In the run up to Christmas, gaming always has to take a back seat, so I’m not playing much at the moment. I can still hatch plots, though, and currently I’m looking at the time- and space-saving properties of hexmaps.

I’d love to have proper wargames scenery, but I have no-where to store it. That led me to the idea of battlemats, which fold flat. Experience from the solo gaming threads has shown that I’m spending about 25% of my actual gaming time generating and setting up terrain, and I want to reduce that; which leads me to the idea of a few standard terrain layouts, one of which can be selected and deployed in a few seconds and stored flat when not in use.

There’s a fair amount of this about – go to RPGNow and search by product type for “2D Buildings/Terrain” under “RPG Accessories” – but due to the dominance of D&D, it is almost all set on a 1″ square grid. This has two problems; firstly, diagonal moves give a figure an advantage; and secondly, the grid is a little small for 28mm miniatures – their arms bump into each other. To give them some room to manoeuvre they need about a 35mm grid. There’s also an annoyance, in that most of them are 6″ square terrain pieces that print out on A4 or Letter size paper, wasting over half of it.

However, some sort of grid is useful, because I find it faster and easier to count spaces than measure with a tape measure.

Grognards will see where this is going. I need some standard maps with a hex grid, such as those used in SPI or Avalon Hill games of the 1970s and 1980s.

I’ve already selected 28mm figures as my scale of choice, so I need maps with 35mm hexes. That eats up table space, but I can declare one hex to count as 2″, which will mean my table will behave as a somewhat larger one. Sadly, such maps are hard to come by; most hex wargames use a 15-20mm hex and small card counters, and even they are much less common than they used to be.

A rummage through the Wargames Graveyard under my bed, where old games go to die, reveals that I have some flimsy paper battlemats with a 1″ hexgrid from the days of GURPS, and a set of maps for the board/miniatures hybrid wargame Daemonworld, which are actually pretty good, but now out of print. The picture below shows a party of adventurers facing off against a couple of warforged on those maps.

Encounter on the Daemonworld map
Encounter on the Daemonworld map

The maps I like best, though, are those from Cry Havoc, sadly out of print these 20 years, but available electronically and (sometimes) in hard copy from Cry Havoc Fan. These maps have a 20mm grid, but by printing an enlarged scan, I can get one Cry Havoc map to fit my table almost exactly, with 35mm hexes. So those, and the Daemonworld map, will become standard in my battle reports going forwards.

And the lesson learned? If you see something you think you might want for your hobby, don’t hang about, get it as soon as you can afford it. If you wait for a later time, it will be out of production when you come back for it.

Zoom In

This technique saves both space and time in actual play, and in preparation for it. I use it mostly for dungeon crawls, either solo or in small groups face to face.

The picture below has come out unusually blurry even for me, but you can still see enough to get the idea; there are three maps at different scales, which saves space on the tabletop.

Zooming in
Zooming in: The party’s location in the dungeon at three different scales.

Working from left to right, we have:

[Left] The overall dungeon map; actually, a map of the London Underground. The green pawn represents the party’s location. Stations marked on the map represent room complexes; I stole an idea from Neil Gaiman and have the station name indicate the main features or inhabitants of the complex – Blackfriars, for example, is an evil temple. Each line represents a different level, with stairs between levels occurring in stations where several lines meet. Lines between stations (which I describe as wide corridors) are of indeterminate length, and scale is largely irrelevant on this map. I don’t usually share this map with the players, and for smaller dungeons it isn’t necessary at all, you can work with just the room complex map (centre) and battlemap (right).

[Centre] A room complex map. Each 18mm square represents 10′. This is used between encounters as the party moves about a particular room complex; once you roll or draw for initiative, the action shifts to the battlemap. The green pawn represents the party, and the red pawn their opponents, who have just come in sight as the party round a corner. At this scale, the party generally fits inside one square. This is one of the maps from GDW’s Asteroid, scanned and printed at a larger scale; the “London Underground Dungeon” is highly modular and reuses the Asteroid maps repeatedly, although the contents of the rooms do vary.

