Thursday, 6 November 2014

Getting it right with hardback rule books

Readers of this blog will know I'm not a fan of the "Black Powder" book and its school of publishing. The rules are okay, but I find the book vastly irritating. It doesn't cover what it purports to cover, the rules are scattered and poorly explained and it is stuffed full of pictures that do not illustrate the rules or provide any useful function other than to show how nicely they are painted. It's basically wargamer porn, and like real porn you can get it for free on the internet*.

The important thing about a wargaming rule book is what it does to enable you to play the game.

I realise I'm out on a limb here, but then I mainly game in 15mm & 20mm and think most 28mm figures are horribly deformed, so what do I know?

With this as a back ground I thought it'd be a good idea to share my thoughts on the latest hardback blockbuster.

I refer, of course, to the latest version of DBA, now out in all of its A4 hardback glory.

I'd better get some things out of the way first. I play DBA from time to time and find it an interesting and clever game system. I'm not a massive fan-boy however. I'm not a Phil Barker fan boy either. I've known Phil (and Sue) for over 30 years, well enough to say hello should we meet in the street, but when we first met I found him arrogant and overly opinionated.

Of course, if I'd written the best selling wargames rules of all time and was the most influential person in respect of table top wargaming who'd just had a range of wargames figures named after him I might have been the same. So over the years I have done my best to give him the benefit of the doubt and I have to accept he has done a lot of good for the hobby. It would be immeasurably poorer without his input.

Next, I hate the colour. That purple is horrible. And I understand why the cover art has been retained, but really.... And whilst I'm on the subject of the aesthetics, what is the business with the spine text being so minuscule? And who does page layouts like that? On an A4 page the text should be in two columns.

Right, now I've got over that, what about the rule book? (NB This is a view on the book itself, not the rules).

It's 142 pages (Black Powder is 184). The print is small and tightly packed, so the word count is high. You get 14 pages of rules, 16 pages of diagrams, about 100 pages of army lists and about 10 pages of indices (the army lists are indexed alphabetically and by geographical region). No glossy pictures. No jokey text. Nothing extraneous. It's solid, condensed wargame system. Everything in the book is of use. It's a model for what wargamers need, although apparently not what they want based on what they buy. In a way it's a relic of an earlier age, or perhaps the final flowering of a style of rule book that dominated the hobby when I started and carried on for most of the 70s and 80s.

It's nothing if not meticulous. The army lists are no bland list of troop descriptions. Each of the 300+ armies (each usually with a number of variants) has a short essay containing the sources.

In short it is superb value for money and is actually a reference work as well. You don't have to buy into a figure scale or style of painting to find it a worthwhile addition to your bookshelf. When it says it covers ancient & medieval battles it does exactly that. It doesn't claim to cover a period then need to sell you another book because it actually doesn't. In that way it is remarkably honest. There's no smoke and mirrors or bluff and bluster.

And the only pictures of games in progress actually show the game being played. They appear on the back cover, presumably to keep the costs down.
They don't randomly dot the book, distracting the eye and sowing confusion.

So at £19.99 from Amazon I'd say they're a good buy.

Well done Phil & Sue.

I suppose I'd better buy one.

* Or so I'm told

52 comments:

  1. Hello- I have read Your words and would have to agree...Wargame Rules some 30 odd plus Years ago were no-frills and useable. I'm well and truly over the style of Rules Books that today's market boasts...I've gone back to use a set of rules that were written over thirty Years ago- simple, straight forward and You don't need a Degree to make them work- or be a Lawyer to resolve disputes...what works for me is the stress- less nature of a game to be enjoyed.

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    1. I just object to paying for stuff that is of no use. I wouldn't describe Phil B's writing as "simple, straight forward", but it is compact and all the relevant rules are in the same place.

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  2. Wow, so DBA3.0 is out? I never thought I'd see the day. :D

    Thanks for the article. Right in the first paragraph you make an excellent point about wargames porn. Not even Warhammer 40k's rulebook (granted, I haven't seen the latest incarnation yet) isn't so pandering in terms of pretty miniatures posing in front of the camera. I do enjoy joking or tongue in cheek author's notes to be honest, but so many modern rulebooks are just way overproduced. What really gets me is that in this day and age there still are rulebooks with painting guides.

