Archive for Books

Hobby Games: The 100 Best

Hobby Games The 100 Best

Arrived yesterday. Edited by James Lowder (Green Ronin, 2007), it’s surprising no one’s done this before: ask prominent game designers to write about their favorite games. So you get Richard Garfield on Dungeons and Dragons and Gary Gygax (RIP) on Metamorphosis Alpha, Steve Jackson on Paranoia and Erick Wujcik on OGRE. Collectible Card Games, RPGs, Euros, and wargames are all represented, even some miniatures. Wargame titles include Thomas M. Reid on Axis and Allies, Tracy Hickman on Battle Cry, Skip Williams on Dawn Patrol, Alessio Cavatore on Empires in Arms, William Jones on Flames of War, Lou Zocchi on Gettysburg, Gav Thorpe on Hammer of the Scots, Uli Blennemann on Here I Stand, Craig Taylor on A House Divided, Dana Lombardy on Johnny Reb, Ted Raicer on London’s Burning, Chris Klug on Napoleon’s Last Battles, John Scott Tynes on Naval War, Mike Bennighoff on PanzerBlitz, Joseph Miranda on Renaissance of Infantry, Ray Winninger on Squad Leader, Lewis Pulsipher on Stalingrad, Douglas Niles on Terrible Swift Sword, Zev Shlasingle on Twilight Struggle, Sandy Peterson on Up Front, and R. A. Salvatore on War and Peace. Each entry is about three pages long, and, in a nice touch, they’re presented alphabetically by game, making it easy to look up titles.

Other writes include Richard Berg (on Plague!) and Ed Greenwood (on Thurn and Taxis); but no Richard Borg, Mark Herman, John Hill, or Charles Roberts. There’s also an afterword from Jim Dunnigan (it says little if anything new). It’s nice to see some very contemporary games like Here I Stand and Flames of War in there along with the old chestnuts. I frankly was expected a lot of puff pieces, but overall the quality of the writing is high. Here’s Winninger on Squad Leader for example:

Avalon Hill built its reputation in the 1960s with elegant wargames that asked players to route Ney off the Quatre Bras heights, to encircle Tobruk with Montgomery’s 8th Army, or to stave off Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow. When it exploded onto the scene in 1977, John Hill’s Squad Leader presented armchair generals with a new and unusual challenge—crossing a street. (288)

And a few lines later, “Thanks to John Wayne and Lee Marvin, it was relatively easy for gamers to translate the action of the game board into ‘real’ battles in their imaginations, lending the whole experience a lively, escapist quality. (By contrast, try to imagine exactly what a ‘2-to-1 attack’ on Leningrad looks like)” (288-9).

Exactly right. And here’s Jeff Tidball on Car Wars:

From the first release of the first edition, players were empowered to create and arm their vehicles from the ground up, and they had lots of options. They were free to obsess over such minutiae as the weight and cost of the individual rounds with which their recoilless rifles were loaded. And not for nothing: trading a bit of ammo for a point or three of armor could spell the difference between life or death in the arena! By the time the various—and definitive—boxed Deluxe Editions were released in the mid-’80s to early ’90s, the game burst with options, from flaming oil slicks to tank guns, to laser-reactive webs to fake passengers.

Such deep but structured creative opportunities—long before collectible card games made “customizable” a design buzzword—gave Car Wars the effectively solo game play mode of vehicle creation, and also a mode of “extroverted” metaplay—the sharing of car designs, fan to fan, via Autoduel Quarterly, club news letters, and, later, the Web. (50)

Really excellent, that. Recommended.

Comments off

Graphs, Maps, Hoplites

Lost Battles

Philip Sabin’s new book, Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, is now available in the US.

Sabin, who teaches courses in conflict simulation in the War Studies department at King’s College, London, seeks to use gaming to resolve discrepancies between the scant and often contradictory sources for ancients battles. Capitalizing on the long-running appeal of this era for both gamers and popular audiences, the book is essentially the presentation of his research model, along with the rules set and data needed to refight several dozen of the actual battles. Here’s a quick taste of the methodology:

What I aim to contribute to this and to similar debates is to set each battle much more clearly within the context of the general run of other similar ancient engagements, and thereby highlight which of the various conflicting interpretations are most in line with what we know from elsewhere. How long a frontage did other armies of similar size occupy, what sort of numerical odds was it feasible for armies like Alexander’s to overcome, how many war elephants did it take to sway a battle and what kind of cavalry manoeuvres were practical as the infantry lines engaged? To give a scientific analogy, one might imagine plotting the different interpretations of the Hydaspes as different x and y coordinates on a piece of graph paper. Without any further information, it is very difficult to tell which of the various plots is more valid, but if other battles are also plotted on the same paper, and if it is possible to evolve scaling principles to take account of differences that exist between similar engagements, then it may be possible to discern a ‘best fit’ line that will link up the majority of points and thereby make outliers stand out as unlikely exceptions to the general rule. (xiii)

From Sabin's Lost Battles

This work has obvious and important similarities to the discourse of modeling in digital humanities research (my day job), as articulated by Sabin’s colleague at King’s, Willard McCartry, as well as Franco Moretti in his Graphs, Maps, Trees—so, in order to help cement that connection, I’ve also opted to review Sabin’s book for Digital Humanities Quarterly.

