Building A Cinematic Experience On The Tabletop

A few years ago, I staged a narrative wargame called The Black Ruins Massacre on the tabletop down in my basement as an experiment in storytelling. The idea was not only to stretch my skillset by building out the models and terrain, painting everything, and generally going as cinematic as possible (I even set up a tabletop fog machine at one point), but to apply the ruleset as a storytelling engine.

I wrote that all that up here (people seem to like these writeups):

When the COVID-19 quarantine started, I worked up a beast of a follow-up I called The Battle Of Four Armies. I’d done a labyrinth on the table, and a temple, and was thinking this time I’d go all-out and add in another element to push myself: a compatible sister game with its own set of rules. (I knew Warmachine, but I had to pick up a Hordes starter set and learn its rules as well to even make all this work.) Both these fantastic games are from the good folks at Privateer Press. Make sure you support them by the way, they’ve got something special going on with those clean, popping rulesets.

I had an idea of more narrative immersion, maybe adding some solo roleplay or something, but it never happened. So this became more of an intellectual challenge – like a game of chess that goes on for months. And wow! It was an experience…over two years long getting me through COVID and teaching me a lot about escapism and challenging myself in wargaming.

And it was a blast!

The Battle Of Four Armies:

  • A different army was deployed at each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west
  • The lightning-charged knights of Cygnar (led by Major Beth Maddox) to the north opposite wicked, spooky Cryx (led by Bane Witch Agathia) – both from Warmachine
  • The brute beasts of the Trollbloods (led by Ragnor Skysplitter) on the west opposite the cruel pain servants of The Skorne Empire (led by Lord Tyrant Zaadesh) – both from Hordes

The battle was staged inside the black walls of an open temple, with stone stairs at each cardinal direction to allow the combatants to get up and down from the wall rim. A black stone ziggurat adorned with eerie statues lay in the center. Deep below that ziggurat, a terrible and forbidden machine from an earlier, forgotten age had been buried with its last engineer. These armies wanted that machine, whatever it did.

Watch a short video tour of the tabletop here:

So what happened?

Man, the craziest, most unexpected things! I struggled mightily on keeping the two different rulesets in mind, so the narrative suffered a bit. Plenty of real-world distractions kept me away from it all too much as well. Still, the craziest things!

Zaadesh and Major Beth basically bashed their infantries into each other on the ground like a slaughterhouse while an epic clash happened up on the wall:

Skorne’s Zaadesh (closest to camera, in red on the wall) sent a charging rhino-beast up on the wall smack into Maddox’s gun-toting warjack, Firefly (in blue at top-right corner). Whoever won this smash-up had a chance to come around behind their enemy’s leader. Major Beth is in blue on the ground at the base of the stairs.

That particular clash was a fun one. Zaadesh had the idea that his rhino-beast (Titan Gladiator) would bash his guy out of the way, then jump off the wall (because he’s terribly slow) and charge into Major Beth from behind. It seemed more and more necessary to do something desperate as Maddox’s blue infantry wiped Skorne’s red army off the table. The damage the Titan would take in the fall though, and that he took in this fight, caused Zaadesh a bit of worry about the plan. He held off for months on that one, as COVID wore on…

So after giving Firefly a beating, the red Titan picked him up and threw him off the wall, then jumped down onto him anyway. It was glorious. Zaadesh figured the jig was up anyway, as he lost more and more men. It was a gamble that didn’t really work, but felt amazing. (I tweaked the rules a bit on this, because I really, really wanted to throw someone off that wall!)

But things were far too over for Skorne elsewhere on the battlefield. Just beside where the Titan had fallen, his fellows were taking a true beating and never really picked up any momentum.

Meanwhile to the south and west, Cryx and the Trollbloods charged each other on the ground in a bloody, bloody skirmish (three images above). I was surprised how tough the Bane Witch’s armored undead warriors were in the face of some mighty blows from the leather-clad blue trolls.