    As for DBA, I didn't expect it to be the very easily digested anyway after my attempts of learning the rules from the 2.0 rulebook. But it's nice that it retained its "meatiness" and style. I like the purple but I have no idea why the DBA guy is ever so slightly off centre.

    Maybe I'll even invest in that book (and then glare at it from a distance until some benevolent soul translates it into a sort of language I understand. ;) ) Have you played the rules yet or any of their beta incarnations? If so, did you like them as much as DBA2(.2)?

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    1. I don't know that the DBA rules are clearer in this version. It is best to learn them from someone else. unlike a lot of rules systems you have to get all of the working parts to mesh to get the best from them . For other rules you can sometimes misunderstand them and still get a proper game.

      I've played a few games with them, - ,mostly around the Cannae project mentioned in the previous posting. I prefer the way they play to the previous version, so I guess i prefer them to 2.2.

      Especially if you have a lot of warbands.

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  3. I've got and play 'Black Powder' a lot , I agree the rules are hidden in the text which is most annoying but now I've been playing them for awhile I find they give a fast enjoyable game in a couple of hours . By using the Perry's collections they have given a false impression of the type of games that can be played - you don't need hundreds of finely painted figures !. The production level is high which seems to be the way things are going - even DBA now ! . Have played DBA 1st version a lot but Mr Barker's writing style reminds me of house insurance documents is the new version as bad ? , Tony

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    1. The Barker writing style is unchanged. However the mass of explanatory diagrams make a real difference in understanding the text.

      Black Powder rules are okay, but I think a lot of it is the triumph of form over substance. I find the idealised aim of the totally beautiful figures and scenery a bit like adverts that encourage young girls to look too thin but creating an idealised appearance.

      DBA still clings to the idea that you can start wargaming quickly and cheaply with less than 50 figures a side and not have to compromise with a skirmish game.

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  4. I have never been a fan of the DBX stable, but your review makes me want to buy DBA3 and give them a try

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    1. DBA isn't my go-to set of rules for most things, but they fill a worth while space.

      When one of the Monday-Nighters was in hospital recently i was able to go in with my fold-up 15mm scale board and a couple of armies so we could play a proper wargame during visiting time. Priceless.

      As said above it helps to be taught how to play them, so visiting a DBA tournament might be a good idea if you're a complete newbie.

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    2. that's very nicely done! and a strength of the system is that you really can play games with just a few figures. If you keep expanding on a period you can play big battle dba with your growing collection, and host a campaign on a quiet rainy saturday. While it doesn't have big flow and drama, it definitely has tension, and that makes for some great games.

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    3. I don't know that I'll ever fully embrace Big Battle DBA (I have other game systems that fill that gap), but there's no arguing with it for a small and quick game.

      Of course the point of this blog was not to praise or bury the rule system as such, just to commend the way it had been produced.

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  5. It does make me chuckle to note the awe in which many in the wargaming fraternity hold hardback, glossy rules; as if their cosmetic quality somehow guarantees the quality of the system therein contained. I suppose that a preoccupation with gloss and the unthinking acceptance that it assures overall merit is a facet of the human psyche common outside our small hobby too. I am currently play-testing some house rules for early WW1 in 10mm. So far the entire system is contained on two a4 pages. It isn't pretty, but it certainly is functional!

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    1. Gaz, I just shake my head in disbelief at what passes for the high point of the hobby. Not that I can blame Rick P et al. They have identified a market and they sell into it remorselessly.

      To quote H L Mencken: “No one in this world, so far as I know ..... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses". I will pay for quoting that, I'm sure.

      I reckon most rules systems start as 2 sides of A4 (mine do!) it's when you try to share them with others that the great expansion begins.

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    2. Nothing wrong with a bit of snobbery, as long as it is based on good taste and critical thinking and not vulgar notions about personal superiority. In fact I think this country would benefit from a bit more!

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    3. I'm not being a snob. It's just that it's true.