The major time-saver here is that the party can see the room complex map, so I don’t have to describe the layout or lay it out in dungeon tiles, and they don’t have to draw it. If playing solo, I don’t have to generate the dungeon either. While this gives the players information about the layout that the characters don’t have, since they still don’t know what is in each room, I find it doesn’t affect game balance much.

[Right] The battlemap. A small area of 1″ squares, each representing 5′. This map is used in encounters, where you move into detailed combat time. I draw the walls and doors in erasable marker on the map, although I used a thin marker today and it doesn’t show up well in the picture. You can see the square grid, the party, and their opponents. Because the battlemap is relatively small, it has to be redrawn more often, which offsets some of the time saved; you can minimise this impact by printing out a pile of the small battlemaps, or by shifting from 28mm figures to 15mm or 10mm. If I used a graphics programme to print out the room complex map split over four or more sheets, the squares would be about 1″ across and I could use it directly as a battlemat, albeit one with lots of 5′ corridors; but that starts to degrade the space advantage.

Dead Time

If you’re serious about keeping gaming in your schedule, you need to be alert to dead time. Those little 10 or 15 minute chunks of time that you can use to set things up for later.

Your daily commute is a good example. If you’re not controlling the vehicle (say it’s a train), you can use it for reading (dead tree or PDF editions) and maybe writing, depending on how crowded and bumpy it is, and how much you care what other people think about your hobby. If you’re (say) driving the car, you can still listen to podcasts – I learned a lot about D&D 4E from the podcasts on the WotC site, burned to CD and played while driving to work.

Your lunch hour is another, if your job still allows you that luxury; same comments apply. Due to my job, lunch now generally consists of a short period with a phone in one ear, typing one-handed while taking occasional bites from a sandwich – but I wrote about half of GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 on a Psion 3c during my train journey to work and lunch hours, a few years ago. Be warned; you will need somewhere to hide and concentrate, otherwise you will be dragged out of your reverie to work on today’s crisis.

If your work takes you away from home overnight, you probably have some time available in the evening, or before breakfast, depending on your timetable. About 20% of my Warhammer 40,000 army was painted in hotels while staying overnight on business, and this is also good for solo games or Play By Email (PBEM). (Personally, I find playing on a forum relies too much on my having regular, predictable slots of free time, and internet access during those slots, so it doesn’t work for me. Your Mileage May Vary.)

Much of this blog is actually written the same way; except for game write-ups, I tend to write each post in chunks a few minutes long, edit it, email it to the blog, and then log in to set up categories and so forth. So what you read in a few minutes can be the result of several days’ work in short chunks of dead time.

Now, I was going on to talk about PDF games and laptops specifically, but I think they deserve their own post. More of this later.

Gaming on the Run

This blog category will deal with my approach to fitting in as much gaming as I can around work and family life. It’s not unique – see, for example, The Dice of Life – but may be of value, or at least interest, to like-minded souls.

Some constraints under which I will have to operate:

Time: On weekday evenings I have odd gaps of 10-30 minutes, in which I can write a blog post or do some preparation; and on Saturday night, a slot of 90-120 minutes when the rest of the family is otherwise occupied. All gaming activities must fit into those, along with reading, computer games, watching movies, surfing the web etc. Such other leisure time as I used to have has been consumed by commuting and the practice of holding meetings outside what are still laughingly called office hours.

Space: On the weekday evenings I have access to a desktop 18″ x 24″, which may or may not have piles of bills, letters, etc left behind by other family members consuming parts of it. On Saturday night I have a table roughly 5′ x 3′. I have two areas of cupboard space, 2′ high x 2′ deep x 4′ wide, in which all the gaming accoutrements must be kept concealed so that they don’t frighten visitors. (I blame all those newsagents who keep the wargaming and modelling magazines next to the pornography, thus linking the two in the minds of the general public.)

Money: After a little thought, the first lesson I learn from Gaming on the Run is that actually, money is not a limiting factor for me. Given the type of gaming I do (RPG or skirmish) and the space constraints, I will only need a couple of dozen figures and the rulebooks; I don’t expect I will have the room to store terrain anyway, so assume I must do without. Shame really, but there you go.

