I’ve got no small interest in the design of miniature wargames, so when I saw that Pen & Sword books was doing a reprint of  Tabletop Wargames: A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook  by Rick Priestley and John Lambshead, I was rather interested and preordered a copy. Rick’s name looms large in the hobby, and his thoughts are welcome – especially as one of the more design targeted books in a larger wave of “We’ve had a bit of a think about wargames” books that have come out recently, like Dice Men or Talking Miniatures. Reviews of those books are likely to follow in my ample free time, but how about Tabletop Wargames? Who is it for, and is it any good?

Overall Production Value

The book itself is lovely. It’s softcover, but with a nice matte finish and good paper that has held up to being stuffed in the seat of several long airline flights, carried around in a laptop bag when I absolutely intended to read it, and my personal storage solution, shoved between the cushion and the arm rest of my favorite chair. It is full color, though with the exception of a handful of tables (would it truly be a wargaming book without them?) and chapter headers, this color is almost entirely made up of pictures of miniatures. These pictures are sometimes, but not always, relevant to the topic being discussed, serve as a good place to rest one’s eyes, and are an excellent means of provoking jealousy that you don’t also get to hang out with the Perry Brothers and their extensive collection.

Overall, it’s a lovely book in a practical size.

The author’s copy, having survived several domestic and international flights

Chapter One

The first chapter of the book serves as a useful introduction to the scope of what we’re going to talk about, and the range of what we might mean by “wargame”. It’s good for setting the stage, and prompting the reader – who is presumably considering designing a wargame – to think about what they mean. Is this meant to simulate a particular battle? What is the playing area? Should the style be informal/casual, or a more formal simulation? It also, rather helpfully, points out that we’re a long way from the days of a few typewritten pages of rules stapled together, and at this point what most of us view as a wargaming ruleset is a substantial written endeavor.

Chapter Two

Following the introduction, we dive straight into one of the more detailed, and to my mind one of the more engaging chapters of the book, which is a consideration of scale. As this is a book about miniature wargames, there is a deep dive not just into what scale means, but how it came about. And the tradeoffs that come with different scales — such as the inevitable loss of some details as scales get smaller. Here is where the bulk of the tables appear, and the location for the content of the book that, by my reading, is the most likely to be referenced. This includes the scales for going from how wargaming miniatures are described (by the height to the eyes of the average soldier in mm, i.e. 28mm) to military modeling scales in 1:X ratios, leading to things like 28mm figures being 1:61 scale, as well as conversions for railroad scale, and a list of which modeling scales are “close enough” for wargaming purposes at a particular scale. Also discussed is one of the great differences between scale military models and miniature wargame models – the former are trying to be accurate, the latter are trying to be cool, and may overemphasize certain features.

But this isn’t the only scale the book goes into – it also discusses movement and combat range. This is both a useful section, and one of the ones where I think it starts to show that the book is a narrower look at wargaming from the perspective of the authors’ own design philosophy. And to be fair, neither one of the authors are exactly slouches. But a game designed strictly following this book, will, I think somewhat inevitably, feel an awful lot like something published by Warlord Games. In fairness, reading this has also given me some insight into how certain things work the way they work in those games. But I am going to assert that infantry moving 6″ is not quite as universal a constant as the authors suggest it should be.

The discussion of weapon range is a more interesting one, just because weapon ranges are bonkers. The average game of 40K is played on a stretch of terrain that is, at most, a few city blocks long. Often wildly less than that. How is it that a precision laser weapon (the humble lasgun), let alone a bolter, ever out of range? One of the very helpful tables shows just how sort of silly this is – and how much games don’t follow a clean mathematical scale. Adapting one of the tables in the book for example, below is a table of the effective range of a weapon in meters, the implied range that translates to in cm when at a 28mm scale, and the ratio of that to the range presented in the Bolt Action rules (once converted to cm):

WeaponEffective Range (m)Effective Range 28mm (cm)Effective:Game Ratio
Tripod MG20032790.02
AT Gun100016390.13
Medium Howitzer9500155740.01
Heavy Howitzer18000295080.006

A pistol is given a little over a half of its “real” range, a rifle less than a fifth, and a heavy howitzer, which at 28mm scale has nearly has a range of size Olympic-sized swimming pools laid end-to-end is given the faintest fraction of it’s true range. The suggestion is something more along the lines of a sigmoid function – shorter ranged weapons have their ranges slightly extended, longer ranged weapons are severely truncated, and the weapons of whatever one things “Normal” is are less heavily modified. But it’s clearly something of an art – for example, a platoon-scale game like Chain of Command can get away with “everything is in range always”* whereas you don’t necessarily want that in larger scale games.

