Monday, August 08, 2005

Designing Outside the Box

A Case for Battalion Level Scenario Design

Allen King

I have not been an ASL player for very long. As a long time war game grognard, I knew the game was there, but had decided to forego its complexity and super tactical scope for other games. About a year and a half ago, a good friend convinced me to try it out. More out of respect for him, I gave it a whirl. Soon enough, I became an acolyte of “ASL world”. I still play a lot of other games, but ASL and the new friends I found in the process, have become my core gaming group.

Nonetheless, before very long something about ASL began to nibble at me at a subliminal level. As my experience grew, the “nibbling” began to take the form of a conscious thought. It rolled around for a while, emerging from time to time when I thought about the game, but wasn’t involved in the intensity of playing it. Having now played roughly seventy scenarios, the thought has crystallized into something of a gripe. That is what I want to discuss with “ASL world” in this article.

The thought is a question. Why do scenario designers limit themselves to designing, developing and testing scenarios that more or less represent cookie cutter imprints of every other scenario? Almost every new scenario is yet another company or reinforced company engagement. This trait is now so prevalent that various designers have simulated many company size, historical engagements three or more times. This, of course, doesn’t mean those efforts are boring or bad. It is just that there is a certain pattern displayed that makes ASL scenario play more and more an exercise akin to chess. The number of pieces is fixed, the boards are relatively predictable, the scope of the battlefield is similarly limited and the action then conforms to these parameters. This is all just too comfortable. Chess has been around a long time and its popularity is undiminished, so I may be voicing a losing argument here, but this is my call for designers to step outside the comfort box and do something that could really invigorate scenario play. The game is ready for the next step.

Having been an active board gamer since 1962, I have watched the hobby morph a number of times. The resulting variety has been a big part of why I have stayed involved for over forty years. Looking back, the trend from the early sixties is very clear. From relatively simple operational games like Tactics 2, games became more complex and larger over time. This trend culminated in the “monster” genre in the mid to late seventies. As this occurred, board war gaming grew in popularity. Good old SPI, with all its many warts, was the main catalyst for this trend. Avalon Hill followed reluctantly, always seemingly intent on the business side of the hobby, rather than innovating really new game designs. Some of SPI’s efforts collapsed because of its “rush to print” mentality and resulting poor development, but one thing they did do right was to introduce us to the MONSTER. It was a quantum leap for the hobby. More importantly, despite the obvious difficulty of finding space and time to play these beasts, the games sold like hotcakes. Today, one would be challenged to find an item “hotter” than an unplayed, unpunched copy of War in the Pacific. Bids on E-Bay often reach $250-300+ for that game. There are many others such as Wacht am Rhine, Highway to the Reich, Atlantic Wall and, at the very top of the MONSTER food chain, the “practically unplayable” HIMS monster, Campaign for North Africa. These grand operational designs marked what I believe to be, the high water mark of board war gaming. And, oh, my brothers, these monsters consistently rated among the most popular games on the market, despite their high costs and alleged lack of playability.

Even today, the spirit of those classics lives on in large game efforts by a number of other companies. Avalon Hill and SPI have long faded from the scene, but the legacy of those designs manifests itself in the design and production of huge games that just sell and sell. Amazingly, if my experience is even remotely typical, they are also actually played. The fact is, bigger can be better and that is the preference of the gamers I know.

So, why hasn’t this evolutionary process ever caught on with ASL? The game has been around in the advanced version for twenty years. Now, before continuing, I want to assure the reader that I am aware that there are some exceptions to my general lament. Clearly the campaign games and some of the historical studies do feature “scenarios” with more than a reinforced company involved. Even more interesting is that, if you ask an ASL player what his most fulfilling ASL experience has been, many will unhesitantly point to, Red Barricades, or one of its mini-campaign games. Of course, those games generally feature much more than a single company. It amazes me that designers have not seen the connection between the popularity of RB and other large scale games and the market for larger scenarios that feature a battalion or reinforced battalion. I am convinced that part of the appeal of RB is its sheer scope. However, in current scenario design, the obvious interest in large scale games has not led designers to develop battalion level scenarios. Of the thousand or so scenarios I own, somewhere between 5% - 10% rest outside the “company sized” comfort zone. That’s more than a little sad to me.

