What Matters In Wargame Reviews: A Checklist

As a preparation for my first real ‘serious’ game review I try to collate a topic list with subjects that the reviewer has to cover. A checklist. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca use checklists in the movies, so why not a simple miniature wargamer? I based this preliminary list on the writings of Nikolas Lloyd, useful comments in a discussion thread on Lead Adventure and the Deltavector game design blogs. This checklist is a follow-up to my earlier blog about do’s/don’ts.

  1. Short hard facts.
    • How many players, time to play a standard game, costs, scale, time needed to prepare a game, IGOUGO/other activation system, # miniatures needed, price of the core game, type: is it a points-based-list building-balanced tournament game or casual game
  2. Scale of the game:
    • skirmish: individual fights with single miniatures, small squads tactical: combined arms, different unit types working together, divisions with support, battlegroupsgrand tactical: larger battles with brigades, or several brigades working together.
  3. A brief description of the game.
    • With brief I mean only an overview. A very detailed description of game mechanics is often boring and just a copypaste of the rules. It can be useful to link to publisher, a how-to-play-video or other detailed blog about the game rules.
  4. Layout and background
    • Some rulebooks are gorgeous coffee table books, others are PDFs in a very simple style. I like it if the book gives a brief historical and military background – or a convincing fictional background, if fantasy/SF. Is the layout good value for money?
  5. Completeness of the book. Does it have scenarios and army lists? The best sets of rules have some mechanism for creating scenarios and include army lists. For other systems supplemental books are a neccessity. I don’t like that really.
  6. What is the goal of the game designer?
    • An important point. If the designer wants fastplay, the design should be judged for (not) attaining this goal. For example, many old rulesets are trivially criticised because they were too complex, too many tables, etc. Old designs however stressed historical realism and had a more granular approach than modern games. So the reviewer’s question is: is/was the design ‘historical’? The goal of GW, as my second example, is to sell miniatures. So AoS should not subjectively be reviewed as ‘the inferior replacement of the WHFB-game that I as older gamer liked so much’ but as a marketing tool to reach a younger age group in a challenging market. Personal opinions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ games matter very much, but are not leading.
  7. Resource management system
    • Some wargames have a resource management system. The Conan miniature boardgame and the Fast Play Grande Armee Sam Mustafa rules have a dice pool that can be used to reroll or influence results. The DBA pip system is in fact a limited resource of commands that can be given to battlegroups. In Maurice and Dropzone Commander, the players draw and discard cards.
  8. Setup
    • Some games allow you to make choices before playing, like dropoff-points (Chain of Command) or a mini-campaign game (Blücher). Others rules just suggest to make groups within 6 inch /15 cm of your table edge. Setup scenario’s can allow or force choices.
  9. Initiative/momentum
    • How can a player force the other player to act or withdraw? Chess, the ultimate diceless wargame, is a positional combination game. A move can force a countermove and you can take and keep the initiative. Although we are talking dice, good tactical wargames should have a system to put and maintain pressure on the opponent and force him to countermove. DBA and Blücher for example use a zone of control. Some games dice for initiative and the winner can choose to play first or last.
  10. Speed of the game
