Thoughts on wargame rules design


The more complicated a system is, the more room there is for the 'rules lawyer'. This is the sort of player who knows or claims to know all the rules thoroughly, and will find loop-holes and exploit them. This player will also exploit any lack of rules knowledge of his opponent. If the rules are simple, then the likelihood is that both sides will have read them, and remembered enough of them to have a game without the natural rules lawyer's pulling a fast one.

It should be possible to summarise the key rules on one side of one sheet of A4. I don't want to have to turn my fast play sheet over. With such a sheet, the table will not be covered with unsightly pieces of paper, and a newcomer can be introduced to the rules quickly.

If the rules are simple, then the ratio of preparation to play should be a good one. I have already spent too much of my life painting figures and reading historical books, and too little playing the games for which I seem to be in constant preparation. I have a few sets of complicated rules which I have never found the time to learn, play, and reject.

Simplicity is in the playing, not necessarily the design. I have designed one set of rules which has all the rules and statistics necessary for play on one side of one sheet of A4. It is a very full page, with large charts and many numbers on them, and the design of some of the charts is very complicated and mathematical. However, the complexity is not in the playing. When playing the game, only one number on any given chart is relevant and this can quickly be found. It took ages to work the charts out, but takes next to no time to use them, and to learn how to use them.

Simplicity is something of a holy grail in gaming. Almost everyone is agreed that it is a good thing for a game not to be too complicated. Where I think many people go wrong is in thinking that many rules means complexity, or that big charts mean complexity. Many supposedly simple games with few rules are in practice complicated to play, often because they involve a huge number of die rolls. I have written a skirmish set of rules, which runs for many pages of dense text, but these detail all manner of troop types and weapons, and in any one game only about half a dozen of these should be used. The core rules are simple, and, in line with my policy, appear on one side of on A4 sheet (okay, apart from the chariot rules).

Bookkeeping is not just the only word in the English language with three consecutive double letters, but is also a pain in the neck when gaming. When gaming, I want to be looking at the table, thinking about my next move, and looking at my beautifully painted figures and terrain. If I liked updating columns of numbers, I'd become an accountant. Two methods of bookkeeping dominate. One is to spend much of the game worrying over a piece of scrappy paper, and the other is to ruin the look of the table with hundreds of little cardboard counters next to each unit. If you want a game of fine attrition, involving many statistics, the fine adjustment of which can wrest victory from an opponent, get a computer game. If you want to move lots of little cardboard counters around, get a board game. A wargame should involve the figures and little more. The position and identity of the wargame figures I have painted should convey most of the information I need to know. In reality a commander would have little knowledge of the exact state all his units were in, and so it spoils the atmosphere of a game if we the players know too much.


Wargames are not much fun if they involve decisions which are too easy or too rare. In some games, it is quite obvious to anyone familiar with the rules and the period recreated, how the army should be deployed. In an ancients game, a player is so very likely to place his cavalry on the wings and his heavy infantry in the centre, that this is hardly a real decision at all. Once so deployed, a player of some games might as well press the 'go' button on a machine and stand back. From this point on, he is just a mechanic, rolling dice and moving figures about. To continue to be interesting, the game should require the player to make decisions, and these should be difficult ones. This way, if he wins, he will feel more satisfaction, since he will know that his decisions were good. If he loses, he won't be blaming bad rules or bad luck. A defeat can be satisfying if it is clear that the winner won because of his skill.

Many games do involve thousands of decisions, but are still dull because the decisions are too easy. If four of my men attack three of yours, then I might decide which of mine attacks which of yours. This tends to be a dull decision to make because either it doesn't matter much which of your men has to face the extra foe, or else it is too clear and obvious which of your men I should attack with my extra man. Once I'm familiar with the rules and the unit types, I'll know that I should always attack your leaders first, or your strongest units, or your weakest, or whatever. Such decisions have little or no long term knock-on consequences. I just do what I know to be most effective this turn, and start rolling dice. I might know that I can get a +1 bonus, if I make a certain decision, and since this is nothing but good, of course I'll choose that path. Difficult decisions are those which may have drastic long term consequences. The World War Two game Crossfire scores very highly indeed in this area. In every turn ("initiative"), a player must decide which of his troops he will act with, and one slip can be disastrous.

