Daniel Mersey is the author of wargames such as Dux Bellorum, Dragon Rampant, and Lion Rampant. His main area of expertise is historical wargaming, but he has also applied his skills to the fantasy genre, with an upcoming sci-fi ruleset in the works.
Hi Daniel, thanks for joining us! Many say that the wargaming community has always been insular. Do you think it would be possible for the hobby to become ‘too open’ to new people?
I disagree that it’s an insular community — for as long as I’ve been involved, there have been ongoing discussions about the best way to bring new blood into the hobby, and how to help people who are interested but haven’t yet taken the plunge. However, it’s not the easiest of hobbies to get into; collecting an army, painting it, collecting terrain, finding a large enough space to lay your battlefield out on, and (last but not least), reading and understanding a new rulebook all set the bar quite high and I imagine scare off many casually-interested gamers.
However, the past decade has seen a surge in smaller, skirmish games with a lower threshold for entry — fewer miniatures, smaller table sizes, and simpler rules. So I think the hobby is as welcoming as ever to newcomers!
You’ve made a name for yourself through both historical rulesets and recently Dragon Rampant, a fantasy system. It’s often said that fantasy is simply mythology. Do you think wargaming has its own mythology yet, or is it too early to tell?
Absolutely. There’s always going to be the need for a balance between gameplay and accuracy (be that in an historical, fantasy, or sci-fi setting), and at the heart of many rulesets are distinguishing features between different armies so they play differently to one another. This means that minor noted differences, or exceptional circumstances from a single battle, often make it into the way an army fights on the tabletop. Vikings may always be frothing berserkers, medieval French knights impetuous, and Russians/Soviets in all time periods determined yet plodding. The same goes for famous units — how many WW2 German armies include King Tiger tanks compared with the number actually built, or how many Imperial Roman armies field the Praetorian Guard? Many players love these units, so understandably want to include them, and many rules writers want to make armies play noticeably different to one another — and there’s wargaming’s mythology. Armies can therefore become a bit of a caricature, but I think it is down to rule designers and players to find their own perfect balance between mythology and reality.
What ruleset has had the most influence on your work?
If it hadn’t been for Phil Barker’s historical ancient rules De Bellis Antiquitatis, I’d have quit miniatures gaming within a couple of years of starting. So I’ve got to say that. That said, I wouldn’t have got started at all without discovering Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-1980s, and in more recent years the WW2 ruleset Blitzkrieg Commander changed a lot of my thinking. Can I say all three?!
Of course you can! What does the word ‘balance’ mean to you in terms of mechanics?
In my own designs, it means that all players have an equal chance of enjoying themselves. It doesn’t mean that everyone has an equal chance of winning, as many miniatures games have an asymmetrical element to them. Elsewhere, balance has different meanings — rulesets aimed at tournament and competitive gaming will interpret balance as good points systems, so that everyone bringing their 1,000 points to the table has an equal chance of winning. My focus is on entertainment and taking part in developing a story on the tabletop rather than serious competition, so that’s where my own balance focus lies.
If you had to make a Dragon Rampant army out of one miniature line, which would you use?
I’m doing it already, albeit rather slowly. I’m collecting early 1980s Citadel miniatures (‘pre-slotta’ as they’re known to collectors), some of which I owned back in the day and others that I drooled over back in the day! Dragon Rampant is ideal for scratching a collector’s itch, as the Strength Points mechanism means that you can build units with only a handful of miniatures and the entire system is a homage to the early days of fantasy gaming. I continue to scour eBay…
I also have a nice Dragon Rampant goblin army using Warrior miniatures. They’re not such a well-known company, but they’ve been around for many years; I think the fantasy ranges were sculpted in the mid 1990s. The look of their gobbos is just right for me. Mine are kitted out in armour painted in a not-very-fetching brown and gold colour scheme, which is suitably unsettling to the human eye.
You have quite a few wargame systems to your name. Which of them do you play the most?
Whichever I’m developing at the time! Seriously, I struggle to find time to play all of my rules on regular rotation, but Lion Rampant and Dragon Rampant lure me more often than not. I think it’s healthy to play a lot of other people’s rules too, so that I don’t become myopic in my ideas.
Games Workshop seem to dominate the wargaming sphere. How do you make independent systems stand out amidst this?
I see Games Workshop and most other systems as existing somewhat in isolation from each other. It’s such a shame, but the number of gamers who seem to jump from one stream to the other seems pretty limited. A lot of miniatures companies are learning from Games Workshop’s business model, which has seen so many of the indies up their game (and prices), but ultimately any rules system will stand or fall on how good it is and how much it inspires players to want to buy in. So I say focus on making a good game, rather than worrying about how you compare to Games Workshop. (You can tell I do this as a hobby rather than as a hard-nosed businessman!)
What’s one mechanic you’ve always wanted to put in a system, but never found the right place?
I’m happy to build a set of rules around a few interesting mechanisms — for me, there’s no point in always recycling the same ideas without a few twists to bring a new experience for gamers. So I’m always trying out different ideas. The key to it, so far as I’ve discovered, is to balance new, challenging ideas alongside mechanisms that players already understand. Do too much too differently, and it’s harder for players to see what you’re trying to achieve.
I have a fun — and, I think, pretty smart — orders chart mechanism that’s used in a couple of as-yet unpublished sets of rules. This has been pretty popular with those people who’ve tried it so far. And in Strongsword, a fantasy skirmish I developed for Westphalia Miniatures, I tried out a system of command based on shouted orders. That’s been kind of fun.
New ideas crop up all the time – it’s just a case of seeing whether they work nicely in the context of a game or if they just seem to be smart for being smart’s sake (in which case, they get dropped).
How much randomness does a wargame need in order to be entertaining?
That depends on what a player wishes to experience. My games tend to lean towards more randomness, as I enjoy rolling dice and adding command uncertainty (gamers smarter than I call this ‘friction’) to my rulesets. I usually emphasise the chaos that, from my reading of military history, reigns supreme on a battlefield, rather than the careful planning and methodical analysis that occurs at a higher strategic level. As an on-field commander in my games, you’re usually reacting to the situation as it unravels in front of you.
If you could change one thing about the hobby, what would it be?
It would be the ease of entry mentioned earlier — and many companies are starting to look more seriously at this.
One other thing…. I’d make myself a better miniatures painter!
Do you play any video games?
Not many at all. I sometimes dip into football management games and have recently been playing a lot of Asteroids on my iPad, but I much prefer tactile gaming. I spend my working day peering at a screen, so want to spend my downtime away from it wherever possible.
What are you reading at the moment?
I always seem to be reading about early medieval British history and British folklore. I’ve got to broaden my horizons!