Friday, 23 March 2012

Game Theory, part 5: Game Size and Basing

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.


  1. I don't know if you've played 5150: Star Army, but this is the rule system that my friends and I have been using and we've been fighting engagements using between 20 and 50 figures per side. We haven't mixed in many vehicles but when we have it's made for some interesting games. I think you might like it, the ranges of weapons are more realistic, but that does mean when your minis move into sight of the enemy things start getting killed. It's good to remember that while the average maximum effective range of a rifle is usually around 350 meters, that is not the optimum range at which you want to fire, visibility, cover, and wind all effect real shooting and firing under duress at maximum range is usually just a good way to give away your position. Limited ranges in gaming is normally meant to make you move a little before opening fire, the maneuvering portion of any game lets out think your opponent rather than simply relying on individual model ability. My gaming group has been moving more towards armored combat, we all recently started collecting vehicles in 15mm, we haven't played any large armored games but when we do I'll let you know how it turned out.

  2. Personally I find FoW tables get cluttered pretty fast as the number of tanks per side goes up and you still get the "parking lot" look, albeit in a 15mm scale. I prefer the look of Gruntz, where a number of squads get the support of a few tanks (or other heavy hardware).

    I haven't played any so the preference is purely aesthetic, but it might also be one way to avoid the dreaded "Napoleonic" linear shoot-ups; instead of system permitting the max-out on tanks in an attempt to portray an armour clash, which in 15mm can lead only to a head-on bore-fest, by keeping the number of involved armour small, the positioning (and denial) of it becomes much more important and the proportional firepower can be kept more realistic, as you're not forced to "castrate" heavy weaponry just so that it doesn't rape an all-infantry army.