    • A wargame must move reasonably quickly. Modern gamers often have an afternoon for a game. So a game should be playable in 2-3 hrs. A more complicated set of rules should have ways of combining the efforts of many troops, and of requiring some to run away. Related is the subject of unit management. A unit could be a single miniature, a squad, or a larger battlegroup/corps. Players can control about 5-12 units per turn, as a rule of thumb. If the rules allow the player to micromanage subunits, the game might slow down – or the game might feel unrealistic, the godlike CiC controlling every single sniper before his multiple divisions encircle a city. A turn shouldn’t take too long and have opportunities to be interrupted. Again, this should be regarded with the game as a whole in mind. A game mechanic can work quite well for a skirmish or a medium-sized battle, but when it comes to large battles, it might be slow due to the number or units that have to be moved or the number or dice that have to be rolled. Might be boring if you have to wait 15 minutes or more before you can do something.
  11. Dice mechanics/game mechanics
    • I don’t mean to make every review a complex essay about the dice statistics and the tables. But a reviewer should pay attention to the dice mechanics used and the effect on the game. Buckets of dice affects a game differently than a quick combat results table.What is the move-shoot-ratio? A game where you shoot 4 x further than you shoot (m1:4s) tends to favour shooting (unless you make the weapon fire deliberately inaccurate or weak); a game where move 4 x further than you shoot (m4:1s) tends to make movement and manueuver all-important.  What’s the effect on the game you play? And is it realistic for the period?Lethality is a factor. How quickly can you hurt your opponent’s unit? If you hit on a D6 4+ and damage on a second 4+ ‘to wound’ roll then the lethality is 50%x50%= 25%. Cover can decrease the chance to damage. In comparison, for Infinity cover is a lot more important than for Lord of the Rings. Do you like that because in SF highpowered long distance rifles should be more important than in melee-centered fantasy combat? Again, move-shoot-ratio plays a role. If a long-distance-weapon is very mobile and very lethal, it might change the balance of the game.Relative unit strength. How strong is elite compared to recruits? Is the quality difference reflected in strength or in a morale value? Consistency of the mechanics. How many different dice/game mechanics are used? Is is one clear procedure, or with many different tables, different interlinked dice rolls with sometimes 1, sometimes buckets of dice?
    • Does the game have/allow deathstar units? A ‘deathstar‘ is a unit that comes at a huge points cost, but with near invulnerability and massive damage output and some sort of exploitable weakness (so that it can be countered). Insanely powerful units with huge blast weapons add too much randomness: the deathstar will destroy all opposing units independent of tactics used, or it will be destroyed and, because it is the main and overpowered part of the army, the battle is lost instantly. In general the deathstar criterium is part of the broad question ‘is the game balanced’. That’s a hard question to answer, and maybe not fair, the mythical French guard was in real life harder to beat than other units, and so was the mythical Königstiger tank. If a game is obviously balanced badly, a reviewer should mention that, in particular if the stated goal of the designer is to make a balanced ‘tournament game’.
  12. Uncertainty
    • Wargame generals tend to act like the 1000ft general, they see all units and know all their stats. That works in chess, but a) if you somehow try to emulate armed warfare, surprise is paramount b) as you see in Stratego uncertainty can make a game very interesting.
  13. Luck/strategy balance.
    • Wargames are not much fun if they involve decisions which are too easy or too rare. To continue to be interesting, the game should require the player to make decisions, and these should be difficult ones.
  14. Easy to learn, hard to master
    • That means that the same goal can be reached in different ways, with different tactics.
  15. Is the game engine suitable to the period?
    • Players should be encouraged by the rules to use historical tactics, but not forced to. Stupid tactics should be penalized.
  16. How’s the quickref sheet?
    • Did the author summarise the key rules on a few sheets, and is it a good summary?
  17. Clarity
    • Are the rules clearly structured and worded, unambigous, does the book give enough examples of play which properly illustrate how the game works?
  18. Support
    • Does the author, publisher or a community support the rulebook? Can I ask questions about the rules?