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    4. I wasn't accusing you, but was pointing out that others might. I concur with your position entirely so am in the same boat. And if to be a 'snob' these days means (amongst other things) being critical of societies' obsession with appearance over substance then I am guilty as charged. On another note my WW1 rules are finished and still only occupy two pages of a4. Huzzah!

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    5. I was trying to be funny, I didn't think you were accusing me of anything. I shall stop all of that humour stuff in future.

      Well done on the 2 page rules for WW1. Is that all fronts & periods?

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    6. Ah, I wasn't sure and apologise. Tone is always hard to decipher from text unless you know the author well.

      The rules have been written for confrontations between the BEF and Germans, but's there's no reason why it shouldn't be playable using different Western Front allies or even on the Eastern Front. It is focused on 1914 and the 'war of movement' and might not play so well (or be as enjoyable, at least) if used for trench warfare. I'll post a download link to it on my blog at some point.

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    7. No apologies necessary.

      Be good to have a look at what you have done. 1914 is quite attractive to do, - especially with the BEF. My WW1 stuff is all 1916+, which is my real interest. I'm finding Op14 really enjoyable, - it's just a deal of work to derive the scenarios.

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    8. Ah, Richard Brooks. I haven't actually read the rules, but from what little I gather are they not similar to 'Square Bashing'?

      I will upload 'Price of Victory' and provide a download link if you are interested. I am starting a 10mm ECW project at some point next year and have been looking at your own 'Victory Without Squares' as a possible system.

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    9. Op14 is very, very much NOT like Square Bashing. Completely different scale and approach.

      Look forward to your link. "Victory without Squares" is based on another Richard Brooks set "Victory without Quarter".

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  6. Actually I find your words about wargaming rules quite timely as I posted a rant about that on my own blog not to long ago, which you can find here: http://wargamesandrailroads.blogspot.com/2014/10/tabletop-miniature-rules-bling-vs.html
    That, in turn, lead directly to a ongoing series on The Dark Templar blog about how to actual design and layout a rulebook, You can find here the first in that series here; http://the-dark-templar.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/how-to-design-rulebook-preparation.html

    I'm definitely in lockstep with you on this one, and beyond the cover design this sounds like a solid purchase. I remember my first games of DBA taking place in the original Stone Mountain Miniatures building when it was first introduced, maybe its time to revisit those rules.

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    1. I whole heartedly agree with pretty much everything you say in your blog, Kris. The bling/eye candy count is just too much in most of them and the fake papyrus or parchment is just unnecessary, - except, I suspect, unless you think it stops people photocopying pages.

      Buy DBA 3.0 and enjoy.

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  7. I find Neil Thomas's war games books in the same category. "One-Hour Wargames" 8 sets of Rules and 30 scenarios plus diagrams in 176 pages; for just over a tenner.

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    1. Yes, Neil gets it right most of the time, except for the gratuitous colour pictures. Having said that he's getting a bit better. The pictures in 19th century wargaming are mostly of armies et up for the rules.

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  8. ^ Though to strictly fair the colour pictures in the middle add nothing to Neil's books

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    1. Ah, yes, I'm obviously a comment behind. Completely agree with you.

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  9. What a lot of comment this topic generates, Treb ... ;) ;)

    Whilst I wholeheartedly agree about ugly 28mm clumsies I quite like Black Powder - but you are right about its incompleteness and over-priced add ons.

    The new version of DBA certainly doesn't have those faults, and, provided people take to the game improvements (and I genuinely think they are improvements), I think this is the definitive edition of DBA and easily good value for its £19.99)

    I agree with the comments about Neil Thomas's books also ... though I have not yet got or gone through the 'One Hour Wargames' (maybe Chris A will have got a copy and set up an intro session??)? ;) ..

    Phil

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    1. I think I touched a nerve, however on this blog I'm mostly preaching to the converted.

      I'm okay with BP as a rule book but it suffers with what Kris above describes as "page bling". I just don't need it.

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  10. Very interesting post. The Gloss does not just permeate the hardbacks though. I publish scenario books in PDF format. I received a great review of "the Falcon and the Gladiator" a set of air scenarios for North Africa. The only negative the reviewer gave me was that there were no pretty pictures in the book. He was right. The only images were the layout maps for the scenarios. It seems that the market wants pretty pictures.

