May 24, 2024

Design x Dragoons: Movement & Location

Each week, our #DesignXDragoons panel will offer their thoughts on a talk about game design, game development, or gameplay.  You’ll see what they have to say, and get a chance to chime in yourself, either in the comments below, or in our forums

This week’s question:

There’s area, point-to-point, hexes, and even squares.  What type of map and movement systems works best for what type of game?
Give us your thoughts and examples.

Jeff Horger, game designer / Laboratory H

Wow, that covers a lot of territory. get it? nudge, nudge.  (ed note: ugh!)

I don’t know that I look at it as a type of game associated with a specific terrain style. I tend to see what I’m trying to achieve and how movement , combat and control will be determined.

A quick note that Jeff Horger has designed games with all sort of map types, from Manouevre (squares) to Thunder Alley (areas along a track) to Dark Domains (wider areas)

Point to Point is best for games that don’t really care how you get from here to there, only that you either can or cannot make the movement. The details of how you reach objectives is less important. Naval games where you have little chance of encountering enemy fleets except near objectives, strategic space games and very high level strategy games. Operational mega games can bee good for this as well where the game is about the fight, not the transporting and deployment of forces before the combat.

I usually treat area movement in the same way as point to point except more pleasing to the eye and more identifiable on distances and terrain. Area movement tends to be more scaled and provides less structured pathways than point to point even though they often represent the exact same spaces.

Squares are generally used by me for more abstract games where I want to have a lot of movement options but not require players to go into detail on terrain crossings and the like. I usually reserve it for game where terrain is important but the specifics of it can be abstracted. See Manoeuvre from GMT Games.

Day of Heroes by LNLP, with squares

Hexes are important for games where distances, sight and terrain affects, including defensible terrain, blocking objects, paths of easy travel and distance are important. For me hexes are key for two types of games, air combat and games where technical or mechanical details are key. Things like speeds, ranges, area of effect and terrain modifiers shine in games with hexes.


Tom Russell, designer & publisher / Hollandspiele

I think point-to-point movement works really well when simulating operational concerns – the cat-and-mouse chase of armies, the importance of road networks and supply hubs. Certainly when I did the Supply Lines games, this was what made the most sense to me. Something worth noting is that lots of point-to-point games typically (there are of course exceptions) restrict your marching to the activation of a single stack, compared to hex-and-counter games where you might move (all together now) “any, all, or none of your units”. Rachel Simmons once said something along the lines that hex-and-counter games create meaning in aggregate: you’re moving dozens of tiny pieces one at a time to create a single “move” – not very efficient, and the movement of any one single piece of cardboard isn’t terribly important. Point-to-point, though? Moving the wrong piece or stack, moving it to the wrong place: all of that is very important. It puts a great deal of emphasis on the operational art, and invokes images of clever generals trying to outwit and outmarch each other. It’s one of the primary appeals of point-to-point maps for me.

But I wouldn’t want to play a battle game that was on a point-to-point map, mostly because games about “The Battle of X” instead of “The Campaign/War of Y” aren’t really about that cat-and-mouse chase, the road networks, supplies, forcing the enemy to meet at a ground of your choosing — because we’re already there, you’ve already chosen the ground, and now we’re going to have a go of it. This is I think the bread-and-butter of hex-and-counter games, and the scale where hex-and-counter’s detailed terrain and numerous units really shines. Hexes can work at other scales, of course – just look at something like World in Flames. But for my money this is what they do best, and better than others.

Squares? Squares always seem to give the proceedings a chess-like feel, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: sometimes you want the thing to feel like a chess match, that battle of wits and of wills. The problem with squares of course, in a movement sense, is that diagonal movement distorts the geographic scale, and that disallowing diagonal movement makes the formations feel awkward and blocky. But maybe that’s just what you want! When I did my game With It or On It, I needed something that felt inflexible to simulate these rigid hoplite formations. So squares worked a treat.

As for areas, maybe I played too much El Grande back in my euro days, but I always think of them in terms of multiplayer political games: three or more players (the more the better) taking out slices of territory. Diplomacy is the classic example. I’m also partial of course to Richard Berg’s game Dynasty and my own Westphalia. Areas work really well for this sort of thing in a way that the granular detail of hexes might not. They’re also more “accessible” to non-grogs than hexes or point-to-point. There are also of course two player games that use areas – usually when modern logistics have made the restrictions of a point-to-point map too severe, while avoiding the nitty-gritty detail of hexes.


COL Eric Walters (R), USMC, wargame practitioner (and legendary game hoarder!)