I’m thinking about standardized situations to playtest a game, like attacking a high point, attacking with superior numbers, attacking with elite or attacking by surprise. I must work that out.

Dropzone RCQ In Retrospect: The Overcomplication Trap

As the few regular followers of my blog might have noticed my current main project is 10mm scifi, more exactly 10mm Dropzone Commander. The basic game had good reviews in the starting years (between 2012-2015), the sculpts are lovely and the price OK, thanks to the low pound. Affordable fun. Sooner or later I will publish a detailed comparative review of the game, as part of my grand ambition to test several similar wargames and decide what I like most.

I bought for just 50 euro the 2017 version 1.1 two-player box (scenery, two armies, shiny rulebook, I can recommend it). I also bought the 2 supplements, the Reconquest I&II books, as part of the compendium. I will reserve my final judgment until I have played a few grand battles, but as a late convert I question the direction the game has taken.

My PHR army, against DZC’s cardboard scenery.

The core DZC game is a quite simple game, fastplay rock-paper-scissors with quick maneuvering, more or less. Quick dropships with slow infantry grab victory points. AA units can shoot at the dropships but not at infantry or grab points. Armour can shoot at AA and infantry but not grab victory points.

Game engine is the well-known 40K/epic engine. Roll to hit: roll to wound: roll for save: subtract damage. You might not like 40K but a simple standard and popular format is useful for fastplay. That I like. The original game has a simple alternate activation system, with a flexible shoot-move or move-shoot sequence that can sometimes be interrupted by your opponent’s reaction shooting. I played it yesterday and I had fun.

The four starting factions have strong national characteristics. Human UCM are the all rounders, certain defensive modifiers; alien Scourge are quick attackers; Cyborg PHR are slow, heavy bombarders; the vulnerable Shaltari move like a stealthy, weak but dangerous ‘swarm’.

I suppose the designer’s original idea was to make a fastplay tournament game to fill the gap left behind by OOP Epic Armageddon and Battlefleet Gothic. His former employer Spartan Games made the – then successful -Firestorm Armada-BFG clone. Dropzone Commander was a hit indeed and at a certain point the Hawk Studio had 9 staff members.

But wargames need regular updates. Otherwise the clients lose interest and move to other systems. The wargame market is a challenging market. So inevitably and like so many other studio’s Hawk published supplements with extra units, characters, and armies and background. I like the books and the units, but what about the evolution of the game?

In the first Reconquest RCQ-1 supplement Hawk introduced the Resistance: overarmored, undergunned, an irregular rebel force with strong infantry. I read comparisons with the 40K Orks. For a collectible miniatures game this is the way to go: introduce more factions, more units and more special rules to support the new factions and units, and give more opportunities for listbuilding. Ask Games Workshop.

RCQ-1 gave exceptions to the standard game engine. Transition units can change into a different form (think Transformers) and have extra statlines. The rules introduced a new platoon type, a new defensive modifier ‘evasion’ for the Resistance and 6 new cannons.

UCM for example received a swarm weapon, ‘Focus Fire’, with a special procedure with several modifiers to get maximum impact. The rules:

“One or more hits may be discarded, and then the Focus Fire value (e.g. Focus-4) of each discarded hit may be added to the Energy (E) value of another hit (up to a maximum of E-13).”

The rule as such is clear. In-game it means that a player with this weapon must modify the result and consult a special table after rolling as an exception to the core rules. It complicates the original rules.

RCQ-2 introduced weather, random events, animals as non-playing characters to the game and an extra NPC Fauna phase. And again new units – new commanders and heavier units, with more weapons, longer ranges and more damage points. Below the stat sheet of the DZC Apex, a dragon freeroaming the tabletop.

In short: a player has 8 possible modifications, including evasion (extra roll) and regeneration (extra roll) and two alternate weapons. When activated, the players roll first which player will activate this miniature (extra roll).

From Christian Busch blog

The Apex miniature is OOP. Nice to have, lovely sculpt. Probably an experiment, a fun project or a show creature, not an obligatory buy. However for me the DZC Apex is a symbol for the direction the game has taken: needless complexity, choices, extra rolls, extra tables, for extra miniatures.

Besides, the choice to give DZC strong commanders big guns, and units a more diverse range of weapons, might change the nature of the game. Instead of a quick 6-turn rock-paper-scissors game Dropzone becomes more like Battletech or Adeptus Titanicus, fight the big Godzilla’s and take them down. Faction strengths and weaknesses are watered down.

The new PHR giant robot

I can’t judge the BfE 2.0 rules. Didn’t buy it. They add a lot of chrome, 200 pages background/alternate history, integrating FAQs and errata. Well, that’s nice. It also adds rules for Behemoths – these are fearsome giant Godzillas for every race. I expect that this will be the start for a new arms race = new Dropzone miniature range, because bigger monsters need bigger warriors to counter. It might be the way to survival, but it’s also a trap.

So I have sincere doubts about the update. In comparison, the generic Dirtside II rules are free and have been roughly the same since 1993. The generic Quadrant 13 ruleset was published in 2012 and not updated. It’s a SciFi adaptation of the IABSM engine. Future War Commander (2008) is an adaptation or Warmaster and hasn’t seen updates since then. Don’t fix what’s not broken.

