Scenario Designing Tips From The
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Scenario Designing Tips by Trey Marshall

Chances are that if you are reading this article, you have some desire to try your skill in the art of scenario designing. As you probably know, there are a wide variety of wargames out there and it seems to me that the most successful ones are the ones that offer editing capability for their users to recreate their favorite battles and campaigns. Amateur designers make the genre more refreshing with their many different backgrounds and interests and you will find many designers out there who stretch the boundaries on what these games were originally designed for. It is often the amateur designers out there who even make better scenarios than the ones included in the original program! Scenario designing may seem like a daunting task and indeed it is; however, there are many sites on the internet and usenet that offer guides and friendly folks who will help you on your endeavor.

I think the most important aspect of a successful scenario designer is his desire in wanting to recreate one of his own favorite battles and/or campaigns. For me, this came way back in my college days when I bought an SSI wargame compilation package that included Norm Koger's "Tanks!" Ah, I remember fondly the Spads and Bristols bi-planes bombing my M1A2s with reckless abandon. Now, I already had the original Tanks! but I was interested in the extra scenarios included in the package designed by a gentleman named Bill Wilder, who became the inspiration for me to try my own hand at scenario designing. What amazed me the most was here were realistic looking maps with recognizable terrain features and units that were named on their historical counterparts. No longer was I playing on unnamed land masses with generic units. I was fighting with the 12 SS Panzer Division outside the fringes of Caen. This added a new dimension of depth as the game was transformed from a random game wargame generator to a snapshot in history where I was thrust into the middle. I began designing my own scenarios using Tanks! while using Bill Wilder's style. I did not have much reference material so I picked up some World War II magazines and some books at the university library. I started picking up references from bookstores and checking out more library books and began my own research into my favorite battles. After that I got heavily into the Steel Panthers series, Talonsoft's Operational Art of War, and now Matrix Game's upcoming Battlefields! I dabbled in many other games including the Combat Missions and West Front/East Front but what I found was that I preferred operational games like Art of War and Matrix's Korsun Pocket over the tactical games like Steel Panthers and Combat Mission.

Naturally, when I picked up Talonsoft's Art of War, I wanted to recreate many of my previous Tanks! incarnations and then I was off to the races so to speak. I have spent more time in Art of War then any other game including the summer I spent after high school when I recreated the 1991 Major League Baseball season with Microleague Baseball on my faithful Atari ST. It was during this time period quickly after the release of Operational Art of War that I began serious study and research on campaigns, orders of battles, tables of organization and equipment, and maps where any book with a detailed OOB and map is like a hidden treasure. Anyways, what is my point, you are probably asking? If you are a casual gamer or do not have much free time, then you may want to proceed with caution because once you get deeply involved, it will probably become one your favorite past times. The goal will become to create the perfect recreation of your favorite battle. Be careful because when you find that you cannot play scenarios unless they meet YOUR standards for a good scenario, then you are in over your head, my brother. Welcome to designing.

Initial Scenario Preparation

Before you even get started with your first mouse click, you need to ask yourself some questions so you can prepare. The first is, do I have enough time? Designing a good scenario is going to take some time investment and if you do not have the time, it might be best to wait until you do. A good tactical scenario like Steel Panthers or Combat Mission would take me a week or two to complete as there are not many units and the maps are fairly easy to make. An operational scenario like Art of War really depends on the size of the campaign. In operational scenarios, I have found that my work is never really completed as I have always needed to go back and do "revision" updates because I find new information that I could use. A corps sized battle would take me roughly a month to get the base scenario done and start testing it. A grognard certified "monster" scenario could take me anywhere from 2-6 months to complete but I would not recommend a new designer to attempt this kind of scenario until he has a couple of smaller battles under his belt and learned the system. For comparison purposes, I have a normal job and sometimes spend up to twenty-five hours a week on designing with most of the time being utilized on the weekend.

Second question to ask yourself is do I prefer operational games or tactical games or in other words, do I like being down in the mud with the soldiers watching the action (tactical) or do I prefer to be the commanding general pushing units around the map (operational)? Once you figure that out, you can then narrow down which game you want to use to start your designing or you might already have a game in mind. It is my opinion that tactical scenarios require less time generally than do operational ones as they are normally smaller and designers can be a bit more creative in building maps. My recommendation would be to start with a tactical wargame to build up your general skills before you try the operational ones.