I think it depends what the player wants from the game experience. For those of us who grew up primarily with squares and hexagon pattern maps from the early days of wargaming, it became a staple and we were comfortable with it. Area treatments—such as Risk!, Diplomacy, and Axis and Allies, were the exception rather than the norm for most of us. There were some notable games that used areas which we tolerated (SPI’s old game, 1812, which had both a hex version and an area version.

While I grew up on hex and square grid maps as a teenager wargamer in the 1970s, I’m now more taken with point-to-point and area map portrayals and associated movement systems.

The classic – Squad Leader, with wargaming’s iconic hexes

Superimposing the usual “chickenwire” hex (or staggered square grid) simply introduces a lot of minor irritants/artificialities, many of which have already been documented elsewhere far better than I ever could. My only observation on that is it seems to make more of a difference in operational-level scaled land games where how the hex grid is overlaid will drive how defenses and attacks are disposed, given the unit counters moving on it. On the continental/global strategic side, a uniform hexagon grid introduces all sorts of dilemmas regarding geographic distance from any point to any point versus maintaining geographic landforms in various areas of the map projection.

A good example of where a designer tried to mitigate this dilemma is in War in the Pacific (either 1st (SPI) or 2nd Edition (Decision Games)) where certain delineated zones have different costs for per hex, especially for naval and air movement, so that landforms can maintain recognizable shapes without too much distortion. Another example is Unconditional Surrender (GMT), which seems to stretch the European landmass like a rubber sheet from east to west while north-to-south movement remains somewhat consistent in terms of portraying distance.

Using a point-to-point and/or area system mitigates this problem a great deal for operational and strategic games. Terrain distance associations are best portrayed this way.

For strategic games, area portrayals freed designers to better simulate the effects of “the tyranny of distance” and key strategic geography. Compare the play experience of SPI’s old WW II, WW 3, and Global War games (hexgrid) with Cataclysm (GMT) and Blitz! A World in Conflict (Compass Games), Triumph and Tragedy (GMT) and even the older Europe/Asia Engulfed (GMT) that use an area approach. It’s obvious that both approaches have their adherents, as those favoring hexagons will say that World in Flames, Absolute Victory (Compass Games), the Axis Empires series (Decision Games), and A World At War (GMT) do good service in generating the depiction of distance. But the area games can feel more natural in deciding how to allocate forces to geography, instead of being hamstrung by the hexgrid (which can sometimes do a poor job in posing the problems of force dispositions, particularly in peripheral areas, compared to history).

Area map depictions at the operational level gained much popularity with Don Greenwood’s Breakout: Normandy (AH). Clash of Arms Civil War Campaigns series of titles that used an area terrain graphic approach but with a very different system than Avalon Hill’s. But Breakout: Normandy witnessed a slew of area/impulse titles, taking that system to a higher scale. Michael Rinella has done many games on this spanning several periods, from Not War But Murder (LPS) and Birth of a Legend: Lee and the Seven Days (LPS), to Counter-Attack! Arras (Battles Magazine and Revolution Games), to Operation Battleaxe (Revolution Games) and Monty’s Gamble (MMP). Playing any of these games demonstrates how the area depiction helps the players make historically informed choices on operational art, deciding where, when, and why to fight—as well as where, when, and why not to.

But even in tactical games, using area portrayals can do a better job at portraying key terrain; that became clear with Courtney Allen’s original Storm Over Arnhem (AH) area/impulse system depiction of LtCol John Frost’s stand at Arnhem Bridge. The games that followed it in that area/impulse series, most notably Thunder Over Cassino (AH) and Turning Point: Stalingrad (AH), did the same. Subsequent variations on the old Courtney Allen system show up in MMP’s Storm Over series (e.g., Kawaguchi’s Gamble, Storm Over Stalingrad, Storm Over Dien Bien Phu), and related titles by Michael Rinella (e.g., Breakthrough: Cambrai, Circle of Fire, Ie Shima, and his latest Return to the Rock: Corregidor, 1945) and Mark Stille (Hungarian Nightmare). Other designers have taken the area terrain portrayals in other directions. A favorite series of successful tactical games using areas but different than the familiar area/impulse system is the Eagles of the Empire family of Napoleonic titles (Avalanche Press and Compass Games). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Toulon, 1793 (Legion Games), and Wagram 1809 (Battles magazine).

At the strategic level, the possibilities of point-to-point approaches was perhaps best demonstrated by GDW’s much-beloved A House Divided: War Between the States 1861-65, which is still around in a revised edition.

