Monday, 19 May 2014

Did you ever know that you're my hero?

One of the low points of being absent from any particular scene for a period of time is finding out all the significant things that you've missed.

I've just learned that wargaming pioneer and titan Donald Featherstone passed away last September.  Arguably the primus inter pares of the UK wargaming boom of the 60s and 70s, Don was a prolific author, covering all aspects of the hobby, and in later years focussing more on general military history.  In the days before the commercialisation of the hobby, his books were an absolute treasure trove of rules and ideas that wargamers could dive into and harvest for things to improve their own wargames.

I can't credit Don with introducing me to the hobby.  That honour goes to Charles Grant with his book "Battle: Practical Wargaming" which I found in the local children's library when I was about ten.  But the quest for more of this strange new hobby led me to the "grown ups" libray where a selection of Don's books lay waiting to be discovered.  Over the following fifteen years many of those books spent more time on my bookshelf than the library's, and when the 21st century world of internet trading, coincided with me having a healthy disposable income, tracking down my own copy of Solo Wargaming became the first "money is no object" quest I'd ever undertaken.

(Ironically, after securing a copy for a sum that would make my frugal father weep, the book was republished in inexpensive paperback as part of John Curry's History of Wargaming project.  I regret nothing however - the original hardback is a thing of beauty, and occasionally browsing it brings me great joy, whereas for day to day practical reading I can hammer the paperback guilt-free)

I think it was the fact that Don Featherstone and his contemporaries brought me into wargaming that has kept me from fully embracing the modern commercialised hobby.  The idea of buying big glossy rules tied tightly to a particular range of figures, where everything is strictly regulated and spoon-fed to you by the creator, is entirely anathema to me.  In the world of the wargame as commodity, who actually owns your game?  When a new army codex or rules edition automatically triggers a buying spree so you can "stay current", who's playing who?  How much real creativity are you able to bring to the wargaming table?

Featherstone's books come from an era before you could simply go out and buy a set of wargames rules, much less a matching range of figures.  The reader was expected to take the frameworks the books offered and build on them finding their own inspirations.  There are still a number of gamers keeping this spirit alive, such as the 18th century "imagi-Nations" crowd.  In fact, I'd consider many of you who read and comment on this blog to be part of this independent-minded tradition.

So while belatedly saluting the passing of a wargaming great, let me also raise a glass to you, the inheritors of Don Featherstone and his ilk.  Throw down the green cloth over some books on the dining table, grab a selection of figures.  Remember infantry move 6", cavalry 12", muskets hit on a 5 or 6 at up to 6", or a 6 at up to 12".  Fill in the rest of the rules as needed in the spirit of fair play and common sense.  Then come back and tell me that somehow wasn't as much fun as playing from a big glossy £40 hardback rulebook with full colour pictures?


  1. Eagerly awaiting my own vintage copy of "Solo Wargaming" at this very moment. John Curry is doing a great job, but nothing beats the smell of a forty, fifty year old book when you open up that padded envelope :-)
    Or finding the original receipt dated june 62 in your copy of "War Games".

  2. Agree with you 100%. There's something magical about those old books that the modern reprints just can't capture. Like a feeling of being connected somehow to all the wargamers who've held the book before you. We're truly lucky to have the best of both worlds available to us - affordable reprints to keep the ideas alive, and the original vintage books to keep the magic alive.

    I hope your copy of Solo Wargaming brings you as much joy as mine has.

  3. I agree about the old books, too, but I'm glad the new versions are available.

    I also agree with your last paragraph especially! The spirit of simple rules as a basis, home-grown supplemental rules, and things like homecast and/or converted figures. Sort of the non-glossy side of the hobby (even though, in some cases, it means glossy toy soldiers).

  4. I looked Don up and read his wikipedia page. Interesting to see that he was inspired by reading "Little Wars" by H.G.Wells, which is available on Project Gutenburg

    Just had a flick through, and it's surely more wholesome than a trip down to the Gaming Workshops for your shrink wrapped, blister packaged glossy affairs. Having followed this blog for a while it seems that half the battle (if you excuse my pun) is putting the scene together in the first place.

    A mixture of thoughtful modelling, make-do and rule bashing.

    Nice Tribute.

  5. I agree, the spirit of wargaming is all about do-it-yourself. Glossy rules sets are all very well, but the elegant simplicity of those early books takes a lot of beating. I've got Solo Wargaming myself, minus the dust jacket which the previous owner lost, but it still has a place on my shelf along with others of Don's works.

  6. Quote..... {{ "The idea of buying big glossy rules tied tightly to a particular range of figures, where everything is strictly regulated and spoon-fed to you by the creator, is entirely anathema to me. In the world of the wargame as commodity, who actually owns your game?"}}

    Those are some of the best words I`ve read in ages.... excellently written, as is the rest of your blog site. Thank you so much for sharing.