Monday, 31 March 2014

Donnybrook - and a lesson in scenario design

Last week we tried our first game of Donnybrook. It fell flat.

Granted, when I first saw the rulebook, I was pretty impressed. To be fair, the rulebook is impressive. A lot of inspirational photographs, nice scenery, good narratives. I can see the attraction, and I think it is a well-written wargaming book.

When reading the rules, I was a bit less impressed. The rules claim to portray skirmish combat 1660-1760, but there is very little in the rule mechanics that make that particular assumption. The rules are so generic that they would fit most periods. Simple card activation to activate each unit in turn; and different type die rolls to beat a target number to resolve morale, combat etc. Modifiers are kept to a minimum, which is a good thing.

So, I set up two small forces to battle it out with my regular wargaming pal. One force was hidden in a village, the other side had to drive them away.

Gameplay was disappointing. The mechanics are so simple that very few decisions need to be made. You cannot decide what unit to activate – the cards do that for you. The whole game revolved about moving your troops asap to the enemy (lack of other things to do or think about), and fight it out. Not much excitement was felt by neither of us.

After a game, we usually have a discussion about what worked in the game and whatnot. We did play skirmish games of that particular size before, so the game should have been to our liking. But then we realized we did experience something similar with another skirmish game we tried a few years ago, that also turned out to be a bummer Lack of a good scenario!

When setting up a skirmish game, I usually make sure all sides have good objectives, that go beyond the simple: "engage and destroy". One side might have to free hostage. Or capture a treasure and bring it back to base. Or escort a wagon across the board. Or blowup the jail. Or … you get the idea. Such setups work even better if more than 2 players are involved.

For our Donnybrook game, due to a busy day at work, I completely neglected a good scenario. I should have known better. The lack of a good scenario was the reason the game felt very bland.
I also realized this is a lesson I picked up many years ago. Skirmish games are memorable because of good scenarios. Good gaming mechanics might help, but the scenario is the most important thing. Otherwise, you just have a glorified randomizer that determines the outcome of the game.
So, a good scenario is the thing, but that does not depend on Donnybrook or any other gaming system. It depends on the game organizer. Lesson learned (yet again).

Looking back, I still think Donnybrook as a gaming engine is very bland and not very exciting. When using exciting scenarios, the game can be made excellent, but that is not a feature to be claimed by Donnybrook. That is player's imagination at work.

In the end, I still like Donnybrook as an excellent book with excellent photographs. But as a gaming engine? Probably not.

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