Monday, March 6, 2017

A Few Words On Building Scenarios

Ok, maybe more than a few words ... you've been warned!

Perhaps the number one question I have received since putting up my modern modification for Bolt Action has been "Are you planning to add points for the army lists?"  In general, the second most common question is "How do you go about designing your scenarios?"  Now, I'll be the first to admit - I'm neither unique here or some sort of revolutionary thinker ... but it is interesting to me how others react to my opinion on the matter (which is to say, usually they react positively - but some think I'm daft and have gone soft in the head).

Hopefully you'll find this interesting ... or perhaps boring ... but I figured I'd share my thoughts on the matter so at a minimum I can point people who ask in the future to this post.

Say what you will ...
but in my wargaming experience,
the end of a truly bloody battle
(for both sides) is perhaps the
most enjoyable experience one can have.

This applies to those who don't play in tournaments.

I don't do tournaments - my love of the hobby is in bringing historical battles (rather, parts of them) to life on the tabletop in such a way that both sides have an opportunity to claim victory no matter the historical odds.

Allow me to paint with a broad brush for a moment ...

Points systems are a necessary evil for tournaments in my opinion - or the crux of many who are either uninterested in the game enough to design a scenario ("hobby" types who like building and painting more than playing), or those who are happy battling it out with 2 hills, 2 forests, 1 building and a meeting engagement every week (been there, done that, got the emotional scars to prove it), or those who just don't have the wargame experience to figure it out (lacking good guidance).  I think most lack guidance as when guidance is sought, you'll tend to get a historical lecture more than real wisdom for making a game fun.  I realize that for some, exact historical simulation is what is enjoyable ... that isn't me --- I want historical, fun and balanced (queue baby crying sound).

If you want more from your wargames ... read on.  If I've already offended you ... exit stage left ...

Sometimes you start a game thinking ...
"This is a fairly even game - we have
about the same number of points."
But then you get half way through
and you find yourself in an
overwhelming position with
no hope of winning, asking
yourself "How did this happen?"

Let's start.  The hardest thing to communicate on this topic is that **successful** scenario design is more subjective than objective.  That is to say it is more of an art than a science.  I say successful because anyone can design a scenario but to get it down to the point you master the ability to deliver an enjoyable experience of play for both sides - that right there is when you know you've got it down.  However, getting it right for one game system doesn't automatically mean you'll get it right with another ... which leads me to our first part ...

Familiarity and experience with the rules system in question is the most relevant background for scenario design.

Nothing beats experience.  The more you play a game and understand the rules, the better you'll naturally be at designing a balanced and fun scenario for it.  As could be said for almost any aspect of wargaming, trial and error - especially error - are how you learn and avoid mistakes in the future.  More painful when you just ruined a $100 model ... fortunately for scenarios all you'll really have lost out on (if you screw it up) is time.

Well thought out surprises in a scenario can
add a lot of enjoyment and flavor - unless
the other side is completely unprepared
to deal with it and it becomes a massive
swing in the playability of the game.

The more you know about the period, the more you are likely to build a historical and balanced scenario.

There is of course a limit to this.  You don't have to be a walking encyclopedia - but understand who fought, read about the key battles and the moments in those key battles.  Understand what a historical outcome looks like and how various battle plans evolved through different periods of history.

Understand the odds needed for attacking a
position - and how they change depending
on how prepared the position is - not only
in look and feel on the tabletop, but most
importantly how beneficial a position is
in the rules being played.

Asymmetrical and symmetrical warfare isn't just for modern and a balanced scenario doesn't mean the forces are evenly allocated in either case.

Balance to me isn't force composition, it is the likelihood for both sides to have a chance to win while enjoying the game.  Some of this means you'll have to change how victory points are awarded (e.g. insurgent cells destroyed is 1/2 while a single coalition solider is 1).  Victory points and points awarded for objectives can offset a significant imbalance in force composition and size.

My Pickett's Charge game leaves no chance for the Confederate's to carry the Union position.  But the way it is designed allows them to still "win" in victory points (a moral victory).  I did this with victory points and by allocating two Union units to each lane (5 lanes).  All the Confederate units can attack any lane .. and are just looking to break through or force 2nd line Union units to commit forward.  This is a great example of bringing a historical battle that was massively imbalanced to life on the tabletop in a way that is enjoyable and "balanced" for both sides.

Another example is my games with modern Iraqi insurgents fighting the coalition.  These are based around running groups of insurgents out into the open to attack coalition troops who are better trained and equipped.  The entire experience is built around one side getting (essentially) blown away while the other doesn't take all that many casualties.  But, the insurgents are so expendable that it doesn't matter when a whole group gets destroyed ... killing a single coalition solider makes up for it ... in some cases you can loose two groups for each coalition KIA.  Very different gaming experience.  Check your norms at the door.

