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Skirmish game design diary: Mean Street 2084

I’ve recently been signed on to write a series of one-off miniature wargame scenarios for miniature wargames magazine. I thought people might like to hear a little bit about my process in writing this series of articles since it’s a little unusual to be commissioned to write skirmish games in this way. The first article ‘Mean Streets 2084’ appeared in the April edition of Miniature Wargames, released in late March, and it was set out in a brief to be a 2-player skirmish game with 10-30 models a side set in a sort of 80’s B-movie dystopia. It would feature on one side an elite paramilitary super soldier police force backed up by heavy duty combat robots and on the other a series of low-down armed revolutionaries with the advantage of numbers and sneakier tactics. The game would be squad-based with alternating activation, theoretical line of sight an emphasis on cover and would use victory points.

My first thought was to offer up an idea that was the centre of a system that myself and Mike Hutchinson had been working on as a possible full project, whereby crowds of civilians would react to gunfire and violence and that herding their reactions would form a central part of the gameplay. It was felt that asking people to provide civilian minis would be a bit much and that straight up urban warfare was a preferred option.

Now, I’m not great at writing straight up urban warfare. I think this is largely because its not really possible to be great at writing straight up anything, if people want to play a skirmish level dystopian warfare game there are a whole bunch of systems available out there, and I certainly can’t offer anything very interesting to that pool in 2000 or so words. So, I immediately started trying to fiddle around with the brief. My first version had a few features, but the main one was that it centered on an escalation mechanic whereby the police forces would gain more and more arms and armament as the revolutionaries caused more problems and the escalation would reduce as revolutionaries were killed or arrested, with the police winning if they managed to lower escalation enough and the revolutionaries if it rose high enough. Secondly, the sides were massively asymmetrical with the revolutionaries being more maneuverable and able to take advantage of cover and lay markers that could be objectives or bombs. Thirdly that there would be hidden objective that the revolutionaries were privy to by the police were not.

I would not generally recommend writing a system with asymmetrical forces from the ground up, it’s a far better idea to write a system and then add the asymmetry on top as the forces are added. However, when your whole system amounts to a page and a half that option is not really available. It was an object lesson in system simplification though and I can probably offer some advice on writing a quick and dirty system here:

1) Sort out terrain, LoS and movement early – Skirmish wargames live and die in their complexity on how they deal with these issues. Players have infinitely varied ranges of terrain and models and degrees of movement and vision in skirmish wargames are analogue and so literally infinite. Pinning them down quickly and efficiently will save you a massive amount of space.

2) Strip the combat down and back – Combat can be immensely complex between hitting, wounding and saving, weapon options and psychology. If you’re keeping it to a couple of pages, strip it down to a couple of dice and a simple target number.

3) Figure out your thing and focus – Once you have decided on what will be the actual core of your game make it work, focus on it and get it working, throw out everything that doesn’t serve it.

So, where did those ideas end up after going through that process and running through some playtesting? Well, the escalation went early, it was a hangover from the original idea pitch and without the crowd providing an interesting method of causing escalation it simply resulted in an endless tug of war that outstayed its welcome. Endings should come quickly and clearly and as the result of satisfying narrative events. That said the escalation did remain in the army robots having a series of protocols, which was also a nice call back to Robocop, something I nailed down by calling the top protocol Ed-209. The hidden objectives went the same way in order to clarify, simplify and crystalise the narrative of the scenarios. It meant that scenarios could be chosen by a simple dice roll and have a clean and clear narrative, allowing me to tell a handful of movie stories within them. This is another good lesson actually; narrative scenarios do not need to be complex and have multiple acts or trigger events. If a VIP is to be escorted through a dystopian urban setting then you’ve got your Escape from New York, if a small elite force has to protect a building against unending assault, you’ve got your Assault on Precinct 13. Funnily enough since we were releasing our game Parasites, telling the story of The Thing, at the time it felt like I was telling John Carpenter’s back catalogue in games.

What we ended up with then was a game of a small elite force facing one with far greater numbers but with the numerically superior force having the ability to set ambushes and use cover. The game is fast and easy to learn, but highly narrative, sharp and dirty. Games can be simple and strong, check out Wargame Miniatures magazine, meanwhile I’m writing the next scenario, something about hunting monsters in the sewers.


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