Friday, April 20, 2012

Scenario Design, Historical Accuracy, and Rediscovering Stanley Hollis’ Sunken Lane

Whenever a new scenario-based tactical game depicting ground combat comes out, designers began anew in their quest to find situations to depict. Tastes vary, and while the quests may be different, for such things as balanced match-ups, armour-heavy battles, scenarios that highlight specific equipment, favourite (often ‘elite’) units, etc., the struggle for new inspiration is a constant.

The quest leads scenario designers to mine a variety of sources; I don’t know how common it is for designers in one medium to review scenarios in another, but I wonder if it isn’t more common than some may let on (a review of the extant designer’s notes for games like ASL, Combat Mission, Panzer Command, etc., leads one to believe that inspiration comes from either the heavens or the sacred scrolls of the Library of Congress, not “ripping off” a Flames of War booklet they bought second-hand on ebay).

Plagiarism would come most readily to mind as the most obvious hazard of this practice. Not just because of the taint of the accusation, which in reality is probably more harsh than any possible harm of actual legal repercussion. Some may recall the “ASL2CM” website which was a proponent of replicating ASL in Combat Mission. Rumours had swirled of legal action, particularly when the site closed down, though this thread on the CM forums seems to indicate nothing so drastic, and that the decision was simple time constraints on the webmaster. Before the end, though, the site developed into a detailed primer on translating the venerable boardgame's terrain into Combat Mission maps, and gave advice on reproducing force match-ups, leadership values, game lengths and other “conversions”. The end results, as far as the CMx1 game engine went, were mixed for the most part, as some scenarios really didn’t translate well, particularly the terrain, which was highly stylized to match John Hill’s concept of “Design for Effect” in the original Squad Leader board game. (For just one example, urban streets in SL/ASL were laid out in an abstract system 40 to 80 metres across while CM had a 20 metre terrain grid - directly translating the maps meant that crossing a street was unrealistically dangerous.) So the largest hazard of “plagiarism” was that in the end scenarios directly translated were often not all that good because of the differing natures of the games themselves.

Strange collision of two worlds; the "ASL Interface" seemed like a good idea at the time.
So did the terrain mods. "Fusion" is often better in theory than practice.
As inspiration, though, a scenario designer is missing out on a lot of opportunity by simply refusing to look at the work of others, with tens of thousands of tactical-level wargame scenarios set in the Second World War now in print for various game systems, probably at minimum 5,500 for Advanced Squad Leader alone. (As of this writing, The Scenario Archive has tracked 5,647, including one-offs and self-published works.) While not suitable for a straight conversion into a game system, like Combat Mission, that uses realistic terrain, order of battle, and command and control systems (ASL in its basic form has none of these), those printed scenario cards that the ASL community cranks out do have the stamp of historical verisimilitude on them and if nothing else provide the start point for one’s own historical research. Some designers, such as Evan Sherry of Schwerpunkt magazine, even go so far as to provide their historical source material references right on the cards.

And when you find a scenario design by a fellow like the late Ian Daglish, who has published bona fide and well-respected volumes on military history in addition to taking those scenario designs to the next level with “historical modules” based on actual terrain, you get the comforting feeling the historical background you’re holding in your hands is probably going to be pretty accurate even if the scenario itself is stylized for playability.

All of which presupposes that historical accuracy (as opposed to pure fiction) is a precondition for a good scenario, which is certainly not the case. More on this later on.

First Cristot
The more recent ASL products are based on more stringent historical research; the Normandy 1944 product is an example, and Ian Daglish's name looms large in the credits.

The scenario FIRST CRISTOT jumps out immediately; aside from the "hook" of involving Stanley Hollis, it had a unique proposition, or sub-plot if you will, presented alongside the main story-line. The basic story, or objective, was familiar - a British unit with little support was to attack across bocage and farm land up a hill and take heavy punishment from SS troops in the process. Daglish went further in modelling the lack of tank-infantry co-operation by permitting either infantry, or armour, to move in each player turn - but not both.

Scenario design for Combat Mission now involves story-telling as much as simply researching order of battle, and so the scenario was something of an inspiration. My initial design for FIRST CRACK AT CRISTOT revolved around exploring this theme; it was impossible to place restrictions on command and control in the abstract manner of the board game, so the solution was to widely divide the tanks from the infantry, but testing showed that the scenario didn't seem to go anywhere, and besides, it wasn't as interesting as historical source information that was uncovered, which gave fairly specific information regarding the location of German positions. To that end, the map was reworked, lines of sight re-tooled, and positions re-arranged. The ASL scenario included a single company of British infantry, and reviewing the historical notes, it seemed prudent to make use of the entire historical arena:

Reproduced from The Creully Club newsletter.
The map in "First Crack at Cristot"
The final scenario is much larger - beyond the company-sized comfort level that by consensus seems to be "just right" for squad-based tactical games. Given the limited tactical options that individual companies had on the actual day, the scenario designer is hard pressed to split off individual actions into anything playable. In the actual event, The Green Howards lost 250 men, which would represent over half of the fighting strength of the battalion when one considers just the rifle companies. The challenge for the player of FIRST CRACK AT CRISTOT is to better utilize the resources at hand, or perhaps see if his luck is any better, than his historical counter-parts.

