Wargame customization

Tweaking miniature wargames for local interests

In The paradox of wargame design, I present the opinion that recreational wargames for large audiences are a backwater of analog game design. In Overlapping interests among miniature wargamers, I outline a way to work around that paradox by finding common ground in smaller groups. This article is about redesigning games for those smaller groups.

This isn’t really limited to miniature wargames with asymmetric factions, but I’m using that genre as a mental model here.

Contents

Terrain layouts

Player interests come up naturally when people set up terrain to play a miniature wargame. Rulebooks don’t have complete rules for this, because there is no effective way to regulate the shape of terrain. It is possible, however, to de-gamify the process to some extent. Commonly, players take turns setting up the pieces, or the player who sets them up is the last to pick their deployment zone. Such rules can lessen the gap between gamists and other types of players, but not close it. Closing it requires an agreement between players that is not exactly a rule, but a light customization of the game that requires little if any writing.

Fair-minded gamist players, when robbed of the ability to place terrain for personal advantage, will go into a Rawlsian mode of reasoning.1 They will agree amongst themselves that terrain should be laid out on the board to provide a balance of opportunities for the different factions in the game. For example, if a squadron of artillery is facing unarmed zombies, terrain should be placed to compensate for the differences between the two forces, in such a way that neither player gets an advantage. The zombies will need some cover for their advance, but not so much cover that the artillery is useless. If the board is wide, bare and flat, it doesn’t matter who deploys first; the artillery will win the game, and being able to predict that is bad for gamists.

Narrativists tend to place terrain for spectacle. In the case of artillery versus zombies, a narrativist might run that game on a trench warfare board, because it looks good and it’s exciting to imagine some fantasy version of a WW1 biochemical weapon turning West Front soldiers into the undead. The trenches provide some cover for the zombie player, and that’s good because it builds tension. The peak of interest will be the sprint across the unrealistically narrow but crater-pocked no man’s land in the middle of the board: A literal and figurative centrepiece. As they fire up the smoke machine, the players will agree that the zombies probably ought to win this one, because it’s early in the campaign and it’s important to establish that faction as a credible threat to the living human protagonists.

Simulationists like large boards, accurately depicting a specific locale, which functions as the conditions of a lab experiment. To these players, the choice of terrain depends on what questions they want answered by the rules. If they want to know whether any zombie will bite any living human under the worst conditions for zombies, then a flat desert board is a good choice, even if it virtually guarantees that all zombies will be destroyed in the end. If they want to know whether any living humans are able to run away, the layout could be the interior of a realistic army base’s vehicle workshop, where the artillery can’t fire without hitting the ceiling, so that the zombies are guaranteed to dominate the game.

Compromises

The interests of the GNS archetypes have some overlap. The Rawlsian gamist approach often produces boards that have a cluster of large terrain pieces in the middle, blocking line of sight on the major axes and diagonals of the board while leaving both sides to maneuver on the open flanks, jockeying for advantage. This makes a variety of unit properties useable, without making them inherently superior.

The same Rawlsian approach can also satisfy other types of players by convergence. Narrativists can tolerate it because the cluster of terrain in the middle is a physical centrepiece: A natural focus of tension and attention. Obstructing line of sight between deployment zones promotes a story arc, starting just before first contact with the enemy and ending in a fairly safe retreat; narrativists like that. Simulationists can tolerate the central-cluster setup if the cluster looks strategically valuable, because it’s broadly credible that forces would be fighting to control a built-up area that provides cover. Simulating that situation builds relevant knowledge about World War Z.

Continuing the same example, for a first-time compromise between a gamist and a narrativist, go with the Rawlsian central-cluster setup but make sure the centrepiece looks good and is itself an interactive stage. Try a little castle if you have one. For a narrativist–simulationist match, find a research question that allows for the living human characters to act out a drama in realistic terrain. For a gamist and a simulationist, go with the Rawlsian setup again, but keep it to scale. Use a small town, depot or power plant for the centrepiece, so it makes sense that the human army has chosen this place for an urgent confrontation. Make it explicit that if the zombies take over the site, the zombie player wins. The artillery can destroy the objective as they retreat, but the board does not need to be large enough to simulate that action in detail, because once the zombies take over, the more important question is already settled.

House rules

Miniature wargames are different from other types of games in that you start playing them long before you meet your opponent. A player of Magic: The Gathering may need to buy new cards to implement a strategy, but a wargamer buys, builds and paints models: A process that is orders of magnitude slower. For that reason, any changes you make to a game should happen in writing, with plenty of warning in advance.

