Friday 14 December 2012

Dungeons and Dragons - the return of Gygax

The late Gary Gyax was responsible for the ground breaking Dungeons and Dragons, the roleplaying game that spawned a whole genre of such games (and even laid the ground work for the next generation of computer based roleplaying games).

A new company, called TSR, is publishing a new magazine called table top role playing called Gygax (see ). The company is leg by Luke and Ernie Gygax, the sons of the late Gary Gygax. Assisted by some living legends from the world of D&D, such as the ex Dragon Magazine editor Tim Kask, the magazine is likely to be of high quality. However, what seems like a good idea is in fact a legal minefield.

Gary Gygax’s second wife, Gail Gygax (not the mother of Luke and Ernie) believes she and the firm Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro) believe they own all the rights to Gary Gygax’s name, likeness and intellectual property.

I suspect the next battle in the world of Dungeon’s and Dragons will be in the courtroom and not on the table top.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Comments on Reign of Missiles published by Foreign Policy Magazine November 2012

The game portrays the military aspects of the Palestinians in Gaza firing rockets against civilian areas of Israel and the Israeli military response including bombing civilian areas of Gaza. It is an original attempt to engage the wider public in a deeper understanding of the conflict by the vehicle of a simple wargame.

The idea of using a wargame is not original. Such as the 1910 Invasion of England game that aimed to demonstrate the vulnerability of England to a German landing. The implication of that game was a large number of lighter Royal Navy ships such as destroyers should be kept on alert in the channel ports to protect England from a surprise attack. (See Early Wargames Vol 2, to be published in 2013). However, the Reign of Missiles is almost certainly the first mass distribution magazine to use a game in this manner in modern times.

The game seems too complicated for public consumption. Perhaps it should have been designed to be less complex, such as those in the Decision Games micro series games. The latter are a ¼ of the size of a ‘quad’ game and play in about 30 minutes. Physically the map might have been better produced to print on an A4(letter) printer, rather than A3. More people have access to an A4 printer.

The game is focused on the military options, with the solo Israeli player using their assets to minimize the threat of the Hamas rockets produced by the game system. This seems to miss an opportunity for exploring the options available to both sides in terms of political manoeuvring. All the Hamas rockets in the world are not going to bring down Israel, as the missiles perhaps kill one person per hundred rockets. Conversely, the concept of an Israeli military victory is equally flawed; no amount of bombing, commando raids or surface to air missile defence systems are ever going to stop the low level of attacks by Hamas.

The game inadvertently implies that the Israeli’s are defending against a mindless opponent who is apparently striking out in a pointless and random manner. The game system is also based on a game about V1 attacks against England in the last days of the German Reich, but after consideration, I finally dismissed the idea of an implied or hidden cultural comparison by the game designer.

The game design seems to imply a particular military view of the conflict; but the Palestinian v Israel conflict is one of a contested discourse, with both sides having their own distinct view of recent history. To me a far more interesting (and controversial) game would be to make the game two or more players and involving each side having the full range of options available to them. Victory in such a game would be determined by the terms of the final peace settlement.  However, perhaps the world is not ready for such a game in a mass distribution magazine, at least not yet.

Despite the issues above, I salute those involved in getting Reign of Missiles into the public domain. At the moment, the game has added a paragraph to the never ending history of wargaming; if their original efforts meet with the success they deserve, they will add a whole new chapter to the history of our hobby.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Making a living from wargaming, a modern holy grail

Few people making a living out of hobby wargaming.

Many wargamers are outstanding specialists, who know a great deal about particular aspects of the most diverse hobby of wargaming. Some of these are fine rule writers, excellent at organising games, figure painters worthy of artistic accolade, great board game designers, clever model makers etc. A bold generalisation could be that practically any wargaming club in the land has some people who are very good at the hobby. The problem is that some have sufficient self-awareness to recognise their expertise, expect others to recognise this and then anticipate hobby to reward them with a living.
Games Workshop, like them or loath them, with a 2009 turnover of £61 million, are an outstanding commercial wargaming company in the world. They produce figures, rules, paint, scenery and fiction (based around their fantasy/ science fiction). In 2009, they reported a net debt of £11 million. By factory efficiencies (using cheap labour, such as paying staff in figures), reducing staff numbers (and age, making them below the minimum wage for ages 21+), moving shops to lower rent locations, they expected a profit of £14 million for the tax year ending April 2010. The decline in sales of Lord of the Rings figures almost finished the company.

Apart from Games Workshop, there are not many companies of 25 staff +, making money out of wargaming. There are a few board game companies, a few computer companies who produce products most wargamers would acknowledge as ‘proper wargames’ and many, many small companies jostling for entry level positions. 

The reason for the scarcity of major or even medium sized companies in wargaming are due to inherent characteristics of the hobby itself and do not reflect a lack of desire, enthusiasm or effort on behalf of various entrepreneurs who turn to the their much loved hobby of wargaming in an attempt to get rich. SPI found that its 80,000 Strategy and Tactics subscribers received 6 issues a year and on average bought 6 more games per year. It seemed that for most wargaming consumers, this was enough material to keep them happy for 12 months. In today’s terms, they would be spending a mere £200 to sustain themselves in their hobby. 

