Nothing new under the Sun

I occasionally find myself pondering over how many wargame rules there are in existence and how they constantly appear out of the ether like a politician’s golden promises only to disappear as quickly as they came into the forgotten pile of five minute wonders. The good ones, however, do stay and seems to be an individual’s quest to find the perfect set of rules from amongst the incessant deluge.

Richard Bird

2/11/20247 min read

Nothing new under the sun

I read somewhere, very recently, that there were in the region of over 19,000 different wargame rule sets. Why am I not surprised, even if true? Throughout my years of dipping in and out of wargaming, I must have used at least a hundred variants just in those eras of particular interest to me, as my bookshelves and storage boxes testify.

Of course, there are many different periods of history to pique our interest. Fantasy games are not part of my gaming repertoire, so I cannot speak of them, but the genre seems to have the same abundance of rules.

I have just over twenty sets of Napoleonic rules, twelve late 17th-century Marlburian rules, a dozen ancient rules, six English Civil War sets, and the list goes on and on. These are the ones I have kept for some reason. The hundreds of other sets I have sold on eBay.

So what is going on in my head? Why am I doing this to myself? And what makes me keep certain rules? More importantly, why do I subject myself to this incessant search for some holy grail of rulesets?

Period flavour: has it got the look and feel?

Anyone who writes rules must have a genuine interest in and thorough knowledge of the period and have a constant striving for knowledge and information. Research, in short,. This will only become clear upon reading the rules.

Does playing the rules give me a headache?

I suppose it’s like buying a car. Do the rules have a reliable engine? Most games are dice-driven; some are card-driven; and some are not. Then there are charts. Where do I begin? Let me start with a bit of history. I remember Newbury rules many years ago; they were highly detailed and well researched. I liked them for their complexity and, to some extent, flavour. They were overcharted, but I felt as though I was getting a simulation of the period I was gaming in. It was like a drug addiction. A game was rarely finished, and I always ended up with a blinding headache due to the endless rulebook referrals and discussions. Boy, was I glad to go back to work on a Monday?

Rule rehab got me off Newbury rules, but Wargames Research rules took their place; amongst several others, of course, the Holy Grail still needed to be found. ‘Wargame Rules 1685–1845' was and still is a classic, simpler rule that is headache-free for the most part. I still have them; they are unique and still have a decent amount of flavour, albeit covering a rather large generic area. I have noticed how many rulesets are based to a greater or lesser extent on them, and I find this interesting as other rule writers have built upon them, adding at the same time their own special ingredients and improvements. I refer to Elan de Luxe, Rebels and Redcoats, and the like, which are still available to download.

One of the big ‘keepers‘ is Fire and Fury; that engine is still going strong in 2024 and has been modified for several different eras. Just visit Wyre Forest Gamers and you’ll see. Other rules like ‘Age of Eagles’ have been developed from that engine. Numerous other rulesets were available, but none were considered genuine ‘keepers.’

The presentation

All the earlier rules were usually black and white, and if you were lucky, with a colour cover, saddle stitched (stapled), and pretty cheap to buy. One might get the occasional image or two to excite us.

Over the past few years, we have experienced a continuous rise in visually appealing productions. They are filled with pretty images of figures, plenty of ready-made information, and helpful guides for the period they are targeting. These are not particularly cheap to print or buy, but a PDF version can be sold and distributed online at a much lower cost to the purchaser. We are indeed blessed by simpler technology.

My big beef with both printed and PDF multi-page rulesets is a lack of an index. It is slack. Navigation of a document is important, especially in a PDF, which is commonly viewed on an iPad. It takes so little time to produce a Table of Contents that actually links to the pages they refer to, likewise an index. Cross referencing links in the text can be considered too, for example, a see also, see page. It is either laziness or a lack of know-how, but it isn’t difficult to do.

For newcomers to the hobby, these wonderfully attractive rulebooks are worthwhile, provided they have good background information on the period, which would include some history, uniforms, tactics, and personalities. A beginner's compendium in a way. The rules seem to be very simple for the most part and are certainly a hook that lures the newbie into the pastime., and for the beer and pretzels players with limited time at a weekend, they can be a godsend. I don’t use them myself but I’m fan of them for what they do for the hobby. Go no further than Warlord Games for joined up products, they have the figures, the rules, the uniform info, historical background, some terrain and lots of eye candy. If I were a newbie venturing into an unknown period to wargame in, I’d start there.

Like some of you, I guess, I am a sucker for beautifully painted figures in some of these ‘New Age’ rulebooks, and I admit to buying a few. I have since sold them on eBay, as after the dopamine fix had passed, often what was left was old ground and reminded me somewhat of my childhood games with my collection of Britain’s 54mm toys. There was nothing new here, and it lacked substance to satisfy an old bugger like myself. However, just like some earlier rules, I do have some ‘keepers’, namely ‘British Grenadier’ and ‘General de Brigade', as they fulfill quite a few of my criteria.

Are the rules innovative?

There are a few good men out there—some have passed, I know—that have not produced glitzy rulebooks but have produced some noteworthy and innovative contributions. These unsung heroes you won’t see on Youtube, but you can find their rules by Googling free wargame rules. Although it may require some searching, there are innovative and thought-provoking hidden gems waiting to be found among them. Can I say the same for the myriad of commercial rules? Yes, indeed, there are occasional gems, but they go by the author, not the publisher. One well-known publisher comes to mind, whose efforts would not satisfy any one of my personal criteria for a good commercial set of rules.

Many years ago I came across ‘The Perfect Captain’ website. It is sadly no longer active but the skeleton is still there which can give you a insight into the various rules. But you can no longer download the files from there. Having played most of these rules and thoroughly enjoyed them due to their own distinct period flavour. and innovatitive mechanics. There is good news, there is a Facebook group of the same name with over 900 members. and you’ll find most of the rules can be downloaded from there.

So innovation is certainly one of my tick boxes. The key is to think creatively while staying within the limits of historical facts. Studying historical events is a far better road to travel than inventing a mechanism that has no basis whatsoever for historical events, and misconceptions are still being repeated from one ruleset to another. Please don’t get me started on the gimmicky rules that the ‘game lawyers’ seem to enjoy. The rules should follow history, not history following the rules.

There is no Holy Grail

I don’t honestly think there is a Holy Grail of rules. I have calmed my dopamine trigger by writing my own rules for a couple of favourite periods, which I update and occasionally experiment with. I don’t force them on anyone, and I’m happy. It is an iterative process, and I will never publish them. In regard to other rules, I may tweak them to fit with my thinking if I cannot reconcile them with my knowledge of the period, but not before I have done some extensive research.

The number of rules out there is amazing, and it shows that the hobby is buoyant and growing. Having said that, there are hidden nuggets of gold in some of the legacy rules that are dismissed as ‘old’, and you’ll find similar gems in some of the free rules. It may be just me, but I see so many new rules that are just clones wearing this year’s hairstyle, and I have difficulty finding those that will give me that dopamine fix. However, I am finding them. It just takes a little more time to sort the wheat from the chaff, and in the end, it's all about what the individual wants from the hobby. No one is right, and no one is wrong.