Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thoughts on the hobby and my top ten wargaming books

One of the appealing things about wargaming as a hobby is that there are so many facets to it.  For starters, there is the purchase of figures, rules and boardgames, and the research that attends these activities.

As an aside, I don't know about others, but I can spend hours looking at figure lines and still come away without having come to a final decision on whether and in what quantity to buy.  If that is not in itself pathetic, knowing that I will come back and do it all over again three months later certainly is!

Then there is the late night painting or prepping of figures and the weekend modelling of terrain.  And when you are tired of dragging a brush over lead or plastic or cleaning up after experiments with flock, white glue and sheets of polystyrene, there is the reading and testing of rules to turn to, the checking of details online, the first tentative steps solitaire.

And there are still other interesting distractions: the writing and reading of blogs, discussions to follow on internet forums, the creation of rules, variants, scenarios and campaigns.  There are reviews and battle reports to compose, painting, washing and dipping methods to chronicle, opportunities to submit articles to hobby journals or games magazines, and for those of a more artistic bent there is also game-related photography to pursue.

In short, if you've had a gutsful of one thing or another, there is always something different you can turn to without needing to abandon the hobby altogether.  The chances are that concentrating on something else for a while will freshen you up, recharge the batteries, and perhaps provide a new idea or two.  If you've done as much painting as you can reasonably handle, it can be a fine thing to play a few games; if you have no clear and present enthusiasm for gaming, you can write a blog post, think about your next army, research figures, browse the internet forums or pick up a favourite book. 

In fact, even if other aspects of the hobby can temporarily lose their appeal, I find that the last mentioned, books, never do.  Whereas I can go for long stretches not wanting to look at a paintbrush or a prepping file, I visit the wargaming library at least once a day, and no matter how jaded I might be feeling there is always something there to spark my interest.

My library here is by no means extensive (most of my books are in New Zealand, unfortunately!), but there are ten books in particular that I find - for various reasons - to be essential.  So what follows is a list of those ten canonical texts.  These are the ones I'll pick up before bed, take on the train, put into the travel bag or smuggle into the toilet (that's right - don't borrow any of these books from me!).

- Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars, by Duncan Head.

This one is chockablock full of essential information for the ancients wargamer.  Army tidbits, tactical details, references to primary sources, battle overviews and - most useful of all - drawings and information on the various troop types wargamers need to know about and paint.  I don't know how I managed to get by without it for my first few years in the hobby.

Rome first met elephants when fighting Pyrrhos in Lucania, and these "Lucanian oxen" made a great impression at Heraclea.  Trying to work out how best to deal with them, Rome first experimented with gimmicks, like the wagons used at Asculum (see figure 180), squealing pigs, or incendiary javelins.  These were no great successes, the most effective weapon in the Pyrrhic wars being the javelin fire of the camp guards at Beneventum.  Regulus at Bagradas tried to meet the elephants' charge with a deep formation in the hope of standing up to it; this failed miserably.  Thereafter, Rome reverted to relying on javelinment, who wounded and picked the beasts.... (p.61)

- Lost Battles, by Philip Sabin.

As an ancients enthusiast I can pop this book open at any page and spend a profitable ten minutes reading around it.  It's usually a first port of call when I want to research a particular battle or think about rules issues.  As in indicator of just how tragic I am, I have three copies of this book situated in various strategic locations throughout the house and school.

Although Xenophon (Hell. VII.5.21-2) does emphasize how surprised and unprepared the allies were in the face of Epaminondas's advance, their established blocking position means that it is better to give them the first move as at Leuctra.  Epaminondas can then focus his attack where he chooses, and use his superior command to reach the centreline first while the allies are still coming back into their battle positions from the wood where Hammond suggests they may have been sheltering from the sun.  As at Leuctra, the Thebans concentrated against the ....  (p.123) 

- Wargames, by Donald Featherstone.

