Wednesday, 15 June 2011

My ‘guiding principles’ for writing wargames rules

When I wrote yesterday’s blog entry about the origins of my PORTABLE WARGAME rules, it set me thinking about the various inputs – for example, wargame rules written by other people and late-night discussions at COW (the Conference of Wargamers) – that have influenced their development.

I did try to draw up a ‘family tree’ that showed how my PORTABLE WARGAME rules were ‘descended’ from ‘Return to New Stanhall’ via SCWaRes, the RED SQUARE games, TABLE TOP BATTLES, and Joseph Morschauser’s ‘Frontier’ wargames rules … but the diagram showed so many inter-relationships that it ended up looking like a spider’s web and being almost impossible to follow.

What did emerge was a list of ‘guiding principles rules’ that I use as a guide when I write wargame rules. These are:
  • Fred T Jane’s ‘Reality’ or ‘Primary Rule of Wargaming’
  • Golf’s ‘Spirit of the Game’
  • Joseph Morschauser’s ‘Dice’ rule
  • My own ‘Discard rule’
By sticking to these basic guiding principles, I find that I can write wargame rules that satisfy my needs, and that I hope satisfy the needs of others.

Fred T Jane’s ‘Reality’ or ‘Primary Rule of Wargaming’
This states that:

‘Nothing can be done contrary to what could or would be done in actual war.’

It is the first rule that is quoted in Fred T Jane’s NAVAL WAR GAME rules, and he considered that it should be the guiding principle when dealing with any disputes that might arise during a game. That is as true today as it was when he wrote it in 1898.

Golf’s ‘Spirit of the Game’
This is adapted from ‘The Rules of Golf’, as published by the Royal and Ancient (R&A) Limited. It states that:

‘Wargames are played, for the most part, without the supervision of an umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual players to show consideration for other players and to abide by the rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the wargame.’

I consider that this rule should be made into a banner and hung up where it can be seen by everyone attending a wargames club or show, and that people who cannot or will not abide by it should be treated as pariahs (Rant over!).

Whilst this is not a true 'guiding principle' when it comes to the process of designing and developing wargames rules, I always have it in mind as this is the spirit in which I want my wargames to be fought. I used to have this statement at the beginning of all my wargames rules (along with Fred T Jane's ‘Primary Rule of Wargaming’) ... and I think that I might well include both in all my future ones.

Joseph Morschauser’s ‘Dice’ rule
Joseph Morschauser had a simple rule for adjudicating events that were not covered by a specific rule. It states:

‘Let the dice decide!’

Simply put, if two players cannot resolve a situation that arises during a wargame to their mutual satisfaction, then they should each throw a dice, and the winner’s ‘solution’ prevails. Morschauser considered that time spent arguing about what should happen was time wasted, and that the important thing was to get on with the wargame and argue afterwards.

My own ‘Discard rule’
I have heard other members of Wargame Developments refer to this as ‘Cordery’s Rule of Wargame Design’. It states that:

’If players consistently ignore a rule because it does not make sense or hinders the flow of the wargame, then the rule should be discarded. If players do not notice that it has gone, then it probably should not have been there in the first place.’

This has stood me in good stead over the years, and has enabled me to ‘strip out’ lots of unnecessary rules and verbiage.

These are my ‘guiding principles’ for writing wargames rules. I wonder if other writers and developers of wargame rules have similar ‘guiding principles’?


  1. These really "hit the nail on the head". The first three are also applicable to any wargame being played. I have used the "let the dice decide" when umpiring a game - each contender states their case, then throws dice to determine who wins the argument. But I recently discovered "matrix" gaming(someone has to be the last to know). While my club wouldn't attempt a pure matrix game-I tried, I apply the principle to adjudicating disputes rather than just "let the dice decide" - it gives much better outcomes and elimnates the sleaze of a gamer who argues vehemently from a bad position hoping the die roll will save him.
    Dick Bryant

  2. Maximus Gluteus (Dick),

    I suspect that a lot of people who write, develop, or run wargames follow similar 'guiding principles' but I have never seen them written down anywhere; hence the topic of this blog entry.

    Matrix arguments are an excellent way to resolve situations if you have players who can put forward reasoned arguments to support their point of view; if not then 'Let the dice decide!' is a much better solution.

    All the best,


  3. Max

    Sorry, you are not the last to know, now I have to find out too..


