Heretical Gaming is my blog about my gaming life, featuring small skirmishes and big battles from many historical periods (and some in the mythic past or the far future too). The focus is on battle reports using a wide variety of rules, with the occasional rules review, book review and odd musing about the gaming and history. Most of the battles use 6mm-sized figures and vehicles, but occasionally 15mm and 28mm figures appear too.

Thursday 14 January 2021

Book Review: Donald Featherstone's Complete Wargaming

 Donald Featherstone's Complete Wargaming:

A couple of years ago, when I was recording 'All the Stuff I Own' for this blog, I noticed that I had Donald Featherstone's Complete Wargaming on my Kindle, but couldn't remember anything about it!  Over Christmas and New Year I did get around to

This book was first published in the 1980s with the same material, but in a different format which was organized for page-space rather than sense, so it read (IIRC – it was over 25 years ago) more like a children’s encyclopedia, with little sidebars and so on giving snippets of information about things only tangentially, if it all, related to the main contents of a given page.  Anyway, this book has been republished by John Curry who, along with wargaming hobby luminary Arthur Harman, has re-edited it too.

This book is aimed at both the beginning and the veteran wargamer by providing background to the various wargame periods to enable them to be recreated, if not ‘realistically’, then with more realism of tactics, not to gain “profound military insight, but…(to) gain an understanding of the problems of the commanders in the field and a glimpse of the military thinking of the time”.  He does this by describing the background to the warfare and battles of various periods and tries to explain how they can be recreated on the tabletop, to serve both as a game and as something which strongly reflects the real engagement on which it is based.  He then looks at how history can be changed during the game, by use of what he calls 'military possibilities': specific events that might have changed the course of the battle by either modifying the starting conditions or a specific big thing going differently during the battle itself.  Although I greatly respect Don Featherstone as a rules writer and a scenario designer, I have never quite understood his use of ‘military possibilities’; these seem to be things that a commander might have chosen instead during the battle, or ways the scenario might have been altered (e.g. by nearby forces marching to the sound of the guns and participating in the refight, when they hadn’t done so in the original battle).  He basically believes that if the rules and the scenario are designed correctly, then the course of the wargames action will largely follow the original.  I disagree with this on both theoretical (war does not appear to be highly determined) and practical (Any game that uses dice and human inputs isn’t going to follow a pre-determined course for very long) grounds. He also includes ‘chance cards’ as a way of introducing these ‘military possibilities’ into the game.  

There is an interesting passage explaining the author’s dislike of rules which forbid certain tactics, for example rules which insist that infantry may only charge in column or that bodies of light infantry must always keep a formed reserve.  In Featherstone’s opinion, the rules should be written in such a way as that the tactical practices which succeeded on the battlefield should be most useful generally in the game.  I think that I may once have believed this, but don’t now.  Historically, if one tactic was always used by an army, except in very specific circumstances, then I believe that that army should be forced to use it on the tabletop, except in those specifically defined circumstances.  Otherwise, one of two things happen:

1 – There is a meta-game whereby the gamer works out what the writer thought that the historical army did historically, then does that.

2 – The gamer works out what the most effective tactics are in the rules and just does that.

A good example of this is the Vic formation used by RAF fighters in the early period of World War Two.  There is no way that a player is ever going to voluntarily choose to use them, and there is no way to write historical rules so that they are superior to the rotte/schwarm system developed by the Germans prior to this period, so the only way to get the RAF player to use them is to force them.  Later, Featherstone seems to cede the point by insisting that the Peninsular War should be fought with the British in line and the French in column.

However, his following design notes in terms of how to balance ranges, rates of fire and movement distances can be recommended almost without qualification, as can his suggestions for testing rules. I might not make casualty determination the base effect, preferring morale instead, but that is a relatively small point (since in many rules casualties = morale loss).

This chapter is followed by some discussion of how to incorporate surprise, the fog of war and friction into wargames. Some of the solutions seem more practical than others, although I think it is fair to say that all of them come at some cost in complexity or sheer faff: umpires, map moves, distance from the table, programmed moves, the (in)famous ‘matchbox method’ and so on are all discussed.

Various other specific wargaming problems are discussed: urban battles, incorporating weather, treachery, incorporating civilians, surrenders and prisoners.  Terrain is considered in terms of tactical usage and construction and set-up tips.  All these discussions include example rule suggestions and suggestions as to how the physical incorporation of the particular element may be included in the

The next section discusses how to translate various epochs of warfare onto the tabletop, using an example scenario.  Chariot warfare is discussed in general, then specifically through Qadesh.  The form of the scenarios is very similar to that used in his “Wargaming Pike and Shot”, with some historical background on the strategic position and the fighting styles employed.  A map of the action is included and is followed by notes on reconstructing the battle, the abilities of the commanders, the numbers and skills of the troops involved and their morale.  A separate ‘wargames map’, which simplifies the terrain into something quite easy to set-up is included, along with some notes on the terrain itself.  A set of the ‘military possibilities’ as discussed previously, specific to the battle, is given.    This is replicated for Classical warfare via Cynoscephelae, Medieval warfare via Morlaix, C18 warfare via Guildford Courthouse, Napoleonic warfare via the Combat on the Coa, Colonial warfare via Modder River, Airborne operations via Eban Emael, Commando operations via St. Nazaire.