I shall divide the necessities for gaming into People (figures and characters), Places (the fields of battle, in whatever form), Plots (scenarios), Props (equipment, both for the characters and myself) and Rules, and hopefully conquer them piecemeal. We shall see.

Size Matters: Figure Scale

Now, this one used to drive me bonkers in the 1970s and 1980s. Let us consider figure scale for a moment. Common figure sizes are:

  • 6mm, which is roughly 1/300th scale – microarmour territory.
  • 10mm, which is about 1/180th scale and used for Games Workshop mass battle games such as Epic or Warmaster. This is roughly the same as N Gauge railway models.
  • 15mm, roughly 1/120th scale. I have a weakness for this scale because the Traveller RPG used it back in the day, and I used to play a lot of Traveller.
  • 20mm (1/90th or thereabouts). Both 15mm and 20mm are in the same ballpark as model railway HO Gauge (1/87th) or OO Gauge (1/76th). I’ve heard that 20mm was originally chosen so that it would match the most popular railway models and scenery, so this makes sense. Certainly it would explain Roco’s choice of 1/87th for its tanks, which always puzzled me.
  • 25mm is close to 1/72nd and really ought to match all those aeroplane kits, but somehow never does; metal figures always look somehow bigger than their actual scale would suggest.
  • 28mm is about 1/64th, but visually looks closer to 1/43rd, which is a common size for toy cars. Possibly because most “28mm” figures are actually 30mm or bigger – my Tau Ethereal is somewhere in the region of 35mm tall.
  • 30mm is about 1/60th.
  • 54mm is 1/32nd scale, and more often used for toys or painting competitions, although Inquisitor and a few other games use it.
  • 90mm is nearly 1/20th and we’re into action figure territory now, so I’ll stop before the air gets too thin to breathe.

Let us pause for a moment to consider that the 98th percentile in humanoid height is around 8% variation from the average. Let’s be generous and say it’s 10%, because it makes the maths easier. Your 28mm figure, then, could reasonably claim to be that scale if it were between say 25mm and 31mm.

Why did this bug me? Because the wretched figures are getting bigger all the time. I started in 20mm, the old Airfix soft plastic infantry. And it served me well, a week’s pocket money would get me a platoon of infantry or a tank. Company level actions with simple rules across the living room carpet. Good times. Although the casualties from adult feet passing by were horrific.

Then I moved to University, and the figures were metal, and 25mm high. And in those days, not terribly well detailed. Gradually, they got bigger, and bigger, until manufacturers abandoned any pretence that they were actually 25mm, and started calling them 28mm – although by then they were generally 30mm in reality.

Now, manufacturers are starting to call their figures 30mm, and they are actually bigger than that. I haven’t weakened and bought any AT-43 troops yet, but from the looks of them they are nearly 40mm, which is starting to creep in as the scale for skirmish wargames.

D&D miniatures are about 30mm, but that works, because they are used on a square grid where one 25mm square is five feet. The Star Wars ones from the same company are a little bigger; mine seem to average 32mm, but they may not be representative as they come in random booster packs.

Soon we’ll be back to 54mm, where H G Wells started it all. Mind you, he was playing in his back garden, and we would have to as well.

Did I say it used to bug me? It sounds like it still does, a bit. Why? Because I don’t feel I can use different makes together – it doesn’t look right to me, and if I were not interested in the visual look of the game, I’d be playing with card counters. Except possibly 28mm Space Marines with my old 25mm figures; Space Marines are supposed to be seven feet tall, after all, which would mean they are in scale. I wonder if that’s where 28mm came from? If so, all the other GW figures are overscale.

Anyway: Today’s rant is brought to you courtesy of my wondering what figure scale would go best with the prepainted terrain in the local railway modelling shop. And this takes me into a whole new topic, Gaming on the Run, soon to have its own category on this very blog.

Size Matters: Ground Scale and Range

One of the delights of solo gaming is you can use whatever rules and figures (or tokens) you want, freely. This means I can address one of the issues that – well, doesn’t rankle exactly, but does itch sometimes; and that is the question of relative scale. Most wargamers play Games Workshop games with 28mm figures, and I have no problem with that; I do it myself sometimes, and not as often as I would like. However, like most wargames and roleplaying games, I feel these rules overemphasise the glorious charge into melee; they do this by playing fast and loose with scale.

