31 December 2023

Scenario Design: What's in the Mix?

A neighbour introduced me to the Manhattan a couple years ago. It was a new experience. Not because I don’t imbibe mixed drinks now and again. I do. But I’ve seldom strayed beyond a humble highball, a Screwdriver for example, or its hardly more sophisticated offspring, the much-maligned Harvey Wallbanger. (The latter had already fallen out of favour by the time I sampled my first in the mid 80s and was thus a pleasant surprise to my neighbour’s wife when I whipped one up for her a few years ago.) A good cocktail, regardless of whether it appeals to you or I, is a balanced cocktail. Since their revival in the early aughts, cocktails have become ever more complex and nuanced. This evolution is due to many factors, not least the wider availability of ingredients, new techniques, and bespoke glassware. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had my neighbour over for a drink. I mixed him a Black Manhattan. It was a new experience for him. Not because he lacks experience with Manhattans. They are his goto drink when company drops by. Rather, he hadn’t had a Manhattan based on Rittenhouse rye whiskey and flavoured with molasses-like Averna Amaro, a Sicilian digestif with notes of orange and licorice. Nor had my neighbour had the pleasure of tasting Regan’s orange bitters that I used to replace half of the usual measure of Angostura bitters. I also snuck a quarter ounce of Fabbri Amarena syrup into the mixing glass. Wow, he said. I grinned. 

French Manhattan

Just the other day I crafted a French Manhattan. Buffalo Trace bourbon gives the drink a lighter body, while Chambord and Cocchi de Torino sweet vermouth combine with orange bitters to take your senses in a new direction. A fine cocktail not only balances sweet and sour, but also bitters, and in some cases salts and savoury, or umani. Each taste contributes in its own way to the mixture. And yet each ingredient retains something of its original character, aromas and tastes that can be detected as the cocktail is sipped. 

Old Fashioned

An old-school, Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) scenario is a bit like an Old Fashioned cocktail. The bartender muddles a sugar cube with aromatic bitters and a small amount of water in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass, better known as a rocks glass. Muddling infuses the additives into the water allowing them to combine more readily with the base spirit, in this case American whiskey. In its least pretentious form an orange peel suffices as a garnish. Like the modern Old Fashioned, which purportedly dates to 1880s Kentucky, scenario designs of 1980s Maryland tend to be relatively simple affairs with few departures from the tried-and-true formula established in late 1970s Squad Leader. As the long-lived popularity of the Old Fashioned attests, simple recipes are not necessarily bland. That said, the Old Fashioned would not exist if some apothecary-cum-mixologist had not let curiousity get the better of him. 

To the bar(ricades)! 

In similar fashion yours truly has taken it upon himself to mix things up a bit, and not just behind the bar. In mid 2022 I set out to design ten scenarios with interesting hooks. There is no shortage of published scenarios to pick from these days, their number increasing faster than anyone can possibly attempt to keep up. In light of this, I have tried to find situations that are a little unusual. Situations where I can use a mix of terrain transformations, modified orders of battle (OB), and Scenario Special Rules (SSR) to create cards with heaps of colour and nuance. I realize that this approach will not appeal to everyone, or even most people. I am confident, however, that at least some of the cards will appeal to a good many players. Let me give you an inside look at what I have been up to.

I make no pretense to having developed a strong design philosophy. I am too new to this aspect of the game. While I have designed a half-dozen (as yet unpublished) scenarios over the years, the current project is my first attempt at a concerted, albeit loosely themed, set of scenarios with an overarching design concept. Granted I am old(er). But my aim is to deliver something that is anything but old-fashioned.

The pack focuses on engagements that one might classify as “early war.” I wanted to capture some of the peculiarities of the period beginning roughly in 1937—with the Sino-Japanese War, and extending into the first quarter of 1942. Granted the last scenario in the pack takes place in April 1943, but it is nonetheless characteristic of 1940-41 combat. 

Polish TKS(L)

The early-war period may be characterized as an admixture of come-as-you-are forces, last-war doctrine, obsolescent equipment, and all manner of ad hocery. Fortunately, ASL admirably translates many of these attributes into a workable rules framework, peppered with a host of quirky armoured fighting vehicles (AFV). This is not to suggest that the ASL rule set is comprehensive, either in its treatment of the early-war period or in its coverage of the weapon systems then in service, or necessarily accurate. Consider the Dutch VCL M1936 below.

