Well I’ve been talking to people, soliciting opinions (thanks Richard) and mostly mulling this one over since it blossomed into a big discussion in one of the comment threads. Because I love you all I have selflessly burned whole tens of brain cells to bring you this considered opinion on the matter. Of course, there’s no telling whether this is any more valid than my unconsidered opinion, but I like to feel that those brain cells did not die in vain.
So, what’s it all about?
Pre-measuring, in case it isn’t clear, is the tabletop game concept that you can measure the distance for something like a charge or a shot before you declare you will do it. As you can see beforehand if a task is possible, the unit should never be in a position where it is asked to do the impossible.
Not allowing pre-measuring means that you must declare that you will, say, shoot at a target which may turn out to be beyond your weapon’s range when you measure the distance, thus wasting that unit’s turn. The general rule is that once you have declared a unit will do something then they must attempt it, and if it is beyond their reach then they will fail.
Pre-measuring seems to be a rather polarising idea, with people arguing passionately for both sides. I find myself getting quite heated about the whole thing too, so I wanted to understand why and look at it a bit more calmly to see if I’d missed anything. Having run demos and intros of thousands of games over the years, and enjoyed games that both do and don’t allow pre-measuring, I thought back to these different experiences to test this particular feature. My views are included below.
However, as I write this blog to hear other people’s arguments too, I also re-read all the pertinent comments (mainly on the Kings of War Review part 2) and tried to distil the arguments both for and against. Here they are:
- Faster and easier to play – claimed by both camps.
- Hassle free and allows you to concentrate on moving your army – no worries about guessing wrong.
- Reflects on training of troops – real units know how far they can shoot.¹
- Gives an advantage to faster units and those with longer ranged weaponry.²
- Little or no Fog of War – because you can always check.
- Reduces the drama, excitement and tells a less interesting story – because there are fewer surprises.
- No ad hoc tactical challenges – because you can always check.
Not allowing Pre-measuring
- Faster and easier to play – claimed by both camps.
- Gives the underdog a chance – even masters occasionally guess wrong.
- More “realistic”³ – because nothing is certain in war.
- Adds drama and story – because the unexpected occurs.
- It’s stressful and frustrating – because you can be wrong.
Both sides claim that their method is faster and easier. Logically both cannot be right. My view is that both can be fast and both can be easy if you have the right players. On the other hand, if you have players that are prone to over-analysis then you have the same problem in either case. If you do not allow pre-measuring then they may spend ages looking at a gap, trying to decide whether their proposed move is in or out of range. If you allow the pre-measuring then a simple move is easily sorted, but anything more complex becomes a problem of intricate geometry and multiple measuring to cross-correlate the many permutations in position between several moving friendly and enemy units. In short, I don’t think there is much to choose between the principles on these grounds.
Both methods require the player to learn a skill: one is guessing ranges, the other is geometry. Like any other skills, you can be good or bad at them, and you will improve through practice and training. My experience is that it’s very easy to show someone that they can measure a range beforehand. It’s also simple to teach a game where ranges have to be guessed. In terms of learning a game I don’t think there is any real difficulty either way. I think the difference lies in the fact that guessing ranges introduces an element of risk and therefore potential failure, and that people naturally don’t want to fail (especially not in front of their cool new gaming buddies). However, this risk and reward element, this gambling on your guess, is also an exciting and story-telling element which is entirely absent when the ranges can be guessed. It’s also far more realistic³ than pre-measuring.
Both skills have very different learning curves to go from introduction to master. If pre-measuring is allowed, then when you start it is very easy and unthreatening because you only measure one thing at a time. There is no challenge, no stress, no risk/reward and no story to this. It is cold, clinical and very simple to do. Many people like this. However, as you start to add considerations of more than one unit the complexities grow very quickly indeed and the learning curve steepens drastically. To play these games at the highest level takes a great deal of skill and dedication and is not achieved by many. It is a complex data analysis/geometry task.
Guessing ranges starts with a steeper learning curve as you always have to take the risk and make a guess from the simplest movement. You can be wrong, and this can be stressful. However, it doesn’t get a lot harder and a basic competence is easily achieved by most people with a little practice. In running demo games with people I’ve found that once they overcome the initial reluctance to be wrong and appear foolish the vast majority are right more often than they are wrong by the end of their first game. Once over the initial hump, the curve is much shallower than when you can guarantee the ranges. Analyzing the interrelationships of many units becomes increasingly hard as uncertainty is compounded upon uncertainty. The meta game is not played with geometry and data analysis as it is with pre-measuring, but with intuition and feel for the game which comes with practice and experience.
