Mechanic Monday: Counter Layout

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Board wargames, generally speaking, use cardboard squares or rectangles called counters. Understanding the information design contained on these tiny representations of units is key to playing wargames. Today, we’re looking at counter layout!

Why Counters?

Wargame counters go back to the 19th century and the Kriegsspiel game where small blocks were used to represent various units. An evolution of this was to have the units physically occupy a similar area as the formations they represented.

Basic information about the unit type was included, but it wasn’t until much later than specific values for things like attack and defense were included on the game pieces.

It was important in the NATO joint operations era to use a common set of symbols. This NATO symbology stuck because it provides a concise and easy to learn alphabet of symbols that can be combined to add meaning and nuance.

What’s in a NATO Symbol?

NATO symbols come in a handful of basic forms. These forms are extended to add nationality, size, combination units, complex unit types, and recognition (though these forms are typically not used in wargaming).

Let’s take a look at “the chart” and break down these NATO symbols with wargaming examples.

Basic Symbols

Basic NATO symbols

These are the basic symbols used across counters in wargaming. Some will be immediately familiar (Armor, Cavalry, & Infantry). Others maybe less so like Medical or Air Defense.

Each counter is going to have one of these symbols as the baseline symbol on top of which modifiers can be added to create more complex unit types. Some, in fact, are made by combining these forms.

A mechanized infantry unit is the combination of Armor and Infantry symbols. This is an incredibly common symbol for WW2 and contemporary wargames.

Extended Symbols

Functional Symbol Extensions

The symbols to the left are not units in and of themselves. They are, instead, used to modify the basic types. Though you might struggle to find a Medical Electronic Warfare unit, you could find a medical cross country motorized unit!

These provide useful extensions to provide specificity to unit employment. SPI’s Intro to Wargaming refers to these as “Functional Symbols.”

The current NATO specification refers to them as Icon Extenders and the resulting Basic Icon with the Icon Extender as an Extended Symbol.

Some Examples

These are some examples of how the basic and extended symbols can be combined to create new meaning. The only thing you need to train yourself to consider is what combination of symbols are being used. That typically means memorizing only a handful of symbols from the basic and extended menu.

The combinations are also generally going to be very specific to the era and to the game being played. Consequently, few games require you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of NATO symbols and combinations. Games also typically include a reference in the rulebook that explains which combinations will be used and what the game will call them!

How Big?

Now that you know WHAT the unit you’re looking at is, it’s important to know how big it is. This is accomplished by using a size symbol. These are made up of dots, tick marks, and X’s. Sometimes, particularly for smaller units like Kampfgruppe you’ll also see notations like “KG” on the counter.

Thunder in the East basic unit types.
Thunder in the East counters with basic unit types and sizes.

The size of the unit is almost always indicated just above and connected to the unit type symbol. In the example above, we see two German armor units (basic symbols) that are Corps sized. We also see a Russian Infantry Army. So, how do we know their sizes?

SPI Unit Scale chart

Here we see the most common sizes and symbols that you will encounter in a wargame.

Understanding the scale of the game is helpful to understand why a unit may have a strength (offensive or defensive) of a particular size. Wargames are generally normalized around a specific scale. The strength values will be higher or lower depending on the size of the unit which is why it’s important to recognize both the default scale AND the unit scale.

Here, we can see that the Russian reduced army is actually less effective on offense than the German unit, but almost as strong as the German unit on defense! How do we know that?

Those Pesky Numbers

The numbers that appear below the unit type, designation, and size are the combat and movement values. Games vary, but generally speaking wargames show two or three values that tend to be read (from left to right) as Attack – Defense – Movement. When there are only two numbers the leftmost number is generally Attack AND Defense or…the game has a set movement for unit types and drops movement to only show Attack & Defense on the counter.

Counters can be modified in a myriad of ways to cram more information into the smallest possible state.

In the example above, we see that the German movement has a white “6.” That white number indicates that during a breakthrough in Thunder in the East, the unit gets to move an additional hex. This is a particularly powerful special ability that you wouldn’t want to miss, and so the designers made it stand out by altering the color.

Other examples include, boxed, circles, colored, or underscored or superscript numbers. Good design demands that these numbers be readable, legible, and meaningful. Cramming a counter full of tiny superscript numbers and colors just makes for an over-complicated mess in most cases!

The values of the units are used, of course, to determine combat effectiveness, movement, and special abilities.

Who is this unit?

It can be important to under WHO the unit is in order to understand these numbers. Different units stood out in the various wars, battles or historical topics wargames cover. Consequently, counters have found ways to incorporate the unit designation into the design as well!

Thunder in the East basic unit types.
Looking at our counters again, we see that these are the German 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the German 41st Panzer Corps. We also see the Russian 3rd Guards Army.

Unit designations come in many varieties and, again, depend on the scale of the game. Some games, at the tactical level, may opt to use generic units. Other games, at the army/corps level (as seen above) will opt to provide generic country and unit designations.

Operational and grand-tactical level games tend to offer players an in-depth picture of the OOB that includes that Division and usually a regiment and possibly a company. These details help bring the OOB and game to life since historical information can be used to showcase WHY units were in particular places or to highlight WHY a unit is so well (or poorly) rated.

Counters are Dead…Long Live Counters!

Wargaming has come a long way. Initially only simulated in generic forms like Go or Chess. Wargames evolved through the Kriegsspiel to represent actual terrain and units. This further evolved into miniatures games with sophisticated rules and formations. Ultimately, commercial wargaming in America was defined by the early releases of Avalon Hill which featured these counters.

The counter has, for better or worse, been a staple of the hobby ever since. While many games eschew counters for other forms, the counter will never truly go away. Maybe technological advances will give us a world where what we see on the pieces will be digitally rendered and controlled by the game on the table. As a result, taps, swipes, and even holding a thumb on the piece will give us greater interactivity. These re-usable pieces may look 21st century, but they will find their roots deep inside the 19th century.

Share why you love or hate counters in the comments below and share with us your FAVORITE counter layout/design!

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