The Bane Witch herself (on the ground just to the left of the stairs in the lower part of the image below) snuck behind a set of ruins to take potshots at any enemies on the wall. That’s her two beastly warjacks, Slayer and Ripper in the lower left of the image on the wall, charging towards Ragnor Skysplitter, also on the wall and at the top of his own set of stairs. Her idea was for those two to get to Ragnor and hurt him, then sneak into range from the ground and cast her malicious spells for the kill. Typical for a bane witch.

But time was running out for her because Major Beth had taken out Zaadesh far more quickly than anticipated and was redirecting her infantry into this part of the field. A couple of Trollbloods got some shots in at the Bane Witch, but she made short work of them from her hidey hole behind the ruins.

Ragnor sent his own leather-clad warbeasts along the wall to protect himself and stay in a strategic position to cast spells at Major Beth’s troops should they get that far before he did away with the Bane Witch.

From her hiding place, Agathia took one unsuccessful shot after another with her eldritch spells, but nothing seemed to land. It was a fortunate day for Ragnor Skysplitter, as his trolls seemed invincible.

And as one after another of the Bane Witch’s undead warriors fell to the Trolls, Ragnor turned some of his ground troops around to prepare for Major Beth’s assault. It was going to be tight, and he needed to take out that filthy witch fast if he was to avoid an assault on two fronts.

And a well-directed spear was the final blow for the evermore desperate Bane Witch, as she died with a curse on her lips while her undead soldiers drifted away in wicked green smoke.

It was the final clash: trolls and lightning-charged knights racing towards one another on a December evening.

Major Beth stayed safely out of range while her hammer-wielder, Ironclad faced two trolls alone. Her two other warjacks ganged up on the spearthrower troll, Impaler.

The trolls had very much met their betters, and each of them fell in violent slugfests that were almost brutal to watch. Ragnor tried to help from the wall with his spellcasting, but his attempts amounted to nothing. Much like with the Bane Witch’s feeble spells there at the end, magic wasn’t going to carry the day here.

Only steel, apparently.

And eventually, it came down to Ragnor alone, staring down much of Major Beth’s mighty army:

Ragnor may have been desperate, but he wasn’t planning to surrender. Not after all this time. His powerful Shockwave spell was going to buy him time to move away from his attackers and…just perhaps..to keep moving back and do enough damage to thin them.

Each time he landed the spell, an area impact knocked down everyone close enough. And they were crowded together naturally as they tried to funnel up the stairs to where he was standing.

But inch by inch, Major Beth’s knights closed in. If Ragnor was going to have any chance at all for a showdown with her, he’d have to pick off some of his attackers more successfully than this. Ultimately, three got to the wall and engage with him in hand to hand combat. Major Beth and Firefly were firing from the ground. It was terrible to see, and Ragnor stood bravely in the hail of incoming fire. In the end, he could barely see through the blood and sweat in his eyes.

This is how he’d want you to remember him…going down fighting. Ironclad and Firefly made their way up the stairs and behind him. Major Beth kept up her hail of fire from the ground. And the two remaining Cygnar knights pounded Ragnor mercilessly. Until he fell.

Major Beth’s Cygnar was victorious. And she’d see to the dismantling and destruction of whatever was buried beneath that mysterious ziggurat. Till next time, though.

Because she’s made enemies here on this field.

So that’s how it all ended. A long one, and an exciting one with twists and turns. Hope you enjoyed the recap. It really served the purpose: a challenge and a stretch, and something to get me through the quarantines. Truly, a great game!

Next up is The Battle Of Monument Falls: a frozen landscape with iced falls and snow, the terraced hillsides of a long-abandoned mine, and a strange bridge adorned with two eerie statues that has an enigmatic story attached to it. Lord Exhumator Scaverous will lead Cryx’s expanded army against Skorne and Lord Tyrant Zaadesh (who seeks vindication as well as advantage) and will bring a new unit of Immortals to fight alongside him.

We will see…

Till next time…

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