Do It Yourself Wargaming – a Tabletop Book Review

By Bill Gray 16 Nov 2016 0

There is a well-known adage that women complain about men never reading directions. If true, I would strongly advise you to make an exception and join the fairer gender for just a bit, perhaps with your favorite wargaming libation, especially if you’re a Colonial after this election. I normally don’t do book reviews, and when I do they are usually on books that present straight history, not to mention are unique in some way. Recently I did one on the much researched 1812 battle of Borodino. Here the draw was that the author was Russian, and his perspective was far different – and convincing – than what I had read before.

But books on wargaming (outside rules of course)? Not so much, nyet, non, nein, not a chance and fergettaboutit.

Until today.

pands tabletopwargames 2My peeps over at Casemate Publishing will drop me a book on occasion, and the tome this time around is a 158 page paperback entitled Tabletop Wargames, A Designers’ and Writers’ Handbook. The book is published by Pen & Sword Military and features Rick Priestley and Dr John Lambshead, both notable figures in the tabletop or miniature wargaming world. The latter was editor of both Games & Puzzles and Wargame News, while Priestly has seemingly been around forever. Think Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. Sound familiar? Yep, that Rick Priestly. He was a co-author of those two little booklets and now at Warlord Games is the primary author of more historically oriented fair such as Black Powder and Hail Caesar! For me the bottom line is this is a book with some real heavyweight knowledge and experience behind it, and that pushes 158 pages towards the “must read” category.

The book is full color glossy, and extravagantly illustrated with wargame photos courtesy of the Brothers Perry of Perry Miniatures fame. The images supporting this article are from the Perry’s (and there are a bunch more on their Facebook page) and are typical of how the book visually tries to get its point across, not to mention clobbering any thought that I might have of painting world class toy soldiers. But I digress.

The subject of the book is contained in the title and pretty much says it all. So you want to design your own wargame? Well spiffy, here is a step by step, blow by blow field manual of exactly how to do it. Contained within are also all of the things that a designer has to consider, reconsider and then check if his game is to be successful. Some are ghastly important and some are unbelievably trivial, but overlooking even what many consider an obvious issue is often a recipe for disaster. So the authors present you with a quality recipe for your feast, from soup to nuts, or grammar to campaigns as the case may be.

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Here is a list of the various chapters in the book, each color coded on paper’s edge for easy retrieval:

  1. By Way of Introduction
  2. A Question of Scale
  3. A Language of Design
  4. Alea Iacta Est (“the Die is Cast” for all those who didn’t suffer through Latin in school like me)
  5. Presenting the Game Rules
  6. Skirmish Rules
  7. English as She is Writ
  8. Expanding the Rulebook
  9. Campaigns as Wargames
  10. References
  11. Index

This is a book about proverbial “nitty grittys” so if you are wondering about the detail level, it is high though the prose is lively and direct. Charts often adorn the pages, such as one that compare miniature scales to how tall a soldier would really be if a conversion was made from 15 mm or 25 mm. Given the type of game one wants to design, this could well become important, especially since figure scales these days have become exaggerated. What are labeled as 15 mm are often 17 or 18 mm, and it does show visually. I once hosted a game which included some “true” 15 mm Heritage Napoleonette figures, side by side with more modern 15s from AB, Minifigs and Eureka. Folks observing the game actually asked why I decided to put 10 mm on the table vice 15s. Some of the charts go so far as to define height in accordance with timeframe, such as an ancient soldier or modern grunt. And scale does matter given this is a visual hobby, yet one that must depend on things like ranges or size of engagement for success.

Really, the book is so complete and comprehensive in its presentation it would be impossible to discuss every topic included. About the only thing I can do is provide a few examples and hopefully whet the appetite of all our would-be wargaming Tolstoy’s out there. And there are examples aplenty. In the Chapter on Language of Design, the authors spend a few pages on the concept of “Separation of Domains.” In other words they discuss the common wargaming technique of dividing a game turn into separate phases such as command, movement, firing and melee. The idea is to not only define what this is for the reader but also to show why the technique works, best practices and when the process may not be the best choice for your future Nobel Prize winner. Then the authors discuss “cross-domain” design where there is no hard separation but where elements of one domain (say, movement) occur in another (say melee, and think of the concept of Breakthrough Movement after combat). OK, not the most enthralling topic, but one that must be mastered for success.

