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.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Clarity versus Inspiration: an Heretical take

I was recently watching a very interesting episode on the Miniature Adventures YouTube channel about clarity versus inspiration in writing wargames rules. For better or worse, it was interesting enough to inspire some thoughts of my own...

I think I agree with most of what the host, Big Lee, is saying. But I think I disagree with one of the main stated assumptions, and I disagree quite vehemently with one of the main unstated assumptions.

The stated assumption that I disagree with is that there is a fundamental tension between clarity and inspiration within wargames rules. Clear writing and explanation of the rules might well be surrounded by or interrupted with sidebars and illustrations but I don't think this is a significant hurdle to understanding the rules. Conversely, concision in rules-writing might be helpful in clearly explaining rules, or it might not. Phil Barker is a very concise and precise rules writer, although it is clear that opinions are somewhat split within the wargames community about whether WRG and DBx rules are particularly clear.  'Charge!' and 'The Wargame' and 'Black Powder' are all full of 'inspiration', aren't particularly concise but are generally pretty clear IMHO. Whereas some other rules, like Firefight! and Firepower and even some of the Polemos rules I play quite often aren't necessarily so. The old SPI-type rules might have been written in a quasi-legalistic or technical manual style, but that didn't of itself make them particularly clear.

This leads me onto the hidden assumption that I disagree with. Discussion of this within the wargames community as far back as I can remember has been dominated by discourse about language. The assumption being therefore that the problem of clarity is mainly one that can be solved by writing in a clearer way. I see this has being a distinctly secondary problem. The primary issue is that some of the concepts in some wargames can be difficult, under-defined, contradictory, or all three. In essence, these are content issues, not failures of description.

The challenge to overcome in wargames is that, compared to most boardgames, the players are free to carry out a really vast number of actions - both voluntary and involuntary - with each of the playing pieces. These actions then interact with the terrain in an equally vast number of possible configuration states.  The number one thing that a games designer can do to make a game more clear is to impose some kind of grid, because that action alone reduces the potential actions and states into something much more manageable and capable of definition. Secondly, the designer can reduce the number of independent playing pieces. This does not mean less toys on the table necessarily, but it does mean that the number of independently-moved elements determines the complexity (since each can interact with terrain and adversary elements independently). Thirdly, the designer can reduce the number of voluntary actions and places in the game's sub-systems where the player can interact with the game. IMHO designers should try and do this anyway, since it makes for better, more exciting and more realistic wargames. Next, the designer can reduce the number of involuntary actions within the game. The main reason that Polemos: Ruse de Guerre is much smoother than its stable-mates is that the author really stripped out a lot of the involuntary actions within the game. This eliminated lots of potentially awkward interactions between elements, and between elements and terrain.  In similar vein, Mike Whitaker on Meeples & Miniatures once noted  the game-breaking way multiple independent special rules, all of which make individual sense, can interact. Lastly, the designer can carefully design and define how terrain should be set-up in a game and how elements should interact with them. This is especially true where there are exaggerated features compared to the ground scale.  
Incidentally I don't think that long lists of factors are unclear per se: it isn't that the factors themselves are complex  but indirectly they create exploding numbers of tactical optimization pathways, which in turn also create huge calibration issues, especially in historical wargames.

I don't want to imply by any of the above that clear language isn't important at all, it is. But I don't think it is the most important element at all. Clarity  and opacity are created by design choices as much as by language choices.

Now, I think that a separate issue  is the apparent ease of learning a given set of rules. For me, this is only very partially related to the fundamental clarity of a ruleset, because ease of learning is (negatively) related to the number of novel concepts that I have to learn, the complexity of the language and the way they are presented, whereas fundamental clarity is related to once a player has worked out what the sentence means, is it clear? So quite unclear rules can actually be easy to learn because the unclear bits aren't necessarily going to surface straight away, they emerge from play. Even worse, unclear rules can be thought of as clear because of the style, and the players agree, or use mind caulk, to keep playing despite the lack of clarity. 