The chapter finishes out with a lengthy discussion of cover, terrain, and all the various arguments, nuances, and “what feel do you want” that develop around it. Overall, I thought this section had the best “food for thought” material in the book from a design standpoint.

Chapter Three

Chapter three, “A language of design”, was for me another very useful chapter. It is, in essence, a discussion of how rules work – do you want a tight or “clean” design like chess, and what does that mean? When do ambiguities start to arise – as units start to move freely in X-Y space, as cover and line of sight come in, etc. Why we try and separate “domains” (movement, shooting, etc.) and what happens when rules cross them – as well as a discussion of the advantages of doing so, and where some pitfalls arise. The latter is especially welcome – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel by screwing up in ways another designer already has. Aspire to screw up in unique ways. We also get some more basic design principles – like the idea the authors call “Escalation”, where if something isn’t going to occur, it shouldn’t occur early in a dice rolling sequence, rather than after a number of rolls. There are a number of games that violate this for various reasons, and that too is discussed conceptually. One thing I found missing from here is a solid discussion of player psychology – people remember their failures more than they remember their successes, and (IMO) design should take this into account. Also discussed are things like the use of patterns – if you’re going to have lots of rolls, be consistent in high rolls being good or bad – unlike say older editions of Warhammer, where high rolls are good except for morale, where they’re bad.

Again, this actually involves the mechanics of how to design a game, from experienced designers, and I found it both interesting and informative.

Chapter Four

Chapter Four, which is on dice mechanics, is only 10 pages long. And I’m going to be blunt here – most of them are spent somewhat off the rails. Given stochastic simulation is literally what I do for a living I recognize that I’m a tougher critic than most, but I found this section both disappointing, and more distressingly, wrong.

First, let’s talk about the good parts. There’s a decent discussion of how more dice – either more facings or more rolls – allows for more granularity. There’s a caution against stacking enough modifiers that the die roll stops mattering – a d6 + 10 roll may render the value of the d6 largely irrelevant if one isn’t careful. There’s a lovely table with the probability of a single result for a 2d6 roll and the cumulative result for that roll or lower that’s another decent reference.

Now let’s get to what’s wrong.

“P value”

Priestley and Lambshead introduce a “p value” as follows, talking about a D6 roll:

The number can be anything from one to six and all numbers have an equal probability of occurring – a p value of 0.17 or seventeen per cent. Note that p values, the jargon commonly employed by statisticians, are expressed here to the nearest 0.01 so they don’t equate to exact fractions.

This is just wildly incorrect. I might have given the authors a pass if they didn’t immediately link their incorrect notion of a p-value with “the jargon commonly employed by statisticians”. What they’re describing, the probability of something happening, is just that. The probability. Sometimes, we represent the probability of something happening with a lowercase, italic p.

A p-value is the probability of obtaining a test result (such as the difference between two groups) from a particular probability distribution equally or more extreme than the result actually observed, under the assumption that there is no difference.

The uses for that are beyond the scope of this review, but they’re just solidly not what the authors define a p-value as, and if one uses their definition in a Google search, to ask a question on a site like CrossValidated about the statistical properties of your dice rolling mechanic, etc., no end of mischief will be caused. I know this seems trivial, but in a book that very much pushes the idea that the written word must transmit clarity of meaning…I’m gonna go for it. The good news is, as long as you ignore their entirely incorrect notation, they’re not off base.

Unreliable Elites

There’s another curious passage in this section, when discussing the idea of making better units use different dice – for example conscripts roll d4s, regulars roll d6s, and elites roll d8s:

At one level, stepped dice are an elegant way of distinguishing troop quality but the designer is also making elites less predictable than militia which might reverberate into other aspects of the game. This is not right or wrong but simply something that has to be taken into account.

