Priestley/Lambshead book about wargame rules: 3 contradictory reviews

In my role as hobbyblogger and überenthousiastic volunteer wargames reporter I stumbled upon three very recent, very different reviews of Priestley/Lambshead book about wargame rules design, that I’d like to share.


Chaosbunker was pretty enthusiastic:

The authors explain important topics like rules as written vs. rules as intended and the therefore importance of wording, as well how far the consequences of switching from a single D6 to a D20 over to a 3-step-cascaded D6 mechanism go. Some of them may be no novelty to experienced wargamers, but others are quite impressive as they are explained from a different point of view, which is eye opening. For myself, as I have written a large number of reviews of the last years, it was a very interesting read, as it confirmed some of my theories and shed light on some mechanism, that were unclear of where the rule designers wanted to go with.
As for the layout, the font size is comfortable, not to large, not to small and the book covers a lot of images of wargaming scenes along with diagrams and tables to better explain some of the topics like the effects of scale and probabilities.

The Raft

Frank Shandy, aka blogger ‘The Raft’ was very critical instead:

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).
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. 
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!

Others wrote, in the follow up thread in de tabletop wargames network facebook group, reactions like:

Mac McIntyre:

“You just confirmed what I have thought about Mr. Priestley’s methods. Having read many a “lecture” in WSS, I came to the conclusion he just changes figures and uses the same rules for any game he designs and thus pushes upon the masses.”

Guy Bowers [editor WSS] disagrees:

“Black Powder, Hail Caesar, Bolt Action and Gates of Antares have been pretty innovative in their own ways. Dumbing down is something you could level at GW but not at Rick.”

Graham Rollins replies:

“I was surprised at how enthusiastic the authors were for the banal and non-innovative approach to rules and mechanics. I suppose I should not have been surprised, though, as the games the authors have produced are mostly “diorama rules,” i.e. they are just designed to get you to buy a bunch of miniatures and then cram them all together on the table at once. 40K Apocalypse is a great example. A 10,000 point Apocalypse game is just a matter of putting all your models onto the table and then rolling dice until someone wins.”

Shandy explains:

“The point of my review was not to say that only new rules are good and that one should avoid games with 6″ movements at all costs. I play and enjoy all kinds of games, I own a couple of glossy rule books and yes, I even like Hail Caesar 🙂 What irked me was the normative tone of the book and the exclusion of everything that doesn’t follow the authors’ approach. I’m with Henry Hyde on this one: Wargaming is a broad church and there should be space for everyone!”

Meeples & Miniatures

Neil Shuck from Meeples & Miniatures was also quite dark about this new book. He writes:

Having read it, I am left wishing for what might have been. (…) 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 (…) So, in a book which is described as a wargames designers handbLook, 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 (…) 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(…)
To be honest, I was about ready to stop reading this book at this point (…) 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 couldbe 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. 
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 –

They don’t work
nevertheless we have to have them
even so they can’t really be reduced to a mathematical formula.”

The irony of these words, 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. (…) That said, its written in a style that makes it very easy to read. 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.

I haven’t read the book myself (yet). I will probably buy and review it myself. within some months. Apparently the last two reviewers dislike the idea that a wargame is primarily a game, not a simulation. I think I will side with Priestley and Lambshead here. The other critique is the distance distortion. Must say that this a major WW2/28mm problem in any case.

If one inch equals one meter, then 25cm = 10 meter, 2,50m = 100 meter and 25 meter is one kilometer.

Shermans and Tigers had an effective range of approx one kilometer, 13 standard tables in 28mm scale. So distortion (adaptation is more neutral) is a necessity in tabletop wargaming. Why the fuzz about changing distance if ‘reality’ is impossible, anyway?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s