Scenario Design
V2.0 10/8/10


These are my thoughts on designing wargames scenarios; what makes for a fun game and what does not. Some of the comments are more aimed at running a scenario rather than designing it. These notes were written with 20th century games in mind, though most of the comments should be applicable to games in other periods.

Before starting on what makes a good scenario we should talk a little about what makes a good wargame, after all the whole point of designing a scenario is to make a good game. In my opinion the following elements must be present in any fun wargame.

• Fast paced - mechanics must be streamlined

• Lots of movement

• Lots of shooting and destruction

• Historical realism

There is an obvious tension between the first three points and the last and a balance must be struck. Where the balance lays depends very much on personal taste. However I maintain that realistic does not necessarily mean slow and boring. Imaginative and elegant game mechanics should allow for a fast game that gives realistic results.

What makes a good game?

So the aim of a good scenario is to match the criterion of a good game. Let’s look at the thorny issue of historical accuracy first.

For a long while I was a big fan of non-historical scenarios. Non-historical scenarios have a great deal going for them:

• They will match the models you have available

• They require little or no research and are thus much quicker to set up

• The area fought over magically fits the size of your wargames table

• If you have a 1980’s DDR tank division it’s the only type of game you are going to get

Even when setting up non-historical scenarios I believe it is good to have some basis in historical fact, no Tigers in Poland 1939 for example; 1940 desert Brits are generally better quality than the opposing Italians. There are good reasons for this: players can make reasonable assumptions about the game and plan accordingly. While surprises are sometimes fun, no one likes having the rug pulled from under them all the time.

Currently I’m working on historical scenarios. Experience shows that players enjoy them more than the fictional scenarios. They enjoy having a historical prototype to measure their achievements against, which feels a great deal better than artificial victory conditions. Personally I enjoy the research: building historical scenarios is a pleasure.

I’d be flattering myself if I said that my historical scenarios were 100% accurate. Getting good information on unit strengths for both sides is often impossible; indeed getting an accurate list of both sides’ forces often eludes me; so even my so called “historical” scenarios have estimates and guesswork marring their accuracy. Unfortunately the accuracy will be further reduced as others using your scenarios will not have the right kit and will make substitutions.

In short, historical scenarios are hard to do and not totally accurate when you’ve finished. They do give players great feeling of satisfaction but are probably only worth doing if you enjoy the research.

Movement & Terrain

Movement has a huge influence on scenario design. I would argue that in games with much manoeuvre there will also be a great deal of shooting.

Frontal assaults are dull. The players have no choice but to move straight forward, and the defenders have little choice but to stand there and shoot at the attackers. There is a great deal of shooting but as everyone is often in heavy cover there isn’t a great deal of destruction. Who wants to play a game where most of the tactical decisions are already made for you and the game degenerates in to a dice rolling session?

For similar reasons balanced “encounter” battles are often not particularly exciting. If the objective of the game is in the centre of the table then the side moving first or the side with the fastest stuff grabs the central objective. From then on it becomes an attack defence game with the problem that the force ratio is one to one so the attacker has no chance of evicting the defender, the game is effectively won on turn two.

The other problem with “balanced” encounter games is that often no side has a significant advantage so they tend to bog down in to a boring stalemate. This is one big reason to steer away from balanced “points” battles. Unbalanced forces generally make for batter games. If you are interested in “fairness” tip the victory conditions in favour of the weaker side.

A good scenario gives each player many options where to move to and how to commit his forces. Not just the attacker, the defender too must manoeuvre: mobile defence is the order of the day. Assaults can make for interesting games, but make the defender’s line intermittent, leave gaps that the attacker can exploit.

Movement is promoted in scenarios where the enemy comes form multiple directions, or in which friendly and enemy forces are intermingled. So, counter attacks on breakthroughs make for good games, as do relief attempts for cut-off troops.

Terrain makes a big difference to manoeuvre. If the terrain is very open and/or has one or two dominant features then manoeuvre is restricted. Why manoeuvre when you can sit still and just shoot the enemy? Similarly too much of the same terrain is bad. Cover the entire table in trees and all parts of the table are just like any other part. Where is the incentive to move to another location? A jungle is just the same as a desert in the dark, in scenario terms. Terrain needs texture: lots of different terrain separated by small areas of open ground. Most games don’t use enough terrain: as a rough rule of thumb: more terrain is good!

Not all terrain has a beneficial effect on the scenario. Marshes restrict movement as do big woods and big towns, remember movement is good and thus terrain that restricts it should be approached with caution.