VCL M1936

The ASL system nevertheless provides players and designers with a palette from which to recreate, however imperfectly, not only the challenges posed by a particular military problem, but also the atmosphere in which decisions are made. Players become invested characters, each playing his or her part in a tactical dilemma. One draw of early-war scenarios is the added tension created by the brittleness of troops, their unreliable weapons, and especially their thinly armoured vehicles, which are surprisingly vulnerable to machinegun, and occasionally small-arms, fire.

AM Dodge(a)

Still, the many low-velocity weapons then in use often failed to penetrate the weak armour of the early war years. Contrast this with the lethal hit-equals-a-kill environment of 1945 where a scenario can, and occasionally does, come to a premature end. And so, as counterintuitive as it may seem, early-war scenarios have a certain amount of elasticity, at least in so far as the ability of AFV to absorb hits goes. The resultant uncertainty can be nerve-racking for both sides. However, the tension is not confined to AFV combat. 

Cavalry, bicyclists, and motorcyclists are largely restricted to the beginning of the Second World War. On the one hand, these Riders (D6.2) are extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. On the other hand, their mobility on the battlefield alters the usual dynamics of ASL play. Ignoring Skiers moving downhill (E4.31), an Infantry stack can never move more than nine hexes on foot during the course of a Movement Phase (MPh), and then only along a road. Cyclists can travel much farther on roads, while Cavalry can traverse as many as 20 hexes in a single turn. These mounted units invite wide flanking movements and encirclement, their mere presence a threat-in-waiting. 

Bersaglieri motociclisti 

Another appealing facet of the early-war period is the trove of belligerents, each with its own peculiar traits. At present, the cast of characters in my scenario pack runs to more than a dozen. Scenario locales range from the Far East to the Near East, from Africa to Finland, from western to eastern Europe, and points between. Combatants will occasionally do battle in desert-like conditions, in a tropical settlement, or in a snow-covered mountain hamlet. For the most part, however, players will find themselves commanding troops in temperate climes. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Evzones in Albania

Although the first scenario in the pack is set in the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO), it does not involve PTO Terrain (G.1). “Chop Suey!” takes place in China and recreates a rare, Chinese night action. Fear not! The night rules required to play are limited. There is no Straying (E1.53), for instance, and only Japanese leaders may use Starshells (E1.92). This infantry-only action serves as an introduction to both night operations and the Japanese. The hook is the novel Chinese force, which is not represented by the usual GMD counters (G18.2). Due to the company-sized orders of battle (OB) on each side, the game plays quickly, confined to the hill portion of board 5a.

IJA OB in Chop Suey!

Another scenario in the pack is unusual in that it requires one of the attacking forces to withdraw from the playing area midgame, leaving its ally to finish the job of clearing a road in the Ardennes. While the Belgians are constrained by Convoy movement, the Landsers must take care not to “activate” all or part of the Convoy lest the small German force finds itself fighting on two fronts. Again, the scenario plays quickly, this time on board 66.

Road Clearing VC

The sole “desert” scenario is set in East Africa and is largely an African fight with opposing imperial commanders calling the shots. The scenario is also one of only two cards in the pack that feature prepared defensive positions. Notwithstanding their formidable cave-like bunkers high above the surrounding plain, the defenders are on the back foot. Weakened by days of bombardment, extreme heat, and a lack of water, they are treated as “walking wounded.” Steep Hills (W1.3) keep enemy armour at bay, but cannot save the defence from tenacious enemy infantry.

East African Hilltop

I have taken the liberty of including a Deluxe ASL (DASL) offering in the pack. One advantage of deluxe boards is their roominess. Incidentally, overlays, which do not appear in any other scenario, are less fiddly to place on the big hexes. Good to know, because I decorated the playing area with the many of the latest overlays. The large format also allows for a high counter density, which I have capitalized on in this design. Twenty-three Greek squads face an almost equal number of beleaguered Italians in a winter wonderland. The attackers receive three pre-registered Fire Missions to soften up enemy defences—one of only two scenarios in the pack with Offboard Artillery (OBA). An SSR simplifies the manner in which these Fire Missions are carried out, dispensing with much of the standard OBA procedure. The Greeks have the added option to use Bayonet Charge (W.6). 