Bil Hardenberger’s Sunken Road
It occurred to me a week into the project that it might be wasted effort if someone else had already published something on the topic. A search on “Combat Mission Cristot” led me to a thread on an existing scenario, but to my surprise, it referred to one on the release disc for the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord from 2000.

I had not been involved in the CM community until well after release; however, one of the pre-release highlights had been a publicly disseminated battle between scenario designer Bil Hardenberger and beta tester Fionn Kelly.1 The original scenario had garnered much attention.
Bil Hardenberger's THE SUNKEN LANE from the original CM:BO release disc.
Forgotten now is the fact that this may have been the first CM scenario to orient the battle at 45 degrees to the map edges.
Map Design
There is nothing new to the idea that books often get judged by their covers; in CM a scenario's worth is determined in part by its map design. Not just whether the map is an appropriate size for the forces involved, or offers interesting tactical choices to both sides (criterion on which it naturally deserves to be judged), but also on aesthetics. This too is natural, and there is something visceral about the notion that a pleasant looking map is more fun to play on. The map from THE SUNKEN LANE was particularly unique in that the action was oriented at 45 degrees to the playing surface, helping prevent unrealistic use of the map edge as a secure flank, and widening the possible avenues of maneuver for the attacker.

In CMx1, good designers came up with different methods of providing visual interest to their maps; mixing up terrain types in unexpected combinations or choosing well-known historical locations to emulate. Going over maps with an eye for detail was the best way to cement the notion that the designer had done his homework; roads were smoothed out and straightened, buildings not allowed to overlap other terrain, slopes were smoothed off and made to look natural, billiard-flat terrain altered for relief, foliage arranged with the appearance of randomness, as it would in nature, etc.

In CMx2, the increased palette available to map designers gives greater power to provide convincing terrain. The cynical might note it gives greater ability to disguise poor scenario designs. The designer also faces more labour in his efforts; while the new elevation shaping tools have assisted in levelling the ground, other details have to be added painstakingly, such as road tiles, individual trees and bushes, and "flavor objects" which add verisimilitude, as well as the personalization of buildings by altering details of windowsill ornamentation, balconies, numbers of windows and doors, etc.

The 3-D terrain depictions in CM have come a long way. The inset shows the actual "Sunken Lane" south of Cristot, the colour screenshot comes from the CM:BN scenario. Second inset are the unit insignia of forces participating in the battle.
Game Designer as Story Teller
As alluded to above, the (good) CM scenario designer is now a story teller. Certainly when designing for solo play, the creation of AI plans almost requires a script of the action beforehand. The strategic AI requires the scenario designer to plan moves in advance, and in effect, to anticipate the actions of scenario players. It's a difficult proposition, and the ability to make the Tac AI appear to be operating randomly is to provide multiple plans to select from, none of which are chosen by the Strat AI according to the evolving tactical situation. It's not a complaint, but a truism that the scenario designer now must be able to script these AI plans and predict well what a reasonable player might do when playing solo. It may be fair to say that the CM player today has to be a better player himself, when designing for the new game engine, than in the past, or at the very least, a poor player had a better likelihood of sneaking a good design into publication and past the discerning eyes of those who would play it.

Changing Appetites?
If there ever was an appetite for strictly historical scenarios - and I'm not positive there really ever has been a huge following for such things - it is clearly diminishing as Combat Mission matures, perhaps in inverse proportion to the average age of its followers. It would be interesting to see what the new CM: Touch and other Apple applications will do to the demographics. Sadly, BFC may jealously guard these details as closely as they guard their sales figures, which is their prerogative as entrepreneurs. But the appeal of wargaming has always seemed to be more of a 'war is fun' approach than a strict retelling of history. The most successful games seem to have taken that approach - Advanced Squad Leader, for all its pretend gravitas, and those 5,500 deathly serious scenario cards, is about as realistic as Rick Jason ordering Vic Morrow around on a Hollywood backlot. Boardgames like Ambush! are still fondly recalled for their homage to war-as-fantasy/adventure, and even CM's designers seem to have cut their ties to reality firstly with the unique (for its setting and backstory) Shock Force project in its entirety, but also by indulging their scenario designers on the release disc of CM:BN, with a number of fictional and "semi-historical" scenarios. The community has responded in kind, with the most popular user-submitted download on their Repository to date being a unique, story-driven campaign which improves on CMX2's linear structure by introducing decision trees and a character-driven narrative of a kind lacking in the official release fare. Devil's Descent seems purposefully reminiscent of Ubisoft's Brothers in Arms, which isn't such a bad thing. The most successful scenarios seem to be those that engage the desire for action-adventure rather than just a sense of reliving history.

