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  • Keith

Zen & The Art of Wargame Prep

The research is done. You’ve placed the order. Your game has arrived and the shrinkwrap is torn. What next? Today I’m going to be looking at Zen and the Art of Wargame Prep. This is all about those things we do as wargamers between purchasing a game and getting it on the table. I want to underscore that everyone does this a bit differently and while there are definitely wrong ways to do things, there’s no singular right way.

I’m going to walk you through my process. It’s one I’ve learned over time and one that I regularly adjust or screw up depending on the complexity of the game!

Let’s put first things first and talk about unboxing.

Unboxing your game

I don’t think I’ve read the back of a game box in years. That’s probably to my disadvantage, of course, because a lot of work goes into that marketing copy, image selection, and game details. I stopped because there was not real normalization between game companies around what “Solitaire Rating” or “Complexity” actually means. Further, to whom are they calibrating these recommendations?

I like to tear right into the game and pull out all the components. While there are plenty of folks who oogle at each counter-sheet and pick out the unique units, or data structures therein. I don’t. Instead, I go straight for the Player Aid Cards (PACs).

Player Aid Cards

The PACs show off a lot of information about the game. The questions I like to see answered here:

  1. How does the sequence of play flow?

  2. What terrain will I see in the game?

  3. Which rules did the designers feel were important enough to make it onto a PAC?

  4. How does combat work at a high level (roll high/low, odds or factor-based, etc.)?

  5. What kinds of other charts exist where I might be making checks (morale, cohesion, weather, etc)?

You can learn A LOT from those PACs and they’re well worth the time to review before reading a rulebook if you can. The next thing I dig into are the scenarios.

Scenario Listing or Books

GMT Games has certainly popularized the two-book combination of a rulebook and a playbook. Though not the first to do this, it has become a hallmark of their games. Consequently, it has become increasingly popular with other publishers.

I love these books because they often provide me with an idea of the scope of game and how many scenarios might exist. A lot of folks love the “big one” that’s the crown-jewel of the game, but I like to see which one I want to start playing.

The scenarios also provide you with guidance on how you’ll be asked to pull counters for scenario setup. That’s hugely important as you organize in baggies or counter-trays so you can minimize the amount of time spent hunting for the right counter. Speaking of counters…

Punching the Counters

Get after it! There’s no reason to wait! Punching counters is a bit of a wargamer ritual that comes in many forms. Some people get in there with their hands and pinch and pull. Others like to use a hobby-knife and slice the counters free of their frames.

Personally, it all depends on the game for me! Some low-counter density games are pretty easy to pop the counters out and then use my Oregon Lamination counter-rounder to take care of the fuzzy ends. In other cases, I know I won’t round every corner, so I like to cut the counters from the frame to keep them sharp.

This can take minutes to hours depending on the same of the game. I’m a big fan of finding a Netflix series to watch while I prep my games. It’s relaxing, repetitive, and requires just the right amount of concentration to let my mind wander and relax without zoning out completely.

The Zen

I won’t belittle Buddhists by pretending to use anything other than the bastardized western slang interpretation of “zen” here. While I’m certain there are applicable links between counter-clipping and Zen philosophy, I’m wholly unqualified to make such a comparison.

Instead, I want to stress the importance of finding moments of mindfulness! People find these moments in all kinds of activities. My mother, nearly 70, finds that during water aerobics and in her quilting. Cooking brings this sense of mindfulness to my wife who loves reading cookbooks, searching for recipes, and trying new ingredients for the foods she prepares. Even my son gets in on the action as he perfects his Minecraft village to unwind after homework.

I find wargame preparation the perfect way to de-stress. As a CTO, I spend a lot of time in meetings and planning. I worry about budgets, productivity, our services, staying ahead of competitors, and finding opportunities to innovate. There’s a lot going through my mind all the time and it can be incredibly difficult to just “turn it off.” Wargame prep, and specifically clipping counters is that release.

However, you engage with wargames, be thoughtful and find “joy” in moments. These are the times when the game consumes your attention in a way that allows you to block out your life’s stress. We all have them and we all need an escape for even a few hours or minutes.


My LEAST favorite part of learning a new wargame is dealing with the rulebook. Almost every game I’ve had explained to me is straight forward, easy to learn, and takes under an hour to have the core concepts figured out. Wargame rulebooks make these games seem like the most complicated mutli-universe physics dissertation ever written.

Consider rules for movement. 99% of the rules for movement are simply:

You can move all or some of your counters. They move space to space up to their movement allowance by subtracting the terrain costs for spaces or borders. Units can always move at least one hex so long as where the unit moves is not prohibited. Units stop or pay extra to move into / out of an enemy unit’s zone of control.

Instead, players get 2 pages of exceptions with things that might as well read, “Because people are bastards…you cannot move a submarine through a land locked space.” or something similar. Players are forced to sift through the “no shit Sherlock” rules and filter what’s important from what’s ancillary or edge case because of poor organization of the concepts.

I know the rules exist because “playtesters tried it.” Instead, I’d prefer the rulebook to simply say:

If your opponent acts like a jerk and says things like, “Well the rules don’t prohibit it.” Pack up and go. Stop playing with that person. They are petty. You won’t change their ways. Game with better people.

Distilling rulebooks has become something I enjoy with the advent of PDFs and tablets that make digital reading and highlighting a possibility.

Read & Slide

I also like the method of learning by setting up the learning scenario or “example of play” and following along with the rulebook. This too can be relaxing and productive.

I can read the same sentence in a section 10 times, but if I start moving the units around and rolling dice…a lot of time it just makes more sense to me. This was a skill that was especially true when learning some of the rules in Advanced Squad Leader where seeing is believing. The interruptions of things like Defensive First Fire and Defensive Final Fire become significant in instances where a unit is charging at a defensive position to attempt a demolition charge toss!

Moving the pieces around gets you into the “game” and helps set some of the tone for what will happen!

Game Storage

Finally, it’s time to store the game until next time. I love going through a deciding how to store a game and where to put it. I had shelves built to display my GMT Games in our loft and each shelf has a “theme” or “series” that I try to keep together. It can be fun picking which games go on which shelf and in which order.

I like the aesthetic nature of games on a shelf. It’s the same way people who own books might sort through their books and shelve them with great care. Further, I like to label everything and keep it easy to find for next time. That’s another time to enjoy the organization / preparation part of the hobby.

The Most Rewarding Moment

There is no substitute, however, for actually playing the game. So, no matter which path you take…enjoy the game play. It’s why you bought the game. As tedious as it can be to prepare that game for play, hopefully you find “zen” in the work.

Share some of the ways YOU find zen preparing games in the comments below! What rituals do you follow with every game you prepare?

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