Terrain and how it relates to the initial deployment and movement rates of units in the game far outweigh almost any other aspect of scenario design.

The map and terrain layout is especially crucial.  If an attacking enemy only moves 6" a turn and has to cross 10 feet in 6 turns ... well, you've failed at math.  Also understand the limits of the rules you are playing.  Great example is Muskets & Tomahawks.  The core rules work great on a 4 foot by 4 foot table as most units move 4-6" with one action.  Granted, each unit will get 4 actions a turn, resulting in 16 to 24" by turns end, each game generally lasts 3-4 turns and contains a lot of terrain making it hard to move great distances, even if you have the theoretical movement for the game.  If I can move 6" a turn and get 6 turns, don't make the objective 36" away - as that would require maximum movement every single turn to get there.  I've gone two ways with this stuff ... sometimes I modify the core rules to increase movement rates to the size of table and game I want to play.  Other times I accept the core rules and limit my games to the size of table and terrain that work for the rules and period.  Rivers and narrow passes can sound like a great idea but drastically limit game play options and can really swamp game progress.  Which is important --- keep the game moving along - that is very critical - don't bog players down in slow moving terrain.  A great example was a game I ran with several lines of Bocage in Normandy.  Brutal slug fest, took forever and bogged the game down --- lesson learned.  Play through the game "in your head" - how do you expect each side to develop their advance (or defence) across the terrain within the game turns available.

Another thing I've adopted for convention games is always start units on the table.  The worst thing you can do is give an inexperienced player a bunch of options for advancing onto the table.  Not only does this take a while, but initial movement in many systems can be the early death of a side.  Inexperienced players tend to be cautious and advance slowly ... even when you are telling them outright to make a dash for the goal line.

Shrinking and flattening historical maps is common for me.  For example, my Little Round Top shrinks the area of the map down some so I can fit both Devil's Den and the top of Little Round Top all on the same 6 foot by 8 foot table.  Now, although shrunk, I can still provide enough room for both assaults.  Another example is taking the "angle" out of Pickett's Charge and flattening the line across the table so that all Confederate units are advancing roughly the same distance - but are slowed down by crossing the fence at different points adding variability to the advance.  This is important to making the historical scenario playable and not just a grueling kick in the nards for the Confederates (with no chance to win, even in a "soft" way) - which it still is mind you - just in a more enjoyable way since they know they don't have to win by killing all the Union troops but rather by triggering situations that gain them victory points (e.g. breaching the line).

Be careful not to get tunnel vision for one side
or outcome - this can result in a game
quickly becoming unwinnable - or rather,
one side working out that there is
little to no chance of victory, well
before it actually happens.

David Skibicki (link) uses the term
PAD - Prolonged Active Death ...
essentially just rolling dice waiting
for the inevitable.

What is your "average" desired outcome for the game - which can be historically based or not.

How close to a historical outcome do you want?  For example, my Pickett's Charge game I wanted a historical outcome in that the terrain, special rules and force composition make it impossible for the Confederates to carry the Union position.  But, they can still win by breaching the line and forcing Union reserves to commit.  We've played 4 games now and each game was decided by 1-2 victory points.  You can go the opposite way.  You want to play Pickett's Charge but give the Confederates a full range of tactical options (delay, move up the artillery, pound the Union line and don't focus on the crop of trees) --- let the players try to win and be able to carry the Union position?  It is possible to do that as well.  Again, I tend to determine the outcome I want first, then start playing through the games in my head - thinking of the special rules and how I need to manipulate the map to limit tactical options.

Play testing matters - but the more you get better at this the less you'll need to play test.

I've got most scenarios I write up down to a single play test with minor alterations but that is only after many long years of doing this approach.  Don't be afraid to adjust things to make the game more enjoyable - listen to what the play test is telling you (yikes, that sounds like a line from the "wargame whisperer" ... ugh).

Consider the game play from both sides ... don't be a douche-bag.

This really goes without saying ... but I'll say it anyways.  I've seen some put games together simply because they wanted to play one side and win.  The kind of min/maxing horse "poop" you see in tournaments.  Oh, the rules didn't say I "couldn't" do it.  If our education system was based on telling us what we can't do we'd be in school until we die.  Some things are common sense.

Don't be "that guy" - even in the realm of fantasy showing up with 500 dragons is a dick move.  We all like playing with tanks - but that doesn't mean you show up with 20 Tiger tanks and give your mate three T34's because "this totally happened that one time at the battle of blowingsmokeoutmyass."

