Monday, 7 October 2013

Book Review: Fantasy Wargaming by Martin Hackett

One of the things I'm keen to do on this blog is introduce some books that may be of interest to Oldhammer gamers. I'm not thinking, in the main, of Warhammer specific books, or books published by GW. What I want to draw attention to is the wider range of wargaming books that have ideas and resources to be mined and that fit in with the Oldhammer spirit one way or another. I'll start with this one:

Fantasy Wargaming: Games with Magic and Monsters, by Martin Hackett. Patrick Stephens Publishing, 1990.

I've heard some rather harsh words about this book. While I don't think all of the criticism is entirely fair, it would only be reasonable to accept that the book is not an unreserved success. So I'll start with some of the negative points, before getting onto what I have to say in favour of the book.

A critical critic (to get all tautological) would point out many flaws and shortcomings (and, to be quite honest, a tough editor should probably have encouraged the author to resolve some of these). The most obvious problem is that the book is extremely confused in its organisation, flitting between talk of RPGs and wargames in a way that doesn't make the distinction sufficiently clear, as well as shifting from observations about the hobby at large to details about the authors own rules systems and fantasy setting without ever really getting that balance right.

One thing that seems odd to someone opening the book today is the major focus on trying to make the moral argument that fantasy gaming was not going to eat away at your soul (or your children's souls), turn you into a devil worshipper, etc. Of course, these were real (if ever so slightly overblown!) moral panics during the 80s, so it's an interesting piece of period detail in some ways. Nevertheless, if Martin Hackett's idea was indeed to persuade a general reader who has little familiarity with gaming, then the level of technical detail in the rules he presents is waaaaaaay too high. In fact, it has to be said that the fantasy battle system he does introduce is set out in a very badly structured manner, making it hard to read even for someone who is an experienced gamer. I would actually be quite interested to try out the rules, but they're presented in such a convoluted way that you'd be hard pressed to fully understand them.

But in spite of all this, I have to admit, I am very fond of this book. It captured my imagination when I took it out of Bootle library in the mid-90s (although even then it was apparent how dated it was), and when I bought a cheap 2nd hand copy recently I was pleased to find that it still captures my imagination. So given the fact that the book has significant failings, why do I still enjoy it so much?

The first and most obvious answer is Martin Hackett's enthusiasm for his subject. He loves gaming, and he clearly wants you to love it too, and I think that carries me along. Sure, he's a little evangelical, but he's not trying to flog you a used car, and so for the most part it's like listening to somebody very keen and friendly who just wants to explain all the great ideas he has and all the great ideas you could have too if only you got into fantasy wargaming.

And there's the thing; it's all about the possibilities, the ideas. As I said in the first post of this blog, one of the attractions of Oldhammer, for me, is that it implies an open universe, one in which you're free to implement your own ideas and conjure up your own worlds. That's exactly what Martin Hackett has done for himself and what he encourages you to do; sure, he does go into maybe a bit too much detail about his own campaign settings, but I reckon that he's trying to show the reader how they too could let their imagination run wild. When I took up GW games in the mid-90s, I always got the sense that someone else was in charge of my game - whenever I played Warhammer, I was a guest on GW's lawn; but reading this book, I was reminded that the rules and the world that I played in were up to me, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it then and now. I like the fact that there's a make do and mend attitude, a sense that it's your responsibility to improvise and create.

A clear attraction of the book for Oldhammer minded readers will be the photographs that showcase a extremely wide range of figures. Be warned: this is not a book of exquisitely painted works of miniature art; most of the photos are black and white, and where we do see the painting, it's generally gaming standard (ranging from well executed to somewhat crude) rather than Golden Demon standard, but to be frank I don't care because this is a book all about the game. There are loads of quirky miniatures showcased here that I would never otherwise have known about, and I'm thankful to the author not only for making me aware of their existence, but also presenting them in such a way that they prompt ideas for different campaigns, scenarios, and so on. (To give one example from the captions: "A group of Museum Miniatures carts form a defensive square while a cart is righted. The rocky outcrops and trees by HEKI form a natural position for the defenders to watch their supplies overnight"; or to give another, "Perhaps on one of your planets, dwarves will fly on giant bats. A Grenadier combination.") It's never just "look at this mini"; it's about showing how the minis make a world.

It's also worth noting that in terms of the practical value of the book, the chapter on Campaigns is well worth a read, going into high levels of detail about aspects such as the geopolitical dimension of fantasy wargames campaigns, naval encounters, weather chance events, and so on. To run a campaign on the scale he's describing would be a very ambitious undertaking indeed - but reading the book certainly gives me the appetite to do it one day.

I'm still not sure who Martin Hackett intended to write for; I really can't believe that a novice to gaming would find the book that compelling, and I suspect those parents in the grip of 1980s moral fears that D&D was going to get their kids worshipping the devil would find his arguments unpersuasive. But for someone who is already into gaming, who likes seeing a wide range of old school minis, and is looking for fresh ideas, there's a great deal in the book to enjoy. A flawed book, but one that I will happily flick through when I'm seeking inspiration.


  1. I have a copy on the way from eBay, I will let you know how I get on with it.

  2. Great, would be interesting to hear your take on it.

    1. I've had the book for a couple of days now, it's great! I've skim read through it rather than absorbed every last detail but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm really glad I grabbed a copy (£2.89 inc. P&P). I would agree with all you say. Wargaming has moved on and we recognise now that the real world doesn't allow us to over-indulge the level of realism in a fantasy campaign. Mr Hackett is clearly bonkers, but in the good 'total hobbyist' sort of way.

      Thanks for putting me on to it! I have a feeling I will be pulling this off the shelf time and time again for inspiration and ideas.

  3. When I was about 13-14 or so I attended a weekly wargames club in a local pub, organised by Martin. We used the rules, naturally, and I quite preferred them to Warhammer. I do remember the book lacking the clarity of layout just as you say, but I recall the rules were certainly more enjoyable than the massive dice-fest that I encountered on returning to the hobby now my own son is interested, by which of course I mean WH40k.

    1. Hiya Dan, thanks for this comment! Great to hear from someone who's wargamed with the author. I would be very interested in trying out these rules properly, I wonder if yourself or any of the adventurous oldhammerers would be willing to give them a go at the foundry. Whereabouts are you based now?