Scenario design, and what’s it all about anyway

I am in turmoil at the moment. It’s been a hard year. My son Casey died unexpectedly the weekend after a very enjoyable Enfilade. Let’s just say the following six months have been very difficult for me, my wife, my son Patrick and the entire family.

Casey Golden Age Air Racing at the Museum of Flight in 2004

To compound the feelings of grief more, Dave Schueler, my dear friend, one of my gaming brothers of Dave, is quite ill with cancer and the outlook is grim.

Dave and yours truly at DANG 2019.

The painting goes on. I enjoy it, but it’s also a major coping mechanism for me. If I stay busy enough I won’t feel quite so bad. I wrapped up the last of my 1914 figures last week. I’m hoping I’ll finish the last of my Dark Age Irish for SAGA this week. I’ve also engaged in significant retail therapy in the last month or so. I’ve purchased buckets of AWI figures from Perry Miniatures, the Beowulf figures from Eureka, and a half dozen mostly biographical books on the American Revolution in the South. Like the figures requiring paint, the books need reading. I’ll get to ’em.

But, I’ve also become quite introspective about the hobby. Mostly I’ve focused on scenario design. I think it’s a natural because Daveshoe is the best scenario designer I’ve ever known, and we did a lot of work together. I was always someone happy to paint whatever was needed and Dave would build a game around it.

Dave’s Lissa game in August did the best of all things Dave. We took what was a really big naval game, and Dave adapted the Sail and Steam Navy adaptation of the game over to something more playable with six guys. It was fun and manageable in an afternoon.

Let me share a pet peeve. Point scales in game systems. Why do I dislike them? They encourage two or more gamers to point out some figures, set up on opposite sides of the table and have at it. From Daniel Mersey games to Flames of War, this is what rules systems tend to offer to gamers. This is nothing new. I played WRG ancients and they are like the granddaddy of points based games. Blame it on Phil Barker. T

I am inspired by historical battles, though I’m not wedded to a historical order of battle and having it out. I prefer something that encourages players to be creative with the forces at hand. I prefer games that begin at least seeming balanced, but maybe they aren’t really. I like designing scenarios though it often doesn’t drive my projects. Often it’s the period that gets me started and then I way overbuild for what I’ll actually use. A great example of this is the almost 200 planes I painted for a WWII air campaign over Malta. I have every eventuality covered and I think I’ve used a total of 20 planes.

To a certain degree, I think we all do that. Build it all dammit. All the French at Waterloo or Borodino, and then we realize that these often make bad games because the battles turned on an unlikely circumstance, or one or two terrible command decisions. These would never happen on a tabletop in which the order of reinforcements was known and the entire tabletop is seen. Of course, we do have better access to pain reliever for our headaches than Napoleon did.

Having worked on more than a dozen scenarios with Dave, his real genius is adopting the gamer’s eye view, rather than the designer’s experience. Rather than focusing on the figures and the terrain, some simple directions and turn ’em loose, Shoe looked at the scenario and what were some options the players could have along the way. Usually these options had a historical basis, but sometimes they were about technological upgrades. And often there was an element of risk involved.

Example. In our scenario of bombing the Tirpitz during the Tungsten raids in 1944, both sides could add some planes not actually present. But the element of risk always included-where would the reinforcements show up and when would they arrive? How many victory points would you have to sacrifice and would the defenders be better prepared? These are examples of the kinds of choices often offered to players.

This had an additional effect on the game and that is requiring cooperation between players. Dave annually hosted his annual naval game in the week between Christmas and New Years. Called Dave’s Annual Naval Game or DANG for short, these were carefully planned out with players having input on a period and genre in the three months or so leading up to the big day. Once decided, Dave assembled the ships and carefully crafted a mini-campaign lasting most of a day. The attendees divided themselves into opposing sides and were faced with a semi-strategic and tactical situation requiring a bunch of choices, agreed upon by each side. It was usually up to each group when and where to bring on battle and how they would confront the enemy. Think of the search phase in Avalon Hill’s Jutland game and you get the idea, but perhaps search skills would be augmented or upgraded, or sacrificed for some other advantage. But the group was given the problem to solve.

In the past few years, I have very much adopted my own view of scenario-making as a problem solving activity. One of the problems gamers encounter is can you work with the players on your own side. That’s rarely a problem, but I have been in those games where communicating with the guy on your right can be just as difficult as attacking the guy to your front. But the problem-solving approach is useful. Here’s your problem, here’s your troops go solve it. It does, however, put a lot back on the shoulders of the players, though factoring in some options along the way could make it more interesting and involving.

My Buffalo Hunt game from 2019. Based on some dino-hunting rules, it pitted Native American clans against one another in the annual tribal hunt. Fun, weird with some of its own stories.

What about the idea of a scenario as story-telling? I confess, as a person who thinks story-telling is important in all its different forms this is attractive. I think it is more easily achieved with smaller, skirmishy games. We all bring our knowledge, interpretations and biases to a scenario anyway, what is the outcome we’re trying to achieve with the game? Set up the conditions, ply both sides with benefits and how do you get there? I’ve played in several of Michael Koznarsky’s wonderful Russian Civil War games and he comes closest to achieving a story-telling environment.

I’m hoping the coming year or so I can pay more attention to my scenario design than having the troops and terrain on the table, setting up commands and saying have at it. Sometimes it’s difficult, along with managing the players at times, to get past that, but that is one of my real goals for the future.

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3 comments on “Scenario design, and what’s it all about anyway

  1. Alan says:

    I think there’s room in gaming for points-based games and for carefully constructed scenarios with (maybe) unbalanced forces. I play lots of ‘Hordes of the Things’ and they’re just straight head-to-head battles with equal points and I never tire of them. somehow the games are still entertaining and, within the scope of the rules, offer challenges and surprises. Games like Dragon Rampant and Gaslands also work OK with points, since they also use scenarios, which can be randomised *after* the players have chosen their forces. There is no perfect army/build for every circumstance, so you will end up with players having to make the best with what they have. The points provide a framework, however, that removes the wild extremes and creates an illusion for the players that they stand a chance. and all of this requires minimal preparation. And, of course, that’s the issue with scenarios – they take time to prepare. Great if you have the time to do it. Less so if you’re looking to play something on a Thursday evening with 24 hours notice 🙂

  2. Sgt Guinness says:

    I’m so very sorry to hear about your son, having two teenage sons myself I can’t even imagine the grief!

    I hope your friend’s prognosis improves. I lost 2 gaming buddies in 2 days to dreaded cancer just recently. We are getting to that age.

    Scenario design is critical for a fun and exciting game. I agree wholeheartedly with the story telling aspect. I look forward to future posts of yours.

    JB

  3. JOHN GEE says:

    Wow, more emotion that usual with a war game post, as is most appropriate. All my best to Dave Shu, I do earnestly hope that things work out as well as is possible for him.

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