Central War Gaming Blog

Central War Gaming Blog


Monday, February 27, 2017

Scale in War Gaming

War gaming has a long and storied history, and one that you may have bumped into without realizing it. If you played D&D with figures or especially games like Warhammer of any era, you are just participating in the modern version of an 18th century aristocratic past-time.

Enlightenment era gentlemen used their spare time, and the principle of acquiring knowledge as being a good thing, to study all sorts of things. One of them was understanding of military tactics. They did this by building (or having built, I assume) tabletop terrain and staging battles with figures.

In the book-heavy era, many of them—despite being senior officers when wars would come—rarely drilled and never visited the actual battlefields. And they never made up new battles, or tried new tactics, but entirely and studiously re-enacted the actual events as best they could, taking months or years to position the figures carefully based on a reading of all the available literature.

This was not a nerd hobby, but something to be proud of and worthy of discussion. You'd show it off to visitors, and have arguments as you may decide from one account the artillery observer was on the front face of the hill, whereas the conventional wisdom is that he was co-located with the command staff on the crest.

Upon such details, was the stage set for disasters when modern weapons and tactics emerged.

War Gaming Units

From this came a few basic principles everyone followed in their war game modeling. First and most obvious is that the model is at scale. There are unverified reports of a few insanely wealthy individuals grading land to resemble foreign battlefields and staging a version of re-enactments, but really all we're talking about are tabletops, so the battlefield is obviously much smaller.

They also do not have a toy soldier for each individual on the battlefield. At the scales involved, the soldiers would be a millimeter or two tall, would be a vast ocean of figures to handle, and most of all, who cares about individuals?

This is critical to understand. At a battle-tactics level, as the general running or re-enacting a battle, no individual man is directed to do anything. Units move about the battlefield. So the fusilier figure above is not what he seems to be, but a Company of men—the smallest maneuver unit at the time—equipped as such.

This is reflected in today's war gaming as well. Warhammer, for one, still calls figures "units" and while they do not quite explicitly say so, a close reading of the rules and understanding of the mechanics indicates this is what it is all based on. This is why a wounded individual becomes less effective, slower, etc. instead of simply dropping out of the fight.

Field Exercises at Scale

While it is similarly rarely discussed openly, the same application of scale is basically true for real-world war gaming, from military FTXs to airsoft games.

By "scale" I mean it in three ways:

  • Distance — Ranges are expensive to operate, and complex to monitor so smaller spaces are easier to handle. Many simulation systems have reduced range so must necessarily be used in reduced scale environments. 
  • Units — Smaller than realistic units are often employed, with Platoons taking on Company objectives, for example. At the least, they are slices of a war, with that Platoon pretending they are part of a larger effort, which exists only on paper or the radios of the exercise administrators. 
  • Time — There is limited time to get away from the office or use the range resources, so most exercises and games take place over an un-realistically short timeframe to assure it works for cost and schedule of everyone. 

While there are events which are broadly full-size actions, they are special events run relatively rarely at places like Ft. Irwin, because of the difficulty and expensive of moving large scale units. I still claim they are run at a reduced time scale, at the least.

Reduced Scale Ranges 

Even with the "near miss" beep from MILES, the most accurate simulation systems (on the receiving end at least) throw actual projectiles. These actually keep people's heads down, cut branches and ricochet, so are better at simulating the effects of incoming fire, but of course for safety cannot have the range or penetration of real bullets.

That means Simunitions or airsoft must have reduced range. I round this is about 10:1 scale—the guns are effective to no more than 30 yards, and typical battlefields today rarely find actions past 300 yards, so it very roughly works.

Building effective war games requires understanding this scale factor. A lot of people who do admit that Simunition and airsoft are effective training systems will append it with "especially indoors." While true (systems like MILES are frustratingly ineffective, and potentially dangerous at indoor ranges) this misses out on a lot of opportunity.

At CWG, we always set up events with projectile systems like airsoft in close country. Whenever possible, we use terrain with small, close hills and steep valleys. Flat ground is wooded, and we avoid stretches of open ground more than about 50 m across.

Clearly, sometimes we have longer ranges where you can see each other. We try to keep them to looking hilltop to hilltop, or across terrain features such as a difficult to cross creek. You cannot shoot at each other due to range, but that's okay because you cannot maneuver on each other easily (or at least cannot do so while staying in sight the whole time), so the oddity of the range limits of your weapons doesn't become obvious.

This also pans out well if other weapon systems are employed. Grenade launchers, rockets and mortars can have ranges 2-3 times larger than rifles, as they do on the real battlefield. Everyone knows this—and we keep enemy capabilities secret, so you never know what the enemy may have. In practice, we see that units sighting each other at longer ranges will generally run off and hide to avoid being counted, or in case there is a long-range system available which will soon come down on them.

We even imply this 10:1 scale with the maps we issue for our events. We have grid lines and grid reference values along the sides at 100 m, instead of 1 km.

Time and Units

I also think the 10:1 ratio is a good rule of thumb for time and unit sizes as well. A very good event can be held in a weekend, with 20 people on a side. But no real world action would involve patrolling an area (notionally, with scale) 20 km wide with a light Platoon for a weekend. Even in a third world it would take a Battalion more like a month.

All that means is that we can simulate real world actions with smaller units, in smaller timeframes and they do not seem silly or ineffective. Imagine if one part of the scale was off. Say we had a huge piece of land, and could shoot accurately 800 m away so it worked. It would be boring to have 20 soldiers per side fighting over an area 20 km wide for just a weekend; you'd never see each other, and would end the event bored and tired.

Most war gaming uses these principles, but often without understanding what and why they are doing it. Explicitly understanding the issues and limits of your systems, terrain, range and individuals can help you generate a more effective, focused and enjoyable training exercise or game for everyone.

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