In his book The Complete Wargames Handbook, the noted wargame designer James F. Dunnigan had two basic rules for aspiring designers:
- Keep it simple.
Later he euphemized the second one as “use available techniques”, but still, these are words to live by. And once in a while a game system comes along so loaded with good ideas and potential directions it simply has to be used! Giving due credit to the original thinker, of course… we do stand on the shoulders of giants, and they all have names.
In the particular case of The Scheldt Campaign, the original inspiring system was one used in Bulge 20: The Ardennes Offensive, designed by Joe Miranda and published by Victory Point Games (VPG) in 2009. This was the latest in a series of “20” games that VPG had been publishing for several years, wherein some battle (usually a Napoleonic one) was given a simple treatment, using a small map, a dozen cards and no more than 20 counters per side. (I actually published the first version of the very first of these games, Joe's Waterloo 20, in 2000 in the pages of Strategist, the now-defunct newsletter of the Strategy Gaming Society which I was then editing – I managed to do it with only 18 counters, total, though VPG published it with 40!)
Was it possible to have a fun and interesting Bulge game with such minimal components? Yes it was, with Joe's “Command Staff game engine” (as VPG called it at the time). This game had the basic concepts of card actions sorted by staff or “G” function, contained in a choose-your-own hand mechanic so you could somewhat script the kind of turn you wanted to have, Task Force counters that were holders and organizers for smaller units, a simple bucket-of-dice combat resolution mechanism, and variable or secret victory conditions.
The flexibility of the Command Staff system was soon proven when Joe, Michael Anderson, Jon Compton and I started work in early 2010 on a game called BCT Kandahar, on counterinsurgency operations in that province of Afghanistan. The basic concepts were the same, though the staff functions were more diverse (the four staff functions of Administration, Intelligence, Operations and Logistics were joined by Planning, Communications, Training, Finance and Civil Military Cooperation) and we added the idea of Assets (air power, IEDs, and so forth) and a number of other features peculiar to irregular warfare. The game was eventually published by Modern Conflict Studies Group in 2013.
But in the meantime, in the fall of 2010 I had taken some of these ideas and twisted them yet again into Third Lebanon War, an operational level wargame of operations in Lebanon sometime in the near future. The context was that Israel had decided to mount an invasion of southern Lebanon to eliminate the threat posed by the continued presence and actions of the Hezbollah organization, but on a much larger and more destructive scale than the 2006 incursion. I thought that this situation might lend itself well to a game system that emphasized the limitations and advantages of centralized and decentralized command and control systems, and the Command Staff system seemed to show that well.
(I sent this design in to Decision Games at the end of 2011 for publication in their magazine Modern War: it appeared in the summer of 2014 as Next War in Lebanon. It suffered greatly in their “development” process and appeared with only a few of my original ideas; I was informed later that Joe's staff card mechanism itself had barely survived, which was kind of the point of the whole exercise. I made the game as I originally designed it available for free print-and-play on my website [Next War In Lebanon] and it is still available. But all this was still in the future….)
After I had finished with Lebanon, I spent my Christmas holiday at the end of 2010 working on The Scheldt Campaign, the first game to focus entirely on operations in the area of the Scheldt Estuary in Belgium and Holland in October and November of 1944. Many wargames have been published on the fighting in Northwest Europe, but in practically all of them the Scheldt Estuary area, when it is acknowledged at all, is a small muddy spot in the upper left corner of the map that the Allied player is directed to move through or interdict in some abstracted way. I had always been interested in this campaign, as the penultimate set of battles the First Canadian Army, tired and overstretched after being in continuous combat since the D-Day invasion, fought before the Rhineland campaign and I thought there needed to be more recognition of this episode. There was a personal connection too: for nine years I was a member of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, a Canadian Armed Forces militia unit, and this unit, as part of the 3rd Canadian Division, won three battle honours in the campaign (The Scheldt, Leopold Canal and Breskens Pocket). It was a pleasure to dedicate this game to the Regiment.
The game was published in limited numbers by the Microgame Design Group in spring 2012, with art and counters by Kerry Anderson, a long-time collaborator of mine. In this new edition the rules are unchanged, but the new map by Ilya Kudriashov and counters by Tom Russell are impressive and have been given a level of production not possible before.
In designing this game, I wanted to show several things about the campaign and in so doing, pose challenges to the players: the limited resources available to both sides; the difficulty of the fortifications and terrain fought over; and the grinding, attritional nature of the fighting. The staff card mechanism is much the same as it was in the original Bulge 20 game and fulfils the first in that it does not allow players to move and fight every unit every turn, as is often the case in other wargames - they must choose what they want to do, and where, and how to support it. The combat system, seemingly very simple because it does not rely on odds computations or column shifts, favours the defence, both with terrain and with letting the defender normally fire first. Finally, the application of hit markers reflects the incremental nature of unit losses as they wear away in the fighting, and a crucial question for the Allied player is how long and how hard he wants to push his brigades.
I also did not find it difficult to include rules that reflected many of the peculiar aspects of the campaign: special or additional units such as the “Funnies” armoured engineering unit, the 4th Special Service Force commando unit, parachute units and the 1st Canadian Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment; and the unusual terrain such as the Beveland Causeway and the dikes of Walcheren Island.
Unlike the other games I have worked on using this game system, The Scheldt Campaign does not have secret or variable victory conditions. The objective of the campaign was brutal and straightforward: destroy the German coastal artillery units threatening the Estuary as quickly as possible, so ending the game. The Allied player is under constant time pressure, complicated by the fact that there are only three turns during the entire game on which he can conduct a direct amphibious assault on Walcheren Island, which is where half of those artillery units are. Meanwhile, the German player must conduct a desperate defence carefully combined with a fighting withdrawal, so as to slow the Allies as much as possible. Even though he is overall the weaker in strength, and his command structure has been severely battered (shown by his lower C2 level), it is still possible for a well-timed counterattack to frustrate the enemy even further.
I hope you'll enjoy what I have done with Joe Miranda's ideas in this game, and the new directions in which I have taken his system.