Min/maxing or horribly out
of whack compositions are generally speaking,
no fun ... avoid it at all costs.
"Rule book said I need a player (me) and
miniatures (my 40 cannon)."

Finally, it does matter what and how much you put on the tabletop.

Despite my dislike of points - having them isn't horrible - just be careful of imbalance.  For example, points in Bolt Action are ok - but when infantry is combined with vehicles, points are all out of whack.  Many points systems are determined by armament and basic stats ... but more than that effects the units effectiveness in the game.  For example, in Musket's and Tomahawks, regular infantry is expensive - but rules the day in open terrain battles.  Irregulars are cheaper and come in smaller units - but if there is a lot of terrain on the table (and usually there is), they'll absolutely school the regulars ... at a fraction of the cost.  Just one of the reasons I take points very lightly and don't mind when they don't exist at all.  Everything else I've mentioned up to this point is more critical to building a successful scenario.  The easiest part should be determining what troops you want on the board --- even if you want to do something wacky, imbalance in forces can be offset by terrain, special rules, victory conditions and more.

Perhaps the largest mistake in force selection isn't what you are putting on the table, but how much.  This is less about if one side is more or less powerful, and more about giving units the room to operate on the tabletop.  Jamming 50 units in 2" may look cool but destroys all tactical options other than hold or move forward.  Give units room to maneuver (some scenario can of course limit this on purpose - but do so carefully) - and make sure they have the movement to maneuver - it is a fine balancing act --- space versus movement rates.

Now, this isn't to say all this is the best way to do it .... just the way I go about it.  I consider all this in scenario design and at this point it is second nature for me.  It has served me well over the years.  I've tried to cover my thought process here ... but as I said it is more of an art than a science --- all I can say is try thinking through it a few times ... maybe you'll find it useful.

There you have it ... a bunch of rambling you didn't ask for ... ha!  Ok, I'm off to base troops!


  1. Excellenta writing Jay !!! I can second you on your analyzis of scenario design, I had a very good read !

    Thanks for take the time to out it together and also find the entertainers pictures.

    Best regards Michael

    1. Thanks Michael! I was worried it may be too pedantic ... but seems to have done the trick :-)

  2. Superb post on scenario design, agree with it all.



  3. Great stuff Jay! Sound like an article to possibly pass along to Wargames Illustrated no?!
    Ah, many a time have I fought in the "Battle of Blowingsmokeoutmyass" :) Probably more times than I'd like to admit.

    1. You know, maybe ... I do need to write another article. Hummm. I've learned primarily through error ;-)

  4. Thanks for sharing. This article includes some good information for creating scenarios. I've probably fallen into a few of the categories in the past, but now I know what to watch out for.

    1. Thanks Sean. I think we've all found ourselves there at one point or another ;-)

  5. Fun read, Jay!

    And yes, I can affirm you are not "some sort of revolutionary thinker" :-D But you are a stand up guy, a deeply experienced gamer and a generous host! So I think that makes up for it. :-)

    1. lol .. you are too kind good sir!! :-)

  6. Great post Jay! By all means go for another. :-)

    1. Thanks Jim ... I'll think on another verbal expulsion I can do ... after basing some troops! :-)

  7. Heartily agree. Points are no guarantee of parity and rule whallah's acting within the letter rather than the spirit need to be avoided. Know you period and your rules and a victory depends on the conditions you agree to set for said rather than an absolute. Good article and should be required reading. Best regards from a non-tournement playing historical fun gamer (not quite the niche I had hither to thought)

    1. Thanks! lol ... yes, was interesting how I had to self-categorize while writing it :-)

  8. Great read Jay. More like this please! I love getting a peak into your design philosophy and decision making process.

    1. Thanks John --- be careful what you ask for ;-)

  9. I agree, a very well thought out guide, Scenario design is arguably one of the most difficult things to do (well) in our hobby!

  10. Excellent points, and have learned most of these lessons myself over the years. I found article well written and helpful in refreshing stuff in my head as I prepare to head down that road of scenario design once agian with some new projects of mine. I even picked up a few pointers. Well done and entertaining, thanks for sharing. I agree with others submit this to wargames illustrated!


    1. Thanks Kevin! I'm glad I wrote it down - so I can remember it ;-)

  11. Excellent Stuff Sir

    Like you I don't do points...

    If you are limited by time to generate a scenario can I suggest a random force generator. Some of the best games we have playecd are when both sides gets x number of forces but until the unit cards are dealt out you don't know what you are going to get (or end up facing)

    1. Thanks! That is a great point - looks like I will write this up for WI --- so gonna steal that --- but don't worry, I'll give you credit :-)