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Old July 24th, 2011, 01:56 AM
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Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape Maps

I've been running a series of posts on my blog that I’m calling the Cartographers’ Toolbox. I've decided to crosspost them here so that the broader community can benefit, since the links tend to get buried in my map thread. I'll add posts here as I add them on the blog.

I’ve been doing competitive Heroscape maps for a while now, long enough to develop a bit of a philosophy around the subject and an approach that I try to follow when designing a map. I’m also a tournament director and try to approach most of my maps from the standpoint of someone who has to get maps to an event, build them, situate them on a table that’s likely to be a bit cramped, rotate them through a series of players who may have brought armies using any figure in the game, and tear them down for transport home when it’s all over. As a result, I tend to design maps that are relatively compact, using as few terrain sets as possible, and balanced for armies of all types. And, most importantly, I want them to be fun and engaging, presenting players with a set of interesting decisions and a worthy setting for their confrontation.

Here’s the thing about maps, from a tournament director’s standpoint: a good map won’t make your event a success, but a bad map can ruin the experience for a player. It’s quite possible to have an event that uses mediocre maps that everyone still enjoys. So why bother going through the trouble of creating high quality maps? I think that a great map can bring out the best in a good player in ways that a mediocre map can’t. There’s a sense in which the map can be thought of as the third player in a game of ‘scape; many maps are passive, not demanding much of the players, while some make their presence known, at times working for, at others against a player. That’s the kind of experience that I want for my maps, and this series is about showing you how I go about doing so.

Links to Individual Posts:
More to come...

Last edited by mad_wookiee; October 5th, 2011 at 05:14 PM.
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Old July 24th, 2011, 02:01 AM
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Know the Terrain

I’m going to start with a few thoughts about the terrain in ‘scape. For many of us, the terrain is what drew us into the game in the first place – I mean, who wouldn’t take a second look at a game that can look like this on the table:


Terrain can be a double-edged sword, though, when used indiscriminately. Heroscape has a number of different types of terrain and terrain-based objects; many of these have some effect on gameplay, altering the map in some way that goes beyond aesthetics. This can be anything from gain extra movement to immediate destruction – each has its place and use, and knowing when to use what effect is the first tool in a cartographer’s box.

Generally speaking, I think of terrain as being in one of two categories: an accelerator or a decelerator. Accelerating terrain encourages movement while decelerating terrain discourages it. In a nutshell, that is one of the most basic concepts that goes into a successful map – your map will have terrain that either moves the action forward or impedes it, likely both, and placement of each will determine whether the map works or fails. Balancing both types of terrain is critical for balancing a map, because in general accelerators favor melee armies while decelerators favor ranged armies (with a few exceptions that I’ll mention later). This is because a melee army needs to close with an enemy force and typically wants to do so as quickly as possible, while a ranged force wants to remain at the outer limits of range and pick apart the enemy from across the map.

I would classify the different types of terrain and objects in this way, moving from accelerator to decelerator:
  • Ladders – Ladders are the most efficient accelerator in the game, allowing a figure to essentially double the rate at which it scales elevation. It’s limited by the fact that it often isn’t all that useful except where there are elevation changes of at least three levels.
  • Road / Castle Wall Walks – Essentially the same terrain, these tiles allow a figure to move an extra three spaces as long as all movement is on this type of terrain. Very, very efficient at moving forces across a map.
  • Lava Field – While having no explicit effect on movement, lava fields fall into the category of accelerators simply because they strongly encourage units to seek safer ground at the end of a round, or risk receiving an unblockable wound. Great at discouraging camping.
  • Normal terrain – Generic terrain is neither an accelerator nor a decelerator – it’s just there. And, often, that’s just fine.
  • Swamp water – Technically swamp water doesn’t really do much of anything to movement. I only choose to list it separately because it’s common to see it used on the first level of a map, given how much of it comes in the Swarm box. When used like this, it serves as a slight decelerator as figures have to expend extra movement to return to normal height terrain.
  • Shadow spaces – Shadow spaces offer a defensive bonus that can occasionally discourage figures from moving off of them, creating a slight decelerating effect.
  • Heavy snow / slippery ice – Anything that costs extra movement to cross is an automatic decelerator.
    Battlements / walls – That goes extra for things that cost a lot of extra movement to cross.
  • Water – Water causes many figures to end their movement. Major decelerator.
  • Line of sight blockers (trees, ruins, etc.) – This is my one exception to the idea that decelerators are ranged-friendly, at least when properly used. Critical on any map, they must still be positioned carefully, because they force non-flyers to navigate around them. This typically costs a great deal of movement when compared to a straight-line move. Having badly positioned LoS blockers can create bottlenecks that are death to melee figures.
  • Molten lava – This is sort of the ultimate decelerator. Charcoal isn’t very mobile.
The first thing that you’ll notice when reading through the list is that ‘scape offers a lot more decelerators than accelerators. In general, that means that it’s easier to create a map that can be exploited by ranged armies than it is to create one that skews towards melee. In addition, bear in mind that height is also a decelerator – it causes units to burn additional movement, thus blunting their forward momentum. A map with a lot of small elevation changes that force figures to continually move up and down will be a lot more ranged friendly than a completely flat map, all other factors being equal.