Third question is what campaign or battle do I want to recreate? This is important because you want to pick a scenario that is going to maintain your interest and you will be less inclined to shelve it later. I would also browse the current scenarios that are available for download on the internet to see if your idea has already been done. Download it and play it. Could you do better or has someone else already been there and done that? No need really to overlap someone else's work unless you think you could do a superior job than what the previous author finished. Other considerations are the scope of the battle. My recommendation is to start small to learn the editing system before you try to recreate World War Three. If your mind is set on a largish scenario, then build a small section of it first and then enlarge it later once you are comfortable with the system. Most editors include tools for adding map spaces to existing scenarios. I would also download scenarios from different authors and compare the differences in their finished products. You may find a certain style or combination of styles that you like best and fits your interest.

Fourth question to ask is do I have the reference material necessary to complete the scenario using the level of detail that I want? Is the battle you want to design a historical, semi-historical, or completely fictional battle? Be careful here because many of the grognards (hardcore wargamers) are going to take this in consideration before they download and play one of your scenarios. Personally, I prefer strictly historical scenarios with a few semi-historicals at times. That is just me though and many other gamers have their own preferences. Point is that when you design the scenario, you need to be able to tell your audience what type the scenario is. A historical scenario is going to require more detailed references than you might have or be able to find at your local library. If you want to design a historical scenario, you will need detailed topographic maps, a good listing of what specific units were involved in the fight, a good understanding of the organization of those units, and a detailed campaign history. If you don't have all of those, you could easily "fudge" it or give you best guesstimate and call it semi-historical. Finally, you could just make something completely up based on the kind of scenario you would like to play and call it fictional. I will cover reference materials later on as well.

Map Making

Your map will probably be the first impression that will be made when a gamer attempts to play your scenario. It needs to make sense and be presentable. Restrictive terrain needs to be examined and included, rivers need to follow the paths of least resistance, and effective ground cover included. I would recommend just a little bookwork and research before you start plugging away at hexes. You need one map that is detailed enough with its topography that you can use as the base map. Go through your references (if based on a historical battle) and decide what are the objectives of both the attacker and defender. What are the boundaries of all the units that were involved in the battle?

Good maps and especially tactical maps showing individual companies and vehicles are difficult to find but not impossible. If you are making an operational map, I recommend Michelin road maps as they show shaded relief, towns, roads, waterways, and vegetation cover as well. Keep in mind there is no substitute for a good era battle map as terrain can change dramatically over the years. When I was working on a World War Two campaign dealing with Holland, I pulled out a nice Michelin road map and started plugging away. For some reason the modern map did not look quite right and upon further research, I realized that there was a massive land reclamation project that happened after the war when thousands of square kilometers of land was reclaimed from the sea. I had this land mass in my World War Two scenario and it had not even existed at that time Imagine my embarrassment had I not caught that when I released the scenario.

You can then start to narrow down the size and scope of the map you want to build. If a piece of terrain was critical to the campaign, then you need to include it. If your maps are too constrictive, you will find that the forces are forced into areas that they historically did not occupy. What type of battle are you trying to build as this could be a huge factor in determining the size of your map. Maybe you want a restrictive type map if you are modeling a set piece battle or assaulting a heavily fortified defense to force units in a certain maneuver space like at Stalingrad which would have a high unit to hex density. If the battle is mobile such as delays or movement to contacts, you might want to include more maneuver space so that units on both sides can attempt to gain an advantage over the other such as North Africa and posses a low unit to hex ratio.

Once you have decided on your map boundaries, I suggest that you take your base map and pencil in the boundaries on the map itself. Most scenario maps are rectangular shaped so this will serve as a good basis on where your terrain features are located on your map. If you have an especially large map, you could further divide your map in quadrants and mark them both on your physical map and your online map. Sometimes the task of making a map seems daunting and you are not even sure of where to begin. Dividing the map into screen sized quadrants can help you maintain focus as you work from quadrant to quadrant. You could also mark your online quadrants using the blank unusable hexes ("black" hexes in TOAW) or some other terrain feature to divide up your map.

