Tabletop Gaming Manual review

Tabletop Gaming Manual (2018)

A review copy of the Tabletop Gaming Manual was provided by Haynes in exchange for a fair and honest review.

TL;DR: It's good! You should consider trying it if you have a chance.

Matt Thrower has been writing about games for a long time. I first encountered his work over at Shut Up and Sit Down, and since then he’s been everywhere from IGN, to the Guardian, to Paste magazine and more. He’s been round and about for over a decade, in fact. As we say in Scotland, he’s a ‘weel kent face’. And now, here he is on my bookshelf with the Haynes Tabletop Gaming Manual.

Tabletop Gaming Manual

I’m pleased to be in a position to review this book because – well, there aren’t a lot of genuinely good books on board games out there. They tend towards being enthusiastic but shallow, or dry and overly bureaucratic. I tend not to review these because I find it’s hard to have anything interesting to say – they exist, they function as books, but I don’t want to spend my time talking about them. The only book on board games I have reviewed is the excellent Monopolists and even that is more like a piece of investigative journalism than a book about games. I was sent a review copy of the Tabletop Gaming Manual though and so it’s getting The Treatment.

Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first – it’s genuinely good, with long sustained periods of genuinely great. Matt Thrower writes with a warmth and enthusiasm that is very endearing. The presentation is top notch. The production qualities are excellent. This is a lovely physical thing to own. Pleasingly for a book about board games, there’s an enjoyable tactility to reading it, and holding it. Smells great too. Wait, that’s a bit weird. Or is it? I’m sure we all love the smell of a new book even if we don’t admit it.

Inside you’ll find full colour pages of beautiful illustrations, useful cut-outs that take you to other resources, and a set of chapters that are wide-ranging and curiously whimsical in their focus. There’s a section on the history of board-games in antiquity, another on maths in games. There’s a chapter on how to store boxes, another one on how to paint and modify miniatures. There’s a section on game design, and one on methods of categorization. Each of these is a solid overview of its expected brief, but it’s also here where I started to furrow my brows during the reading.

Full colour photos

See – this is definitely a manual for Tabletop gaming. No doubt about that – it’s comprehensive in scope and meaningfully instructive in guidance. My question is more philosophical, and it’s one of those horribly pretentious questions that often creep up in reviews of books like this. Who exactly is this book for? That matters to me because I want to recommend this but I’m having troubles working out to whom I would.

It’s certainly not entirely for complete newbies, although that’s probably the closest obvious target demographic. I found myself cheerfully nodding along to various happy sections of the book before realising that the only reason I was able to do so was because I knew so much about the hobby already. One paragraph on page 65 for example mentions three games in fifty-five words with scant context and very little explanation. Another on page 60 name checks six wargames in about eighty words. For someone brand new to the hobby, I think the effect of this is going to be overwhelming rather than illuminating. There’s a definite scattergun effect in some of the chapters where the sheer amount of content thrown at the reader is borderline aggressive.

Coupled to this too is the choice of topics – does a newbie really need to know about probability, combinatorics or hypergeometric distribution? I mean, it’s not like this is a maths manual and nobody is being tested on the information – but it seems a curious thing to talk about especially if you’re trying to convince people, perhaps for the first time. to check out these awesone tabletop games. It’s said that each equation you add to an academic paper instantly halves the readership. I suspect there may be a similar thing when you introduce maths into a book like this.

Again, I stress – this is not an irrelevant chapter. It’s not an uninteresting chapter. It might indeed be my favourite chapter in the whole thing. It’s just again… who is this book for? 

Maths chapter

Is it for experienced gamers then? Well, no again because not only do most of know most of what we’d read in here, we’ve probably already developed strong opinions. The difficulties of storing games is something that’s useful for a new person to know. The experienced gamer audience though have moved past this. We are now engaged in fruitless holy wars on vertical versus horizontal storage, or Kallax versus Billy. Some of us already have our favourite Plano case numbers memorized.