I started thinking about this by wondering: Since I can use any size figures I like for solo play, what is the most realistic size for my table? Grab some tea or coffee and sit down, this will take a while.

Let’s consider for a moment the “regulation” 6′ x 4′ wargaming table. (Mine is closer to 5′ x 3′, but that’s my problem.) Let’s further assume that each side deploys across one of the long edges. Then let’s look at figure scale, ground scale and weapon range for three of my favourites: Savage Worlds, Two Hour Wargames’ reaction system, and Warhammer 40,000.

Some baseline real world data: Assault rifles have an effective range of between 300 and 800 metres, depending on whose view you accept and what model they are. Grenades can be thrown about 40 yards. The basic unit of manoeuvre for modern infantry is the squad or section, which covers a frontage of 50-100 yards on the advance, and maybe 200 yards in defence; a platoon advances on a 100-150 yard front, and defends across roughly a 500 yard front. During the First World War, the basic unit of manoeuvre was the company of maybe 100 men, which advanced in a line with a separation of one to five yards between men, depending on which army they belonged to, and how late in the war it was.

I’ve chosen those because my heart belongs to roleplaying and squad-level skirmishes, and W40K (which I also play) is essentially platoon-level action which I think is based vaguely on the First World War, at least as far as unit organisation and tactics go. I am assuming that the W40K lasgun is roughly equivalent to an assault rifle, because Imperial Guard armies can swap it for a basic slugthrower which has the same statistics, and it looks vaguely like an FN-FAL or G3. There’s enough wiggle room in the ranges I’m using that the difference between an assault rifle and a battle rifle won’t matter.

Still with me? Good.

Warhammer 40,000

Let’s look at W40K first, and an Imperial Guard platoon of 50 men advancing in true early WWI style, in base to base contact (arm’s length spacing); it needs a 50″ frontage, which is actually about right. The unit integrity distance of 2″ is a little less than two man-heights, so roughly four scale yards; not too bad. That means the typical move of 6″ is about 12 yards. (Of course tanks move at about the same speed, but then in World War I they did.) You could do that in 6 seconds at a brisk walk.

Note that the lasgun range of 24″ is now about 48 yards. Suppose that the figures were in scale with the weapon range; let’s call that 480 yards for simplicity, so the figures would have to be ten times smaller – 3mm high! 6″ of movement would now represent ten times as long, or about a minute of elapsed time. That feels much more appropriate to me for a platoon level game. One could go the other way, the traditional wargames route of saying that one figure represents many actual men; in this case, a single figure would represent about a squad, a squad would represent a company, and W40K would actually be a battalion- or possibly even regimental-level clash of arms.

Either way, though, W40K is understating weapon ranges and ground scale compared to the size of the figures, to fit them on the table. However, I suppose if I wanted realism I wouldn’t be playing a game with psychic space elves in it.

Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds – and the companion miniatures rules, Showdown – explicitly state that 1″ on the table represents two yards. Therefore, 25mm figures are the closest fit. A figure can throw a grenade up to 20″, which converts to 40 yards, so that fits. An assault rifle can shoot up to 96″, or 200 yards – a bit short, but frankly, who’s got a table more than 8′ long anyway? The typical move is still 6″, but 12 yards and a 6 second turn sound reasonable for roleplaying or squad-level skirmishes.

Two Hour Wargames

The various THW games have no specified ground scale, although the Yahoo! group seems to have settled on about two yards to the inch, like Savage Worlds. With a typical move of 6″ to 8″, again a turn would be about 6 seconds. Grenade throwing range is a bit short at 12 yards, and rifle ranges are about 48″, which suggests a ground scale of somewhere in the region of 1″ to 5 or 10 yards, but THW recommends play on a 4′ x 4′ table, so basically if it’s on the table you can hit it, and any range beyond that is irrelevant.

Most THW games seem to be played with 28mm figures, which are marginally too big for those scales, or 15mm ones, which are a little small. However, since a turn in THW games doesn’t have a fixed duration, these statements are difficult to prove.

