This week was a bit hectic for me, so I have picked a lighter topic for today's discussion. My apologies if it feels a bit rushed - it is.
By game size I mostly mean the number of miniatures that players field in a typical game. I've seen players familiar with military terminology (I'm not) refer to games as being "squad level", "platoon level", "company level" or similar, depending on the size of the forces on the table. Google tells me that 40k and Flames of War are company level games (although honestly I've never seen that many models in a normal 40k game except maybe for infantry-heavy Imperial Guard) while Infinity and Necromunda are squad level games (in that a player fields about a squad's worth of models; they are not really organized like a squad, though).
There are a few factors that influence the size of game:
1) Scale. The larger the models, the fewer of them fit on a table, obviously. Even more important than the physical size of the models is the implied "ground scale" - how distances on the game table correspond to distances in real life. The ground scale is often out of whack with the scale of the miniatures, because even with very small models, a gaming table is still an impossibly tiny surface to fight a battle on.
Consider a 15mm figure. Assuming it represents a human of average height (175cm, let's say), this would mean that a standard 4' gaming table is only about 140 metres across - about a quarter of the effective range of a decent assault rifle. So if ground scale was identical to model scale, even the most basic weapons would be able to fire across the entire table. If you don't want that, then distances (including movement rates and weapon ranges) must be scaled down even more (a lot more, usually) than the miniatures. This only goes so far, but smaller miniatures allow for shorter ranges without feeling too weird.
2) Cost. Larger armies obviously cost more. Even players who prefer large games tend to balk at the cost of starting a 40k army compared to a skirmish game like Infinity or Warmachine. Of course, that's only if you consider the cost of a minimal playable force - if you collect a large force, you're probably going to pay as much as for a 40k army, and will have less models to show for it. This is actually something that few people take into consideration, but I strongly suspect that the real reason every 28mm scale game besides 40k is limited to small skirmishes is simply that nobody besides GW can offer large armies at an affordable price, especially large vehicles. Yes, I am completely serious.
Luckily this is far less of an issue in smaller scales. 15mm infantry is very affordable, vehicles unfortunately less so, but still not too horrible, and 6mm is cheap as chips. Still, even in 15mm there's a big difference in cost between squad level and, say, company level games.
3) Detail. As I've already mentioned last Friday, the number of models on the table is inversely proportional to the level of detail (rules-wise), or else the game slows to a crawl. A force of individualistic characters with unique equipment and skills just isn't playable above squad level in any reasonable amount of time. Now, smaller models also mean less detailed sculpting and consequently less characterful and individualistic models, which encourages more streamlined rules and in turn allows for more models on the table.
The above generalizations aside, the various 15mm systems still allow for a wide range of game sizes, from squad level skirmishes to company scale and above with multiple figures per base. The Dropship Horizon blog has a great list of all the different offerings.
Speaking of bases, this is another matter that goes hand in hand with game size. Some systems opt to have multiple infantry models (typically 3 to 5) mounted on a single base while others have them individually based. The two approaches meet right at 15mm scale - larger models are invariably on individual bases, and smaller models are almost always on multiple figure bases, but in 15mm both approaches are common and some systems (like Gruntz 15mm) even have allowances for both.
Group basing speeds up the game considerably since a group of infantry move, attack and die as a single entity. It can also be visually appealing, as each multi-figure base can effectively be turned into a small diorama. On the flip side, such basing restricts movement and requires an even greater deal of abstraction regarding attacks and casualties. Opinions differ on whether the tradeoff is worth it.
I think group basing works well in Flames of War but it starts making less and less sense in later time periods. Once every soldier has his own radio, there's really no reason for them to be so bunched up that one grenade can take out a whole squad, so it's out of the question in most sci-fi settings. I personally prefer individual basing even in large games and I would rather make concessions in other areas (like simpler statlines) to keep gameplay at a reasonable speed.
So what is a nice game size for 15mm? When I decided to collect an army in this scale I imagined a typical force, given that the miniatures are half as large, would have about double the models of a typical 40k army. I know 40k armies are oversized for the scale, but I'm willing to take the same route in 15mm to make for some really impressive battles. I'm thinking about a dozen armoured vehicles per side, with a supporting gunship or two and several dozen infantrymen.
If anyone is running games of this size I'd love to hear about it. Which system are you using and how long do the games take? How do you prevent them turning into "line up and shoot"? Let me know.