10mm grand tactical SF is a niche within the SF wargames hobby which is a niche within the niche tabletop wargames hobby. The DZC models are gorgeous, better than 6mm SF, cheaper than 15mm metal SF and a bargain compared to 240-euro 8mm Adeptus Titanicus. I will continue to buy them.

But the updated rules, for me as a casual player, no tournament visitor? DZC 1.1. is perfect. What’s wrong with small-scale rock-paper-scissors?

Review A Wargame. But How? 10 Do’s & Don’ts

Life is hard. I recently blogged about the Little Wars TV-review methodology, and pointed to apparent mistakes in their rating system. Although I praised the show, I really love their intelligent chat, a few commenters on facebook tore me to pieces. I was writing bullshit. How dare I? Clickbait! Etc. Well – that’s Facebook dynamics.

But I made a promise in my blog: to devise a review system and write one or more reviews that are logical, sharp, honest (objective is not the word) and informative. Here are my first thoughts, after consulting BGG and other sources.

Do’s and don’ts

1) The review should make comparisons. Why is Chain of Command better or worse than Bolt Action? A reviewer must play several games before reviewing – I set the bar at five at least. Too many reviewers just open the box and write how they like their new toys . They are very happy to share their positive opinion of a new system they bought, or give a general impression after just one game.

2) The review should be totally independent. Several bloggers that I follow receive a game for free from the publisher. They are fair and disclose that. However, those reviews still risk being subconsciously too positive (after all, it’s a gift), focusing on first impressions and whats-in-the-box-articles. Often these blogs lack price and system comparisons. I will pay for games myself, with my own hard-earned money. Or borrow the rules and test them thoroughly.

3) The reviewer should play and review the market leader. In SF for example, the market leader is 40K. That’s a truth that I hold self evident. Thus, not all SF games are created equal. 40K is in many aspects the benchmark of the SF-genre. Is any other scifi-game that I want to review in comparison faster to learn than 40K? How is the art compared to GW art? What’s the price of the model? Game mechanics?

Ditto with Flames of War – Flames of War might be good, or bad, but only in comparison with lesser known games like Spearhead, and not “because I read in many blogs about the car park rules and that Germans always win”.

4) Don’t review only the games that you like. Reviews are personal opinions. I might not like game X because it’s simple IGOUGO. I might like game Y because it isn’t. Readers of the review should know my taste, the anchors that I use. The games that I review negatively are such anchors. A good review contains links to similar (own) reviews.

5) A review should be well-researched. Not only my own opinion matters, but also the opinion of others. A quality review links and mentions how blogger X and Y rated the game, and why, and why I think the same or different.

6) Mechanics, in particular dice mechanics, should be discussed in the blog. I don’t mean to say that all reviews should contain a ‘full chapter’ about boring dice statistics. But if a certain mechanic results in a lot of dice rolling without much effect, then that should be mentioned.

For example: the popular Black Powder series has a Command Value test with two dice. Researching dice statistics with two dice, I discovered that the outcomes are not equally spread. So the question rises: is this procedure, played this way, a ‘good’ procedure?

7) The reviewer should bear in mind what the goal of the design/ designer is. The GW games were from the moment of creation a marketing tool to sell more fantasy miniatures to hobbyists. 40K and WHFB/AoS are collectible miniature games: every month more miniatures with more special powers are added that you need to collect to remain competitive in the miniature tournament scene. Same with X-Wing. Same with Warmachine. Same with the Collectible Card Game Magic the Gathering. Every few years the rules need a reboot to counter minmaxing and to clean up the mess with all the special rules and powers created for the earlier miniature waves.

Many reviewers blame companies for this policy, but that’s how capitalism works. So don’t review Age of Sigmar badly solely because it replaced the WHFB universe. Check if it attains it’s desired goal, simple fastplay in a fantasy world where there is only war. Don’t blame Warmaster/Black Powder-influenced rulesets for not being able to move your wing. The designers believe that this mechanic reflects friction and miscommunication in battles. Does this design exaggerates historicial friction? That’s the only relevant question when reviewing. Same with target group: if a game is designed for advanced wargamers, the more snobbish ones, then don’t blame the rules for not being fastplay.

