Sunday 5 January 2014

Game Design #5: What happened to Time Scale and Ground Scale in Wargames?

Now I used to say: "Why the heck do I care how long each turn is, or how far things are on the table? It's just a game!"

Rules like this are the reason I dismissed ground and time scale as something only of interest for the anal-retentive

This was because most games that were sticklers for ground/time scale, tended to be very "gluggy" and "anal-retentive" *cough* Wargames Research Group moderns *cough*  I tended to associate any mention of time/ground scale with a slow-moving, dull game. But a time/ground scale is an cornerstone to any wargame rules. In fact, every wargame ruleset has a time/ground scale, even if they don't!

Let's take a typical generic "McDonalds" game, that has no time/ground scale.
Typically, rifles fire 24" and infantry move 6" at normal pace.  So in a "turn" a infantryman can move about 1/4 of the distance he can fire a rifle. Presuming "effective range" is about 150-300m,  we can therefore conclude the timescale for a turn is about a minute or so.

What if the game had infantry move 24" and fire their rifles only 6"?  Sounds crazy, doesn't it?  But if the timescale was for half hour turns, it makes perfect sense - an infantryman could get well beyond effective rifle range given a half hour head start. 

So there is always an implied time scale, even if it is not specifically stated.

What about ground scale? It's dependent on the miniature.  Well, for your average 28mm skirmish game it has to be around 28mm/1 inch = ~6ft, give or take a bit.  For a 1:3000 warship, 1" might be 250ft.

Now we have a finite amount of tabletop space, so ranges are often "compressed" for shooting. This is to allow units to maneuver more freely without risk of enemy fire , and to make units more "survivable."  Sometimes this becomes ridiculous - i.e. a .303 WW2 rifle shoots less than 50 scale metres (150 feet) - aka 24" in a popular set of rules.  By their very nature, naval and air games, and definitely space games will have rather more abstract "flexible" distance scales, however.

The miniature scale and terrain dictates the ground scale, which can be altered but should stay within the realms of common sense.

So ground and time scale always exist, even if modern games seem to resolutely refuse to mention them. It's like an elephant in the room. 

The "One Rulebook to Rule Them All" is a seductive concept, beloved of both indie designers and the mass market mini manufacturers. The questions we need to ask is "Should every period of warfare play the exactly the same?"and "Do I even want to play the same game for every period"

So why have time and ground scale vanished?
I'm going to borrow some quotes from Rich Clarke (of Two Fat Lardies) which I think points us to the key:-

"...know from my earliest experience of attempting to write wargame rules that these (time and ground scale) can appear to be a pain in the proverbial. For a free spirit they do seem to rather get in the way, stopping you do just what you want. 

Having details of unit frontages, formations, tactics, of weapon ranges and rates of march all allows us to create an historically influenced structural framework upon which the rest of the rules will sit.

....Without defining what a unit’s frontage represents (or even what it should be!) we have no point of reference for working out our weapon ranges or movement rates."

A ground scale places annoying constraints on you.  Far better to ignore it and do what you want.

A ground scale links to historical accuracy in weapons ranges and movement.  Having no fixed ground scale makes it easy to ignore inconvenient info (i.e. the .303 rifle that can't even shoot 50 metres). If your desire is for generic games which share the same mechanisms, weapon ranges and movement rates, then it makes sense to ignore time and ground scale, which might impose some historical accuracy and realism.

Basically, having no scale means the designer can ignore historical accuracy, and thus keep the framework of your "universal gaming system" intact.  You CAN use the one ruleset to many wildly different periods - from ancients, to WW2 and sci fi. That's because the rules designer literally altered space and time to make the periods play the same.

Congratulations.  You can play the same game with both your medieval crusaders and your ECW musketeers. But why would you want to?  It's like playing chess with red and blue instead of black and white pieces. It's still the same game. You've just lost realism, and period "flavour." You now have a bland, generic game with little specific relevance for any time period.

However having similiar rulesets for every period is quite a boon to miniatures manufacturers. They can attract new players from different periods or genres, with the promise that the new period will be easy to learn. Flames of War and Bolt Action have done a great job of siphoning Warhammer 40K players and their cash into historicals.

I don't think it is a coincidence that ground and time scale have vanished at the same time we have more and more generic game engines that boast that they work for all periods.  No, the amazing new "universal rule" is not a masterpiece of game design, a one-size-fits-all hat.  The game designers have simply just changed the shape of the heads to fit the hat. And now everyone looks the same.  


  1. Very thought provoking post. I appreciate your analysis of wargaming concepts.

  2. I have to say from my own experience about the one size fits all approach, we gamers did it to ourselves! I remember back when I got into WRG 5th addition in 1978 each army had a flavor to it Romans had their heavy throwing weapon and Macedonians had their pikes as an example, and there were some attempt at historical accuracy. This went on through the 6th addition but, by the 7th the rules became so complicated that no one but they very anal wanted to play them. Then to be replaced by the ridiculously over simplified DBA and DBM systems with no historical accuracy. to them what so ever......Some times I think we allow the GONARDS to spoil a good thing!

    1. There's truth in what you say! I know of some players who say "I like I can use the same rules for x (say fantasy) and y (say WW2)". It's less for me to remember." For example, in the 2HWG series.

      I'm against rules being complex, but it's good for them to be different. I think people confuse realism with complexity (and THAT is another post altogether).

    2. There are some rule sets that can be stretched over time periods
      like STARGRUNT a sci-fi skirmish system than can be used for
      sci-fi, modern, and WWII but, all of these have allot of similarities
      due to firepower and mechanization. Seen and tried a American
      Civil War variant for SG and it just didn't fit to me.Your quite right
      about people confusing realism with complexity but I tend to but
      that in loss of the language arts category.