The main terrain offender is the river. Forces come to a crashing halt on the banks; the defender can generally concentrate too much fire on the crossing places to allow the attacker across. Choke points do not allow for manoeuvre.

If the scenario does include a river consider the following to mitigate its game-bogging tendencies.

• Lots of different crossing points

• AVLB’s

• Downgrading it as an obstacle, allowing troops to cross unaided after a certain delay

• Give the attacking side a bridgehead over the river (in a historical scenario start the game after the bridgehead has been made)

Terrain makes the game more interesting as it forces players to manoeuvre their troops. Pick battles with many small patches of different terrain that cover the entire battlefield.

While we are considering terrain lets look at topography. Many battles were fought on hilly terrain. Hills are a complete bugger to model on the tabletop. For flexibility you need boxes and boxes of Geo-hex or Terrain Maker (and a great deal of cash). A cheaper option is to put books or carpet tiles under a green cloth, if done right it looks as good as the more expensive options. Unfortunately all systems break down when you need very hilly or mountainous terrain. The reason is that the vertical scale in most games is 1:1, the horizontal scale may be 1:1000 or even greater. This will greatly exaggerate the steepness of slopes on the tabletop. Model soldiers do not stand up well on steep slopes.

There are some “cheats” that can be used to mitigate these problems. Hills inside woods need not be modelled correctly, the woods remove all line of sight advantages that the hills give and the hull down positions are mostly useless; so hills that are covered in trees have little tactical effect. For historical battles careful reading of histories may point out which hills were tactically significant and which were not; if you can get such information only the tactically significant hills need be modelled for the wargame. Despite the cheats battles in very hilly regions are still difficult to do well.


Before we look at actually running scenarios, let’s look at the pace of the scenario. Playing speed is directly proportional to enjoyment. Much of this is in the hands of the rules you have chosen to use, however scenario design can have an effect.

Special scenario specific rules can add significant flavour to a game and are well worth using. However too many special rules and players will have trouble remembering them. If they do remember them, as they are new and unfamiliar, processing them will take time. The same can be said for the less frequently used rules of the game. If it’s your first time using aircraft it’s probably not a good idea to introduce the rules for naval landings at the same time.

Much time can be saved at the start of the scenario if the scenario forces deployment of the players’ forces in certain locations. It’s then just a question of getting the troops out of the box and plonking them down on the table. The more latitude there is with deployment the more time players will stand and think about it. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in designing the scenario you do need to leave extra time available for it.

Many scenarios specify hidden deployment for the defender, or double blind movement and both are fun to play once in a while. However both have significant time overheads. Both require good maps. To get the game moving apace pre-drawn maps should be provided. In order for the maps to be useful the tabletop terrain must closely match the map; unless you are very careful, or have the facility to “test” the terrain layout before the game, this can be challenging.

Although some have said approach marches can be fun, especially where hidden deployment is used, I basically consider them a waste of precious time. Combat is what the players are generally after, so forces should be deployed just out of line of sight of each other: i.e. placed so that the first move by either side brings the forces in to line of sight and shooting can start. If you are designing a historical scenario and you wish the game to follow an historical path than close deployment is a must. This means that the deployed forces are much more likely to be fighting their historical counterparts than if “free” deployment is allowed.

Playing the Game

Once the scenario is set up you should have all the ingredients for a successful game in place. To ensure an enjoyable gaming experience there are several other things you can do the expedite play.

Players: generally everyone wants to be doing something all of the time. If they wanted to sit around doing nothing they could have spent the evening slumped in front of the TV. The best playing to idle ratio is achieved with one player each side, in such a case there is little chance of one player having to sit and watch for any great length of time. However in “assault” type games the defender may have little scope for manoeuvre and thus little to do, which is why games that force a “mobile defence” are generally more entertaining.

If you have more than one player a side the keeping everyone involved and entertained is trickier; the more players a side the trickier it becomes.

Pick the rules carefully. Sets where only one units is moved at a time are terrible for games with more than one player a side (TAC Skirmish and Crossfire come to mind). If you have 3 players a side then only one move in three is yours you spend 66% of you time standing around. Games where “pips” are allocated by the general are not good either; it’s quite possible that the tactical situation is such that the “general” won’t allocate any pips to one player, who has then missed a go. For similar reasons games where you have to activate units are not necessarily suited to multi-player games. Someone has to have the rubbish troops and they are likely to sit around and do nothing. The scenario designer has to ensure everyone has a mix of good (i.e. likely to activate) troops and rubbish troops. This is not always possible, especially when running a historical battle.