One of the first wargaming books I read when I got it from the library as a youngster.  I don't have Charge! or The Wargame (yet!), so this is a placeholder for the classics of that earlier era.  It was given to me by a friend, and out of respect for him this one does not go into the toilet with me, just in case he ever wants it back!

It must be confessed that the question of how to fight a successful action with natives against disciplined troops has yet to be completely solved by the writer.  One method allows the natives to move a longer distance than the troops, or to time the moves and have the disciplined troops on movement trays so that they can move as one whilst the natives move individually in a rabble.  Another means lies in having low morale ratings for natives when the situation arises that the morale of both or either is in question.  A compromise can lie in having....  (p.59)

Honourable mention for Scenarios for Wargamers, also by the Don.

A Guide to Wargaming, by George Gush with Andrew Finch.

I found this in a second hand shop in New Zealand a few years ago and it was a score.  It contains a history of wargaming, numerous sets of rules, and a discussion of approaches to game design that are still relevant today.  If I had thirty minutes to evacuate the house this is one book I'd save.

A New Era

Reverting to the miniatures game, the next 'great leap forward' undoubtedly came on a Saturday evening in summer 1957, when Southamption physiotherapist Don Featherstone read an article in his local paper about a certain Tony Bath, a local wargamer unable to find an opponent.  Don had played games based on Little Wars as a boy before the Second World War.  He now, on impulse, fixed a meeting with Tony....  (p.31)

- Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome, by Phil Barker.

As with Duncan Head's book, this one is filled with very useful information about the period and its actors.  Again, the real gems are the illustrations and notes on troop types.

44, 45, 46 and 47.  Roman Infantry Officers

Up to the 1st century A.D., Centuriones may have been dressed and armed pretty much like their men except for their crest and greaves, but there is no definite evidence to confirm this.  From then on, they seem to have been allowed some latitude in dress and armour, as a number of different outfits are depicted on monuments.  Alternatively, this may represent differing regimental practices.  (p.77-78)

Honourable mentions also for Armies and Enemies of the Crusades and Armies of the Dark Ages, by Ian Heath, and also published by WRG.

- The DBM army lists, by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott.

First-class resource for information about armies.  If I'm thinking about beginning a new army this is the first place I turn to.  You get proportions of troops, an potted history of the army and a good starting point for further research.
This list covers the period of the initial revolt against the Seleucids until the death of John Hyrcanus.  The varied classification of the guerillas reflects the initial difficulty in obtaining an adequate supply of weapons, and the rapid shrinking of the army from 3,000 to 800 men on sighting the enemy at Elasa, contrasted with a generally high state of morale fostered by religious enthusiasm.  The course of other later battles implies the presence of more solid troops.... (Book 2, p.39)

Honourable mention to other army lists such as those of Field of Glory, Armati, DBA, Warmaster Ancients, Warhammer Ancient Battles and Hail Caesar.  None of them quite compare to these though, to my mind.

- Ancient and Medieval Wargaming, by Neil Thomas.

This is another modern classic that harks back to the golden age of wargames publishing.  Containing simple rules modified for different periods, army lists, battle reports and information about figures, it is a good starting point for those new to the hobby or for veterans who like to take rules sets apart and put them back together again after their own fashion.

With the onset of turn 6, the stunned Saxon general had more decisions to make.  Having just eliminated its opponents, one of the Saxon nobles (unit 2) had three options.  Firstly, it could head for the edge of the table, and exit on turn 7.  This option was rejected on the basis that to do so would expose its flank to cavalry assault....   (p.193)

The Gallic War and The Civil War, by Caesar.

While these were not written specifically for wargamers, we could be forgiven a certain solipsistic conceit, as it's impossible to go two pages without finding something of immediate import for an ancient wargamer.  It's not an exaggeration to say that every time I pick up Caesar I find something else I would like to underline, highlight, or shout about on some internet forum.  Absolutely essential.

But the Roman citizens quickly defended themselves by constructing wooden towers, and since their resistance was weak because of their lack of numbers, and they were enfeebled by the many wounds they suffered, as a last resort they set free all the adult male slaves, and cut of the hair of all the women to make artillery.  (The Civil War, III.9)

Honourable mentions go to Arrian, Appian, Polybius, Livy, Herodotus, Xenophon and Thucydides.

