Thursday, 22 September 2016

Books, Books, Books...and a Magazine

I seem to be having a literary interlude in my wargaming at the moment. My painting and making projects are minor and don't have much priority for the time being. And so I've been settling down to read some recent purchases. Prepare yourself for a long post with no pictures of toy soldiers...

Tabletop Wargames: A Designers' & Writers' Handbook, Rick Priestley and John Lambshead 
(Pen & Sword, 2016, 157 pages)

This title has just been published, and retails for £14.99. Probably the most straightforward thing to say about the book is that it does exactly what it says on the tin - it provides a guide to designing and writing rules for wargames using miniatures, although it should be emphasised that naval wargaming hardly features and air wargaming is not mentioned at all. The fact that it is authored by Rick Priestley pretty much guarantees a good and informative read - if (like me) the name John Lambshead means nothing to you, he is a pretty prolific current rules author himself, working for Osprey and Warlord Games on many well-known sets.
There is plenty of solid information here - data on probability and how to calculate it, some basic technical concepts around rules design, a discussion on scales, and sound advice about the process of writing and layout. Self-opinionated waffle is largely absent. Even if you don't really want to write rules in any serious way, this book represents a sound guide to the factors influencing the rules you buy and use, and will give you some objective guidance for telling a good set from a bad set. It will also shed some light on the reasons why you might like one ruleset and not another. The book is a well-produced softback with colour photos of various wargames figures for those who don't like stories without pictures.
I found only one section I disagreed with (strongly and with considerable justification, as you will see), when the chapter on dice and probability summarily dismissed average dice as 'pretty well obsolete'. Pah! To add insult to injury, the text continues 'no doubt somewhere there is an extant rule set utilising them but offhand we can't think of one'. Yeah, and screw you too, guys. For a final twist of the knife, the 'Warhammer' series is presented as an example of the 'more elegant' solution of rolling more D6s to 'smooth potential outcomes'. I myself had the misfortune of playing several games of Warhammer 40K before my 2 sons grew out of it (around the age of 12), and I found the rules clunky and old-fashioned. If 40K is more elegant a rule system than Honours of War, then I'm a Dutchman. Nevertheless, I feel I should set aside my feelings of bitter personal antagonism. Enough!
I read this book with considerable pleasure, and it was quickly apparent that it will come in very handy for any future rule writing ventures. One of the best wargaming books of recent years.

Tackle Model Soldiers This Way, Donald Featherstone (Stanley Paul, 1963, 128 pages)

I got this one from Abe Books for £17.99 including postage. Tackle Model Soldiers This Way was written after the seminal War Games of 1962, for the same publisher, and is a book I have not bothered with up to now as it is really about making, painting and collecting model soldiers rather than wargaming. However, when Stuart came up with some ideas for our ancient rules project that he had drawn from the book, I became aware that there was some wargaming content within. From there it was a short step to feeling the need to add it to my collection.

I'm glad I did. I don't think it's too much to say that the book will have little or no relevance to most modern-day wargamers, but I read this work from cover to cover with immense pleasure. It takes you back to the days when our hobby was just getting established and the whole business of creating an army and the terrain to play a game over was just so much more demanding. The author's enthusiasm for the whole process of making, painting and collecting model soldiers, whether or not one ends up wargaming with them, shines through and produces a charming read. 

The wargaming content is basically in one chapter, which includes about the briefest and simplest sets of rules for ancients, horse and musket and WW2 you are likely ever to encounter. Nevertheless, it was surprising and interesting to find that the WW2 rules were based on 'sections' of infantry mounted 3 to a base, a thoroughly modern concept which one suspects Mr Featherstone found in Joseph Morschauser's 1962 book How To Play Wargames In Miniature. Certainly it was fascinating to discover the cross-over in influence between the two authors. In fact, this little set of WW2 rules, set over 5 small pages, had me itching to try a game with them.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this work unless you reckon you share my attachment to old wargaming books and the need to have a collection of them on your shelves. But if you do, don't overlook this volume.