8) The reviewer should abstain from simple rating systems, 1-10, three or five stars etc. Commercial games are often average to good, but maybe not my taste. I think all rating systems simplify the small difference between average, above average and ‘quite good’ too much. The LWTV-vlogs with their ratings clearly suffer that problem. Besides, I believe that thorough rule reviews should be written, not vod- or podcasted, that’s superficial chat – always. Video is about pictures, not about depth.

9) A thorough review should be balanced and based on many aspects of the game, not on a few defining ones. Often a game is rated as ‘good’ by bloggers/vloggers because it’s a boxed set with beautiful figures, or the rules are reviewed positively because reviewer regards them as innovative. I have doubts about that approach.

Try to compare, for example, David Ensteness’ Et Sans Resultat! and Sam Mustafa’s Blücher, both corps level Napoleonic games. I play Blücher and it’s an excellent game, concise, not too expensive. ESR (that I will try at some point) is said to be slower and more expensive, but – author Ensteness is playing in a different league. Mustafa joyfully writes a new ruleset every two years, sold as cheap PDFs. Ensteness is Flames of Warring Napoleonics: one period, and he’s marketing a full package including 10mm figures, battlepacks, relatively expensive but well-researched illustrated supplements, and scenery.

So what is better? Mustafa sells a relatively complete ruleset with rules for pick-up campaigns and pick-up battles. Ensteness sells beautiful books with detailed historical orders of battle, uniform painting guides included.

Same with Ancients. DBA was back in the nineties a very innovative system. What is better: fastplay tournament DBA in formal English with very simple illustrations, or the nicely illustrated and well-written hardcover Hail Caesar book made by and published for beer-and-pretzel-gamers?

10) A thorough reviewer compares games with the help of a topic list and standard situations., like, but not limited to, attacking a hill, defending against superior numbers, crossing difficult terrain while charging, attack from behind, etc. The Heretical Gaming blogger played the same Mons Graupius battle with three different rulesets. That’s what’s I call quality.

I still have to devise the topic list. Clarity of the rules of course, but also the consistency of the dice mechanics.

I know it sounds ambitious. I’m a lawyer IRL, and some of my concepts are derived from my law background – what’s the goal of the law, what do other lawyers think, is it an effective rule? I might be forced to compare a few more rulebooks than my usual range and play many more games than just two if I follow my own review rules. Well, Brutus says I am ambitious – and Brutus is an honourable man.

I just hope that I will live long and prosper!

Earlier thoughts in my ongoing review project: Part I here, part II here, part III here, part IV here.

LED-Scenery For My Wargame Table: Is This It?

The poet Howard Nemerov once wrote the beautiful poem “A Life’

Innocence? 
In a sense. 
In no sense! 

Was that it
Was that it? 
Was that it? 

That was it. 

I remembered this poem when busy with my newest toy for my toy soldiers table, the integrated wargame buildings, LED-lighted, from Wargame Model Mods. From the range I bought the relatively cheap ‘object pack’. Three different objects. I expected a lot. Construction is easy.

When finished I was… disappointed. Was that it? Was that it? Was that it? It’s not bad, but … not a grandiose light effect that illuminates my table just like the Eiffel Tower illuminates Paris. I don’t know what it is. My taste? The design? The green colour of the LEDS?

I glued paper scenery pics on the buildings to improve the look. And I added foamboard. That was it.

In the dark and as a trio, the effect is ok, see the pic on top of this blog. In daylight the final result disappointed me.

As you can see I modded the two objects above because they didn’t convince me, but they remained ‘desk lights’. Boxes. Flat boring stapled matchboxes with green led-lights. Even after modding they didn’t look ‘right’. I tried several different colours, glued panels, added paper prints, alien plants. It didn’t help.

The only object that looked fine was object 3, a low building with dividers.

So I think it must be the designs of the objects: the tower and the matchbox with fins are very simple, in fact too simple designs. Maybe WMM’s first try. For comparison, aTTcombat lasercut 10mm skyscraper, below.

Other (later designed?) Wargame Model Mods-buildings are much better detailed.

And WMM’s recent LED-lighted game-tiles, for example, look fine, to be honest. I’m seriously considering buying a few.