Does that mean that decelerators have no role in map building? Not at all – some of my favorite maps have used some of these features extensively. But it does mean that you’ll want to do so in a deliberate way. It would probably be bad, for example, to create a map using heavy snow, slippery ice, and a lot of battlements along primary paths without extensive use of some type of accelerator like wall walks.

There are other considerations besides acceleration that shape the way that terrain is used. Decelerators on height, for example, can serve to make a map play more favorably for melee by making it more difficult for ranged squads to camp early. In general, though, these categories serve as a foundation for how a cartographer understands and uses terrain. In the next article, we’ll discuss how to use this foundation to create movement around a map in the form of pathing.
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Old July 24th, 2011, 02:09 AM
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Walk the Path

Previously I discussed the use of terrain as accelerators and decelerators on a map. Knowing how each type of terrain functions is important to designing a great map – but knowing how to put them together is equally important, if not more. In order for a map to generate interesting gameplay, it must present the players with interesting decisions about where to go and how to get there. The term that I use for thinking about this concept is pathing.

Pathing happens the moment that a feature is created on a map that forces a player to decide direction in relation to the feature. This feature can be anything from a small elevation to a castle wall, a single water hex to a molten lava river. This is the point of application for the concept of accelerators and decelerators – accelerators push the action forward, while decelerators slow down movement or prohibit it altogether. This naturally creates pathing on a map – figures will naturally move through or along accelerators, while going around or slogging across decelerators. The question is not whether a map has pathing – the question is whether the pathing is efficient, intentional, and interesting, or muddled, confusing, and frustrating.

I tend to think of pathing on a map on a continuum of weak to strong. Maps with weak pathing tend to allow a player much more freedom of choice when determining how an army moves across the map. They’ll tend to use weaker terrain or smaller directional features -a single lava hex instead of a lava pool, for example. Elevation changes will also be less extreme. Umbra is an example of a map with weak pathing – there are few obvious directions for a player to take, but the criticality of those decisions is also lower because it’s easier to change direction later. Some terrain combinations naturally lend themselves to weak pathing, and that’s fine – just know that you’ll need to consider other ways of providing challenging decisions and dynamic gameplay.

Maps with strong pathing are more restrictive in the choices that they present to players. This can either happen by way of making movement distinctly less efficient in a particular direction, distinctly more efficient in a particular direction, or a combination of both. Use of terrain at either end of the acceleration / deceleration continuum encourages strong pathing, because those terrain types strongly affect efficiency. Hellsgate and Incendium are examples of maps with strong pathing. Both maps utilize both accelerators and decelerators to encourage armies to move in particular directions – Hellsgate through use of water and battlements to restrict and wall walks to encourage movement, and Incendium through lava and trees to block movement and road to channel it. Maps with strong pathing tend to up the tension level of the decisions by making them more critical – meaning that, if you commit to a particular path, you’re going to pay for switching paths later. Split start zones are a good example of a strong pathing technique that ups the decision level.