One last thing to take into consideration before you start mapping hexes is to decide if you will ever want to expand your map into a bigger scenario. For example, I completed a Market Garden scenario once and then decided later that I wanted to add to the map and units later to include the Maas Bridgehead at Venlo. If you feel like you might have an inclination to do this in the future, determine whether you can expand the map later once you are completed. TOAW for instance, has an extend rows and columns option which adds hexes to your pre-existing scenario and is very helpful. Some editors will only expand its rows and columns in one direction like to the north and west for instance. If this is the case you might want to consider making enough room at the start for the entire map in what I call a "Master" copy. Make a blank map with enough room to cover the whole campaign map you may want to include. Then mark the boundaries on your editor map of the area of operations you want to start with using the "black" hexes or other types of visual markers. What you will have is a huge blank map marked with terrain boundaries that mark where you want to start. Start to work within your marked boundaries and leave all the excess blank hexes on the edges alone. When you are done with your scenario, save it to the "Master" and then start trimming off the edges that you do not need for your starter scenario and save it as your normal scenario. You will then have the large Master scenario which you can expand on later and the normal scenario with a map at just the right size.

Now I have a different approach to mapping tactical and operational battles. Tactical battles I can almost always map out in a freestyle form which means I look at my map and make my own estimates on distances whereas I am much more detailed on my operational maps. My philosophy is that ninety-nine percent of the people who play these games won't know the difference since they have never personally visited Stoumont or the Seelowe heights so being off a couple of meters really isn't going to make much of a big deal in a tactical battle. Most wargamers are probably more familiar with the rough geography of Europe so I try to be as accurate as I can on the operational maps.

The last step you absolutely have to make and assess before you build your map is what military folks call a map reconnaissance and terrain analysis. The Army uses a term called OCOKA (Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain, and Avenues of Approach) to help analyze a particular terrain problem. I would also add weather to this formula. What I have always tried to recreate is to provide the player the same set of circumstances, factors, and problems that the commander on the ground had to contend with. You have to ask the questions like what were the main avenues of approach (roads or least restrictive terrain) that the attacking force had to negotiate. Where did the defender make his main defensive line or successive lines? This will indicate that there is some key terrain that the defender tied his defenses to. What terrain gave the occupier an advantage over the other side - think Monte Cassino. What natural and man made obstacles presented significant problems to both sides like rivers, swamps, cliffs, etc. How did weather impact the operation? Once you have made your analysis, decide how you are going to implement those factors into your scenario. What you do not want to happen is one of the players finds an easy way around the problem that you did not foresee.

A good example of this was when I designed a World War Two campaign in Southern Holland in 1944. I made the Rhine, Waal, and Maas Rivers as major rivers like they were supposed to be which meant that not just any unit could cross without a bridge. What I missed was that any unit with some engineer capacity could make a bridgehead over these rivers. End result was that any engineer battalion that the Allies possessed made multiple crossings over the huge rivers and the Axis player could do nothing to stop them as the Allies crossed at will. Now, the Rhine is a river that would take multiple bridging engineer units weeks to finish that kind of project and here the Allies were crossing at will whenever they wanted. I had to go back and impose limitations on that situation to prevent the Allies from making those crossings. Eventually, what I did was to place escarpments bordering those rivers so that the engineers could never even get at the rivers themselves. The Axis player now had a firm obstacle that he could plan on using in his defensive plans.

Tactical Battle Mapping

I estimate my maps when I work on the tactical maps and since I have a different philosophy on my maps, I have different methods to mapping. On the tactical maps, I always start with the major terrain features first. I plot out where major and minor rivers flow and the major road networks. Once I have those complete, I work on the buildings and towns and then finish up with the elevations and vegetation. Often times your physical maps will not have much more detail beyond including some rivers and villages. If your map does not include these details, do not leave your map blank. This is where you get to do a little bit of creative editing. Remember, if you are drawing a map of Mogilev at the tactical level, most people have no clue what the geography of Mogilev looks like so be creative and there you have one of my key design tips for scenario creation. If you do not have the accurate historical information, then get creative and make it look believable because most people won't know the difference anyway. Only use it as a last resort but don't can a scenario because you cannot find an exact city grid layout of Jimbalya, Egypt. As long as your scenario makes the player feel it is authentic and the scenario plays in the spirit of what you are trying to recreate, then that is enough to be successful.