At the strategic level, the possibilities of point-to-point approaches was perhaps best demonstrated by GDW’s much-beloved A House Divided: War Between the States 1861-65, which is still around in a revised edition. For many of us, we appreciated how well this could work when Mark Herman’s Victory Games title, The Peloponnesian War, first came out, effectively translating what some might have characterized as the confusing terrain of ancient Greece into a network of maneuver possibilities readily grasped. This approach gained steam when Mark Herman designed We the People, marrying it to a card-driven sequence of actions on the map, birthing Card-Driven Games (CDGs), many of which use point-to-point depictions. And they are still going strong by the looks of Twilight Struggle and Labyrinth (GMT), as well as Paths of Glory and its progeny.

In fact, the superiority of this approach for depicting the grand sweep of strategic actions was even more stripped down in the Victory Point Games States of Siege series of games, where major strategic progress was shown by a marker along a single track for each major strategic avenue of approach. Mark Herman would adopt this for his strategic games Churchill and Pericles. It worked because the strategic decisions were less about what geographic paths to take (there were so few of them) and more about choosing resource allocations between them. In this sense, it made the game play smoother, fast, and kept the players in their roles as supreme leaders for their sides/factions/nations in history.

There have been a number of operational games using the point-to-point approach very successfully, from solitaire simulations such as Crete 1941, Midway Solitaire, and Mike Force (Decision Games) to Steve Ruwe’s The Late Unpleasantness: Two Campaigns to Take Richmond (Compass Games).

FAB Sicily, an area-movement game

Even some successful tactical games have incorporated elements of point-to-point terrain depictions, such as the solitaire Pavlov’s House and Castle Itter (DVG), and Days of Ire: Budapest 1956 (Cloud Island)


Kim Kanger, game designer / Legion Games (mostly!)

Point-to-point is when you need to create ”channels” – where position A can only be reached from position B. This fits a game where you wish to create a certain narrative, where units are supposed to follow certain tracks (like Path of Glory)


Paul Rohrbaugh, game designer / High Flying Dice Games

I have no set preferences, but use whichever is best suited for the game’s design and for portraying the historical narrative. That said, area and point-to-point maps IMHO allow for a more realistic or period graphical portrayal than hex maps, as they the topography and geography don’t have to be “fudged” to fit the hex grid.


Jim Werbaneth, game designer & magazine publisher / Line of Departure

It really all depends a lot more on scale most of all. Hexes work great for most wargames, as do areas; try to imagine Storm Over Arnhem and its descendants without area movement. Point to point becomes more attractive for games covering huge areas and time arcs, as in Pax Britannica (Victory). Further, the best card driven games, such as Wilderness War and Paths of Glory (both GMT), use point to point, and in both it works well. So it seems that this approach is especially attractive and valid for CDG’s.


Soldier Kings, with its point-to-point map

Mike Bennighof, President / Avalanche Press –  holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published many hundreds of books, games and articles on historical subjects.

That’s dependent on the story you’re trying to tell; there’s no universal best practice. It also depends on how well the map can evoke the story through its graphics; game play and game look should be thoroughly integrated, without one bolted onto the other.


David Freer, designer / JTS Simulations

In my experience hexes are best where movement and range are critical game inputs. For example, it would be difficult to do a realistic tactical game with area movement. Area movement is more appropriate for a strategic level game where control has a deeper emphasis. Point to point is a halfway house where movement/distance is a concern, but there is a want to limit where players can or cannot go. It is a simpler construct than hexes, but more detailed and prescriptive than area movement. As the bulk of my time is spent designing computer games, there is little need for point to point as this is easily policed by the computer. The more prevalent model is either hex or area, with a hidden mode for both where players may not be aware of the grid that they’re playing on as it’s hidden from view.


Chris Weuve, wargame practitioner, futuristic warfare consultant, occasional YouTube star

This is a harder question than it might at first seem, because it includes elements of terrain, time scale, distance scale, and specific factors dealing with the event being gamed. But in general, I like area movement if the timescale is such that something more granular is not needed, and if the terrain is such that it captures essential elements without the need to add a lot of additional complexity. A great example of this are land games that use area movement to capture the effects of geographical features. For instance: mountains represented by a lot of small areas, valleys with long, narrow areas, et cetera. In fact, I think you can argue that Real-World™ armies use area movement, so wargames representing them should too. At very large scales, area movement can also compensate for distortions in maps caused by projecting a sphere onto a flat surface by making areas at high latitudes wider.
Other than that, hexes are good. Squares have neither the advantages of areas nor of hexes; their sole advantage is Cartesian math is easy, but you can cheat with a hex grid if you know how to number it.


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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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