My Final Word
Panzer Command:Ostfront, with its attention to historical fidelity (3D terrain models of historical locations like the Stalingrad Train Station trump even Combat Mission for "you are there" immersion), came and went with little fanfare. Is it the scale - company-level, squad-based tactics set in the Second World War - that is starting to seem 'done to death'? New game systems seem to be appearing in bunches; Fighting Formations and Band of Brothers are relative newcomers now in the boardgaming world. New miniatures sets appear with some regularity also - James Day's rework of his venerable Panzer rules is still highly sought. And on the computer, Tigers Unleashed and a number of other board-game like treatments have come along while Combat Mission continues to feel its way into new territory.

And in the meantime, first person shooters and massively-multi-player online role-playing games rake in the disposable cash of the mainstream, eager for action and adventure.

Perhaps we're just not getting it, but having tried World of Tanks, I can't get excited about resource gathering and treating tanks as if they were elves.

But I am getting the feeling that the strict history stuff is quickly going the way of the Dodo.

My Question to You
Whither next? I'm having trouble getting excited about iOS games if only because, from my limited perspective, they don't seem to offer much opportunity for community input, which is where traditionally the best scenario designers have come from, regardless of which game system one cares to name. Perhaps that will or is changing, but the PC communities have a lively feel right now. Can that be replicated if tactical wargaming makes a major shift to tablets as the platform of choice?


1. My only experience playing Fionn was in the so-called "CMBO Invitational Tourney of the Stars", which was a series of 1500-point purchase scenarios, all meeting engagements, on custom maps by Treeburst155 (Mike M.)  Fionn's stardom was assured by his known skill at the game; mine definitely not any great skill at playing CM. His reputation preceded him and his paratroopers drove me off the field in an 81-19 rout whose score probably doesn't reflect accurately the nature of the beat-down I was given. He gave some generous pointers on tactics after the game in a debrief though the exact conversation is now lost to memory and does not appear in my files.


  1. Interesting Article. Though I for one would much rather play a strictly historical scenario. Actually to the extent that I dont care if it gives me a chance of winning but more of a simulation of events. Personally I hate the war is fun direction.

  2. I tend to agree that there is an over-emphasis on 'balance' in scenarios, but it is a popular trend in those games that rely on them. I'd be interested to know if there is any correlation between sales of games that have a "historical scenario" format and those that are more freeform/abstract. Most computer games seem to offer a choice of both now, anyway, either historicals scenarios, or a random battle generator of some kind. I wonder what the majority are actually playing. I doubt that online polls, or even forums, do much to reveal the truth.

  3. I absolutely LOVED the ASL2CM scenarios. Unfortunately I no longer have them. They provided the best gaming I ever had with Combat Mission.

  4. "Col. Klotz's" farewell read:

    As you all might have noticed the ASL2CM site has been closed down some days ago. I decided to take this drastic move for a number of reasons. The most important one is that the site contained material that is copyrighted. Hasbro is the copyrightholder of it and they are not pleased to see the spreading of their material in that way. This issue has been brought up before and I have tried to change the site to not violate this. The problem has however remained. Now other things of personal nature did sped up my decision to do something about it, and it turned out this way. With a little hindsight I would have done it differently, I know that now. The site expanded beyond what I could have imagined it could have done.

    I've read that there is a wish or plans for republishing the battles on the net. I however fear that spreading them further might hit back on the community, MMP, BTS or whoever publish them. One could have differing opinions about that, but the fact remains that the situation has changed. The ones who own the original material has reacted. I suppose that it's perfectly legal to convert a board at home and do whatever one wish with it, but publishing it over the net is another thing.

    ASL scenarios is for many nostalgia and thesedays look like abandoned material but definitely is not. MMP is publishing it and taking the game ahead and even publish new material. Combat Mission is following it's own path and despite their similarity they are very different games. I of course hope they will both flourish, but the combination just didn't work.

    Thanks for the help I've got from everyone with everything, it has definitely been a fun period. I've learnt alot along the way, not least about scenario designing and webmastering. Now I will move on to whatever endeavours lie ahead.

    Col. Klotz

    There was certainly a sadness at the time (Feb 2001) he posted that as the site did indeed have its followers. I suspect it is easier to be more critical of the product as time goes on and CM continues to evolve in sophistication, and like all things, harder to judge in context.