Battle Notes For Wargamers, Donald Featherstone (David and Charles, 1973, 174 pages)

This volume will probably be much more familiar to readers, and has formed a gap in my old school book collection for quite a while. I found a copy in practically new condition on Amazon for the ridiculous price of £0.83p plus the usual £2.80 p&p.

Following a fairly substantial, but admittedly rather dated, introduction covering the various wargames concepts involved in re-creating historical battles, the book examines 15 well chosen and interesting actions from ancient times to the Korean war. Each has worthwhile analytic sections on such subjects as rating of commanders and terrain, and has both an historical and wargaming map. I thought the content stood up very well for a book that is over 40 years old, and the book remains a useful source of historical wargaming scenarios and ideas for bringing them to the tabletop.

Certainly, for this price, a no-brainer.

Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy Magazine, Issue 86 (Karwansaray Publishing, 82 pages)

With Miniature Wargames apparently destined to become a sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk magazine with the sad departure of Henry Hyde, WSS will definitely be a magazine to keep your eye on. I bought this one because my recent reading of War and Peace, and my subsequent interest in Napoleonic wargaming, made the theme of Napoleon's campaign in Russia a tempting one. And I almost always find the columnists have something interesting to say, which is hardly surprising considering they include Rick Priestley and Richard Clarke.

As for the themed content, it was fine, although as so often in WSS the articles on historical battles were let down by poor maps, which featured some muddy graphic design, insufficient detail and were often presented in a ridiculously small size. But my main reason for writing about this issue was the column from Colin Philips.

He was rebutting a column from a previous issue which had apparently claimed historical wargaming was inherently superior to sci-fi/fantasy/steam punk. Now, although privately and personally I agree completely with this conclusion, it has little justification outside the world of personal prejudice. Colin accordingly produced a well written, polite, and sensible article demonstrating the untenable nature of the previous opinion. However, a few of his statements caught my attention as things I was uncomfortable with.

First off, he writes, "all those little metal miniatures represent men who have died, but we use metal miniatures and rules to provide a level of abstraction to make it a game [...]. We are, in effect, playing toy soldiers." Well Colin, I reckon we aren't 'in effect' playing toy soldiers; we are just simply 'playing toy soldiers'. Playing toy soldiers is what we do and that's it and all about it. Anything else and we are just weird blood-thirsty warmongers. I should say here I reject the view that we are likely to learn anything about warfare from playing wargames, apart of course from when the hobby makes us read proper history.

Colin develops his point by noting games he has played with his grandfathers, both war veterans, and also noting that the occasionally expressed distaste for fighting wars that are still on-going or very recent doesn't seem to be shared by those involved. He mentions Afghanistan veterans with whom he has played his own Skirmish Sangin game. All I want to say here is that, at a personal level, I find this a little odd. Why anyone who has actually experienced war would want to take part in a game about it beats me, especially a game about a war they had actually been involved in. But of course, such a person was Donald Featherstone. This is just a conundrum I am going to have to live with, I reckon. It is an interesting point that Colin is right to bring forward.

However, Colin does succeed in conclusively shooting himself in the foot towards the end of his article, unwittingly giving ammunition to those who favour historical wargaming. Arguing that the the previous writer "has the cart before the horse", he goes on to say, regarding historical gaming, "I'd argue people don't need to know about the history when they play a game, but it'll spark an interest which generally makes them learn more about the period. History is not the requisite to having fun playing a game, but it will fire the imagination and enhance your enjoyment".