    Excellent, thank you.
    My resurrection of the past keeps hitting blank walls (age related?) or "just what the hell did I do there?".. so this is helpful


  4. Arthur,

    For years I bashed the good old Matrix argument drum ... and was treated as some sort of weirdo by some war gamers who just could not 'get it'; now it has become part of mainstream wargaming (whatever that means!).

    I am glad that you found this particular blog entry interesting. It gave me the opportunity to actually place on record the parameters I use when designing wargames rules. I can then refer back to it when I am in my dotage.

    All the best,


  5. Ross Mac,

    I know some people who would argue that I have - and never have had - any principles ... but I do try to stick to these!

    All the best,


  6. Bob,

    Thsnk you for the great post. I'm not(often) a rules writer, but I offer two suggestions up for your comments:

    re:1 Fine if all players are agreed on what was/is/will be possible in war, a bit more problematic if they do not.

    re:3 Perhaps if the rules of the game allow a situation of disagreement which can only be resolved by the throw of the dice, they are not really finished yet?



  7. JWH,

    I understand both your points but I think that the 'Spirit of the Game' covers them. If players cannot agree what 'could or would be done in actual war' and they cannot accept that the simple throw of a dice could be used to adjudicate the matter, then I would consider that they are not abiding by the ‘Spirit of the Game’.

    I belong to an international non-wargaming organisation where you are told when you join that if you are at variance with another member over some matter, you should sort your differences out before you both go to the meeting, and that if you cannot do that, then one of you should leave.

    I take this same attitude into my wargaming, and I would rather not fight a wargame than have it degenerate into a series of arguments. I have seen that happen … and it is not something that I want from what is, after all, my hobby.

    All the best,


  8. Most excellent rule principles, sir. Yes indeed, most very excellent . . . and I thank you for posting them.

    -- Jeff

  9. Bob,

    Thank you for your comments. I had intended the emphasis of my points slightly differently however, as not so much how the players should play the game, but how the designer should design the game. Naturally, when one plays a game then if a problem arises then a die or coin will easily settle the matter if a short conversaion does not - but if you see this happening to your rules as the author, do you see that as a gap to be plugged or a case of "c'est la guerre"? This could be either in the case of the players unknowingly doing something contrary to the way a particular war was fought, or in the case of a situation arising which hadn't been considered by the rules writer.

    I feel I haven't expressed myself very well, but hopefully you get the gist of what I mean?


  10. Bluebear Jeff,

    Thanks for the very complimentary comment. As I have said before, I do my best.

    All the best,


  11. JWH,

    First, an apology. I re-read my earlier comment ... and it came over sounding rather pompous, which was not my intention.

    Now that I have a clearer understanding of what you originally wrote, I must agree that if I see something that is patently not right – either something that is allowing players to do something that is horrendously and/or historically incorrect or a mechanism that is too complex or produces ridiculous results – I will note it and make changes. These might be immediate (particularly if it was spoiling the game for the players) but are more likely to be done afterwards when I have time to develop a solution that works within the basic framework of the existing rules. I long ago accepted that I was never going to produce the perfect set of wargames rules, but do I try to get them as near prefect (or finished) as I can. That said, I do find it difficult not to continually tinker with any ‘finished’ sets of wargames rules, especially in the light of events that take place when fighting battles with them!

    Play-testing is a key element in the development of any rules, but one has to be careful not to set up play-tests that will not challenge them. Play-testing by oneself is useful to check if mechanisms work but the acid test is to give the rules to someone else to test without you present. Some years ago I took part in a number of play-tests of a set of wargames rules for the ‘modern’ period, but the writer of the rules we were testing was always present and constantly clarified anything that we did not understand. When I took part in a play-test of the same rules in his absence … we found that we could not get them to work. Too much was in the writer’s head, and not enough was on the printed page. This taught me a valuable lesson, and it is – I suppose – another of my ‘guiding principles’ (although I did not include it in my blog entry).

    My PORTABLE WARGAME rules have been play-tested by a number of people, and their feedback has made me reconsider certain aspects of the rules and some changes – some drastic and some minor – have resulted … and the rules are much better as a result. They will never, ever be truly ‘finished’ … but at some point I have to stop developing them and start using them.

    All the best,


  12. I'm just getting into wargaming but I did pen and paper RPGs for years and I ran into something called the wargamer solution

    (Which is the high roll rule above)

    We used it not when rules were unclear but whenever we couldn't remember exactly what the rules said and didn't have access

    I've always wondered if it was actually a thing lol so thanks


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