What purpose does pathing serve? The biggest reason to explicitly plan pathing on a map has to do with the map’s objectives – what are the focal points of the map, and how do you want armies to contest them? Planning objectives is a topic unto itself, so I won’t delve too deeply here – suffice to say that armies will be interested in things like glyphs and height, and a good map makes the route to those objectives interesting. Pathing is also important when planning start zones – you need to make sure that an army can exit a start zone in an efficient manner, in a way that encourages it to pursue some or all of the objectives on the map.

A final thought on pathing – it’s important to plan out first, second, and third turn moves for figures of varying movement points. Count out moves for single and double spaced figures of four, five, and six move along the primary paths. You want to make sure that, for example, you don’t place a bunch of elevation changes at four hexes from the start zones. If five move cost figures get to four spaces and suddenly find themselves confronted by an elevation change, they’re going to hit a roadblock, effectively wasting a movement point. In the early game, that can be important. Six move figures will be able to traverse the elevation change – and I never want to give rats an advantage that isn’t shared by many of the commonly used squads.

Pathing is something that I test when thinking about maps. We’ve been doing a lot of playing lately testing armies for an upcoming event, and knights were on the list of armies that we’ve tried. Using a four move squad on Umbra pointed out a few things to me – first, the options for four move figs were very restrictive, and second, there were a few wasted spaces that for all practical purposes would never see use during a game. To correct these issues, I decided to rewrite the entire first level, freeing up a handful of hexes that allowed me to create some stronger pathing along the sides – removal of elevation changes took away a decelerator that was hindering four move squads. I added a single hex on the left side, connecting the isolated level 1 hex with the path closer to the glyph. I also rewrote the start zone exit on the right to allow two four move figures to exit the first rank on turn 1, adding a level 2 hex adjacent to the lava. The result was a shift of eight visible hexes on the playing surface that I think speed up the map for four move figures in a meaningful way. Now, I think Umbra is close to completion. [ed. - This post was written before Umbra was published here - the version that's linked is the final version that I landed on. I'm leaving this part in the post so that you can see some of the thought process that goes into this sort of thing for me.]

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Man, that’s a lot of work for eight hexes.” And I’ll agree – yes, it is. But the lesson to be learned here is that a single hex matters. Sometimes, it’s worth rewriting the map if you can get that one hex right. That’s what pathing does for you – knowing how armies will move around your map lets you know what hexes are expendable, what hexes are critical, and what are problematic. In the next post, we’ll discuss objectives – the third tool in the toolbox that determines what your map will ultimately look like.
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Old July 24th, 2011, 02:13 AM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

You should be copying these articles into a geek list at Boardgamegeek.com I like your writings! Go win us some new HS converts!
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Old July 24th, 2011, 02:15 AM
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Set the Goal

Previously, we’ve talked about the function of terrain, and we’ve talked about the importance of using the terrain to create effective pathing. But all of that means squat unless you’re sending the figures somewhere worth going. A good map has well-planned objectives, points of contention on the map that players will actively seek to control or deny to an oppononent. Pathing helps to direct the flow of traffic, but objectives dictate its direction.

Objectives on a map typically come in two flavors: glyphs and height. The reason for this should be obvious – both confer immediate and potentially decisive benefits to the controlling army. Height offers a strong bonus in the form of extra attack and defense dice to figures holding that height against figures on lower levels. The advantage that this confers should be immediately apparent to anyone – one of the most basic rules of playing Heroscape is that height wins games. Most mapmakers instinctively understand this. What many mapmakers miss is that height is relative – in other words, it doesn’t matter how high an elevation allows a figure to reach in an absolute sense – what matters is that those figures are higher relative to the opponent’s figures.

This plays out in two different errors that tempt mapmakers of all kinds. First, there is very little benefit to having extreme height on a map. Extreme height creates two problems for armies – it serves as a giant decelerator, skewing the map decisively towards range, and it grants too much of an advantage to flying figures. Extreme height tends to make perches that are extremely attractive to figures such as Raelin. Dragons benefit disproportionately as well, depending on the size of the perch. Extreme height, though, isn’t really the most common error. More commonly, I see maps where it’s obvious that the mapmaker doesn’t really consider a single hex to be strategically significant.

