SCENARIO GAMES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Designing a new game can be hard, but designing a new scenario for an existing system is relatively easy. Oh, it’s still work, still a matter of research, thoughtfulness, time, effort, and playtesting, but on the whole you already solved the big problems the first time around, and what you’re left with are smaller ones and the peaceful, steady hum of craft and process. And even this gets easier to do over time. We just published the fifth Table Battles expansion, The Grand Alliance, which adds six scenarios, bringing the total number in the series up to forty-five, and I can say two things with certainty: first, it was easier to do these six than the first six, and second, these six are better than the first six. The more scenarios you design, the better you get at it, and the easier it gets, which as a working designer is a big part of the appeal.

When I’m working on a scenario, there are two things I’m thinking about simultaneously: the scenario as an individual unit, and the scenario as part of the larger whole. As a unit, I’m looking at the usual stuff – how I want the thing to feel, what kind of tensions and dynamics are most appropriate for the historical material, duration, tempo, victory conditions, order of battle. It’s essentially game design in miniature.

More than that, the scenario needs to have some kind of selling point. “This is the one with all the horsies”, “this is the battle on the frozen lake”, “this is the one where the commander was stoned out of his gourd on painkillers”, “this is the desperate rearguard action”. There has to be some kind of story there for me to tell.

This is especially important when I’m looking at the scenario as part of that larger whole, because each scenario needs to be distinct from the ones surrounding it. If I have four battles that all explore the same tensions with the same force structures, then I haven’t designed four new scenarios: I’ve designed one, and just used it over again. Now, it might be that the differences are subtle, that it’s a matter of where I put my emphasis, and that I don’t have a problem with. The great film director Yasujiro Ozu made dozens of films about generational strife, often with the same cast in the same roles, exploring the same themes and often the same plots, but the emphasis in each was different enough that each functions as commentary on the larger whole of his oeuvre.

I don’t usually go in for that much subtlety – board game design is a blunt rather than precision instrument – especially when picking the battles for a new game or expansion. I want them to stand out from each other in a much more obvious way, to each tell their own unique story, and I also need to be cognizant of the story they’re telling together. A good example of this is the forthcoming second game in our Shields & Swords Ancients series, The Grass Crown. This is a set of ten battles charting the military evolution of the Roman Republic – from the birth of the manipular legion, through the Punic Wars, the Marian Reforms, and Caesar’s civil war – and so each battle needs to further that “plot” in some way, or provide some insight into one of the game’s major threads.

This is actually why I capped it at ten battles. Because given the period and the personalities covered, I could have easily done twice that. For example, I’ve only grabbed two battles from the Second Punic War – Trebbia and Zama. That leaves a lot on the cutting room floor: Cannae of course, but also Scipio’s early victories in Hispania, and the battles in Africa prior to his confrontation with Hannibal. Now, Cannae comes with some special simulation problems that I honestly didn’t really feel like banging my poor little head against, but some of those other battles have distinctive features that would make for interesting, compelling, memorable scenarios. It’s just that they wouldn’t really have brought anything ­new to the story; they’d be making some of the same points over and again.

I was also wary of spending too much time in one place. If I do a game about the evolution of warfare over about three hundred years, but half the scenarios are from a span of twenty, it creates a “Ship of Jason” problem. No, not the “Ship of Theseus” problem, but the “Ship of Jason”. In the eighth installment of the deathless Friday the 13th series, after dying (in Part Four), being impersonated (Five), resurrected (Six), and fighting a girl with psychic powers (Seven), psychopathic zombie Jason Vorhees decides that he really needs a vacation, and heads to New York in Jason Takes Manhattan. To get from here to there, he books passage on a ship, the Lazarus. And it is on this ship that the film, plagued by budget constraints, spends the vast majority of its runtime, so much so that our murderous goalie spends all of fifteen minutes in the Big Apple. We were promised New York, and we got a boat.

And so, if I’m going to promise “the military evolution of the Roman Republic over the course of a single game”, I really don’t want to spend the bulk of it splashing around in a single (albeit significant) war. It’d be like if I promised Mary ten pictures of dinosaurs, and what I gave her were eight pictures of penguins and two pictures of brontosauruses. I mean, yes, technically I will have given her ten pictures of things that could be described as “dinosaurs”, and Mary is probably going to be delighted by those penguins, but I think she’s still going to feel like it didn’t quite live up to the promise.

Another aspect of “how does this scenario work as part of the larger whole” is a more practical concern, and that’s to do with the constraints imposed by the physical product. The Grass Crown might have ten scenarios – might in some sense be ten “games” – but all of them have to be playable with the same set of counters and terrain tiles, and on the same map. The fungibility of the game’s scale helps here to a large degree, but there are times when I simply don’t have enough of X to really deliver on the Battle of Y. Now, I can try to shift things around – if this scenario really needs four more horsies than I have available, then maybe I can add four to the mix by removing other counters to make room. If that’s possible, then I have to decide if it’s worth it. Am I only going to use those four extra horsies in a single scenario? I’m more likely to add them if I’m going to get more mileage out of it. If it is just for that one scenario, then I need to look at where I have to make cuts: does this one scenario more than make up for what I’ll be losing elsewhere? If not, then maybe that one scenario just isn’t going to make the cut.

These situations used to be more frequent back in the day. As I said before, it’s process and craft, and the more experience you get with the thing – between the medieval and the ancients line, I’ve now done about forty battles – the easier and more intuitive it gets. It’s not so much that I’ve gotten better at solving problems, as my process naturally avoids them in the first place.

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