Verdict

I think I will use two of the LED-lights in TT-combat buildings and only keep the low building.

Was that it?

That was it.

How to paint ‘evil’ alien (Dropzone) spaceships

From the Late Night Painting Blog

Two years ago – then already long overdue – I blindly bought a discounted Dropzone Commander set. The box gathered dust on my shelves, but finally, more then 4 years after the peak 🙂 it’s party time! In this short blog I share my impressions after unboxing and show you how the effective Cartoon Supervillain-colour scheme can be applied to spacecraft. Any evil alien spacecraft, the palettes are universal.

Unboxing

Even post-hype this game is a bargain and still a must have. As you see above, the resin sculpts are beautiful, better than Adeptus Titanicus or 6mm SF, incredibly high standard. No mould lines, and glueing the parts was easy, perfect fit. A 28mm Bolt Action miniature is less detailed and harder to glue than these tiny spaceships, I discovered.

(more pics on the blog of Gemana)

In my original 2-player box (now sold out), sturdy cardboard scenery is included, Buy it asap! The highly useful set, discounted to only 20 pounds) is still available at TTCombat. 20 pre-cut buildings and 24 tiles is a bargain for all 6/10 and 15mm players. You can also download the buildings for free via TTC’s website. It’s useful for all modern and SF games.

The now OOP paperback rulebook is (was) gorgeous. TTCombat sells a new version 2.0. But the previous ruleset 1.1. can be found as PDF and you can still buy the ‘Reconquest’ supplements for a discounted 15 quid as a bundle.

It’s a simple, fastplay, but very cinematic game. DZC 1.1. had positive reviews in the past. Check Shut Up And Sit Down, for example, with tons of pictures. SU&SD wrote:

You will activate a battlegroup, you will use your ruler to move the pieces in it, you will shoot things by rolling some six sided dice to hit and then re-rolling them to damage. There is even a damage chart, although it’s a simple one. In other words, if you’ve ever played a popular wargame I keep having to obliquely reference in these columns, nothing here will surprise you.

(…)

Lots of games have transports, where you put your little things in bigger things to move them across the board. They are usually boring. But DzC makes the daring move of taking these transports as its central conceit. Dropships are absolutely crucial to combat. They are fast, they can pick up and drop off units in the same turn, and they can (usually) fly over intervening terrain.

(…)

I don’t know yet if I will become a regular DZC-player. If the game might disappoint me, I can play Quadrant 13 (an IABSM variant), Future War Commander (a Blitzkrieg Commander variant) or BattleTech with the same set.

Painting aliens as cartoon villains

Colours send coded messages. I experimented earlier with superhero and supervillain colour schemes for Zombicide. Disney and Marvel use the same colour codes: primary colours red-yellow-blue are ‘good’, secondary colours green-purple-orange are evil.

As you see the supervillain palettes give easy combinations that always work fine together for evil types.

Scourge: no monotone

Scourge miniatures are clearly inspired by crabs, scorpions, the octopus and other sea creatures. See below. I tried to find Octopus colour schemes, but they kept changing colours :-).

File:Octopus-vulgaris-4.jpg

Simple painting schemes and the official painting guide advise to paint Scourge purple or grey/metal and purple.

TT Combat

Purple is also an ‘evil’ colour. As you see above purple is combined with orange, The simpler painting instruction advises grey metal with purple dots. Although effective, monochrome or grey/purple colour schemes are often quite boring, IMHO.

Purple with green and/or orange?

Evil purple should be combined with evil green and evil orange, to make it arch-evil.

Dropfleet Commander The Scourge Battlecruiser Akuma/Banshee
Purple and green
Dark purple and brass orange, with blue

Like below: the painter below combined evil green with bone yellow

Image

I liked that two-tone-yellow/orange-green approach. However the miniatures look reptilian and non-metallic. Orange, in metallic version, is gold or copper. In steampunk pictures it’s often combined with emerald green, the paler, the more evil it is. A few internet pics to give you an idea.

Above a ‘friendly’ steampunk scheme. Evil steampunk is paler, with green fading to white. The octopus is a common steampunk icon. Spaceships images that I liked were very copper with green, pastel blue, and grey.

