Of all the excellent features in Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations, the scenario editor stands out. Both comprehensive and easy to use, it allows a vast amount of scenario creation and experimentation. In fact, it’s so fluid that many of my “scenario plans” have turned into nothing but me fooling around in the editor, seeing how a flight of Corsairs do against a moderately defended fuel depot instead of making the Preah Vihear escalation I’d really wanted to do.
Having made many scenarios and played many more, I’ve formed many opinions on scenario design, what makes a good scenario, and what my favorite types of scenarios are. Now I finally hope to share those opinions.
The diversity of time periods and conditions in Command makes explicit quantification of what to put in a scenario difficult. However, one constant in very good scenarios is a “just right” level of forces under player and enemy control. This balance is hard to achieve. If the forces on the player side are too weak, and they can only win in the absolute ideal conditions, then the designer has done something wrong. If the forces on the player side are too strong and the outcome is never in doubt, only the exact losses, that is also an issue.
Ideally, the player’s forces should be in that state where they can win, possibly handily, but need to use intelligent tactics to do. Note that what this is varies considerably on the scenario, as well on the author’s perceptions. While I prefer “legitimate” force reductions over “Give the player a ton of assets but punish them severely if they lose anything”, the latter can and has worked (See the official scenario Shamal for an excellent example).
One type of scenario I like is the kind where the player has limited resources. The scenario The Battle of the Turtle Islands, where you must play as the severely under equipped Filipino military and start at a disadvantage is a favorite, and one of my creations is the Regaining Honor, where the US is the antagonist and the protagonist is Yemen’s out of date, less-trained military. Oh, don’t worry, it’s not impossible, you’re only facing wallowing drones-at the start.
This is almost as important as mechanics, arguably even more so. I’ll open up with my favorite scenario, Randomizer’s Deter, Detect, Defend. This is a pull-out-all-the-stops nuclear war scenario. The Soviets are sending their bomber fleet, you get countless unidentified contacts on the radar, and-then a message pops up telling you to watch for civilian aircraft en route to the US. Great. Now which of those contacts is a nuclear bear and which is innocent? Just that message sets up the atmosphere, and contributes to the feel of making it seem like something more than a robotic assembly of units and dice rolls.
While the mechanics alone can contribute to atmosphere in many ways (from the genuine “Oh shit” feeling of being on the receiving end of stealth technology to the darkly amusing scene of watching an enemy frigate set for indiscriminate firing blow up whales), messages can add that special touch.
Unfortunately, my tastes are almost the exact opposite of many wargaming fans. I’m wary of 1980s WWIII scenarios and direct ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios, especially ‘big’ events. This is not to say that I won’t play or make those types of scenarios, but that I regard them as not my first priority. While there are actually relatively few of the infamous 1980s WWIII scenarios in Command itself, the presence of that period in decades of wargaming has left an undeniable stamp.
The thought process I have is “Here’s this gigantic simulator that can do so much, and people just want to reenact technothrillers for the five millionth time.”
Obviously, smaller/regional conflicts have their limitations too-there’s only so much you can do with a tiny air force and a few patrol boats against another tiny air force and even fewer patrol boats, but I like to look broadly. Computer limitations also play a role in my ability to play big scenarios, but I have managed-in many cases, it’s just a lack of interest in such a well-worn topic.
Even with WWIII scenarios, I prefer earlier ones with more obscure units than the usual Backfire/Oscar/AEGIS motion.
Finally, and this is a personal preference, I often like to give my units, on the occasion that I’ve named them, fictional names that suit the unit (So fish or cities for a submarine, personal names for an American destroyer, letter-names for a British destroyer. Unfortunately, units that have just a numerical designation are much harder).
With regards to realism, I’m pretty-strange-. I like either historical or “could possibly happen, however unlikely” scenarios, and occasionally use really weird and out-there scenarios (My “ancient Greek” Ancient Armies, Modern Weapons was really fun to make, and refreshing because I did not have to make anything historically accurate). As with the 1980s WWIII ones, I do sometimes get annoyed at scenarios that have premises that sound like wish-fulfillment technothrillers more than anything else.
Naturally, all the factors together add up to what makes a scenario excellent. Unfortunately, all factors adding up together can lead to the nightmare of scenario designers-scope creep. The fear of being overcome by creep, together with the previously mentioned computer limitations, makes me make my scenarios small and frequently improvised.
In many cases, such small scenarios are satisfying. But of course I dream of bigger scenarios, including one very frustrating project that I hope to see but have so much trouble making. That scenario is tentatively titled “Rollback”, and is based off of alternative plans for the Iraq War that would feature a native opposition doing the ground fighting while American airpower flattened Saddam’s army. (In real life it was a hopeless pipe dream).
Some of it is just time constraints, but some of Rollback doesn’t feel “right”. A ground element involving the basic land AI? Do you make the Iraqis a historically strong or historically weaker? What’s the right balance between either too tough or too boring? Even though it appeals to me in theory, in practice it’s become more frustrating, to the point where I may just do a similar “style” scenario in a different locale that I feel more comfortable in. Other scenario authors have broken too-large games into smaller, more focused scenarios, and Rollback may very well meet a similar fate.
Command’s scenario authors have taken advantage of the simulation’s power to offer a variety of games. However, if I had to offer an opinion for a feature that was underutilized, it would be political restrictions. Political restrictions have always been a part of warfare, and Command offers more potential for realizing them than either I personally or other scenario authors have taken advantage of (yet).
Even this is a small complaint. Command’s scenario potential is very good and has been fulfilled very well. A good scenario should make the player feel like they’re experiencing more than just a well-done simulation, and there are ones in the game that accomplish this with great effectiveness.