Don’t Worry, Be Happy And Make Better Historical Scenario’s

When unhappy, I browse the internet and read blogs. Some blogs make me happy. Yesterday Jeffry Knudsen aka War Artisan made me happy with his well written long essay about Wargame Scenario Design, read his full blog here. I added his essay to our extensive collection of scenario weblinks

For 140-character Twitter-fans, I highlight three of his best ideas below.

I) 6 scenario types which ‘work’

1. The Meeting Engagement.

These are generally much more common in wargames than they were in history. Usually, in a historical campaign, one side is forced by circumstances to offer battle to the enemy, either to restrict the enemy’s movements or to defend strategic assets, and thus one side generally deploys and awaits the enemy’s effort to dislodge them from their chosen ground. Occasionally, however, two forces, both maneuvering, find elements in contact in unexpected places.

This can lead to a free-for-all scramble to get as many forces in the immediate area to the point of contact as quickly as possible, in order to gain a local numerical advantage. This type of scenario should involve forces of roughly equal size entering the table from different angles and attempting to identify and seize important terrain features before their opponent(s) can do the same, and then maneuvering to overwhelm a portion of the enemy before all of his forces can arrive.

The danger with this type of scenario is that players commanding latearriving forces may be held out of the game until a conclusion has already been reached, or the available time expires. This danger can be mitigated either by giving each player a separate entry point and arranging the entry schedule in such a way that the leading elements of each force arrive on the table within a few turns of each other (…) 

One device I have used to slightly stagger arrival times in this situation is having the players roll a die each turn, placing the dice at their entry point, and entering their forces when the total of the dice reaches a certain pre-determined number. This is more effective than simply entering when a die roll yields a certain result, which carries with it the possibility that some forces will enter very late, or not at all (…)

2. The Attack

In this variant, one force deploys on the table, either in plain sight, or using token forces or blinds to indicate the basic deployment while hiding detailed information from the attacker. The attacking force then plans its entry and deployment and the game begins with them making grand tactical moves until contact is made and the defenders are revealed.

The goals associated with this type of scenario are very basic and don’t require much subtlety; the attackers must move the defenders off of their chosen ground, causing as much damage as possible while accepting as little as possible themselves. Alternatively, the attacker can be given a specific terrain objective of which he must take possession; the defender need not be made aware in advance of what this objective is, or may have orders to defend a different objective entirely. The attacker’s strength should be considerable greater than the defender’s, perhaps two to three times greater, in order for this scenario to work well (…)

3. The Fighting Withdrawal

This involves a slightly smaller force, perhaps more elite than the attacker, beginning the game deployed on the table with the goal of withdrawing as much of their force as possible off the table, while delaying the enemy advance and taking as few casualties as is consistent with their other goals (..)

The player(s) tasked with the withdrawal can then place their forces in whatever way deemed most advantageous to their goals. The arrangement of terrain for this scenario should give the opportunity for successive fall-back positions, i.e., scattered woods or villages, which can be used by the defending forces as they are broken, outflanked, or otherwise forced back.

4. The Reconnaissance in Force

One of my favorites, this scenario involves one side launching a large attack against a small, deployed force with the goal of finding and contacting as many of the defending units as possible, but without allowing their force to be drawn into a pitched battle, and then withdrawing.

The smaller force is continuously and gradually reinforced until it outnumbers the attacker, with the goal of driving off the attack without revealing any more of its strength than is necessary to succeed. A good defensive position with terrain that blocks line of sight on the approaches, similar to the Attack scenario, is required for this scenario

5. The Opposed River Crossing

Probably the most difficult to balance (and hardest for the attacker to pull off successfully), this scenario requires that an attacking force, considerably larger and much better supplied with artillery, select a crossing point and approach a river line with the goal of getting sufficient forces across to create a secure bridgehead.

For this scenario to work, the river should cross the entire table, and have multiple, widely spaced crossing points (either fords or bridges). The defender must have a large enough force to observe all the likely crossing points while holding back a mobile reserve strong enough to drive back any force the attacker can put across the river

6. Defense of the Convoy

This scenario presumes the existence, somewhere on the table, of a valuable and not very mobile source of supply; for example, a column of supply wagons or a siege train. An outnumbered defender, to whom the convoy belongs, must delay and parry any attempt by the attacker to take possession of it long enough for it to exit the table or reach a designated place of safety, like a fortified town or entrenched encampment.

The only specific terrain requirement for this situation is a road along which the convoy must travel to reach safety. Its movement should be severely hampered if it is forced to leave the road.

Some truly fascinating situations can be created by combining goals from various types of scenarios. This can create situations where both sides may accomplish their goals and claim victory. For example, an attacker may be executing a river crossing while the defender is attempting to cover the escape of a siege train. In such a case, it is in the defender’s interests to impede the river crossing only for as long as it serves to get the train to safety, while the attacker, focused on creating a bridgehead, may overlook the opportunity to seize a valuable prize. 

II) Victory conditions

Knudsen is critical about Victory Points. Good for game purposes, but not for a historical wargame:

The problem with victory points for terrain objectives is that the terrain features on a historical battlefield actually had no intrinsic value; their value lay entirely in the degree to which they aided a particular force to achieve their object in fighting the battle, and that value could change during the course of the action, in light of events on the field.

Part of the utility of an historical wargame in helping the players to gain insights into historical conflicts is in the way it causes them to think like historical commanders. If they are thinking “I’ll hold this village because it’s worth 3 Victory Points”, then they are not thinking “If I hold this village that anchors my flank, it will take my opponent so long to take it away that I’ll have plenty of time to bring up reinforcements”. If they are thinking “I’ll take that crossroads because it’s worth 2 Victory Points”, then they are not thinking “Having possession of the crossroads will allow to move my cavalry reserve quickly to either flank.”

Instead of tallying losses to determine a winner, or assigning an arbitrary value to a terrain feature, allow the players to assess to what degree they have achieved their objectives as outlined by the scenario . . . if they can. And if they can’t, allow the ambiguity of the outcome to be part of what they learn about history in the process of playing the game. If they are just playing for points, then all they are learning about is how to win games. While that might be considered a valuable skill in some circles, it’s not history.

III) Diagonal terrain placement

Most wargames are arranged orthogonally on the table; that is, the two longer edges serve as a baseline for the opposing forces, and the action mostly takes place along a line bisecting the table in the long direction. This makes good use of the available table space, but you should consider the additional advantages of arranging the terrain so that the battle takes place more or less diagonally on the table, making use of its longest dimension.

Setting the entry points around diagonally opposite corners causes the players to advance into an ever-widening field, which creates more opportunities for maneuver and more interesting tactical problems for the players. Filling the lateral corners with difficult terrain features like a town or a rocky, wooded hill will steer the action towards the wider middle of the table and will minimize the effect of the table edges.

(above: a picture of one of his – diagonal – games) 

By the way, Knudsen sells wonderful Napoleonic paper ships for just a few dollars:

And free rules and tips. Great blog. A really-make-you-happy-blog!


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