A Guide to Research & Scenario Design in Tabletop Wargames

By Bill Gray 07 Aug 2020 1

One of the really BIG ways tabletop miniature gaming differs from its board and digital cousins is in the area of research. With a Panzerblitz or an Operational Art of War all the research is done for the player. You just pop open the box or click a desktop icon, set things up and play. With miniature gaming, not so much. Research is a mandatory part of this wing of the hobby and a pleasant endeavour besides.

Some folks actually participate so they can do research. Sure some rules, like Fire & Fury, include one or two scenarios (in this case – surprise - Gettysburg), and there are scenario books out there, but they can’t cover every battle and in esoteric conflicts like the Russo-Japanese War, little is really available.

Fortunately, the Internet has come to the rescue in most cases, providing access to incredible Public Domain resources across the world. Here we are talking about www.archive.org, Google Books, Haithi Trust and maps and orders of battle (OBs) galore at the little known but amazing digital collection at the Hessian State Archives at Marburg. Institutions like these take advantage of the fact that the period after the Napoleonic Wars exploded as an era of official state military research.

Nations, especially in Europe, produced dozens of hyper detailed official histories of their own wars or where a legitimate military interest in a current conflict existed. No institution in this regard was more renown than the 2d Historical Detachment of the German General Staff. This unit combined excellent research, intriguing narrative, detailed OBs and color maps detailed down to artillery batteries deployed second tree on the left level. By name. By gun. Seriously! Just take a look at their multi-volume die Kriege Friedrichs des Grossen.


But even these sources have limitations. In some cases the information is too detailed, some works still remain undigitized, time requirements, language and again, not everything is covered. Sorry, but even the German General Staff had little interest in the 1565 Siege of Malta. What’s a person to do?

Scenario Design

Tabletop miniatures are 95% tactical or grand tactical games, representing a skirmish, battle or portion of a battle. So unless you have immediate and continuous access to the Georgia Dome, it’s really necessary compensation for all the colorful toy soldiers on the table.

However, if you are one of those folks that actually doesn’t like research, or have the time or language skills, there are alternatives. And one of the best is the cardboard counter wargames from GMT Games, Decision Games and other firms. Let’s take a look at two such games to see what I mean.

GMT publishes a series of games called the Great Battles of History which covers tactical conflict in the ancient world. One of these games is called Cataphract designed by Richard Berg with Mark Herman and covers the reconquest of the Roman Empire via the battles of Dara (528 AD), Callinicum (531 AD), Tricameron (534 AD), Sena Gallica (551 AD, a naval battle), Taginae (552 AD) and Casilinum (554 AD). Think the late Roman general Belisarius here and really, has anyone ever heard of these battles much less know where to start research? No, I didn’t think so and that’s kinda the point. Open the box and there is a set of detailed maps made in a style that easily translates into a tabletop miniatures terrain board. You don’t have to worry about figuring out contour lines for slopes and so on. Likewise, there are four multi-colored countersheets that provide you with all the units and leaders that fought at the battle, segregated by manpower, nationality (Byzantine, Lombard, etc) and unit type (cataphract, heavy infantry and so on). Most rules give you things like leader and unit data charts already, but boardgame ratings can be used instead. The game also gives spiffy scenario niceties such as deployment locations, reinforcement schedules, terrain effects and more. Berg’s American Civil War and Ben Hull’s Pike and Shot series are two other GMT series that do the same thing for the “recent unpleasant between North and South” and the English Civil War.


Given that the new trend in tabletop miniatures is to portray battles with larger units (brigades vice the traditional battalion), it is comforting to know that there are many boardgames that directly correlate. Consider the games out of Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group (OSG). If the name rings a bell it’s because he designed one of the more famous counter games of all time, SPI’s Napoleon’s Last Battles. This was a quadragame which covered each of the four battles from the Waterloo campaign, with an option to link all four maps together for a small campaign game where the players may choose options never considered historically from turn one The game has been updated and renamed Napoleon’s Last Gamble, but the parameters are the still the same. There are great maps that translate directly into tabletop terrain without contour counting, and units that are brigades. Additionally, the game has expanded the map to include Brussels where Napoleon can run down the Anglo-Allies if they actually lose to Napoleon. The game also includes the little known and hard to research fight of La Souffel, the last pitched battle of the Napoleonic Wars, occurring eight days after Waterloo.

