Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Joy Of Clipping

Mike recently commented on the need for clipped counters in his blog, mostly in reaction to playing a high-counter-density game of DAK2. As a public service (and because the language can easily be mistaken for topics that require proof of adulthood), here is my take on clipping counters for wargames.

The most obvious issue is, of course, why anyone would do this. I freely admit that I used to mock those who clipped their wargame counters, even back in the days when I separated my counters using a razor. Then I played Ted Raicer's copy of Paths of Glory at WBC (the real one), and I realized why. Even in a low density game, the tactile experience is considerably better than with unclipped counters. All of those pointy little corners - gone. Picking up stacks of counters, even small ones, was suddenly a much more pleasant experience. I'd never really noticed before, but after one game I was hooked. I clipped my brand new copy of Wilderness War before I'd gotten on the plane to go home, and since then almost every game in my collection has been clipped.

Does it take time? Of course. If you're working with counters that were poorly diecut or have a lot of "dust" associated with them, it does take longer, but that's because I will trim the sides of the counters with a pair of sewing scissors, the small ones with blades that are only a few inches long. This gets rid of the excess rather nicely and makes for a more uniform counter edge. Fortunately, very few counter sheets made in the past several years have this problem, and you may not mind all of that detrius. Me, I like a clean counter.

And make no mistake, it is all about the absence of the corner, not about having uniform corner clips. Your fingers go to the long side of each counter, so you are rarely if ever handling the corner itself. It is the dogears and square corners that interrupt that motion, leading to counter spillage. In a dense game, that can be lethal, or at least extremely annoying. In a sparse game, it simply makes the counters more pleasant to handle. However, having exact corners is really not an issue and more a matter of taste. Some players I know like to have the corner as square as possible, but unless there is data on the counter (be sure to check the reverse side!), there is no real functional reason I'm aware of to be concerned with this.

I will also freely admit that my rather large wargame collection has been completely clipped, with a very few exceptions. The reason the whole thing got clipped was because I *really* needed something to occupy my brain when my singing voice wigged out in 2003 for around three months. I don't believe I'm exaggerating when I say that clipping counters kept me from a complete mental breakdown. That almost certainly sounds like a joke, but I think it's true. They say our neuroses mask our psychoses, and this was a handy neuroses for me at the time. All of those magazine games and ASL counters took a long time to clip, and it let me *not* think about my singing voice being gone (and no idea if it would come back).

Mike used the word "violate" for how he felt about such an activity. I would suggest that even removing the counter from the sprue constitutes a violation. If you are trimming a negative effect of removal by hand, how does that make things worse? I'm sure it's more of an emotional response. Does it lower the value of the game? Perhaps if you overclip, making the counters more circular than square, but that's easily rectified by using some of the tips I give below. Like with most things, it's a matter of simply changing your perspective. I know it made a big difference for me, and I don't consider a game playable until it's been clipped nowadays. I've been mocked for trimming the excess on circular counters as well, but I do it for exactly the same reason - they are easier and more pleasant to manipulate, so if someone thinks I'm silly, that's fine with me. I don't do it for them. If keeping the game to sell later is an issue, you don't want to take the counters out of the sprues in any event.

Put another way, would you consider the painting of miniatures, assuming competent skills, to be a violation? Trimming the production excess, such as mold lines? It's more or less the same thing.

The other issue for some is that of time. I've found that I prefer clipping while I watch television, which seems like a bit of a contradiction. Perhaps my favorite show to clip to is The Daily Show, Jon Stewart's masterful news satire. There are a few sight gags, but mostly I can just listen. I find a sheet of 1/2" counters takes me about 40 minutes to work through, roughly two TDS episodes once you fast forward through the commercials. While it will take you some time to get through a large collection, you can pick the games you expect to play, as well as new games that arrive. How you prioritize really isn't a big deal as long as it makes sense for you. I also will clip a new game if I've bought it at a con and I'm playing another game that doesn't require my full attention. I got through Band of Heroes this way while playing Brittania at WBC-West last year, a game with a lot of downtime.

Some tips for those who are considering this as a way to enhance your cardboard counter wargames:

1) Use a good quality clipper. There are, apparently jigs out there for this very thing. My attitude is that something like this takes unnecessary time and cost for strictly aesthetic value. I use an excellent heavy clipper from Bed Bath and Beyond that costs around $10. It has a straight edge rather than curved, but it also tends to collect the corners nicely and I get very few strays. Also, it has a very big lever for your thumb, making clipping fairly effortless and callus free. A good company will also sharpen the clipper blades for you, although this shouldn't be an issue unless you are clipping very large numbers of counters (like me).

