The game of Song of Drums and Shakos that I played at the last convention not only convinced me to play more skirmish games (where I can), but to possibly try my hand at running a game at the next convention I have lined up, SouthwestCon 2023 in Tolleson, AZ. To that end I decided to start designing a scenario to play and then do a few dry runs to refine it.
The first decision to make is what rules to use. Because the Song of engine re-kindled my interest, I am going to go with that. It is a relatively simple game that you can add as little or as much 'crunch' as you like, by adding in the special abilities. Also, every turn the player has numerous little decisions to make such as how many activation dice to use, so player engagement is relatively high.
The next decision is what period to play. My initial inclination was to use my wooden 43mm Dark Ages figures, to get them out on the table again. (The more I think about it, the more I realize I probably use them the most, of all the 43mm wooden figures I have.) Another alternative is Napoleonics. If I want to drop down to 28mm (and blow off some serious dust) I could make it WW II, but I would have to seriously tweak the Flying Lead rules (which I ranted about more than 10 years ago).
So far I have played two Dark Ages and one Napoleonics version of a 'King of the Hill' scenario (where possession of the hill determines the victor) and the results brought up some interesting points, all of which make the scenario rather stale.
The Only Objective is to Eliminate the Enemy
The official scenario objective was "at the end of the game to have more figures on the hill than the enemy". However, there was always one overriding victory: elimination of the enemy, typically accomplished by them hitting a breakpoint and failing morale. If you did that, then it was assumed that you would take the hill unopposed after the enemy's rout.
In one scenario I remember losing enough figures early that I determined the only way to win was to break the enemy and thus capturing the hill was totally irrelevant. I ended up pursuing his leader attempting to run him down. If I had been able to accomplish that, half of the enemy forces would likely have routed and those that had not would either have vacated the hill, or if they had stood, been isolated and picked off.
Combat Becomes Static
Although this might sound like an inevitability with Dark Ages troops, as everyone gets into melee and maneuver essentially ceases, but it happens in Napoleonics too as troops settle into cover and start sniping at one another. This is either because the primary objective (the hill) is a static location or because everyone is 'stuck in' and movement only occurs when some figure is eliminated.
The Rest of the Board is Fairly Useless
Unless you both decide to ignore the primary objective and simply go for breaking the enemy force everyone is likely to be heading for the hill. Potentially terrain close to the hill might be of value as you snipe away at people on the hill, but in the end you have to be on the hill to win. But any terrain out of line of sight of the hill is essentially just window dressing.
A recent scenario is a good example of this. In the scenario depicted below, when I first reported about it, I left out all terrain detail, other than the town (in the lower right-hand corner). That is because everything other than the town was irrelevant. As it happened there were forests on the left, a ridge line on the French right flank, and roads. In this battle the town was worth 5 VP, a road on the enemy's baseline was worth 1 VP, all other terrain worth nothing, and destroying enemy troops worth variable VPs. (By way of comparison, I was able to score 3 VP for troop elimination against the enemy while they were able to score 2 VP against me.) I did not bother to draw other details because the town was the sole piece of terrain that mattered.
The 'King of the Hill' scenario feels the same way. Any terrain off of the hill just seems like window dressing.
Skirmish Scenario Design Objectives
So, what are the objectives of a good scenario design, especially for skirmish games? Let's start by taking a look at some rules and scenario books to see how they present victory conditions and scenarios.
Star Wars Shatterpoint Scenarios
One of my recent regrettable purchases was the game Star Wars Shatterpoint (SWS).
The game design looks good, but is just way too crunchy for my old brain. Like Star Wars Legion, but at a skirmish scale. The figures and terrain are really nice looking though, although some figures are a nightmare to assemble. I could have learned all of this had I watched more videos as content creators put them out, but I am generally a latecomer to rules and I wanted to be an early adopter this time. That will teach me!
SWS does have any interesting objective-based victory condition system. You start by picking a mission card, which defines where the objective markers are placed. All objectives are initially inactive (circles marked in gray).
SWS currently only has one mission card – the one shown above – and it evenly spaces out nine objective markers range 4 from the board edges and range 5 between each. If a marker appears where multi-level terrain is, it is placed on the upper level.
SWS has three different phases of the game, called Struggles. At the beginning of each Struggle a card is drawn which identifies which objective markers are active. In the example below, on the left, there are five objectives active, with the remaining four inactive throughout Struggle I. After the victory conditions of Struggle I are met, Struggle II is revealed, showing which objective markers are inactive and active. In the example below, on the right, a die is rolled on each player's turn to see which single objective marker is made active.
The net effect of this system is that it generally keeps players moving as they try and capture active objectives, keeping the enemy away from them. Between each struggle a winning position – in terms of who is successfully holding active objective positions – may turn into a losing one as the objectives have moved and you hold few or none of them. Players camp on positions, but generally not for the entire game.
Although an interesting concept and one that gives these rules the reputation for cinematic movement and action, one wonders how long before the shine comes off because players don't actually do anything at these locations, they just simply control them by outnumbering the enemy within a certain distance from the marker. In the example above, on the left, the objectives are supposed to be representing "stealing the secret plans", but there is no guarantee that there will be a computer terminal or a safe at each of these points; just an orange marker. Players are not required to have a figure perform an action, only that they are standing within a certain distance from it. They might have been full engaged moving or fighting. Still, it gets players to move into locations that might be out in the open rather than in cover, or have them move rather than make another attach in order to get 1" closer to the marker to contest. Put another way, it gets players to make sub-optimal moves rather than having them sit in heavy cover safely sniping away. At that it succeeds.
SWS has one of the best cures for people settling into cover and turtling there: you lose the game because you don't receive victory points for that. You get points for moving to and capturing points on the tabletop.
You may not believe this, but it has taken me more than a week to write just this. My writing style is … chaotic. I sort of write in a stream of consciousness and edit it a bit afterwards. It is not so much that it is a lot of 'work', just that I want to get ideas out there and flowing and I sometimes wonder whether this is the best platform.
If I want to just send it out to you, with feedback limited to plain text comments, then I suppose this is the best method. But I am not sure that is what I want. I have been watching how Twitter/X has been changing as a platform and wonder whether that might be more suitable. I tried podcasting, but that is just as intensive as blogging – if not more so – and sort of limiting for the consumer. Twitter, on the other hand, is rather easy to consume. I can limit each thought to 280 characters (unless I get verified, then it is 4,000 characters I think). More importantly I have learned how to use the thread feature, so you can keep adding bits to a topic thread as ideas come to you.
I am thinking of trying that – maybe as a way of sorting out my thoughts and getting feedback – and then posting a completed thread here. There are lots of wargamers on there. If you are (or are not) interested, let me know. The account I use for this will not contain any personal posts, like vacation photos or political topics. Just straight up wargaming ideas. When I get the Twitter/X account sorted, I will post it here.
I'll pick up more on scenario design in the next post.