Wednesday 23 May 2012

When did you last read Featherstone?

If you're not a wargaming nostalgia buff you're probably going to want to skip this post...

Over the past ten years or so I've been slowly extending my collection of "classic" wargames books. These are books written by the "founding fathers" of the wargames movement and include such revered authors as Donald Featherstone, Chales Grant, Stuart Asquith and Bruce Quarrie to name but a few. These gents boldly went where no man had gone before and dreamed up a lot of what we take for granted nowadays both in terms of game mechanics and also ways of transferring that to the table top.

Many of the original editions of these early wargaming books are increasingly hard to find, potentially quite expensive and in less than perfect condition due to age and use. You take a bit of a risk buying these books and you have to be willing to end up with something you're terrified to open in case it falls apart in your hands. Despite all that I still find these books captivating in so many ways and I find myself constantly wanting to expand my collection.

There has been a plethora of material published since these early books appeared, much of it with better images and production quality, enormous depth of content and covering a vastly wider range of topics and periods. So why are these early books so fascinating to me by comparison? I've thought long and hard about what they mean to me personally and the answer is this - the books themselves as a physical object are not that significant but what they contain and what the represent certainly is. The language, concepts and themes in these books reflect the time when they were written. This was a "glorious new age", an "age of exploration" if you like and THAT alone makes them interesting. Many gamers are history buffs as well and in a way these books are part of the history of recreating history if you know what I mean.

In these early books wargamers are referred to variously as "chaps", "fellows" or "gents", not "noobs" or "lamers". The authors never considered the idea of "uber lists", "min-maxing", "power gaming" or my personal favourite "codex creep". Instead they talked of fair play, club nights with fellow gamers and sharing their hobby by any means possible. Their concepts and ideas were presented without a sense of absolutism and usually a good dash of enthusiam and even a little theatre. Some of this style remains today but a lot of it has been lost.

Instead, many of today's authors strive for accurate representation of myriad weapon systems and situations (even in sci-fi games!), create increasingly complex turn sequences and invent endless new mechanics to solve problems that were put to bed decades ago. They often do so at the expense of basics like simply having FUN. Are we really GAMING when so many of the tenets of what makes something a GAME seem missing? I'm willing to bet Don Featherstone never described a victory as "smashing his opponent's face in" and Charles Grant almost certainly never got marked down on a comp score for playing with  unpainted miniatures. He probably made the jolly miniatures himself for starters.

It's probably best I wrap this up about now, lest I find myself (perhaps rightly) consigned to the category of grognard or worse. If you're interested in learning more check out The Universal General and look under Wargaming History and Shows. There is a good four pages worth of books listed, many of which I've got in my collection already and others which I'm still hunting for. Those curious as to what I've got on my shelf can rummage about in my wargaming LibraryThing.

If you've never picked up and read a copy of Feathertone's War Games, Grant's Battle! Practical Wargaming or any of the others listed on The Universal General I encourage you to do so. You might well find something we lost along the way as gaming became the province of the sweaty masses as opposed to a very talented few...



  1. Well said Millsy. Well said.

  2. What a delightful, thoughtful and well written post. I've certainly heard of Mr. Featherstone, but have to confess that I've not read anything by him. I often feel quite intimidated by the myriad of rule sets out there and subsequently end up switching from half-finished topic to half-finished topic without really focussing on what is important - playing a game! Perhaps it is time to go back to basics.

  3. Very interesting post makes me want to read these books.

  4. Thanks for the positive response guys. I spent a bit of time agonizing over the words on this one. I tried pretty hard NOT to give the impression I was anti-anything including comps, modern styles of gaming, current authors or whatever else people might read it. My point was simply that there is plenty of fun and value in these books both in terms of approach and content. Hopefully that came across!

  5. Hear Hear! My start with gaming was "An Introduction to Battlegaming" and Charles Grant's "Battle!" The conduct these rules espouse is returning to the hobby I hope - through the likes of Black Powder and the many reissues of the classics. The hobby will be worse for its' absence...

  6. Wow, this takes me back. Thank you Mr Mills, for opening the floodgates of memory!

    Back in 1975(ish), before the days of the wireless and kinematograph entertainments, I dimly recall borrowing one of Mr Featherstone's excellent books of wargaming rules from the local library, and hurrying home by the flickering gaslight to play out a battle with my varied collection of Airfix models and figures.

    I remember it fondly, as it was an excellent introduction and one which covered a number of historical periods from ancient times to WWII, but, alas and alack, I have forgotten the title.

    Millsy, is it by chance the volume illustrated at the top of your wonderfully nostalgic article?

    1. Hard to say if War Games is the book you read way back then Ev. He'd already published a good few books by then and judging by the stamps in many of his works in my collection a LOT of them were in public library collections. That is certainly where I first came across them.

      My first Featherstone read was Battle Notes for Wargamers. I still read it at least once or twice a year, usually when I'm sick in bed or stuck at home when the weather is really nasty. It's my comfort food equivalent in book form ;-)


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