Think about it this way: imagine a map that is completely flat, with a single hex at level 2 somewhere in the middle. That single hex would be the most sought-after piece of real estate on the table, and everyone would know it. That hex, and the area around it, would become a killing ground. Now, put a lot of height around the edges of that map. Guess what? That hex is still strategically significant – one hex, surrounded by lower terrain, conveys a great advantage to the figure that claims that hex, regardless of how high elevation may be on other parts of the map. Figures like Raelin can park there and defend at +1 all day. Ranged armies may be able to take height from other parts of the map on that hex, which mitigates the advantage somewhat – but that only serves as another way to skew the map towards range.

Does that mean that single hex elevations should never be used? Not necessarily – placed intentionally, single hexes can be a great strategic draw and a significant goal towards which armies can gravitate. I use them a lot on the top level of my maps. What it does mean, though, is that it’s rarely a good idea to drop extra hexes in the middle of the map just for the hell of it, that single hexes need to be considered extremely carefully before use, and that ideally they should have some sort of disadvantage, such as having line of sight problems or being made of lava fields.

Glyphs are the other type of objective typically used on a map. Glyphs come in a few different flavors, and each affect the map somewhat differently. Standard permanent glyphs convey a variety of benefits that are often quite useful; a few arguably lean towards unbalanced. A permanent glyph will typically be a big draw to figures and concentrate action in the area of the glyph. Temporary glyphs offer a one-time boon to the player claiming the glyph. This can also be a draw to figures until the glyph is activated; however, once the glyph has been used, the objective disappears and thus figures will no longer concentrate on that part of the map without some other compelling reason. Treasure glyphs function like temporary glyphs on a map. While they can confer permanent benefits to heroes, they do not attract traffic in the same way as a standard permanent glyph does, and might be ignored by armies that are predominantly squad-based.

In terms of relative strength of benefit from the various types of objectives, I tend to believe that, in an absolute sense, height is better than glyphs. Put another way, a player would need to claim both Astrid and Gerda in order to equal the benefit of simply claiming and holding height. Often, the equation becomes somewhat more complex by the fact that glyphs typically benefit a player’s whole army, while height is only useful for the figures currently claiming it. Still, I find that a good rule of thumb is to design a map’s elevations first, and then determine where glyphs need to be placed in order to balance the map. Height always attracts interest, while the draw of glyphs will vary depending on army and glyph.

A final word on placement of objectives – some cartographers hold that objectives should be equidistant from both start zones in order to make a balanced map. This is a good rule of thumb, but there can be reasons to ignore it. In general, glyphs should be an equal number of moves from both start zones and should be accessible to figures of various movement values. This means that placing glyphs at certain distances from start zones has an effect on what figures will work optimally on a map. For me, eleven and twelve spaces is a death zone for glyphs – figures with moves of six can take the glyph in two turns, while figures with moves of five or less will take three turns to reach it. That confers a distinct advantage to rats, which is something that I always want to avoid. There can be instances, however, where you’ll want to place a glyph close to the start zone to allow early access. Glyphs such as Rannveig, when placed within easy reach of both start zones, can create an interesting dynamic that can radically alter the way a map plays.

It’s harder to create a rule of thumb for height, largely because of the precept that I mentioned earlier – height is relative. I try to keep my maps limited to four levels, five at most, and make access to terrain at all levels equal from each start zone. If you’re making a symmetrical map, that’s not really an issue. Generally speaking, having a few areas of relative height with well-designed pathing from both start zones is a great place to start.

In all cases, a good map will present the player with several different objectives from which to choose – objectives that he or she will want to hold, and others that he or she will want to contest or deny to the opponent. Designing those objectives well is the trick to designing great maps. Give a player a set of meaningful choices centered on what objectives to contest and what path to take to get there and you’ll be well on your way to creating a map that players will enjoy. Next time – architecture and the structure of maps.
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Old July 25th, 2011, 02:18 AM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Excellent work! I see some mistakes I have been making when I design my maps. I know this series of articles will improve my map making. Thanks for posting this.
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Old July 25th, 2011, 03:26 PM
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Build the Foundation

Thus far in this series, we’ve discussed the use of terrain, the importance of pathing, and the creation of objectives. I consider those three elements to be the core of a viable map – fail in those, and your map will be unsuccessful. Now we’re going to talk about a few elements that I think are important features that separate a viable map from an outstanding one. If you’re not doing these things properly, you can have a map that functions well, but it may not live up to its full potential. The first of these elements that I want to discuss is the architecture of a map.