Unfortunately, such games often do not have the fidelity of a game like Cataphract, and thus will not tell the player the regiments of each brigade, the number of battalions thereof and so forth. Why is this important? Because French Carabiniers have different uniforms than Cuirassiers and the flags for each regular Prussian infantry regiment has a different color pattern. This is tabletop miniatures after all, and getting a historically correct spectacle is really important. Nevertheless, for historical miniature scenario design, games like these have significant pluses.

Campaign Systems

There is also another level of combat where counter games can serve their miniature cousins well, and that is off the tabletop at the operational or campaign level. Yes, some players do like to use these games as miniature campaign systems because they like that level of play or they simply want to explore “what if,” but most use such games as miniature scenario generators. After all, you can only play Waterloo so many times and then it gets boring. Another reason is that in some cases one side has such a systemic superiority over its opponents that only a campaign system can hope to balance the situation.


Here I am talking to all the miniature gamers that own Prussian, Austrian and Russian armies built for the 1805 to 1807 era, God bless ‘em. When facing Napoleon during these years the armies noted have but a single solitary tactic that I call DIP – Die In Place. Yeah, the French army led by the Corsican is really that damn good. Fortunately Zucker at OSG produces a line of tailor made games for just such a purpose. A good example is his Highway to the Kremlin, Napoleon’s March on Moscow 1812. One simply plays the game normally out of the box, then when forces collide prepare a miniature wargame scenario using the forces represented by the counters in conflict, translate the toy soldier outcome into boardgame results, then carry on. Obviously there are other boardgames that do the same for other periods of warfare, but I have personal experience with Zucker’s games and it’s like he must have had miniatures unofficially in mind when he designed them. OK, you haven’t alleviated the tactical level research issue when using a boardgame this way, but since I like doing research, no problemo.

And Going Digital?

I haven’t talked about using PC games likewise, but it can be done, and probably the best games made for this purpose are those published by HPS, Matrix and John Tiller based on the digital design parameters developed by Mr Tiller himself. Here we are talking about his Campaign Series, and similar, such as his Mexican American War. These are little more than really good, old fashioned hex wargames put on a computer. Indeed, this is the biggest strength of such games, particularly since you can click and spin the graphics from 3-D to an overhead view of a hex style boardgame. From that point, simply follow the instructions above for cardboard counter games.

Games in 3-D with real time animation in general present some challenges, however. Take Matrix/Slitherine fare such as Scourge of War (SOW) Waterloo and Pike & Shot Campaigns (I gotta admit, still my all-time favorite) as examples. The latter actually looks like a miniatures game, and the map in particular is about the best thing I’ve seen to import to a miniatures table. However, given the level of command portrayed and the audience attracted, there is nothing to identify a particular formation as the Earl of Dalhousie’s Regiment of Horse (seven troops no less) at Marston Moore. In addition, uniforms and flags are generic having a common shade for each side. SOW Waterloo does have this info given it is a battalion level game, and while not perfect, does a marvelous job on standards and battlefield fashion. Yet getting details to ID a unit as Fusilier Battalion, 1st West Prussian Infantry Regiment often involves clicking on a unit to pop up its data table. This is quite tedious one unit at a time or drilling down through a sidebar listing. And finally – full disclosure, perhaps this is just me – the fact that you have to scroll to see the entire map, vice eyeballing the complete paper version on a table at once, just seems difficult. My choice is still the cardboard counter option.


Same thing for using digital games for miniature campaign systems, unless the software was specifically designed for that purpose. The issue here should be no surprise. When forces come into conflict on the computer screen, there is no way to stop the game, manually play the battle on the tabletop, input the results into the computer and then continue on. The computer WILL resolve that battle one way or the other, come Hell or high water, and there is nothing the end user can fix it so it won’t. The only game I’ve ever seen that allows you to do so is Matrix’s Campaigns on the Danube. This is because the software actually includes a miniatures campaign component using the popular Napoleon’s Battles rules set.

Bottom Line

Pewter pushers take heart, help is out there. And while computer games may be of assistance, a better option overall are historical boardgames of the hex and counter variety... if these guys manage to stick around of course. Given the low print runs and subscription rates (anyone remember when Strategy & Tactics had a circulation of 29,000 plus?), the future is becoming somewhat problematic for the GMTs of the world. They need help themselves and they do publish some excellent games as games. So maybe it might be wise for all of us who push lead to see if something interests us and pick up a copy. If this helps a once vibrant part of the hobby recover, you’ll be glad.

This article was originally published in January 2019.



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