[Theory Thursday] The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming

Part I – Dethroning Pedantry


There’s a story behind this, but it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that, toward the end of my time with Warmachine and Hordes, I had to go and hunt out the first No Quarter that I ever bought, just to make sure I remembered “don’t quibble about millimetres in a game of inches”. Finding it gave me a few slaps in the face and reminded me what a sinner I am. I have kvetched about #3 and #4, I will be dead before I cam capable of #7 and I have indulged in #8 a few times, admittedly because I’m either dying of heatstroke or because someone’s due a bye anyway and I’ve had three miserable games. Finding it also vindicated me. See #1, #6, #9 and #10.

When I started playing (2005, would you credit it?), Playing Like You Had A Pair didn’t involve sticking the lip of your base right-next-to-but-not-within the woods so you could have the bonus without the penalty, or hanging one laser-calculated millimetre inside someone’s melee arc so you didn’t take a free strike. We accepted that blast templates are awkward, that one careless buttock passing by the table could send everything whole inches out of place, and that these awkward tactile objects of ours mean we’ll never be perfectly precise in our measuring and placing. We got on with the business at hand and gave a certain benefit of the doubt provided that intent was declared and mutually understood as acceptable.

Nowadays it seems unreasonable to expect a quiet game of giant robot smackdown fun after work without precision-cut measuring widgets in a range of sizes, a grab-the-geometry scenario presented in layers of legalese, a laser line and a cry of GOTCHA! for when someone forgets exactly what one of the two hundred or so warlocks or warcasters in the game can do.

At some point in the last decade, the game I loved has been taken over by, and become engineered for, rules lawyers and pedants and bean-counters. I find the resulting culture toxic: it brings out the worst in people who are often perfectly pleasant away from the game. Back in the day the most hardcore competitors I knew were the most chill, at-the-end-of-the-day-it’s-just-toy-soldiers guys you could imagine, and I can’t imagine anyone from Komitatus revelling in the pedantry that characterises the modern game.

I don’t begrudge people their high-end BE! ALL! THAT! YOU! CAN! BE! HUT HUT HUT! playstyle, if that’s what gets them through the day, but for me to have my fun I need at least a few people to cool their tits and remember that wargames will earn no paycheques, save no lives, and herald nobody’s place in Valhalla.

Part II – The Apparent Hypocrisy of Nigel Stillman


Something similar was recommended to me in the Dark Ages of Warmachine (Mark I!) by a fellow from the Komitatus. “You people spend too much time and money on this shit,” he said. “Pick an army, pick a points value, build it, paint it, stick to it.”

When we discussed this over on the House of Paincakes, Stillmania was referred to as “a purist’s form of pick-up gaming”, and I think in this extreme form it is. The thing is, despite my general contempt for the pick-up form, this holds a certain weird appeal to me.

I think it’s the opportunity for closure. Malich over at Tabletop Gamers UK brought this up a while ago: when is an army finished? In the past my efforts have often petered out once the event which stimulated me to collect the force in the first place is gone, or once I’ve had enough of the league (or game system), or simply when there’s a lack of regular gameplay to encourage me. The last few models have lingered, either unpainted or forced for completion’s sake – and it’s always obvious when a model was forced above and beyond the normal level of “I don’t know if I like painting…”

Stillmania offers a rigid, unyielding sense of completion. It includes the deep and fundamental obligation to create Your Dudes and abide by them. It refutes the theoryhammer tinkering beloved of people who spend too much time talking about wargames on the Internet. It forces people to paint and to reject the czars of fashion. It is… compelling.

It is also not how Nigel himself seemed to end up doing things. When unleashed at article length the great Stillmaniac acknowledged playing smaller games with a champion and a handful of followers, and building the 1000-2000-3000 point blocks that were commonplace back in the Day. There’s an implied flexibility and nuance there which isn’t present in his principles as directly articulated… and it’s that flexibility, that sense that I have my 3000 point army and will pick units from it and make small variations for smaller games, that I’ve managed to achieve only once in my long career of wargaming.

It’s what I’m edging toward doing with the Chaos lads, though. I have a vision, with its core elements strictly defined, and other things not collected until they have ceased being nebulous and collapsed into something concrete. The list itself is tinkered with, thought about, adjusted as part of a process in which the collection grows and changes, but it will one day, probably when just shy of Apocalypse, be considered Done. There will be a collection to which no further models are added. There will be a List or two for games of various sizes and these Lists will only change when the rules on which they are based change. I am going to get this right, one more time.

Part III – Pick-Up Gamers Are Doin It Rong

Before any game, players must agree how they are going to select their armies, and if any restrictions apply to the number and type of models they can use.
— Warhammer 40K rulebook, ‘Choosing an Army’, emphasis theirs

I’m of the opinion that ‘any’ might as well read ‘every’.

We take this stage for granted: in the interests of a nice easy game we speed through this section and rely on unspoken standards, un-negotiated social contracts and undiscussed expectations.

