The Perils and Pleasures of Umpiring

13 January 2022
Send Three and Fourpence offers advice on Umpiring and Refereering

Words by Conrad Kinch. Pictures by The Editor John Treadaway

I’m not a man much given to sport and when I decided to write an article about umpires in wargames, I wondered if I’d be able to look up some football chants for a good title. And the answer to that question was “Yes, there are chants, lots of chants, but none I can use in a family magazine.”

“Conrad likes to watch” is something of a catchphrase that my friend Savage uses whenever he wants to suggest that there is something unwholesome about my tendency to end up as the Umpire in games. It seems people just really enjoy being rude about referees.

Savage is probably not wrong, to be fair. However, because I’m the most enthusiastic wargamer in my circle of friends, I often find myself acting as a kind of compère: introducing new players, setting up the game and generally getting things moving. (I have a glorious vision of you in a sparkly jacket Mr Kinch! Ed.)

Maybe it’s a hangover from my early days of playing Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Fighting Fantasy (the multi-player version of the venerable Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone books) in which I always ended up as the GM, but it’s a role that I’m very comfortable with, not least because it gives you a lot more options in the types of games you can play.

I enjoy umpiring, which is handy as I do it a lot, but I’m aware that not everyone uses umpires or sees the point. This isn’t to say the Umpired games are necessarily better... but I think that they do have a lot to offer.


Before I disappear into the weeds on the subject of Umpired games, I would like to talk a little bit about that sub-species of the Umpire tribe: The Referee.

Referees – sometimes called Judges – are common in competition wargaming, particularly in games like X-Wing or Bloodbowl. If you’re interested in doing that sort of work, I would suggest that you attach yourself to a Warhammer 40,000 league or similar. They will often have a Judges handbook that you can refer to and sometimes an accreditation system to ensure that their Referees meet a certain benchmark of competence. I’ve refereed Memoir ‘44 and Ogre tournaments, which were competitive (though not particularly large) but here are the fruits of my, albeit limited, experience.


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Know Your Stuff

This is the big one. In competitive gaming, the Referee is there to settle rules disputes: everything else is secondary. The players will be coming to you looking for a ruling on something. While no-one can be reasonably expected to know every rule, you should have a good working knowledge of the ruleset that’s being used. You should also have the latest errata printed out and be familiar with it.



Nothing sours a dispute quite like not being listened to. If there’s a problem during a game, one of the players will bring it to your attention. Hear them out and then ask the other player if they have anything to say. It is vitally important that you don’t give a verdict until you’ve spoken to both parties. It allows both of them to argue their case and even in instances which seem clear cut, it establishes your reputation for fair mindedness.


Don’t be afraid to look things up

Particularly in games where there are a lot of rules or rules spread over a number of books and supplements: there is no harm in checking the text of the rules. What it actually says may not always be what everyone thinks it says.


Have a plan for when things go wrong 

In Advanced Squad Leader – an eye wateringly complicated, hex and counter game – there is a rule for what do when you forget the rules and then discover several turns on that you’ve made a mistake. In ASL, the procedure is to use the correct rule going forward, but to let the results of the mistake stand. While this approach is my prefered option, tastes may differ, but I would suggest that it’s best to have a solution to common problems worked out in advance (like – God forbid – cheating, etc) and written down beforehand.


Be Prompt

Justice delayed is justice denied as my old legal instructors were so fond of saying. Once you’ve listened to both sides and consulted (if necessary) the rules, make a decision and then: move on. Nothing kills the mood of a wargame like needless delay.

Be Fair

This goes without saying, but – for a Referee – reputation is everything. It is not enough to be fair, you must be seen to be fair. That doesn’t mean pleasing everyone, but does mean doing your best to be clear about why you’re making a ruling.



But if the Referee is an adjudicator of rules, the Umpire is that... and a whole lot more. So why have an Umpire?



Like most people, I sort of fell into umpiring and one of the main reasons was that I am the most enthusiastic collector of toy soldiers in my social circle. There are plenty of wargamers: people who will play a game if you put it in front of them, but lack the desire to spend the money or the time to gather the wherewithal to put on a game.