I’ve heard this take also advanced by at least one designer at Too Fat Lardies, and at the risk of throwing down against literally all my favorite designers, this the sort of thing that’s technically correct, but only in a narrow sense that’s never actually used. In theory, yes this makes elites “less reliable” in that the range of possible numbers for a d8 is 1 to 8 inclusive, rather than 1 to 4 for a d4. But that would only matter if games used variance from a mean as a measure of success, or something like “digits away from the average roll”. I’m sure a game out there does. The first person to point me to one will legitimately get sent $20.

In actuality, most games, including the one being discussed in the passage immediately before this, use some sort of target number system. If your target number is say, a 3+, then a d4 has a 50% chance (not a p-value) to make it, while a D8 has a 75% chance. The D8 is more reliable as it applies to the outcome of interest which is the only thing that actually matters.

Let’s put it another way, considering extremes.

Some otherworldly being stands before you, and tells you you must play their game: Roll greater than a 4, and you will be given $10 million. Roll less than that, and they will kill you.

They offer you a d4, and a d100, and tell you to choose.

Which do you pick?

Technically, the d100 is more variable. But in terms of the outcome, it’s your only chance of survival. Protip: If offered this bargain, take the d100.

Again, there are some narrow circumstances where this might matter. If you were to also have this difference roll in terms of experience gain in a campaign, sure, that means elites would potentially have twice the experience gain as conscripts. You should probably ponder that. But I’ve seen it at least twice now advanced that this type of system makes “elites less reliable”, and it’s disconnected enough from what’s actually being done in a game (usually a zero-one outcome expressed via the binomial distribution, but hiding that behind dice rolls and target numbers) that I’m pushing back against it.

So yeah, something of a damp squib, content wise.

Chapter 5

This one’s all about presentation.

After the disappointment of the last chapter, this one starts off rather well, with a discussion that I’ve never understood before, but which makes intuitive sense – that a rulebook has two roles, as a guide for learning, and as a reference. I had never really thought about this, but it highlights the difference between say, a lot of Warhammer rulebooks which are terrible references, and my beloved hex-and-counter rulebooks, which are dense to learn, with their Section Indirect Artillery (High Explosive), Fire Missions-type rules formatting. I don’t know that the authors ever really tell you how to thread the needle and do both, save for forking over some more money for the printer to include a quick reference guide. There’s a lot more practical advice here on layering rules, formatting, presenting things at the beginning and end to guide and support your readers, etc.

We’re back on track!

Chapter 6

Next up is a discussion of…skirmish games? This one comes somewhat out of nowhere – we’re not yet in a place where we’re discussing special considerations for different kinds of games, and if we are, we haven’t been lead by the authors to understand that’s where we are (perhaps we need a Guide to Designing Guides to Designing Wargames). We also don’t really get this kind of “special considerations” chapters for say – rank and flank games, despite them being a heavy part of the Rick Priestley stable. Air and naval games get labeled a subset of skirmish games, which is a choice, but one that again, I don’t know I disagree with.

Interestingly, these are characterized as “also rans” in the book, which…feels a little odd. Technically right now everything is an “also ran” compared to the mainline Games Workshop games – notably they include Age of Sigmar as a skirmish game, which I also disagree with. Skirmish games also feel like they’re markedly more popular than they used to be, and this trend is increasing. The discussion itself is somewhat interesting – they highlight the ability to use resource allocation mechanics ala SAGA, reference cards, etc. in skirmish games more easily. The authors also highlight that, with smaller numbers of units, randomness can be more impactful. This is again true, but it depends on at what level a mechanic is being performed on. Sure, shooting will be closer to the statistical average in a game where you’ve rolled 30 dice for some Orks vs. a single dice for a skirmish game’s archer, but if we’re talking about something like a “roll to activate” mechanic which works on the unit level…well, a large game involving multiple dozens of figures may have less units than an individual warband.

This isn’t the most solid chapter in the book, but it’s also not unwelcome.