      Please do post your thoughts on this, looking forward to them.


    3. You know an area where gamers "shoot themselves in the foot?" They find a ruleset that plays smoothly and efficiently at its intended level - say "platoon level" with 30 or so minis. Then, they make the games bigger and bigger until it is at "company level" and they are using 150 minis a side. Then they wonder why the game bogs down...

      Naturally, miniature companies encourage this. But gamers do do it to themselves.

  3. The *only* set of rules I know taking ground scale into full account was WRG Ancients, up to 6th ed. In Horse & Musket games the depth of units is *always* out of scale, because of the difference between ground scale and miniatures scales.
    In my experience what matters is a consistent ratio between unit frontage, move length and shooting ranges. Charles Grant carefully designed his 'Lace Wars' ("The War Game") rules this way. But then he used *successfully* the same rules to re-fight large historical battles (Fontenoy, Mollwitz &c...) with 1 table-top battalion representing a whole brigade: shooting ranges were totally out of scale, yet it worked perfectly. Why so? Because of the uncertainty of the time scale. 'Action' is assessed to represent 1/2 minute to 2 minutes of 'real action': but since this leads to ridiculously short battles, some 'delay' is always supposed to be incorporated, from 10 minutes to 1/2 hour (to compute the number of 'moves' before dusk, locate changes of tide, to put table-top events in relation with off-table ones, map moves & other 'campaign' events for instance). So time scale is always uncertain in a 1 to 10 (at least) range ! Meaning that in practice as long as the ratios unit frontage / move length / shooting range is good at a given ground scale one can widely play on the ground scale by implicitly or explicitly playing on the representational & time scales.

    Historically rules for ground warfare from 3500BC to 1900AD as we knew them in the late "60 were designed in this way: by the time of H.G. Wells miniature battles (played on the floor) used 1" toy soldiers and a 1' infantry move length. When wargamers switched to 1/2" toy soldiers (to play on a table) the standard infantry move was accordingly halved to 6": it was universal to all sets of rules, from Ancients to ACW / FPW. All scales were actually computed from it, even if 'rationalized' in retrospect in the final printed presentation of the rules. This rationalization was sometimes quite elegant, specially in the WRG Ancients set claiming to start from the scale of the miniatures and representational scale: one 25mm (3/200 scale) mini representing 20 men in 4 ranks of 5: ground scale is (square root of 20)*miniature scale # 1/300. But actually it was Phil Barker's and Bob O'Brien *aim* when starting from the 6" infantry move they were juggling with time and representational scales.

    1. Thanks, Abdul - that's really fascinating!

      "In my experience what matters is a consistent ratio between unit frontage, move length and shooting ranges."

      I thought this was an interesting point.

      The other point is the game's "Design philosophy" which for me is another interesting topic.

  4. Playing chess with red and blue vice black and white is a brilliant analogy and critique of "generic" rules.
    Oddly I never thought much about time scale and ground scale provided, as Abdul said, that it was essentially consistent. For a skirmish level game with firearms, I expected that shooting ranges would be across much of the table, and much shorter if a company/battalion level game, depending on the scale of the minis. But, like the differences between mid and late war Sherman tanks, it's not something I preferred to dwell on until Rich Clarke's comments got me thinking.
    And yes, I have several WRG modern rules sets and found them all dreadfully unplayable, mostly because they were terribly written and organized. It also didn't help that the WW3 games I played back in the 80s were also terrible (I move my Pact tanks, NATO fires, my tanks die). Mind you, WW3 for real never promised much fun either.

  5. The idea that designers are stretching time and space to fit whatever setting to preconceived mechanical relationships is one that has occurred to me a lot lately, as I've been reading some new rules…

    I do think that pretty much all skirmish games set in "modern combat" eras (from the wild west to WW2 to SF that doesn't assume any massive changes to the structure of combat) can be played with approximately the same rules. I think THW is a pretty good example of that… I'm less familiar with their less modern rules, but the difference between SF combat and WW2 is already felt through the much increased lethality of weapons (just compare an assault rifle with a bolt action rifle in those games), and then you add in powered armor with special abilities, more specialized high tech weapons, flyers, and so on…

    I just don't really see why drastically different rules are *necessary,* and to a certain degree I think that settings that have the same basic tactical considerations (Suppression, pinning, use of cover, etc) actually are more interesting to play with if they use similar rules, as you get a sense for how different weapon systems affect the end-product tactical environment.

    I suppose one could debate the idea that 1860s+ (about where I tend to put the line, due to the uptick in relatively rapid fire weapons with higher capacity and fair enough accuracy) are in the same tactical milieu as WW1, or modern gaming, or SF, and I'd agree for games that are focused beyond the "man to man" level due to the inefficiency of modeling the higher order changes in tactics caused by changes in technology, but for man to man? When I read accounts of gunfights in the old west, they read pretty much the same way as AARs from WW2 or even more recent wars, at least so long as the action stays focused on small groups of men with small arms-- and once the heavy weapons get involved they act essentially as, well, more powerful versions of the same basic ideas.

  6. Remember that your figures are just game markers. The scale of the figures is irrelevant to how the game plays.

    1. "Remember that your figures are just game markers. The scale of the figures is irrelevant to how the game plays."

      The size of the minis IS linked to the terrain and thus indirectly to the ground scale of the game. I.e. would you use 28mm minis with 6mm terrain? - if they are just 'markers,' then this should not be a problem for you.
      If they are just markers, why not use 54mm minis on a 15mm scale board?

      There would definitely be gameplay implications for LoS and template weapons.

      Remember, there is a limit to credulity on a tabletop game, before it heads into boardgame territory. Bearing in mind most tabletop players appreciate the modelling aspect of things, or they would probably be playing boardgames (easier to prepare) or PC games (vastly cheaper).