I think that hosting a wargame is a bit like hosting a dinner party: you choose the bill of fare to suit the company and aim to entertain your guests. I really enjoy this because it allows me to have my friends over, play a game and sometimes play a period that wouldn’t see the table very often. Being hospitable is its own reward. Not many of my friends are that enthused about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-9, but they’ll play it if I organise the game. I’m not that interested in wargaming Ancients, but will gladly play if my pal Du Gourmand is putting on the game, not least because it’s an opportunity to spend time together.

A few points about hosting that I’ve found help things along: it’s best if you can set the game up beforehand and ideally give the players some idea of what they are going to playing, so that they can familiarise themselves with the rules. That includes making sure you’ve the appropriate dice, cards, quick reference sheets and so on.

Why not just play yourself? Obviously there’s no harm in inviting someone over for a game mano a mano, but I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable playing a competitive game against someone who may not be as familiar with the rules as I am, didn’t pick the scenario and was dropped into the situation blind. Plus, umpiring allows me to have two friends over instead of one and who doesn’t love company? That said, Du Gourmand routinely beats me like a Pinata when playing Command & Colours Napoleonics, so no qualms there!


There are lots of wargaming rules and no-one can hope to know them all. I suppose one of the main differences between an Umpire and a Referee is that the Referee is operating in a competitive environment where the players are assumed to be familiar with the rules. The players in an Umpired game may not be as familiar as it’s a good idea to have play aids to hand if you can manage it.

A good Umpire – like a good referee – should know the rules being used well and be prepared to make a ruling if players are unsure how to proceed. One of the advantages of an Umpired game is that the Umpire can help less experienced players along. The point is not to play the game for them, but to simply make them aware of the possibilities under the rules so that they can make informed decisions. A good quick reference sheet is invaluable and it can be worth having a look online to see if someone has already done one. Oddly – despite the fact that it is not a miniature wargaming site – Board Game Geek is well stocked with these and they are often very good.

If you are in the position of picking the scenario as host/umpire, consider the experience level of your guests. If it’s everyone’s first experience of a particular game, consider picking a small scenario, so that you’ll be able to see it through to a conclusion, and try and keep the number of special or advanced rules to a minimum. There’s no point in trying to run before you can walk or trying to use the Advanced Skirmish rules and Horse Artillery before everyone has gotten to grips with the basics of Horse, Foot and Guns.


Scenario creation

I love writing scenarios. One of the advantages of being the Umpire is that you can write whatever scenario you like without being accused of favouring yourself, since you’re not actually playing. Funnily enough, for all that WH40k is often played as a tournament game, the first edition – Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader – made explicit reference to a “Games Master”. This worthy was to design the scenario and set up the terrain. Most of the early 40k scenarios included some kind of hidden information: I’m thinking particularly of the charmingly named “Vulture Warriors from Dimension X meet plenty of Cheerful Orks with Plasma Cannon” from an early issue of White Dwarf. This involved a dimension hopping explorers running into some Warhammer Orks and very good it was too.


The Truth is a Moving Target

Handling hidden information can be as simple as not knowing exactly what your opponent is going to bring to the table to having the mission change half way through the game. There are dozens of ways this could manifest, but here are a couple of examples.


Hidden movement: This old chestnut is something of a favourite of mine. Both players are supplied with a map and move their troops on that map with figures only being placed on the table once both sides can see each other. A lot of the Lardy games use blinds or similar mechanics to simulate hidden movement, but there’s a lot to be said for doing it the old fashioned way. What I particularly like about this approach is that it makes scouting units, which are the Cinderella of tabletop warfare, as useful as they are in reality.

In plain sight: Consider extending this to terrain as well. When viewed from afar, it can be hard to tell a well coppiced and managed wood from a primeval nightmare full of dense undergrowth: one is passable to cavalry, the other is not, and only scouting will tell this. The same thing applies with river fords, bridges and so on. An evil Games Master could make a note of whether a bridge could support the weight of a Tiger tank (for example), but not tell the player unless he places an Engineer unit adjacent to the bridge. (Ouch! Ed.)