In a rival game, Rapid Fire, in each turn a player may move all of his forces, and would be a fool not to shoot with all his forces who can shoot. In this game, a player can make very accurate predictions. He knows how far his forces move in a typical turn, and can soon get to learn how many casualties he can expect to inflict and sustain in a given situation. He can therefore be fairly sure that a charge across open ground with a certain number of men, against certain opposition, will result in a certain number of losses, give or take a few. In reality, commanders had no such knowledge. While wargaming, players should think as little as possible like wargamers and as much as possible like battle commanders. Otherwise, they become accountants. Wargames, like battles, should be unpredictable.


Players should be encouraged by the rules to use historical tactics, but not forced to. To deviate from historical tactics should seldom (but occasionally) end up with advantageous consequences. If players are forced to act exactly the way the generals of the period did, then all originality, unpredictability, and therefore fun, is stifled.

However, the people of the past were not fools, and they generally adopted tactics which suited them. Even if a different course of action might have been better, a commander had to persuade his followers to carry out this other action, and sometimes this would have been impossible. One might argue that the best thing to do in a certain situation might be for the men to fire one musket volley, then draw swords and charge. In historical reality, it may have been that real men were reluctant to behave this way, and preferred to stand, reload, and shoot again, regardless of the wishes of their commanders who knew better. The rules should punish commanders who ask their men to do things which real men would not do.

A rules writer should try to find out how people in the period fought, and then write rules which encourage players to fight in a similar way. I was playtesting a friend's rules for the Franco-Prussian war. The players formed huge great lines of cannons and with these blasted the living daylights out of each other. So effective were cannons, that a favourite target of one line of guns, was an opposing line of guns. Players who knew how the rules worked would fire all their cannons at a single unit of cannons in the opposing line. This way, they knew that once they had eliminated a couple of model guns, the unit containing those guns would perhaps fail a morale check and cease firing. My suggestion was this: since it was historical to form very large lines of guns, players should be encouraged to do so by giving these long lines some advantage. The advantage might be that the entire line would have to be the target of fire, not a unit making up part of it. This way, casualties would be taken off at random, and would be unlikely to be all from one sub-unit, and so morale checks demanded by losses would be rarer.


Luck will always play a role. Even in chess, a player may be lucky. Luck should not dominate, however. I once played an ancients game which combined contiguous fights into single large fights. I played the Romans on the march, and my opponent controlled the Gallic hordes ambushing me. It was clear that his best tactic was to hit my line of march with as many men as possible all at once. It was clear to me that the best thing for me to do was to keep all my men together in the densest formation I could manage. He duly launched his massive attack on my dense line. Men fought shoulder to shoulder all along the line, and so all his units added up to one grand factor against me, and all my units gave me one grand total factor. We rolled one die, and it turned out that I won. The rest was just mopping up. This was a very dull game. To make this scenario interesting to play, there should have been several die rolls made, resolving separate fights, so that each of us might have been doing better in one place than another, and the skill of the game would have been in how best to react to changing circumstances. There were so few key die rolls, that luck played too great a roll. In my siege game rules as they stand (they have been awaiting a re-write for about nine years), one very jammy die roll can mean that the attacker breaches the walls despite a good defence, and this I see as a flaw.

A game design can be ruined by too many die rolls and too few. Too many, and the luck evens out too much, too few and the influence of one lucky die roll can spoil the game. For example, a game in which the highest total rolled wins, and I roll 40d6 and you roll 20d6 is a dull one, because with that many dice, you don't stand a hope. True, if I roll loads of ones, and you roll loads of sixes, you can win, but if I am rolling forty dice, the chances of a very bad roll are slim indeed. I will almost always roll a total within a few points of the average. But if I roll 1d6+2, and you roll 1d6, I still have a significant advantage, but I also stand a reasonable chance of coming a cropper. With this second roll, however, it is the number of times this roll is made during the game which matters. If we will be making this roll a hundred times (as for instance we might if every one of my troops was better than every one of yours, and all engaged in ones and twos), then you still don't stand a chance, because my advantage is bound to tell after many rolls. If we will be making this roll just once, then I might by skill get my +2 advantage and still lose to your one good roll. It is not satisfying to be beaten by poor luck.

