Books on Games

Those of you who have bothered to read my wants list will know that as well as being an avid devourer of games, I also enjoy the connected areas of books and magazines on gaming subjects. In fact, I guess on balance I spend as much time reading books or game rulesets than actually playing them. This is partly because there are too many games and too little time, but also because there is a seemingly endless appeal in reading and re-reading these related works.

My first book on games was David Nash's Wargames (Hamlyn), a little known paperback lent to me by a fellow pupil who did weird things with model soldiers in a Chingford church hall. This would have been the early '70s and discovering figure gaming was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune given that my hobbies were basically a mix of reading, history, football, Tamiya models and riding my Chopper. Having bought my own copy I read it until the pages fell out and from then on my life seemed to revolve around hunting for and painting Airfix Napoleonics and turning up at the club to get trounced by unrealistic armies. But in those fun-filled days, no-one really cared.

Inevitably, being a semi-swot, I checked out the local reference library and found most of Donald Featherstone's books and then, one memorable day, the Airfix Guide to Napoleonic Wargaming (P.S.L.) appeared on the new books shelf. It would be true to say that this book became my bible for a couple of years while it remained on permanent library loan. With hindsight it contains very little of use today, but for inspiration and enthusiasm Quarrie is hard to beat, especially to a thirteen year old. I could at one point quote it almost word for word and the little pictures and example battle are permanently etched into the old memory circuits. His later Napoleon's Campaigns in Miniature (P.S.L.) contained much of the same material, but showed that our Brucie had read a few books in the meantime.

After that, the fever set in. Figure gaming was going through something of a boom and I took Military Modelling and Battle to keep up to date. My armies grew as my funds shrank. The Airfix guides continued to expand, but none matched the impact of the little red No.4. My limited budget didn't help matters but I still managed to buy Gavin Lyall's Operation Warboard (Pan) and, again from the library, Battle (M.A.P.) which was to set us on the road to tanks and thus give many hours of fun. Sadly, I then became rather disillusioned with simple rules and went the way of many figure gamers, towards the W.R.G. 'complexity = realism' path and although we had some notable games, the initial excitement never returned.

As the late seventies came, I began to get rather cheesed off with W.R.G. and painting hundreds of figures, only to either hand them over to the client or have them outdated as the club moved on to other periods. Additionally, the metal figures the club gamers had 'progressed' to were too expensive for someone still at school. The obvious next step was boardgaming and having seen stirrings of hexsheets and furtive discussions about Strategy and Tactics at the club, I took the plunge and have never looked back.

Sadly, the boardgame field is not well served by literature. Magazines abound and some even have merit, but there is nothing halfway decent in the book area. The most well known are Nicky Palmer's Comprehensive Guide To Board Wargaming (Sphere) and the follow-up Best Of Board Wargaming (Arthur Barker). Both of these are useful only for their nostalgia value and for Nicky's rather individualistic game reviews. Suffice to say I disagree with most of his verdicts but the second book has guest reviewers who at least add balance. From the States, S.P.I. put out some pretty ropey stuff and the best of a bad bunch is ol' man Dunnigan's The Complete Wargames Handbook (Morrow, USA) which covers much the same ground as Palmer.

The general game area is graced with some of the better books covering our hobby. Sid Sackson's Gamut of Games (Hutchinson) is reputed by many to be the best general games book. I must say I find the games rather boring but in fairness, most of Sackson's games aren't really to my taste and what is there is presented well. Where it does score is in ideas and game mechanisms that can be applied elsewhere. Whatever, my favourite book in this area is David Pritchard's Modern Board Games (William Luscombe) which is now rather hard to find. This one covers ten fairly recent games in some detail and has some of the best tactical tips to be found anywhere. The chapters on Twixt, Decline and Fall and Diplomacy are well worth reading.

Mentioning the dread Diplomacy leads me to Richard Sharp's much sought-after The Game Of Diplomacy (Arthur Barker) which despite my dislike of the game, I do have a copy of. If nothing else (I'm afraid the tedium of opening strategy articles makes my toes curl), Sharp is a good writer and the chapter on the great postal Diplomacy scams is an excellent read, showing the depths to which some people will go to win.

Moving along the shelf, we come to the staple fare of the gamer's library; the how-to manuals and the card game books. Along with the recently tracked down Abbott's New Card Games (Muller) and New Eleusis, Reese's How To Play A Good Game Of Bridge (Pan) and the useful Go for Beginners (Penguin), I have the usual range of general books of which Hubert Phillip's The Pan Book Of Card Games (Pan) is the most heavily thumbed. It does have some mighty strange rules for Hearts/Black Maria which is favourite three player game, but a book that includes and can clearly teach the basics of Piquet, Canasta and the marvellous Nullos just has to be worth having.

After these we get onto the 'history' books which usually consist of page after page of pictures of old games. The best of these is probably Bell's Games To Play (Michael Joseph) and Tredd's Dice Games: New & Old (Oleander) also has some merit but no pictures.

Apparently, there isn't much to be said about computer games. Most of the in-depth analysis has appeared in Computer Gaming World over the years and the rest of the arcane knowledge is stored away in brains as trade secrets or within programmers who can't write even if they wanted to. We are left with three works that have enough solid content or valuable information to warrant a read. The first is Bell's Games Playing With Computers (Allen & Unwin) which takes a little too much time over chess and backgammon for my liking but has fascinating sections on decision trees and artificial intelligence. This one suffers from being a little theoretical, but has some real nuggets free for the taking.