Comments (3)

Kriegsspiel Rules Back in Print

A small British hobbyist outfit is publishing a reprint of Bill Leeson’s translation of the original 1824 von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel rules:


Pricey at £22 shipped to the States, but I’ll probably cave and pick up a copy.

More info here.

Comments off

Larry Bond’s New Site

Larry Bond, co-author (with some guy named Tom Clancy) of the classic military fiction Red Storm Rising and designer of the Harpoon series of naval wargames (on which episodes in the book are based) has a new Web site.

Comments (1)

Floor Games

Was out at my favorite local game store today, the Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia, where I gamed Marsten Moor, a musket and pike battle from the English Civil War (more on that in a separate post).

Despite a thriving scene with throngs of players having at board-, figure-, and role-playing games of all stripes, brick and mortar game stores get by these days by the skin of their teeth; so I always try to spend a little money after spending a part of my day under their roof. Today I restrained myself and rather than a game took home a copy of H. G. Well’s 1911 book Floor Games.

H. G. Wells, Floor Games

Now Wells is best known in ludology circles for a book he wrote a couple of years later, Little Wars, “for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girls who like boys’ games and books,” as the text is most obnoxiously subtitled, which introduces simple rules for playing games with toy soldiers. Floor Games is a gentler sort of book, though it’s not above references to “negroid savages” and other charming trappings of Empire.

Here’s how it begins, seeming to anticipate the idea of the magic circle several decades before Huizinga set it down in Homo Ludens:

The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor, and the home which has no floor upon which games may be played falls so far short of happiness. It must be a floor covered with linoleum or cork carpet, so that toy soldiers and such-like will stand up upon it, and of a colour and surface that will take and show chalk marks; the common green-coloured cork carpet without a pattern is the best of all. It must be no highway to other rooms, and well it and airy. Occasionally , alas! it must be scrubbed—and then a truce to Floor Games! Upon such a floor may be made an infinitude of imaginative games . . . (3-4)

The chapters that follow sketch out a series of games with titles like “The Game of the Wonderful Islands” (not so wonderful, perhaps, for the aforementioned indigenous populations, consigned by Wells to chasing wild goats around the hills or accosting the encroaching imperialists). Indeed, the unabashed colonialist trappings of those Edwardian spaces are unfortunately reminiscent of the premise of the highly successful modern Euro game Puerto Rico (Rio Grande), in which players are cast in roles that essentially amount to slave traders (excuse me, “plantation owners”). What all of the scenarios have in common though is an emphasis on improvisational play, emergent narrative, and building physical play spaces out of common house-hold materials (here, as in Little Wars, Wells exhibits a general disdain for commercial toy manufacturers).

As the introduction also notes, in several places he comes very close to articulating the principles of what we would today recognize as a role-playing game. It’s worth a look, at least for the historically-minded ludologist. More on my pike pushing anon.

Comments off

Achtung Schweinehund! (Just Published)

A correspondent sends word of the following, apparently just published:

Achtung Schweinehund!

ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is about men and war. Not real war but war as it has filtered down to us through toys, comics, games and movies. It is about blokes who spend their leisure time dressing as Vikings, applying transfers to 1/32nd scale plastic models of armoured personnel carriers or re-fighting El Alamein with stacks of cardboard counters. Take a journey into a darkened backroom where HG Wells, a secret service assassin and the Bronte sisters rub shoulders with men called Dave who can identify 376 different WW2 camouflage patterns; a world where the apparent polar extremes of masculinity – brutal violence and the obsessive desire to memorise code numbers and create acronyms – co- exist peacefully in an atmosphere rich with the hallucinogenic fumes of polystyrene cement, cellulose thinners and bright orange corn-based snack foods. ACHTUNG SCHWEINEHUND is a book for any man who can’t smell enamel paint without thinking of the Airfix 8th Army set, who remembers watching Rat Patrol, reading Battler Briton and playing Escape From Colditz. Or for any woman who has ever asked herself why the first thing most boys make from Lego is a sub-machine gun. 

I don’t see it on Amazon yet, but a UK outfit seems to have it in stock.

Comments (3)