I reckon it's pretty obvious that Colin is the guy with the horse and cart the wrong way round. Playing a game in an historical period of which you have no knowledge must ultimately be pretty pointless - you cannot really understand what is going on and why, and furthermore you can have no idea as to whether the rules you are playing are any good or not. History does indeed 'fire the imagination and and enhance your enjoyment' when playing historical games, which is why you need to do your research first. Knowing the period must precede buying rules and figures, and not bothering with the history is one of the reasons old buggers like me decry the 'spoonfeeding' approach of the more developed commercial companies, with their one-stop shops of figures and rules. You cannot get history from a rulebook. Hence it might be possible to argue that historical wargamers occupy the higher intellectual ground, as other gamers have no history to refer to. However, this I do not actually believe.

Thanks for a fine and thought-provoking column Colin.

Having got that off my chest I'll conclude by wishing WSS the very best. The fate of Henry Hyde, as well as that of my new found friend Stuart Asquith and his experience with Practical Wargaming back in the 90s, has confirmed for me what a cut-throat and heartless business the world of magazine publishing can be, even in the supposedly gentlemanly world of wargaming. I don't envy Guy Bowers in the slightest, but he produces a pretty good magazine.

Thanks for reading. 'Till the next time!


Norm said...

An interesting read to start my day, thanks. I lthink average dice are wonderful and I share your discomfort with modern warfare, but accept the point is arguable. It is too early to say how Miniature Wargames will pan out, but it will be interesting to watch the page count and see if the new bonus 16 pages, actually starts to shrink (or get converted to more adverts to cover costs), while still keeping the 16 pages worth of sci-if / fantasy content, in effect pushing out historical content in favour of sci-fi / fantsy. Probably need to give the magazine 6 months to get a better idea of its intentions and needs.

Steve J. said...

As always an interesting read Keith. Rick Priestley is certainly a talented and prolific author, but at times his views of certain periods (the 1866 Austro-Prussian War for example) and rules mechanisms, can be a bit confrontational for my liking. But then I do like to read his articles in WS&S as I find they make me think about our hobby.

WS&S is my preferred magazine as I just could not get on with MW&B. The Diane Sutherland articles drove me to distraction and I found the quality somewhat variable (one could argue the same about WS&S). However compare both of these magazines to one the ones you brought over a few weeks ago (the name of which escapes me) and IMHO they pale in comparison.

I agree with you that you do require a certain basic level knowledge of a period if you are to wargame it, so that you can understand the mechanisms and rules being used. Having read up on the Seven years War and the 1866 and 1871 conflicts, I can now appreciate how well your rules and Chris Pringle's Bloody Big Battles 'recreate' their respective periods. I have also learnt a lot of 'new' history and have greatly enjoyed researching the periods, which I think is half the fun of wargaming.

As for the older wargaming books, I am finding them a great read, even though to some eyes they are rather dated. As a result I am slowly building up my collection, some of which hold great nostalgic value and take me back to my early wargaming days.

marinergrim said...

I'm not sure you need to know the history before you play a game. I am sure that you need to know the history before you BUY into a game. Once you invest time and effort into something it is the research that you need to avoid wasting said time and effort.

As for the magazines I'd agree that money is the driver for the changes and not the desire of their readers. I fear for the future of MW but haven't written it off completely - just yet.

Regarding the Priestly book - not sure I'd want a book that is written by someone who has basically only written one set of rules and then made several other sets very similar but slightly different. Hail Caeser, Black Powder, Pike and Shotte are essentially the same and offer very little that is new between them. Hence the reason i'm converting everyone in the club to Honours of War for the SYW. Much better. even if they do use defunct average dice!

Solo wargaming-on a budget! said...

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the books and articles, I would agree that the average dice is very much alive and rolling!
Your point about having knowledge of a historical period being important is one that I would agree with and my explain why people who have served in the forces (myself included) enjoy modern games?
This was a really good read, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

John Lambshead said...

Thanks very much for your interesting review, which I enjoyed reading.

Keith Flint said...

SWOAB - thanks. Linking an interest in history with the reason soldiers might enjoy wargaming is an interesting thought.

Mr Lambshead - a pleasure to welcome the rich and famous to the blog! Great job with the book.

