The grand old Duke of York,
he had 10,000 men.
He marched them up the hill
and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up you’re up,
and when you’re down you’re down,
and when you’re only halfway up
you’re neither up nor down.
That’s the song I was singing as I was playing Wayne in a game of Table Battles. At 74 he’s a really old boardgame player, preferring games published during the 60s and 70s. We were playing the Bosworth field scenario and Richard III, who I believed was the Duke of York from the song, was on the table in front of me. Wayne, older and wiser, disagreed. He was of the opinion that Richard III couldn’t be the Duke of York because he was the King of England at the time. Kings aren't also Dukes. I explained to him (as any one of you reading this would, of course) that this is in the middle of the War of the Roses and that plenty of people that could claim to be the King of England with equal authority. It was not a well-managed moment in England’s history. Wayne promptly schooled me on Richard’s history as only he could. “Richard” he said, “was a universally hated man with a badly stooped back that was killed in this battle and then buried in a supermarket parking lot afterwards.”
Short on precision, but more or less correct. Wayne reminded me that he was much older than me, and eased my ego by saying “it’s ok, I know all that because I was there at the time.” Wayne isn’t too concerned about being the oldest guy in our group by fifteen years.
But here’s the thing about Table Battles – it really doesn’t matter. And when I say it really doesn’t matter I mean it really doesn’t matter in two different ways.
The first is that you don’t need to have any understanding of history or even care about it to have a good time with this very engaging dice game. You can lay out the cards in a few seconds, drop some sticks in front of them, then roll dice to get started on a quick game with a very curious turn mechanic.
The second is that Table Battles isn’t married to any particular moment in history or even any particular type of conflict. You can create a scenario for Midway as easily as Cunaxa. The ruleset will accommodate both equally well and provide an interesting play even if you can’t tell your Cyrus from your Spruance. It is abstracted to the point where it really doesn’t matter very much, but still manages to work things like order of battle into the mix in a way that is organic and easy to manage. Tom Russel (one of the MFICs at Hollandspiele) has pulled off a pretty nifty trick here, providing a rock solid platform to game all of human history’s tactical battles.
Each card in your army has a designated target for its attacks (a card on your opponent’s side) printed on it, which is a historic representation of what happened in the battle, i.e., who was facing who. Some units can attack more than one, but they attack them in a particular order (also historic.) Some units can attack the entire enemy’s side, and that’s because they’re artillery or reserve cavalry or the like that had options across the entire battlefield. Simply playing a scenario drops a little bit of historic narrative into the game. It’s a natural fit and not a necessary requirement to play at all. But it’s interesting detail that adds a nice bit of flavor to the game, and adds structure to the play as well. More on that in a minute.
Bosworth Field set up.
If you don’t care about that sort of thing then maybe I can tempt you with the innovative part of the game that really gives it its own feel, its own nature. It can be summed up in one word – initiative. Table Battles would be a good game if it was just a matter of piff-poff with your units trading fire. It’s in the same weight class as Pocket Battles which has a similar level of detail and complexity. But Table Battles gives you the opportunity to control your opponent’s play, at least for a turn or two, by dropping two simple rules into place – 1) if you can respond to an attack you must; and 2) if you respond, you lose your ability to initiate your own attack on the following turn. Sounds like it sucks? On first read of the rules you might think that. But when you start playing your first game and get to see how it works in action, well my goodness. It’s seriously cool regardless of which side you’re on, and gives the game a dramatic flair that feels like how a real battle plays out with its ebbs and flows.
The player that seizes initiative wants to use it to route enemy units, but it’s harder than it looks and you need to keep refueling your cards with dice to make it happen. If you can roll the right numbers you can accomplish things. If. And remember – your opponent gets to respond, and they’re rolling dice too, likely building strength. As the attacker there may be incentive to bail at a certain point, and you want to time that right. More likely than not you’ll run out of steam (run out of dice) before you finish what you’d hoped to do.
As the defender, well, jeeze, boring right? Not necessarily. You’re losing your ability to take offensive actions but you’re in a position to build power (i.e., place dice) on your cards and the game is fundamentally about power management. Your men are taking it on the chin, likely dishing damage back, and you’re squaring up for when it’s YOUR turn to swing the hammer. On occasion, sitting back and saying “bring it on Bubba” is an entertaining part of gaming. Your opponent’s flurry of attacks won’t last, they can’t. But if you can hold on long enough . . . some cards deal powerful damage if you’ve gotten the opportunity to get four or five dice them. Your time in the crucible turns into a lightning strike, and that can be pretty damn rewarding compensation.
Between the structure of who can attack who and the nature of seizing the initiative or trying to hold onto it there’s quite an entertaining game here, in spite of its ten or twenty minute play time. In wargamer tradition I recommend you exchange cards and play again, making the round trip a half hour affair in a package that you can stick in a coat pocket.
And cheap. Table Battles is currently available as a Print and Play that goes for a mere $12 on WargameVault.com -- https://www.wargamevault.com/product/223443/Table-Battles. You can buy a published version for $35 as well and it’s plush, but I recommend that you don’t. The Print and Play version is a great price for a great little game, one that includes shipping and customs, because there aren’t any. If you live in Portugal this is your ticket, and it’s about as easy a PnP as you’re going to get. Print some pages, cut out with scissors, add dice and match sticks. You’re done. You likely can make a copy of this with materials you have at home and I took that as a challenge to myself (and succeeded). The “cards” in the game aren’t cards in a traditional sense where you draw them, hold them and play them. They’re unit identifiers, more or less big chits with lots of information on them. They just lay on the table so there isn’t a need to mount them or print to special paper. Of course you can, and after I realized how much I liked the game in my first couple of plays I dug out card sleeves to give them a little durability. Penny sleeves will do, but I had four of the five colors that matched in better sleeves (still the vanilla kind) so I sprung for a set of pinks to finish the job.
This is my copy, made from the cheapest printer paper, matchsticks (that I already had), kid’s fun paint (that I already had), cheap sleeves (I had all but pink), and a Chinese food container that I pulled from the bin. Dice were pulled from my 12mm Chessex supply, they happened to match but the color doesn’t matter. Color of sleeves and sticks doesn’t matter either.
So I’m away this weekend and ran into a cousin that happens to be into games and gave him the tour. He liked it, so I gave him half my set. I gave him 4 of the 8 included scenarios and there’s already four expansions on the street and more to come, all selling as professionally published sets and as downloadable versions on the cheap. Given the nature of the game some time on Wikipedia and a little work on your part could create more scenarios of your own design that you could share, making it a hobby as well as a game for those interested in the extra exploration.
I really like this publishing model, one that Hollandspiele is working for more than a few of their games, including Cole Wehrle’s An Infamous Traffic which you may have heard me crow about in prior postings. This is super-economical gaming, where the bulk of the money goes to designers and developers. Given the modern boardgaming market with its endless legions of miniatures and over the top productions these cheaper, tighter titles that bring game instead of bling are a welcome alternative, especially in parts of the world where customs and shipping can exceed the cost of the purchase. I’d very much like to see more of this, and we could all use to have a few extra coins in our pocket at the end of the day.
Oh, and that song in the beginning – nope. Different Duke. Not even close. Wayne knew that. He ran the table on the history challenge. He smiled after we found that out too. I hate Wayne.