Changing Circumstances: While a lot of games include chance cards or something similar in their mechanics, a well crafted scenario can include that sort of thing in the design. Two examples that leap to mind are changing victory conditions. The player has been tasked with defending an objective, but learns – on turn four – that the forces on his (off table) flank have withdrawn and he must extract his forces. Similarly, consider a Wars of the Roses battle (or any similar civil war situation) when part of a players force either defects or walks off the battlefield. Or a modern scenario when a NATO commander discovers that there are civilians in the building that he intended to blast with artillery.


Disguised scenarios: Sometimes it can be hard to play a historical scenario if the players already know the situation. It can be hard playing Quatre Bras if the French player knows the weakness of the Allied position. Likewise, it’s difficult for a Federal player to disregard what he knows about the flank attack at Chancellorsville. Having an Umpire to hand makes it easier to disguise one battle as another, so that the players can get some of the same experience without their foreknowledge spoiling it. Obviously, it would be difficult to do the Battle of 73 Easting as an Ancients combat, but you could easily swap the English and French at Agincourt for 14th century Swiss and Austrians, for example.


The Loyal Opposition: There are some armies that are really boring to play. For example, Soviet Cold War armies – if you’re playing them right – are quite predictable. That’s not to say that they aren’t effective, but the playbook is well worn. My pal Dr Creaner and I once planned a large D-Day game, but eventually abandoned it after a couple of practice sessions because the Germans didn’t have that much to do: they mainly just sat there and got blasted by overwhelming numbers of Americans, British and Canadians.

You can mitigate this by opting for umpire controlled enemies thus placing all the players on the same side. This can lead to really interesting games because it allows you to create chains of command, encourages co-operation between the players as well as introducing the possibility of joint operations. I was reading about the 1793 siege of Toulon recently and was struck by the sheer disunity amongst the besieged, divided as they were between the British, Spanish and Neapolitans. That would make for an excellent game where three players faced Umpire controlled besiegers and would prevent squabbles over who had to play the scoundrel Bonaparte. Howard Whitehouse’s Science versus Pluck – which puts all the players in the role of British officers facing the Madhdists in Sudan – is probably the best example of this type of game.

Using this technique, the Umpire can play the force with the less exciting job, be it the 3rd Shock Army tank rolling forward in their tanks, the Germans crouched in their bunkers on D-Day or an onrushing horde of Celts, while the players tackle the more demanding task of defeating them.

Play online: There are plenty of ways to play wargames online, but one thing I’ve been doing over lockdown is playing games via video link and Twitter (see previous issues of this magazine). More recently I set up a game of Memoir ‘44, which I played with some friends via Whatsapp and the results of which I relayed on Twitter (search #RoadblockatLD to see the game). I sent the player pictures of their initial hand of cards as well as photos of the board. The players then choose which cards to play and where to move their units, while I rolled the dice and moved the figures. This was close to a Referees role, though I did have to help some of the less experienced players with the rules, and gently press some of the players to make a decision when the game dragged. There was a surprisingly large element of the fog of war, as players didn’t always spot enemy troops in the photographs due to the effects of camouflage or got carried away and missed something. The result was a nail biting game that went back and forth and was in contention right down to the last die roll. It probably wouldn’t have happened – especially in the timeframe that we had – if I hadn’t taken up the role of Umpire and general jollier along.



Compared to a Referee, the job of an Umpire seems to be half stage manager and half wedding planner: you’re trying to create something for people to play as well as smoothing the process of playing the game for them. I find it very rewarding, but there is a temptation to make things fall “the right way.” This can happen particularly if there’s a hidden element to the game and – rather than rolling for reinforcements or sticking the scenario as written – the Umpire has them turn up when it is “dramatically appropriate”.

At this point, the Umpire isn’t so much an umpire as a storyteller and the rest of the players should probably go read a book or something. I enjoy stories, but – what I enjoy about wargames – is that the outcome isn’t known: the result is held in tension. We discover what’s going to happen by making decisions, rolling dice and flipping cards. Those decisions and those dice rolls matter because – if they didn’t – we probably shouldn’t be making them. A good Umpire can help create those situations, but shouldn’t lose sight of what makes games great and let his or her idea of what should happen overshadow what is occurring on the table.

The joy of the game, like the joy of the hunt, is that – in it – things happen and are not decided. A good Umpire – like a good gamekeeper – can bring the hunters to the quarry, but they still have to catch it themselves. 



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