So the major colour scheme should be copper orange with pale green. I was tempted by the purple/brass scheme below but green/evil gold/evil copper is flashier 🙂

Brass supervillains: work in progress

I primed the vehicles grey and basecoated them with GW’s Gehenna’s Gold. Busy now with orange and other details, and shiny purple. They must radiate evil, from the first moment they enter the board.

Infantry in basecoat: German field grey combined with purple pants and brass helmets. White, purple, green, orange, thats vintage Joker, indeed. I will brighten them up and add pale greens and purple.

I haven’t decided about the UCM colour scheme yet. UCM are the human army in the game. So I might paint them in camo WW2, in a vintage dark/blue Batman colour as antagonist to the supervillain scheme or in stylish black and gold: the new Batman Dark Knight of John Player Special Formula One palette. I will post a full update when the project is finished.

Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, Part IV: Deltavector As Inspiration

Since some time I have been looking for a method, a more systematic way of reviewing wargame rules. Many rules are hypes: a new kickstarter gets the attention, a well known company promotes a new set of miniatures accompagnied by a ruleset, or a well known game designer with a group of followers publishes a new ruleset.

Test of Honour was published last year by Warlord after they acquired the Samurai range from Wargames Factory. Is it better than, say, Ronin, by Osprey? Or the free Samurai Knight Fever, via Wargame Vault, written by seasoned rule writer Todd Kershner? My favorite rule writer is Sam Mustafa, but is his grandscale ‘Rommel’, a hexed tabletop game, better than Pendraken’s Rick Priestly/Warmaster-inspired Blitzkrieg Commander, or companyscale I Ain’t Been Shot Mum? Can I compare I Ain’t Been Shot Mum with Flames of War? But how? With a topic list or a historical scenario?

Online reviews don’t really help. Many are fanreviews of just battle reports. “We had a nice game of XXX which has many good and some bad points and we will soon play a second game and this is what we really liked”. Or short entries in a forum like The Miniatures Page. Just a few bloggers are reliable. 

One of the blogs that I visit infrequently is Deltavector. I admire his insights about wargame design, but today I discovered that he writes reviews with the help of a standardized topic list. Here’s his list.

  • Activation system (description, good/bad)
  • Combat system (ibidem)
  • Rulebook (price, layout, clarity, fluff, supplements needed?)
  • Advanced rules (unit builder and/or scenario’s included?)

He mentions the rule family (‘belongs to the WH40K/Bolt Action rule family’) and often comments on the logic or (dis)advantages of certain game mechanisms. He doesn’t ‘test’ or review the ‘battlefield realism’ or the ‘historical veracity’ of a ruleset, he’s more into skirmish games. But a good example of a good reviewer he is.

A Review Manifesto: Stolen Thoughts For Future Use

Today I’m a thief. I steal words and thoughts. I have plans to publish comparative wargame rule reviews in the future, with a summary, topic list, and a rating, subjective but systematic at least. Being a professional journalist and lawyer (and hobby wargamer) I regard many reviews as substandard they’re not informative in a well-written way, and not analytic enough about the rules. Maybe I’m too critical. Sorry. Still looking for the Philosopher’s Stone.

I unearthed a leading article about game reviews hidden in the wayback internet archive machine, “A Review Manifesto”, by Peter Sarrett, He might state the obvious in some aspects, but anyway, useful stuff. I republish it, for easier reference. No copyright infringement meant. Website was shut down. I can also recommend the boardgame geek discussion about reviewing, here.


A Review Manifesto/ Peter Sarrett

I’ve been writing game reviews for over eight years. In that time my style has evolved as I’ve developed a better understanding of what makes an effective review. Recently I’ve been frustrated by the appearance on the web and in other publications of reviews that don’t satisfy me as a reader.

Writing a good review is an art just like any other form of writing. The problem is that many reviewers have never been taught their craft, but are just picking it up as they go. That’s certainly true in my case. It doesn’t have to be that way. Herewith I offer a few guidelines I’ve adopted for writing a stronger, more valuable game review.

I’m certainly not claiming that my way is the only way, or even the best way– there are other writers who are better at this than I. But it’s a place for a writer to begin, and perhaps some will find it helpful.