Alternate activation rules for 40K 9 is an example of how and why to make a central change to the rules of a published game. In that particular case, the change was not intended to swing the game toward any particular point of the GNS triad. Gamists enjoyed the change because it removed game-breaking first-turn massacres. Narrativists enjoyed the change because a rapidly shifting initiative is more dynamic and therefore more dramatic. Simulationists enjoyed the change because it’s a slightly closer model of troops acting simultaneously on the battlefield.

Observe how the example of alternate activations is written: In precise language, putting the problem in its proper context for new readers, and providing examples and rationales as well as the text of the new rules themselves. Exceptions and options are clearly marked. Everything about the document is intended to guide even new readers to a complete understanding, while also being an accessible reference to experienced players looking to refresh their memory.

The house rule is written in that style for all the same reasons as official rules are written in that style. All gamers need clarity. Miniature wargamers need plenty of time and will forget details while they prepare. An oral agreement or a quick bullet list in an online chat are not good enough for a campaign. On the other hand, a complete house rule of this magnitude should not be presented as a fait accompli. If you are writing it for a specific group of players, you should collaborate actively with them or at least keep them in the loop. Ideally, there should be a transparent process for updating and retiring the rule in that specific group.

You could make the same sort of house rules for hidden information (e.g. hidden deployment, a simulationist favourite), added or reduced randomness, mass panic, and other central features of a game. However, piling on such changes can have a disproportionate impact on particular factions, even if you only touch the core rules.

Scenarios

A terrain layout affects one instance of a wargame. A house rule affects every instance. Between the two, you find the custom scenario. This is where a designer comes up with a new set of conditions for deployment, victory conditions, etc. A new scenario requires writing and testing, but if the design fails, any negative side effects are contained within the scenario itself. There are no knock-on effects on other games.

Official scenarios in modern miniature wargames tend to lean toward gamism, being balanced for all the factions in the game at the cost of narrative context. They usually revolve around collecting tokens, “controlling” objectives by standing in special spots, or killing enemy units. If they come with a narrative blurb at all, it’s usually too generic for narrativist tastes.

As a relatively simple customization, you can copy a scenario from the official rules but stipulate that one party gets twice as many army-building points as the other and also has to take three times as many victory points to actually win. That example can serve a variety of converging interests: Introducing a player whose collection of models is too small for normal play, while also presenting gamists, narrativists and simulationists with a novelty they can all enjoy for their different reasons, whether as an optimization problem, a heroic last stand, or a study in asymmetric warfare. However, the two factors of asymmetry (points values for army composition and for victory) must be carefully tuned along with the terrain layout. The correct relationship between the two is neither linear nor obvious.

General considerations

If you have the flair for it, custom scenarios are a good way to accommodate different tastes within a gaming group, especially narrativists and simulationists, as well as atypical “armies”. Just keep in mind:

The following more general principles of game design are also relevant:

Balance

In a custom scenario for a game with asymmetric factions, take care that special rules have a similar overall impact on the factions you expect to be playing the scenario. A common mistake here is to write in such a way that factions are further penalized for having weaknesses that would be balancing without your scenario.

For example, if you are writing a scenario for two specific factions, and one of those has easy access to fast transport vehicles while the other moves slowly, don’t stage a race over the same distance. Moving more slowly is already a liability in practically any engagement. Tying that disadvantage into the specific victory conditions of your scenario would multiply the effect, which is bad for balance and tension.

If you insist on doing this sort of thing and you still want the scenario to be balanced, compensate the afflicted or punish the faster faction somehow. The luxury of customization is that you don’t have to be elegant about this. For example, you can specify that the slower faction starts 30 cm closer to the goal of the race.

Spectacle: A cautionary tale

An exotic type of wargame scenario is the rolling road, where some pieces may remain stationary on the table while other pieces, including terrain, move along the table in the same direction each turn. This can be used for races, escape sequences, highway robbery and other narrative situations where the action is bigger than the board you’re playing on, but you only need to see one board-sized chunk at a time.

In 2024, I playtested a custom rolling-road scenario for the OPR wargame Grimdark Future. This scenario violated some of the general design considerations listed above, including the idea of designing scenarios for the interests of your players, but it also exhibits a failure of formalism.

The rolling road is an analog implementation of the same logic that you would find in a side-scrolling video game, where the player character is killed if they are “caught” by the edge of the screen. Unrelatedly, the specific scenario I played involved boarding a convoy of trucks, as in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) or its sequel Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Both of these conceptual links to other entertainment media are potentially rewarding, but they’re also risky. A media formalist would say that wargames should be used for things that wargames are good at. The medium does have certain strengths, which include the freedom to write custom scenarios, but it also has weaknesses.

