Size Matters: Ground Scale and Range

Posted: 9 November 2009 in Reflections

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.

  1. Glassboy says:

    Have you considered 1/285th scale? We use GHQ to play Flames of War. We either use the inch measurements as centimetres when we play 1/285th scale or just leave the ground scale as it is.

    We started because it was a lot cheaper to build an army at the smaller scale, but given there’s quite a bit of the proper 15mm stuff floating about we use the GHQ stuff to have large tank battles.

    • andyslack says:

      Yes – it’s close to 6mm I would think, that’s about 1/300th. For a while I played WWII mechanised with 1/150th cardboard models, but they were a bit too fiddly for me. Since I focus mostly on skirmishes, I wouldn’t go below 15mm (1/120th or so), but if I wanted to play armour, I’d go with 1/285th or 1/300th. Modern tank and ATGW ranges are in the region of a few hundred to a few thousand metres, and those scales are the largest at which a scale tank duel could occur with a proportionate ground scale.

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