This is why new players get flattened by melts who throw three Knights at them in their very first game. This is why tournament players wail and lament when they encounter an army that doesn’t use their preferred comp. This is why I reject the pick-up game: the idea that I and Joseph K. Meltsworth, who I don’t know from Adam, can whip out our respective 1500 point lists and have that be “good enough”, ready to play, sight unseen.

This is barking mad. I don’t know if Joseph has the same understandings of what is and is not acceptable as I do. I don’t know what he considers to be fluff, or cheese, or beard. He may have brought the latest donkeyflop laswing tri-Knight D-spam 30 warp charge psychic malarkey and I may have brought a handful of desperate Chosen tooled for melee and hiding out behind Cultists and shambolic vehicles.

Neither of us is Doin It Rong but both of us think the other guy is. We need to discover that before we begin preparing to play, not when we’ve already sunk time into writing a list and packed our case and come straight from work to get our game on. That way lies madness, disappointment, and Nerd Rage.

Fie on that noise. Skip the pre-game agreement and negotiation stage at your peril. Curate your experience. Don’t be afraid to say no to a game if you can’t agree on how to play it. No gaming is better than sad gaming and good gaming is better than either.

GW doesn’t develop its games to be played in the way that we normally play them. Look at all the occasions on which they describe building an army as “organising a collection” – you collect the dudes and then you fret about the army list and the Detachments and the Formations.

We have turned our back on this Way for valid reasons: an army we’ve planned is a collection and an expense we can  control, a pick-up game using by-the-book scenarios relieves us of potentially having to say no to someone. Nonetheless, when we play pick-up games, we are Doin It Rong in a subtle and insidious way that extends beyond the unwritten rules and assumptions that we all bring to pick-up games and which are far more valid on a subjective level.

I no longer drag myself down to the Friendly Local Gaming Store once a week for a ‘blind’ game against whoever’s there. I only really play wargames a handful of times in a year, by appointment and arrangement, in this more curated environment where we have to make agreements about things in order for the game to happen at all.

According to Da Roolz, this seems to be the Right Way. The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming, at least as Games Workshop envisages it.


Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

13 thoughts on “[Theory Thursday] The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming”

  1. Fuck yeah, PREACH IT! :D 100% agree with all that you’ve said Von- I’d like to give HorMachine Mk3 a go, but the competitive BS that pervades it just puts me off completely. Given that the DO NOT FUKKEN ARGUE OVER MILLIMETRES is in their page 5 (and is y’know, good sportsmanship to give it to someone anyhow, as models over-reaching from their bases make facing and base-to-base hard) but is not a part of the game itself. I gave up with the Cryx after the 2nd intro game as the people there were more about scoring easy wins than helping the noob.Plus for the tactical, competive game where “everything is viable” the list advice I got was “more Banes” and “more biles”.

    It’s why I’ve stuck with Malifaux despite one win to my name- I have FUN. Plus it helped that I faced up against one of the better players for my intro game (who’s a stellar bloke) plus had my local henchman assist me in rules and such. Made the experience so much better. Ok, one win from an actual game. I tied first for the last enforcer brawl ^_^ Pleased as punch despite that 1st is just a certificate. Must be a uni student thing to covet such documentation :P

    Not sure why “pick-up” gaming is a thing. Maybe it’s a US thing but all games through the groups I’m a part of go something like: Who’s up for a game this weekend? and responders usually work out army, points and such once someone is keen for a game. It’s organised and you sorta know what you expect. Pick-up gaming seems to be an excuse for Frivolous Cuttlefish (my new swear word replacements for general gaming use) to bring all the OP OOT spam BS that just should not be on the table. So many people fail to realise you’re playing the game so your opponent has a good time as well. Many a game I’ve just barely lost but those make or break moments are thrilling in a good way. I blame Orcs and Gobbos (mainly the gobbos, cuz gobbos) for not giving much of a toss whether I win or lose.

    I’m keen on the Death Guard release, gonna get at least one box of everything. Thinking so far of 1 box of cultists, 2 of reg troops and 1 of termies, depending on price of course but I’m gonna gradually do this army. Sure I say that with every failed project, but I’m gonna be doing 4 shifts a week once placement is done so there’s a day off to sit in a GW and happily paint some Nurgle goodness. Plus having done the painting course I want to take my time to experiment with textures such as corrosion patterns and leaking rivets, etc. Gonna pass on Morty as he never really struck me as a cool character. Garro for life, yo. Not sure what’ll fit in aesthetically from the current Totally Loyal Marines range, but I’ll see once the DG hit.

  2. Nice article!
    I resonate very much with the spirit of wargaming that you describe, though you have my sympathy that you only get to play this way a few times a year. We at Chicago Skirmish Wargames have been enjoying gaming in a similar way for 6 years now. We rarely head to an FLGS, preferring to meet every other week at members home and enjoy games on nice terrain with painted minis where the emphasis is on fun and fellowship rather than listbuilding and rules lawyering.

    In this environement we’ve been able to pursue whatever games we want (usually indie rulesets like Song of Blades and Heroes and Dragon Rampant) without being at all concerned with things like “Meta”, “List-building”, “Min-Maxing”, “Official miniatures” and the like.

