Friday, November 16, 2012

On Wargame Campaigns (and BattleTech)

As I read back through some of the BattleTech material I have around which has been collecting dust, I'm led to reflect on our experience with Starmada campaigns and with some of the campaign systems I've seen in other wargames.  Looking back at our attempts at 'mada campaigns, I can't help but think that we drastically overcomplicated them.  We built a grand strategic game system, not a campaign system - we had star systems with planets with their own productivity values and infrastructure and population and stuff, we had spies and treaties and hostile natives and pirates and research and all kinds of crap.  We had Master of Orion.  A wargame campaign, though, in its purest form, eschews most of these things.  You have some forces which persist through multiple scenarios, which you have to direct and allocate, and which grow, shrink, or otherwise change composition as a result of those scenarios.  Continuing the video game analogy, Homeworld is a good representative of this model - you're always trying to eke as many resources out of each scenario as possible so that you can carry it over to the next in the form of ships, and if you haven't completed all research available in the scenario when you finish, you sit around and wait for it to complete before declaring victory and hyperdriving out.  Starmada's Simplest Campaign System is a canonical example of this as well.

Moral of that story - when embarking on a campaign, make your intentions clear, choose a system that matches them, and make sure everyone's willing to carry through with the sort of time investment that the chosen system entails.

Before I move on to BattleTech, there's another campaign system I happened on once that I think is worth mentioning as interesting.  It was from MechWar '77, an old SPI hex-and-counter game portraying the Arab-Israeli War(s) of 1977.  It had a very curious campaign system.  You had two players, each of which had some pool of forces to secretly divide between each of three fronts - north, south, and center.  A single battle was then fought on each front with the forces each commander had assigned it, and the victor of the campaign was determined based on who had won which battles and to what degree.  I found this campaign system to be unusual in that it split battles and forces across space rather than time; most of the time when we think of campaign systems, we focus on the "over time" aspect, rather than the allocation aspect.

This brings us to the BattleTech bit.  I found, in the Combat Operations book, a very nice and fairly simple campaign system.  Each campaign turn, each player assigns each element (depending on the scale of the campaign) an order to Fight, Defend, Scout, Repair, or Supply.  The relation between the number of Fighting, Defending, and Scouting units then determines what scenarios are fought during that turn and between which units, while Repairing and Supplying units can fix damage or purchase new equipment and are vulnerable to combat only if the other side's attacking forces drastically outnumber and swamp their defending forces.  Campaign points are scored based on the degree of victory in each battle, and lost for defeat, with the three ways to win the campaign being to destroy the enemy to a man, to capture his base of operations, or to amass a sufficient morale and supply advantage by winning many battles, as represented by gaining enough campaign points.

Overall, I think this system strikes a good balance.  It has unit change over time, with units taking damage and being repaired between scenarios, but it also has MechWar '77-style unit allocation to different tasks; thus, but operational and tactical resource management.  In BattleTech, there is very little hidden information built in; hidden unit assignments does create a degree of hidden information, and turns the campaign into a light lateral-thinking game which the wargame itself is not.  It has a means of unit advancement, both through pilot improvement and using the Supply order to purchase new units, which limits the potential for Starmada Simplest-style degeneration (where each side ends up with units which are barely fieldable).  Finally, it seems that for a reasonable small force (say a company of four lances to each side), the game would likely be very reasonable to run, complexity-wise and in terms of number of games required to complete the campaign, especially if one limited the availability of supplies.  Salvage then becomes imminently important for getting ammunition and replacement parts - it keeps striking me as odd how heavily BT emphasizes salvage compared to other wargames, but I think I like it.  It emphasizes the "we just can't build stuff like this anymore" aspect of the setting from the early Succession Wars.  That might be another post, though.

But yeah - I think I might want to run one of these.  Heck, multi-faction might work too; the only really critical addition would be making Fight and Scout orders specify a target, though the scenario determination rules might need a bit of tweaking too, and with limited supply I feel like such a game might get very treacherous very quickly.  But I can kind of see it, if you replace the setting; in the ruins of post-apocalyptic Earth, the only units capable of operation in the blowing dust of the radioactive wastelands are ancient mechs, the likes of which can no longer be produced, and those who have such mechs war amongst themselves for control over those which remain...

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