Book Review: The Complete Wargames Handbook by James F. Dunnigan


Topic & Content

A textbook and general survey of wargaming and game design techniques. The book’s contents are organized as follows:

  • Ch. 1: What is a Wargame
  • Ch. 2: How to Play Wargames
  • Ch. 3: Why Play the Game
  • Ch. 4: Designing Manual Games
  • Ch. 5: History of Wargames
  • Ch. 6: Computer Wargames
  • Ch. 7: Designing Computer Games
  • Ch. 8: Who Plays the Games
  • Ch. 9: Wargames at War
  • Ch. 10: Appendices


There doesn’t seem to be a formal thesis to this book. However, its purpose is to educate the reader on the purpose, play, and design of wargames.

Author’s Background

James Dunnigan is the founder of (the now defunct) Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) which was a major wargame publisher and competitor with Avalon Hill. Having designed more than 100 wargames, Dunnigan took his practical knowledge and wrote this seminal work which has remained a classic of wargaming literature ever since its original publication in 1980.

Critical Observations


The advice on PC-based wargames, while out-of-date (as described below), is valuable as a basis for those looking to understand more about game design. In other words, the basics of designing a manual (board-based) wargame are really no different from designing a PC game. In many ways, this book and Philip Sabin’s Simulating War have got me thinking about the fundamental ideas of game design as they relate to both board games and video games. With the latter, ideally, when you strip away the fancy graphics and sound effects, you should still be left with a compelling story/narrative (or reason to play), and solid game mechanics. (How many console/PC gamers out there have played games that look great, but suffer from clunky or poor controls and broken mechanics. They all could take a lesson in basic game design and testing from Dunnigan!) That being said, Dunnigan makes it clear that this is advice for game design, and NOT for game programming. He notes that programming languages have evolved and changed so much that any advice he could give on how to write a computer game’s programming code would be useless.

The book contains a simple introductory wargame called “The Drive on Metz” which is an operational simulation of the Battle of Metz in 1944 where General Patton’s Third Army sought to retake the city. I found this wargame to be fun, very easy to pick up and play, and short enough to be played in roughly 30 minutes. Dare I say that “The Drive on Metz” is a far simpler and better introduction to wargaming than most of the games in Philip Sabin’s Simulating War. The rules were very simple, intuitive, and well-explained by Dunnigan. In retrospect, I probably should’ve read this book first before Sabin’s books.

Being a classic work on wargaming, many of Dunnigan’s tips and tricks can be boiled down to aphorisms. These would be things like:

  • “If you can play them, you can design them.”
  • “Plagiarize.”

However, his advice is very accessible to the uninitiated game designer and has been echoed over the years by many other wargame developers. Dunnigan doesn’t mean plagiarizing in the sense of stealing other people’s intellectual property, rather, he means that you should build your own game on the work of others. Nobody owns the copyright to game mechanics like probability, combat results tables, or hexagon map grids, so there’s no need to try and reinvent the wheel.


Given the dated nature of the information in the book, the sections on computer-based wargames are more valuable as a historical look into the adaptation of wargames to PCs in the 1980s and early-1990s. Due to the inexorable march of technology, as practical advice on how to play computer wargames, the information is completely out-of-date given that it’s based on computer hardware of that time. In that respect, it’s not really fair to criticize the book just for that.

As for other critiques, some aspects of wargaming are only given cursory attention. For example, I would’ve liked more details on how to design a basic naval and/or air combat wargame. Dunnigan only goes so far as to point out that the technology and doctrine of those two forms of warfare have changed over time. I mean, obviously, but how do you design a wargame for those types of warfare? Other advice that Dunnigan gives on designing wargames is often mundane to the point of being generic. He provides almost no details on his advice and leaves the reader with little insight into its practical application. For example, Dunnigan discusses assigning combat values to units but doesn’t say much beyond that the designer should assign a value of 1 to the weakest units, a 9 to the strongest, and everything else goes in between those. Beyond that, the designer should take a trial-and-error approach. It’s very underwhelming and makes no mention of how different weapons or unit skills should or could be modeled. Other examples he provides amount to “I designed a game around the Gulf War in 1991 and it turned out to be accurate.” OK, but how did you specifically apply various game mechanics, and how did they make your game accurate? A little more information or context would be appreciated!

In many ways, the problems with this book echo those found in Dunnigan’s book How to Make War. He gives very generic examples that lack any specificity. He probably did do a lot of research for his games, but he doesn’t go into any real depth and it seems like he’s just pulling numbers out of thin air.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

I can see why this book is considered a classic in the field. It gives straightforward and simple advice in plain language. The included wargame is easy to learn and play and provides a great introduction to the mechanics of wargames for people just getting into the hobby. However, much of the information on computer wargames and the associated hardware is (understandably) dated and pretty much useless beyond being a history lesson in technology. Additionally, some of Dunnigan’s advice is very cursory and not very well fleshed out for people looking for in-depth guidance on the particulars of modeling certain game mechanics. In the end, as an introductory text, Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook serves its purpose well. I’d recommend it to anyone new to the field.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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