Friday, March 26, 2021

Thoughts on writing a game scenario, illustrated by examples

This blog features a lot of game scenarios from my hand and to be frank I do consider writing them one of the most enjoyable aspects of my hobby. It combines all kinds of fictional and historical background with a creative process and -if it works out well- a good gaming experience as a reward at the end. But then it struck me that I never actually wrote about writing them. So here is my attempt to make good on that. It will probably be a dynamic piece-under-construction, as I add thoughts over time. We'll see. 

What does a good wargame scenario make? 

Well, at least in my not-at-all-humble opinion it must: 

  • be interesting enough to read (because why look at it in the first place)
  • offer a challenge to all playing sides, demanding skill to win, as well as perhaps a bit of luck
  • offer a range of conflicting choices and decisions (let's call them dilemmas) that the players need to make in order to win
  • be able of being won in several different ways. The more the better. 
  • make clear what must be achieved to win it
  • have been thoroughly tested
You might note that rules do not feature in this. That is because one should be able to play a good scenario with  different rules with only minor adaptations. So the scenario must eventually have a connection to a ruleset to be played, but this is just a finishing touch.

Piquing the interest

A scenarios being a good read helps taking in the information and remembering it better, as well as getting involved in -and inspired by- the scenario. Apart from the fact that it has to be well-written, I think offering a copeable amount of context (the famous "fluff") helps to get the reader interested. Challenges become more alive when you know it is about the Spartans needing to stand against a host of Persians at the Hot Gates for at least 6 turns than when reading that the winner needs to score 5 Victory points. A good scenario needs a Story. And if you can't think of one yourself, never fear/ History and Fiction are teeming with good stories. 

I am a sucker for a good narrative. And I am not ashamed to admit it. 

Example part 1: 

Let's say there is a rebellion or civil war somewhere. On a planet, in some country or province, depending on your favorite background. The President/Governor/Grand Dictator of this area is en route to some important political event when his plane crashes near Rebel-controlled territory. Miraculously he survives but is stranded in very inhospitable terrain (jungle, hostile cityscape, whatever) with only his bodyguard for protection, as the plane's crew has been killed. His distress call has gotten help on the move, but also drew the attention of the rebels, intent on capturing him! 

Rise to the Challenge

In order to be interesting to play, a scenario needs to be hard to win. This is scaleable of course, depending on the purpose that the scenario is expected to serve. Introductory scenarios can be relatively uncomplicated when then need to familiarize the players with rules, for instance.  But the outcome may not be a given in any case.

There are many challenges in history that can feature in a game scenario: winning or defending ground, making a stand for a certain amount of time or covering a minimum distance in a certain amount of time, defending, destroying or capturing an objective, which may or may not be portable et cetera. 

It is however very important that the achievements the players have to aim for are also actually possible. If a player needs to cross the table in 5 turns, his troops should be able to actually do that. So it pays to take measurements of the table and comparing them with the realistic speed of the units before settling on the number of turns in that Victory condition. Don't forget to factor in extra time because of inevitable hostile resistance, since his troops will face opposition and this will delay them. 

The possibilities are endless, but whatever the objective; the obstacles between the player and his victory make the challenge. 

Obstacles may be symmetric, offering equal risk and opportunity to all sides. Two similar armies facing off over an empty plain is the best known example of that, albeit not a very interesting one. 

However, they may also be asymmetric. This lack of symmetry may be in means, like inexperienced troops versus elite troops or one side being outnumbered, or in terrain, where one side defends a strong position which the other side needs to take, or in time, where one side may expect reinforcements within a certain period or an objective will only be there for a limited amount of time. 

Whatever the case, all sides need to encounter surmountable obstacles. Preferably multiple ones, as these contribute to the next essential part of a good scenario: the dilemmas. 

Conversely, obstacles should actually BE obstacles. I once played a Battle of Fredericksburg battle game where the Northern troops were able to leave cover, storm the hill AND cross the wall in one turn, without the Southerners even having the chance to fire at them once. This way the obstacle that defined the battle wasn't even an obstacle. 

