STORYBOARDS (by Tom Russell)

In several of Ty Bomba's wargames, including Hollandspiele's own Operation Unthinkable, each player decides how they want to structure their turn: a move phase followed by combat, a combat phase followed by movement, or twin combat phases. Mr. Bomba explained the concept thusly in an interview with the fine folks at The Player's Aid: 

It’s a way of cleanly modeling all kinds of command-control and logistical limits without a lot of specific rules. Essentially, it forces you to create a point of concentration (“Schwerpunkt,” as the Germans would say) and give it your full support by picking the phase sequence that best services your operational needs in regards to it. The other areas of the front, where some other sequence might have been optimum, then have to keep up as best they can.

I really dig this approach. Heck, before I even knew that Ty was doing it, I had started doing something similar, for somewhat similar reasons, in my Shields & Swords games. Other folks find it a less convincing model, and a couple of months ago I got into a discussion online with a chap who was just not having it, at all. He found it utterly unrealistic and ahistorical, preferring a strict move-combat-exploit sequence. I said something along the lines of, they're different approaches that emphasize different things, and though I understood his preference for the exploitation model, YMMV and all that, I thought that both were equally valid. I figured at that point he'd respond in kind, and we'd have a nice, cordial back-and-forth. 

Instead, the fellow told me that I was wrong. Plain and simple, with no room for discussion or debate. (So, that was lovely.) He then asked me if I had ever bothered to storyboard a WWII campaign turn-by-turn utilizing this sequence of play. If I had, then I would see how easily the game failed the storyboard test, and thus how fundamentally flawed the turn structure was.

And, you know, the guy wasn't wrong, if your measure of a model's worth is its ability to adhere to a storyboard. That's a pretty big if, and I'm going to shortly be disputing the premise, but before I do, I should probably talk about what the heck storyboarding is, in a wargaming context.

The designer Charles Vasey, whom I admire a great deal, declared that "There is no more powerful tool in building your design into a model that speaks to historical fact than the storyboard." Storyboarding is the topic of the final section of his delightful and breezy essay "The Amateur Designer: For Fun and Profit" in the book Zones of Control:

Just as a film director blocks out the scenes in advance to arrange his shooting schedule, so we record them in retrospect to understand the rhythm of war. For us a storyboard is a breakdown of historical events in game terms based on turn length and map scale (and any other measure that you consider of value). This will test the relationships between time and space: movement values and terrain features.

Philip Sabin, another designer I admire, who like Mr. Vasey coincidentally also hails from Albion, wrote in his Simulating War that storyboarding was "a key technique" that can "be used to measure movement rates in different circumstances, and to identify the occurrence and outcome of different kinds of combat." Sabin identifies the "central characteristic of the storyboard approach" as the division of "the engagement into successive slices of time, and provides a 'snapshot' of the position of the forces during each key phase."

Lots of designers (and, if my forum dust-up is any indication, some players) swear by storyboarding, and it's clear why. I've used it a grand total of once myself, in my game Von Moltke's Triumph, and it was instrumental in the introduction of the Strategic Movement rule that actually gets the whole thing to hang together. Through the storyboard approach, I was able to create a model that could faithfully show what happened, and it inspired me to think about why it happened that way.

Really, for me, that last part - the why of it - is the important bit. My philosophy as a designer, and our philosophy as a publisher, is that why is a more interesting and more important question than what, to the point where I'm fundamentally and utterly disinterested in games that are more concerned with what than why, games that get the details right - every regiment accounted for, every combat factor and leader rating with a historical rationale, hexes fifty meters across with four different levels of woodsiness from Densely Wooded to Lightly Wooded to A Single Tree - an entire and voluminous and time-consumingly painstaking collection of facts and figures and information that somehow fail to tell me anything of value about the conflict, or the designer's point-of-view on the same.

Storyboarding is one technique that a designer can use to get to the why, in that in ensures that their fundamentals are sound. But it's not the only technique, and it's not always compatible with the specific lens through which a designer engages with the history. In most of my own designs, the time scale is fungible, and events that may happen "simultaneously" in a historical context may be separated by several game turns as the focus moves from one element of the conflict to another, the same way an author of a history book might write successive chapters that overlap chronologically, doubling back and speeding ahead as needed.

It might be that a game using Mr. Bomba's "move-fight, fight-move, fight-fight" system will find this division running a day behind the historical schedule, while that division is a day ahead. The model sacrifices strict historical fidelity, of the sort measured with a storyboard approach, in order to focus on points of concentration and limited operational bandwidth. It's focused on a why, and so if you judge its value as a model only by asking what, it's going to be found wanting.

Of course this kind of thing isn't just limited to time scale. I remember a few weeks before Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 was released into the wild getting a friendly if slightly panicked email from an AWI aficionado who had seen the map online and noticed that it omitted a direct overland connection between New York and Philadelphia. The omission was deliberate on my part - partially, it incentivizes the Crown Player to make an amphibious landing and come up to Philadelphia as was done historically, and partially, the game wasn’t really about the actual geography anyway, but the role supplies played in determining the tempo of eighteenth-century warfare.

Whether we're talking about time or space, it's far more important that a game be true to the general character of the events, as expressed through a designer's personal engagement with the topic, than the particulars. In that sense, designing a wargame is rather like telling your spouse the story of how you fell in love with one another: the specifics of what happened where, and who said what when, don't matter nearly as much as what it means and how it feels.

1 comment

  • I am a big proponent of storyboarding – as a designer, storyboarding grants me a tangible vision of the game I want to create; it also gives me a chance to walk-through limited aspects of the design, offering some “Oops, I didn’t want that to happen” or “That should work well” moments even before a physical prototype becomes available.

    I can vividly recall a few instances of struggling with a certain design dilemma, only to storyboard the surrounding events and then having an epiphany on how to solve the overriding problem (an example being how to abstractly represent a key event like the Guadalcanal Campaign during the Pacific War without silly handcuffing rules).

    Watching an initial storyboard develop into a mature, full-fledged game is a memorable experience.

    Steve Carey

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