Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Let’s put first things first…tear that shrink and grab the components from the box. You are likely to find some variation on the following:
One or more countersheets
One or more rulebooks / scenario guides
One or more maps (mounted on cardboard or heavy-weight paper stock
One or more player aid cards with charts and summaries of the game
Terrain – What is the terrain and what are the terrain types on which we’ll be playing this game. In some games this is simple. Flying Colors, for example, only features ocean hexes. A game like Holland ’44, on the other hand, features many terrain types ranging from rivers and canals to cities, forests, and a special terrain type called Polder.
- Play Aids – What are the on-map player aids? Does the game feature a turn-track, reinforcement schedule, Combat Resolution Table (CRT), or some other display of data?
- Size – How big of a space will I need to play this game? It may seem obvious, but if you’re coming from a non-wargaming background you may be surprised to find just how much space some wargames can take.
If we know where we’ll be fighting, the next step is to determine who is doing that fighting! Countersheets typically come in a few varieties, but the most common layout of a counter is to show the type of the unit as a NATO symbol with the statistics about the unit underneath the type. There are generally other bits of information, but those are the two most important areas of each unit counter to examine.
If you see three number separated by a dash at the bottom of the counter, that typically means:
Attack – Defense – Movement
This isn’t universally true, but more often than not you can infer that as a start. If you just see two numbers, typically those will be attack and defense. Some counters may go well beyond the basics or use silhouettes instead of the NATO unit type symbols. What is important is getting familiar with the shapes, symbols, and numbers found on a counter.
Next, you’ll want to look at the informational markers. Most games include house-keeping markers to help you track different unit statuses throughout the game. A game like Last Chance for Victory may provide you with unit strength markers while other games may have markers for things like supply, traffic, rubble, fires, broken units, hidden units, and a vast array of other details that might be tracked by the game.
While maps about the same topic generally look roughly the same, countersheets for different games, even covering the same subjects will typically look quite different. This is your first chance to put a critical eye to what rules you might encounter when you skim the rulebook and how you’ll use the included player aid cards with the game. Looking at the number of counters included will also reveal a lot about how many of those counters the game expects you to use. So, if you see a lot of Out of Supply markers, expect rules that will leave units out of supply frequently if not managed properly.
Player Aid Cards Third
The player aid cards provide you with information on what rules are used most frequently in the game. A good player aid card is developed throughout the playtest process as playtesters forget rules, need a quick place to look up information, and almost always for reference to information like the Combat Resolution Table (CRT) and Terrain Effects Chart (TEC). Let’s take a minute to look at these two sections of the player aid card in detail.
Terrain Effects Chart
Almost always, you’ll find a small representation of the terrain depiction in a single hex listed alongside information about movement, attacking, and defending in that terrain. Pay close attention to the defense and attack restrictions or notes. Rulebooks tend to over-explain the TEC and if you keep this card handy you’ll be able to skip quite a bit and focus on the gnarly exceptions that might be included.
Combat Results Table
You don’t need to memorize this thing, but if you play the game enough…you will. Most ASL players who have played for even a few months can start to rattle off most of the CRT for that game. The important part of this chart is looking at whether there are odds listed as a ratio like 3:1 or whether combat strength is listed as a whole number. This will give you some insight as you read those counters.
That’s right. I said it and I won’t back down either. Rulebooks come last when I’m looking through a new game. The simple reason is that without seeing the components first I’m not sure what I’ll be reading about in the rulebook.
How are most rulebooks organized?
From the broadest level you’re typically going to read an overview of the game first. It may be some flavor text, a short paragraph, or even a page of background information. This is typically followed by a breakdown of the components and terms found in the game. Spend some time here looking at the components you reviewed and seeing how your expectations align with the game. If they’re way off, this game may require a closer reading of the rules!
Next, you’ll begin seeing the famous “case system” rules organization. Older games, particularly SPI games, will go into detail about how to read the “case system,” but suffice it to say that it reads like legalese and is sometimes about that engaging. There are far more examples of poorly organized or confusing rulebooks in the wargaming world than the truly exceptional ones. This isn’t the fault of an editor, designer, developer, or proof-reader. It’s a function of hobby and the, at times, complex nature of the games.
Each rules section is give a number. Each sub-rule is given a point number. Each case found within that sub-rule is given another point number. So you might see section 1 is for movement rules. The sub-section covering armored movement may be 1.3. The case that explains when armor bogs on soft ground may be covered in 1.3.4.
This seems far more intimidating that it actually is. In fact, wargame rules, you’ll find are hierarchical by nature. The rules that apply in the broadest terms most frequently in your games are found at the section and sub-rule level. The cases typically refer to specific things that may or may not always come up in a phase, turn, or even in the entire game.
Don’t get tricked into thinking you must read and memorize this rulebook. There lies danger and madness.