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


As someone who aspires to one day write and publish a credible set of miniature wargaming rules, I eagerly picked up the recently released Pen & Sword offering entitled “Tabletop Wargames: A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook” authored by Rick Priestley of Warhammer fame and John Lambshead, a computer game designer, author and editor who has done work with Games Workshop and Osprey.

The 157 page softcover book is well presented and follows the authors’ own advice on the importance of presentation quality, organization, and use of graphics/images for visual appeal.  Written in a light conversational style, it covers a large number of subjects and presents a volume of ideas, but in a somewhat cursory way that sometimes leaves you wanting more.  One nice element is the frequent references to different sets of commercial wargame rules to provide examples of points made.

Chapters look at issues related to scale, key elements of design, the importance of dice (and/or the mechanism used to create fog of war and resolve conflict), the importance of formatting and presentation, the unique aspects of skirmish gaming, problems of language and word usage, expanding the rulebook (i.e., notes on army lists, their implementation and importance to game balance), and the role of campaign supplements.  In the rule design chapter, for example, you’ll be introduced to such concepts as “grit” and “anchor points,” as well as “nested” results and “layered” design.

As previously noted, it is a light book, but there is still plenty of meat here.  A few things that stuck out for me, for example, was the emphasis on choosing and streamlining rule mechanisms in order to achieve “fun” as a gaming outcome.  In other words, you strive to capture the flavor of a historical period, but historical accuracy must occasionally give way to your primary design goal of making sure the players are actively engaged at all times and that the game can consistently be brought to a satisfactory conclusion within the timeframes typically available to home or convention gamers.  Explored in the context of the dice chapter, this design philosophy ends up being expressed as a defense of the D6 and infamous Warhammer “bucket of dice” approach to wargaming rules.

Another interesting concept was the conclusion that good wargame rules should allow negative outcomes and damage to accumulate without significant effect until it reaches a “tipping point” hopefully late in the game, so that both players stay engaged throughout.  Like the Greek hoplite army that doesn’t suffer significant casualties until its morale (and lines) break.  This is in contrast to attrition-based rules where damage affects performance as soon as it is realized, allowing comparative advantages to manifest earlier in the game so that game outcomes may quickly become foregone conclusions.  Again…its all about the fun, and fighting a one-sided battle whose outcome is obvious early on, is not fun even if historically accurate.

The dice chapter also takes an short, but interesting dive into the subject of distribution curves, why a negative modifier to a defenders die has more impact than a positive modifier to an attackers die, and the importance that the number of die rolls required to resolve an action plays in terms of promoting randomness or predictability of outcomes.  One idea broached was the idea of using the difference between a 2D6 roll (i.e. the difference between the results of the opposing D6 rolls) for game results…a mechanism they note is seldom used, but which has a very interesting distribution curve that I may explore further myself.

Lastly, any veteran of the DBA/DBx family of rules will appreciate the chapter on writing styles and common problems with English language usages and word meanings.  To quote the authors, “It is a regrettable fact that the English language has not evolved to its present state with the wargames writer in mind.”  Apart from highlighting a few specific wording pitfalls (e.g. varying interpretations of may, might, can, must, should), their primary prescription is to include some rationale or explanation of the intended outcome of the rule as a guide to interpretation.  Barker critics will not find much support here.

In closing, I would not say this is the definitive work on wargames design, but it is a quick and pleasant read and covers the key elements in a way that is fun and engaging…to wit, they have followed the same rules as handbook authors they set for themselves in designing successful wargame rules.  It is a book that I expect to return to often and there are lessons here that I will no doubt attempt to apply if/when I ever get around to writing my own dream rules set.

Be interested to hear what other folks think.  And for another review, see MiniatureWargaming.Com.




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