Try to set up the scenario so everyone is involved straight away. It’s no fun playing the reserves and waiting around for half the game. In scenarios where there are reserves don’t allocate a player to their control. Give all the players a front line command and then allocate the reserves later; either to the player that controls the troops in the area the reserves are committed to or, better, to the player that has least to do: probably the one that’s had all his forces shot up.

Scenarios where forces come on piecemeal are often interesting but they make bad multi-player games. It’s not much fun if your unit is the last to enter the game.

One of the advantages of multi-player games is they allow the scenario designer to model some real world situations that are otherwise quite tricky to simulate. Early in WW2 many nations’ tank infantry co-operation was truly awful. In a multi-player game this is easy to simulate. Give the tanks to one player and the infantry to another: don’t let them talk. Historically accurate confusion should result. Similar mechanisms can be used to simulate any situation where co-operation was lacking.

Lastly when deciding how to allocate forces to players try to pair things up. In many scenarios its fairly likely that one group of forces will be facing one group of enemy forces: try to allocate all those forces to one player each. If you can divide the battle in to “sectors” and have one player per sector, with minimum interaction between sectors, there is a greater chance of parallelism in the game. What this means is that the sectors can play at their own pace as there is little or no interaction between sectors. This should mean the game progresses faster as there should be less waiting around. Some scenarios don’t fit neatly in to sectors and often players will want to attack places you didn’t expect and move out of the sector. It’s not a disaster the game flow will just be a little less smooth.

Once you’ve decided who is playing what a little preparation will help the game along. Having sheets with just the weapons data on for that game really helps the speed of the game. Many games have voluminous data books and flicking through them looking for stuff is a real chore and greatly slows the game. If you have divided the game in to sectors than make sure each sector has a quick reference sheet with the game tables on and a copy of you data sheet. For speed of play it’s imperative that every player has their own tape measure and dice, plus a little pile of what ever counters the game uses.

Time limits and ending the scenario

You have everyone playing and the game is going well; how long should it last? There are two approaches: time limits and turn limits. Most games have a de-facto time limit. There is a time where everyone has to pack up and go home; the game must end. A good scenario designer takes account of this and designs the scenario to finish in the time available. However getting the timing right is challenging: it requires plenty of experience. If you are confident in your ability to predict timing then hard-wire it in to the scenario e.g. “you must attain all you objectives by 10:30 or you loose”. This prevents the game ending in a draw if time runs out and neither side has achieved their objectives. Draws are less than satisfactory, by putting a time limit on the game’s victory conditions there is no possibility of a draw.

Time limits are better for fictional scenarios; they work less well for historical scenarios: after all Von Manstein didn’t care that your club is chucked out of the church hall at 10:30. Turn limits are suitable for historical and fictional scenarios but must be used with caution. Historical scenarios have built-in turn limits, at a certain time, usually nightfall, the battle ends; this could be said to be true of fictional games too. Many scenario designers swear by turn limits; they force players to act aggressively if they want to achieve their objectives in the allotted time. A time limit also generates a sense of urgency and thus increases excitement. I personally find it very difficult to get turn limits right. To be exciting you have to pare the timings so the players only just have the time they need. If you make the turn limit too short then victory will be impossible and nobody likes to try the impossible. If you make the limit too long there is no sense of urgency.

Another reason to be wary of turn limits, and to a lesser extent time limits, is that they favour a certain type of play. Not all players are capable of the fast aggressive play required. Some much prefer the methodical approach and don’t enjoy the out of control rushed feeling that turn limits sometime generate. Aggressive, fast playing players can play as they wish whether there is a turn limit or not. Methodical players require plenty of time in which to use there preferred tactics which means a more lax turn limit, or removing it all together. The line between methodical players and dithering, indecisive airheads is difficult to draw; some players need a kick up the backside to get them moving. You may need to modify the turn limits on a game to accommodate the way your gaming buddies play.

A word of warning about turn limits: many rule sets have no idea what can be performed in a given amount of time. For most sets if you run a historical scenario with the turn length suggested in the rule book you’ll find the game is over long before its historical counterpart was. The best set for timings in Kampfgruppe Commander which at one turn an hour is spot on. FFT & WPD are about right at 20 minutes a turn for movement, but there’s too much firing allowed in that time, about 45 minutes a turn seems to “feel” right. Command Decision may be about right with the “infantry” time scale of one turn equals half an hour but as lethality is similar to FFT I’d guess 45 minutes was nearer the mark. Other rules sets I’m not as familiar with so I can’t comment.

