Tuesday 25 September 2012

Scale 1: Scale Conumdrums

Setting a ground and time scale for a game allows one to calculate movement rates, and furthermore provide a frame work for the number of actions that can take place within a turn; whether it represents one minute, or one hour, or one day. However, one problem that emerges from this basic process is that table top wargames almost always end up with a discrepancy between the figure scale, the ground scale, and the time taken to play a turn versus the time the turn represents. This comes from the desire to have games that are not just small skirmishes, or gladiatorial fights, but rather play out large-scale clashes between armies.

In BattleTech for instance, the rules state that each hex is 30 meters across, and serendipitously each hex on the map board is approximately 32mm across the flat sides, which means that the ground scale approximates to 1/1000 scale ratio. If the models were to the scale of the map boards then a man would be around 1.8mm high, and a mech would be about 12mm tall.

For comparison, in OGRE/GEV the hexes are stated as being 1500 meters, or 4950 feet across. Now let me see that would make the scale of the vehicles, very, very tiny indeed. Quite clearly the models are being used as counters in this game, as they are much larger than the ground scale. Whereas in BattleTech the use of models makes it feels very much more like a miniature wargame.

Even so, we still see that the models in BattleTech are are three times larger than the ground scale. However, this is not unusual thing to see in table-top wargaming, as using a smaller ground scale allows the game to represent a larger area on a table. The traditional wargaming table is often six foot by four foot (1.8 x 1.2 meters), and the use of a smaller ground scale to figure scale often goes hand in hand with another concept of having a model represent a multiple of itself.

Still, one can see that there are quite a few problems that stem from any decision that changes the ground to figure scale.

When game rule really start to break down is when trying to represent fighting in cities with large numbers of units. This results from the disparity between figure and ground scale that  breaks the verisimilitude of the game.

Let's look at why this happens? Take for example figures at one three hundredth scale that are approximately six millimeters high, representing a man six foot tall. If you then play a game on our hypothetical standard six foot by four foot table, then you get an area of approximately eighteen hundred feet by  twelve hundred feet in size. Sounds enormous. It isn't, not when you think for a moment about how fast a vehicle that can move through it in under thirty seconds when travelling at a modest thirty miles per hour.

This is why the ground scale is usually smaller than the figure scale.

It's a typical catch twenty-two situation where the solution leads you back to the problem. Never more true when trying to fight in a built up area, as ground-scale comes and bites you on the leg like a demented pit-bull terrier.

One answer is to keep the disparity between the figure and ground scale to a minimum by using smallest figure scale possible, because this will keep the ground scale reasonable for the area you wish to fight over. The other answer is to write the rules so that the problem disappears as an abstraction. Neither answer is right, and neither is wrong, but when you have rules that try to account for everything, you end up slowing down the game, and that is a problem.


  1. The reason as I see it for figure scale/ground scale discrepancies is the excessively long range of firearms. Let's say we're doing modern small-arms combat; a round from an M-16 will start seriously losing energy by about 500 yards, so the 6 foot table needs to be about that long, for a scale of 1/250. That's about a 7mm tall figure... and a 7mm figure, even with a lot of his buddies, is going to be completely lost on a 6 foot table. It's just not fun to look at.

    I think that built-up areas may actually be the answer as well as part of the problem. Forget, briefly, about vehicle speeds; bring the engagement ranges down to the real close-up stuff that seems to be where a lot of the lethal fighting happens. Let's scale around 1/72 for 25mm figures, so the table is 144x96 yards - and fill it with buildings so that nobody ever gets even a hundred-yard sightline unless some fool is actually crossing the street without using cover. Forget weapon ranges - every gun is going to be able to hit anyone the firer can see.

    Now we can bring vehicles back in, though this is basically an infantry game. Put up a barricade that the patrol stopped for just before the firing started. Or put a wrecked HMMWV in the middle of the road, because that's where it landed when the IED went off. The vehicle isn't a combat element, here, so much as a scenario element: the driver's trying to get it turned round so that the squad can get away, or one side starts from it and is trying to get off the table. Maybe you have an APC tooling along the road, keeping pace with its infantry element - but it's the infantry element that's going to be hunting through the buildings and doing the majority of the fighting.

    Now that's a game where figure scale can equal ground scale.

    1. It surely is.

      I've been thinking along similar lines for another project, not BattleTech, that starting with infantry and working up will produce a more interesting combined arms game.

    2. The key thing that my true-scaled game gives up, of course, is any attempt to be a playable simulation of open-field combat. Any situation in which you do have long sightlines needs an unfeasibly large table.

  2. I've never played it, but I think remember reading that "Force on Force" by Ambush Alley dispenses with weapon ranges entirely - keeping in line with the fact that modem weapon ranges are enough to cover the table.

  3. This way madness lies. Scale has to be a balance between reality and practicality. If, like me you use a lot of 15mm minis, scale is horrific. Picking a figure, 1"/25mm on table = 10'/3m in the real world. I wanted to move to 15mm because I had a situation playing 28mm where 1" equals 1 yard. When one of the characters was shooting a sniper rifle with a range of 2000 yards.

    I did a back of a napkin calculation and an M1 Abrams has roughly (depending of which gun and approximate range you believe) has a range of 26100 real feet. A 6' by 4' piece if mdf painted green seems a bit insignificant. I recall a conversation with a mate called Jim about command decision. The way the rules were written the point of aim was turret to turret which meant that some tanks could not engage other tanks at close range in bigger scales.

    It's also doesn't help that as gamers we have been fed a diet of extremely poor information about weapon ranges over the years because the games are trying to be fun rather than a simulation. As Ski says, FOF is a nice kind of fix for rifles and bigger but smg and pistol isn't (imho) quite right. Don't get me started on Flames of War.

    I can feel the sanity draining away.

    1. FoW.... hahahaha. Can I go to confession for having played FoW for 3 years? Can I get it expunged from my gaming soul?

  4. I have to go with Roger on this one don't sweat the weapon ranges - if you can see it you can hit it - and make sure your unblocked LOS is never more than a couple of hundred meters.

    The 6x4 table exists for some very good reasons. It is reasonably movable and storable (in North America anyway), you can reach the middle easily from any of the 4 sides and it has a visually pleasing 3:2 ratio that allows for linear battles the across the width or running fights down the length.

    Nothing the matter with FoW as a game - it is just not a very good WWII simulation. ;)

    P.S. 6mm is god's own wargaming scale. :)

    1. But 10mm is the new 6mm. Or as I explain it Heroic scale 6mm!