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However, without a doubt, my favorite chapter has to be English as She is Writ. The authors have developed three hard and fast statutes for writing rules successfully. They are Brevity (self-explanatory), Clarity (sure) and Respect (huh?). The idea of Respect is so simple it is often ignored in my opinion, but oh so important. The idea is to always keep the intended reader at the very front of your mental process when you are composing and putting finger to keyboard. In other words, write to insure your reader understands, even if it’s uncomfortable for your own reading style. Thus there are sections on how to organize your thoughts into formal chapters, emphasis on genders, why it’s always wise to explain why a rule is important, and so on. Then there are the trouble makers, those terms and vocabulary that drive grammar police up the wall and provide sustenance for rules lawyers everywhere. There is actually a discussion on the differences between and when to use the words May, Might and Can. Or how about Must and Should? Then lets follow-up with Into and Within. What about when to use a Semi-Colon or specific wargame jargon such as DRM, or Die Roll Modifier. Yes, it’s all here giving the newbie a bit of a leg up on us Grognards (French for “grumblers,” the nickname of Napoleon’s Old Guard) who had to learn the hard way. No worries, I’m fine with that. Maybe.

Yet the book is not perfect, and in perhaps extreme irony the very strengths of the authors are also the source of the books most prominent shortcoming. Lambshead and Priestly, particularly the latter, are hugely experienced in this sort of thing and thus it is little surprise that they use their own rules and their own gaming environment as the foundation of the information presented. This means, in general (let me make that clear), 28 mm figures in a traditional, British tournament style system where battles are smaller and fair competition is paramount. Thus there is very little mention of American wargaming which tends to concentrate more on historical battles and has increasingly adopted a form of “chaos theory” as the norm for ultimate realism, particularly at higher levels of command. Here the belief is that players have long had way too much knowledge of the gaming table and way too much control over their units than historically happened. Removing that control has player corps commanders concentrating on brigades, not battalions, trusting to the die to compensate what nominal subordinate commanders do or don’t. It’s a lack of predictability, and that, obviously, is contrary to competition. But perhaps most surprising is the lack of any mention of New Zealand’s Fames of War series. Think what you will, but Flames of War has had an inordinate impact on the hobby and exclusion just seems . . . well, weird.

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Yet I heartily recommend this book, despite my perceived shortcomings and its $ 24.95 price tag. Yes, it is a great book for current designers, would-be designers and even cardboard counter game designers. However, and this is a big one, the people who would really, really benefit from this book are the players and gamers who have absolutely no desire to design anything. The reason simply comes down to a matter of trust, the trust that the designer has gotten it correct, both process and history wise. Without that conviction, the game becomes less enjoyable. Thus many gamers question rules out of a sincere concern that something is legitimately amiss. Sometimes they are spot on, and I know when I released the second edition of my own rules, many of the changes were mistakes caught by my 3000 person Yahoo Group, which also provided me with some spiffy recommendations for improvement as well. It can also be a gamer who just loves to play “gotcha” with the author, but most of time it’s nothing more than a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding the design process.

Consider this true life example. One of my Yahoo Group members (and my Group has got to be the most polite and welcoming on the planet, seriously these guys are top notch [OK Bill, simmer down - ED]) questioned the movement rates in my Napoleonic game noting that a certain British division could not traverse a known distance in the time they did historically using the rules as written. Yet, given the march rate of British infantry in the Peninsula, the 30 minute turns used by the game and the terrain present, they should be able to, but can’t. Or can they? The player did not realize that movement is an average that takes into account other things that might be happening during the same 30 minute turn, such as fire, melee, reacting to orders and so on. The player also did not consider that movement may well not have started historically at the beginning of a game turn, but only at the 15 minute mark or even 25 minute mark. This would necessitate an extra turn to make up the lost distance and time. Finally the gamer forgot about the fact that this particular division historically fought two successful engagements with the French along the way, and as such in the game received two bonus ½ moves called Breakthrough Movement (remember the domain separation above?). When recalculated, we found the hard charging Redcoats could not only cover the historical distance in the proper amount of time, but even a little further.

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Now I actually love answering questions about rules because it strokes my ego just a bit and allows me a chance to pontificate, particularly given the personality of my own Yahoo Group. Other designers are not so lucky and usually have at least one churl where the proper response is to smack the individual upside the head with a rolled newspaper . . . wrapped around a tire iron. This book will never dispense with these people. But for the rest, the great majority, it will increase their understanding as to why some game functions are the way they are, and with their burden of doubt lifted, make their gaming experience all the more satisfying.

After all, one should worry about bashing Orcs and Austrian grenadiers, not movement rates. The book is excellent and deserves a space on everyone’s shelf. Buy it.

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