Basically, tactical map making to me allows for more creativity than operational maps and thus I do not have any hard coded rules that I go by. Some additional tips are to ensure that you include all of the key terrain that influenced the battle. If capturing Hill 227.3 was critical to controlling the flow of supplies along Highway 2 then make sure you have a hill accordingly. Finally, you want your map to look visually appealing and realistic looking. If you have no idea what this means, then go outside to a rural area or even a city and figure out how you would map that in your editor for practice. Download other scenarios and take a look at how they laid out their maps and take particular notice of the small details. In Kansas for example, the only trees you will find are lining rivers and streams. If there is a farm on your map, how are most farms laid out as far as buildings, walls, trails, hedges, etc? How are villages arranged? Are they systematic city grids or disarrayed in a chaotic order? Is your map flat? Even in relatively flat terrain there are dips and rises that can make a significant impact on your battle. An extremely helpful source is to examine pictures of the region and you will also get ideas on the layout and vegetation content of the area. Nothing can replace an aerial photo or even a visit to the battlefield.

Operational Campaign Mapping

Okay, so you have identified your boundaries and you are ready to dig into building an operational map. There are two styles that I am aware of for building maps. The first one is a hex overlay system which I do not use myself but I will explain briefly in concept. It consists of printing out a transparent sheet with hexes to scale and then affixing it on top of your map. Once you have the hex overlay on, you can directly input the terrain into your map by just following what is physically located within the hexes and transpose them to your editor map. You can even use maps that you download off the internet and then superimpose a hex grid on the map. The key part of the process is that you must ensure that the scale on your editor map (lets say 1 km/hex) corresponds to the physical scale on your map. If one inch equals 1 km on your physical map, you must make sure that the hexes are one inch across.

The method I use is what I call the "Scaling Map Method" and consists of measuring distances between terrain features on the map and then inputting them onto your editor map. This method may be a bit more inaccurate than the hex overlay method and it seems quicker to me at least. Scaling is nothing more than measuring distances between terrain features and cities and then input them into your map. What I do is get a note card or piece of paper and set the edge next to the legend distance scale on the map. Mark off the tick-marks onto your blank paper and label your own scale. Your tick-marks should be close to whatever scale your editor map is in. For example, if each hex is 1 kilometer, then your tick-marks should be increments of 1 kilometer. You want enough tick-marks so that you can cover a good portion of your map at once and you are ready to begin your measurements.

When I have my blank map and my distance ruler, I start by measuring distances between major cities and placing them on my map. I place all cities and towns before I place any other terrain features. When I measure, I take two measurements vertical distance and horizontal distance. The first city you need to mark on your map is one that is close to the middle of the battle area and this city will serve as your primary reference point. Since it is your first point on the editor map, measure the horizontal and vertical distance from one of the four corners of your physical map boundaries to the center of your reference city. Also, mark that center reference city point with a pencil mark or something similar so you will measure from the same place at each measurement. For example, if my scale in the editor is one kilometer per hex, I would come up with a measurement from the lower left hand corner of my map boundary that I penciled on the map that would be 16 kilometers (hexes) to the right (east) and 24 kilometers (hexes) up (north) to the center of the city. I would then count 16 hexes to the right and 24 hexes up and then fill that hex with the appropriate terrain palette icon. Then name the unit in the map the appropriate city name. Since this is your main reference point, make multiple measurements and count the hexes a couple of times just to make sure you are accurate.

Once you have your main reference point, start measuring other villages and cities from your reference point and start marking them off on your editor map. Your map will start to look like a bunch of spots with city and villages sprayed out all over your editor map. Sometimes you will make mistakes and you need to catch those quickly. The further you get away from your main reference point, the longer it will take to measure out those distances and mark them on your editor map. In this case, I would recommend making multiple reference points across the map to make things a bit easier. Then you can move from region to region and it shortens up your measuring time. Always check your alternate reference points by checking them off of other reference points just to make sure you are in the ballpark and you are not straying on your distances. In my earlier designing days, I wouldn't have one reference point but would start on one side of the map and start working to the other side of the map as I would measure from one village or city to the next without going back to any of the reference points. What I ended up was a lopsided map that I had to do some creative editing to correct as I had progressed so far that I wasn't about to start over.

Now remember, these measurements are not going to be precise and there is always a bit of error or slack in each measurement. If you do not use reference points, then all of your errors will start to cumulate as you go across your map from village to village. Making all measurements from a center reference point will cut down on that error. You just have to make some checks every now and then to make sure. Check reference points off of other reference points on the map and see if they are close on your editor map. If they are, then you are good shape. If you are way off, then you have a problem somewhere that you need to correct before you move on.