Anyway, this is just what I think - what about you?


  1. What do I think? I think you rolled up too many interesting topics into one post to address in total!

    For now, I will simply say that the video did not stick to the stated trade-off of Clarity v Inspiration for long. Even the subtitle of "The Pursuit of Precision in Wargames Rules" did not really meet my expectations and was misleading.

    What began as (what I thought would be) a discussion of Form v Function morphed into a discussion of brevity and conciseness juxtaposed to clarity through expanded descriptions, game illustrations/diagrams, and examples of play. One does not lead to the other.

    Your discussion on restrictions is a topic worthy of its own post. I agree that playing within the confines of a grid-based system makes so many things so much easier including rules' writing and clarity.

    1. I concur with your thoughts on the video - you are quite right! In fairness, I think it is a decent reflection of where the conversation tends to circle around. It doesn't tend to stay in the actual spaces of 'clarity', 'precision', 'inspiration', 'brevity' and lots of concepts which are actually distinct, but tend to get lumped together. There is probably something ironic in the discussion around clarity notably lacking in, er, clarity, but hey, that is the way it goes.
      Anyway, this is very much a collection of initial thoughts - at some point I want to think about this on a deeper level.
      Many thanks for your comments Jonathan, both thought-provoking and appreciated.

    2. The irony did not pass me by unnoticed!

  2. I see clarity being accomplished on two levels. The first is the text itself. The object is to be clear, but the test is whether the text carries ambiguity. Most Q&A (and very true of boardgames) is the reader being able to take two interpretations from the same para graph or a rule is not fully nailed down.

    The second is the organisation and referencing capability of the rules. Indexes are often inadequate when a narrow ranged question crops up. Most indexes could do with being expanded by three.

    Very important rules that can be tucked away as one liners should be more visible.

    I like an appendix that lists important rules.

    There is a growing appetite for simpler and shorter rules, but it is brevity that is frequently the cause of rules being unclear.

    In this day and age with excellent graphic capability in publishing, perhaps inspiration should be solely dealt with by photo, illustration and side bars and let the rules just be ….. well rules!

    I like Black Powder, but finding the thing you want to know is not a strong point. First you have find where the rule is located and then frequently read narrative to get to the rule.

    Perhaps a common problem is the sheer number of rules we try access. Your solution of heavily investing your game time in Polemos has allowed you to understand and appreciate the finer points / nuances.

    Whatever page count the rules need, increase it and allow the rules to properly breathe and generously illustrate. I feel that would bring a good relationship between clarity and inspirational works.

    1. I think I would agree with all of that. I think you raise an important and under-appreciated point about clarity in terms of presentation and organization: it doesn't matter if a rule is written clearly and the underlying mechanic is itself clear *IF* it can't be found, is put in an obscure place or otherwise hidden from the players. It is also definitely the case that 'simpler and shorter' can quite easily and quickly get to 'under-written'.
      I suspect one problem - linked to the issue you mentioned of it being very easy to skim/read/dabble in far more rules than one could every really get to the table, never mind achieve some kind of mastery over - is that many rules are read much more than they are played.

  3. I am with Jonathan, the clarity Vs inspiration topic did not last very long and not really discussed before moving onto rules writing in general. And clarity was defined as clear, precise, unambigious etc so not just a narrow defintion of clarity.

    I am not as keen on the applicability of all your restrictions as for some gamers they would chafe at them :-) They are good generalisations though!

