The Ballbusch Experience: The Tyranny of Scale
The days are growing shorter here at the HoP towers, and Fall is in the air. Like most of you, I spent this past summer in 1981, working as a chef in a summer camp in the State of Maine.
We’re going to shift gears a bit today and talk about model soldiers. The actual figures themselves, and how they relate to their hypothetical world. As we all know miniatures come in all shapes and sizes. Even within a so-called ‘scale’ the amount of variance between manufacturers, and sometimes with a range is noticeable. I have recently come to the conclusion that all of these scales exists for a good reason, and each has a ‘sweet spot’ of functionality. However, the is more to the notion of scale than figure size. Wargames include either implicitly or explicitly time scale, ground scale and figure ratio.
These combined to transform the table to the fictional setting of the wargame. They also create rather warped dimensions. The requirements of play compress the battlefield. In general ranges for movement and weapons fire are far, far too short and figures far, far too large. This effect is greater the larger the scale of figures used and the smaller the figure ratio.
Now, there is a scale I hate…
Your average wargamer is most familiar with 25/28mm miniatures, and over the years that has become something of the default scale. Surely they represent some of the finest figures available and I see their value for very small scale games there the detail on the individual figures can be on display. I’m particularly fond of 28mm for Medievals as I feel I gain a sort of moral superiority by painting my figures in the Ballbusch family livery.
Despite their beauty, the problem 25mm figures have with ground scale is obvious. If we take 25mm figures as representative of a man of average height, we end up with a ground scale of something like 1″ = 5′. Even with a six-foot table that creates a battlefield roughly 360 feet long. Troops in assault order should be able to jog that distance in a minute or so. To look at it another way, an M16’s maximum effective range for a point target is about 560 yards. That means that a 25mm figure with an assault rifle should be able to engage targets 28 feet away.
Nor is this problem limited to the larger scale. Smaller scale figures generally require multi figures per base. This introduces the new issue of depth vs. frontage. Too the extent we can properly reconstruct premodern infantry tactics we find that drilled foot generally formed up 3-5 ranks deep (though some formations were much deeper) with a frontage of about a hundred men. That means a unit should, on average, be twenty times wider than it is deep. However, the average ratio for most games is only about 2 to 1.
The result is that any miniature wargame is a massive abstraction. Even teenie 6mm figures in neat format can represent nothing more than the vague outline of the area were the unit is operating. This points to the best way to treat figures in the wargame. Rather than the figure serving as a approximation of a soldier, the figure marks an area of activity or control.
This is why true line of sight creates such a mess. All modern troops and any specialized light infantry from the beginning of time will hug the dirt the moment they contract the enemy. Of course miniature figures can’t properly take cover, but the men they represent should and would. Likewise cover and terrain are abstract concepts.
Part of the issue stems from games overestimating the amount of aimed fire that takes place in a large scale action. Some troops are habitually trained to engage in aimed fire at specific targets. However, throughout history these have tended to be scouts/skirmishers/snipers operating separately from the main bulk of the infantry. This can be an effective way of war, and ‘Shoot the VIP’ is ancient game much enjoyed by all. An interesting side note, improvements in missile weapons mirror officers adopting uniforms more and more like those of the rank and file. Indeed, once rifled longarms became standard issue the causality rate among officers began to outstrip that of enlisted men.
Who needs to aim? Something’s going to die
Regular troops are expected to fire on an area rather than an individual. The idea being that sheer weight of fire will either inflict causalities or cause suppression.
When you’re dealing with troops in one ‘area’ blazing away at troops in another it’s easy to see how modeling matters little. Men are moving, bullets are ricocheting, stuff’s blowing up, fires are starting, etc. Whether unit A can actually see unit B has little impact on whether or not it inflict causalities or at least depress morale and block forward movement.
The problem with abstraction is that we anthropomorphize our miniatures. We want that one figure to be one guy. We want to command him and know his location and fate. Once you say ‘well, you know that’s really just a chit or a marker’ something is lost. The trick to have rules that adjust for the necessary abstractions without breaking the sense of connection we have with the figures on the table. A tall order indeed.