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.

wet-hot-american-summer-meloni This summer really helped me get over a lot of stuff, and I learned to be proud of who I am.

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.

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  • zeronyne

    “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.”

    Abstraction and Affinity are mutually exclusive, which is the crux of the issue. You can half-ass it into a semi skirmish game (40k, WMH) or you can play something like 40k with Epic-scale figures and modify the ranges to “realistic” threat ranges. Neither are ideal, so I share your pain.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Generally speaking wargames tend to err on the side of affinity (to borrow you terms). Realistically, even at 40k semi-skirmish scale the commander on the scene (which represents the player) would have little control over target selection or fire control (that’s what sergeant are for), and no idea about casualties until the reports came in after the action.

      Fog of war is hard to simulate, particularly with model soldiers. You could do it with a computer program, which would really just produce reports and give the player options to issue orders. But, then there is little since of affinity because the player has no direct control over the action.

      All that said, threat range is the biggest problem because it creates very strange interactions and requires a suspension of logic. Of course, that is only really an issue if you think, as I do, that when in doubt reason should rule.

  • I think that tabletop Wargaming is fast becoming too problematic so we should just arm our selves and fight these battles at a 1 to 1 scale with real people that’ll sort out all these cover, range, true line of sight issues and be very realistic 😉

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      That’s a really good idea. Though, I dunno I seem to remember doing something exactly like that already…can’t quite recall. Sounds familiar though.

      • I think I remember something like that too was that the weekend we all woke up in a cell in the Hague and that pesky war crimes trial 😉

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          The Dutch just take things so seriously!

          • Drugs laws aside I think your right not like those fun loving Germans and I’m thinking central America’s for our next office outing I hear Colombia is lovely this time of year 🙂

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            There are worse places to kill a couple days than Bogota. They do know ho to party.

          • Is “ho to party” a Freudian slip 🙂

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Surely, a mistake, surely. Like I tell my wife: anything my ‘friends’ say may or might have happened is a filthy lie; I was always in bed by nine.

          • AM or PM enquiring minds want to know

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Also left out the critical: who’s bed?

  • Great post Cedric. I was playing 40k the other night and we were joking about some storm bolter shells just dropping to the ground when they reached 24″. It really did seem a pathetically short distance on the table. I mean 40k is not the best example because it’s a bit silly anyway, but it really proves your point.

    This is a bit off-topic, but talking about suppression: I read that investigations of battlefields in Vietnam showed that most rounds were fired (by both sides) at a point about six feet above eye level, into the trees. It’s extremely hard psychologically for most humans to knowingly aim a weapon straight at another person, even when they’re well-trained. Apparently a lot of soldiers think they are firing at the enemy but they are unconsciously aiming high. Which supresses anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

    • Captain Kellen

      Yah, I heard that too when I was in ‘the know’ of the military.

      I used to aim at someone’s ‘nether regions’ but still centerline of a target if I was in hurry and still hit the target. Once the bullets fly all bets are off regardless of technique unless you keep your cool. It’s awfully tough to keep your cool though with the bullets flying over your head.

      • You were in the army too? It’s a regular RSL club up in here 😀

        • Captain Kellen

          21 years, 9 Months, 6 Days… I’ve been retired for ten years (December 1st).

          I miss the people and working on UH-60’s… not the BS or PC crap.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Also, when someone is shooting back there is a tendency to keep low, and keep you arms close to you head/body, which results in firing in a generally upward direction. Men who aren’t worried about counter fire can take their time and pick out a target.

      I don’t want to say that there are two kinds of people in the world, but from my experience, there are those who are killers and those who aren’t. Making the choice to eliminate a target is very hard for those in the latter category.

      • I guess that’s why not everyone is a sniper, temperamentally speaking. I wonder if FPS games have an effect? There was no such thing as CoD back in Nam.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          Tangentially, snipers are more than a little nuts. We’re talking about guys who think sitting in the mud, motionless for 24-hours is a good time, and willingly sign up for the job. But, yes, picking out a target is emotionally difficult. Likewise, close combat takes a much heavier toll than a long range firefight. In no small part because you can say with certainty who you hit.

          I doubt games have much effect. Actually desensitization can. People who are used to deprivation and violence can handle it better. Of course, too much means limited self-confidence and lack of certainly, which can make you crack.

          Temperament is hard to predict.

          • Thuloid

            I do wonder what this means for pre-modern warfare and how we think of it. Certainly it makes sense of whole units breaking as soon as opposing bayonets came near. So what kind of a person was a 14th century knight, or a Roman legionary, or a Greek hoplite that he’d strap on and get close enough to the enemy to smell him?

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Culture counts for a lot. Modern man may likely have never seen someone dead or dying before. People who know what to expect can hold up better. That’s the whole idea of ‘seeing the elephant’ the sheer noise, stink, and chaos of a battlefield can overwhelm and panic green troops even if they aren’t under fire. You have to be very careful to let new men adjust.

            I’ve actually wondered what this means for the pre-modern fighting man myself. Casualties in pre-modern battles are generally very low; however, you also have bloodbaths like Sekigahara with staggering losses by any standard short of Verdun.

            It must have taking extensive training to instill enough discipline for troops to actually close and cross swords with their opposites. However, I suspect that melees were conducted as a series of short duels with the front ranks clashing then pulling back ot their own formations and fresh men coming forward.

