducing the costs considerations that affected other publishers.

Throughout the history of wargames, mounted boards have been associated with attempts to branch out to the wider gaming public, which has been conditioned to expect boardgames to have mounted playing surfaces ever since they got Candyland or Monopoly. SPI's "designer" series wargames, TSR's Onslaught and Red Storm Rising, Steve Jackson Games' Deluxe Ogre, etc. are all examples from years gone by.

But hardcore, mainstream hex-and-counter wargames have generally had paper maps or, for more deluxe versions, thick cardstock. Partly this is because paper maps are the only practical option for wargames published in a magazine format such as Strategy & Tactics magazine. But even for their boxed games, publishers such as SPI, GDW, Columbia, and otters have used paper or cardstock maps.

Paper and cardstock maps are much less costly, for one thing, and given that wargames are already fairly expensive, players have been willing to save that expense. Paper and cardstock maps have some practical advantages as well. They're usually one large piece which avoids problems with the folds and gaps often seen in mounted boards and, when covered by Plexiglas, form a very flat, solid, spill-resistant and convenient playing surface.

Paper maps do have some drawbacks, of course. The most serious is durability. As they age they tend to rip and develop holes, especially along the folds, and for this reason more deluxe wargames tend to use a thick cardstock instead of paper. This medium ha all the advantages of paper maps while being more durable.

The pattern has been well-established and shows little propensity to change. The wargames that have mounted maps today tend to be the ones that appeal to a wider, non-wargame audience as well, such as Memoir' 44, War of the Ring and Napoleon's Triumph. Wargamers seem perfectly satisfied with heavy cardstock games, as the success of GMT, L2 Design and Columbia show.

The latest evidence for this is the ASL community and MMP, which is in the process of converting the ASL world from mounted maps to heavy cardstock maps, something few euro-oriented gamers would consider an improvement.

That ASL had mounted boards at all is largely because it was an Avalon Hill game and all AH games had mounted maps back then. In truth, however, the mounted boards always created some problems for ASL players because they didn't abut with the precision the game really needed. ASL traces line of sight using a "naturalistic" rule that depends on the actual contours of terrain features such as building and woods. (As opposed to the other common wargame convention of considering blocking terrain to fill en entire hex and therefore only worrying about hexsides.

The small gaps and irregular lineup caused by the board mounting process meant, in ASL, that any LOS that crossed the boundary between two boards was necessarily a little "off" from what it would have been if the boards were really adjacent.

ASL started using paper maps with the historical modules, which were based on actual terrain and usually came on one or two standard-sized game maps. This was well-received by players, so there was no obvious resistance to non-mounted maps by players. The biggest obstacle to changing over was the the fact that there was the legacy of some 40+ previously published AH mapboards. All new players necessarily started with those.

The ASL Start kits, however, have provided an alternative entry point for new players and MMP has apparently take that opportunity to switch the ASL community over to heavy cardstock maps to replace the existing stock. Reprints will have the cardstock maps instead of mounted maps. It's less of a bother than it might seem to mix them because a player can simply place a cardstock map on top of an unused mounted mapboard and use the Plexiglas to hold it all down.

There are few wargame communities more "hard core" than ASLers, and I think the evidence is clear, real wargamers don't need mounted maps.

1 comment:

  1. The thing that convinced me that mounted maps were more of a hassle than not has been the use of a poster frame to hold the unmounted map. Plexi sheets are great, but the poster frame allows you to *move* the entire game (with a modicum of care) and store it out of the way if your game goes on for multiple sessions.

    Of course, many people don't have places they can put games long term, but even having the game out of the way for an evening is sometimes necessary. My friends and I play wargames for a week at a vacation home in Central Oregon in the summer, but we've learned to play light wargames and euros in the evening to stave off brain blowouts, so sometimes it's handy to be able to pick up the entire game and move it to a different location so that we have room for Formula De.

    Of course, some of the longest games have multiple maps (Case Blue would be a very [cough] interesting game to try to relocate, for instance, even with only four of the maps in use. I try to use plexi sheets with those kinds of games and find places to set them up where moving them won't be an issue. For one mappers, thought, the poster frames (about $10 a pop at Wal-Mart) are invaluable. Be sure to get the ones that have light cardboard backing instead of the heavier plyboard, as the latter tend to bow when picked up. The cardboard frames stay rigid without much work at all.