Sun Tzu in his critically acclaimed, nobel peace prize winning, magnum opus “The Art of War” espouses that the greatest of Generals use terrain to their advantage in order to win battles and by doing this it is possible to win a battle against a more numerous enemy. We’ve all seem movies or documentaries from the ancient world whereby Phalanxes line up opposite each other and then go at it, but even in battles of yore such as the famed Thermopylae terrain was used to great effect to reduce the impact that the Persians outnumbered the Greek forces opposing them.
So it is with our tabletop games, whereas there are those armies that would love to have a battlefield devoid of any terrain in order to have charge/fire lanes available to them it is not only unrealistic but actually takes a lot of fun out of the game. Even games like Uncharted Seas which take place on the oceans are not devoid of terrain, an island or peninsula can dramatically alter the ebb and flow of a game as well as increasing the number of strategic options available to a General. How you utilise the terrain in order to provide cover or interrupt line of sight can have a large impact on how emerges the victor once the dust of combat has settled.
However, just as good terrain placement can produce an interesting and fun game, so the opposite is also true, a game with bad terrain placement can actually decide a battle before the first turn starts and can mean that one side, if not both, end up playing something that is dull and boring. Something along the lines of you’d rather spend the time you just played by volunteering to be the patient for a Dental student’s first root canal and they’ve run out of anaesthetic. I’d like to give specific proof of this for a game I had around three years ago that still sticks in my memory for all the wrong reasons. OK, this wasn’t a typical game, but still, things could have gone better. It was around the time when Hordes was coming up for release. We already had some stuff for Warmachine in our gaming circle and decided to take a two Warpack starters from Hordes up against one appropriately sized force from Warmachine. So it was that me trying out Legion alongside Trolls went up against a sizeable Khador force. I can’t remember the details behind how we went about setting up the terrain but I remember that our Khadoran opponent just placed a line of building that separated the battlefield in two halves with a small gap in the centre. We were playing a caster kill game and I know that I wasn’t happy when I saw the terrain, it very favourably suited the Khador stuff and I know that I should have said, “no, we can’t play like this, the game will be purely dictated by how that terrain is placed to the detriment of the game.” However, I held my tongue and we played the game, and yup, we got spanked. Not because we were bad players but because the terrain was that horrible the game ran exactly how I knew it would and nothing we could do compensated for that. I know that real life battles aren’t always fought over ideal terrain, one side normally has an advantage, but we’re not talking real combat here, we are talking about a game that is supposed to be fun for all players, this wasn’t.
Therefore, whenever I set up terrain before a game, or when I setup during a game opposite my opponent I always try and make the placement fair for both sides. I actually have pretty good luck in ending up on the side of the battlefield that I want but still, I don’t want the odds stacked in my favour before the first dice has been rolled. In Warhammer 40,000 I like a decent amount of cover to protect my Orks approach (to be honest though there are enough bodies in those units to provide a kind of cover all their own) while Servitob’s Space Marines love nice open fields where they can see and shoot anything approaching them. A balance between the two provides us both with options in how we deploy and move our forces and advantages that we can exploit in bringing the armies to bear.
Games like Warmachine and Hordes also have spells and actions that allow you to create your own terrain, this is when you can obviously try to stack those odds in your favour, but these things don’t tend to stick around the entire game and are therefore carefully balanced. Usually you also have things to counter those kinds of abilities in some flavour.
We use terrain to give variety to the otherwise bland tables we fight across, they add colour and extra options that we need to factor into our plans. They also add to the fun of the game and if you are the one that uses the terrain to your advantage, so much the better. Just as Sun Tzu taught that terrain use is a major aspect of battles, so it should be with us, whether home-made or bought from a store using terrain to spice up the fields or setup specific venues is a great way to keep the hobby fresh and interesting. I’ve been fortunate enough to have bought a lot of terrain recently. The new stuff that Games Workshop is producing is of really good quality and I have a 64 litre storage box full of the stuff with more on the assembly line. As the possibility of a Planetstrike 40k game looms for Saturday I will tonight be putting the finishing touches to my Skyshield Landing Platform, I then have a Bastion to assembled that I want to convert with all manner of Orkiness. It’s having little things like this that helps to motivate me while playing. Terrain is something I feel I can never have enough of (that and Ork Boyz) and I am always willing to fork out some green on pieces I like the look of. We should never take our terrain for granted, nor see it as a necessary evil. Properly used terrain is as much a part of the game as the models in our army and in fact, if you really plan out your battles, terrain is another unit in your army if used correctly, in most cases though it won’t deep strike and lay waste to stuff!
Hopefully the next time you stare across a war torn battlefield, before or after a game, you can have a new found appreciation for those hills, craters, fences, ruins or whatever you have. Things would be a lot more boring without them.