It should always be possible for things to go wrong or right. The die rolls in the game should always make it possible for the weak unit to triumph over the strong. The feeling of risk, of danger, should always be present to keep things interesting, and every game should include some surprises.


Many games take into account the effectiveness of units in absolute rather than relative terms. They say that very deadly units will be very effective, and weak units will not. This can lead to ludicrous results, even though it may at first seem reasonable. I have played a few games where if two deadly units clash, they both deal horrendous damage to each other very rapidly. Almost always, it is the relative deadliness of units which matters. Two powerful units meeting should not quickly destroy each other, and a mediocre unit should destroy a very weak one rapidly. A classic system with which many people will be familiar is the Dungeons and Dragons system. In this, 'high level' fighters find it very easy to score hits. When two very high level swordsmen meet, they each smash hell out of each other. The skill of the defender is not taken into account. Even when unarmoured men are firing bullets at each other, the skill of the target unit is a factor which will lengthen a fight. Skilled units of Second World War troops would use cover well, and know what dangers to look out for.


The game should be different in kind from other games. Siege games, naval games, air battle games, WW2 games, ancients games, etc. should all use different mechanisms designed to capture the atmosphere of the confrontation. Too many games are too similar, using universal mechanisms. I feel I disapprove of people's applying the mechanics of a game like De Bellis Antiquitatis to all periods and theatres. The playing pieces become too abstract. One could play a space battle with red Indians and hoplites. In my siege rules (unfinished, but workable), the game is one of secrecy and bluff. The besieger and besieged can only see a little of what the other is up to, and each has to make informed guesses. The crux of the game is the build up of bluffs. The actual combat is quick and simple: either the attacker gets in or he doesn't. My ancient naval rules require the ships' captains to make split second decisions when they choose their manoeuvre. The moment I wanted to simulate was when two triremes came at each other, and each commander turned to his crew and yelled a command, "Port side withdraw oars! Starboard side row like hell!" to be followed a few seconds later by "Oh arse!" when it is realised what the opposition is doing.

My starting point is "What is the atmosphere of the game genre? What is the crux of the decision making process? How much information do the players have?" Thus, each game becomes unique and so more atmospheric. I have played siege games where the only sensible attacking tactic is to mass forces at one point on the walls of the city, and the only rational defence is to mass defenders at that point. The two players then roll lots of dice to see who wins. Dull, and not atmospheric - a pitched battle in a bottleneck.


It should be possible to learn the fundamentals in one game, but the game should take a long time to master. Games which are quick to master are not a challenge and will soon pall. Chess is a game which one can learn to play quickly, but which is famously difficult to master. In wargaming, there is usually a rational way to deploy troops, given the way a particular set of rules works. This being the case, one might expect that both sides in a game might deploy predictably. If this is the case, then the mechanics of the game should mean that the players will have to fight for every inch of ground with cunning. To make this possible, the players must have some ability to do the unexpected, and for the unexpected to be effective. Games must make it possible for a commander to exploit a situation quickly, and possible for a plan to go horribly wrong equally quickly.


Ideally, the game should be tweakable. RuneQuest II, a role play game system, was very tweakable. I made many alterations to the detail of it, without the knock-on consequences' having any deleterious affects. Rolemaster, a rival RPG, is not tweakable. The combat requires dozens of complicated charts. To alter all of these would be a gargantuan task.


