Learning from Hoth

Battle_of_Hoth Scene from 'The Empire Strikes Back'

I wanted to write briefly about scenario and story design for Mars Rising. Primarily, I wanted to share why the Battle of Hoth from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is a driving inspiration for the experience.

Before we get started, it may be useful for you to read this military analysis of the Battle of Hoth posted on Wired. The article is a fun read, especially for military nerds, but it really opened my eyes to the general notion that is:

The Rebels couldn't have won the Battle of Hoth, but they could have lost much, much worse.

Generally, scenario based games are reasonably balanced. When you play Memoir '44, the scenarios are derived from historical engagements. Therefore, you'll often see a 45/55, or even 40/60 balance in favor of one side. In my opinion, this is fair and reasonable. It's fun. Furthermore, the rules state for players to swap sides and compare points and execution.

Battle_of_Endor Scene from 'The Return of the Jedi'

If I think back to the Battle of Hoth, the Battle of Yavin IV, or the Battle of Endor, none of them were balanced. In every case, the Rebel Alliance was up against a far superior force with seemingly insurmountable odds. Every Rebel pilot could be considered a member of the forlorn hope. Due to skill, determination, and a little luck (and/or Midi-chorlians) they came out ahead.  This is what made them incredible stories.

Therefore, my general thinking for the scenarios of Mars Rising is to NOT focus so much on balance, but instead, focus on epic, dramatic scenarios. Here's the general gist for every mission:

  • Location: Where is it taking place?
  • Objective: Why are the players fighting here? This is a mix of narrative and mechanics.
  • Conclusion: Who do I expect to win within the "canon" of the story I envision?
  • Consequences: How is this mission affected by the previous mission?
  • Goals: What can players do within this setup that's extraordinary?

Let's discuss this last point. This is where the epic comes from, or so I hope. Imagine the following prelude scenario I'm tossing around.

There is a small outpost on Ceres, the dwarf planet/asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Mars stations a squadron of fighters here to protect merchant ships and generally keep an eye on things. It is a sleepy, lazy post that some see as ideal posting (easy) or a career death sentence (too easy). Much like the Wermacht crushing through the Ardennes to invade France in 1940's Case Yellow Operation, the United Terran Navy is making their push against Martian interests in the Jovian belts using this sleepy, poorly defended sector. Not expecting such an event, the Martians left their back door fairly open.

Imagine these two perspectives:

  • You're a bored, Martian squadron leader, suddenly confronted with an invasion fleet that should not be here. Do you snap out of it? What can you do? This is the worst day of your life.
  • You're a calm, well prepared Terran Admiral. Intelligence prepared you with precise details on the presence of the Martian outpost and its squadrons. You order a few Interceptor squadrons launched and dispatch a few anti-fighter destroyers to seal the deal. This is about as routine as a training operation.
ku-medium Scene from 'Aliens'

To quote Dennis Hopper, "What do you do, hot shot?"

Let's be reasonable. I don't expect the Martian fighter squadron to win. The deck is (intentionally) stacked against them. The Terran surprise attack on Io will proceed, because that's the story and that's what I want you to experience. BUT. What if the Martians bravely disable the Terran flagship, giving a lone fighter time to jump to Io to warn them? What if a Martian freighter moving through has a sudden rush of patriotism and, with the escort of the desperate Martian fighters, reaches the jump point before it's captured?

This will have a light ripple effect on the next mission. Imagine if that ripple builds and by the very end, there are 3 completely different missions that might take place.

I don't know, precisely, how I intend to to mechanize this. Yet. My general thinking is for the missions to have a strictly defined end condition. This would be something like, when N ships are destroyed, the mission ends. However, I am thinking of introducing optional goals that, if accomplished, will have distinct modifiers in following missions. When playing Mission 3, it'll ask if A, B, or C were accomplished. If so, vary the placement, or the number of ships, or even the goal you need to accomplish.

