Review: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook

Being interested in the design aspect of wargaming, I ordered the new book by Rick Priestley and John Lambshead: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook. It’s a nicely layed out volume of 157 pages that was penned by experienced designers, so what could go wrong?

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Let me start by stating that there is, indeed, useful stuff in there: Some of the discussions of rules architecture and probability are interesting, the presentation of different mechanics provide a good overview of what’s used by many game designers and there are practical hints on writing and organising rule books. Also, the book is well structured and written in a clear style.

I was, however, flabbergasted by the conservative streak that runs through the whole volume. In the end, the authors’ advice boils down to this: If you want to sell your rules, use “tried and trusted mechanisms” because you might “risk […] putting off players of a more conservative disposition” or publishers that “are somewhat suspicious of the new, fearing that it will limit the potential customer base” (all quotes from p. 44).

If you compare the book with a volume on board games design – such as the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design – designing wargames looks like an almost reactionary venture. If you play any modern board games at all, you know how contemporary game designers continously push the limits of their medium (for example with cooperative mechanics or the ‘legacy‘ format).

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Changes are permanent in a ‘legacy’ game.

But, you might wonder, aren’t there lots of wargames designers out there which do the same? Of course! To name just three examples: SAGA has very successfully introduced EuroGame mechanics in the form of resource management, Dan Mersey’s The Men Who Would Be Kings includes solo (i.e. cooperative) mechanics and TooFatLardies have been at the forefront of innovative rules design for more than a decade. And they all seem to sell their rules rather well!

As a look at the contemporary market in wargaming rulebooks show, wargames design is much more diverse and innovative than using “tried and trusted mechanisms”. Sure, you might not sell many copies of your uber-innovative rules with all their new-fangled mechanics, but then, on the other hand, if Alex Buchel had heeded that advice he might not have written SAGA, and he – and many others – have proven that the audience is interested in innovative rules design if the game is actually good.

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SAGA: Innovative and successful!

With its limited perspective, Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook is a missed opportunity. It’s full of ‘don’t try that, play it safe’ – post-ancient naval wargames are complicated and boring, so keep away (instead of trying to find mechanics to make them fun, like Nick Wright or Dave Manley do), X-Wing might be innovative but is only a passing fad, games dependent on cards are not real wargames (Richard Clarke and Sam Mustafa might disagree there), skirmish games are a “niche” (I’d think they have become the dominant format…), and so on. And most of all: never push the boundaries (“don’t cross the streams”, as the authors say when they recommend to keep movement and shooting phases separate). The image of wargames design Priestley and Lambshead present is one of a conservative and timid enterprise, where you always have to look over your shoulders to make sure you won’t put off a single potential customer. It’s never about implementing and communicating your vision of the game.

This conservativism extends to issues like gender-neutral language: The authors dismiss it as “confusing”, warning to “avoid at all costs if you value your readers’ sanity”, showing again that they think that wargamers are basically dumb people incapable of grasping new (or not-so-new outside the authors’ bubble) concepts.

I guess this does represent the approach taken by some of the few large companies out there. When reading the book, it suddenly struck me that the original manuscript might have been an internal training handbook for Games Workshop or Warlord Games. The chapter on weapons ranges is especially telling because the authors advice weapons ranges to be shortened according to a ‘complicated sigmoid curve’ so as to sell models of assets that would normally not fit unto the table. What a cynical surrender of game principles to the dictate of the market!

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In short: If you want to become a rules writing drone for Games Workshop or Warlord, by all means buy the book. If you want to get ideas and inspirations for implementing your own vision, get a volume on board games design or listen to Richard Clarke or Sam Mustafa talk about games design on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast.

Encounter at Gap’s Crossing – Sharp Practice AAR

Last weekend, Sigur came over for a game of Sharp Practice. It was his first game, so we played the Encounter scenario, which I hadn’t played for a while.

We rolled dice for sides and Sigur got the Union, which had five groups of regulars, one of skirmishers and one of Cavalry. My Confederates had five groups of regulars, two skirmishers plus a physic and a preacher (whom I forgot to use in the excitment of the battle…).

The game started with me deploying one group of skirmishers inside the toll house while Sigur sent a huge five group column of regulars down the road.