The Right Size for the Table

Meanwhile, back at our regulation 6′ x 4′ table… It has 72″ of frontage for the toy soldiers.

At 54mm, this is roughly 65 scale yards, let’s say pistol range; good for Western shootouts, maybe, but an athletic 54mm figure could charge right across the table lengthways in under ten seconds, let’s say a single turn. 1/35th is close enough to this not to bother calculating separately, and in 40mm the table is only about 90 yards across. (Let’s not even talk about 90mm.)

At 25mm scale, it’s about 144 scale yards (less for 28mm or 30mm); at 20mm scale, about 180 scale yards; and at 15mm scale, some 240 scale yards. On a modern battlefield, this would be a squad-level skirmish, with 9-15 figures (one squad) in defence, and up to a platoon (30-50 figures) attacking them. You might see a couple of APCs at this level, but the tanks are likely to be a few feet further back, and the artillery is a couple of streets away. For World War I, it would be suitable for a company-level advance, with 100 or so figures marching across my tablecloth.

At 10mm scale, maybe 370 scale yards, and at 6mm, roughly 600 yards. Perhaps a modern platoon in defence, with a company assaulting it; you might credibly see a tank or two, although they are more likely to be in the next room. For our World War I, that would be a battalion-scale advance.

So for the sort of games I enjoy most, 15mm to 25mm would be roughly in scale to the table I have. I suspect that the regulation table size was derived from a similar train of thought, but starting from the other end of the track.

When next I muse on size mattering, I shall consider figure size, and its inexorable growth.

Review of Modern Ops by Great White Games

Summary: Modern skirmish rules based on Savage Worlds. Written by James Houlahan; for two-player (or two-team) competitive tabletop play using 28mm figures.

Although this was released in 2005, I couldn’t find a review which covered it in enough detail to decide whether to buy it or not. So I took the plunge, read the book a couple of times, and now I’ll write one. Now, I haven’t actually played it, but I have played the base rules engine (Savage Worlds) quite a bit, so I’m confident in what I write.

This is an 82 page book, at least in the PDF version, and weighs in at about 18 MB for the colour version and 6 MB for the printer-friendly one. It is stand-alone, in that you don’t need the Savage Worlds rulebook to play it, of which I approve. You do need a table or other playing surface, figures, a deck of cards and polyhedral dice – at least one each 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 20-sided, more is better.

The book is divided into four chapters and six appendices. Illustrations are a mixture of real-world photos and snaps of games in play, using Devil Dog miniatures (and that manufacturer gets several plugs which imply it makes preselected troop packs aimed at this game).

Chapter 1, Basic Training: This is essentially the Showdown rules, which you can get online at Pinnacle Entertainment (part of Great White Games, or is it the other way around?) free of charge. (Note that Modern Ops uses an earlier version of these, predating the Explorer’s Edition of Savage Worlds; it’s easy enough to convert, the only thing that leaps out as different is melee weapon damage.) Each unit draws a card to determine when it acts during a turn; in a turn the unit can essentially move and make an attack. Drawing a joker gives the unit some advantages, but also triggers a random event. When a unit tries to do something (e.g. shoot at the enemy), it rolls the die it has been assigned for the relevant skill (most often a d6), and if it scores 4 or more, it succeeds. Heroic figures (“Wild Cards”) roll an extra d6, as in Savage Worlds, and can choose which die to use; they also get “Bennies”, tokens which allow them to reroll tests. Movement is fairly normal for a miniatures game. Combat is based on tests against various skills and attributes using the above mechanic. Damage can cause a figure to be Shaken (“miss a turn”) or Wounded; Wild Cards can survive multiple wounds, but ordinary grunts lose interest and consciousness after the first. Although the game is aimed primarily at infantry skirmishes, there are rules for area effect attacks (off-map artillery) and vehicles (including aircraft). Victory is determined by who collects the most Victory Points, which you can get for achieving mission objectives or destroying enemy units.

This is all standard Savage Worlds and Showdown fare, which will be familiar to you if you have played either before; if not, download the test drive rules at the Pinnacle website and you’ll soon get it.

