Rick Priestly and John Lambshead are both authors of some note when it comes to wargames rules, so a title about designing tabletop wargames from these gentlemen should be something to at least sit up and take notice of. Having read it, I am left wishing for what might have been.
The book is broken down essentially into three parts.
The first four chapters (By Way of Introduction, A Question of Scale, A Language of Design, Alea Iacta Est) deal with wargames rules design. The next three (Presenting the game rules, Skirmish Games, English as She is Writ) look at writing the rules whilst the final two chapters (Expanding the Rulebook, Campaigns as Wargames) look at how to expand and support your rules once they have been designed and written.
After the introductory chapter, A Question of Scale dives straight into the nuts and bolts of model scale, fire and movement, line of sight, shooting and cover. The author discusses model scale, and compares how scale in relation to a hobby such as model railways can be different from scale how it relates to wargaming, specifically by addressing the age-old issue of what scale vehicle is correct to use with 28mm miniatures, especially when those miniatures are not, in themselves, true scale models.
The author quickly dismisses a ground-up approach of calculating movement based on ground scale as impractical as soon as you add weapons that fire at range, and so moves onto saying that it is better to take a ‘top down’ approach to design, followed by the statement:
The distance moved per turn for a standard wargame playing piece, whether an individual soldier or a unit of soldiers on a movement tray, on flat ground should be in the order of 6″
No real explanation given, rather the sentence is regarded as a self-evident fact.
This is quickly followed by the statement
Weapon ranges should be geared to movement ranges rather than some literal concept of scale.
Movement and weapon range are subsequently explained in a series of statements:
Slow units movement = M/2. Standard units movement = M. Fast units movement = 2M
Short range fire = M. Standard weapons range = 2M. Long range weapons range = 3M+
Where M = T/8, and T = width of the playing table (normally 48″, hence the 6″ movement).
So, in a book which is described as a wargames designers handbook, it states that your major mechanics of movement and firing range are completely dependent upon how wide your playing surface is, and nothing else.
What is more, this is then complicated by modern weapons that have much larger ranges. In order to cater for the use of both the pistol, and artillery, with the argument that since gamers like to get all their toys out on the table, despite the fact that artillery should be far off the table, the game designer has to allow for these things to be placed on the table so players can use them and manufacturers can make them. In order to accommodate all this on the tabletop, it is suggested that a Sigmoid Curve approach to range is adopted, so that short-range weapons can be used, as can long-range weapons, but it means that the mid-range weapons have their firing distances severely distorted. The author then goes on to suggest that the Bolt Action rules are a very good example of this working in practice.
Please note, these are the same Bolt Action rules that ensure the 28mm scale model of Pegasus Bridge (which is available as a Bolt Action battle set from Warlord Games) whilst made in scale with the models it is sold with, is actually wide enough that one end of the bridge is out of rifle range of the other – something that I would hope most people would see as being patently ridiculous – the author of the chapter even goes as far as to suggest that not being able to fire a rifle from one end of a street to another is a ridiculous situation which should be avoided at all costs, and yet constantly praises a set of rules which does just that. I’m not sure if the author is being ironic at this point, or whether he really hasn’t looked back at the statements he made several paragraphs before the one he had just written.
To be honest, I was about ready to stop reading this book at this point. Whilst the chapter certainly describes how the author has approached designing his rules, obviously operating with commercial constraints (including the fact the rules have to accommodate the sale of large miniatures and vehicles) it does so in such a way to suggest that this is the way that games should be designed, rather than a way a game could be designed. It would appear that in the author’s world of game design as he describes it in this chapter, reality has very little influence on the game, and where the two clash, it’s always the game that wins.
As an aside, this approach also answers that other issue I have always had – why a massively powerful tank with huge weapons in Warhammer 40K can’t actually fire across the table. The answer: because the company needs to sell lots of tanks, but make sure that they don’t just sit at the back of the table all game. This fundamentally clashes with my suspension of disbelief in miniatures games, and is why I like alternative systems (especially in modern and sci-fi games) where the entire table is said to be in range (in games such as Chain of Command, Iron Cross or Force on Force) or the weapon range is determined more by the quality of the firer than it is by the type of weapon (Stargrunt II).
After the potential controversy of Chapter two, chapters three and four settle down a little. A Language of Design talks about how you design a game – specifically looking at game design vocabulary, and explaining what this means and how it relates to how game mechanics work – essentially trying to equip the reader with a common way to communicate design concepts with other game designers. Alea Iacta Est, unsurprisingly, looks at dice mechanics and probabilities, which tends to crop up at some point in almost all tabletop games. This chapter contains a very interesting section on how the Warhammer ‘Roll-to-hit,roll-to-wound, roll-to-save’ mechanics came about, following a design brief about attempting to replicate the probabilities of rolling a D100, whilst only using D6.
The second section of the book discusses the practicalities of writing a rulebook. One chapter is dedicated to presentation and layout, whilst another considers the use of language with rules, so not so much how to write as what should be written, and how you should write it. These chapters could well be a useful introduction to the prospective author (I would suggest that these, along with the chapter on dice mechanics and probabilities, are probably the most useful in the book), though quite what the authors have against the use of the semi-colon, I do not know. In between these two chapters, the small chapter on writing skirmish games seems almost out-of-place. It’s almost as if it was placed where it was simply to provide the reader with some light relief between chapters on writing rulebooks.
The last two chapters form the third past of the book, and really talk about what are, at least in the author mind, the provision of supplements to the main rules: scenarios, campaigns and army lists. That is, how to write them, what they should contain, and the different approaches to writing campaigns. To be honest, there is not much here – certainly when discussing scenarios and campaigns – that the average reader has not already seen in print elsewhere, so I suspect it’s gathered in this book more for completeness than anything else. Personally, I found the introduction to campaigns that was written in something like At the Sharp End by Richard Clarke to be of far more use than the final chapter of this book.
One thing this part of the book does look at is the whole thorny issue of points in wargames rules. In doing so the author does make a great statement:
There are essentially three things to grasp about points values –
- They don’t work
- nevertheless we have to have them
- even so they can’t really be reduced to a mathematical formula.
The irony of these word, written in a chapter which then goes on to describe how to devise a points system, is not lost on me.
Overall, I found this book a very mixed experience. I actually think that the book is incorrectly titled, and should in fact be called ‘How we design Tabletop Wargames’, as it clearly presents how the authors go about the process, rather than giving any in-depth or wide-ranging discussion on the full length and breadth of wargames design philosophy. Whether you agree with some of the conclusions the authors reach will, I think, pretty much decide what you think of the book overall. Perhaps this will partly be influenced by the type of wargames you enjoy. I’m sure that fans of games such as Bolt Action or Black Powder will find very little in this volume with which to disagree.
That said, its written in a style that makes it very easy to read. The presentation is conversational as opposed to textbook – very much in the same way that rule books such as Black Powder or Hail Caesar have been written – so if nothing else, you can plough your way through the presented material in relatively short order.
My conclusion is that although I found a few chapters to be very interesting and informative, and yes, the chapter on dice mechanics is a must if your knowledge of probabilities is in any way lacking, I came away disappointed with the book as a whole.