Example part 2: 

The challenge here may be twofold. First of course there will be a race between the players (one playing the Rebels, one playing the Special Operations Team that comes to rescue the Prez). But besides that the terrain must also pose problems. The SOT can not land anywhere near the crashed plane, so will have to land at a distance and move on foot to their target. Only a few spots on the table can be used as a Landing Zone, all several turns away from the crash site. 

The Rebels may be less trained and less well armed than the SOT, but they are many! Starting their move off table they too must race to reach the crash site and capture their target. The SOT's expertise and firepower will be their challenge, just as their numbers will be the SOT's challenge. Rebels will have starting forces but also reinforcements, rolled for on a table each turn. 

Lastly, while the Rebels may be less trained, they might have combat vehicles on the ground, lethal to the lightly armed SOT. On the other hand, the SOT might have a gunship hovering the area, being able to take out Rebel vehicles that do not use the abundant cover prudently enough. 

The Choice

Just like a scenario should present the players with some obstacles, so should each obstacle present the players with a choice. Preferably from more than two options. This way, the course of the game will be unpredictable, it will be re-playable when you lose it the first time and you can deploy your resources tailored to the approach you have decided upon. Will your SWAT team enter through the front door guns blazing? Or will they attack from multiple directions? Or will they smoke out the bankrobbers with teargas and engage them in the street? 

All this is of paramount importance to avoid that great threat to any enjoyable game scenario: railroading. Railroading is forbidden. Never road rail. Let me explain. 

You will know that you have been railroaded when you ponder your options to tackle an obstacle and you come to the conclusion there is just the one. Not just one that seems better than the others but just one. This will leave you without a choice. Your moves have been predetermined for you and all that is left is to time them well and roll dice. This bodes ill for an interesting game. 

The same thing might happen (someone pointed out to me recently) when your choice must be based entirely on chance, like the arrival of reinforcements without which you will lose. When you can't influence their arrival and can't plan for it either (since they might never arrive if you don't roll a 6 or something) this actually doesn't give you a choice at all. 

So in designing a scenario you will have to enable multiple routes to the objective. And multiple ways to counter them. They don't have to be equally promising, but they should all be possible under the right circumstances. 

Example part 3:

Both sides need to decide where to start. Sides will nominate their initial starting points unaware of those of the enemy. But once the game is on its way the Rebels may choose the starting points for their reinforcenements freely. The Rebels must choose between speed, eliminating the gunship or a combination of both. The SOT must choose between speed to and from the crash site or defending the crash site with the gunship's help. And will they leave their shuttle craft on the ground where it is readily available but only at that point while vulnerable to ground attacks or in the air, knowing it might be vulnerable to Rebel AA fire and will take longer to reach the LZ for the pickup, but can reach any LZ? 

Victory conditions

While this may seem rather obvious, I have read scenarios that could -for example- be won by "taking the enemy ground", whatever that might mean. 

Describe specifically what must be done to be considered the winner. You might make a list of possible  achievements and award Victory Points to each, but my favourite solution is simply a clear description. Drive all enemy forces from the Fort. Save all the hostages. Blow up the radio-antenna, then escape with at most 30% losses. Hold the pass for at least 6 turns. Things like that. So the players know what to aim and plan for. 

Example part 4: 

The winner must capture the Prez and escort him off the table in any way possible. If he dies, the game is a draw (if perhaps a moral victory for the Rebels). 

If the ruleset you use does not have rules for capture, make up some. Like the Prez will surender when his bodyguard is dead, Rebels have him cornered and under fire and no friendly forces are within line of sight.    

And then test it to bits! 

The best test players are the malignant ones. The people that will want to take advantage of any loophole in the scenario and exploit them in order to win. Any given scenario will take two to three games at least to sort out the defects. Or more when the scenario is a more complex one.

Only when players have genuinely tried to break the scenario at least a few times and it still yields an interesting game, only then is it a good scenario. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Baba Yaga's hut: a how-to

I have always been fascinated by Baba Yaga, the cannibalistic witch from Russian folklore that flew around in a vice and lived in a house walking on huge chicken legs. Especially her hut promised to be a great building project. 