Simulation should be as direct as possible. Of course a level of abstraction is necessary, but one does in some games encounter concepts which seem to be abstracted from nothing at all, but instead conjured from the ether. Concepts such as 'armour class' and 'level' in Dungeons and Dragons, which do not represent anything encountered in real life, should be avoided. The RuneQuest combat system was excellent because it represented what was actually happening - I hit you, you try to parry, if you fail I damage you, but your armour lessens the damage. In D&D, nobody can even agree on what "hit points" actually represent.

Known questions

The players should be clear about what question is being asked when some game mechanism is enacted. For instance, in the game Crossfire, one player might try to move some soldiers from A to B. His opponent can fire at the soldiers to prevent them from doing this. He rolls dice to see what happens, and he may roll poor dice results, in which case the troops reach B, or he may roll good ones, in which case the enemy might be pinned, suppressed or even killed. The question being asked is "Does the presence of my defending troops affect whether the attacking troops reach point B or not, and if so in what state do the attackers end up?" If the attackers are free to reach point B, then it could mean that the defenders were busy sitting in a trench playing cards, and never saw the advance. Then again, it could mean that they poured a hail of fire against the attackers, but by mad bravery the attackers were able to run through the storm and reach point B battered and shaken but still fit to fight.

A game designer should make it clear what questions are being asked. This will make the game so much easier for players to understand what they are doing, and the possible consequences of tweaks they might think to make.


No set of rules survives contact with players. They will want to change them, and they will misunderstand them. Many writers of wargames rules get too clever and try to show off with complicated language, or they create a set of conventions, such as Unnecessary Capitalisation, which they then fail to stick to, or make meaningful. Also, many fail to give examples of play which properly illustrate how the game works. Writing clear rules is surprisingly difficult, and having written several sets, I can report that sometimes in a game I end up trying to work out what I meant by my own words.


A system will seem skimpy and rushed if it does not include a fairly comprehensive set of rules for all likely occasions. Then again, it is still true that no rule book can possibly cover anything. They should, therefore, I believe, include some suggested mechanisms for dealing with disputes and situations not covered. A good system will have a mechanism or two which can be applied in a hundred different situations. For example, in some games, troops have a quality rating, and a test using that rating which can be used to see if they succeed in a given task. If a scenario requires some men to race to build a bridge across a river before the enemy does the same, and the rules say nothing about bridge building races, then the quality of the troops attempting the task can be compared and an answer reached.


A wargame must move reasonably quickly. In a real battle, decisions have to be made quickly. Simple games are not necessarily quick. A simple set of rules might tell players how to resolve a fight between two men. The game then becomes one of resolving thousands of individual duels, until one side is annihilated. A more complicated set of rules would have ways of combining the efforts of many troops, and of requiring some to run away. One playtester of my ancients rules complained that I was adding complexity to my game when I added rules for compulsory pursuit. I maintained that I was speeding up the game, not hampering it with extra rules, because in practice the added rules would mean that some units would be taken out of the battle quickly, by being required to pursue.

There is a terrible trap which lies to catch lovers of fast games, and I have seen countless wargamers fall into it. The players devise or buy a set of rules which allow for games to be very fast indeed. They were sick of never finishing their games, of getting to the decisive moment of the battle and then having to pack up their toys. They try out their new game and are pleased with it. Realising that they have a fast system, they then fight battles with such stupendously huge armies, with so many figures on the table, that they still end up packing away before knowing who would have won. If ever you get a satisfyingly fast system, please avoid this trap.


The best sets of rules have some mechanism for creating scenarios. A straight fight between two equally matched armies is seldom anywhere near as interesting as a contest between two unequal forces with differing victory conditions. Many systems have been created with equal-points competition games in mind, and while these do seem to appeal to many players, to many others, myself included, such games are sterile, artificial, and characterless. Some example scenarios are always good. While of course I welcome supplements for games which add scenarios and the like, it is nevertheless a frustration of the hobby that with some systems, one has to buy several books before one can play the full game. Alas, I'm sure that many well-intentioned game designers try to put everything into one volume, and then find that they later want to update, amend, and expand their rules. I am no exception, though I try to be.