By architecture, I mean the physical structure of a map – how it’s put together, how the levels sit on top of each other and how the components reinforce and support the whole. Architecture has two goals that need to be in balance in order to work successfully: efficiency and stability. Efficiency is the use of terrain in a way that maximizes the available playing surface of a map – am I getting the most play out of the sets that I’m using? Stability, on the other hand, is the use of terrain in a way that provides a sturdy, physically solid playing surface – am I creating a map that can withstand the rigors of a days’ worth of gaming without falling apart at the seams?

These two goals sit in natural tension with each other. Efficiency wants to expose the most surface area to the player. This requires using empty space and other architectural tricks to free up the most available hexes. Stability, on the other hand, wants enough hexes present at key points in the structure to ensure that the map won’t topple or cave in during a match. The key in building a well-architected map is knowing how to stretch the terrain to its maximum efficiency without sacrificing stability.

Let’s start with the idea of stability, because it defines the limits that are placed on our search for efficiency. I look for a couple of things in a stable map. I want to be able to play a game with normal table jostling and unit movement without knocking map components everywhere. I also want to be able to place units on the map without feeling like the surface is too springy or soft. Finally, I don’t want to see gaps or “fault lines” in the playing surface where it’s obvious that the hexes are sinking or sagging. If I can accomplish those things, I feel as though I’ve created a stable map.

Stability works in two directions: laterally and vertically. Lateral stability involves securing pieces to other pieces on the same level. This is really the genius aspect of Heroscape terrain, after all – the locking edges virtually guarantee that pieces that are joined together are, by and large, going to stay together. Lateral symmetry works on the principle of surface area; the larger the surface area of the conjoined hexes, the more stable the overall platform will be. In other words, a large sheet of hexes is far more difficult to move than a bunch of scattered, unlinked individual pieces.

Vertical stability is accomplished by stacking hexes on top of each other. It’s a pretty basic concept – stick a hex under another hex, and that hex is supported vertically. The trick with vertical stability is knowing when enough is enough. Larger pieces, like the 7- and 24-hex pieces, really don’t need to be supported across their entire outline in order to be stable, particularly if they are connected to other pieces. As a general rule of thumb, I try to support around half of a piece’s perimeter from the level below. You might need more support if you have extended sequential gaps – in other words, more than one unsupported hex in a row. I try not to have sequential gaps of more than two or three hexes; more than that and a piece starts to feel spongy. Also, a piece with no lateral support needs additional vertical support, otherwise you run the risk of it tipping when pressure is put on the unsupported hex.

If stability is so important, why not just support everything? Then you can be assured that you won’t have any issues at all, right? Well, in truth it’s not really that simple. The problem, of course, is that hexes come in a limited supply, particularly if you’re not working with Rise of the Valkyrie, which has just an insane amount of terrain. Every hex that’s spent supporting another hex isn’t seeing action as part of the playing surface. If you want to build a dynamic map with interesting decisions, then you need to maximize the terrain – and that means being efficient and not oversupporting your map. Oversupporting happens when you fill in gaps in a lower area that aren’t contributing to the overall stability of the next level. The prime offender in this regard is a 24-hex piece on an upper level. For starters, anything under the 7 interior hexes on that piece is wasted terrain. It isn’t functionally supporting the tile – only the 17 exterior hexes actually touch the lower level. And out of those 17, sufficient stability can usually be achieved by supporting no more than 10 hexes. That means that by supporting the 24-hex piece in an efficient manner, you can gain an efficiency of around 14 hexes that can be used elsewhere on the board.

In reality, though, you’ll rarely get perfect efficiency out of a level. A mapmaker is locked into a certain number of hexes in certain configurations. You’re working, not just with a finite number of individual hexes, but a finite number of tiles comprised of those hexes. Often, a cartographer must strike a balance between wanting to use hexes in the most efficient manner and needing to use a certain tile in a certain way. It may be most accurate to say that you’re working to find the least inefficient configuration, because every map that stretches terrain will force you to compromise hex efficiency for tile efficiency. Daedalus is a great example of that. Looking at the first and second levels of Daedalus, you’ll see that the 24-hex tiles on level 2 are somewhat oversupported, while still reclaiming 7 hexes that can be used elsewhere.