Wargaming armies are not that expensive, especially if one is willing to use plastic or second hand figures. Shopping around with £100 would get a good army (or more) at a local show. The problem for making money out of wargaming is that figures, scenery and rules have a relatively long shelf life. Once painted, with a bit of care, armies can be used, sold and resold many times. Some rule books become out of date, but many are still entertaining decades later. Well made scenery seems to go on forever. I am using a bridge which was painted by Charles Grant (the first one) from 50 years ago.
To participate in the grand hobby of wargaming does not need a huge expenditure to sustain it, there is a large second hand market, an investment in a set of scenery could be utilised over a whole lifetime. A single set of rules with a suitable army can keep a wargamer entertained for months.
The conglomeration of these factors creates a sector of business where it is very hard for entrepreneurs to make significant amounts of money.  Few people making a living out of hobby wargaming.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Friday 26 October 2012

Two new books in print

Two new books have just been added to the project.

Donald Featherstone's Complete Wargaming.

As with many of Donald Featherstone's books, there is a story behind the book. The first edition of Complete Wargaming in 1988 was an editorial shambles. The publishers wanted another wargaming book on their lists and so they turned to the author in British wargaming, who duly assembled some wargaming material that had not been used for his previous works. The publishers turned over the material to an editor who obviously knew nothing about wargaming and apparently nothing about history. The ideas, scenarios, rules and historical pieces were assembled into a random sequence that was based on efficient use of the page count; such as putting smaller pieces into the margins of the book wherever they fitted. Unfortunately, the lively correspondence between the author and the publisher as a consequence of this editing has not survived the passage of time. At some point, Donald Featherstone decided it was better to get the let the publisher get the book into print, 'wargamers, being a group of above average in intelligence and endeavour, would uncover the pieces of immediacy and use to them'. Upon reflection, this was probably the correct view.

Over twenty years later, the task of bringing order out of chaos and putting the chapters, sections and notes into a logical sequence fell to the editor with the assistance of Arthur Harman. As a result, the book has been completely restructured.

  Section 1: Introduction, Wargames Rules and General Themes/Ideas, Terrain, Forming a Wargame Club.

· Section 2: Scenarios and Period notes thereon in Chronological Order.

· Section 3: Reference, Bibliography, updated lists of wargame magazines, societies &c.

The second book is George Kearton's Guide to Collecting Plastic Soldiers 1947-87. Collecting toy soldiers in 1/32 scale (54mm) is a large hobby, in the UK, USA and other places. This was the book that was largely responsible for launching the hobby. The book is aimed at the collectors of plastic soldiers. 

Saturday 13 October 2012

The Top Selling Wargaming Books of All Time

The best selling wargaming book of all time is Donald Featherstone’s War Games. At 30-40,000 copies sold it remains at the top of the wargaming book charts. Its key advantage was being the first book which helped launch modern wargaming. 

The second book is probably Peter Perla’s Art of Wargaming. It related the development of the hobby to professional wargaming and contained many insights into how to use wargames for operational analysis and training. It managed to reach a staggering 15,000 copies by being a recommended text book on various American military training programs. 

It is very difficult to work out what is going to catch the wargaming book market’s attention in the future, but the popularity of two titles has surprised me. Paddy Griffith’s Sprawling Wargames is a ‘mish mash’ of a book, a key part of which is describing some very large mega-games for World War II. Paddy Griffith’s work seems to be having resurgence in the US at the moment and the book is being used for undergraduate history classes. They use it as an example to show the different perspectives of each side in war and lecturers are handing out rolls to various students, getting them to make a plan and then the lecturer arbitrates the final result. A sort of one turn free kriegspiel. Must be better than the standard history PowerPoint lecture. 

The other book is the Fletcher Pratt Naval Wargame. My wild guess is perhaps there are 5,000 regular naval wargamers in the English speaking world, but many non-naval wargames are buying it. The game is a lot of fun, suitable for multi-player games and speeds along nicely. The value of the game as a model of big gun naval warfare is a hotly contested subject between those who say it is a model of fleet combat v those who point out the million simplifications that went into the standard rules we can now play. I rarely have a week without an email (or more) about the Pratt game. 

My current thinking is the Pratt book sells as it is a narrative of a game being popular, being lost and now being found again. The controversy over the value of the game seems to be one many wargamers are happy to venture an opinion on. Wargamers like to superimpose a narrative on the sequence of events in their games, to make a chaotic event on the table top into a coherent account, perhaps the Pratt book sells because it is a just a good story and wargamers like a good story. 

My best guess is the Pratt book will, over time, outsell all other wargaming books. Of course, tomorrow a new book might arrive that will take the wargaming world by storm and I will be completely wrong.  

I asked some younger wargamers at my local club for their thoughts on the best wargaming book of all time. They answered it was obviously The Lord of Rings, it is full of Warhammer [Fantasy] battles and had some fantastic Dungeon and Dragons adventures in it. Perhaps they were right.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Book Review of Jon Peterson’s (2012) Playing at the World

ISBN 9780615642048

As the editor of wargaming books (some mentioned in the bibliography), I was asked by the author to do a review of this new book.