Chapter 2, Deployment: Here are the setting-specific rules which modify the basic Savage Worlds engine. Their overall effect is to make Modern Ops more gritty and deadlier than the RPG version; the key rules change as I see it is that even a Wild Card must make a Vigour roll to avoid Incapacitation if Wounded, and Wound penalties apply to that roll. The chapter also includes expanded rules for armoured vehicles, helicopters, and troop insertion by parachute, fast-roping or SCUBA. Finally, the different mission or scenario types are described, with objectives, setup notes, and any special rules or NPCs. There is a basic but effective campaign mechanism, which essentially selects a scenario at random from either the seven basic types or more unique missions called “Savage Tales”; six tales are provided, with the promise of more at the publisher’s website. They are easy enough to invent, also; just watch the news. Some of the special rules refer the players to Appendix 2 under certain conditions, wherein lurk surprise twists to the scenarios.

The clever part here is that a player who is outnumbered (say, because he has fewer suitable figures than his opponent) is allowed to make the game evenly balanced by using the points not spent on troops to buy defensive works, or choose some of the scenario conditions.

Finally, in a nod to the system’s roleplaying roots, successful troopers gain experience, and can use that to buy extra abilities.

Chapter 3, The Coalition: Army lists for the Western powers. We have basic troop types, vehicles and aircraft for the USA, Russian Federation, UK, Germany, mercenary units, and law enforcement. I’m no expert, but I couldn’t pick out anything appropriate to a pre-1980s game, so I guess these are suitable for any conflict from Grenada onwards. This is the only chapter that grated, and it did so because the designers refer to the British Army as the “Royal Army” throughout; we don’t call it that over here, chaps. They say nice things about it though, so I shan’t be too harsh.

Chapter 4, The Opposition: Army lists for the Taliban, Al Quaeda, Somalia, and prewar Iraq. The thrust of the rules is thus clearly towards a tabletop simulation of the War on Terror, although there’s no reason not to pit, say, law enforcers guarding a bank against mercenaries bent on robbing it, or SAS against Spetznatz in a South American forest.

All units are intended to be transferred to Unit Cards for quick reference during a game; blank ones are provided, and prefilled ones used to be available on the Pinnacle website, but seem to have been taken down at the moment, possibly because the Showdown rules are being rewritten.

Appendix 1, The Armoury: What it says on the tin. Quick reference sheets for the vehicles and weapons in the game.

Appendix 2, Events: One-off twists triggered by conditions in specific scenarios. These are meant to be a surprise to both sides, so the rules recommend not reading them in advance.

Appendix 3, Freak Events: As above, but more so. Some of these can make permanent changes to your unit’s attributes.

Appendix 4, Vehicle Notes: Again, what it says on the tin. I tend to glaze over at vehicle rules, because my collection of toy soldiers and my interest are focussed on infantry actions.

Appendix 5, Fieldworks, Mines and Artillery Support: Special rules and game statistics for these items, plus off-map artillery and air support.

Appendix 6, Abilities: These are the special attributes each troop type has; they are a subset of Savage Worlds Edges and Hindrances, eliminating the ones with subjective effects, which are appropriate for RPGs but not for miniatures games. Loyal and Bloodthirsty have special effects in Modern Ops; Loyal troops will stay with, and care for, their wounded, while Bloodthirsty ones will not. (If a unit is neither, the player can pick what it does.) Loyal troops tend to be better trained and motivated in the game, as reflected in their other attributes; but if you inflict enough casualties, their advance stalls as unwounded troopers drop out of the fight to protect wounded comrades.

The rules briefly mention possibilities of solo or co-operative play, but I couldn’t see any rules that covered either, so I’ve mentally tagged it as two-player competitive only, and for that reason I’m unlikely to play it as written; if workload permits my return to the friendly local games club, opponents there are wedded to Warhammer and Flames of War.

Where I think it will see some use is as a sourcebook for Savage Worlds roleplaying. I could mine it for ideas for the SG-13 campaign, use it to run Call of Duty 4 as a short roleplaying campaign, that sort of thing.