Review: Tabletop Wargames – A Designers’ and Writers’ Handbook

Rating: 3 stars

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 –

  1. They don’t work
  2. nevertheless we have to have them
  3. 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.

Tabletop Wargames – A Designers’ and Writers’ Handbook is published by Pen and Sword books, and is available from their website.









13 Comments on Review: Tabletop Wargames – A Designers’ and Writers’ Handbook

  1. Spot on Neil I also read a borrowed copy and it seemed more of a justification as to why the mechanics in Bolt Action came about, the Pegasus bridge quote is almost a standing joke in the industry and hobby.

  2. Sounds like they were selling their design philosophy for the WH Fantasy/40k games. As in, “this is the best way to design a game and look, we’ve done it!”

    In other words, its a very long designers notes to Warhammer.

  3. Matt Slade // December 7, 2016 at 14:40 // Reply

    put a cloth over it and use it as a hill

  4. Gonzalo Cifuentes // December 7, 2016 at 15:01 // Reply

    … or as a door stopper

  5. It sounds like you were surprised by all of this. He and Alessio Cavatore have said as much in interview after interview on how Bolt Action came to be. Also, what rules writer doesn’t dream of the success of 40K, Flames of War, or Bolt Action. He is talking about how to design a commercial success. I do find it ironic though that you found Rick’s discussion on dice probabilities “the most useful in the book” as rules he seems to be associated with usually have issues in that regard.

    • Hi Dale
      Not so much surprised as disappointed. As I said, I think that the problem is that the title of this book is fundamentally misleading. It’s not a discussion about rules design, but rather an explanation of how the authors have been designing wargames for the past 30 years.

      Whilst the commercial success of Warhammer 40K, Flames of War and Bolt Action cannot be argued with, I would certainly question whether or not they are actually good games. Funnily enough, of the three systems you quoted, the later two are derivatives of the first. Some would argue “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (but if that’s the case, why does GW issue a new edition every few years…let’s not got there, that’s a completely different argument) and indeed, that is the stance advocated in the book – tried and tested mechanics = commercial success.

      However, let me describe the situation with a food analogy:

      McDonalds is the most successful food chain in the world. Does that mean it sells the best food in the world?
      The majority of the world’s population exist on a diet of rice. Does that mean that rice is the best food in the world, or is it simply because they have no other choice?

      I feel an editorial blog post coming on…

  6. Thank you for a good honest review of the book. I have been looking forward too reading it but it doesn’t sound like what I’m after and I will most likely choose not to buy it.

  7. For a far more eloquently worded and argued, but similarly viewed review to that above, has been written by Frank Shandy. It can be found at the following link:

  8. How bad would a book have to be for you to give it less that 3 stars? 🙂

  9. Bill Barker // December 9, 2016 at 10:28 // Reply

    I wish I’d read your review before buying the book…

  10. Peter Millen // December 10, 2016 at 08:31 // Reply

    Doesn’t seem like my preferred style of gaming, I will pass.

    I fear that the controversy over the language will overshadow the merits or otherwise of the contents. If you are just doing a blog or forum posting, that is one thing but when you are offering a commercial product, why deliberately alienate a section of your market?

    To appropriate Talleyrand: “it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake”.

  11. The book sounds more of a historical review of how they designed wh40k and how it was adapted into a “warhammer’42” game.
    The combat ranges seem to to focused more on what bigger models they can sell at a later date than a solid game. Great for marketing, poor when it turns a gameinto an arms race of who has the biggest wallet.
    It feels like the book implies these are the range mechanics regardless of model scale and sound better suited to a 6mm scale. (Although that would imply all ground troops neeed to be top sprinters to to get movment to work

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