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    1. I think we're at the point where it is expected to have pictures regardless (as Alice said, I think "What's the point of a book with out pictures and conversations") and style triumphs over substance. Full marks to PB for standing out on his own.

      I'm reminded of a training course organiser I used to work with who knew she could improve the course feedback across the board by simply providing a better quality lunch. Especially by providing cakes.

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  11. Copy and Paste. Replace "Black Powder" with "Bolt Action" or "Flames of War."

    I think most gamers who are relatively new to the hobby still shop for games in game stores where something like Black Powder is going to catch the eye and interest. A "better" set of rules won't even be on the radar until the person has become a grizzled, jaded veteran.

    I have a rule that I don't buy games published by companies that make miniatures. While I do play Dystopian Wars - it is my only exception. Typically though, publishers who "do it all" are most interested in moving product instead of writing good rules. That's fine from a business standpoint but not so good where rules are concerned.

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    1. Ski,

      I chose BP as I happen to have them. There's nothing wrong with the rules - I just don't like the package.

      And don't be too hard on people who do figures & rules. Martin at Peter Pig/RFCM is a pretty straight up guy, and Mr Peter Berry of Baccus is a top bloke too.

      Trebian

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    2. Perhaps I should have said "proprietary miniatures."

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    3. Got that. However, I think you should also include Battlefront/Flames of War...

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  12. I guess Black Powder and its like provide something of a "retail experience" in that the system and its add ons provide something of a one stop shop for rules, additional historical research and, for Flames of War and Warlord Games, figures which makes access to the hobby rather more accessible. And I guess part of the hobby is being able to buy shiny new things to use or at least collect. It's the same model as WH40K and even WAB and very successful it is too. I've stopped moaning about Games Workshop as the "evil empire" because love them or loathe them they get people gaming, painting and modelling it's just a shame Warhammer Historical never got a look in in the stores and is now no more.

    Personally I prefer leaner systems that are quicker to play and don't require much real estate (Trebian, thanks for getting me to look at the Thomas books!) and DBA 3.0 seems to tick most of those boxes - I'll try it out when I gather my (many) pennies to buy it. It was just a shame it took so long to come out and has appeared to lead to a continued stream of vitriol between the pro- and anti-3.0 supporters. But 'twas ever thus I suppose.

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    1. BP enables you to see what you are getting without bothering to read the words ("If I buy this book all my games will look like this" is how I think the subconscious thought goes).

      I never really had a problem with GW. They're a business selling on the High Street and as their stuff is completely made up they need to show pictures of it to the public. They're a business and all of their stuff (I buy the paint) is usually of good quality, although you pay for it. WHHist was never going to make it into the stores because of trhe breadth of subject. GW shops target specific ranges and turn the lines over to make money (BF effectively do this, - look at how they introduce then remove books and models).

      Good to see that you took to NT's books. I think he has it right in terms of content for a wargaming book - except for the glossy pictures in the middle!

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  13. I think that at the end of the day if the Rules You are working with gives you a workable game that is easy on the mind and your time - then they must be revered as a decent set....I gamed for several years with a one-page set of Rules - originally written and published as a 'Lunch- Break Game'....Yes, I did add to them and tailor them to my needs and chosen period....and the cost back then was for a single copy of the Wargames Illustrated magazine. I definitely baulk at buying a Rules Booklet that will take You down the path of paying $140 + for add on packages etc...infinitum.

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    1. Kev, - You are so right. Although, I stress again, there's nothing wrong with the BP rules per se, and we do play them from time to time.

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    2. Over the thirty odd years being involved with Wargaming- in a modest way- I've noted a gradual trend by enthusiasts to the thinking that the glossy - most volumous- rules sets...and it is with a degree of almost snobbery that : "You should have THIS book of rules"- bar none...regardless of how good the rules actually are. I know of one chap who decided that he wanted the Glossy rules - obtained half a dozen sets and sold them to his 'friends' at $55 a pop when You arrive at his home for a game declaring "these are the Rules we'll be playing- study them!". I mean- does it get anymore insane than that!