Chapter 7

Fresh off of skirmish-specific concerns, we’re back to general principles – in this case, more writing advice in terms of dealing with the fact that English is a horrid and imprecise language. This again feels like a solid, experience-informed chapter, covering the often conflicting causes of brevity and clarity, pointing out that rulebooks are often read aloud to potentially the majority of your players rather than them sitting down and reading the rules, and some of the many reasons wargaming books are written the way they are. We also get into some of the linguistic pitfalls that one should avoid – “should”, “within”, etc. with solid, concrete writing advice about alternatives – including some that are, by necessity, a little more cumbersome but a little more correct.

Then we get to the advice on how to refer to your players.

The dreaded pronouns. While referring to the subsection as “Mind the Gender Gap”, the authors advice is as follows:

Never mind that practically all tabletop wargames enthusiasts are male — a fact that is rendered all the more painfully obvious by pretending otherwise. It is perfectly possible to present wargames rules in a manner that avoids using a gender specific or possessive pronoun. Where it is necessary to refer to the player it is best to simply say “the player” and where a pronoun is unavoidable anything other than he/his will feel incongruous.

You were so close. The authors go on to devote a whole paragraph to the singular they, and that some editors don’t like it, so it’s best avoided.

Folks, children born when this topic was stale on RPG.net are now old enough to be having their own kids. The singular they is fine. It’s also off-putting to have a major giant in the field note that there is a gender gap, that our hobby is remarkably short on women, but it’s alright to linguistically reinforce this because it might otherwise feel “incongruous.” Again, I might be more inclined to let this pass if it wasn’t literally in the “Words Mean Things” chapter.

Chapter 8

Moving on…we get to a section called “Expanding the Rulebook”, which is a discussion of things one expects outside the core rules. Most notably, some sort of “forces available to the players” list. I did have to chuckle a bit at the authors suggesting “Try making an army list with subtle orc forces and see where that gets you…” and Games Workshop apparently going “Challenge accepted.” There’s a good sort of “worked example”, something I would have loved to see more throughout the book, about adding variety to the ancients armies in various Hail Caesar supplements, where there’s a very distinct risk of everything feeling a little bit the same. There’s also a prolonged discussion of points systems, and here I and the authors fully agree that relying on points systems – and especially thinking that they’re reducible to a formula (ironic, I know, given the recent posts on Swedish tanks) – is likely flawed. The suitability is also discussed in different contexts – what the authors call socially-oriented games, those played by a stable group of friends who aren’t overly concerned with who won. They contrast these to both pickup games and tournament settings, where points remain an approximation of “fair”, but a poor one.

We follow this with another worked example of scenario design – this time based on a Bolt Action mission, and again, this is a welcome exercise. This brings us to the end of the chapter, and this was one of my favorites, as it managed to combine both practical and theoretical examples from designers who genuinely know their craft.


Chapter Nine

The final chapter closes on a topic near and dear to my heart – campaign play. Because campaign systems are so common as home-brew rulesets, I think this is one of the chapters most broadly applicable to wargamers who aren’t necessarily invested in designing their own campaign, but just doing some linked storytelling with their friends. They mention some common pitfalls – getting overly complex with the rules (the authors assert post-game bookkeeping should be sub-10 minutes in length), and allowing runaway victories (something I’ve written about) among them. We turn to another worked example, the Britannia campaign for Hail Caesar. They discuss both narrative campaigns (in this sense, following a particular historical series of events), map-based campaigns, and more open-ended “serial games” that involve leagues, team progression, and other mechanisms that, while not campaigns the way most people think of them, are still in the broader category of “things matter from game to game.”

Overall, it’s a pleasant end to the book, which rounds things out with references, a few blank pages for notes, and a decent index.

Overall Impressions

At the time of writing this, Tabletop Wargames: A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook is available from Amazon (affiliate link) for the remarkably specific price of $18.86. Is it a good enough read to spend $20 on? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a definitive work on the topic, and I would love a followup that followed the more intensive worked examples format of some of the later chapters, but it was a useful introductory text that lends some insight from experienced designers, and should – I believe – help an aspiring designer on their journey somewhere. The book loses some marks for the pairing of a minor and a somewhat egregious error in the probability section, and my own irritation at what I think is an error in how to approach the question of addressing a hypothetical player, but overall the book is a solid 8/10 showing.