Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Top Ten Wargame Rules

Over the last Thirty plus years I've played many a rule-set; most gamers would do, oft in search of the perfect set.  For some this results in a great many discarded sets, and I'm as guilty of that as anyone, but even amongst them, there are those that of their time were fondly remembered.

Gamers are frequently a fickle bunch and fashions move on, so that even rules you enjoy can get passed on for the latest innovation, trendy mechanic or new period fad.  I thought it would be nice to offer my own pick of great rule systems, along with the personal context.  My criteria for a great set have changed over time, and I've moved away from really technical rules to more elegant systems over time.   That said, some make this list for purely nostalgic reasons, which is hardly a surprise.

#10 Star Fleet Battles (1979)

More of a boardgame to some, and once described by one player I knew as 'more challenging than chess', Star Fleet Battles is easily the game with the biggest and most complex rulebook on this list.  Gradually sprawling to what seemed like many hundreds of pages of rules, the mechanics were actually fairly simple, but best taught to you by a player who already knew the game well.  It featured complex starship rosters for each vessel and usually you would command a single ship in combat.  The damage allocation system in the rules was much emulated and captured the style of battle damage in the TV series and latter films well.

Many an evening in my teens was whiled away playing SFB.  I never owned a copy, but was glad to participate in the games arranged by the older members of the club.  It's only a shame it is so humongous and complicated, and it has probably been superseded nowadays by simpler games with newer mechanics.

#9 Imperial Wars (1985)

Fondly remembered mainly because it was the first game for which I painted - and based - armies; 150 Zulu War British and 300 or so Zulus in 20mm plastic.  This was traditional fare for the time, with modified dice rolls, tables to consult for firing and melee outcomes, troop classes, stated ground and time scales, the works; all presented in about 32 pages of cheaply printed A5 paper with a stapled cover.

How all wargames rules looked thirty years ago

As a set of rules they worked well enough, but lacked much in the way of flavour, but me and my teenage opponent shared many games of death or glory beneath the harsh South African sun with these rules.

#8 Armati (1994)

Somewhere in the mid nineties, these were very big at the Grimsby club; which for most of the preceding time had seen ancients gaming dominated by home-brew rules.  A slim volume that made pick-up games and even - dare one say it - tournament play easy to arrange.  The rules were based around standardised units with three key states to govern their abilities, the command and control was complex and a little restrictive, but worked well.

I preferred Armati over DBM and Warhammer Ancients, but they were never as popular in the UK; so eventually they went fallow.

#7 Epic 40,000 (1997)

Another set I first encountered at the Grimsby club, via Martin and Steve.  I doubt I would have pursued them, at the time being dismissive of GW's 'children's games' (i.e. their Sci-fi games), had I not been given a box full to the brim of the previous generation of Epic models.  What turned out to be hundreds of pounds worth.  So I dabbled, and loved the rules; maybe the background rather less so, but you can't have everything.

Late red-period cover

It turned out that Epic 40k was a very elegant combination of land and air combat at a company level, with giant war machines and monsters doing battle.  The rules covered command and control well, whilst offering the full flavour of the Warhammer universe.  I stuck with the game into Epic Armageddon, but it was never quite the same and after my new found interest in GW games waned I felt no need to stick with the 40k world further.  Still a re-skinning  of the Rules for WW2 would be a fascinating idea.

#6 Axis and Allies - War At Sea (2007)

For a year or so I was really into this game, and unlike many on this list, I still have the system.  Designed as a board game it is a very simple and bloody rule system, it at least sped to the conclusion of an engagement in no time.  I amended it with a simple set of rules for table top movement and it added subtlety to play without slowing the game down.

Some would find the collectible format of the models an issue, but they never scaled to obscene prices, and being pre-painted they saved a lot of time.  The rules themselves allowed plenty of room for additions and modification; the only absolute criticism being the blatant favouritism of the rules in the early edition towards the American fleets - far too powerful, far too cheap.

#5 Battle: Practical Wargaming (1970)

Not the first wargame book I read, but probably the best of the earliest rules I found.  'Battle' was Charles Grant's foray in to World War Two.  By modern standards they were simple, but not so very simple that they didn't produce a satisfactory game; which they did so throughout my formative years, as the core of my own rules as a youth.  

Battle is part of my small collection of nostalgic classics purchased for more than they ever cost when published.

As an aside, I've tried more rules for World War Two than any other period, and few have fully satisfied.  Kampfgruppe Normandy had huge potential but was stillborn thanks to the lack of support (Battlegroup seems a natural replacement I've yet to play), I always found Rapid Fire too abstract, Flames of War too Hollywood/40k-esque, Crossfire too one-sided, Bolt Action too like Warhammer 40k with a frustrating 'Pin' mechanic thrown in, homebrew rules tending to focus on one aspect over all others...

#4 Saga (2011)

When it comes to innovative game mechanics, they don't get much cleverer than Saga's battle-board system.  A very straightforward game engine is enlivened enormously by having unique abilities for every force and a dice based system to control what powers may be used at any given time.  This all serves to make for tactically challenging and fluid game, where each nation has unique special tactics it can employ.

It's a game I still get to play regularly, and it covers one of my favourite periods of history in an accessible fashion.  It's just a shame it has to be so expensive to buy in.  Even Games Workshop can offer better value!*

Speaking of which, let's get to the top three...