2) Start with a game that is of low value, whether to you or to the market if resale is important. Magazine games are an excellent choice, as these are rarely intended to be played but as study aides to historical conflicts. Start with generic markers if you're really nervous. Clip a few counters, stack them on the table and move them around. Make sure you aren't clipping out information on the counter itself, although I've seen very few counters for which this is an issue (usually reinforcement information, such as turn of entry, is in the corners). Try different depths for the clip, starting with a minimal clip and moving up from there. Once you find a clip you like, you'll find that it's not terribly difficult to keep it consistent enough for general usage.

3) Clip in some sort of container to keep the corners from flying around too much. A sharp clipper will allow the corner to drop into the container rather than fly around the room. Many people use the box lid for this, and I'll do this at a con or gaming table if I don't have my gear handy. I prefer using a metal mixing bowl for a few reasons. For one thing, I can keep the clipper and other materials in it when not in use. For another, the corners come out of a metal bowl much quicker than a cardboard lid for some reason. I also keep a small paper bowl and a bunch of 3"x3" baggies with the mixing bowl, as well as the sewing scissors (even new counters occasionally need a little extra trimming).

4) I generally trim counters as I will group them. With many games, that means you trim a couple of rows at a time. With others, you might have to pick and choose from the sprue as you go. The important thing is that, so long as the counter sheet is of decent quality, you don't have to worry so much about separating out the counters - you're going to be getting rid of the excess when you trim, so punching them out isn't nearly as critical. Of course, if the die cut didn't go all of the way through the counter, that's different - you don't want to tear the paper. All of the counters that will go in a bag or tray bin go into the bowl at one time. I then clip these, putting the finished counters into the small paper bowl as I go to separate them out, and then the finished counters go into the baggie. It moves along surprisingly quickly once you get a groove on.

5) If you decide to clip the whole shooting match, I suggest that you start by keeping up with new games, then going after games that will see table time, and work your way down from there. By keeping up with the new stuff, you will be spending time with the components and (to my mind) getting more interested in the game as a result. New stuff is also less likely to go OOP right away, so the financial incentive to keep a game intact is lower. Also, since you're more likely to play the new stuff, you'll realize the improvement clipped counters make right away.

I mentioned that there were a few games I hadn't clipped yet. To show you just how much I value counter clipping, here is the list and the reasons each hasn't been clipped yet:

1) Case Blue. Reason: Very new game. Also, I am on the fence as to whether or not I will actually play this and am considering leaving it in mint condition to improve it's value should I decide to sell it once they are OOP.

2) A Frozen Hell. Reason: Fairly new game. I've heard rumors that MMP considers this a bit of a flawed gem, and may redo the design. If that's the case, I'd rather keep it intact for sale, even at a relatively low price, and clip the newer version. I'm also not sure that TCS is for me.

3) Flight Leader. Reason: Fairly new game (for me, got it used from Mike). Older AH game, so it will require a lot more work than newer games with trimming the dust off the sides.

4) Empire of the Rising Sun. Reason: Wasn't certain this would ever see playing time, plus it's 90's AH so will require a bit of trimming. Now that A World At War is OOP, I may decide to keep this one, and thus it will get trimmed.

5) Imperium Romanum II. Reason: Weird West End Games counters that are very thin, almost like clipping paper. Not sure this will ever see play - it's more a study than a game, albeit a very good one.

Wow. Five games out of at least 100 that use cardboard counters. Almost certainly something over 50,000 counters clipped, perhaps up to 100,000. Of course, that's over several years - I didn't do them all over a weekend! And I'm guessing that most of you don't have collections that are nearly as large.

Am I crazy? You tell me. To my mind, I'm improving my enjoyment of a hobby that many of you share and that I've had for my entire adult life. It feeds that compulsive part of my psyche that wants to instill order on a chaotic world. It hurts no one, and costs nothing extra for me to do other than time. About the only negative is that on occasion I find myself wishing I had some counters to clip, which may explain why I own so many Panzer Grenadier games.

Do I think you should clip your counters? If I'm going to play with your copy of the game, perhaps a little. But in the long run, as with so many other things, it's all about whether you consider it a good use of your time. Me, I've got a lot of time and the payoff is well worth it, especially considering that if I were watching Daily Show and *not* clipping, I'd still have spent the same amount of time. So if you want to buy a jig and have perfectly clipped counters, go right ahead. I just don't see it as necessary if what you want are easily manipulated counters in a high density game. Hopefully these tips will give you some of the benefit of the years of experimentation I've done with counter modification without the experimentation, although I'm sure you'll want to do a little yourself to find the sweet spot.

Happy clipping.


Mike said...

Hmmm, who would have thought there was so much to say about clipping counters! :)

> on occasion I find myself wishing I had some counters to clip

Dude, I can _so_ hook you up there!

Dug said...

One thing I didn't mention - clipping other people's counters, or having other people clip yours, is just wrong. It's like having someone put on your socks. I did a few counters for someone once, and never again.

Then again, maybe it's just me...