The Rule Writer's Point of View
by Phil Barker of WRG
Miniature Wargames. circa 1983.
A certain type of wargamer constantly harks back to a mythical wargaming golden age, when rules were simple and fun, and wargamers were tolerant, kindly, uncompetitive, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of their chosen period, and wrote their own rules according to the gospel of Featherstone. As one who was around in those heady days of the early 60's, I assure you the reality differed considerably, and if you think that special pleading, ask any other of the old timers.
Those simple fun rules did not work well in their original form, and amendment after amendment soon increased their weight. The rules published in Don Featherstone's Wargames had ceased to be those used by the authors by the time the book first appeared! The Bath/Featherstone system was never universally accepted, probably 60% (me among them) using it, and most others splitting between three fairly similar competitors.
As for the gamers, many were kindly, some tolerant, and a handful wrote rules that satisfied at least themselves. We all started ignorant by today's standards. As for being uncompetitive, the selection of dear friends of mine who appeared thinly disguised by initials in a recent MW letter as paragons of the fun games of yore, could more realistically be chosen as the hardest nosed and most ruthless players that have ever victimised a luckless opponent!
To round my picture off, there were so few wargamers that they had to travel long distances to play each other, figure ranges were pitifully small, and many periods were completely unresearched by professional historians, let alone wargamers. As an illustration, of the first 100 books on the shelves of our WRG research library, only eight had been published. There was also a tendency on the part of some rule writers to view researchers as people bent on creating difficulties and rocking the boat.
So far I've dealt entirely with the ancient past. What about the future? The truth is, all progress depends on those that have gone before. Even the Bath/Featherstone rules grew out of the previous Cass/Connett rules by discarding the latter's squared playing board. It does a rule writer no credit to fail to acknowledge his debt, or even to blackguard his predecessors. Something can be learned from all of them, even if only what to avoid. One of the most influential sets of rules of all time was practically unplayable, yet introduced the concepts of variable unit size, differing base sizes for different troop types, special dice, ground and time scales, and specifying casualties in men, now all commonplace.
There are two kinds of progress in rule writing, revolutionary and evolutionary. Revolutionary changes spring from new rule mechanisms, evolutionary from play testing and new historical research. The change from Bath/Featherstone mechanisms to the original WRG mechanisms was revolutionary. The development of the WRG ancient rules from first to seventh edition and adoption of their mechanisms by other rule writers was evolutionary.
Once a revolution has occurred, its innovations rapidly become sacred cows. In the Featherstone era, everybody threw one dice per five or six figures shooting or fighting, then divided or deducted to get the numer of figures to be removed. In the current WRG era, you must have weapon factors, tactical factors and random factors, read casualties in men from a table, then divide them to get the figures to be removed. Why? I know my original reasons for picking that method, but I'm not permanently wedded to it! Since then I've written, and WRG published, several successful sets that don't use it. I certainly shall never use it again, because better methods are now available. The best advice for aspiring rule writers might be never to use any mechanism that has EVER appeared before.
Wargaming has now reached a point where revolutionary changes are again imminent. The credit belongs largely to Wargames Developments, which has provided a climate in which ideas can be swapped and cross-fertilised on a scale never possible before. I can't say too much at this stage, but a process of analysing battles from the top down rather than from the bottom up as was previously the case, plus a rigorous questioning of basic assumptions, is leading to sets of rules as different from anything that has gone before as was the original WRG ancient set. We hope to offer you bigger battles, a more realistic command structure, faster play, no casualty removal, no record keeping, the state of units represented in a visually realistic way by the figures themselves, and memorisable rules.
Returning to earth, evolutionary changes most often occur because of some player's efforts to exploit loopholes. This is not necessarily as anti-social as it seems. The gas companies used to add a smelly ingredient to normally odourless coal gas to make leaky pipes obvious, and the loopholes may serve a similar function. It is the rule writer's duty to block such holes before the majority of wargamers start to suffer. Other changes occur because of new research or new insights that show up areas in which the rules are not fully realistic. One disgruntled rival put forward the theory that since all history had already happened and is fixed there is no excuse for ever changing rules, which should have been right first time. Unfortunately, not all of it has yet been discovered or written. Rule writers are by nature perfectionists, so a new edition emerges every five years or so. Some players choose to ascribe this to commercial greed, but in my experience, the image of Torquemada is more suitable than that of Shylock.
The relationship between rule writers and players should be symbolic. A rule writer who deprives himself of player feedback by not providing a query answering service, or a player that prefers writing diatribes to magazines to asking the rule writer for reasons is missing out. Player attitudes to the rule writer can vary remarkably. Some see him as God, to be importuned with sometimes silly questions and relieve them of all necessity of thinking or, as a last resort, actually reading the rules, others as a villain, maliciously depriving their army of its historical right to a certain win without display of talent. Neither extreme is popular with the recipient!
An even less popular practise is taking my rules, and 'after a little research' improving on them, as was suggested recently in MW. It is my aim to produce the most accurate and playable rules I possibly can. I work very hard at it, with the aid of a research library of pushing 800 books, plus the resources of a university library and a first-rate city reference library. I now have about 20 years' experience as a rule writer and researcher. If someone thinks that after a 'little research' he is going to improve my rules, he is either a lot cleverer than I, or a lot more optimistic.
This is not to say that further valuable resarch is not possible. There are huge areas not touched on yet to keep generations of wargamers busy, but it will not be superficial research, reading a couple of secondary sources to become an instant expert. It will have to be thorough and scholarly, and concentrate on neglected original sources in foreign languages. What Ian Heath and Duncan Head have done, you too could do, but there are no short cuts. It's a task for enthusiasts who refuse to be beaten. If you can't spare the effort, relax and read the books of those who can.
Similarly, rule writing is fun, but difficult to do well. By all means try your hand, but start from scratch instead of trying to adapt someone else's work. That way you at least avoid having his mistakes as well as your own. The best method is to choose a limited geographical area and time period, get to know it inside out, and produce a rule set that works well within those confines. This may seem strange coming from the author of a rule set that covers the whole world and 3,485 years, but critics forget that the first edition covered only 1,500 years and less than a tenth of the armies it does now. Start simple. It will grow complicated whether you like it or not. Start complicated, and it won't work, and no amount of adjustment will make it do so.
When you have a playable set, you will need to test it. The ideal testers are intelligent, well informed about the period, more interested in post mortem discussion than turning a test game into a competitive one, patient, tactful and appreciative. Rare types, you may think, but not so. All you have to do is join WD.