    It can be tough to organize such a group, but I encourage players who are tired of playing the way that seems to be most common, to start their own groups and play the way they want too. Life is too short for un-fun gaming.

    Karl Paulsen
    -Chicago Skirmish Wargamies

  3. Huh, well I feel like I should maybe just partially quote my response to your recent post about the 8th edition 40k rumours:

    “This game (40k) is about immersion in the background, and the long haul creative project. They tell you that, up front, but people often don’t hear things they don’t understand. Your personalised, aesthetic collection can weather anything so long as it doesn’t violate the tone of the in-game universe too much. After a while you get a feel for what not to do… Orks should be ded krumpy. Imperial Guard should have commissars and standards and all the other stuff the internet tells you not to bother with. Because it looks cool, and the studio wants it to be cool, so they’re never going to get rid of it… Build and play to the fictional universe, not ours, and you’ll be right as rain.”

    By which I mean, people who play GW games with the idea of optimising to win pick up games are being unwise, to put it as delicately as I can. I can’t really comment on the culture of WM/H, but from what you say it sounds not to my taste :D

    @warlock, same in my experience: games in Australia seem to be by advance arrangement only. I always wanted to take advantage of the “International” component of the IHOP when it was at it’s peak, and do a series of informative, collaborative posts where we shared differences in gamer culture in our areas. Ah well.

    1. The culture of Warmachordes is what it is. I enjoyed it a lot when there were four of us getting into Hordes at the same time, the rules weren’t written in legalese, and the range wasn’t full of self-competing over-expanded stuff. There’s only so many “single wound Trollblood infantry” concepts you can have before some of them just flat out become uncalled for.

      Re: iHOP – why didn’t you you donk? Also, can we talk about the iHOP in the past tense yet?

      1. Several reasons I think. I did actually start writing a draft a couple of times, but then fell victim to intellectual insecurity. You know, who am I to speak for all Australians, I only know my local area etc. Of course I was as good as anyone else to write something like that, but that wasn’t the headspace I was in at that time unfortunately. Then there was the voice of progressive leftiness in my head whispering that the whole idea would just perpetuate false cultural narratives. Seems a bit silly to me now.

        Probably the best idea would have been to knock up some simple questions and we could have answered them in humorous article form.

        I’m pretty sure the House is a “was” now. There’s been no new author content for months. I suppose there’s always the possibility for a glorious revival, but I wouldn’t want to attempt such a thing unless there were several authors committed to making it stick. Anything less would a waste of time in my opinion.

  4. Nice article.

    I’ve started asking people before pick-up games (mainly of Malifaux since that is my poison of choice) what they’re looking for, and try to start a discussion of expectations before we even begin picking crews. So far it has been successful, both for taking me out of my comfort zone (e.g. someone asks to face an oddball combination I wouldn’t normally consider) and for allowing a good learning opportunity where our experience levels differ.

    In tournament games I offer an honest review of what my pieces do if the other player isn’t familiar with them. I’ve noticed a school developing, mainly in Warmachine, where the idea that it would be preferable to just silently hand over all your rule cards and let them work it all out from first principles is somehow preferable to a conversation. Personally, I never seem to be able to learn anything from reading the rules of a model and can only appreciate what it can do when at the point when it is actually being done to me. Having said that, at least in the UK the Malifaux tournament scene seems to be considered much more approachable than the equivalents for some other popular gaming systems.

    1. Talking people through pieces has always been par for the course for me, but then I’ve never seen the point of the “gotcha!” game where you surprise people with some p-p-p-POWER COMBO they won’t know about unless they’ve spent hours combing the forums and every morning “dojoing” the latest hawt list. I mean, “dojoing”! It’s absurd. That’s the point where I knew a strange mentality had taken over. It had been simmering away since the beginning, the overlap between gamers and martial arts is closer than I find strictly comfortable, but I had managed to avoid the tiresome fucks by spending time with systems marketed to people who have sex and drink whisky and know how to laugh.

      That turned a bit sneery, didn’t it? Anyway: I’m used to teaching people how to play games so the idea of surprising them with the mechanics is somewhat alien to me. Telling them how a thing works and then doing it once so they know how to defend against it, fine, but not sitting there in po-faced silence, offering cards or one word answers.

      Way back when in the dawn of time I wrote those Gaming Curriculum articles and one of them was about learning styles. I’d quite like to dress that up and republish it, even if I no longer subscribe quite so extensively to the ideas I was taught in teacher training, and even if YorkNecromancer is doing that whole “highly cultured teacher and gamer who occasionally writes fiction” thing a LOT more effectively than I am these days…

    1. My usual source for such things is Realms of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned. You’ll need Slaves to Darkness for a full account of the mutations table and so on. Both are on Scribd, or if you don’t have a Scribd account, I can hook you up.


      1. If you could, that’d be awesome. Scribd doesn’t like me unless I jump through hoop or pay an outrageous amount for a subscription when i just want the one-two pdfs >.> That being said, I’d buy them in a heartbeat if GW made them again. Love me some physical copies.

        Once Shadowaaaaghs Armageddon’s rules drop by themselves, I might give it a look in to use as a means to scale up the DG army when they are in turn released.

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