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?


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).

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.

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!


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.


11 thoughts on “Review: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook

  1. dave2718 December 8, 2016 / 8:54 am

    Nice review – and oddly Priestly did not always follow his own advice. The dice-draw mechanic in Bolt Action (and Beyond the Gates of Antares) is a very clever mechanic. Even if it does mix up the move-shoot-melee cannon. Cheers

  2. nickthelemming December 8, 2016 / 2:13 pm

    Very nice review, thanks. Definitely a book to avoid.

  3. Mikko December 8, 2016 / 10:12 pm

    Thanks for the review. Seems like this is one to skip – not to mention Lambshead’s response to being called out on the gender neutrality stuff.

  4. Pete S/ SP December 9, 2016 / 12:18 am

    Good review- the feedback seems very mixed from what I’ve seen online. On balance probably not one for me.



  5. December 9, 2016 / 8:35 am

    In my opinion Popularizing historicals is watering down historicals.When i 1st saw FOW back in the day (and now warlord)…i thought…here we go….nothing can be left sacred.The worst part was making nations with specific/special powers and characters like patton or whittman into super heroes…very demeaning to people who play historicals in a sophisticated,elegant and honorific way. When you attempt to mainstream something you take away the charm it had by making it palatable to the lowest common denominator …look at music or directors who sold out for commercial success for parallels here.

    • cptshandy December 9, 2016 / 10:30 am

      If there is something I really don’t like it’s elitism and snobbery. I enjoy a lot of mainstream games and certainly wouldn’t mind if my favorite ruleset (Sharp Practice, as everybody will know by now) would become more popular – the more people have fun with it, the better! For me, wargaming is an inclusive hobby and everyone should have space to do what he or she likes.
      My gripe was with the normative tone of the book, the authors’ exclusion of all other approaches and their representation of wargaming.

  6. daggerandbrush December 10, 2016 / 3:37 pm

    Thank you for this review. I will pass on this one, too. Really a pitty that it is so conservative. An approach that discussed new ideas and possible solutions for problems coming up would have been a better idea. A tool box for the designer, something to get inspired etc.

    Such statements about gender neutral language are out of place in 2016 and you can honestly do it quite elegantly. One possibility is to alternate personal pronouns and female and male versions of words. I think DnD 5th edition also does a wonderful job in making it clear that it doesn’t matter as what gender you identify. We finally arrived at a point in history where you can be openly gender fluid and most people have no problem with it.

    I hope wargaming can be equally inclusive and account for the possibility *gasp* that not only white middle-class males are allowed to join. That starts with just being a nice person to everyone and ends with not writing such outdated sentences.

    Sorry for the rant, but such publications really dont help the hobby and I hope that all that they stand for will slowly change and make it easier to attract a diverse set of people.

    • cptshandy December 10, 2016 / 4:15 pm

      I couldn’t agree more!
      Also, funny that you mention DnD 5th edition, I just bought it (our RPG group wants to change systems) and I’m very excited about what they did there – the inclusivity, but also the general approach to role-playing…

  7. Michael Peterson January 6, 2017 / 7:45 pm

    Coming late to this party but I learned of your review thanks to the blog of Old Trousers (Wargames, Numbers and Arsing About) and I think you are spot on and very perceptive. I think we are fortunate that the hobby is big and that there are people like you who provide a market for those designers willing to take chances.
    Best in the New Year,

  8. Stephen Holmes February 18, 2017 / 9:57 pm

    I suppose there’s an analogy to other hobbies here.
    If I were looking for a book to help me write a good popular tune, I’d pass over the editors of the “Got Talent” shows and look for titles by Lennon / McCartney, Lieber/Stoller or Goffin/King.

    In other words, dodge the purveyors of inoffensive bland and seek out those who put their heart and soul into it.

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