Covering a wider range is Eric Solomon's Games Programming (Cambridge) which tackles most types of games and gives hints and pointers to how they might be tackled in computer format. Chapters on abstract and wargames have some interesting if now outdated ideas, but the overall read is a good one. The biggest let down in an otherwise fascinating book is that Solomon devotes just one short paragraph to sports games on the basis that he believes sports gamers are simply frustrated players of the real thing and thus are not worthy of his time. Pah.

The final computer volume is Chris Crawford's seminal Balance Of Power (Microsoft Press) in which he describes, step by step and in some detail, how he went about designing the eponymous strategy game. This is an excellent book and one that delivers enough inside knowledge to let a gamer at least take a stab at copying his techniques. As a bonus, there are many references to Crawford's earlier games such as Eastern Front and the seeds of his later games can be seen in formation. If nothing else, the graphic account of design process is worthy of your time. A fascinating read.

Lurking somewhere on the periphery of computers, maths and boardgames is Conway's Winning Ways (Academic Press) which comes in two substantial volumes at a horrendous price of about £40 each, though I understand they are now available in paperback. These are two of my favourite books, tackling game theory, probability and Conway's marvelous invention, The Game of Life. I am a big fan of Life (well, life as well really) and the related field of cellular automata and I doubt there is anywhere else outside of academic papers that these topics are covered in such depth. The books are superbly written; Conway has a clear narrative style and obviously has a genuine enthusiasm for his subject. It is hard to unreservedly recommend these specialist books to the general gamer but if you enjoyed Godel, Escher, Bach or any similar mathematics-based works, these should go onto your Christmas list immediately.

Fittingly, as the most recent diversion in the Siggins gaming career, we come at last to the German invasion. I don't read much German but I'm slowly improving and the game books produced by the likes of Hugendubel are incentive enough for me to get better. At the moment, I am really 'just looking at the pictures' (I am sure this will be my epitath) and a better selection would be hard to find. Best of all is Das Spiele Buch (Hugendubel) which covers, in glorious colour, a short history of the modern boardgame in Germany. It is mainly pictorial but has concise notes on games such as Hare & Tortoise, Dampfross and Borsenspiel and describes their impact on the industry. Another book with a similar theme but less inspirational content is Das Grosse Krone Spielbuch (Hoffman Und Campe) which has no pictures and concentrates more on the play and rules of the games. A little dry, but probably just about worth having.

Spiel Des Jahres (Hugendubel) is an unusual but fascinating German oddity which lists the winners and aufgennomens of all the previous Game of the Year awards. The winning game is profiled in depth, along with pictures of each game in the list together with any others nominated for the special prizes. The book concludes with a gruesome row of mugshots of the jury and winning designers where, I suppose, some of us might hope to end up if we're lucky. This one is quite readable and is notorious for persuading you that perhaps that copy of Sackson's Focus is a good idea after all. This book, more than the others, clearly shows the difference in stature of the German and UK industries - in the UK it is tough enough to sell the games, let alone a book about them.

The last German book on the shelf is Spielecollection 1: Schatzinsel (Hugendubel) by Reinhold Wittig of Editions Perlhuhn fame. This is a book that has grabbed at least one gamer by the nuptials and I can see why. It is a series of games (each has a chapter) centred around a Treasure Island. There are are therefore games about pirates, galleons, treasure chests and similar themes. All this is displayed in stylish print and excellent graphics. The games themselves are fairly basic but the idea is, if you have the time, is to make all the parts for the games. I was lucky enough to visit a gamer who lives in Essen (for convenience, no doubt) who is a carpenter by trade and he has hand-made every game component in the book. It is an astonishing feat of skill, made to craftsman's standards - the chests open to show scale gems and dubloons, the little picks and shovels have all been hand carved from wood and the whole lot is stored in engraved wooden boxes. Incredible. Pretty obviously most of us wouldn't want to tackle that job, but the book is good anyway.

To the best of my knowledge the only book concentrating on game collecting is the recent Game Collectors Guide Vol.1 (Panzer Press) by famed Squad Leader nut, Tom Slizewski. The paucity of titles is undoubtedly a function of the weirdness of the hobby, but I have to say this book would probably be typical of any future books on the subject. Sadly, it is a rather uninspiring read. It effectively comprises a listing of all the board wargames ever printed but with such a wide brief it is no surprise that details are sketchy and descriptions are rather short. Surprisingly though, there are very few apparent omissions and as such does represent quite a feat of research. Where the author does slip up is in attempting to price the games - the levels quoted are tempting but laughable. The Hollywood Bandit (mainly responsible for creating the 'game collector/investor' myth and consequent silly price levels on out of print games) recently took Tom to task for claiming to be able to find games that cheaply! Gee, I guess we should really be happy paying $400 for an old SPI turkey!

I'll round out this rather self-indulgent piece with a mention of Featherstone's Complete Wargaming (David & Charles) by the grandaddy of the figure gaming hobby. I've never been a fan of the old man and much of his work is overrated and redundant, but the real reason this one sits on my shelf is that on the third page in is a picture of yours truly, taken at Waterloo Day in 1975. I stand transfixed, looking at a superb layout of the then-new 15mm figures and unaware of the roving camera. If you simply look at the hairstyle, waistline and clothes it's kind of scary, but it does capture a time when, aside from homework and school discos, I could pretty much devote my life to games and reading. Happy days.

Back to the Kiddie's Korner or on to Inside Pitch.

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