It had been brewing in the back of my head for a while now. Finding the right legs took some time but eventually I found a cheap plastic T-Rex with the perfect locomotive gear. And so the building could commence. 

The actual hut was a simple foamboard box with a peaked roof. I cladded it with coffee stirrers to get that classic Russian timbered look. 

I sawed the legs off the T-Rex and re-sculpted parts of them, as the ugly hinge parts had to be obscured of course. 

Then I followed my tried and proven method of cardboard roof tiles.

And a matchstick porch.

I sawed off the legs at a slight angle to give the impression that the house was actually moving, tilting slightly forward but not too much to topple any figures I would want to put on the porch. 

And then it was time for priming and painting. I got the chance to try out my newly acquired airbrush for the underlaying colours and finished it with brushes

As an afterthought I added some suitable gruesome Baba Yaga details, as I thought the house of a cannibal witch would look a bit less cosy. 

Witch figure shown for scale. She is a 28mm Westwind figure. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Oathmark: A Review + Edits on Dragons and Artillery

For years during the first decade of this century my go-to ruleset for wargaming was Warhammer Ancient Battles, basically Warhammer Fantasy Battles without the Fantasy. It was the best ruleset around in my not-at-all humble opinion in the sense that it was the best playable ruleset that I could find after reconnoitering horrors like DBM. It was however a clunky, typically 1990ies ruleset with lots of tinkered bits screwed on and a lot of frustrating stuff. I eyed the fantasy version of WAB but that already seemed terminally broken and cheesy.

When WAB went, I looked around for replacement. War & Conquest was promising and better, but still retained some of the frustrations and failed to attract opponents. Hail Caesar showed me that the Black Powder engine was fit more a lot of things, but not pre-firearms wargaming. It was bland and tasteless. Kings of War had nothing that intrigued me. So little showed up and over the years I sold most of my armies.

And then Oathmark was published. I succumbed to the hype, bought the rules, painted an army of dwarves that had been gathering dust for years, dug out some more fantasy stuff I had laying around and played some games. And was hooked. Why? Well, to be perfectly honest because it plays like Warhammer with the same joy and without the frustration.

The rule mechanics
The credit for this goes to the rules of course. Joseph McCullough, he of Frostgrave fame, used his thoughts on wargaming to write a mass fantasy battle system and in my opinion he has succeeded very well. And by doing this he crushed quite a lot of conventions that have ruled mass fantasy battle systems for years.

First, this is not an IGO-UGO system but has alternate activation. Players alternately activate units. So it doesn't have turn phases either. An activated unit has two actions and may move, move a lot, shoot or charge into contact and if it does so a bilateral combat occurs immediately. Activation rolls are no do-or-don't affairs. A failed Activation roll limits your actions, but still enables you to do things with that unit. These two things make it a dynamic game that constantly engages all players.

Second, Oathmark ditches Priestley's Law (Only D6 Games Will Sell) and uses D10s. Predictably this will give more gradual and less predictable results.

The rest of the mechanic seems relatively conventional. Units have stats like Move and Fight, need to roll a minimum value to succeed in things like Activation rolls and Hits and roll for Morale when taking casualties. There are the traditional races like Dwarves, Humans, Elves and Orcs and Goblins.

However, all rolls are achieved with a maximum of 5 dice, never more. Also, a Die roll always causes an immediate result. So no To Hit/To Wound/To Save sequences. Just a Defence minus Fight = Target Number roll and a success is a hit. No buckets of dice here.

The Army building
Army building is done brilliantly. There are two ways. First you can traditionally choose a race and take units from the list of units of that race (and some unaligned ones). Units have a point value so you can tailor battles to a specific point value to balance things.

Alternatively, you can build a Kingdom with a capital of a specific race, but additional territories that enable you to field units from different races as well! While other races' territories are slightly more expensive to "buy" into your Kingdom, you can take any. But not all. You can only take 10 territories out of 44 as your starting Kingdom and each territory gives you specific units of a specific race. For example Plains give you Human cavalry. I created the Kingdom of Dale/Erebor from The Hobbit this way.