      • Michael Sellwood

        Yes, I was at a dinner one night and got talking to an Army psychologist and he said that there were three types of people – the ‘berserkers’ who will willingly fight to kill (about 5%), the followers who will fight to kill if they believe that is what they have to do (about 5%) and then the majority who in general are more willing to be killed than to kill.
        Interesting article though and I would be interested in seeing more on the idea of a wargame where the unit occupies a space and that represents the area they are operating in and control, and then ranged attacks represent their ability to reach out and touch somebody.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          Sounds like a reasonable division. I’d say a larger percentage of the population fall into the ‘follower’ category, but I might be used to self-selected groups rather than the general population.

          For bother wargames both Force on Force and Volley and Bayonet have the concept that the unit on the table is an area of operation. I suppose I should review them both…

          • Thuloid

            I have read similar things about soldiers not shooting directly at each other, though training and experience can change the ratios quite dramatically. If you were going to model a modern professional military, you might not want to use the Vietnam figures.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            One of the major differences between conscripts and professionals (be they long service volunteers, mercenaries. or whatever) is that the later want to fight. So, we can safely assume that group has self-selected for gung-ho mofos (to use the parlance of our time).

  • Captain Kellen

    I rate this article a ‘Butt Load’ on the 108 Imperial Gallon to 216 gallons scale…

    The corner is calling… I’m in the dog house… for ‘stuffs’…

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Wow. That’s 1.25 metric Butt Loads. My highest score ever.

      • Captain Kellen

        Now you’re getting it… by the way… a ‘butt’ is a unit of measurement… you should google it to get the ‘joke’ in your rating.

  • Kind of fluff wise, I’ve always assumed there’s some amount of representation in miniature war games in order to make sure the game plays nicely. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I feel like Orkz in particular are represented 3:1 if you were to go on the basis of Marines being absolutely badass. A mob of 30 would then be closer to 100.

    I think Beat Ronin touched on the maximum ranges, and I’m inclined to agree, but you’ll notice the longer ranged weapons are typically mounted on troopers with advanced optics, auspexes, that kind of thing, or mounted on vehicles. What’s indicated in the stat-line is then kind of compressed down into what would be “Effective Fire” which is then further mitigated by ballistic skill.

    I dunno, I’m definitely just making shit up, but it furthers my immersion into the game to think about it this way, like it were an actual war-zone (or at least a parody of one).

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Part of the thing with 40k is that there is no stated ratios, so how far an inch is or what a figure represents is open to interpretation. The way ToS works, I would argue that the game assumes that a figure is a man occupying the same space as the figure.

      As far as the range issue goes, something that many games miss is that you can engage a target outside of effective range. Soldiers will take cover once they come under fire even if there is little or no chance of actually getting hit. Of course, unless you’re lavishly supplied pot shots are a waste of ammunition; and potentially reveal your position.

      Still there are various levels of threat. But that also leads to the difference between firing to suppress a target and actually attempting to inflict causalities.

  • Thuloid

    Not to obsess about 40k, but I have a semi-plausible theory about the wonky weapon ranges. It goes back to D&D, which means probably back to Chainmail and whatever it derived from. D&D always assumed, in the old days, a ground scale of 1″ = 10′ indoors and 1″ = 10 yards outdoors. So a medium longbow range was 24″, or 240 yards (which is reasonably close to historical accuracy for units shooting at a mass of troops). WHFB, in its early days, shared a lot of space from D&D that I’m sure there were efforts to preserve similar scale and weapon ranges. So bows had a 24″ range. Still makes sense. 40k just made the bolter the equivalent of the bow, with no further thought behind it. Dunno if this is 100% right, but it seems to account for something that seems fairly stupid on its face.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      240yds is probably an optimistic range for a war bow under combat conditions, but again an arrowstorm was more than likely intended to disrupt a formation and degrade morale prior to contact rather than inflict fatal injuries. This comes back to my point about suppression. Wargames make too much of casualties and too little of morale and cohesion.

      That aside, yes, the 40k ranges clearly come from WHFB and WHFB probably came from D&D. However, GW long ago abandon any supposed groundscale long ago. Flyers show that clearly.

  • MerryVulture

    Excellent article. I would say more, but my attention span just expir

  • sandwyrm

    Good topic. Another way to look at 28mm scale is that we fight battles on a field that is only slightly wider than the deck of an aircraft carrier like the (nuclear powered) Enterprise, which could be represented by a 4 foot wide table that’s 16 feet long.

    Having been on a few aircraft carrier flight decks in my time, this does feel ridiculous. But I tell myself that we’re not simulating actual warfare, but action-movie warfare. Where Chuck Norris (and the camera) can always see the bad guys clearly from one side of the jungle compound to the other.

  • Benderisgreat

    “Troops in assault order should be able to jog that distance in a minute or so. ”

    And that, folks, is why random charge distance is stupid.

  • ming2005

    I’m still stuck on the statement about spending the summer in Maine at a Camp…did you drop by CrossRoad Games in Standish while there? Maybe I saw you there? I dunno. There are so many camp chefs employed here…The other thing is that I saw the movie from the picture above this past weekend, after the Portland beer mecca, Novare Res, has been doing “beer camp” and the staff were/are all walking around dressed as characters from the movie. Wet Hot American Summer…