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The set-up.
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“… His soul goes marching on …”
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Rebel skirmishers firing out of the toll house.

The skirmishers took a couple of pot shots at the column while I deployed a line in the wheat field.

Sigur’s skirmishers meanwhile trodded through the woods, where their Sergeant stepped into a badger turd. Jumpin’ Jehosaphat! As his status would be reduced by one until he found water to wash it off, he headed towards the church, hopeful that holy water would not only do the trick but also bless his further endeavours…

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“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3)

His men meanwhile took position and made ready to fire at my line which was approaching through the wheat field.

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Despite my skirmishers and my line shooting at them, Sigur cooly marched his colum into position on the road. Suddenly, two groups broke from the formation and stormed the house where my skirmishers were holed in, driving them out and routing them. However, in the fight, the Union Force Commander was hit by a bayonet thrust and bit the dust. Lots of Bad Things happened in Dixie that day – both our Force Morales took a first plunge.

Meanwhile, my second formation was deployed to my left as I wanted to march them around the farm yard and take Sigur in the flank. Sigur however finally deployed his cavalry, which rushed forward. Fortunately, my lads were fast enough to form a line, which deterred the Union gallopers from making a head-on charge. His troopers dismounted and took cover in the field.

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My remaining skirmishers were hit by another mishap: A sudden gust of smoke errupted from their muskets, making them realise they had damp powder (two random events in a row!). Despite their firepower being reduced, they did a great job harrassing the Union troops and holding my center while my left flankers slowly wheeled around. Sigur’s guys proved to be fleet of foot and at first managed to heel out of my firing arc, but I finally got off a salvo, catching the Union regulars deployed on the road in the flank.

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Unfortunately, Sigur’s skirmishers, which were a nimble bunch and a major annoyance, spotted my Colonel sitting on his horse (my primary deployment point). Their Sergeant had meanwhile returned from his pilgrimage (which had involved a theological discussion with a church-goer) and, being dapper and in good spirits, decided to charge towards the fellow, who immediately legged it. So much for Southern chivalry! Again my Force Morale dropped. Morale-wise, we both were pretty much on our last legs now – we both had taken a lot of casualties, leaders had been wounded or knocked out and groups had been routed.

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Union skirmishers take my Primary Deployment Point.

In a last effort, my regulars in the field fixed their bayonets and charged the Union troops on the road. One brutal melee later and the Union guys were running, passing right through their friends and causing even more havoc and loss of Force Morale. Seeing this, my skirmishers fired at Sigur’s dismounted cavalry, driving them back. This proved to be the final straw for the Union: their Force Morale gone to zero, they packed it in and retreated. A victory for the Rebels!

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This was a very hard-fought game. It could have gone both ways until the end. In the beginning, I felt like I had a decent plan and things were going fine, but then I somehow lost momentum and Sigur took the initiative. He manouvred his men with great skill and, despite having some problems with command and control due to dead and wounded leaders, handled his groups in a flexible if sometimes a bit unorthodox way – perhaps his many games of Chain of Command showed, as it seems he didn’t want to stand still in line and take the bullets like a Gentleman, but darted around, evading the firing arcs of my unwieldy formations and enfilading them. Especially his skirmishers dealt a lot of damage, culminating in them taking my primary deployment point. However, in the end I regained my momentum and managed to pull off a sufficiently coordinated final attack which sealed the fate of his Force.

It was a great pleasure playing with Sigur, who embraces the narrative and sometimes funny side of Sharp Practice as much as I do, so we had a lot of laughs. Hopefully, we’ll get in another game some time!

The photos were taken and provided by Sigur, thanks mate!

Rebel Scrum – Armada AAR

Virago has repainted even more Star Wars: Armada ships, so Sigur and I again donned our space suits and took command of two fleets.

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Sigur played the Imperials and fielded a Victory class Star Destroyer, a Gladiator class Star Destroyer (which I refused to acknowledge as a Star Destroyer because it has two points instead of one) and two Raider 2 corvettes. He also had Fighter squadrons galore, one of them led by a Major Rhymer who proved to be a major nuisance.