Your cities and villages are all filled in and your map looks like a huge eyesore. Start filling in those terrain features starting with rivers and roads. Now that you have your cities and villages in the map, you can use those as a guide on your editor map. Rivers usually cross by villages or through them so you can start making your river just by judging distances by their proximity to the towns. Build your road and rail network the same way. The map shows a road connecting two towns so just draw your road connecting the two towns. How many ways does the road branch off in the town? Make those branches and continue your road/rail net. Where are the bridges located? At times, these features may not be close to a town so you may have to make measurements with your scale ruler. Pay particular attention to placement of bridges especially across major rivers. These will often become crucial chokepoints so check your references on critical crossing sites.

Once you have your road and rail net complete, now you get to drop in all the cool looking palettes like woods, farmland, orchards, swamps, etc. To stay focused, I work in what I call "screen regions" which means I fill in all the terrain that is covered on my screen and when I complete it, I shift the map over to the next terrain-less screen and then fill it in. Woods and swamps are easy to fill in as most maps show this terrain but you may run into a problem where your map doesn't include the kind of detail that the editor offers. You may have to find additional sources to find that kind of information. Finding where all the orchards or farm areas are in Holland is a difficult prospect. I suggest doing online searches for maps and you can even use other games as a reference. Michelin maps will often include hilly, wooded, swamp, and orchard terrain.

Editors will often differentiate between light woods and heavy woods. I also use the rule of thumb that light woods can allow some limited vehicular traffic and heavy woods do not. Map doesn't distinguish which? Guesstimate. Also consider in your research the maneuvering of the forces in the battle. Did they travel easily through the forests or where they limited to roads and open space? Remember: military units, like water running down hill, will follow the path of least resistance. Always keep an eye on restrictive terrain on the maneuvering forces. Orchards to me are a nice touch of fluff and can be replicated by light woods if you need to. If your map shows them, put them in. If the map does not show orchards, I wouldn't worry about it.

Swamps are very restrictive and normally form around lakes and waterways such as canals and rivers. Swamps normally require a waterway as a source. Some editors use a form of a light swamp which you could use as "mud" terrain.

Beaches are not just what they sound like in that they are sandy expanses along the sea. Beaches in wargame terms mean that a section of beach can support an amphibious landing. It is normally extremely difficult to find which beaches could support amphibious operations as these were normally surveyed by naval engineer battalions. However, think like a defender as they would most likely have an interest on what beaches could support a landing. Most of these beaches would be defended very heavily. Which sites had active defenders and bunkers? Might be a good beach site.

Hills and mountains are often subjective and many authors use them in different ways. I distinguish mountains as almost impassable except for trained mountain and commando units. Hills are still restrictive but can be negotiated by most units. When I have a map with elevation relief that shows height, I will designate certain elevations as "hilly" and another as "mountains." This helps me determine where my hills and mountains are. Some editors only have a limited number of elevation levels so I break up the elevation levels into my map's corresponding heights. For example, if the editor has ten levels of elevation and my map goes up to a maximum of 1000 meters. Each 100 meters of height would be a higher level. I would also make the determination that every elevation less than 200 meters would be flat, 200-400 meters would be hilly, and 400+ would be mountainous.

The last thing I would do on my map is name all of the villages, interesting geography features, famous places, rivers, etc. This adds an atmosphere element that I enjoy and is just as important as naming those fighting units. It is much more interesting to fight over "Horseshoe Wood" than a clump of wooded hexes. An important part of building your map is testing it. Many times in the testing phase of the scenario, I will find inconsistencies or results that I do not like as a result of how I placed my terrain. Compare your testing results to the actual campaigns. Do the armies move realistically? Are they restricted too much? Too little? These results will help you to fine tune your map.

I have also found that editors and the wargame mechanics do not always equal historic results. I often have had to be creative with the terrain in a way that the editor was not intended to be used to replicate more realistic results. I have had to add escarpments around major rivers to prevent pesky engineers from creating instant rivers over massive rivers like the Rhine. I've also used escarpments around bridges so that bridges have only one exit and entrance hex side. Take a look at other authors and see how they solved particular problems and do not be afraid to be creative and innovative. Offer up maps to experienced and new wargamers and get their opinions on it. I have always offered up testers the opportunity to check out my creations to get positive feedback. Often times I have found players out there who know more about the battle than I do and I try to enlist their aid to help make the scenario a better and more realistic experience.


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