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    3. Kev
      Not the hobby I joined, although there's always been people telling you that you aren't doing it right in any hobby.

      We normally have one set between us when we play!

      Trebian

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    4. True- I strongly suspect that I've intentionally decided to go the path of Solo gaming in order to distance myself from the things in the hobby of wargaming I no longer understand or want to deal with...Yes, I will be writing some of my own rules as well as tweeking some very old rules that for me have stood the test of time- and I'll only have myself to please..sad in a way- though I think I can bare it.

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    5. Solo wargaming certainly means you only need one rule book, - and there's no argument when you want to change an outcome because it doesn't look right!

      I'm partial to the odd solo game, but I wouldn't want it to be my sole style of gaming.

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  14. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments regarding the glossy hardback rulebooks that appear to be becoming the standard of presentation to which all must aspire. Apart from the bloated page count and colour pictures pushing up the price, another aspect of these volumes is the insidious way they promote the idea that wargaming is all about expertly painted troops that are miniature works of art deployed upon diorama-standard terrain, rather than the quality of the game. Of course, if one is going to prublish colour illustrations, the figures and scenery must look good, but the pictures bear very little relation to the wargames most can realistically hope to play.

    I don't care for the style in which DBA is written, as it is too dense and legalistic (inevitable in a set intended to cope with anachronistic enemies and tournament play, I suppose) for my personal taste and would be very uncongenial to a youngster embarking upon the hobby. For that purpose, Neil Thomas's rules, for all their faults, are far superior.

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    1. We are on the same page about the need to design games that work, rather than just focus on the apparatus of wargaming (although both is nice).

      The point I'm making about DBA is not about whether I like the rules or not. The point is that the rule book hits all the right buttons as far as I'm concerned. It has a set of rules, diagrams and army lists. There's no "bling" increasing the page count and cost. It delivers precisely on what it promises.

      If Warlord produced a book like it, I'd say nice things about that as well.

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  15. The content of the DBA book is, as you say, a perfect template for a set of wargame rules. Does it contain a concise playsheet? That, IMHO, is another requirement of a good ruleset: one doesn't really want to be leaving through a hardback book during a game. I'm assuming that the rules are not so simple that one can memorise them easily - in which case a QRS would be unnecessary!

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    1. There's no QRS, but all the stuff you need to consult (combat factors and outcomes) is on one double page.

      After a game or so even I'm not really looking at the rules.

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  16. Just to play devil's advocate here, I think that the hardcover, picture-heavy rulebook serves a purpose which more experienced gamers may have forgotten: it brings new people an appealing 'in' and something to aspire to in terms of presentation. Not everyone comes to wargaming through airfix figures, likeminded friends and a club. Good pictures fire the imagination and give the poor fellow who begins from scratch something to work with. If it was good enough for Charles Grant, it's good enough for me!

    Cheers,
    Aaron

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    1. "Other opinions are available" as my favourite podcast frequently says.

      Taking your point, however, I would disagree and say that a much better way to get people into wargaming would be one of Neil Thomas' book and not something which has unnecessary junk in it at an inflated price.

      With respect to BP there's no reason why the pictures can't illustrate the rules, rather than just be gratuitous eye candy.

      Which is not to say you're wrong, of course!

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  17. My first wargaming book (in 1969) and set of wargame rules was Charge!, borrowed, of course (like so many such stories) from the local library.

    It is lavishly illustrated throughout with splendid pictures of wargame figures, units and battles.

    I'm going to side more with Trebian, however, as the illustration in Lawford & Young's book followed the text, showing you how to play the game with scenes from actual games.

    But time will tell - I hope that when tomorrow's wargamers visit me in the retirement home and I ask them how they got started in wargames they'll tell me that they and friends stumbled on a book called Black Powder ... (You never know ... ;) ..) .

    Phil

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    1. We can but hop0e, Phil.

      I think it's more likely they'll have stumbled over a pile of them. There's loads of them about.

      Of course we all know that they'll start by finding something on the internet.

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