John Lambshead said...

Rich??? On Pen&Sword advances? :-)

ChrisBBB said...

Thanks for a nicely written and thought-provoking column, as always, Keith!

On Average Dice: as a fan of an elegant probability curve in game design, I really like the clever use you have made of average dice in HOW. Definitely not obsolete!

On History and Wargames: I agree that playing with toy soldiers won't teach anyone about the sheer misery, blood-and-guts aspects of warfare. But I definitely believe playing a well-designed historical scenario can give you real insight into the problems faced by the commanders. It's 'learning by doing' and can be really powerful in helping us to understand how and why a given battle or war took the course it did.

Bloody Big BATTLES!

Keith Flint said...

Cheers Chris. I know from a previous WSS column that Richard Clarke is with you regarding historical wargaming.

John, I meant to say apologies for not recognising your name. And thanks for the understanding attitude to my silly rant - just banter, as you obviously recognised.

Jim Walkley said...

Once again a thought provoking item. I was brought into wargaming by seeing a review of Tackle Model Soldiers in the Airfix magazine back in 1963 I think. I bought the book only on the basis of seeing a mention of wargames in the review and from the book's bibliography realising that DFs 'Wargames' existed. Having bought 'Wargames' I perhaps hoped that if there was a book on the subject my parents would stop doubting my sanity.

I agree that we are really playing with toy soldiers and used to enjoy provoking my opponents with this comment - but that was back in the days when it was not easy to 'come out' and playing 'wargames' was a (slightly)more acceptable hobby.

I have noticed that the less interest in the history that players have, the greater the likelihood that they will argue over the meanings of rules.

Delta Coy said...

Good article Keith. As demonstrated in HOW average die still have their uses. Overall my personal thoughts on die as random generators are skewed towards using D10's,or as the late Paddy Griffith called the first ones, "nuggets". I find, especially with modern games you can usually easily work out the probability of something happening, or not, as the case might be in percentages.


Delta Coy

Chris Kemp said...

Dear Keith,

Thank you for another good read. Taking the long view, it's always instructive to read the latest printed dogmas from the "great and the good" in the hobby. It used to be Phil Barker and Rhomphaia, but times move on, and believers in the One True Rulebook are still attempting to create order out of our wonderfully disorganised hobby.

Strongly held beliefs offered up as "fact" are usually pretty quickly debunked, and having an elegant mechanism is surely in the eye of the beholder? So the chaps that think D10 are obsolete, probably just don't get out and about enough outside their own circles :-)

Soldiers (and ex-soldiers) can have a very strong interest in wargaming at all sorts of levels, from the pretty serious (serves you right for cheating, Imperial Japanese Navy)to the very frivoulous (WH40K, Men Against Fruit, etc).

I would also dispute the hypothesis that wargames don't teach military history: I never really understood the Wilderness Battle around Richmond in the ACW, having read "a bit" but not being an ACW gamer or widely read in the period, so when I was pitched in to a disguised scenario and decided a sneak attack around the northern flank, guess what took place? Very instructional indeed! I didn't know the history and was convincingly wallpapered and pasted by an opponent who did, in a game that I enjoyed in an eat-humble-pie sort of way.

I remember fondly a cover on a past Miniature Wargames? of a beardy chap with pipe and Rule Bible looking sternly over a 3D hex terrain with Napoleonic troops on it. Lovely, it was. The caption read "One Day, all Wargames will be Fought Like This". Oh, how we laughed.

Even if the tactics are up the spout, gaming a battle over historical ground can give insights that are not always obviously there in the history. I've found Sci-Fi and Fantasy (SciFan) useful in that respect for disguising scenarios where the real battle is too well-known.

What is a fictitious historical battle set in an ImagiNation? Historical gamers love them, but it isn't history and it isn't SciFan either. Collect a bunch of mates, have a fun game; can't go wrong really!

Regards, Chris.