The most common mistake reviewers make is to spend most of their words explaining how to play the game. It’s not a review’s job to teach– that’s what the rules are for. Readers don’t need to know how much money everyone starts with, how many points things are worth, or all of the special event cards that are in the game. Such information is vital when learning to play, but is extraneous and distracting in a review. My eyes glaze over when I read such reviews– at that point, the author has lost me.

A review should touch on only those rules most vital to creating a sensation of the game for the reader. It shouldn’t concern itself with the minutiae of a game’s rules so much as with an overview of the game’s systems. Focus on what gives the game its distinctive character, generates tension, or produces interesting challenges.

Don’t merely describe these systems, either– analyze them. Talk about why they’re important and how they influence strategy. Discuss their impact on the player and the game. The best movie reviews don’t merely summarize the plot and give a thumbs-up or -down recommendation– they discuss what works and what doesn’t, analyzing the reasons why in multiple contexts.

Most importantly, they offer an opinion and back it up with reasoning and examples in support of that opinion. Game reviews have a similar mandate. A review is an opinion piece and as such is subjective. Reviewers should revel in that subjectivity, because that’s why readers come to them– not for a sterile numeric evaluation or abstract letter grade, but for a critical evaluation of a game’s merits from the author’s personal viewpoint.

Ideally the reviewer’s opinion is threaded throughout the review, always raising questions and offering insights. When an author offers only a cursory opinion (as in a brief summary paragraph) he fails his reader, whose taste might differ from his own. Long-time readers of a particular reviewer will come to know how their tastes compare and extrapolate their own likely opinion based on that accumulated knowledge. New readers don’t have that advantage. A reviewer should therefore be careful to explain his opinions, to provide the background a reader needs to decide whether he’d share the reviewer’s problem or enthusiasm.

The primary audience for a game review is the set of people who have not yet played the game and who want to know if it would be of interest to them. But a good game review is of interest to all readers– people who’ve played and perhaps already bought the game as well as those who’ve never heard of it before. It entertains as well as informs. It goes beyond the surface description of a game into analysis and insight that makes a reader already familiar with the game reevaluate his own experience with it. It suggests strategies a reader might not have encountered, draws comparisons he might not have considered, and challenges his preconceptions.

As he writes about an aspect of a game, a reviewer should constantly be asking himself, “What’s good or bad about this? What do I like and dislike about it, and why?” The answers to those questions should make it onto the page, because they’re the heart of a good review.

When I write, I constantly remind myself to inject more opinion and analysis into each paragraph. It’s too easy to get lured into laziness, relying on description and sweeping generalizations to replace incisive thought. Sometimes, due to space limitations or the nature of the game itself, I find myself forced into the dreadfully boring introduction-description-summation format. But I try to break it whenever possible, because doing so invariably makes for a stronger review.

At the end of a review, a reader should have a sense of how the game plays– the complexity level, the kinds of decisions involved, the level of player interaction, and so forth. He should know what the major game mechanisms are and how they impact the game. Most importantly, he should have a feel for the game, a vibe on whether it’s the kind of game that interests him.

He should also have data points from the reviewer on the game’s strengths and weaknesses, with enough support behind those opinions to weigh them appropriately for his own taste. Above all, a reader who previously knew nothing about a game should not walk away from a review unmoved. If the reviewer has done his job, the reader will be pulled off the fence one way or the other (and not necessarily onto the same side as the reviewer). That’s why the reader picked up the review in the first place, to get that little push.

Allow me to reiterate my most essential points.

  • Don’t regurgitate the rule book– only summarize elements vital to a player’s understanding of the game.
  • Focus on a game’s key systems, analyzing what does and doesn’t work and why.
  • Don’t just sum up your recommendation in the final paragraph, weave your critique throughout the review.
  • Support your thoughts with reasoning, anecdote, and examples.
  • Remember that opinions, not facts, are the heart of a review.

Reviews following these guidelines are typically the most useful to me as a reader, and I strive to adhere to them as a writer. 

The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (editor@gamereport.com)

Update: I found the original author via Facebook. He gave his permission to republish it. Thank God! I’m not a criminal anymore.