I had an Assault Frigate Mark II, two CR90 Corvettes and a couple of X- and Y-Wings. I also fielded one pimped out Nebulon-B Escort Frigate – this was to be my secret weapon, unfortunately it seems that even the Rebels weren’t in on the secret…

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I decided to ignore the Victory class Star Destroyer, as its low speed would prevent if from entering the battle during the first couple of turns, and concentrate on my right flank. The Corvettes were ordered to take out Sigur’s Raiders while my big guy accelerated straight towards the Gladiator. The Gladiator also kept a steady heading and for a moment, we had a game of chicken going.

I can’t remember who yielded first, but the ships passed each other firing from all barrels.

While this was going on, the fighter squadron coalesced into one huge scrum in the middle of the board.

Due to Major Rhymer leadership, the TIE pilots quickly got the upper hand and my X- und Y-Wings were dropping like flies. I never got the hang of using those tiny craft! But then I finally managed to get my Nebulon-B Escort Frigate into range. It has fearsome anti-aircraft guns and wreaked havoc with the Imperial fighters. I have to say that I myself was surprised at how effective this ship was – something to keep in mind for further games…

However, on my right flank, it took my two CR90 Corvettes a long time to finally bring one of Sigur’s puny Raider Corvettes down.

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And then the Victory Class Star Destroyer was close enough to enter the fray. The Nebulon-B didn’t last long, and the Assault Frigate also got pretty pummeled. The odds started to look very bad for the Rebels, and Admiral Snackbar decided to leg it into hyperspace.

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What a fun game! I made some grave mistakes during deployment and couldn’t bring my strongest ship to bear until it was too late. Sigur had me pretty contained, keeping my attention with his fighters and then steamrolling over my bunched-together ships with his Victory Class Star Destroyer.

Armada is a great game, although it is a tad slow – but this might be due to our over-cautious deployment: for the first turns, we had our ships’ speed at 1, meaning it took us some time to get into range. Especially for the Rebels, with their more nimble ships, it might be sensible to enter a bit faster. Let’s try that next time!

Mass Battles for RPGs

As you know, I’m DMing an RPG group at the moment. Recently, our intrepid band of adventurers ended up helping to defend a village against a small army. They organised a militia, collected allies and prepared for battle. And now I had to think of a way to play out this battle in the course of an RPG session.

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There is an old D&D supplement called Heroes of Battle which deals with just such questions; however it solely concentrates on the characters’ actions and treats the course of the battle as a narrative controlled by the DM. On the other hand, there are of course lots of fantasy mass battle rules out there, but those focus on the units and don’t leave much space for role-playing the actions of heroic individuals.

I wanted something that was very easy and quick – learning detailed wargames rules would interrupt the flow of the narrative and would be too much effort for one small game. I also wanted to have the players’ characters in the center, so their actions would have a crucial influence on the outcome of the fight, while still making it feel like a unit-based engagement.

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After some pondering, I decided to use Neil Thomas’ One Hour Wargames for this task. The rules are very simple and therefore easy to explain, but they also leave a lot of room for amendments.

What did I add? First, I allowed the players’ characters to take command of individual units. The activation was changed from IGO-UGO to an initiative-based sequence like in RPGs, the initiative of the character in command of a unit deciding when it would be activated. Also, characters could make an action each turn, such as attack or do magic, and the effect of their roll would give the unit a bonus for its attack roll (or, if the character made a healing spell, it would restore a couple of hit points).

Those effects were not overwhelming – a +1 or a +2 if the character made a successful attack action. For a critical hit, I decided that the unit would get a +2 and could roll two attack dice, chosing the best one. Successful healing would not restore more than 2 of a units hit points.

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After the players laid out their plans, I made a small sketch of the terrain. I’d already prepared small cardboard markers for the units, spontaneously adding some for the allies the players had made – they managed to convince a band of Orcs to fight in their side!

As far as I can tell, the game was a success. The rules were easy enough that they didn’t distract from role-playing, but the whole thing still made the players feel that their tactical decisions mattered. And, thanks to a well-planned ambush and their orcish allies, the villagers beat the numerically superior enemy!

Experimenting with One Hour Wargames has been great fun, and I can highly recommend to give it a try.