Due to adverse weather conditions visibility is extremely limited at start, and unpredicatable thereafter. Movement is likewise restricted, channelled to some extent by a frigid Water Obstacle (B20.7) and Steep Hills (W1.3). Together these environmental and topographic factors make an already confined space feel downright claustrophobic. 

Italian OB in DASL Scenario

The DASL scenario is the biggest of the bunch, but an outlier. Most cards can be played in four or five hours, and occasionally less. “Day of the Jackals” is closer to six. Set in Syria, “Jackals” is currently the most popular card among playtesters. I designed it in late 2022. It covers the latter part of the battle for Kuneitra in June 1941. Astute observers will note the similiarity with “Vichy Strikes Back,” a scenario released by Le Franc Tireur in 2023. Aside from the opportunity to field a menagerie of French tin cans, I was drawn to the subject by Quneitra’s present-day status as a ghost town. The city was largely destroyed during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Coincidentally, I lived a few hundred metres outside the city limits during my tour in the Golan Heights a decade later.

The British position looks indefensible. Labouring under Ammo Shortage (A19.131) and a paucity of effective anti-tank weapons, the Fusiliers are threatened on three sides by marauding Circassians and virtually unstoppable tanks to their front. A special hero who sets up hidden at start and a pair of armoured cars can catch unwary French units offguard. (The Brits also have cocktails, for throwing, not drinking.) But for the most part, the defenders need to fallback carefully and conserve their forces. The Circassians have much to do in six turns. A good defender will force the French to split their infantry and risk not having enough men in the right place at the right time. Securing the last building frequently comes down to the last turn. 

Day of the Jackals - Circassian SSR

As the foregoing SSR for Circassians illustrates, I am fond of using special rules to add a wrinkle or three to a scenario card. In the scenario set during the Continuation War, the Russians may purchase a range of fortifications, including a personal favourite: Prepared Fire Zones (PFZ). The PFZ are essential for clearing fields of fire on boards 10a and 71, giving the Finns a taste of their own medicine. The Reds also receive a special fortification represented by Panji counters. I can hear the wailing already. They are not the Panji (G9.1) that you have come to loath. Okay, they are Panji-adjacent, a unique fortification brought to you by ingenious Soviet engineers. 

Fortifications in Finland

In the only tropical scenario—think Bali, and think again—a key SSR transmogrifies one nation’s infantry into another’s. From where I am sitting—in the second coldest capital in the world—the change is an elegant way to represent colonial troops. Other substitutions were less satisfactory, such as using Italian vehicles to represent Dutch armoured personnel carriers. So I dispensed with these vehicles altogether. I realize that I could have called for the use of third-party counters, but I made a pact with myself to stick with “official” MMP components. My designs are esoteric enough without subjecting prospective players to more anguish than I already have. I am looking at you Panjis!

Pair of Brats?

There are, of course, several other scenarios in the pack, a couple still in development, but most in playtest. However, I want to make something clear before I wrap up. At least one reviewer has expressed concern about “the SSR heaviness” of one or more scenarios. Guilty as charged! I do not apologize for this. It is built into all of my scenarios, with “Chop Suey! getting off lightest. (Consider this an enticement to play at night.)

I accept that some may accuse me of having fallen into the trap of first timers, of having far too many SSR. In my defence, my scenarios have less SSR overhead than a Historical scenario (HASL), like those found in Festung Budapest, which rely on an overarching set of module-specific SSR. Unlike HASL scenarios (or the recent Hazard Movement scenarios that rely on a separate page of SSR that are in addition to those on a given scenario card), I have confined my SSR to one column. I have also kept their number low and the font size consistent across all cards. And I have stuck to one side of the card. No cheating. These self-imposed limits have compelled me to question the value of each SSR, and in the process I have shortened most and removed several. 