I think that it’s harder to be really good at games that allow pre-measuring than those that don’t, and that the gap between the average player and the really good player is bigger. This has a number of different impacts. Firstly, if your group hasn’t got any real masters at this bit of the game, then pre-measuring is probably the simpler and less threatening way to play. Personally I think it is also colder, more clinical and far less interesting as having to guess (and manage what happens when you are wrong) because this uncertainty introduces drama and story elements which simply don’t come up otherwise. I like my games to be dramatic and tell a good story. If that’s not an issue for you, then pre-measuring is the way to go.
In some ways it’s all about information. In perfect information games like chess, everything is known all the time. Allowing pre-measuring on a tabletop game in essence attempts to replicate the certainties of a gridded board. Unfortunately, to do this completely the player needs to be highly skilled at geometry, and very few people are.
Pre-measuring allows you a degree of control and certainty that generals wish they had, but never do. Requiring players to guess ranges places them in a simple ersatz version of the position of a real general with a steady stream of risks to weigh and decide on. This, in turn, is a far better model of the randomness, uncertainty and sudden unexpected events that history tells us turns up in battles across time and cultures, and which seems only reasonable to apply to any fantasy environment also.
As you will have been able to tell, despite my attempts at even-handedness I am firmly in the camp of not allowing pre-measurement in tabletop games. If I want to play a perfect information game then I’ll get a board game¹¹ with a clearly marked board. One of the charms of tabletop games is this difference in information levels, and denying it simply loses one of the strengths of the medium and replaces it with a system of perfect information which is very hard to use well (pre-measuring).
If you want to use pre-measuring or not is down to you and your gaming buddies as it’s easy to house rule either way. For my money, I want a game which is credible, tells a good story and is full of drama and excitement. For me, being able to pre-measure stands in the way of all of these, and so I avoid it when I play and rarely put it in my own designs.
¹ Do they? Unless they have laser rangefinders they are doing exactly what a player might be: guessing the range. Perhaps on the firing range or at the butts, but on the battlefield? Even when well trained, a rifleman is only guessing that the target he can see (and which appears to be the same size as the paper target for 200m) is, in fact, the same size. A smaller target will be closer when it appears the 200m size and a larger target further away. Accounts of people firing short and shooting too early are commonplace in ACW or Napoleonic battles where fire control of panicky troopers was a frequently discussed topic and the cause of several revisions of doctrine. The War of the Roses battle of Towton (I think it was) was largely decided by the windiness of the conditions making one side shoot further then the other – something that was apparently not clear to those shooting at the time who wasted their arrows loosing into the wind and falling short. Highly trained bowmen making huge errors. Under battlefield conditions, with all the uncertainty and danger that includes, people do not behave the same way they do on the calm of a range, and in their panic they routinely make bad decisions. This is quite apart from the massive difference that wind and weather can have on shots.
² The argument that this could be counterbalanced by reworking the points values does not work because of the gulf between average players and really good players of pre-measured games. If the points are set for the average player then the really good players get another massive bonus; if they are set for the really good players then fast units become prohibitively expensive for average players. You could have a sliding scale depending on the abilities of the player, but how would you quantify that fairly?
³ By “realistic” I do not mean that goblins et al are real creatures. What I really mean is that it is reasonable to assume that imaginary battles between fantastical creatures would contain comparable experiences of confusion, uncertainty and risk to real historical conflicts. Regardless of the race of the general or his opponents, he is still dealing with the uncertainties of shooting effects and melee (modelled with dice as well as movement – should dice be the only source of uncertainty?). He is also dealing with unknowns such as the time it takes for a unit to move between two points. Whilst this may be predictable on the parade ground, it is simply impossible to be sure on the battlefield. Historical accounts are replete with accounts of units arriving early or (more often) late, and the outcome of battles often turns on this. In a pre-measured world this never happens. To suggest that this information is irrelevant to recreating battles on the tabletop just because the races are non-human seems both foolish and irrational. And illogical (captain).
¹¹ I am aware that not all board games are perfect information systems. They are, however, generally (but not always) perfect or near-perfect in terms of movement, which is the equivalent of measuring in tabletops.