#3 Warhammer Fantasy Battles (2nd Edition 1985)

Here is where my fantasy gaming began.  Having played mainly WW2 and Colonial games for several years, after reading The Lord of the Rings I got in to fantasy role-play games and resultantly, wargaming.   Second edition Warhammer was where it all started for me, and the A4 red box was full of all the inspiration a young mind needed.

At this distant time the Warhammer world was only part formed, and these rules were a real sandbox system, complete with creature creation rules and free form scenarios and battles.  I fondly recall My Orc War Bulls (howdahs on the backs of farmyard cattle), Wind of Death Necromancer and Troll army, plus of course the unlikely alliance elves, dwarves, gnomes, centaurs, halflings and men that made my army of good.  In time this led to my Dogs of War army trying to recapture those halcyon days!

The core mechanics of Warhammer were relatively innovative in the mid eighties but borrowed heavily from role playing games and to some seemed complex.  The core of the rules didn't change much over the 8 editions to date - but that may well change very soon.  If so successors like Kings of War stand waiting in the wings, but for now Warhammer despite the effects of countless revisions and innumerable expansions retains its place on this list.  My earliest encounters with it remain my fondest.

#2 AK47 Republic (1st Edition 1997)

Peter Pig have very particular views about the rules for their games.  They should be simple, they should involve a campaign or pre-game portion to every battle, and they should be fun.  AK47 was all of these things.

From the end of an era - ring-bound, hand printed on random paper

A somewhat irreverant approach to some fairly sensitive material perhaps was not for all, but as a contemporary take on the imaginations approach, AK47 Republic gave players the ability to portray real forces if they wished, but firmly planted itself amongst the sort of nations more likely to appear as the backdrop to an episode of the A-team or MacGuyver.

The rules involved a fixed number of units in each players army and a pre battle allocation of army points to the campaign system, which could bring benefits or hindrances.  In play you had little certainty about where the enemy would come from or how effective they or your own troops would be, and this only added to the fun.

The rules permitted endless creativity, and fun; something which the second edition of the rules, completely threw away.  A little bit of my heart broke, and when people shifted slowly the mainly playing the dry reprint; I knew I wouldn't be going back.  But for sheer pleasure, you couldn't beat the original.

So what tops the pile, well it's too close to call...

#1 Black Powder (2009) / Hail Caesar (2011)

I can't split these two, but they are essentially the same core system anyway, so I feel justified putting theme here together.  BP/HC are based on the same mechanics, simple ones once again, borrowed from GW's Warmaster and then tweaked a bit.  units have a number of attributes and may have special rules to build their particular character.  But the main, overarching, fundamental key to these rules is the ethos of play.  Gentlemanly rules for gentlemanly conduct. 

Sure, you could play them competitively, but really why would you spoil your experience.  Conversely, the rules suit scenario and historical play perfectly.  Again, it's an excellent sandbox system that allows for far more than just line-em-up-knock-em-down play.  They really cover exactly what I want a set of rules to do; elegant, flexible, easy to learn and memorise, fast to play, adaptable and fun.  There are other rules that cover periods within their vast scope in detail better but overall these tackle everything well enough for me; and for periods from 3000bc to 1900ad wherever there is a massed battle to be had, these are my first port of call.  If only there was something suitable for later periods in the same fashion.

Black Powder and Hail Caesar are just perfect, for me.  For me anyhow.

A couple of systems just miss the cut for various reasons.  See my note on 20th century rules above for a start.  Elsewhere, Lion Rampant is so new that with only two games of it under my belt it would be hard to call this early, Flintloque was a game I loved until it was ruined by a terrible opponent who repeatedly made playing it teeth-grindingly unpleasant, and Anima Tactics slips under the net as it is really more of a one-on-one Beat-em-up simulator than a wargame system.  Beyond those lie Kings of War, Battletech, Gorka morka, Force on Force, In the Grand Manner, The Grimsby Club Ancients and Samurai rules, Trafalgar, Warzone, Charge, and so on....

But there you go.  Thanks for bearing with us.  Which one's do it for you?



  1. Thanks for the list...... I guess I'll flag two.SAGA I think might be top of the list for me, although I have played many of the others on many occasions. Saga is really simple to learn but gives a great level of complexity and hard of course to master, not very historical but it is a skirmish game. blitzkrieg commander is my preference for small scale WW2' again based on the 40k epic style but easy to use and gives a realistic feel. I note no bolt action is that because you don't play it or don't like it ?

    1. Tried Bolt Action several times Matt, Did not get on with the crippling Pin system and various other flawed special rules. Ultimately it gave little to no sense of actual period tactics in play, so whilst I'd play them if requested I don't rate them at all.

  2. My favourite systems are: Hail Caesar/Black Powder, Bolt Action, Kings of War and In Her Majesty's Name. Pretty well covers all my various obsessions. :)

  3. Interesting. I think it shows that one mans drink is anothers poison. I dislike Black Powder and to a certain extent Hail Caesar. For me a ruleset should create an environment where the player is encouraged to use figures in the manner of the period. Black Powder doesn't do that for me and I largely base that on the treatment of horse v foot where the rules give the advantage to the horse with insufficient counter balance for the foot. Hail Caesar has similar flaws but given the nature of the warfare they are depicting they are not exposed so starkly and I'll live with them.
    Like you I do like the Saga rule mechanics. Simple, effective and one that the layer has to think about rather than just do.
    Could I pinpoint a favourite set of rules? Unlikely. Except perhaps my own WSS rules but even then I recognise that the mechanics and playability will always be changing as new ideas come along.