    I actually think one main problem with many rulesets is the implicit assumption that you are already a wargamer. I could not imagine trying to learn most of the wargaming rules without having a gaming background :-) A recent example is I was looking through the various DBA rules and it is only DBA 3.0 that finally it is explained what happens to a destroyed element (it is removed from the table). Earlier versions are silent. The reason I was looking was just to see if a destroyed element recoils first before being removed and noticed in V1 and V2 that it never states what happens to a destroyed element. Without any gaming background, you may assume a destroyed element is removed, but also may wonder what to do with it. Also an example of clarity I guess :-)

    1. Thanks Shaun for the interesting comments. I didn't quite mean my points as restrictions - rules-writers and players can do what they like and find fun. It was more identifying those areas which create the table conditions which most test the clarity of a given rules set, and what you would do to minimize them, if that is a thing you wanted to do. If, for example, a designer really wants lots of possible voluntary and involuntary actions, it might make their life easier to go with a grid system, perhaps. But they definitely are not prescriptions!
      And that was quite a fun example! It just goes to show that games designers may think we share their assumptions, and we really don't. After all, it is pretty easy for two gamers to do hobby wargaming for 20 years and have literally never played the same game once...

  4. A most interesting post.
    To likely take this even further off point (!!), I reckon it depends on what you are after. A clear, concise, stripped-down (likely stylised) mechanism to afford a game and result in a limited time, a broad framework that involves maximum umpire and/or player interaction, intervention and discussion in the manner of what has come to be called Kriegspiel, or perhaps a highly detailed, intricate style that necessitates a large investment of time and mental capacity of the ilk of Advanced Squad Leader for boardgames or Empire in miniature games!
    While I have clear preferences and prejudices, I'm please that a range of approaches exists for most periods.
    Back on topic, I humbly disagree with you. I think that the 'hidden assumption' is correct. It is more about how rules are explained than the rules per se. Clear writing, with fewer TLIs and TLAs can make an intricate set understandable (whether or not you'd like to play them), while poor writing, mobs of jargon and convoluted sentences and clarifications (Barker anyone?) can make a simple set difficult to interpret.
    Regards, James

    1. Thanks James, very interesting points. On the last point, Barker has his fans: I have heard him described as "the greatest prose stylist in wargaming since Charles Grant the elder".
      One way of thinking about whether content or description is more important (and I do agree that both are important, and the proliferation of TLAs and jargon is very unhelpful) is to consider how many conditional statements might be needed to describe all the possible implications of a rule. The more there need to be, the greater chance that one will be missed, badly explained or contradict another condition. While I certainly agree that good writing will help with, or simply solve, the second of those issues, I don't think good writing per se eliminates the first or third; nor does it affect the overall size and difficulty of that task, which is set by the content.
      However, I still have much thinking to do on this topic and I am going to give your points a lot more consideration. Many thanks again!

  5. Many interesting points raised, both in the video and with your respones and the replies to it. I remember an article by Rick Priestly in WS&S some years ago about rules writing, where he mentioned that someone had contacted him about being able to shoot through friendly units as the rules didn't explicitly forbid it. Now common sense would dictate that A, you couldn't see the enemy to shoot at them and B, it would be completely ahistorical to do so.

    Having done some H&S policy implementation whilst at work over the years, you do become aware of subtle but important differences in how words are used such as 'should' and 'must': the first is a firm recommendation, the second a legal requirement.

    Now for me 'Barkerese' lacks clarity and inspiration and the text is so Byzantine in complexity and I couldn't see the wood for the trees. Going back to Rick Priestly, in the same article he rightly pointed out that you cannot cover every conceivable situation in a game. Now some gamers believe you can, but having playtested many rules over the years, it becomes very apparent to my mind that you cannot. you can try and provide a clear framework withing which the game can be played, then those unusual situations can be sorted out amicably or by a dice roll, as many rules point out.

    1. Thanks Steve, many interesting comments in there. I think I mostly agree with Rick Priestley (and you!), although within bounds. I think it is true for most wargames - part of my post was an attempt to explain why that is so - but I think that some wargames could be explained to cover all the conceivable situations: games like The Portable Wargame or Commands & Colors, for example - the constraints in them would generally stop unforeseen situations happening. But for other wargames, which have the 'roll a dice, decide and agree to move on roll', I appreciate why they have them, and possibly/probably they are inherent in the form. But it still seems like a worthy aim of both game design and game writing (and with a respectful nod to Norm, game presentation) to limit that as much as can reasonably done, without doing violence to the design goals of the game.