An experienced gamer will still learn a lot from this book. The section on miniatures painting for example was sufficiently revelatory for me that it was like suddenly seeing a glimpse of the code behind the Matrix. I instantly wanted to grab a mini and paint it, but I sat down until the urge passed. Before you find something new and interesting though, you’re going to be reading through a lot of content that is obviously aimed at less experienced individuals. Even when you find something, it’s going to be of varying interest depending on your own preferences. This is a book about tabletop in all its forms – miniatures, role-playing, card games and board games. If you have already picked your loyalties you may have problems with the shifting of context from one hobbyist lens to the other.

Is it for someone in the middle, then? Maybe – but again who are these people that will pick up a Tabletop Gaming Manual if they are neither brand new and uncertain or hard-core hobbyists in it 4 lyfe? Perhaps it’s for people that know of hobbyist games but don’t yet know they love them. That’s an interesting group to target but then we see that the book spectacularly buries the lede by talking about the evolution of games like chess and Ludo. Again, genuinely interesting. Full of nice little nuggets of information. Not at all effective though in starting people off and running with why they should care. If I wanted to find out why suddenly everyone at work was talking about some game called ‘The Resistance’ and I started off by reading about Egyptian Senet I’d probably think I’d picked up the wrong book.

But I’m being somewhat glib here because this point is actually addressed in the introduction.

"Whether you're new, or a seasoned veteran"

So it’s a book that is aimed at everyone, but that in turn creates some structural issues. The first is that there’s only 180 or so pages of content and the pace as a result is brisk. Brisk enough to bring you out in a sweat. There’s an urgency to the writing that is both somewhat unsettling and very encouraging. ‘There’s just so much I have to tell you! This is all JUST SO COOL!’, is the strongest impression you get from reading. The problem there is that just as the book dangles a delicious tidbit in front of you it’s already grabbing your hand and hauling you off to the next topic. Early on it casually mentions that H.G Wells and Jerome. K. Jerome wrote and developed a war-game called Little Wars. Three paragraphs later we’re already forty years on from that and talking about Diplomacy. Man, I wanted to read more about Little Wars though because that was genuinely fascinating. Every so often you get the literary equivalent of whiplash as a sheer consequence of how much the book covers and how few pages it takes to do it.

But within this breakneck velocity of revelation there are also curiously extensive digressions that seem weirdly out of place. Chapter six is essentially about blinging out your games and the stationary and software you’d use to do it – definitely a rich topic. Perhaps though not a good topic for this specific book since it’s already crammed full of good topics and none of those are really getting the space they need to thrive. I understand my tastes run to the extreme end of the spectrum for word-count – I like to luxuriate in good writing and see the author play with it. Those interested more in the accumulation of data points at the optimal speed will find this a considerably more satisfying approach. Matt is a talented writer though and I would have enjoyed seeing his thoughts having more time to grow and mature within each section. I think this book could have been double the length and it wouldn’t have needed to add in any new chapters – the ones here already are more than ample.

A book with a more obvious identifiable focus is something I could say ‘absolutely get this if you’re part of this group’. Here what I can say is ‘There is a lot in here that will appeal to everyone, but there’s also a lot that everyone will find irrelevant’. Different people are going to find different sections that fit either judgement. It’s an easier recommendation for non-specific audiences than it is for any particular group I can identify – something ideal then for schools, libraries or gaming collectives where people of all different kinds of skills and experiences come together.

More pictures of the inside

As I hinted at earlier though – this is also a book I’d recommend just to have because it is Properly Lovely. If you’re a tabletop gamer, regardless of your level of experience or interest… come on, just look at it. I have literally thousands of books on my shelves and this is easily on the short-list for the prettiest. There’s no other comparable book really for tabletop gamers. Even if all anyone does is flip through and read the bits that matter to them they’ll get an awful lot out of it. Matt Thrower has written a great book. Haynes has put it into a beautiful package. For those reasons alone, I’m going to recommend the Tabletop Gaming Manual.

A review copy of the Tabletop Gaming Manual was provided by Haynes in exchange for a fair and honest review.