Pike & Shot period warfare, the American Civil War and WW2 tank warfare are also partly examined, but do not have attached scenarios.  Rules suggestions for chariots, elephants, condottieri, Napoleonic column vs. line engagements, ambushes and pom-pom guns are included, seeming to be the sort of thing the author imagines could be easily grafted on to a player’s existing set. An entire set of rules is also given for the American Civil War.

Lastly, the Hundred Years’ War battle of Auberoche is examined as a scenario in itself, and then transposed to the Napoleonic and World War Two periods.  I am sure that I have seen this scenario somewhere before, but more importantly, it looks a terrible scenario with not that much for the French player to do apart from get beaten!  It actually looks a better scenario when transposed into WW2, since the Germans should have a better chance against the British paratroopers.

This last point raises another: Featherstone has quite a Romantic view of warfare in areas in which he wasn’t involved personally.  He seems to get slightly over-wrought and let his enthusiasms run away with him when writing about English and Welsh longbowmen, British Napoleonic light infantrymen and riflemen and the Yankees and ‘Jonny Rebs’ of the American Civil War: I found the history here quite partial and sometimes misleading where the enthusiasm for the ‘period’ distorts things somewhat.  On the other hand, his remarks about the Desert War (which he fought in) were absolutely spot on. One interesting point about the that is he describes the British desert colour scheme (presumably referring to the Caunter scheme?) as pinkish sand with battleship grey and brown stripes, which is a bit different to how I have usually seen it represented on models.

This book is what it is: a collection of essays on quite different aspects of wargaming put together to form a not-very cohesive whole.  It is anything but ‘complete’ – it is rather like a very extended magazine, given a unity of tone since every article is written by a single author, but without a real unity of purpose, so the value of the book can never be of greater value to the reader than that of its constituent chapters.  On the flip side to that, there is at least something for everyone in there, and what is in there is usually sensible and well-written, founded in the experiences of a very practical veteran gamer who has a great sense for what will and won’t work on a miniature battlefield.



  1. Good to see the books being made available on the Kindle. Interesting thoughts on forbidding some tactics. I have just been reading a Napoleonic set of rules that explains that the Austrians can use column 1808 onwards, due to the 1808 reforms, but not before when line was the ‘doctrine’, It strikes me that players should be discouraged from playing against doctrine that was instilled through training.

    1. It is good, John Curry has done an invaluable service. After long thought on the subject of forbidding tactics, I have come down firmly on the side of 'it depends'. I think there are two reasons to use the hammer:

      1 - In the rules, it is so sub-optimal that no player should ever choose it.

      2 - In the rules, it is so optimal that no player will ever not choose it, if given the option.

      Otherwise some form of situational bonus for the predominant historical tactic seems to be the way to go.

    2. Norm, the Austrians in the current Rivoli 1797 battle are hampered by this doctrine. How can you faithfully attempt to recreate an historical battle without at least attempting to include how the armies fought?

    3. Agreed. Specific battles if being faithfully re-created do need some straight-jacketing. I know in the boardgame world, there are many designs that put in scenario restrictions to reflect a particular ‘bad commander day’ type situation.

      I have also played in a Marlborough game in which one player adopted panzer blitzkrieg type tactics, with huge fluidity ...... and the rules allowed that!

  2. What you have here is an outstanding review. While I don't have the Curry re-edited edition, I do have the original hardback. I find myself nodding in agreement with almost everything you state. Very insightful and fair assessment. After giving this some more thought, I may return to add more. Your comment regarding doctrine and romanticism/bias is spot on.

    1. Many thanks Jonathan, appreciate it. I guess I haven't really read much Don Featherstone before in a single go as I did with this book - this made the romanticism much more noticeable than it would have done in a single magazine article, I think.

  3. An excellent read my Mum bought me this when it first came out as a Christmas present. I was at sea in the RN a pretty cool buy without asking a wargamer what he wants, well done a Mum.

    Willz Harley.

  4. A great review and good analysis of the book John. I find it more like a collection of articles to be dipped into as required, rather than a cohesive whole. Some of the chapters are more relevant to todays gamers than others. I'm not sure how much, if anything, I would use today, but his writing does make you think, which is of course good.

    1. Thanks Steve. You make a good point - how much would any reader actually use today? I don't know, but I suspect the answer is 'not much'. 'Modern' rules (i.e. published in the last 40-50 years) do cover a lot of this stuff, which is presented as new...I think the scenarios are all fine, and if you wanted to learn how to write historical scenarios, you wouldn't go too far wrong following the methods presented here.

  5. Got this as a present from parents myself back when it was released, an eclectic mix of material. Not long after I was beginning to want something little less meandering though. Agree with all your comments.
    I also just bought an old copy of his "War Games" for Nostagia purposes!

    1. Thanks Chasseur. You know, I have never read "War Games". I really should!