Of course, I have heard the “excuses”. Generally, it starts something like this. The counter limits in the game modules impose a design limit. Well, okay, but most of the gamers I know have ASL counter sets that far exceed the limits of any single module. I have three sets of most nationalities and that is not uncommon to find among my many ASL friends. Also, one’s opponent usually has at least a set of modules too. Additional counters always fetch pretty good bids on E-Bay, demonstrating the popularity of obtaining larger counter pools by players. This also indicates a market niche for MMP for printing and selling counter sheets only. My bet is that they would sell like hotcakes, especially if designers were putting out scenarios that required extra units for play. I just don’t buy this argument against designing larger scenarios at all.

The next “excuse” is that it already takes so much time to design, develop and test scenarios, that it would be unprofitable to develop large scale scenarios. The argument continues that it is already hard to sell them for enough to turn a reasonable return when dealing with a small pool of buyers. Thinking back, I bet the same thing was said when the first monster game was considered by SPI. Yes, they will take more effort to create. Finding good play testers isn’t a walk in the park. Never mind that a friend and I are testing a scenario right now in which the defender has 25 squads, the attacker over 50 and both sides have more than ten vehicles. But, again, a battalion level ASL scenario isn’t all that great a leap. From a play testing point of view, jumping to battalion level scenarios would be a leap across a ditch compared to the leap across a river that SPI and others took to design and develop the monsters. There just isn’t a real risk comparison there at all. So, humbug to that argument.

In fact, from a development point of view, history tells us that despite its vast scope, the monster developed rather easily and that, at least SPI, found some willing and enthusiastic bodies to test them. The monster sold very well (and still does). It sold at a premium price and it drew even more people into the hobby. It may be a stretch to argue that it actually saved the hobby, but it did rejuvenate it in the late seventies. One cannot help but see the same potential for ASL. Of course, it’s a risk. But, if the scenarios are well done, and introduce current and new players to the whole new view of a battalion commander, I believe the results could be remarkable. As a bonus, scenario designers would be delving into a new genre of battles that have seldom before been represented in ASL scenario play. The whole thought excites me and I know I am not alone.

The final “excuse” is almost amusing. It goes like this. Where, oh brother, am I to find the time, space and opponents to play these marvels? Oh please. Yes, its true that finding an opponent to play board war games face to face has always been a problem for some. It is now and it will be whether battalion scenarios come to fruition or not. But, that argument is even more relevant to say, Highway to the Reich, which features a map more than seven feet long. Yet, I’ve played it face to face three different times, with three different teams of gamers in two different cities. It is one of my all time favorite games. Battalion level scenarios might add two or three ASL boards to a typical three board setup. Almost everyone in our club currently has a space big enough to accommodate that map configuration. As to finding time to play, how does finding time to play a big game vary much from finding time to play an eight or nine turn, company size scenario? True, these games won’t be something to play in an evening. However, it isn’t rare for us to store games for later completion as things now stand. So, the arguments associated with lack of time, space and opponents are not something that is made better or worse by larger scenarios. The simple fact is that if one wants to do something bad enough, one will find a way to do it.

So, what’s stopping us? I believe the problem is one of inertia. The hobby is small and its participants are aging. Maybe we just don’t have the energy to delve into something new. Maybe it’s a matter of being comfortable where we are, the small number of participants and the presence of an almost inexhaustible supply of company level scenarios to play. However, my imagination yearns for the wider scope of battalion level engagements on battlefields not traveled in current ASL scenario play. I want to see action from the Lt. Colonel’s perspective. Where and when do I commit the battalion OBA, the reserves or the heavy weapons company? Which company commander do I reinforce? Handling three or four companies with battalion level assets to reinforce one or more portions of the battlefield presents a different set of problems as compared to bossing a company here and there. I’d like to see those challenges presented by designers. Short of Campaign Games, I am not seeing that. Personally, I’d run, not walk, to buy the first set of battalion level scenarios that came out. However, I think I’d have to run very fast to be the first in that line.

Here’s hoping that someone with an interest in designing will make the leap. In fact, here’s hoping they do it soon as time grows short for me and many other old time board war gamers.

1 comment:

Sam said...

In reading Allen’s article, I have to agree with him on the cookie cutter nature of many scenarios these days. 8 to 10 squads and a couple of AFVs have to take some buildings, exit some points, kill all of the IJA, etc from a smaller force with a couple of AFVs. There are many which fall into this category. Without the allure of neat toys on both sides, it really can be the same thing over and over again. One of the things that really made me want to play this scenario was the task you had to complete. It is refreshing to have a different objective then take the town again. Combine that with a nice OOB on both sides and you have a fun looking scenario with a twist. I am looking forward to having my head handed to me yet again by Jay in this one.

Walter Eardley