Design Files: Scenario Design

A large and vocal minority think our games should run according to history, and are willing to put up with special rules that force the game into a historical pattern. To me, however, every special rule is a failure of the game design. I am against pushing the course of the scenario into a historical rut with special rules. The historical result should be possible, but not (always) necessarily likely...

We do, after all, have plenty of restrictions on a player's ability to respond, mostly modeled by Initiative, where his forces won't always do what he would like. We also have hidden movement, which provides it is true only a tactical ignorance of enemy dispositions, not a strategic one.

Many historians seem to think it is their job to prove why the outcome of the battle was inevitable. But we may need a more flexible approach. I don't want to tie the gamer's hands and force him to pursue a more historical course of action. Instead, I want to give the player the situation at the given start time and allow him to assess the situation and do his best to break out of the historical pattern of the battle. (Just like the ads on the old AH boxes, "Now YOU are in command.") I regard every Special Rule as a failure of the basic system; though every game has them, I try to keep them to about three or four per battle. Otherwise they become a burden. 

The outcome of the battle was not preordained. The ultimate goal is a game in which both sides have a chance to win—and the outcome remaining in doubt until the last turn. That increases the excitement and interest level.

I am against "Hands-tied" rules, "Command stupidity," and other mechanics to force a historical outcome. If there is no real external factor impinging on the general that we can incorporate into a rule, then the player ought to be free to exercise his options and pursue any course he chooses (at least in a separate scenario if not in the main one). We have done a rule for Archduke Charles’s Epileptic seizures, but that is verging on the kind of rule I am talking about. 

The player should be free to execute the winning plan. He should not be forced to take the historical choices just because of Special Rules. If the game reveals that Napoleon should have led with his left, instead of his right, then that could be a valid historical lesson. The book historian only has to recount what did happen (the best ones also discuss what might have happened). As a game designer, I strive to describe the historical situation at a given moment, facing the commander with free choice.

Scenario design is like throwing darts. For me, if your dart isn't hitting the wall, you are good! It doesn't have to be a bulls-eye. If the scenario design was a cake recipe, it could be chocolate cake or lemon tart. A scenario too finely honed starts to become a straitjacket for the player. I want players to find widely different outcomes each time they play. That keeps it interesting.

—Kevin Zucker