Tuesday, 15 November 2016

It's Official - Points Systems Don't Work!

As you know I occasionally like to get controversial and raise a bit of debate and discussion. Straying into the great debates about competition and scenario based gaming is always an area angels fear to tread where fools rush in but I couldn't help but smile listening to the latest offering on the Meeples Podcast.

I have like others have been looking forward to the expected publication of 'Tabletop Wargames' by Rick Priestley and John Lambshead and published by Pen & Sword. I have a deep respect for all rule writers and game designers as, over the years of dabbling and messing about with other peoples rules, I have come to recognise the skill required to produce great rules.

However after reading some of the initial reader reviews about this book I decided to await more comment.

Thus it was with some disappointment that I listened to the Meeples show on Monday to hear my initial thoughts confirmed after they had reviewed their copy for the show.

It was somewhat amusing to hear the description of the chapter covering points based wargaming systems broken down into 'key points' and with the first one stating 'points systems don't work'.

If you think you can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the distance that is probably the sound of tournament organisers and suppliers of Mr Priestley's rule sets, and the many spin off systems that have evolved from the core design, all over the western world crying in their beer at this seemingly blasphemous statement. Only kidding but you have to see the funny side of this. Gerald Ratner and his jewellery business immediately sprung to mind.

There was some amusing stuff covering the 'rule of six' or something like it laying out the principles behind weapon ranges and movement rates (infantry move six inches) that create a holy trinity that allows everything to fit neatly into a six foot by four foot table without any concerns about time and ground scale.

On a more serious point though. I am old enough to have played wargame rules with points systems long before RP and Warhammer were doing their stuff, such as WRG for example. I guess the key thing for me was that in a casual game they were useful as a guide to comparability between forces and that was it, a guide only and these were the days before codex points systems designed to drive sales of miniature figures.

Not only that but I have played about using points to support campaign systems to create ratios of forces that meet on the map needing to be transferred to the table and then, with the result of battle achieved on the table, carried back to the forces on the map. Although I suppose in this case you could skip the points and use numbers of men instead.

So I guess my thoughts would be points systems can work, it just depends what you do with them.


  1. Which episode contained this review?

    1. Hi John, yes good point.
      At the time of writing this piece we are talking about episode 182 Gripping Beast and Swordpoint rules. The piece about the book comes up at the end of the review of hobby news.

  2. Something said. Not good. What was it ? Criticising Rick Priestley, are you mad ? You'll be telling me a six isn't a hit next....


    1. I know I am taking a chance here but I have been giggling to myself since Monday morning. If you think this bit is controversial, I left out the stuff about throws to hit, armour saves and tests to wound which all came about because Warhammer insisted that the rules not use a d10 but a combination of d6 that enabled multiple outcomes and the three test process was the result. Happy days, how we laughed!
      I take you had a great holiday. You missed a good game on Saturday with all those Gripping Beast beauties gracing the table and plenty of banter.

  3. Very interesting JJ - I will need to have a good listen to the podcast.

    1. Hi Carlo, it sounds that this book is not what a lot of us were hoping it would be, namely a look at the principles and techniques of rule writing, but more a look at how RP writes rules and mainly about the ideas he had a few years ago.
      There was no recommendation to buy a copy based on what was said. That said there were some interesting nuggets highlighted, such as why so many rule sets today do not have an index because producing an index is a very difficult and skilful job in its own right. Perhaps that will be a guide to how good a rule set is if it has an index and speaking personally I would suggest future writers ditch all the glossy pictures and hard back production look and spend the money on a decent index instead.
      Enjoy the listen. The Gripping Beast interview was good.

  4. For the casual game player points systems are fiddly and unnecessary to 'play'.

    As one becomes more experienced with game play it can become fun to delve into these details and work out some 'points' for comparison, balance or some such excuses.

    Over time I have come to ignore these, just as the battlefield commanders did not care if it were Jagers or Fusilieers or Militia that were put into battle, when the situation demanded manpower and all that was close at hand were the green Militia, they were what marched - sometimes they even did well. This is the constant challenge to outright point systems, no-one can effectively predict how well veteran troops who know muzzle-loading muskets would do with breech loading rifles the first time they go out into the field, indeed Isandlewana showed that pure firepower does not always win.

    The best game systems I have encountered have not tried to pick-apart all of the minutia and give them a point value, but rather did a good job of describing the actions of the units, morale and maneuver as well as firepower (which point systems spend too much time on) and combine them in a fast-moving tabletop experience.

    Sadly there is often too much math and record keeping in point systems to permit the 'fast-moving' part to happen.

    1. Very good points well made. I think the rise in prominence of points in wargames rules has been lead by the what I would describe as the "Warhammer" generation of gamers who have been introduced to the hobby via a codex led competitive gaming scene designed to sell figures to enable the creation of that unbeatable tabletop force.

      These ideas are an anathema in some quarters of the historical wargaming community used to playing historical scenarios designed to test the skill of the players in matching or outperforming their historical counterparts with no real thought about competition but simply enjoying the game for its cerebral challenge and social interaction.

      This tension in our hobby has only increased as the fantasy rule designers have branched off into historical game designing bringing along their concepts of ignoring scale of time and or distance, weapon capabilities based on their historical counterparts together with points systems to incorporate the principles previously described.

      I don't believe in black and white analysis and as with most things the pros and cons are shades of grey.

      Quite clearly the generation of Warhammer inspired historical games lean heavily towards gaming rather than simulation and I think should be seen in that vain.

      That said these games have attracted a generation of players into the hobby that might not have made the transition from dragons to tanks had it not been for the use of ideas that were familiar, points systems being one of them. These new players buy lots of models and terrain and only help make our hobby bigger and keep more traders in business.

      It's now up to previous generations of gamers to present other ideas and especially how to use points in more imaginative ways other than to build competition tournament style armies that bear only passing resemblance to anything you might read about in serious history on the subject.

  5. As you say, points systems can be a useful guide to quasi balanced force composition especially in a campaign setting. All of my rules have included them, in part because some gamers freak out if they aren't there. Having said that, I almost never use my own except in a campaign setting; the troops that are there are the troops that are there, either from a historical OOB or the way I designed the scenario.

    1. I agree. With points systems it really comes down to how you use them, and they are great to help construct a proportioned force based on historical precedence by giving units a weighting. As we agree the campaign situation is a classic one.

      I think the key driver for many players of wargames rules today is the obsession with the playing of 'balanced forces', and probably explains the 'freak out' reaction you describe.

      No historical commander went into a campaign seeking a balanced encounter, in fact it was exactly the opposite. A commander faced with an imbalanced encounter, which was the norm, faced different challenges associated with the context of the encounter and his appraisal of what could be realistically achieved with the force he had at hand or could expect in reinforcements. There lies the challenge in wargaming, namely asset management within a context and assessing how well you did given the circumstances rather than the sterile and simplistic perspective of a points win between two so called equal (although according to Rick Priestly we can't be sure of that)forces.

      I think that over time a more mature approach to the hobby leads many players to move from the former to the latter way of thinking about their games which is great, but the main thing is to encourage more players to get involved in the hobby from the start because that is good for all of us who are passionate about it.