- Simulating War, by Philip Sabin.

The newest book on the list is likely to be regarded in future as a classic of the genre.  If you want to learn more about studying and designing wargames, this is excellent.  It contains a nice mix of theory and practice, and includes eight simulation games that illustrate some of the principles Phil Sabin espouses.

The drawbacks of a simple combat resolution system such as the one I have just outlined are that its outcomes are rather unidimensional, it can involved lots of die rolling and it often embodies the same unrealistic assumptions as in Lanchester's flawed model (which the system here would mirror faithfully if continued over several turns of fighting).  Hence, most wargame designers instead construct one or more 'combat results tables' (CRTs) to streamline resolution procedures and to give them the flexibility to....  (p.93) 

Honourable mention goes to Board Wargaming, by Nicholas Palmer.

- Warfare in the Classical World, by John Warry.

An illustrated history of classical warfare that is good as a surprisingly detailed overview of the period.  I don't always agree with all its conclusions, but it is a very useful resource despite that.  It has plenty of information about particular campaigns, tactics and equipment which have proved of great help at various times.

Punicus is the Latin for "Carthaginian".  The first Punic War was provoked by those perennial troublemakers the Mamertines who, based on Messana (Messina), appealed to the Carthaginians against Hiero II, the Greek king of Syracuse.  Their object achieved, the Mamertines wished to be rid of the Carthaginian garrison which had protected them, and they appealed to Rome.  (p.114) 

So, there we have them: the ten most essential books in my wargaming collection.  I'd be interested to hear what readers' top wargaming books are, so please feel free to talk about yours in the comments section - and many thanks if you made it this far!


  1. Great list - I only picked up "Armies of the Macedonian. . ." earlier this year, after years or trying to get one for a decent price. A few on your list I haven't read though, I'll have to look some up.

    Btw, I'd read my Herodotus or Thucydides long before I'd go through Caesar again (ah, childhood trauma!)

  2. A great list, I have many of those! Have you read Soldiers and Ghosts by Lendon? If not I think you might enjoy. Cheers, Simon

  3. Ah, Latin class, Vlad? By the time I was at school they'd dispensed with anything like Classical Studies so I don't have the associated trauma! But certainly, Herodotus and Thucydides do the same trick :)

    BRB - Yes, I do have that and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think he might be over-egging the pudding a little, but it's challenging and thought-provoking and well worth a read.


  4. A thought provoking list. My WRG "Armies...." books vary by priority depending on what period I am focusiing on, so the Armies of the Ancient Near is is my current indispensable one. I too love the DBM army lists. I don't really have any priority books such as "Charge", "The Wargame" etc. I started in the last 70s with gaming. I had read quite a few of them, but none sit with me as a top 10. I had not heard of "A Guide to Wargaming" so I hunted o the internet and have a copy coming from France for $15.00 (including shipping). My favourite of sevaral years for battle descriptions is Montagu's Greek and Roman Warfare - Battles, Tactics and Trickery. Lastly, the book I would grab as I left the house is The Penguin Atlas of World History Vol 1. A small sized book but packed full of information, always love dipping into it. If time, i would also grab The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Both these latter two have European history at 50-100 year internals, one side of a page a map, the other a brief description of what happened the since the previous map.

  5. Thanks, Shaun - I'll look into that Montagu book and also the Penguin atlases.

    Completely agree regarding the WRG books: at present I haven't really got far beyond the classical era, but the Dark Ages and Crusades do await me!

    Thanks for such an thoughtful comment. Much appreciated.


  6. Luke Ueda-SarsonJuly 2, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    Wow, I've never seen Warry in that cover before. Nowhere as near as good as the original!

  7. Hi Luke - I've not seen the original cover, but it sounds as if I should try to keep things that way ;-)

  8. Very nice article, just what I needed.


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