In the end, my hope is that players can play a campaign multiple times and see new things and reach a different and satisfying conclusion to their war. No, this isn't Risk Legacy. It's not that open. But I love the idea that a group of friends have their own story for the Jovian campaign.



I think the A,B,C "did you meet the conditions?" alternatives are really good - getting them balanced will be tricky, though.

You're absolutely right. I actually just had a thought on how to do this mechanically that adds a notion of player choice, fog of war, and replayability. So, thanks for commenting -- you gave me the quick spark.

I love this post. As a once-big fan of David Weber's Honorverse, I have gotten a little worn down on the repetitive story of the incredible space admiral who always pulls off a spectacular against-the-odds victory, with ZERO casualties other than personal life and limb. But this scenario you've described, and your once-removed-analysis of Hoth, reminded me of an Honor Harrington story, and also reminded me of the humanity in doing your best when you cannot win.
I think that a common (and occasionally valid) criticism of games, and especially wargames, is that they oversimplify - you win, or you lose. This also breeds and feeds a certain type of gamer that I dislike, the victory/flawless-record-obsessed competitive player; the player for whom winning is more fun than playing. I think that your Ceres scenario (and that freighter option is really moving!) functions like a Kobayashi-Maru test. It's humbling, and teaches the player valuable lessons that can only be gained in defeat. Bravo.
As for your multiple-ending idea, I'm reminded of Starfox64 - There's "Misson Complete", which you think is what you need, until you start wondering why some of your Missions garner the result "Mission Accomplished".

I love the Honorverse! I've read the series twice through (just last year, actually). You really grasped what I'm hoping to accomplish and that feels good. Thank you for your comment.

Some other books that really inspired Mars Rising:
-The Expanse series. The first book is Leviathan Wakes. Amazing.
-Dread Empire's Fall. The first book is the same name.
-Old Man's War (and subsequent novels) by John Scalzi.

If I'm able to successfully deliver this, I'd love to both continue telling new stories (with new units and such, of course), but also, provide enough components so players could create and share their own stories.

I think this is a great direction. Profoundly unbalanced scenarios with big narrative consequences make for epic stories and an opportunity for different kinds of play and tactics. So many space games seem to be full of meeting engagements. Boring. Players not knowing the others objectives is also great.

My recollection is that the Dust Tactics miniatures game has a great scenario generator that might be worth looking at.

Thank you so much for the recommendation! I will check that out. And yes, I have an idea for hidden and alternate objectives.

While video games need that fog of war, it can be far more difficult to do this on a board game or table top game. Warhammer or 40k has tried to follow this example at times with set armies but if you could put together a captivating story and reasons why they are fighting, and maybe giving more then just A,B or C options, that might be a great way to handle things.

If I drew a card that had a secret requirement, and I completed that. What stops me from just allowing the other player from stomping me at that point? I completed my goal, but if you allowed me to pick a second, third or fourth secret requirement as long as I had completed the previous ones before picking my next secret requirement. This allows interest, and wonder while you keep trying to beat the odds.

When the final battle comes, you could always add up the amount of secret requirements and then add things on both sides that alter the playing field. Player A has this many... So this, this and this happens on this side... Player B has this many... So this, this and this happens...

It is just a thought but I do hope this helps.

Amusingly, you've brought up one of the failings from a previous prototype of York, my other game. In that game, you had one secret objective, so once it was finished, you didn't know what to do.

My idea was not so much you had A, or B, or C, but you had a variety of them and with the tuning, you'll PROBABLY only get one of them. That to me would be nice and tense. But, you might get two or in some crazy games, three.

The notion of fog would be strictly in the goals of the players, not in the positioning of the board. I should be careful using "fog of war" so carelessly as it has a lot of implications with it.

As I think on it, I think many scenarios will have a card for each player, or just one player, with bonus objectives. Some missions might just be "blast each other to bits." The results of succeeding with these will be enjoyed in the very next mission. It won't be a cumulative "count at the end" type thing, if that makes sense.

GREAT comments, thank you.