The differences in races are notable. Elves tend to be expensive and extremely disciplined elite specialists, are very hard to break, will almost always activate but are never numerous. On the other end of the spectrum there are the goblins, brittle, undisciplined and mediocre at best but cheap enough to field them in hordes.

This means  that in order to create an army that excels in everything, you need to enlist different races. For anyone that learned Fantasy in a GW store, this is heretical! But if you were raised with Tolkien, all this should come easy to you. 😁

There are multiple troop types (although not all races have all troop types) like several infantry types (spearmen, linebreakers, militia etc), cavalry (heavy and light, horse and wolf) artillery and a list of aligned and unaligned monsters and creatures that either fight in small units or alone.

A unit is kind of standardized. Man-sized figures are deployed 5 rows wide and 1 to 4 ranks deep. A unit is never bigger than 20 figures. Bigger figures like trolls deploy in one rank of 3 or even alone, like Dragons. Ranks give you bonuses in To Hit roll, Morale checks and Shoot rolls, but make you more vulnerable for artillery. A good dilemma improves a game, I always say!

There are Characters, but they are not the one-man juggernauts from Warhammer. Instead, a General actually Commands units (he can activate more than just his own unit and boost Morale Checks) and Champions might at most give an extra Kill in combat or may challenge enemy officers or Champions. They actually feel and play like the troop type they are supposed to represent.

Spellcasters are powerful, but expensive characters. You can buy them in levels and the higher the level, the more spells and the more dice you may roll to cast them. But also much more expensive. Spells can only be cast once per Activation per Spellcaster, can make a powerful impression but so far have not been gamechangers.

Monsters can be very impressive, like the 800 point Winged Dragon which is practically a small army in itself. However, in a 3000 point average game it will eat up over a quarter of your points, so it better be a gamechanger. That amount of points will buy four (4!) full units of Goblin soldiers!

So how does it play? 
It plays fast. Units are not particularly fast, but they are maneuverable. This is because units may move or maneuver through obstacles as long as they can end their movement in formation and outside the obstacle. So you are spared the horrors of "clipping" and being unable to move because your unit was 2mm too wide. Besides, even failed Activation rolls enable one Move action. So there is always something happening. The game never drags. You never have to wait for something.

Combats are fast because both combatants roll simultaneously for their own Target Number and remove casualties and then one or both units move away from each other. Combat can be very bloody between unequal opponents and units with large losses will have trouble to make their Morale check. And when already Disordered (after one failure) a failed Morale check will send a unit packing.

As a player you are always engaged, since combat follows contact immediately, both players need to roll and after your opponents activates a unit you immediately are next. The game continues to flow until one of the armies breaks or retreats.

The rulebook
The rulebook is extremely well laid out. It is teeming with clarifying diagrams and subjects are usually explained in one or two page spreads (with accompanying tables) so you almost always find what you are looking for on one page spread. There are the main rules, advanced rules, scenarios and Kingdom and Army building chapters. There is a Campaign chapter that explains how your Kingdom may expand (or shrink!) during a campaign, which might give you access to new troop types. There are army lists for Dwarves, Humans, Elves, Goblins and Orcs as well as aligned and unaligned Monsters and other creatures.

A few rather important rules are a bit hidden away in some surprising locations in the rules, so read them really well (which is always a good thing by the way). It took me a while to spot the fact that a failed Activation roll wil raise your target number for shooting by +1 (which is mentioned in the bit about Simple Actions rather than Shooting) and I needed someone to point out to me that a so far unactivated unit that has been engaged in combat i.e. has been attacked cannot Activate anymore in that turn (which is mentioned in Activation rather than Combat).

It is a visually pleasing book too. 192 full colour pages with lots of pictures, paintings and drawings bound in hard cover.

The miniatures? 
While there is a line of Oathmark miniatures from North Star anythings goes really.

This might however be the place to say something about basing. Oathmark bases human-sized figures on 25x25mm and bigger figures on 25x50, 50x50 or 50x100. So a unit front is either 50, 125 or 150mm wide. This already tells you that front width is not extremely important, just handy.