SSR Heavyweight Champion

But for the sake of full disclosure, let me show you the worst offender (above) and let you be the judge. The last scenario in the pack is a tussle between Axis security units and organized Soviet partisans. The alteration of the building Terrain Effects Modifier (TEM) excepted, the first SSR is relatively “bog standard,” as far as SSR go. The second SSR is hardly onerous and concisely defines the special capabilities of the Axis force. The third SSR does the same for the Partisans. The exception for the spade mortars (Russian Ordnance Note 1.1) makes more sense given that the Partisans armed with them must set up in Crest Status (B20.9) of the stream, not to mention the fact that these glorified grenade launchers lacked a bipod. 

The fourth SSR sparingly models the equally sparse minefields laid along the village approaches. (Of all the SSR, this is the one that I am ready to sacrifice for the greater good.) I readily concede that the fifth SSR is a sentence longer than it need be. However, playtesters appear to appreciate my having spelled out the consequences of the SSR rather than leaving it up to them to decipher my intent (and rule A19.13). 

The final SSR has evolved over time. The initial rationale was to create random “disruption” among opposing forces in the village, immediately prior to the intervention of newly arrived resistance fighters. The original universal NMC in the village has been replaced by a set number of player-generated breaks. I like this pregame activity. It allows the Partisans to bust a hole in the German lines in preparation for their attack. For their part, the Germans must set up in a way that mitigates the impact of these pre-game “attacks,” and at the same time, carefully select Partisan targets that will most benefit the Axis when it gets to return the favour in the second half of Turn 2.

Helping Hands 

Designing is work, stacks of work. Research is incredibly time consuming. Yet all that digging occasionally uncovers a hidden treasure, another design in the rough. It has been both fun and rewarding. Another way to enjoy the hobby. It has also been a treat to observe the progress of each card as it evolves during the course of development and playtesting. Testers and reviewers have done much to further this progress, providing valuable feedback that has measurably improved each design. 

Much remains to be done though. A couple of scenarios are still in the design phase as research is incomplete. (I must have consulted a dozen sources when drawing up “Day of the Jackals,” and yet I still had to adjust the British OB after I discovered important new information a year later.) That said, the majority of scenarios are undergoing testing as I write. 

I would like to self-publish the pack late next year, in the autumn of 2024. Some time before publication, I plan to release one of the scenarios on Sitrep. In doing so I am following a wonderful precedent set by Chad Cummins and Chuck Hammond of Hazardous Movement Gaming. It is my hope that players will overlook my penchant for unusual designs and explore some new ASL terrain. 

If you are an experienced proofer or tester interested in lending your expertise to the project, do get in touch. Either way...

Happy New Year!


Jim Bishop said...

Interesting read Chris. I too have begun foraying into scenario design. I have completed a half dozen at this point. They are all in varying stages. One is for sure complete. Two are pretty close and I am waiting on some outside feedback. And the other three I just recently completed. These are mostly just scenario concepts that strike my fancy.

I also have an idea for another group of scenarios for which I am doing some initial digging. I am focusing on the things I like to play, trusting that I am "main stream" enough that others will enjoy them. I have no intention of new maps as I think newer maps are under used (and I have the data from Dave's archive to prove it). I think there is room for the good old fashioned scenario pack (5 - 10 cards with one scenario per side). I am not sure where or how I will publish. Time will tell. I just hope it covers ASLOk. :)

I have also been working with Fort on his Burma 2 pack and his in the works France pack. Not so much on design here, but on getting balance, playability, and fun in the right mix. It is also good to have Fort look over my stuff as he has a good eye for all the same. It's pretty rewarding to hear him say "This is the kind of stuff I like to play." It lets me know I am at least hitting the playability/interest mark.

Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it. -- jim

Chris Doary said...

Thanks for reading Jim.

Interesting news re your current design efforts. I'm thinking lots of moving parts with freedom to maneuver will be a trademark of your designs. There no shortage of appetite for such things.

I too have been lending Fort a hand with his Burma Pack sequel and his France 1940 scenarios. He probably gets more from your feedback than mine though. But I try to help where I can.

I'd be interested in hearing what he has to say about my designs too. While it may cause me a lot of heartache in the short term, my cards would be improved immeasurably in the process.


Jim Bishop said...

Gary's feedback is direct and blunt. It comes with a helping of trying to make it better. So far, it always has. I also admire him saying let's try it as it is first before we make too many changes. I like to think I have a good eye for what's interesting and getting it "in the ball park" but as you well know, I am not on Gary's level. I am trying though. -- jim