Victory conditions

So after you’ve spent all this time setting up the game, had a great time playing but who won? Win or lose the objective is to keep everyone involved, if everyone enjoyed the game then who won is in some sense irrelevant. However most players like to know how they did so measuring who is the victor is important.

For historical games this is easier than fictional ones. In an historical scenario you can compare how you did to how you historical brethren did. If you achieved a better result it’s a victory, if not it’s a loss. However even historical games need victory conditions and objectives; they focus the players’ mind on how they are going to play the battle.

In general simple objectives are better than complex victory conditions, though too simple is often not a good idea. Complex victory conditions require detailed analysis. Detailed analysis requires time and aptitude. If you have the time available then allowing some time for planning is a good idea, but this is time not sent shifting lead and rolling dice. The proclivities of players vary, some will enjoy planning and some would rather get stuck in straight away. Generally I find the planners quite enjoy getting stuck in too so I tend to design scenarios with simple victory conditions as this keeps most of the people happy most of the time. Enjoyment aside many people just don’t have the analytical skills, or just can’t be bothered, with the detailed planning.

If you have complex victory conditions and the players haven’t analysed them properly they may think they have done really well until the end of the game when they find out they’ve lost, in such cases most players feel cheated and let down, which is not the way to end a game on a high point.

The classical victory condition is to hold some tactically important piece of terrain. However one piece of terrain is probably too little. For example if you make a small town the objective all the opposing forces may well be sucked in to a tight battle around the town. Both sides will bog down and the game will become a slogging match with no manoeuvre; which is the type of game we are trying to avoid. It is generally better to have several widely spaced points as objectives; this requires that both sides make difficult decisions about how and where they are going to concentrate their forces.

Using a single piece of terrain as the objective will work if the piece of terrain is big enough. The most common example is capture the road. Once a road is captured it’s sheer length makes its difficult to defend in its entirety, leaving it vulnerable to counter attacks if the defender can manoeuvre successfully; this should lead to a nice battle of movement. A long ridge line or strung out Russian village would work equally as well.

Other common victory conditions are kill-them-all and get-the-troops-off. Most games have an element of kill-them-all; after all if there are no enemy troops on the board you will capture the objectives. Kill-them-all isn’t the greatest victory condition. For starters it isn’t historically realistic in most circumstances. Most table top games last much less than a (game time) day. Take a look at historical battles, how many are there were an entire battalion is annihilated in a day: precious few. Most games rules allow a higher kill ratio than was achieved historically so it is a possibility in game terms; the question is whether you feel comfortable with the realism? In addition historical armies’ orders almost inevitably have geographical locations as objectives, annihilate the enemy is not an order it’s a doctrine. The other problem will kill-them-all is it’s very unfocussed. If a game has a capture the objective victory conditions, they focus the players’ planning. Kill-them-all has so many different approaches available that many player’s don’t have any idea where to start, which leads to them having little idea what they are doing. Players without a clue play badly and games with badly playing players are often less than entertaining.

Get-the-troops-off is a much more realistic and entertaining objective. The idea being that Side A must exit X tanks at point Y to win, in effect it models a break-through or retreat battle. If done well it can produce a nail biting finish. One of its big advantages is that it has a “countdown to victory” which can significantly increase the game’s tension. Unfortunately it’s hard to do well. Balancing the number of units that have to exit is tricky, and certainly not for a designer that’s new to the game system. If you make it too easy than the game may well end too quickly, leaving you stranded without a game after an hour. If it’s too hard: no one enjoys attempting the impossible. Done well, get-the-troops-off is excellent, done poorly it can completely screw up the scenario.

The last common objective is almost never seen on its own: limit-your-casualties. It’s normally seen in conjunction with other objectives. It’s a perfectly realistic objective but, for similar reasons, it’s as hard to balance as get-the-troops-off. It also tends to make players cautious, which is realistic but boring. Exciting games generally have aggressive play; don’t-get-shot does not promote aggressive play.

Scenario design requires careful consideration of what players like to do. For the most part this is moving lead around the table and rolling dice. Scenario design should be aimed at getting all the players to do that for as much of the time as possible. Sanding around doing nothing is boring and your games should try to avoid this when ever possible; hopefully your players will thank you for it.