Don't rebase your 20x20 or 25/round stuff. The important thing is to remember that a unit frontage is 5, 3 or 1 figure wide (depending  on the size of the figure). In combat the attacking officer always lines up in the middle of the frontage he is attacking with his unit. Maneuvering units may move through obstacles as long as they don't end on top of them. So the exact width of a unit is not very important. At most, a unit of 5 20mm bases wide can deploy in a 100mm corridor instead of a 125mm one. I have yet to see that happen.

So don't rebase or get hung up on base sizes. No need. 

What could be better? 
The book made it out of the printing process with some printing mistakes. The Oathmark players' Facebook page has an errata list. An official one is in the works. Nothing to get upset about.

Overall Oathmark seems to have been very well tested. So far players have only found one Spell that seems to invite abuse (Smoke). The rest of the game seems to work very well and as intended Although those intentions are not always to anyone's taste, but well, wargamers will be wargamers.

The Conclusion
An extremely enjoyable mass fantasy wargame. It will capture my attention for quite a while to come. Extremely recommended!!!

The Sequel?
Additional books are announced (in publication sequence as known at this time): Battlesworn (elite troops), Oathbreakers (Undead) and (if Amazon is to be believed) Bane of Kings (as yet unknown but I am holding out for demons and such).

EDIT October 29th 2020
The consensus seems to be emerging that Dragons are Oathmark's equivalent of the nuclear ICBM i.a.w. unbeatable by anything except another Dragon. We played one game so far with Dragons on both sides. The Dragons mainly fought each other, but when they didn't, they were indeed lethal against other units. However, although killing them with something other than another Dragon is hard, pinning them in place is relatively easy, thus neutralizing quite a large amount of points while you can defeat the rest of the enemy's army. 

EDIT March 16th 2021
Some words about artillery. Having played a number of games I have noticed, as have others, the effectiveness of artillery. And not only catapults and such but long-range magic as well. When playing a slow moving army on an open plain (a really classic setup after all) against an Artillery- and Magic rich army your army will be severely held up and weakened along the way, only to be massacred when finally in contact. Artillery is very effective, especially in combination with artillery-enhancing or -replacing spells. 

This not a fault IMO. Rather it forces you to play accordingly and choose your tactics and battlefield better. You will need screening units and cover against long-range fire. Gaming tables will need -and feature- surprising amounts of terrain after a while. 

Playing Oathmark is in that respect actually more like late 19th century warfare than Ancient or Medieval. 

In a world of magically enhanced artillery, no general worth his salt would consider advancing slowly over an open plain. The results would be predictably disastrous. And in Oathmark, they are. So take note. This is Fantasy wargaming after all! 

Oathmark: Battles of the Lost Age
Joseph McCullough
Osprey Publishing

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Covid curfew painting Challenge: the Trophy!

 The good people of the Utrecht wargame club B.O.D. and the Dutch Miniature Wargame Facebook page cooked up a Covid Curfew Painting Challenge. I volunteered to produce the trophy that will eventually go to the winner. Here is my scratchbuiltsculpted final result! Safe as can be with facemask and health warnings!

Friday, February 12, 2021

Half a million views. Wow.

Sometime this last week this blog passed the 500.000 views. Wow. 

Never thought I'd reach that threshold when I started almost 10 years ago.


And the Russian bots of course 😂

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Armor and helicopters for Vietnam

 The magnificent Empress Miniatures M113 and Patton tank. Helicopters are by HobbyBoss and Revell (stick to Hobbyboss!!!) and the door gunners are by Empress Miniatures. 

Do you wanna live forever? Or at all? Undead for Oathmark coming to the table.

 I finished my Undead for Oathmark. I think I am done painting Fantasy for quite a while now.

Also, I might have overshot my mark. They're 6.500 points worth of Undead.....

The figures come from a wide range of leftovers: Zvezda Cursed Legion, Reaper Bones Wraiths, GW Ghosts, Mantic Ghouls and Revenants, Zombicide Archers, North Star Frostgrave stuff and some undead that are so old I have no idea who made them.