The book is Jon Peterson’s magnum opus (great work) about the development of roleplaying up to the 1980s when the roleplaying games started to spread onto various computer platforms. The chapters explore the detailed chronology of wargaming events prior to the publication of Dungeons and Dragons (D+D), the development of the medieval fantasy game genre, the origin of the D+D rules and what happened in roleplaying after D+D was published.

The source of much of the material is various archives of fanzines held in American, publically and in private collections. The list of games and magazines alone covers nine pages in the bibliography. The intellectual effort to pull together this vast plethora of material was a staggering undertaking.

The result is a substantial book at 698 pages, with the section on the development of wargaming rules and their influence in the development of roleplaying games having approximately 100 pages. Due to the length and depth of the book, it is no easy read. Some of the ins and outs of development are covered in great detail, for example the material shedding light and investigating the D+D clerics is eight pages. Saying that, the material is fascinating to anyone interested in the murky origins of roleplaying games.

The book delves into such mysteries as the issues of copyright and intellectual property for the creation of D+D (a most curious tale), the development of the magic user, dungeon settings and role of thieves in the game. It was new to me that Tony Bath, the UK wargamer who started ancient and medieval wargames and was well known for his Hyborian campaign, was given credit by Gary Gygax for the inspiration for his Chainmail rules.

The book also has a most interesting section on early wargames of Hellwig, Venturini, Reiswitz, etc, based on translations of the some of their pioneering work. Some of this work has never, to my knowledge, been available in English before.

With a book of this length, it is not surprising that I have some different interpretations in a few areas, particularly in the discussion about the history of wargaming. Donald Featherstone, one of the dozen or so people who made wargaming a popular past-time, is rightly given credit, but his main job was a physiotherapist. Perhaps I would have included more about the advent of live-roleplaying, where people borrowed the idea from historical re-enactors and started to play out D+D adventures in full costume and padded weapons, but exploring the origin of that subject would have added more pages to this book.

I can say with some certainty that no-one else is likely to write a book about the development of roleplaying that will ever match the scope and depth of this book. Whilst the book is targeted at a specialist audience, if a wargamer is interested in the origins of the D+D genre, this is the book. There is no other to compare. 

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Mystery of the dawn surge of book sales

I was a little surprised to get a modest surge of Fletcher Pratt Naval Wargame sales around dawn (UK time) one Sunday morning. I was intrigued.

It took me a few days to solve this mystery.

The Community TV Channel (a less well-known UK channel) used a cut down version of my Fletcher Pratt lecture as a filler. They edited the 50 minute Youtube talk down to 10-12 minutes.

Apparently the Open University, a distance learning institution, hires the space on some obscure channels for their course related learning programs. Between these programs, the channel uses 'fillers' from around the digital world. Hence, my lecture was seen by some people who were learning German/ Italian.

Clearly some of these people had good taste, as they bought a book on naval wargaming (and a few other titles).

Reveille Wargaming Show Sun 25 Nov 2012

I am putting on a participation game at my local club and show.

As the great explorer and daughter have been missing for some time, the 1920's British Empire has decided to launch a search. All that is needed is an experienced gentleman to command the airship and troops. A 45 minute participation game for 1 to 4 players.

I will also have a book stand with over 50 different wargaming books for sale.

Saturday 8 September 2012

What Really Happened in Ancient and Medieval Battles?

Will Whyler commented on this in the Guardroom pages of Slingshot in March 2012. Even the best documented battles have gaping holes in our understanding. For example the classic book, the Battles of St Albans by Burley, Elliott and Watson is a marvellous detailed account of the first battle of the Wars of the Roses in 1455. Taking just the first battle of St Albans, they have a wonderfully detailed account of what happened and where. By some fine battlefield detective work they have documented where each of the three assaults were launched against the gates/ walls of the town, where the last stand was etc. However, the why is less certain.

In summary, Salisbury and York attacked at the wall at two points against Clifford and Somerset/ Northumberland and while this was happening Warwick broke through at a less well defended part of the wall. What is the subject of conjecture is was this by chance or was it the plan. Did the attackers cunningly attack at two points to draw the less numerous defenders to face them, or was it just improvisation by Warwick. He saw a gap in the defences and went for it?

Having got across the wall Warwick did not turn left or right to take the defenders in the flank (which would have been the most obvious tactical move), but made straight for the defenders reserve around the king. Seizing the king effectively ended the battle. How did Warwick know the king was in the marketplace, as the pre-battle negotiations took place at the nearby abbey?

Even using the pioneering methodology of SLA Marshall, we do not understand more recent battles. Marshall, while controversial, attempted to understand battles by interviewing combatants as soon as possible after WWII, Korean and Vietnam battles. Other pioneering work by Paddy Griffith has opened a new window on 19th century battles; his method was analysing similarities in large numbers of personal accounts of battles.

Despite the best efforts of many wargamers who have spent years as amateur historians examining battles from the distant past, to me, the why in battles of the ancient and medieval world is nearly always conjecture.