Imitating other media like video games and movies can make a game feel richer by association, but in the case of the rolling road, it means administrative overhead. The term “rolling road” for this general type of scenario is taken from Necromunda: Ash Wastes (2022). That’s a skirmish game where you have few models to move around, and there are rules for acrobatics. The rolling-road scenario I tested was added to a generic company-level wargame instead. This required many special rules (collisions, entering trucks, adding new terrain etc.). Some of these special rules (boarding, on-board combat) were only needed because of the company scale of the game, where the amount of infantry fighting “on” a truck could not fit on the physical model. In the playtest, there were about 70 models on the board, with measuring done by hand to move them all each turn. Video game players and movie audiences don’t have to do that. Those other media are inherently better at movement.

New terrain was introduced partly by rolling dice, partly by player choice, with incomplete special rules. There was a rule for resolving collisions between objects moving at different velocities in the administrative phase, but there was no rule for secondary collisions from one such object being pushed out of the way. Surprisingly, a secondary collision did actually occur. These problems stemmed from the designer’s unwillingness to plan ahead. Predictably, the grey areas slowed the game down without creating simulationist pleasure.

That specific scenario, and rolling-road scenarios in general, are spectacles. Spectacles are typically good for narrativism. This one had some of that Mad Max feel, as the designer intended, but the scenario’s special rules created such big problems with game balance that it broke the narrativist appeal. As an example, my opponent chose to proxy his entire army as the “Dark Brothers” faction for this one game, because that allowed him to set up most of his infantry in direct contact with the convoy on the first turn. Choosing a faction purely for the purpose of winning was a useful test. It revealed a flaw: A faction-specific imbalance that emerged from the scenario’s special rules, and through that, a narrativist problem. My opponent’s decision to teleport into contact with the convoy bypassed the narrative element of racing it, or racing me. This weakened the story, quite apart from the sudden appearance of a new faction in an ongoing campaign.

In Grimdark Future v3.1.0, a regular battle tank can move up to 16” per turn on its own, or 22” if it gets the assistance of an officer. Moving 22” does not impede anyone’s ability to hit the tank. The trucks in this scenario were moving at 9” per turn, relative to the scenery. However, one of the scenario’s special rules specified that anyone trying to hit one of the trucks did so with a -1 modifier, specifically because of its speed. Simulationists would object to the modifier as an example of an internal contradiction in the model. More broadly, the rolling road wasn’t good for simulating anything that army companies realistically do, even in the fantasy setting of Grimdark Future.

In this game, you roll d6 to hit things. Regular “Dark Brothers” troops hit on a 3+, for a ⅔ absolute chance to hit a tank, or a ½ chance to hit a truck with that scenario-specific -1 modifier. Regular troops in my faction, the “Human Defense Force”, hit on a 5+, for a ⅓ absolute chance to hit a tank, or a ⅙ chance to hit a truck. If you compare those numbers, you can see that the more elite faction suffers a relative -25% penalty, and the other faction a relative -50%. Gamists would therefore object to the -1 modifier as a disproportionate penalty against factions that start with a lower chance to hit. The scenario would have worked better without the modifier, both because it would have been simpler, and because it would have been more balanced. Aside from this detail, the scenario would not satisfy gamists anyway, because it didn’t present a technical challenge interesting enough to compensate for all the extra rules and their ambiguity.

Conclusion

Tweaking a game is easier than designing one from scratch, but it is not easy. Mere intention does not drive a game closer to anybody’s interests. The rolling-road scenario was a failed design that drove its game away from the interests of all of the GNS archetypes.

It could be rescued. A skirmish game about boarding a large moving vehicle would require a large physical model, but it would have strong narrativist appeal. It is intrinsically hard to broaden the appeal of such a spectacle to other types of players, but not impossible.

Any change you make, including even terrain distribution, will require testing. When randomness and gamism are involved, it usually takes more than one round of testing to verify that the new system or scenario is sound and fair. Testing is not as much fun as playing the finished product. Invest the necessary labour or stay with the official rules.

With that said, miniature wargaming is a creative hobby that often touches on game design, as when you lay out terrain pieces. It is easier to customize an analog game than to customize those media the rolling road imitated. That flexibility is one of the great advantages of analog gaming. Using it for customization teaches useful skills. If you stick with it, it leads to better experiences for varied groups. It is a way around the paradox of wargaming.


  1. Philosopher John Rawls argued that systems should be designed while pretending ignorance of one’s future role within the system.