The other thing that you’ll notice on Daedalus is an abundance of castle wall bases on level 2 that don’t actually attach to a wall piece on an upper level. This is another example of creating support while maximizing the usable terrain. It’s rare to see a competitive map using Fortress of the Archkyrie that actually places all of the wall pieces. This technique, pioneered by heroscapers.com user Gamebear, creates a very solid vertical support mechanism with pieces that would otherwise sit useless in the box. This gives Fortress of the Archkyrie the possibility of being one of the most efficient expansion sets in terms of usable hexes.


Efficiency is, to me, one of the hallmarks of a great map. Stability is a requirement – if your map isn’t stable, then it fails at delivering a great play experience. But you can create an inefficient map that plays sufficiently well to pass muster. However, using terrain in an efficient manner opens up the possibilities inherent in the sets. Maximizing the number of tiles available to the play area gives you the maximum number of choices as a mapmaker so that you can in turn give the maximum number of choices to the players.

Next up – storytelling. Great maps create a sense of narrative. What does that mean, and how can you accomplish it? More in our next post.
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Old July 25th, 2011, 03:31 PM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Love seeing all of these collected here. Great work, mad_wookiee.

Edit: Admins/mods, any chance of a sticky?

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Old July 25th, 2011, 04:54 PM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Quote:
Originally Posted by Killometer View Post
Love seeing all of these collected here. Great work, mad_wookiee.

Edit: Admins/mods, any chance of a sticky?
I agree 100%. This is going to come in handy for new and old map makers. It should definitely get stickied.
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Old July 26th, 2011, 01:02 AM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Thanks for the great series mad_wookiee, these posts will definitely help me with my future maps & I'll be reffering back to them often.

More please...

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Old July 26th, 2011, 04:13 PM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Well met!

Very informative stuff, Your Madness! On the one- or two-cardtable maps I make, planning a lack of full support isn't usually an issue; I have more than enough terrain to make that moot. Distance to height and chokepoints and accelerators/decelerators are addressed more or less intuitively on my maps, and I suspect I make a lot of errors. I'll definitely examine your articles before my next free build.

I'm really looking forward to your "Storytelling" installment. This is the first, rather than the last, thing to consider from where I sit. All of the other issues flow from it. I generally don't post maps for my scenarios, because (1) Virtualscape crashes my computer (and is too slow anyways) and (2) I believe that, as long as certain key concepts are preserved, the rest of the map's terrain can vary quite a bit, depending on the amount of terrain/space available, without compromising the scenario as a whole. At the same time, I want my maps to have dramatic elements to them, that arise out of the story. Thus the Ballroom, a medium/small hero-restricted, Heat of Battle start zone (versus normal HoB on the rest of the map) in A Swell Party!

http://www.heroscapers.com/community/blog.php?b=1572

I'd really like to see what you'd have to say about the cardtable map I created for The Lost City of D'ar Abbar, with its Vine Swing system, and Utgar Defenders (featuring a separate wound Glyph Guardian and Pool Protector, each with its own OMs and initiative, but still part of the Defenders' army as a whole).

http://www.heroscapers.com/community/blog.php?b=1830

I rebuilt it a couple of times, for stability (the Platform) and to include start zones to accommodate the Utgar Defenders' unique situation.



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Old July 27th, 2011, 01:03 AM
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Re: Cartographer's Toolbox - Creating Competitive Heroscape

Yeah, scenarios are sort of their own beast, although I suppose there's a fine line between scenarios and tournament formats like Monster Mash. I think any time you introduce new rules or abilities that affect the way the map plays, then normal conventions have the possibility of being superseded by the scenario, and you may be able to get away with certain things that wouldn't work on a map using standard rules.

That's one of the reasons I haven't done any maps for comic 'scape for a long time. I don't feel like I have a good grasp of the metagame now with all of the customs stuff going on. I don't feel like I can intuit a map in that world like I can in classic.

Having said that, I'll be interested to see your take on how I'm defining narrative. This one's going to be the hardest to convey, I think.
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